Big Sur Trip, Part 1

My sis and I recently took a 10-day trip down to Big Sur, a very scenic stretch of coastline south of Monterey, CA. We left town on April 20 after Easter dinner and drove as far as Ashland, then drove the rest of the way to Monterey on Monday. After an unexpected detour to Modesto Subaru because the Check Engine light came on, we set up camp at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Monterey Monday evening.

Monterey campsite

On Tuesday we visited the fabulous Monterey Bay Aquarium. When I visited a year and a half ago the otter exhibit was closed for renovations, so I was delighted to see the otters this time!

Sea otter

The jellyfish are utterly mesmerizing.

Jelly fish

Jelly fish

After visiting Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf we headed south on Highway 1. We stopped at one of the many pullouts to check out the VERY windy view north along the coastline. That’s Bixby Bridge in the distance.

Bixby Bridge

We set up camp at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which has a huge campground along the Big Sur River.

Campsite

On Wednesday morning we broke came and prepared for our backpacking excursion into the Ventana Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest. A little bit of history: The Los Padres National Forest gets its name from the Catholic priests who proselytized in the area during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s one of those forests that comprises two unconnected areas. There is the smaller northern section in Big Sur and then the much larger section down by Santa Barbara. Our destination was Sykes Camp in the 234,000-acre Ventana Wilderness, which was established in 1969. Ventana is Spanish for “window” which refers to a unique notch on a ridge near Ventana Double Cone. Legend says that an arch once existed over the top of the notch creating a true window, but geologists have found no evidence to support that. (You can see a picture on the Wikipedia page.)

We set out from Big Sur Station along Highway 1 at 10:30am under sunny skies.

For the first few miles we could see across the river canyon to Manuel Peak and the trail that climbs it.

The Pine Ridge Trail does a lot of climbing in the first few miles. Along the whole length it continually passes in and out of different little zones, everything from cool redwood groves to open chaparral with sweeping views.

We saw lots and lots of lizards.

View into the Ventana Wilderness:

After an hour and 45 minutes and 2.3 miles we reached the wilderness boundary.

We saw and heard many acorn woodpeckers and saw their “granaries” in the trees. From Wikipedia: “The woodpeckers create granaries or “acorn trees” by drilling holes in dead trees, dead branches, telephone poles, and wooden buildings. The woodpeckers then collect acorns and find a hole that is just the right size for the acorn. As acorns dry out, they are moved to smaller holes and granary maintenance requires a significant amount of the bird’s time.” Fascinating!

At 2pm after hiking 5.3 miles we reached Terrace Creek Camp, an absolutely lovely spot with lots of big redwoods and a delightful gurgling creek (the first water we had seen thus far). It was so interesting to me to see these lush green forest groves (very reminiscent of what I see when I hike in the Cascades), and then to be hiking through drier open areas just minutes later.

After a long rest here we donned our packs and kept moving.

After a lot more up and down (this trail is the epitome of a roller coaster trail), we descended almost (but not quite) all the way to the Big Sur River where Barlow Flat Camp is located at the 6.7 mile mark. Then the trail climbed up, up, up out of the river canyon, topping out at 8.2 miles before descending all the way back down to the river and Sykes Camp. Sheesh, what were the trail surveyors thinking?

The last two miles downhill to Sykes Camp were tough. I was hurting by this point, being a little out of shape this early in the hiking season and feeling worn out from all the up and down we had done. To top it off there were many stretches of overgrown trail here. I cringed as I passed through these vegetation tunnels, thinking that I would be crawling with ticks by the time I finally got to camp (fortunately that proved not to be true; no ticks whatsoever).

Finally at 5:30pm we reached Sykes Camp. One last hurdle: cross the river. Fortunately we were able to rock-hop across.

We had deliberately timed our visit here to be midweek when we would encounter the least amount of people. Everything we read said that this place was super popular, with as many as 200 people camped there on busy weekends! 😯 There were a few other tents there but we easily found a nice spot. Here’s a photo from the next morning:

After we put up the tent we quickly set about making dinner. We were HUNGRY!

After dinner we set out to find the hot springs. Unfortunately they are a half-mile hike away, downriver. We knew we had to cross the river several times so I wore my Crocs. The “trail” to the springs turned out to be a half-hour obstacle course of fallen trees, rocks, huge boulders, and river crossings, made all the more difficult by my flimsy footwear and the need to avoid the ubiquitous poison oak. Finally we started smelling sulfur. We made it! In the picture below you can see a teeny-tiny pool (no adult could submerge in that) and up ahead a rock-lined pool in the river, which was only lukewarm.

