Western road trip 4: Idaho, Wyoming

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Kayak-view of Squaretop Mountain from lower Green River Lake in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

Holy crap. It’s been more than six months since my summer road trip and I’m finally getting around to my post on the last leg — from Ketchum, Ida. to the Wind Rivers and Jackson, Wyo. Right now this area is under a ton of snow, but we experienced everything from record-breaking heat to thunderstorms, double rainbows and bluebird skies, along with superb kayaking, great food and not-so-great fishing.

TetonsFor those not keeping track, I took a month-long West Coast/interior mountains road trip in late June and early July and chronicled the California and Oregon coasts in Road trip part 1 and part 2, and Portland and the Columbia River Gorge area in part 3.

 

I would’ve posted something sooner, but a certain equine has been monopolizing my time lately. No complaints tho. Flash, Gelding Azteca of SoCal (not exactly Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, but close) has been a barrel of fun

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That’s him at right…in California, not Idaho or Wyoming…but somehow I think he’d feel right at home on a Sawtooth Mountains ranch.

Speaking of the Sawtooths, these central Idaho mountains reminded us so much of our beloved home range of the Sierra Nevada that we trekked about 45 minutes there every day during our week-long stay in Ketchum.

View of Sawtooth Valley between Ketchum and Stanley.
View of Sawtooth Valley between Ketchum and Stanley.

Yeah, we got real familiar with Highway 75, which stretches about 60 miles between Ketchum and Stanley — a smidge of a town that has got to be in the most spectacular setting in the country (be sure to check out Stanley Baking Company’s amazing oatmeal pancakes). With mountains on both sides and the Salmon River winding along its length, the scenic byway is stunning pretty much the whole time and simply jaw-dropping as you go over Galena Summit, at 8,701 feet. And there’s plenty of recreation along the way, including numerous trailheads and several world-class drive-to lakes. That’s Pettit Lake shown below, with what we think is/was Bruce Willis’ house along the shoreline.

Steve kayak:Pettit L

Well-kept ranches abound in the Wood River Valley, and with Sun Valley Resort just up the road, Ketchum is kind of a rustic Aspen, but with more cowboy hats than fur coats. It makes the perfect base for outdoor adventures, with the Big Wood River, Warm Springs Creek and Trail Creek all within a fly cast. The Sawtooth Valley is the headwaters of the renowned Salmon River.

Palomino on ranch near Stanley.
Palomino on ranch near Stanley.

One day, we rented bikes at Sturtevant’s in Ketchum and rode them along the Wood River Trail to Sun Valley, stopping to fish along the way before checking out the iconic Sun Valley Lodge. The trail is a first-class example of how the county recreation district has its act together. The 32 miles of year-round paved trail has numerous river access points and connects Sun Valley and Ketchum to Hailey and Bellevue further south. And then there’s the 19-mile Harriman Trail further north near Galena Lodge. I don’t know of many areas that have their outdoor recreation shit together to this extent. It’s impressive.

Ketchum
Downtown Ketchum.

At any rate, after several weeks of stifling heat in Oregon — and even in Ketchum for a few days — a couple storms rolled through and left us with (mostly) bluebird skies and puffy clouds. And — this being early summer not long after the spring snow runoff — there were swarms of mosquitoes. On our first hike in the Sawtooths, an easy 4-mile-roundtrip to Fourth of July Lake, I made the major tactical error of not bringing a long-sleeved shirt (too hot!) and leaving my bug juice in the car. I paid the price with itchy skeeter-bitten arms that were swollen like Popeye’s for the rest of the trip.

Sawtooth Lake flowers

Sawtooths daisiesBut the upside to all that moisture was green, green meadows and tons of wildflowers, a welcome sight to us drought-weary Southern Californians.

And speaking of Fourth of July, is there any better place to spend it than a small town in the West? We’d spent the last few Independence Days enjoying the holiday in Bend, Ore., a tough act to top. I’d have to say, Hailey (Ketchum’s more down-to-earth down-valley neighbor) ranks right up there. After the Old West parade down its main street during the day, we returned that night for the rodeo — Idaho’s version of Friday Night Lights.

Hailey rodeo crowd

Hailey rodeo

Over the next few days, we kayaked, hiked and fished throughout the Stanley Basin and Sawtooths (tho scenic, we done got skunked on that front).

Steve fish:Stanley

The week’s highlight hike was the 8.5-mile roundtrip to Sawtooth Lake, which sits at an elevation of 8,430 feet just southwest of Stanley. Right from the start at the Iron Creek Trailhead, we ran into alternating rain and thunder and had to calm our frightened pit bull, Blue, who hid under a rock along the trail:

Blue/Sawtooth Lake

But luckily we persevered, and despite the weather (which cleared after we got to the lake) and 1,700 feet of elevation gain, it was well worth it. Postcard-perfect Sawtooth Lake is one of the most popular and most photographed in the Sawtooths, and for good reason:

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Sawtooth Lake

When planning this trip, we were unsure how accessible the lakes in the Sawtooths would be, but it was well worth lugging the kayaks all the way from SoCal. During our week there we also paddled at beautiful Alturas Lake and at Redfish Lake, with its funky old-time resort. (Hint: bring your own lunch).

