Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, CA)

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Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, October 2019

Throughout much of San Francisco’s history, ships seeking to enter the Bay Area flirted with disaster: jagged rocks, shallow beds, dense fog, and nasty waves left hundreds of vessels in the 19th and 20th centuries capsized, torn apart, and buried at the ocean floor. As thousands of gold prospectors—from all over the world—flocked to San Francisco after 1848, the tumultuous sea passage was unsustainable: something had to be done. As a partial fix, the city built a series of lighthouses, including a prominent guiding light at Point Bonita, situated at the entryway to the Golden Gate from the vast Pacific Ocean. The lighthouse was rebuilt and improved several times in the decades that followed—and yet still failed to prevent many fatal maritime disasters. Only with the invention of modern technology and an advanced traffic monitoring system has the risk to ships significantly declined, yet reminders of yesteryear remain at places like Point Bonita Lighthouse, which remains standing today.

The lighthouse is now administered as part of the Marin Headlands unit in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the most visited National Park Service site in the country in 2018. A mostly paved/well-graveled trail offers access to the lighthouse, which is open three days a week (Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) from 12:30-3:30pm.

Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail hike information Marin Headlands GGNRA

Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail map PDF

Map of Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area; created using AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The Point Bonita Trail begins at the Bonita Lighthouse Parking Area, situated roughly four miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Note: Along the way, stop by the Marin Headlands Visitor Center for information.) There is, however, very limited parking at Bonita Lighthouse. Expect to have to find a spot instead, back up Field Road about 3/10 mile, at Battery Alexander Parking Area, which is considerably more spacious. (Note: From here there is a 3/10-mile connector trail that follows the road down to the Bonita parking area.) This area was previously part of Fort Barry, a former Army base active during the first half of the 20th century. The army’s primary purpose here was coastal defense, lining the cliffs of the Marin Headlands with artillery batteries that, fortunately, never saw action during World War I or II.

Starting at the information sign for the Point Bonita Trail, hikers are immediately greeted with stunning views (on a clear day, of course) of San Francisco, Hawk Hill (905’), and the Golden Gate Bridge, the iconic structure connecting the city to the Marin Peninsula. The path begins as a wide, fully-paved path that is wheelchair-accessible. Sporadic benches provide a chance to sit down to take in the eastward vistas.

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View of Hawk Hill, Bonita Cove, and Golden Gate Bridge, with San Francisco beyond

As the route bends westward at 1/10 mile, the rest of the Point Bonita Peninsula comes into view: a series of jagged rocks with near-vertical cliff faces. The continuing path is visible down below as it enters a man-made tunnel in the rock: this is your route to the lighthouse. As the trail descends, it curves around Point Bonita Cove, an excellent place to spot the Bay Area’s famed harbor seals and California sea lions, who gather here in bunches at certain times of year. To the west (the opposite direction), the vast Pacific Ocean is visible in all its splendor.

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Heading down the Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail

After the relatively steep descent, the trail crosses a bridge and enters a short but dark tunnel, after which the pavement ends, replaced by crushed gravel. Upon passing under a set of power lines, hikers will get their first views of the Point Bonita Lighthouse on the right. First constructed in 1855, the lighthouse was moved to its current location in 1877.

It’s a short walk from here to the suspension bridge that provides passage over choppy waters to the lighthouse. (Note: This area is only open Saturday-Monday from 12:30-3:30pm.) At this beacon on the sea, the end of the half-mile trail, visitors can peer into the Fresnel lens and read about the history of the lighthouse and sea navigation in the Bay Area. And vistas, of course, are sublime, especially as the sun begins to set over the Pacific Ocean and waves crash against the towering cliffs, which stretch off to the horizon to the north. Although it can be crowded, detracting slightly from the scenery, Point Bonita offers one of the best panoramas in the area.

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Pacific Ocean views from the Point Bonita Lighthouse

Once you’re ready, head back the way you came, this time climbing uphill to regain the 75 feet in elevation shed on the route to the lighthouse. Expect to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour at this spectacular sight, a terrific blend of natural ruggedness and Bay Area human history.

