Thursday, December 31, 2015

Reflections on 2015

After my 2014 PCT hike, I was inspired to live a life immersed in the natural world and to find a way to make a difference.
Sharing my excitement about the natural world. Photo by I. B.
In 2015, I challenged myself by doing things I’d never imagined I could do. I moved to Montana and taught conservation education programs to preK-12 kids at a state park. Here are some highlights:

Couchsurfing
Living with friends made this year possible.
At the beginning of the year, before I moved to Montana, generous friends welcomed me into their homes.  Even their pets made me feel like family. Not having rent allowed me to save money.  It also kept me flexible, and constantly moving and thinking about my next step. 

Arizona Trail
Hanging in my hammock amid cactus and cowpies.
Hiking part of the Arizona Trail this March stretched my backpacking skills with the long water carries and navigation challenges. But this trip made me feel like I have grown into the backpacker I want to be, with my own style. 

Giving back
The kids were my favorite!
Most of my year (eight months) was spent as a volunteer for AmeriCorps.  AmeriCorps is a national service program aimed at solving problems in America.  I taught school field trips at a state park, led interpretive hikes, organized trail work projects, and did whatever else needed to be done in the park.  This was the first time I’ve worked outside of academia or done anything besides being a biologist.

The AmeriCorps Budget
These shoes just need a little more superglue.
I tried my best to not to buy anything since the AmeriCorps "living stipend" was less than minimium wage. I fixed gear, patched clothes, and make do without. When it got frustrating, I focused on finding joy in making connections with people and being outdoors. Being resourceful and using what I have, and being happy with simplicity, all reminded me of being on the PCT.  It also helped that I still have savings from from back when I worked as a scientist.

Home in the forest
Waking up with a view of my beloved forest.
Living in a beautiful outdoors place meant I didn’t feel the urge to escape.  So it was OK that there were fewer nights in my hammock this year.  Trails began right outside the front door of my trailer. 
I never got tired of seeing the sunrise from my park.
Though I hiked the same trails around my park everyday, they were always changing.

Weekend hiking trips to Glacier National Park
Trails I hiked in Glacier National Park this year are highlighted.
On my days off, I drove to the mountains across the valley that I could see from my park-- to Glacier and the Swan Range.  It wasn’t about achieving miles or about getting anywhere.  It was about exploring and learning to love a place deeply... even the grizzlies.

The people
The people I met this year and the friends I was able to reconnect with were amazing.  I was so happy to see hiking buddies from the PCT, to spend time with my family, and to meet so many wonderful people through AmeriCorps and in Montana.
AmeriCorps friends.
Overall, living this far outside my comfort zone this year has been scary, but it makes me feel alive in ways that only long distance hiking ever did. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Permian Reef Geology Trail in the Guadalupe Mountains

On this, our second trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas, Pathfinder and I explored McKittrick Canyon via two overnight trips—first to McKittrick Ridge and then to Wilderness Ridge on the Permian Reef Geology Trail.

The grande finale of our Texas trip— the Permian Reef Geology Trail. It became an immediate favorite because of the fascinating interpretive information about the geologic history along the 2000 foot climb.  At each of the 28 interpretive stops over about 4 miles, we learned about how the Guadalupe Mountains are exposed fossil reefs from the Permian period (280-250 million years ago). It was amazing to see how the algae, sponges, and other organisms built these mountains.
Reading the guidebook to understand the formation of this ancient reef. Photo by Pathfinder
What made this hike exceptional was having a guidebook to direct our observations and fuel our imaginations ("Listening to the Rocks" - see below).  Signed interpretive stops pointed out diverse fossils.  Soon, we developed a search image for spotting fossils, and they jumped out everywhere.  Had we just walked past all these fossils just this morning on the climb down from McKittrick Ridge?  Apparently, yes… but we hadn't noticed them.
It'd be easy to walk right over these fossilized stramatolites- made by algae- until you learn to spot them.
Finding fossils embedded in rocks out in nature, rather than in a classroom or museum, made them come alive.  The guidebook showed pictures of how the ancient plants and animals looked and told about what they ate and how they lived. 

How could something so small as algae and sponges possibly build mountains?  As we set one foot in front of the other on the long climb, we had time to imagine how it could be possible for algae and coral to build a reef millimeter by millimeter over the course of a few million years. 