The kayaks take a rest on the shore of Alturas Lake.
The kayaks take a rest on the shore of Alturas Lake.

After a week, it was time to head to Wyoming, and we had to tear ourselves away from Ketchum. If we didn’t have reservations in Pinedale, we’d probably still be there. Our spirits lifted on the drive to Wyoming, though. Miles and miles of hayfields eventually led to the geological wonderland of Craters of the Moon National Monument, a wild landscape of desert scrub, lava fields and cinder cones.

View of the Great Rift, a 52-mile-long series of fissures that last erupted 2,000 years ago.
View of the Great Rift, a 52-mile-long series of fissures that last erupted 2,000 years ago.

Along the way, we passed through funky towns like Arco, Idaho, the “first town to be lit by atomic power” (the mysterious-looking Idaho National Laboratory is nearby). And the photo gods blessed us with alternating bands of storms and amazing clouds:

Dark sky:Idaho rd

After countless photo stops, we finally made it to Wyoming. Following a quick stop in Jackson (the Disneyland of the Rockies, IMO), our base for a few days would be Pinedale, a no-frills western town just about the polar opposite of Ketchum. We totally lucked out as it was the weekend of the Green River Rendezvous, a celebration of all things Mountain Man (no sign of Leo, The Revenant or any man-eating grizzly, tho this guy showed up at a state fish & game wildlife display):

Grizz display:Pinedale

And of course, there was a parade:

Pinedale parade

We’d been wanting to visit the nearby Wind River Range for a long time and figured Pinedale would be a good base. We got a basic taste of the Winds, but the best way to experience these wild mountains is probably by backpack or horse pack trip, so we’re filing that away for the future. We got a history of the area after a visit to the Museum of the Mountain Man (of course), and did a day trip to Green River Lakes for more kayaking and fishing. The lakes are the headwaters of the Green River, the main tributary to the Colorado River.

Green River
Green River, en route to Green River Lakes near Pinedale, Wyo.

Trout were rising on the river as a storm rolled in, but nobody rose to our bait.

Green River fishing

We were treated, however, to an amazing double rainbow:

Wyoming rainbow

We skedaddled from that fishing spot after: A. the rain started; B. we heard gunshots; and C. a driver passing by told us he’d just spotted grizzly cubs not far from our turnout.

After a few days in Pinedale, we ended the trip grandly, at Grand Teton National Park. We lucked out yet again, meeting up with Canuckian friends on their own road trip from Ottawa to Vancouver. We spent far too little time in this amazing park of spectacular scenery and even more kayakable lakes.

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A peaceful paddle on photogenic Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

We camped a night at Jackson Lake’s Colter Bay, one of the few times we made last-minute camping reservations. And the only time we got rained on while camping during the entire trip. After a fun presentation about grizzly bears at Jackson Lodge, we squeaked in dinner before the rain started, grilling fabulous fresh kabobs from Jackson Whole Grocer.

On our way out of the park the next day, we stopped at photogenic Jenny Lake and the adjacent lodge:

Jenny Lake

And so, after a month on the road, it was time to head back to California. Logan, Utah would be our next stop, then St. George and on to SoCal. I’d love to say we drove off into the sunset shown below, but this was one of many in the Sawtooths, a fitting end of another perfect road trip day:

Sawtooths sunset

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Western road trip Part 3: Oh, Oregon

View of Vista House in the Columbia River Gorge.
View of Vista House in the Columbia River Gorge.

It was all Oregon all the time on this roughly 1-week segment of the month-long road trip I took this summer. Tasty travel tidbits that week ranged from Umpqua elk and naked bike riders in Portland, to Hood River fruits and beers and Pendleton cowboys.

UmpquaAfter a blessedly cool couple of days on the Oregon coast, I headed inland via the lush Umpqua Highway (photo at right). Temperatures in the 100s awaited me in Portland. The drive along the Umpqua River — a flyfishing hotspot — was scenic but uneventful, except for a traffic-stopping herd of elk in a roadside field.

After reuniting with the significant other at PDX, it was time to sample all the artisan/locavore/craft-brewed goodies that Portland had to offer. In addition to the heat wave, the friend we stayed with alerted us to the nude bike ride going on the day we got in. Now, living in SoCal, there’s not much that shocks or surprises us about clothing choice or lack thereof. However, eating amidst buck-naked diners at a baked potato food truck was definitely a first (sorry, no photos).