Above that river pool is a pool with much warmer water, but that one was full so we settled in at the upper pool, which we had all to ourselves for the 45 minutes we stayed. Here is a dark and grainy picture of that pool, which is about six or seven feet wide.

I didn’t get a picture of the lower pool because there were people, but there is a picture on this website.

The hot water felt good after the long hard hike, and we both could have stayed longer. But because of the three river crossings and the difficult trail back to camp we wanted to get that out of the way before it was completely dark. Even with our headlamps the way back was challenging since it was well past dusk.

In the morning before hiking out Deb wanted to go back to the hot springs. With a long hard 10-mile hike out that day, I wasn’t up for the hour round-trip hike to the hot springs and back. So while she was soaking I filtered water near a lovely deep green swimming hole…

Enjoyed watching a newt…

And relaxed by the river, enjoying the serene and idyllic setting.

When Deb got back we dawdled a bit, but eventually had to pack up and head out. This is looking down the canyon of the Big Sur River on our hike out.

One big bonus on this hike is that we saw all sorts of wildflowers, including LOTS of paintbrush and iris:

Another thing we saw a whole bunch of: poison oak. I saw more poison oak on this trip than I’ve seen in all my life combined up to this point. It was EVERYWHERE. After a few days it became evident that neither of us seemed to come in contact with it, but we felt like absolutely everything we brought with us on the trek must be contaminated (probably not true, but after you look at millions of poison oak leaves over two days you just feel like it must have touched all your stuff at some point). Despite the warnings about the proliferation of ticks, we never saw a single one.

This hike ended up being a lot harder than I expected, and the constant up-and-down was tiring. Here is the elevation profile from the sign at the trailhead.

The last mile of trail before the car was flat and easy but I was so sore and tired that I wasn’t hiking, I was shuffling. I’m sure I looked rather pitiful. If I had to do it over again I would schedule a layover day to enjoy the hot springs, hang out by the river, and just laze around enjoying the beautiful setting. Hiking 20 miles in about 36 hours was pretty tough this early in the season when I’m not in peak physical condition. That said, I’m glad we went and saw this lovely place!

Adventures in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks

My sis and I recently spent a week in SE Utah. She had been to the area twice before but this was my first time. WOW. What an amazing place!! Here’s a teaser:

Day 1: Driving

I couldn’t get off work until 5:00 because so many of my coworkers were away at a conference that day, so we didn’t hit the road until about 6:30. We made it as far as Hilgard Junction State Park, where we camped for the night. Here we are in Portland ready to get the heck out of dodge! 😀

Day 2: More Driving

HJSP is at a higher elevation and it got so cold overnight that the tent had frost on it in the morning. BRRRR!

We quickly ate, packed up, and left at 7:15 to begin the LONG LONG drive (750 miles) to Moab, where we hoped to be by bedtime. Not much to note about this drive, except the amusing stop at a gas station that was in the middle of nowhere in Idaho. They even say as much in the sign in their window!

They apparently get a kick out of entertaining the few people who stop here:

When we got to Moab at 9:30 that Friday night we were amazed to find the town absolutely hopping. The sidewalks were full, the streets were full, and all the hotels had “no vacancy” signs. Our plan had been to head to Sand Flats, the largest BLM campground in the area. But we saw a sign on the road to the campground that said it was all full. Crap.

We got out the map and started looking for alternatives. We also got on our phones and discovered that there was a huge hot rod show going on in Moab that weekend, which explained all the crowds. There are quite a few BLM campgrounds around Moab, but most of them are pretty small. We could easily have spent hours visiting all the campgrounds looking for a vacancy. Considering the beautiful weekend forecast and the hot rod show, we had a hunch that our search would be in vain. Fortunately we hit a stroke of luck and the awesome guy at the hostel in town let us pitch our tent outside the hostel. We clearly weren’t the only people who got skunked on camping accommodations. Here was the view the next morning (and there are more tents you can’t see in this photo!):

Day 3: Arches National Park

Our first day in the area was spent at Arches National Park. The park has over 2,000 known arches (and probably more that haven’t yet been documented). They range in size from a three-foot opening to the largest (Landscape Arch) at 306 feet from base to base. In a nutshell, the arches form because of erosion, but there’s a lot more to it than that, which you can read about here.