It was also incredible to wonder about the Permian mass extinction after seeing fossil remains of the creatures that went extinct.  95% of all plants and animals went extinct 225 million year ago.  95%! And all of life on earth now is descended from those 5% that survived.
Getting a better view of the fossils.  Photo by Pathfinder
Understanding how environments can be different over time— like how this area of Texas could have been near the equator and covered by an ancient sea—can be tricky too.  Until you stand on the rim with the wind blowing and soak in the expansive views... then it's easier to imagine waves crashing over this sea filled with ancient life here.
On the rim
This interpretive trail enriched my experience of the Guadalupe Mountains and provided fuel for thought during the hours that we took climbing.  I felt wonder at how these mountains formed, and a connection to all the living things that made this place their home so long ago.  If you are interested in geology or if you like learning about nature (and don't mind strenuous climbs), then head to this trail in far west Texas!

More Trip Information

Stop by the Pine Springs Visitor Center
Get your backcountry camping permit, buy the guidebook, check gate closure times, and get up to date trail information.

Buy “Listening to the Rocks:  A Young Person’s Guide to the Permian Reef Trail"
While the free “Permian Reef Trail Guide” describes geological highlights of select stops (available to download here), its worth it to spend the $5 to get this excellent, comprehensive, detailed guide.  The interpretive guidebook says the book is aimed at young people, but the book is detailed enough to to be highly interesting to someone who appreciates depth.  The fact that it is aimed at young people made it fun to read for anyone young at heart.
Photo by Pathfinder
Be prepared for a big climb in full sun
The large elevation change and fact that the hike offers no shade make it less suitable for younger children.  Note that because this is a dayuse area and they don’t open the gate until 8 AM, you can’t start early to beat the heat.  Even though winter provided us with cooler temperatures, Pathfinder and I both hid in the shade of our umbrellas to stay cooler until after we crossed over the saddle into the afternoon shade.  Earlier in the day, the trail would have had even more exposure.
Pathfinder using her sun umbrella
Wilderness Ridge Backcountry Campsite 
Pathfinder and I opted to stay overnight at the Wilderness Ridge Backcountry Campsite, which was another 30 or so minutes beyond the end of the geology trail.  Wilderness Ridge was more exposed and windy than McKittrick Ridge had been, but was just 5 minutes to this incredible rocky overloop with a view across McKittrick Canyon.  This campsite didn't seem like it gets much use-- and we had it all to ourselves.

Friday, December 18, 2015

McKittrick Ridge in the Guadalupe Mountains

On our second trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas, Pathfinder and I explored McKittrick Canyon via two overnight trips—first to McKittrick Ridge and then to Wilderness Ridge on the Permian Reef Geology Trail.

The rugged Guadalupe Mountains provided the perfect place for wintertime exploration, with plenty of quiet and solitude.

When we picked up our (free) permits at the Pine Springs Visitor Center, the rangers told us we were only the 15th group to get a backcountry camping permit this entire month.  Why were there so few backpackers at this national park?
View down McKittrick Canyon
Part of it could have been that backpacking here is tough. The climb to McKittrick Ridge from the McKittrick Canyon Trailhead was 7.6 miles but it was a rough 2900 feet climb (most all in the last 3 miles).  You have to carry in all your own water.
Water was flowing in the bottom of the canyon, but don't expect water up on the ridge near the campsites.
The climb to McKittrick Ridge was “technical” meaning loose slippery rocks and dirt and steep dropoffs. You have to pay attention to every foot placement to avoid falling.  We kept joking that there was nothing horizontal about these trails--we made hardly any horizontal progress, and our feet were not even horizontal, the trail was so uneven and steeply inclined.  Don’t expect to cruse on these trails (especially the one to McKittrick Ridge)—plan fewer miles than you would on the AT or PCT. 
Steep rocky trail, loose rocks, and snow.
The reward was the scenery!  These mountains rise thousands of feet above the desert and are carved by deep canyons.
Beautiful rock formations along the climb up to McKittrick Ridge
Few footprints were apparent in backcountry.  Trails and backcountry campsites were overgrown.  I loved knowing that we were the only group in the backcountry while we were out— imagine—no one else around for miles!
McKittrick Ridge Backcountry Campsite was well sheltered from the strong winds (especially site #8).
If you are like most visitors to Guadalupe and don’t have the inclination to backpack, the Pratt Cabin and Grotto make great dayhiking destinations (but you will see other visitors on this portion of the trail).

Pratt Cabin also makes a relaxing lunch stop.
Dripping water forms stalagmites and stalagmites in the Grotto.
Overall, if you like rugged terrain and don't mind carrying all your own water, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas makes an excellent winter backpacking destination for its incredible beauty and quiet.

More information:
Stop at the Pine Springs Visitors Center- pick up your free permit and explore the exhibits
Guadalupe NPS website- has all the backpacking info, permit info, and regulations
McKittrick Canyon- gates close at night for this area, so check at the visitor center for hours
Pine Springs Campground- we camped at the quiet walk-in tent sites here after picking up our permit the afternoon before our trip

Monday, December 14, 2015

More of Big Bend National Park

“You’re going out again?!?” Back at the trailhead, guys we’d met on the Outer Mountain Loop are checking into a hotel room. They look at us like we are crazy as we sort trail food for three more days in the Chisos of Big Bend National Park. Their eyes are bright with talk of showers and a hot meal in the restaurant. I remember what it’s like to crave creature comforts, but now I only long for the backcountry.