Portland food trucks

Speaking of food trucks and all that is hip, the next day’s adventure had us visiting the very fun Division Street in SE and the fabulous Tidbit Food Farm cart pod— heaven on earth for foodies and lovers of all things crafted. Who knew there were so many varieties of tater tots?

And of course, the popcorn is artisan and the cupcakes saintly on NW 23rd Avenue (aka Trendy Third):

Artisan this and that on Trendy Third.
Artisan this and that on Trendy Third.

Later, we headed downtown so I could check out the Poler store, where I ended up buying a cool day pack. It’s a fun place to shop for hipster outdoor gear, tho this is not exactly the place to outfit yourself for your next ultralight backpack.

Blue checks out a local at Portland’s Poler store.

On our third and final day in the Portland area, we headed west to Astoria. After lunch at Fort George Brewery (IPA highly recommended!), we headed to Lewis and Clark National Park. This lush area is home to Fort Clatsop, the winter encampment site of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The excellent visitor center provides all you’ll ever need to know about the Corps of Discovery. We explored a reproduction of one their winter cabins, and then took a brief hike in the adjacent forest.

Replica at Fort Clatsop of the winter cabin used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800s.
Trail at Ft. Clatsop.
Trail at Fort Clatsop.

Then it was on to the beach at Fort Stevens State Park (wow, this part of Oregon has a lot of forts). At this very cool spot with a huge expanse of sand at the mouth of the Columbia River, you can see a shipwreck on the beach.

Blue was happy as a clam at Fort Stevens.
Blue was happy as a clam at Fort Stevens.
Wreck of the Peter Iredale, which went aground at Fort Stevens in the early 1900s.
Wreck of the Peter Iredale, which went aground at Fort Stevens in the early 1900s.
This book at the Lewis & Clark visitor center came in handy when IDing the multitude of berries lining Oregon’s hiking trails.

The next day, after a quick tour of Sauvie Island (hello, u-pick blueberries!), we hit the road, heading east on the Columbia River Highway. This drive through the Columbia Gorge is a scenic alternative to Highway 84 and not to be missed. A 15-mile stretch known as Waterfall Alley is aptly named. My only regret is not spending enough time exploring — there are hikes to many of the 77 waterfalls along the way — but we had reservations in Hood River that night. That said, a stop at famous Multnomah Falls is a must:

Multnomah Falls is the biggest and most popular in the Columbia Gorge. And at 620 feet, only three falls in the U.S. are taller.
Multnomah Falls is the biggest and most popular in the Columbia Gorge. And at 620 feet, only three falls in the U.S. are taller.

Pacific Crest Trail hikers and fans of the movie Wild will recognize Bridge of the Gods, the distinctive steel toll bridge connecting Oregon and Washington that spans the Columbia near Cascade Locks, just east of Bonneville Dam:

Bridge of the Gods

A mere 68 miles from Portland, the cute town of Hood River is nestled along the Columbia River. Other than Bend, this is one of my favorite towns in Oregon and I keep vowing to spend more time there. The downtown area is lined with historic buildings, galleries, restaurants and outdoor shops, and a couple streets away sits Full Sail Brewing Company, one of my favorite beer pubs (why, oh why can’t I get their outstanding Pilsner in California??)

Downtown Hood River.
Downtown Hood River.
Pot and fires were big topics this summer in Oregon.
Pot and fires were big topics this summer in Oregon.

Thanks to windy conditions and its fortuitous location along the Columbia, Hood River has long been a windsurfing mecca. That sport has given way to kiteboarding and stand-up paddling. A beach at the marina is the perfect spot to exercise dogs and take in the sights:

The Columbia River, at Hood River's front door.
The Columbia River, at Hood River’s front door. That’s Washington state on the other side of the bridge.

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The next day, we drove a portion of the Hood River “Fruit Loop,” a 35-mile scenic drive along Highway 35 through the Hood River Valley’s orchards, wineries, u-pick farms and rural towns. Farm stands are abundant, and I’m still savoring the last tidbits of cherry preserves I got at Smiley’s Red Barn (stop No. 5 on the Fruit Loop map, right).

It was not easy to leave Hood River, but alas we had reservations in Boise that night, so after our brief Fruit Loop drive, we again headed east along the Columbia.

The landscape gets much drier east of Hood River, and we said goodbye to the Columbia River as Interstate 84 turned south. You get a taste of eastern Oregon desert around these parts, and there aren’t many places for pitstops. Our next stop was Pendleton, the biggest town in the region and a big taste of the Old West.

Pendleton boot

We stumbled on the amazing Hamley & Co. store in Pendleton’s well-preserved downtown. Western riding lovers will drool over the bronze bucking bronco statue, custom-made saddles and all manner of apparel.