We decided to do the Devil’s Garden hike, where we ended up seeing quite of the few of the features for which the park is named.

On the drive to the trailhead we were treated to some of the weird and awesome rock formations that fill the park:

We got to the trailhead, snagged a parking spot (the place was really filling up) and hit the trail.

Tunnel Arch:

Pine Tree Arch (can you see tiny Deb standing under the arch?):

Next up was Landscape Arch:

Does that one look a little thin to you? It is. In fact, in 1991 a big slab of the arch fell off. It was caught on video, which we saw at the park visitor center. The only copy of this video I found online is not the best quality, but you get the idea: http://youtu.be/4iSWGd3w1nw?t=1m53s Scary! Since that time the trail that goes up under the arch has been closed for obvious safety reasons.

After Landscape Arch the trail got more primitive and I had my first taste of slickrock hiking. The section in the picture below doesn’t look hard, but it was steeper than it looks and the afternoon was getting hot!

A side trail took us to Partition Arch:

And Navajo Arch (this was one arch where I couldn’t get a people-free shot; there were HUNDREDS of people doing this hike the same day as we were):

The trail took us up atop a big rock fin where we could see all around us. Cool!

There were many spots along the trail where we could see the nearby snow capped La Sal Mountains. The tallest peak in those mountains is 12,721 feet and the range was visible from MANY places in the Moab area:

This rock formation is called Dark Angel and reminded me of Stein’s Pillar in the Ochoco National Forest:

It’s hard to tell from this picture, but there is a lower arch and a larger upper arch here. Appropriately this one is called Double O Arch:

At this point in the hike you have a choice. You can return the way you came two miles to the trailhead or take a longer route back via a two-mile “primitive loop.” We decided to take this loop. I’m guessing the reason that it’s considered “primitive” is because there is a lot of up-and-down slickrock hiking and long stretches of sand, which – if you’ve ever walked very long on the beach – you know is very tiring to hike through.

Along the way a side trail led to Private Arch:

Locals and rangers told us that they had been having a cool spring and the desert wildflowers were late this year. We did see some paintbrush in bloom, though. That cool-looking plant next to it is yucca.

We were both carrying three liters of water, but Deb ran out about 30 minutes before the trailhead and I ran out about 10 minutes before. Fortunately there’s a water spiggot at the trailhead. Ah, refreshing! The parking lot, by the way, was overflowing with cars. Officially the park staff tell you to “try back later” if the trailhead you need is full, but I wonder how much they enforce that.

The eight-mile hike took 5.5 hours including all the stops and side trails. It ended up being more challenging than I thought it would be. This early in the year my body isn’t used to hiking at high elevations yet, nor was I used to the heat.

On the way back to Moab we stopped to see the most famous landmark in the park (maybe the most famous landmark in the whole state): Delicate Arch. There are three ways to see it: a three-mile round-trip hike to the base, a 1.5-mile round-trip hike to a viewpoint that gets you pretty close but not all the way, and a 30-second walk from the parking lot to a distant viewpoint, which is the one we opted for. I would have liked to get closer to this beautiful icon, but I was just too hot and tired for any more hiking this day.

Day 4: Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky District

After two nights camped out at the hostel we packed up Sunday morning and moved closer to Canyonlands. We were visiting the Island in the Sky District that day, which only has one small campground. We decided to try for nearby Dead Horse Point State Park and even though it was a Sunday morning we grabbed the last available campsite that day. Whew! Campsite reserved we headed into Canyonlands to do the six mile Neck Springs loop hike.

As with the day before, the views began immediately:

Instead of the weird rock formations and arches we saw the day before, this time we were hiking in and out of little canyons:

Red sandstone walls towered above us:

We saw lots and lots of cryptobiotic soil, which is a living crust of algae, fungi, lichens, and other biological material It stabilizes the sand and dirt so it doesn’t blow away. It’s a big no-no to step on it because it can take up to 100 years for it regenerate back to its former state. Here’s a close-up shot:

And a wider shot:

One of many birds we saw while in Utah. My sister is a bird nerd and loves identifying birds with her new iBird Pro app.

About halfway through the loop we reached a viewpoint looking west or northwest (we weren’t quite sure). What an amazing landscape!