Six day’s grime has hardened into a protective layer on my skin, and sweat has congealed in my eyebrows to form a dam against the sunscreen which no longer drips into my eyes.  Why would I shower when I’ve achieved backcountry hikerfunk perfection?

Plus… It’s the peak night for the Geminid meteor shower! 

Our permit is for two nights at a campsite that will hopefully offer more shelter from the forecasted winds yet still have a clear open view of the night sky.  Basecamping and doing out and back dayhikes would be a vacation after the “demands” of a loop hike with the bigger water carries.  Our aim would be to explore the entire Rim and view from above the desert terrain we’d traversed.
Bundled up to watch the meteor shower
At our campsite, the crescent moon is already setting early as we pull on down booties, jackets, and quilts around us on the groundcloth we’d spread out under the clear sky.  What time would we see the shooting stars?  Of course we’d forgotten to ask.  We’d give it an hour.  We're cold and tired and ….  And then we start counting ‘em.  Bright bursts flare across the sky, some with very bright visible tails!  1, 2, 3…. 10!  Was that enough?  Certainly a record number for both of us!

Climbing the Pinnacles Trail for the THIRD TIME up to the Rim the next morning is the easiest 2000 feet yet.  Dayhikers I pass ask, “Are you training for something?”  “Nope, I just like to climb.”  As I slow to chat, I forgot my underwear is drying on the top of my pack (after washing it in the sink at the visitor center—in a moment of sheer indulgance).  I hadn’t expected to see anyone, so I attempt to chat and pass them without turning my back.
You can't see the laundry on the back of my pack if I never turn around.
Hours are spent exploring the rim, stopping at every overlook.  
Map and compassing on the south rim. Photo by Pathfinder.
As we contemplate our maps and the enormity of the desert, another hiker points out Elephant Tusk Mountain for us.  We try to identify all the other peaks and trace our route of the previous day.  How could we have traversed all that desert?
It all looks so rugged and desolate from this view.
Taking the Southwest Rim Trail to the Colima Trail and then on back to camp again.
On our last day, we drive down to the Rio Grande Village Visitor Center.  Throughout our trip, we’d been trying to get more info on the geology of the park.  The volunteer at the visitor center finally tells us the best story of the park's geologic history.  He also shares his secret hikes that aren't on maps with us ("i.e. turn right at the big tree... then go up the canyon for 30 minutes..").  What made this gentleman so exceptional was that he stood around the maps with us without even batting an eye for our week's worth of grim.  Unfortuntately we didn’t get his name, but special thanks to that wonderful volunteer!

The finale of the trip--- a visit to the hot springs!  All the best things, right here.
Reading the interepreive brochure about the Hot Springs historic district. Photo by Pathfinder
Life doesn't get any better.  Photo by Pathfinder
As much as there are downsides to my vagabond life (with no permanent home or job), this trip to Big Bend made me really appreciate having time to explore and relax.  The pace of this trip was fitting for the unique beauty of Big Bend.  I'm hopeful that we will be back...

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Outer Mountain Loop- Day 3

The final day of the Outer Mountain Loop took us up out of the desert and back over the Chisos mountains through a quiet area of the park.
Climbing Blue Creek Canyon.
Spotted a shooting star during breakfast.  What a good way to start the day.  The previous night’s storm brought crisp cold air. 
Wearing all the clothes.
Back up high in the Chisos, other hikers recounted their tales of freezing precipitation and hail during the storm.  At least we’d been lower and relatively warmer.

After checking in with Pathfinder and making a plan to meet up back at the visitors center, I cruised on ahead.  My camera was full of pictures of all the unfamiliar plants, and I was on a mission to get them identified.
What is this?
I was delighted when the volunteers at the ranger station pulled out a 3-ring binder from behind the counter— “Chisos Vegetation.”  While I studied the plant descriptions compared them to my photos, the volunteers all made themselves scarce in the back room.  Did I really smell that bad?  (it had only been 6 days without a shower— and there were no showers available in the campground and all the signs said don’t wash in the sinks so what could I do?
Ah, it's Mexican Buckeye!  From "Chisos Vegetation" at the visitors center.
I tried to be as fast as possible in my plant identification mission.  It was a fun way to end the trip, and the plant binder answered all my quesitons.  I looked around for information on the geology of the park, but was dissapointed with the materials, but at least I had the most important questions answered.