Hamleys statue

That’s about it for the Oregon portion of the big summer road trip, pardners. Next up: Boise, Sun Valley and the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, then the Wind Rivers and Grand Teton in Wyoming.

Tunes, trails and blooms at Joshua Tree

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Namesake trees in Joshua Tree National Park, on the Barker Dam Trail

A little late with this post, so maybe file away the info for next spring, because before long it’ll be baking in Joshua Tree National Park — a wonderland of boulders, namesake J-trees and wildlife in the transition zone of the Mojave and Colorado deserts about 140 miles east of Los Angeles and 50 miles beyond Palm Springs. And keep in mind, if you do decide to go this summer and want to camp, some campgrounds at the park are closed until October.

Pappy sign

A show at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown was all the excuse we needed to visit the desert in mid-April — lucky for us also the start of wildflower season. Jenny Lewis put on a fabulous show under the stars at Pappy’s — for SoCal music fans, this is a must-visit destination — and we combined that with some R&R at Rimrock Ranch and hiking and photography at J-Tree.

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The entrance to Rimrock Ranch.

If you’re a music fan, a bit of a desert rat AND love funky, eclectic places to hang your hat, Rimrock Ranch is the place for you. We rented one of the dog-friendly cabins and had the place pretty much to ourselves for a couple days. The owner, Jim, is an accomplished bass player and occasionally holds impromptu concerts with some pretty big names at the ranch. He’s also a big-time repurposer of found objects, and nothing seems to go to waste:

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A wall of old bottles.
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A barbed wire heart at the entrance.
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The swimming pool!

Built in 1947, Rimrock Ranch once housed actors filming westerns at nearby Pioneertown. Jim Austin, who co-owned a surfwear company, eventually bought the rundown 10-acre property and has been renovating it ever since. There are several small cabins, and he also rents out Hatch House, an eco-friendly modern structure he built with recycled materials.

License plate wall in Hatch House.
License plate wall in Hatch House.
Ocotillo outside Hatch House.
Ocotillo outside Hatch House.

Oh, and for those on a budget, there’s a funky Airstream trailer (the purple-fur-lined interior is a must-see) that rents for about $62 a night:

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Larger groups can rent The Lodge for about $230 a night:

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But back to the real reason we were there (other than music): the desert, hiking and wildflowers. It’s only about a 15-minute drive to Joshua Tree from Rimrock and we entered at the park’s West Entrance, off Highway 62.

With not a lot of time, and a dog in tow (they’re not allowed on park trails and have to stay within 100 feet of picnic areas, roads and campgrounds), we kept the hiking to a minimum for this trip, but still managed to stretch our legs and take in some of the desert beauty that J-Tree is known for:

The view from Keys View.
The, um, view from Keys View.

Climbers love Joshua Tree, and for good reason. Ever wonder why the boulders there are so fractured and blocky? Chalk that one up to volcanic activity. A form of magma called monzo-granite (yup) rose from deep within the Earth, and as it cooled, horizontal and vertical cracks formed. Voila — a climber’s paradise:

Joshua Tree National Park
See the climber?

 

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Joshua Tree National Park
A perfect climber cubbiehole.

It was cool enough to leave our pooch Blue in the car, so we decided on the one-mile Barker Dam loop trail, which passes through classic J-Tree habitat and is a perfect quick and easy hike. There’s usually a reservoir about halfway through the loop, but it’s completely dried up — thanks a LOT, drought.

Barker Dam Trail

Along the way, we passed numerous beavertail cactus in full fluorescent-pink bloom:

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We saw some rock art, but I have a feeling it was of recent vintage:

Joshua Tree pictographs

After our not-so-grueling hike, it was time for lunch, and we ate at the Hidden Valley picnic area, one of the only spots where dogs are allowed:

Blue, Joshua Tree

On our way out of town, we finally stopped at Pioneertown, the old movie set where westerns were filmed back in the day. There’s not much to it, but it’s fun to poke around the old buildings…

Pioneertown

…and try the camera’s sepia filter…yikes, not sure that works:

Pioneertown sepia

And, being the land of found objects (things do seem to preserve well in the desert’s dry heat), we came across some funky art installations:

Pioneertown typewriters

And with that, we rode into the sunset…

Pioneertown sign

 

Trans-Topanga trek

Hikers heading away from Parker Mesa, back to the East Topanga Fire Road.
Hikers heading back to East Topanga Fire Road from Parker Mesa.

Well, this hike doesn’t exactly traverse Topanga State Park in its entirety, so “trans-Topanga” is a bit of a stretch. But stretch it does — between Topanga Canyon and a trailhead close to the Pacific Ocean.