Posted in California, Easy Hikes, Golden Gate National Recreation Area | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Purisima Creek Redwoods Loop (Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, CA)

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Purisima Creek Trail, Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, August 2019

The San Francisco Bay Area in northern California is a fantastic launching point for redwood hunters, with accessible groves of these mesmerizing trees within an hour and a half both north and south of the Golden Gate. While the largest groves lie further north, the Santa Cruz Mountains between the Bay Area and Santa Cruz offer an ample selection of redwood hikes. Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Reserve, a regional park, is one of the closest places to encounter impressive stands of second-growth redwoods, as well as sweeping views across the chaparral hillsides that descend to the Pacific Ocean. The 10.5-mile, full-day jaunt described below hits the highlights of the park, starting high in the oak/bay forest before dropping down through coastal scrub and returning via the redwood-studded Purisima Creek and Craig Britton Trails.

Purisima Creek Redwoods loop hike information

Purisima Creek Redwoods loop hike map

Map of Purisima Creek Redwoods Loop, Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve; map courtesy of https://www.openspace.org/preserves/purisima-creek-redwoods

The hike

The 10.5-mile circuit described here begins and ends at the North Ridge Trailhead along Skyline Boulevard because of its relative proximity to San Francisco and the Silicon Valley suburbs, but it is also possible to start at the Higgins Road Trailhead at the end of Purisima Creek Road, coming in from the coast along Highway 1. Coming from the city or San Mateo, follow Interstate 280 to exit 34, then take Route 35 (Skyline Boulevard) for 7.3 miles to the North Ridge Trailhead at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Reserve. The parking area is relatively large, and good signage at the trailhead provides a map and information about the park.

North Ridge and Whittemore Gulch (3.8 miles)

Heading off down the initial fire road, past the bathrooms on the right, hikers are immediately confronted with a choice: stay straight on the steep but straight road—open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders—or bear right on the narrower, hikers-only track. Hikers craving speed can continue straight, but those up for a more natural feel should stay right on the single-track path.

The winding hikers-only trail weaves gradually down a woody hillside, studded with moss-laden oaks and bay trees that tower above. At 2/10 mile, hikers will get their first views of the hike: a look north, across Arroyo Leon, to Cypress Ridge, which is located outside the park on private property. From here, the single-track snakes back to within view of the fire road before cutting away again, descending a set of mild switchbacks.

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View north to Cypress Ridge from the side trail on North Ridge

At 1/2 mile, this pleasant diversion ends at a four-way route junction. The fire road comes in from the left, while the Harkins Ridge Trail begins a sharp descent straight ahead. (Note: The latter will be your return route later on.) Instead, take a right on the wide North Ridge Trail, which weaves gradually through a conifer woodland during its westward course.

Follow the largely broad, flat, and easy North Ridge Trail for a half-mile, reaching the junction with the narrower Whittemore Gulch Trail. This smaller track will be your guide for the majority of the descent to Purisima Creek; take a left and follow it through the wooden hiker’s gate.

For the first 1/3 mile, the Whittemore Gulch Trail closely follows the trace of the continuing North Ridge Trail, situated slightly downhill on the right. At 1.2 miles, hikers will get their first views toward the distant Pacific Ocean: the ravine ahead of you is the trail’s namesake, bounded to the north by McGovern Ridge. On fogless days (a rarity), it is possible to view the ocean. It’s also possible to spot a section of the Harkins Ridge Trail on the hillside to the south. (Note: You will be on this trail on the return journey.)

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View down Whittemore Gulch and North Ridge toward the ocean

After a left-hand switchback, the trail descends a sun-soaked slope through low shrubs to another junction at 1.6 miles. A connector trail heads right from here to the North Ridge Trail again; instead, stay left on the path to Whittemore Gulch. (Note: Follow signs to “Higgins Purisima Parking 2.2 miles.”) After another sunny stretch, the trail drops into the shade, where you will spend the next several miles.