We sat at this spot for about 45 minutes eating snacks, enjoying the scenery, and relaxing. We had the place all to ourselves. In fact, we didn’t see any other hikers on this entire trail, which was a welcome change from the day before.

We finally tore ourselves away and continued the hike. A short while later we had a view down into a canyon and an arch. We were startled to noticed that the tumble of rocks inside sort of resembled a sitting person with their arms wrapped around their knees. Weird!

Interesting rock formation. Reminds me of something….

The “trail” out of the canyon was a scramble up the rock. Unused to the heat and the high elevation I found this far more challenging than Deb did!

I made it!

Now we were almost directly above a part of the trail from the first half of the loop and we could see the trail far below.

The last part of the trail back to the TH was alongside the road and we passed an astonishing viewpoint of the Shafer Trail Road dropping 1,400 feet into the canyon. I had to use my wide angle lens to get this all in. This road connects up with the White Rim Road, a 100-mile-long 4WD road through the park. These 4WD roads are SUPER popular in the greater Moab area. There are lots and lots of them from what I hear, but I was surprised to find one in a national park.

After the hike we went exploring a bit before heading back to the campground. We visited beautiful Mesa Arch, which is super popular with photographers at sunrise. I didn’t bother trying to go there for that since there is room for about two and a half tripods to get the good vantage point.

We visited the Green River Overlook, where we could see the distant snaking Green Giver and the appropriately named White Rim:

And we visited Grand View Point Overlook, which is the end of the road for the Island in the Sky District of the park. Although the southern Needles District is quite close as the crow flies, it requires an hour of driving from here, up and out of this section, down through Moab, and around down to the south.

There were other viewpoints to see but it was hot and we were tired so we headed to the campground and found our site. I’ve never camped anywhere where the weather gets so hot and there are no trees for shade so the picnic tables have roofs! 😆

For sunset we headed to the overlook at the end of the road in Dead Horse Point State Park. (By the way, the park gets its name from a legend about how cowboys would herd wild mustangs out at the point. They fenced off the neck with branches and brush creating a natural corral. They chose the horses they wanted and left the rest out on the waterless point where they died of thirst. Sheesh, what a story!)

Anyway, the viewpoint was stunning! I was really glad we came out here and had good conditions. 😀

Back at our campsite we hung out at the end of our “driveway” and watched the stars for awhile. The stars out here were AWESOME. There’s something supremely satisfying about stargazing with a good companion after a day spent enjoying the outdoors.

Day 5: Canyonlands National Park – Needles District

In the morning we packed up and headed south to the Needles District. On the long access road into this part of the park we passed Newspaper Rock and stopped to check it out. This cool spot is a State Historic Monument and it is a rock face covered in hundreds of different petroglyphs, some as old as 2,000 years! It is unknown why there is a high concentration of petroglyphs here or what messages the native people were trying to convey, but in any case it’s pretty neat to see.

The Needles District only has one non-reservable campground which we didn’t even try to get a site at. Having been burned on the campground situation once already this trip we had called ahead and made reservations at the Needles Outpost, a private campground just outside the park’s boundaries. They have a little general store, water, and showers. Many of the campsites don’t have shade, but since we had a tent we were given a shady spot. Hooray!

After pitching our tent and weighing it down so it wouldn’t blow away we headed off into the park. Our original plan for this day was to do the long 11-mile Chesler Park trail. But since we were starting a backpacking trip the next day and since it would be a hot difficult hike we decided against it. Plus there is NO water along the hike, which meant we’d have to carry lots with us. Maybe next time!

Our first stop was the Roadside Ruin trail, a 0.3-mile loop that brought us to an old Puebloan granary which the native people used for grain storage. It is thought to have been built sometime between AD 1270 and 1295.

We drove to the end of the road, which is where the trailhead for the Confluence Overlook Trail is located. We didn’t hike that trail but the scenery around the trailhead was very pretty.

Driving back from road’s end we stopped and did the 0.6-mile Pothole Point loop. The name comes from the many depressions that have formed along the surface of the slickrock. You can kind of see them in this photo:

This trail also had very nice views of the surrounding landscape:

To the south are the strange rock formations for which the Needles District is named. You get an up-close view of these if you do the Chesler Park hike.

And there are those snow-capped La Sal Mountains again:

We stopped at a roadside viewpoint for Wooden Shoe Arch. Sure enough it looks like a wooden shoe!