Most L.A. hikers know of or have been to popular Parker Mesa, an overlook atop a bluff in Topanga State Park with sweeping views of Santa Monica Bay. Many make the 3.2-mile trek from the park’s headquarters at Trippet Ranch in Topanga Canyon, and probably an equal number slog up the much steeper 4.3 miles from the Los Liones trailhead a few blocks up from Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades.

My pal L. and I decided on a slightly different alternative: start at Los Liones, hike to Parker Mesa, and then instead of turning around, continue on to Trippet, for a total of 6.8 miles. Of course, this requires two cars and shuttling between the trailheads. As eco-unfriendly as that may sound, it’s something I’ve been wanting to try since listing it as an option in “Take A Hike Los Angeles,” and the always-game L. was up for the shlep. And hey, at least I drive a hybrid.

Here’s the perfectly awful map I cobbled together, since my MotionX iPhone app failed to record the trek. The blue squiggle is our route, with Trippet Ranch at the top of the image and Los Liones somewhere near the bottom. “End” is Parker Mesa:

Parker Mesa

We met at the Vons on PCH at Sunset Blvd. and made the short drive to Los Liones. If you haven’t been there, it’s easy to miss — if you get to Paseo Miramar, you’ve gone too far. A little under a half-mile up Los Liones Drive, there are several parking areas on the right side. We parked L.’s car there and I drove us the 15 minutes to Topanga. Being the cheapskates that we are, we opted to skip the $10 fee at Trippet and parked on a nearby street.

We walked into the park and headed the short distance to Trippet Ranch. For those who might not realize it, 11,500-acre Topanga State Park is located entirely within L.A. city limits and, according to the park, “is considered the world’s largest wildland within the boundaries of a major city.” So guess what that means? You’ll have plenty of company.

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It had been a number of years since I’d been to Trippet Ranch, and finding East Topanga Fire Road —  the route that would take us to Parker Mesa and beyond — was not easy. Here’s one of the information signs to nowhere:

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After a bit of confusion we tracked down a ranger, who pointed the way to a junction where we could pick up the trail. Now, that’s better:

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Starting at Trippet makes for a gentler climb than coming from Los Liones. It’s a mere 330 feet of elevation gain to the Parker Mesa turnoff from this direction, compared to a whopping 1,300 feet of gain coming from the ocean side of the trail at Los Liones.

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There are lush canyon views from Trippet all the way to Parker Mesa. In mid-spring, hillsides were emerald green. About 2.5 miles in, a sign on the right marks the spur trail to Parker Mesa. Turn right onto the spur, and it’s 0.5-mile to the mesa, which, at an elevation of 1,525 feet, offers stunning views toward Santa Monica on a clear day, and not half-bad ones even on a less-than-clear one:

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There’s a bench and plenty of room to spread out at the overlook, where there are 360-degree views of Santa Monica Bay, stretching from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Malibu. It was a bit hazy the day we were there, but Catalina Island is visible on clear days.

After soaking in the views, we headed back on the spur trail to the fire road and took a left to the Los Liones Trailhead. White canopies of big-pod ceanothus umbrellas the trail this time of year:

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About two miles from Parker Mesa, we kept our eyes peeled for the Los Liones Trail sign. There, we took a right and headed another two miles to the trailhead. It’s a fairly steep downhill, making us glad we took the way-easier climb in from Topanga. All in all, a successful traverse.

Los Liones trail sign vert

 

Why did the mountain lion cross the road?

Female lion P-33 at kill site in the western Santa Monica Mountains, where she fed by herself on a deer for about an hour before her mom and brother showed up.   Courtesy of National Park Service
Female lion P-33 at kill site in the western Santa Monica Mountains, where she fed by herself on a deer for about an hour before her mom and brother showed up.
Courtesy of National Park Service

Well, to get to the other side, of course. The “road” being the 101 Freeway, and the big cat being P-33, a 16-month-old who recently left her mother and was the star of some stunning photos from the National Park Service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. (Beware viewing if you’re squeamish: there are images of a dismembered deer.) The NPS has been tracking her and her two siblings since they were four weeks old.

And now big sis has miraculously made it across the Ventura Freeway. She crossed on the Conejo Grade from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Camarillo area on March 9 sometime between midnight and 2 a.m.

This is hugely significant for mountain lions and the people who research them because a successful crossing of such a huge barrier like the 101 is a sign that there’s hope for maintaining the long-term genetic health of the population.

P33_Crossing_March2015

It’s all about connectivity of habitat for these SoCal mountain lions — being stuck south of the 101 leads to inbreeding and lower genetic diversity. A number of big cats have been killed trying to cross the freeway, including one recently at Liberty Canyon, north of Malibu Creek State Park. This is also where the only other known successful crossing by a lion occurred since the NPS started started studying them in 2002, and it’s where NPS is proposing to build a wildlife crossing over the freeway.