At 1.8 miles, the Whittemore Gulch Trail enters a section best described as a series of “wiggles”: sharp and frequent switchbacks that shed more than 200 feet in elevation in about 1/3 mile. Amid the vegetation, one will begin to notice the first small redwood groves—second-growth trees that are smaller than their old-growth cousins but nonetheless still alluring. (Note: Large stumps can be spotted occasionally, the remnants of old-growth redwoods that used to populate this area.)

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Redwoods just after crossing Whittemore Gulch

The wiggles end around 2.2 miles, after which the trail bears west, still well above the stream that carved Whittemore Gulch and gives life to the increasingly prominent redwoods. At 2.7 miles, the trail cuts right abruptly, then descends to cross the trickling creek. The rest of the Whittemore Gulch Trail remains on the south bank.

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Descending through Whittemore Gulch

As the hike progresses, hikers encounter increasingly dense patches of towering redwoods, some so high and thin that they sway in the wind. Ferns and other dense greenery form a robust undergrowth, adding to the mystical quality of the valley. The trail descends more than 300 feet in elevation but does so gradually over the course of a mile, allowing hikers to admire the bucolic setting.

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Thin redwoods in Whittemore Gulch

By 3.7 miles, the Whittemore Gulch Trail finally descends to streamside, which boasts an impressive stand of redwoods, the largest seen yet. From here it is a short walk, out of the wooden entry gate, to the next junction. Here the Harkins Ridge Trail bears left, while a bridge leads right. Traverse the bridge over Purisima Creek, then stay left at the parking area—this is the Higgins Trailhead area, the lowest point of the hike.

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Redwoods near the end of the Whittemore Gulch Trail

Purisima Creek Trail (2.6 miles)

It turns out the redwoods of the Whittemore Gulch Trail were only an appetizer. The towering trees along the Purisima Creek Trail are larger, denser, and more picturesque than anything found in Whittemore Gulch. Almost immediately, hikers are struck by the magnificent beauty: the initial patch—dubbed the Ludemann-Gunther Family Grove—includes trunks so large that it is hard to believe these trees are second-growth, born after an initial period of logging that decimated the area.

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Redwoods at the start of the Purisima Creek Trail

After this opening grove, a tributary of Purisima Creek comes in from the right. The next cluster of trees is the Cheney-Hart Grove on the left. Here the ripping creek adds to the charm of the densely-packed redwoods.

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Passing the Cheney-Hart Grove along the Purisima Creek Trail

Around a minute further, hikers reach the Nancy C. Menard Memorial Grove, where it is possible to cross the creek to the other side. Each grove appears more alluring than the last, inviting visitors to stop to admire the scenery.

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Redwoods in the Michael S. Osborn Memorial Grove

After crossing a second tributary at 4.2 miles, the path follows a fern-laced hillside on the right. Michael S. Osborn Memorial Grove is the next redwood patch of note. The trees here are some of the most impressive in the valley.

At 4.5 miles, a sign marks the Thomas Judson Grove on the right—a reminder that redwoods need not be clustered right along the water. The trees stretch up the hillside as far as the eye can see. Just beyond, a spur leads left to the banks of Purisima Creek, where there is a small cascade. At about the hike’s 5-mile mark, there is another named section on the left: the Harold and Nina Osborne Memorial Grove.

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Hiking along the Purisima Creek Trail

Beyond this point, the redwoods get smaller but no less frequent. Stay left at the trail junction at the Osborne Grove, where the Borden Hatch Mill Trail heads up the slope on the right. Stay left again about 250 yards later, where the Grabtown Gulch Trail too veers off to the south. At 5.2 miles, the Purisima Creek Trail crosses a wooden bridge to the north side.

In the subsequent mile, the incline of the ascent increases and the valley gradually narrows. Dense stands of redwoods dot the opposite slope, but they tend to be small and thin. There is a nice grove again at the 6-mile mark, where the trail crosses the creek again to the south bank.