Our last stop was the 0.6-mile Cave Springs loop where we saw an old cowboy camp that was used back in the days when cattle had to be moved from range to range. Cowboys lived in isolated camps like this from the 1890s to 1975, when ranching here ended.

Cave Springs is tucked back in an alcove (nice and cool!) and is barely more than a trickle.

The cave wall here had some old Indian pictographs and handprints:

The trail hopped up onto the plateau above via two separate ladders. Fun!

The views up there were really nice!

Here’s a panorama (click to see a bigger version):

After that little jaunt we headed back to the campground to relax in the shade and enjoy the view from our site.

After dinner we turned and looked the other direction for sunset, which didn’t materialize into much but was still nice.

Soon after that the stars came out. SO. MANY. STARS. 😀 😀

Day 6: Off to go backpacking!

We awoke to another beautiful morning.

Then we packed up the car and headed south for three days and two nights of backpacking through Grand Gulch. (That report will be coming soon!)

I cannot recommend this area highly enough. It is crazy beautiful! Canyonlands has lots of trails that we didn’t have time to explore, and there were even some spots in Arches that we didn’t get to see. I look forward to going back. Also, although Moab was pretty crazy that first weekend, it’s a pretty cool little town. The only downside to this area is getting there. It’s a LONG drive from Portland and unless you’re a really hardy road-tripper you can’t do it all in one day, which means four days of your trip are eaten up with driving there and back. But it’s definitely worth it!

I want to go back to those two parks, but I was also drooling over the photos and descriptions of Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase Escalante, Bryce, and Zion in my guidebook. There is SO much more to explore!

Adventures in California

In October I was lucky enough to attend a library conference in Monterey, California and spend some time exploring the area. Here’s how my trip went.

 

San Francisco

Tiled Steps
This very cool mosaic on a staircase is known as the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.

Ghostly trees
A typical foggy morning in San Francisco. Fortunately the fog burned off around lunchtime.

Sutro Baths
The remains of the Sutro Baths.

Fort Mason
Looking down on the Fort Mason Center, an old military fort that has been converted into shops and restaurants.

Wind arrows
This is part of the fabulous Outdoor Exploratorium at Fort Mason. These are wind arrows and demonstrate how even a slight change in altitude can mean a difference in the direction the wind is blowing.

Wave Organ
The Wave Organ, which allows you to hear underwater “music” thanks to submerged pipes.

Yoda
A Yoda fountain in the Presidio.

The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Fort Point.

San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Mountain View

Winchester Mystery House
The Winchester Mystery House, which is very cool but very overpriced.

Rocky Dogs
I loved this sculpture in downtown Santa Cruz. It’s called “Rocky Dogs” by Michael Eckerman.

Hollerith Electric Tabulating System replica
Hollerith Electric Tabulating System replica at the Computer History Museum. The 60 million cards punched in the 1890 census were fed manually into machines like this for processing. The dials counted the number of cards with holes in a particular position. The sorter on the right would be activated by certain hold combinations, allowing detailed statistics to be generated. We’ve come a long way since then!

Early calculators
Early calculators from the 1970s at the Computer History Museum.


A RAMAC actuator and disk stack from 1956 at the Computer History Museum. This is the heart of the world’s first disk drive. It has 50 24″ disks that spin at 1,200 RPM and hold 5 million characters of information.

Babbage Difference Engine
Charles Babbage (1791-1871) was an English mathematician who came up with a design for a mechanical calculating engine. He never managed to build one in his lifetime, but this Engine No. 2 was built in 2008 at the Science Museum in London. Every day the Computer History Museum demonstrates how it works.

 

Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel

Harbor
The harbor in Monterey, as seen from the public wharf.

Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey.

Custom House
The Custom House, built around 1821 by the Mexican government, is California’s first historic landmark and its oldest public building. It is where the first American Flag was raised on July 7, 1846, declaring California part of the United States. It is now party of the Monterey State Historic Park.

California's First Theare
This building was built by English seaman Jack Swan in 1846-47 as a lodging house and tavern for sailors. He built the wood portion of the building in about 1845. He added the adobe portion in 1847, as the actual theater. It is now part of the Monterey State Historic Park.

Pacific House Museum
The Pacific House Museum is part of the Monterey State Historic Park and has some very nice exhibits inside that tell the history of this area.