Some Angelenos may recall the famous mountain lion in Griffith Park known as P-22, who was made famous in National Geographic photos in 2013, and was thought to have crossed the 101 and 405 Freeways heading east. He wasn’t wearing a tracking collar and he’s likely not to reproduce because he’s believed to be the only lion there and is hemmed in by so many freeways on the eastern end of the Santa Monicas.

As a hiker in these mountains, it’s always in the back of mind that cougars are in the vicinity, so I’m vigilant the trail. The area where P-33 ended is pretty agricultural but I’m guessing she’s in the mountains north of the freeway just west of Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks. That park, by the way, has some great hiking, including a nice loop hike to Paradise Falls. It seemed like lion territory when I was there, so I’m not surprised P-33 was attracted to it. Here’s hoping she’s not too hemmed in by suburbia (aren’t we all?), avoids cars and people, and lives a long, fruitful life.

Bishop Peak: Green slopes in SLO

View of Cerro San Luis from Bishop Peak Trail.
View of Cerro San Luis from Bishop Peak Trail.

After many trips to the Central Coast over the years, in early December we finally hiked to the top of Bishop Peak — one of the Nine Sisters, the scenic volcanic morros spread out between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Recent rains (finally!) have left the hillsides carpeted in green, foreshadowing a (hopefully) early spring, and contributing to stunning  views from the trail.

At 1,559 feet, Bishop Peak is the highest of the morros, the lowest being Morro Rock at 576 feet. These are volcanic plugs that haven’t been active for 20 million years. The hike is 3.5 miles round-trip, with 950 feet of gain.

The trailhead is right in the middle of San Luis Obispo, but finding it was a bit of a challenge — every hiking site I checked seemed to have different directions. We took the route that starts at Highland Drive (see the end of this post for our trailhead directions).

The trail at first passes through a lush oak woodland. A little less than a mile in, we shimmied through a gate that points the way to Bishop Peak. One way to add miles (about 2.5) is to go right and do the Felsman Loop Trail.

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Continuing on to Bishop Peak, the trail eventually opens up to widespread views. Along the way, we encountered rock climbers roped to Bishop’s rocky flanks.

Bishop Peak climber

The trail ascends gradually, with clear views of SLO, and rising just beyond town, green Cerro San Luis (1,292 feet), another of the Nine Sisters.

Blue:Bishop Peak trail

A series of switchbacks leads to two benches just  below the summit, which is basically several piles of rocks which can be scrambled over to get even better views.

Bishop Peak trail view

If Blue misbehaved — even tho she’s female and not human — we threatened to take her to the California Men’s Colony, which was prominent in the landscape below:

View of Calif. Men's Colony

The trail is pretty exposed, so I wouldn’t want to hike it in summer. Even in early December, the sun was warm and Blue took a nap once we got to the summit.

Blue/Bishop Peak summit

To the west were pastoral views of Los Osos Valley, where turkey vultures soared.

Birds/Bishop Peak

We hung around the summit, then retraced our steps, enjoying views of SLO 1,500 feet below us, and encountering a lot of hikers, undoubtedly heading up to enjoy an early-winter sunset.

SLO view/Bishop peak

To find out more about the Central Coast’s Nine Sisters and hiking them, check out the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter’s site. The way we got to the trailhead was to take Highland Drive from Highway 1, and follow Highland until it ends in a cul-de-sac. Park on the street and pick up the trail on the left side of the street, along a fence. Our trail track from the MotionX GPS  app is below.

Bishop Peak track

Angeles hike near Station Fire origin

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What better way to spend Turkey Day than hiking through habitat burned by one of the largest wildfires in California? No. 12 on the list, to be exact.

We’ve hiked this fire road (ahem) in the Angeles National Forest several times now, and can count on one hand the number of people on the trail. The trailhead is at the Angeles Crest Station, for which the fire was named. And today — more than five years after the fire consumed 161,000 acres — blackened trees still remain.

Five years after the Station Fire, dead trees remain along the trail.
Five years after the Station Fire, dead trees remain along the trail.

Google Earth calls this Mt. Lukens Truck Trail. I’ve never seen this hike listed in any trail guide. It isn’t one of the premier hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains — the trail sign at the start lists destination trails rather than the name of the trail you’re on — but it does lead (seven miles in) to Grizzly Flats and eventually Mt. Lukens, at 5,074 feet the highest point in the city of L.A.

Simply put, this is an easy trail only a few miles up Angeles Crest Highway from La Cañada, and a great hike to do on a clear day, with views stretching to the Pacific. We hiked only about 2.5 miles in and were treated to some great views on T-Day.

Some pix from the hike:

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Fall color AND wildflowers on the same hike. You gotta love winter in SoCal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA One of the brief, rare moments Blue was off-leash:

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Love this old sign at the trailhead:

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Whaddya mean I have to stay on-leash?