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Smaller grove in Purisima Creek Valley

At 6.2 mile, a social trail bears off to the right into another small grove of redwoods, and the main trail crosses Purisima Creek for a final time. (Note: This time the water is routed through an underground pipe.) After several miles of relatively mild incline, the Purisima Creek Trail steepens considerably as it climbs back westward. At 6.5 miles, hikers reach another junction: this time, leave the Purisima Creek track behind, instead bearing left on the Craig Britton Trail.

Craig Britton and Harkins Ridge (5.0 miles)

The Craig Britton Trail, named for a longtime steward of the area’s public lands, continues the hike’s near-constant scenery despite its relative distance from the largest redwoods. Staying well above the creek, the trail traces northward to clear a beautiful side ravine, then continues northwest at a mild incline to emerge out of the forest and back into the brushy chaparral. Along the way, there is no shortage of appealing redwood patches, surprisingly large considering their distance well above the valley floor.

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Crossing a stream on the Craig Britton Trail

After clearing a large ravine in Soda Gulch, the trail begins to leave the forest behind at about 8.4 miles. Redwood views are replaced with overlooks across the tree-lined valley to the south. At 8.5 miles, the trail begins a snaking climb through a mix of oak woodlands and brushy coastal scrub. Depending on the season, the baking sun is either welcomed or dreaded. This section can be brutally hot in the summertime, in contrast with the cool valleys.

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Craig Britton Trail opens up during the climb up to Harkins Ridge

After climbing about 250 feet in a half-mile, the Craig Britton Trail ends at the junction with the broad Harkins Ridge Trail, which was seen from a distance earlier in the hike. Bear right on this path, which immediately begins the steepest ascent of the entire loop. The next 1/3 mile is brutal, with hikers heartened only by partial shade. At 9.5 miles, stay left at the junction—a private road bears right toward a radio tower.

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Terrific views of Whittemore Gulch, North Ridge, and beyond from the Harkins Ridge Trail

From here, the trail actually descends, with intermittent views of Whittemore Gulch and the North Ridge area. The Harkins Ridge Trail loses about 100 feet in elevation before, beginning at 9.8 miles, it makes it up again with another ascent. Rounding the upper fringes of Whittemore Gulch, the trail climbs back to the initial four-way trail junction at 10.1 miles.

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Dusky views from the Harkins Ridge Trail

Bear right on the fire road, or continue straight on the initial half-mile winding hikers trail. Both lead back up to the trailhead. The fire road is shorter and thus likely the preferred option, although it comes with a price: a brutally steep climb for about 1/3 mile. Finally, after nearly 10.5 miles of hiking, the circuit ends back at the North Ridge Trailhead.

While most of the lengthy circuit is easy or moderately difficult, the final climb can be strenuous for some. In any case, plan to spend most of the day hiking and to come back with sore feet. But the work is worth it: this diverse walk, just an hour’s drive from the city, is one of the best on the Peninsula.

Posted in California, Moderate Hikes, Santa Cruz Mountains | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ruby Crest Trail to Lamoille Lake (Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, NV)

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Lamoille Lake, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, August 2019

Unless you are a resident of Elko, Nevada—the nearest major town—chances are that you have not heard of the Ruby Mountains. Yet, at times, this spectacular range in northeast Nevada rivals the mountain scenery of the better-known Sierra Nevada or Colorado Rockies. From the jumping-off point at Lamoille Canyon, hiking trails take off in several directions, but the most appealing is to the head south, following the 36-mile Ruby Crest Trail through the heart of the range. While the entire Ruby Crest is best reserved for backpackers, day hikers can bite off a small chunk of it with the 4.4-mile round-trip climb to Lamoille Lake, an alluring glacial tarn situated just above the timberline.