Coral reef
The very cool Coral Reef exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Sea nettles
The jellyfish were completely mesmerizing!

Say what??
Hello there!

DSC_0327b
Peering into the underwater world of the kelp forest.

Anchovies
The anchovies swim in circles over and over and over in this circular tank.

Monterey Public Library
No vacation is complete without visiting the local public library! 🙂

Cute cove
A cute little cove at Fanshell Overlook along 17-Mile Drive.

Lone Cypress
The famous Lone Cypress tree along 17-Mile Drive. This tree is about 250 years old.

Carmel Sunset
Sunset at Carmel River State Beach.

Footprints
Footprints in the sand at Carmel River State Beach.

Sunset magic
Sunset at the Asilomar State Marine Preserve near Pacific Grove.

Two birds and a sunset
Another beautiful evening at the Asilomar State Marine Preserve near Pacific Grove.

Pelicans
While watching sunset, flocks of pelicans kept gliding overhead. COOL!

Point Pinos Lighthouse
The Point Pinos Lighthouse, the only lighthouse I’ve ever seen that is surrounded by a golf course.

Big Sur

Sea Lion Cove
Sea Lion Cove at Point Lobos State Preserve.

DSC_0057
Beautiful little China Cove at Point Lobos State Preserve.

Kelp
The top of a kelp forest as seen at Point Lobos State Preserve. Doesn’t look like much on the surface, but after seeing what it looks like underwater at the Monterey Bay Aquarium the day before I’ll never look at kelp the same way again.

Bixby Creek Bridge
714-foot-long Bixby Creek Bridge on Highway 1.

Hurricane Point
Looking north up the California coast from the appropriately-named Hurricane Point (it was very windy).

McWay Falls
McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The waterfall used to plunge right into the ocean because there never used to be a beach here, but a landslide north of here in 1983 sent lots of dirt into the ocean and much of it washed up here.

Redwood
Redwood trees at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

Force of the ocean
Waves pour through one of the keyholes in the rocks at Pfeiffer Beach.

Sunburst
Sunset at Pfeiffer Beach.

Golden hour
A beautiful evening at Pfeiffer Beach.

Carmel shops
The very touristy town of Carmel looks like something straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

A house in Carmel
A house in Carmel.

Carmel Mission
The chapel at the Carmel Mission, which was established by Padre Junipero Serra in 1770.

Ocean blue
A beautiful morning along the Monterey State Beach.

Road Trip: Southeast Oregon

My sis had a week off between her old job and new job so we headed to southeast Oregon for a vacation.

Day 1: Portland to Frenchglen
We left Portland and began the long 7 hour, 330 mile drive down to Frenchglen. We were visiting the wildlife refuge the next day, but the bird-watching began sooner than we thought it would. At a lunch stop along the Deschutes River we watched two woodpeckers mating and then making a nest in the tree. Awesome!

Just before reading Frenchglen we stopped along Highway 205 to admire the view out over the wildlife refuge to snowy Steens Mountain beyond.

We reached Page Springs Campground about 7:30, set up our tent, ate dinner, and headed to bed.

Day 2: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
While eating breakfast at the campground we noticed a cute little wren making a nest in a tree right in the middle of our campsite. Breakfast entertainment!

Here’s a video of the nest-building: http://youtu.be/VPVULWVQZ94

Our first stop of the day was at the P Ranch Long Barn. In the late 1800s, Peter French established a huge ranch in this area. His practices of adding land to his holdings weren’t always met favorably by the locals, one of whom ended up shooting French dead in 1897. (Read the whole story here.) Anyway, this barn, which is well over 100 years old, was restored in 2008 and you can wander in and look around. There are lots of swallows nesting up in the rafters.

This is also where the River Trail begins. It’s a short and pretty hike along the shores of of the Donner und Blitzen River. In addition to seeing a number of birds we were attacked by mosquitoes. 🙁

There’s also a long-abandoned lookout tower. I bet the views up there are pretty sweet, but clearly no one has gone up there in quite some time as the lowest flight of stairs is completely overgrown with vegetation.

Our next stop was the Frenchglen Mercantile, where a half tank of gas for my Subaru Outback cost $38. Cash only.

We also took a gander at the historic Frenchglen Hotel, which is now run by Oregon State Parks and where you can stay the night and/or get a hot meal (vegetarians need not apply).