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More dead trees. Thankfully, no dreaded poodledog bush on this trail:

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The path we took, minus a section where I forgot to restart my MotionX app, oops:

Angeles Crest track

A more modern (but not much) sign at the trailhead:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWant to know more about the Station Fire? It was “human-caused” BTW, and the arsonist was never caught. The GAO did a report here, and the interactive map on p. 10 is worth checking out.

 

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument: The big cave-in

The Bridge to Nowhere spanning the East Fork San Gabriel River. Photo courtesy of http://www.stevescamera.com/2012/11/the-infamous-bridge-to-nowhere-along.html
The Bridge to Nowhere spanning the East Fork San Gabriel River. Photo courtesy of http://www.stevescamera.com/2012/11/the-infamous-bridge-to-nowhere-along.html

I”m not sure that’ll be the new monument’s official title, but the word on the street is that when President Obama is in SoCal on Friday, before or after breaking bread with Gwyneth Paltrow, he’ll be declaring part of the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument. Wait a minute — what happened to making them part of a national recreation area??

Here’s what happened: because the national recreation area designation would require congressional approval — which at the rate they’re going could take the better part of a century — Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-El Monte), who drafted the recreation area proposal, decided to take the easier route and shoot for national monument status.

Problem with the monument alternative is the mountains would remain under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service, not the National Park Service, as it would have been if it received the national recreation area designation. And any user of the Angeles National Forest knows what a bang-up job the USFS has done. Sure, the forest is strapped for dough, especially having to fork over truckloads of cash to fight fires. And a 700,000-acre forest with 3 million visitors a year isn’t easy to care for. But both the East and West Forks of the San Gabriel River are pretty disgraceful, to give just one example.

Local flyfishing group the Pasadena Casting Club has been pushing for Wild & Scenic River designation for the West Fork and its tributaries, and is against the national monument, unlike other conservation groups like Trout Unlimited. They point out that while Rep. Chu will still seek a national recreation area bill, national monument status in the meantime is an inferior alternative. Funding will be at a much lower level and would not result in new recreation services or lighten the pressure of the overused forest, since the USFS is chronically short of funds and what it does get goes to fighting fires.

Don’t get me wrong — there are many fabulous trails and vistas in the San Gabriels, especially at the western end. And hopefully the San Gabriel River will get Wild & Scenic protection at some point. It’s just unclear exactly how creating a national monument would make a lick of difference. Is the graffiti and trash in the East Fork area all of a sudden going to disappear? Truly a monumental challenge.

Grizzly’s return to California’s Sierra?

Grizzly bear photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Grizzly bear photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As the keeper of a blog about the western U.S., West-centric would be remiss to ignore the recent hubbub over a proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears to California’s Sierra Nevada, among other spots in the West. I don’t have a strong opinion either way. Frankly, I think it would be kind of cool to have another apex predator in the state, and boy would it clear out the most popular trails…in a big way!

However, what I’d like to say to the Center for Biological Diversity, which came up with the plan, is….really? It’s such an outrageous idea that I frankly think it’s just a way for the nonprofit conservation group to draw attention to U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s recovery plan for the grizz, which the Center thinks isn’t doing enough to protect the bears and expand their range.

Grizz sticker

Yes, grizzlies were abundant in California at one time — some estimate as many as 10,000 in the state’s early days — and the last one was killed in Tulare County in 1922. One still ambles across the state flag.

But the state is far more populated now, with scads of recreation lovers hiking and fishing the Sierra. Can you imagine hiking the John Muir Trail, or fishing the Kern River, and needing to carry bear spray? Or something even more powerful? I did recently see someone on the trail between Horseshoe Lake and McLeod Lake in the Mammoth Lakes basin carrying a bear spray canister, which was odd. Maybe he saw the Center’s proposal and was getting a head start.

The Sierra isn’t the only area of the West where the Center for Biological Diversity hopes to reintroduce ursus arctos horribilis. In its legal petition proposing to return grizzlies to their original range, the group identifies 110,000 square miles of potential grizzly habitat in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Once abundant in those spots, grizzlies were gone by the 1940s.

Current grizzly populations are a fraction of what they once were — from 100,000 in their heyday to a mere 1,500 or so today, and only in five areas: the Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk and Northern Cascades ecosystems.

With such shrunken range and fragmented habitat, more clearly needs to be done to protect these magnificent predators. And as admirable as the grizzly proposal is, I just don’t think it’s practical in a place like California. And I don’t know which grizzly species is intended for reintroduction, since the California sub-species ursus californicus, which roamed valleys and foothills rather than high elevations, is extinct.