Lamoille Lake Ruby Crest Trail hike information Nevada

Lamoille Lake Ruby Crest Trail map Nevada

Map of Ruby Crest Trail to Lamoille Lake, Humboldt-Toiyobe National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The hike begins at the end of the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway, which snakes through its namesake canyon for 11 miles in Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The spectacular, U-shaped valley is the product of glacial retreat and, at least at the upper reaches, still spends much of the year socked in snow. Two trails take off from the end of the road: the short, two-mile trek to Island Lake, located to the northwest, and the aforementioned Ruby Crest Trail, which heads uphill into the alpine meadow to the south. The latter trail will be your guide to Lamoille Lake, a 2.2-mile journey.

The Ruby Crest Trail begins with open views right away: ahead are the nameless peaks that make up the first mountain divide, each more than 10,000 feet in elevation. (Note: The trail begins at about 8,800 feet; Lamoille Lake is at around 9,750 feet.) To the west, the high temple towering above the rest is Snow Lake Peak (11,137’); to the east, the imposing wall of steep granite mountains also stays consistently above 10,000 feet.

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Starting out on the Ruby Crest Trail

After passing through an initial field of wildflowers, the Ruby Crest Trail crosses a fork of Lamoille Creek, then enters a patch of woods with the main stream on the left. Rocky outcrops begin to replace the grassy patches, and hikers encounter a second stream crossing at about 4/10 mile. As the trail steadily ascends, brief breaks in the woods offer views of the high peaks to the west.

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Ruby Crest Trail heading south

After an abrupt switchback left at 6/10 mile, the trail climbs to clear a sloping ridge and then drops to clear another tributary. The climb out of the ravine is initially steep before a sharp right turn puts hikers back on a more mild, but steadily uphill course through a mix of meadows and conifers. A large fallen log in the shade offers a natural rest point at 8/10 mile.

Views begin to open up again in the next 100 yards, and the trail appears heads east toward the base of the granite walls. The Ruby Crest Trail climbs at a steeper rate as it rounds a pair of switchbacks, then heads south again along the base of stony pitches at around 1.2 miles. As hikers negotiate the next set of switchbacks, the vistas down-canyon are excellent: the valley curves westward, with Verdi Peak (11,074’)—one of the highest in the Ruby Mountains—on the horizon.

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Views of Lamoille Canyon from the Ruby Crest Trail

After several switches in short succession, the trail begins to level off, having cleared the hurdle of reaching the upper shelf of Lamoille Canyon. At 1.5 mile, arguably the best overlook of the hike awaits on the right: an unblemished, 180-degree view of Snow Lake Peak, Lamoille Canyon, and Verdi Peak. One can make out the tiny specks of the parking area, more than 800 feet below.

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Outstanding overlook of Lamoille Canyon

Just beyond, hikers must traverse a relatively fast-flowing stream: this flow drains the two Dollar Lakes, marshy but peaceful sights worth a visit on the left. Above the Dollar Lakes are Favre Point (10,879’) and an unnamed mountain that tops out at 10,865 feet.

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First of the two Dollar Lakes

The flat and easy trail crosses two more streams around 1.6 miles: this area, below the first of the Dollar Lakes, is crawling with bushy shrubs. After passing a smaller pond on the left, hikers get a great view of the second Dollar Lake, with Liberty Pass beyond.

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Second Dollar Lake

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Climbing up toward Lamoille Lake, with Dollar Lakes behind

By now, day hikers are likely to be antsy to reach the end, but there is nearly a half-mile to go. Fortunately, aside from a mild climb after the second Dollar Lake, the path is mostly flat and straightforward. Stay left at the junction at 2.1 miles as a stock trail comes in from the right. Just beyond, hikers get their first views of the blue-green waters of Lamoille Lake, the final destination.

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Lamoille Lake

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Lamoille Lake and Lamoille Canyon to the north

Signs around the lake warn hikers against weaving off the trail, but staying on rock outcrops offers a safe lookout point without damaging the soil. Squirrels around the lake have seen a visitor or two and thus are likely to be nipping at your heels as you peer down at the majestic glacial tarn. For much of the year, snow on the south slope flows right into the lake. The ridgeline beyond leads into the Ruby Mountains Wilderness. The lake itself is a popular destination for fly fishers, in search of brook trout.