This service station hasn’t been in service for quite some time.

On to the Peter French Round Barn, which Peter French used to train horses back when all this land was part of his ranch. There was a bird’s nest with baby birds in it, way up in the rafters.

The round barn is way out in the middle of nowhere, but definitely worth a visit. The barn is cool, but the visitor’s center is amazing, considering the remote location. They have some historical displays, plus a huge impressive gift shop and book store, and it’s not just a bunch of kitschy crap. They also sell beer, wine, and cold drinks, which you can enjoy in nice cushy chairs in the center of the building or take away with you.

And then on to the headquarters for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These buildings were built by the CCC in the 1930s, and one of the buildings contains a small museum with several hundred mounted/stuffed birds. They also have a the tiny gift shop and provid guided bird walks. We sat on a bench with a view towards the lake, watching and listening to the many many birds.

Headquarters buildings below with Malheur Lake off in the distance:

Lookout tower near headquarters, with bottom staircase removed:

Bird feeder at headquarters:

Then we drove around doing some bird-watching, driving on Ruh Red Road and then following the self-guided auto tour down the Center Patrol Road. While paused at the side of the road observing birds, another car drove slowly past and the driver paused to exchange a few words with us. It was his second day of bird-watching and he had noted over 100 different species of birds in two days. He was very relaxed and laid-back, finding his bird zen out here at the refuge.

Pelican:

White egret:

Ducks, I think:

Day 3: Hiking along the Donner und Blitzen River
The hike I really wanted to do this day, along the Little Blitzen River, was inaccessible because the trailhead is 20 miles up the Steens Mountain Loop Road, which is still gated down at the highway. (Which doesn’t make sense to me, because the TH for this hike is 4,000 feet lower than the Steens summit and wouldn’t have had any snow.) The BLM office told us we could start at our campground and hike four miles south along the DB River, so that’s what we did. This turned out to be a TOUGH hike. There wasn’t a lot of elevation change since we were near the river the whole time, but there wasn’t much of a trail. We had to clamber up/over/around rocks, traverse rock slides, and push our way through brush. I couldn’t convert my hiking pants to shorts because of the brush, which caused me to overheat. I had left my poles at the campsite (DUMB), there was virtually no shade for the whole hike, and I went through my three liters of water so fast that I had to ration it for the last half of the hike. But despite all that, the scenery was quite pretty.

(By the way, the river got its name in 1864 when Col. George B. Currey crossed it during a thunderstorm. He gave it the German name for “thunder and lightning.”)

Some of the rare spots where we had a trail:

Campsite (If you’re ever looking for a spring backpacking destination, here you go. We saw a number of campsites scattered along our route.)

See the trail? No? That’s because there isn’t one.

This sure is a pretty river canyon, though:

We saw some scattered balsamroot in bloom:

The “trail” ends at a big flat area where Fish Creek flows into the river. We went down to the shore and soaked our feet to cool off on this very warm day. Oh that felt good!

I struggled along on the hike back, looking forward to our shady campsite and my soft sleeping bag. When we got back, I had Deb fill up our water jug and dump it on my head. AWESOME! (It’s hard to tell here, but I’m drenched.)

That evening after dinner we finished the last part of the auto tour that we hadn’t had time for the day before. It was a beautiful evening, full of birdsong and croaking frogs (and mosquitoes).

Day 4: Fields and the Alvord Desert
We packed up and sadly bid adieu to the lovely campground, then headed south to Fields. It’s famous for it’s milkshakes, so I got a root beer milkshake. And yeah, it was pretty fantastic. While I ate, we watched the activity of people coming and going for gas and milkshakes and thought to ourselves that this tiny little outpost was busier than the whole big town of Burns, which we had driven through on Monday and which had seemed like a ghost town.

Then it was on up the east side of Steens Mountain to the Alvord Desert.

The Alvord Hot Springs are on private land owned by the Alvord Ranch, who used to charge admission, but don’t anymore. There are two side-by-side pools, one of which has walls and the other is completely open. It was an overcast day and the wind had really picked up, so we stayed in the water for two hours, knowing we’d be cold once we got out into the bad weather.

We headed over to check out Mickey Hot Springs too. Mickey has some REALLY hot water, like bubbling boiling water. There is apparently a bathtub-sized pool suitable for soaking, but we never found it.