Anyone who’s spent time in the outdoors in places like Glacier National Park knows what it’s like to hike and fish in grizzly country. Want an investment tip? Bear spray canister companies. You can’t bring them on airplanes, so that canister you bought for a dayhike in Montana or Wyoming is staying behind. And the consequences can be serious: a researcher from Utah in Wyoming’s Wind Rivers was recently killed by a bear, possibly a grizzly.

Wildlife reintroduction is a pretty fascinating topic. Living among large predators like bears and wolves is what makes the West such a special place, after all. But can we all safely co-exist? Interested in joining the conversation? The online forums Yosemite News and High Sierra Topix have both addressed the grizzly issue.

Sierra backpack to East Lake

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Casting near camp at East Lake

Weary of watching lawns turn brown and flowers wilt, we decided in mid-August that it was time to hit the Sierra. But, worried about how California’s mega drought had affected the high country, we wondered: Would our beloved streams and lakes be too low to fish, or even dried up?

I’m happy to report that there was plenty of green grass, blue water and even some wildflowers in the Hoover Wilderness backcountry, especially above 10,000 feet. No doubt the monsoon-season storms earlier in the month helped.

This was our second backpack to the Hoover, which borders the northeast part of Yosemite National Park and rises from the Great Basin to the crest of the Sierra. With a new dog in tow — our rescue pit mix Blue, who undoubtedly had never camped under the stars — we decided on a short backpack along the Green Creek Trail to East Lake, about 4.5 miles from the trailhead.

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Blue prepares to hit the trail

So on a warm mid-week day, we headed out from the trailhead, located at the end of nine miles of the bumpy dirt that is Green Creek Road, off Interstate 395, about five miles south of Bridgeport. Blue was happy to hit the trail, not at all seeming to mind toting some cooking supplies — and two cans of beer — in her doggie backpack.

The trail climbs gradually and is very rocky in spots, something to keep in mind when hiking with canines. We brought dog booties but Blue was a trouper and didn’t need them. We ascended to Green Lake at just over two miles, right after a turnoff to West Lake — a less-frequently visited destination 1.5 steep miles away that we’ll save for another trip.

We kept going another 2.5 miles to East Lake, and the trail was alternately sunny and shaded by pine, hemlock and aspen. With so much aspen, especially at the start of the trail, I think this would be a great day hike in the fall. The trail crosses Green Creek several times, which was easy going with the water so low.

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Blue contemplating her shadow at East Lake campsite

Without much intel on where to camp at East Lake — and no obvious spots to pitch a tent when we arrived — finding a site was a bit of a challenge. Luckily we ran into backpackers who were coming out and tipped us off to a peninsula on the northeast end of the lake. The site we eventually chose had great views of the lake and Epidote (10,951 feet) and Park Peaks.

Getting to and from the site from the trail took a bit of rockhopping and was a navigation challenge, but lake access and views made it worth it. At 9,462 feet, campfires aren’t allowed at East Lake (no fires over 9,000 feet), so we had to stick to the camping stove — but we saw plenty of abandoned illegal fire rings. We ended up moving to a more choice — tho windy — spot after the first night, spending two more nights with open-sky views and even better water access. At night we were treated to the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower, with the Milky Way spreading across the entire sky.

We took a day hike to small but scenic Nutter Lake, a short distance from East, where I caught (but was unable photograph, darn) and released a 14-inch rainbow on a size 16 ant fly fished just below the surface…first fish on my brand-new Orvis Battenkill III reel. The next day we trekked three miles to Summit Lake, a beauty at 10,184 feet, on the boundary of Yosemite.

Hoover Lakes
The trail to Summit Lake passes the Hoover Lakes

Wildflowers lined the trail, but I got the sense that we were about a month too late for the full bloom — which happened early this year because of the drought. Still, we saw spotty clumps that included Indian paintbrush, larkspur, purple aster, lupine and owl’s clover, among others. The extremely scenic hike to Summit passes Nutter, Gilman and Hoover Lakes — where it was windy and small brook trout were abundant.

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Hoover Lake brookie

Summit Lake was also windy — but beautiful — and the fishing was fruitless. We scanned the hillsides for bighorn sheep, which are apparently fairly common here, but didn’t see any.

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Not a fish in sight at windy Summit Lake

We stopped at the sign marking the entrance to Yosemite National Park at the west end of Summit Lake, but didn’t go any further since dogs aren’t allowed. Which was fine with Blue, who enjoyed a nice sit and a roll:

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On the hike back to camp, we were treated to great-light afternoon views, including nice reflections on Gilman Lake:

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We headed out on day four, all in all a great trip, with no complaints: lighter packs, no bear encounters, one mosquito bite between the two of us (I can’t speak for Blue) and one worn-out but happy pooch.

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For conditions and how to obtain a wilderness permit, contact the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest at (760) 932-7070.