Heading west from Moab, I’m hearing reports that Zion National Park is pretty crowded (someone mentions the main valley can be accessed only via shuttle bus). Thus I’m delighted when my friend Anna tells me of a hike that bypasses the crowds. Drive to Zion Ponderosa Ranch, she continues, and they’ll point you to the trailhead a short distance away….
A year or so ago casting around for new challenges, I google’d “barefoot Grand Canyon,” and that’s when I discovered Thea Gavin, a free-spirited writer and self-styled “suburbanite chronically injured running grandma,” who’d hiked from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other, descending roughly 5,000 feet and them climbing back out, for a total journey of 24 miles, all without shoes. When conventional boot-clad hikers in the Canyon asked why, she responded, “It’s fun.”
This spring I began planning a western trip to the Grand Canyon and other places I’d never been. Business matters interceded, the trip was delayed, put on hold, and then finally thrown together at the last minute with destinations to be figured out on the fly.
Now it’s late morning, August 7, and I’m pulling in to Kanab, Utah, which I’ve designated as my final staging point prior to entering Grand Canyon National Park. Priority of work: lunch, laundry, gas, obtain a wi-fi connection to download maps and review the route, and hopefully find an espresso. The strategy is to enter the park after dark (avoiding the crowds and the heat), attempt a barefoot descent of the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River, and then turn around and climb back up.
In Mammoth Lakes for one more night, I need time to plan my final hike on this western trip, a 16-miler in Yosemite National park. So this will be a rest day…
My four-week southwestern pilgrimage is drawing to a close, and what stands between my current location in Mammoth Lakes and the San Francisco airport is. . . . Yosemite National Park, John Muir’s temple of the wilderness, in which “every rock seems to glow with life.”
This is sacred ground, with 4.3 million visitors last year. This year, having just reopened after a month’s closure due to forest fires, no doubt the park will be thronged. What’s needed is a thoughtful plan: an infiltration route from a remote trailhead to a suitable vantage point overlooking the valley, sparing me the crowds below. A chance encounter with a friendly trail volunteer supplies me with exactly this: a 16-mile route from Porcupine Creek Trailhead to North Dome and the top of Yosemite Falls.
Working on the route from Zion to Grand Canyon, a little dot pops up on the map: Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Who doesn’t like scrambling around in sand? How could you not want to check out dunes with such a distinctive color?
After three days in Lone Pine, California, the grand tour of Owens Valley continues, and now it’s time for Bishop. First stop: the public land visitor’s center, where I enter the lottery for an overnight permit for the Bishop Pass trail. It’s a popular trail, but there’s not much competition mid-week, and a little later that morning, after a series of instructions from the Rangers (where to park, where to camp, how to dispose of waste, how to keep bears from eating your food, and not to mention watch out for dead deer on the pass and the thunderstorm forecast for tomorrow afternoon) — I stroll out with permit, map, and rented bear canister in hand. Now it’s time to prepare for the mission: map the drive to the trailhead, study the route, buy food, pack my pack, and rig up a carrying strap for the bear canister so I can sling it over a shoulder, it being far too large to fit in my 20-liter day pack.
The next morning I’m up at 3:00 AM, determined to steal a march on the weather and secure a parking spot before the crowds….
Arriving in Moab, Utah toward the end of July, car thermometer reading 100 F, windows down and a/c off (to help me acclimate), yellow sand and orange cliffs swimming in late afternoon haze. After a quick beer at a local brewery, it’s time to check in at the motel (the cheapest available), and begin planning the next day’s hikes at Arches National Park, located a couple of miles north of town and thus every tourist’s first destination.
What caught my attention after the four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, once I’d reached Moab and was motoring along Route 191 through the center of town, passing all those restaurants, curiosity shops, and tour operators, was the line of mountains rising in the southeast.
The next morning saw me hiking out to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park (isn’t this every tourist’s first stop?) — when here were those mountains again, with a mushroom cloud bubbling above, as if the peaks had pierced the winds and cast the atmosphere into turbulence.
And then a day later, from the high point in Hidden Valley, here they were once again, gazing at me with curiosity across thirty-five miles of hot sand and haze.
One of New Zealand’s nine “Great Walks,” the Routeburn Track is famous for spectacular mountain scenery, alpine grasslands, glacier-fed lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, and southern beech forests teeming with native birds. The Routeburn Track was to be the final hike during my two-week visit to this beautiful country, and I was of course very excited to get started, but I’d botched the planning process. If I was to get this Great Walk done, a creative approach would be necessary…
One of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” the Kepler Track is a 36-mile loop that takes you 4,000 feet up into the mountains of the Fiordland National Park. Hikers typically complete the track in three or four days, but my goal is to finish it in two — while enjoying the beech forests and alpine grasslands in an area that’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To be sure, a two-day circuit of the Kepler is nothing special by ultra-running standards. Winners of the Kepler Challenge trail race complete the 36-mile loop in under 5 hours. In days gone by I might have raced the Kepler Track in 7 or 8 hours, or perhaps I’d have run it for fun over the course of a full day. But over the last year I’ve managed to strain a tendon in my left ankle, and accordingly two back-to-back 18-milers will be plenty. In fact, this will be a good test to see if the ankle is ready for some long-distance hiking goals I’ve got planned for later this spring. Regardless, the Kepler Track should make for a beautiful hike and a memorable experience — provided it doesn’t make the ankle any worse…