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High peaks beyond

At 2.2 miles, this is the turnaround point for the day hike as described—although ambitious hikers can continue on the Ruby Crest Trail to Liberty Pass, Liberty Lake, and Favre Lake. For those returning, the hike back to the Lamoille Canyon parking area is fortunately almost all downhill, a welcome relief after a challenging (though not overwhelming) ascent.

Allot around 3-4 hours for the round-trip hike, including time to soak in the views of this isolated but majestic mountain range in an oft-forgotten corner of Nevada.

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Lamoille Canyon and Verdi Peak from the initial meadow

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Perrine Coulee Falls, ID

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Perrine Coulee Falls, August 2019

While nearby Shoshone Falls gets all the attention, perhaps the most alluring waterfall in southwestern Idaho is Perrine Coulee Falls, literally a stone’s throw away from the city of Twin Falls. This free-falling chute, which drops nearly 200 feet into the Snake River Canyon, is notable not only for its beauty but its bizarre position: how can such a waterfall exist in such close proximity to the strip malls and residential neighborhoods just steps from its rim? Despite its location, there is no fanfare: there are no signs, no entrance fees, nothing to signify your arrival. The only way to reach the falls is to park on the shoulder of Canyon Springs Road as it descends from Twin Falls and rounds its first bend. After a sharp drop that requires a little bit of maneuvering, hikers can follow a wide path behind the back of the falls for views from several angles. This is a true local gem that should not be missed.

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Perrine Coulee Falls

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Heading behind Perrine Coulee Falls

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Shoshone Falls, ID

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Shoshone Falls Park, August 2019

At 212 feet and more than 1,000 feet wide, Shoshone Falls is a behemoth of high-volume power in southwestern Idaho. Here the Snake River cuts through a deep and colorful canyon, famed as the site of Evil Knieval’s failed river jump in 1974. Viewing platforms at Shoshone Falls Park offer the best look and are a mere 15-minute drive from downtown Twin Falls. While hiking around Shoshone Falls is limited (much of the surrounding area is part of a massive hydroelectric project), consider pairing a trip to the falls with a hike in nearby Thousand Springs State Park.

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Shoshone Falls, partly altered by a man-made hydroelectric project

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View down Snake River Canyon from Shoshone Falls Park

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Box Canyon Springs (Thousand Springs State Park, ID)

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Box Canyon Springs, Thousand Springs State Park, August 2019

When approaching one of the many canyons of southwest Idaho, it is easy to have doubts: can such a feature even be possible amid all these flat plains? The crop fields of the Snake River Basin could pass, after all, for the vast lowlands of Kansas or Nebraska. Yet suddenly there it is: heading south toward Twin Falls, for example, the flatlands give way to a precipitous drop of hundreds of feet: to reach the city, on the other side of the canyon, one must either navigate a series of winding roads or cross the nearly 500-foot-tall Perrine Bridge. This is the doing of the Snake River, which over time has carved deep gorges into the bedrock of basalt and rhyolite.

Moreover, below the surface of the Snake River Basin is a vast and overwhelming productive subterranean aquifer, exposed at several points as springs in the Snake River Canyon and its numerous tributary gorges. One of the best places to see this convergence of these features—canyons and springs—is the Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon Springs Nature Preserve, a unit of Thousand Springs State Park that is about 35 minutes from Twin Falls. A short but moderately strenuous trail descends into this magical, basalt-rimmed canyon to reach the beautiful spring-fed waters, which are remarkably clear and colorful, and ends at a roaring, 20-foot waterfall that makes for a good turn-around point.