We set up camp at Mann Lake that evening, a “campground” that’s so primitive it’s free. No water, no picnic tables, no shelter/shade:

Without a table, we had to improvise when we made dinner:

After a VERY windy day with some rain, evening was calm and dry, thankfully, and we built ourselves a campfire. Our neighbors were all in RVs. They had noisy generators and one of them even had a satellite dish! If you need 100 TV channels, why not just stay home?

Notice the position of the car in relation to the tent. This was our attempt at blocking the wind overnight. It didn’t work.

Day 5: Pike Creek Hike
After a long rough night (the wind buffeted the tent from 1am on and at one point two of the four tent stakes came out), morning was beautiful and sunny. (And noisy. The generators were fired up first thing.)

After breaking camp we drove down to the Alvord Desert to walk on the cracked dry earth.
Playa

There’s not much in the way of hiking on the east side of Steens, but the trail up Pike Creek, which Sullivan describes in his book, sounded nice. The hike follows an old mining road 1.4 miles up the canyon of Pike Creek and the scenery is quite lovely.

We could see the Alvord Desert behind us:

And we also saw the entrance to the old uranium mine, whose access road we had been hiking on. The entrance has bars across it so people can’t go in.

Deb climbed up there to take a peek through the bars. Spooky.

The road ends at a certain point, but there’s a rough boot path that keeps going further up with more views. My ankle was bothering me, but Deb kept going a little further and said the views up there were indeed nice.

Before leaving the area we returned to the hot springs for one last soak. A group of five men who were cyclists were already there, and listening to them banter back and forth was totally entertaining.

We had debated where to go after leaving the Alvord Desert. Should we go west to the Fort Rock area, or east to the Owhyee River area? Since we were already so far east, we decided to keep going and set our sights on Leslie Gulch. We thought it would take about two hours to get there. It took three. Oh well.

We camped at Succor Creek State Recreation Area. We were astonished at how busy this place was when we showed up. People with tents and RVs had staked out spots all over the place, in an area that wasn’t all that large. Fortunately we found ourselves a spot, and none too soon since people kept showing up as the evening went along.

Succor Creek:

Looking down on the camping area from the road:

Once again we had no picnic table. Good old Subaru to the rescue again.

The ground works too:

That night I took a shot of the stars above us. The stars in this corner of the world are AMAZING.

Day 6: Leslie Gulch
Despite all the people camped around us, it was a surprisingly quiet night. They were mostly families, so I’m sure that helped. In the morning we noticed that a bunch of people from the Canyon Country ATV Club were gathering there and heading out into the hills to pick up trash. Thanks guys!

This is one cool place. A winding road travels the narrow canyon of Leslie Gulch and there are several side gulches that you can hike up and explore, which is what we did.

Our first stop was Dago Gulch, where, despite all the signs forbidding camping, we saw two different parties camped out there. We followed a road up Dago Gulch 0.8 mi until we reached a gate at private property and had to turn around.

Driving to our next stop we saw a trio of bighorn sheep up on the hill:

The trail up Juniper Gulch follows a dry wash for about 0.8mi, ending in a a big amphitheater of rocks. Way cool.

And lastly we visited Timber Gulch, which was a bit more of a challenge since the dry wash we hiked up was a lot more choked with sagebrush and boulders than Juniper Gulch had been. the afternoon was getting warm and there was little shade, so when we did find a bit of shade I had to stop and take a long rest to keep from overheating.

A great day!

After all the hot shadeless hiking we wanted to cool off at the reservoir, which is at the western end of Leslie Gulch. Alas, there is no day use area here, just a boat ramp. So we sat off to the side of the ramp, out of the way, and dabbled our feet in the cool water before heading back.

Back at the campground we found that 75% of our neighbors from the previous night had left. We did some exploring and discovered that the real campsites were actually across the creek. Shade, picnic tables, and proper campfire pits. Nobody was camped over there since the sites were walk-in only.
Succor Creek

Day 7: One last hot springs
Before the LONG drive home on Sunday we made one last stop, at Snively Hot Springs. The hot creek flows into the Owyhee River where a rock-lined pool contains the warm water. The setting was really lovely and it was hard to tear ourselves away to spend the next seven hours in the car.

We had a really fun time on this trip and got to seem cool and different scenery from the usual forests-and-mountains scenery where we spend the majority of our outdoor time. If you can make it to the SE corner of our lovely state, I recommend it!