Summary:

The outer mountain loop at Big Bend National Park accesses diverse habitats of Texas—from the lovely chihuahuan desert to pine and oak forests.  You could complete the loop in a shorter time, but a three day itinerary allows side trails to be explored.  The elevation changes were significant for a trail where you have to carry so much water.  We met other hikes that overdid it and bailed out on the second day.  Overnight hikes up to the rim might be a better fit for a beginning backpacker.  But for someone wanting rugged terrain and unparalled scenery, this is a great winter trip.

Planning tools:
Big Bend Chat- updated info and planning tips on the Outer Mountain Loop
NPS website about the Outer Mountain Loop
Mary’s excellent trip report (this is what got us inspired to do this trip)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Outer Mountain Loop- Day 2

The desert section of the Outer Mountain Loop was not the barren wasteland we’d expected from our view from the rim two days ago. Wildflowers were still blooming, pockets of trees were hidden in canyons around the springs. These surprises make desert hiking truly special in Big Bend National Park.
Is this really the desert?
Navigation wasn’t difficult along the Dodson Trail. We were surprised people get lost so frequently.  Cairns marked paths through the washes. Signs pointed the way at trail junctions. It seemed better marked than the PCT or the Arizona Trail, but I guess it’s all what you’re used to.
Cairns and narrow path lined with spiny plants.
Pathfinder and I hiked separately at our own paces.  I zoned out.  No sustained climbs, so my legs percieved the terrain that as flat, though I suppose there were up and downs. 
Just a few switchbacks.  But mostly flat... or flatish.
Why is happiness so easy out here?  Why do all the little annoyances—like spines embedded in shoes and clothes, the stench of five days without a shower, the heat rash and sunscreen eye itch—have no impact on my happiness level?  It's like I'm able to tackle anything. What would it be like to have this mindset all the time?
Looking up at the rim of the Chisos.
I used to think backpacking would allow time for deep, philosophical thoughts about the important things in life. What really happens is that I dwell on three things: water, hammock hang sites, and plant distributions and identification. Where is the next spring?  Could I hang from those bushes?  What were all these plants called? Why do the cactus grow at odd orientations? How has the lack of grazing impacts impacted these plant communities?  Not deep thoughts, yet, it is interesting to notice what the mind dwells on.  Is this what I think are the most important thoughts to be having?
Is this paintbrush blooming in December?
When will the ocotillo bloom?
What is this?  (edit: woolly paperflower)

What type of fern lives in the desert?
Have I mentioned how awesome it is to hike without grizzlies always on my mind?
Water sources were flowing and easy to find- both Dodson spring and Fresno creek.
Homer Wilson Ranch-- can you imagine life here in 1929?
After picking up our water cache from the box near the Homer Wilson ranch house, the storm came quickly...

Fortunately, the next day would be better...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Outer Mountain Loop- Day 1

The Outer Mountain Loop is a popular 30-mile trip in Big Bend National Park that highlights a wide variety of habitats. It climbs over the Chisos Mountains twice and traverses the lower-elevation desert section beneath the towering rim. Pathfinder and I opted for two nights following the NPS suggested itinerary.  
Over the mountains and through the desert, and back over again.
Reports of the difficulty of this trip had us a little on edge. Rangers warned us that people get lost and die all the time on this route. They also advise you to carry all your water for the first 20 miles.  However, we got specific instructions on water source locations from the Big Bend Chat website and also had firsthand information that the water was flowing. But still, we didn’t know what to expect.
How much water do we carry for 2 days?
Starting from our backcountry campsite at Boulder Meadows (to get a slight head start), the climb up into the Chisos mountains via the Pinnacle Trail seemed easier to me than it had the previous day, despite my water-ladened pack. I think I was fueled by happiness.
My favorite time of day!
The oaks of Boot Canyon took my breath away for the second time. Photo by Pathfinder.
Down the Juniper Canyon Trail, new and diverse terrain captured our attention, and the views of the desert below, our future, seemed distant.  Though we would be there in only a few hours.
Soon we will be all the way down there!
Upper Juniper Springs was flowing fresh and clear in a thick grove of majestic oaks.
Our designated camping zone started after the oaks gave way to cactus and spiny shrubs. 
Pathfinder and I found a flat patch of bare earth surrounded by grasses and cactus. Under the clear open sky, we saw pleiades and cassiopeia come out, then millions more stars I can't name.
Cowboy camping.
By 7 PM, it already seemed really late since it’d been dark almost an hour, so 7 was declared the new hiker midnight, and we fell asleep to the chorus of crickets.

For more information:

Big Bend Chat- updated info and planning tips on the Outer Mountain Loop
NPS website about the Outer Mountain Loop
Mary’s excellent trip report (this is what got us inspired to do this trip)