Box Canyon Springs Idaho hike information Thousand Springs State Park

Box Canyon Springs hike map

Map of Box Canyon Springs, Thousand Springs State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The constellation of sites that make up Thousand Springs State Park, despite its proximity to Interstate 84 (the Malad Gorge unit is literally within striking distance of the highway), still remains somewhat of a hidden gem. Part of this is due to lack of services or, even active management at all. (Note: Only Malad Gorge is likely to have active staff, if at all.)

The Box Canyon Springs Nature Preserve is no exception—quiet and remote, with no services—although one is likely to run into at least a few other groups of hikers and/or swimmers on a decent, non-winter day. The sandy dirt track leading to the start of the hike probably weeds out some visitors: in theory, this route is sometimes closed to vehicles, requiring hikers to walk an additional mile to the trailhead, but it is usually open to the trail’s start. The parking lot is small and dusty, and there is little except a self-pay station ($6 entrance fee, good for all Thousand Springs State Park sites) to denote that you have arrived.

The one and only path heading from the trailhead is wide and well-trodden, clearly an old road. A short walk across the flat plain leads to the first overlook of Box Canyon Springs—the basalt-laced walls drop precipitously on three sides (hence the “box canyon”), revealing a lush landscape below: dense greenery and turquoise waters. The scintillating pools are fed by the subterranean aquifer, which seeps to the surface in the canyon. The pools give way to a river, which flows down-canyon.

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Pools at Box Canyon Springs viewed from the initial overlook

From this initial vista, backtrack a bit and hang a right at the westward path leading to a short, wooden step-ladder that provides passage over a barbed wire fence. Clear the fence and continue straight as the path traverses grassy flats, with the canyon on your right.

While the main trail keeps some distance from the rim, short spurs lead to additional overlooks. Here one can view the right-hand bend in the canyon and again as it cuts back left down-stream. One can spot paths down in the canyon leading both downstream and up to the initial pools: the former is the main track; the latter is a popular side trip that nonetheless risks poison ivy. Downstream, those with a good eye can spot a wooden platform down on the left river bank—this is your destination.

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Box Canyon Springs from the rim

At 0.4 mile, the trail takes an abrupt right turn—it’s time to descend. Taking advantage of a weakness in the basalt walls, the route narrows and drops down a set of switchbacks—in some areas, metal railings and ropes assist with the short but sharp descent. After the bends, the trail bears northward down a grassy and sun-soaked slope with commanding views of the canyon.

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Descending into the canyon

At 0.45 mile, hikers reach the base of the descent—the social trail leading to the intro pools heads right here. Stay left and follow the mild path as it weaves through thicker and taller vegetation: at one point it dodges a large juniper.

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View up-canyon from the descent

Through the bushes and small trees, the trail emerges at the wooden platform overlooking a 20-foot waterfall at about 0.6 mile. Follow the trail a little further to reach the ideal picnic spot: a shady, streamside cove with views of the falls and inviting, multihued waters. Swimming, though, is not for the faint of heart: the spring-fed water is very chilly throughout the year.

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Waterfall at Box Canyon Springs

Because it is so pleasant, leaving this spot is hard, but hikers can either continue farther down-canyon or—the more popular option—return the way you came. The steep ascent back to the rim can be a little jarring but lasts little more than 5-10 minutes. All in all, plan to spend at least 1.5-2 hours at Box Canyon Springs, one of the hidden gems and geological wonders of Idaho.

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Caves Trail (Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID)

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Indian Tunnel, Caves Trail, Craters of the Moon National Monument, August 2019

Following a volcanic eruption, underground lava tubes serve as thoroughfares for draining molten lava. When the lava cools and remaining flows drain out of the tubes, the subterranean passageways remain, leaving behind caves to explore. There are several spots in the United States to see lava tubes, including Lava Beds National Monument in northern California, Newberry National Volcanic Monument in central Oregon, and, of course, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. Another less known spot is Craters of the Moon National Monument in south-central Idaho, where relatively recent volcanic activity (15,000-2,000 years ago) left behind a lunar-like landscape on the northern fringes of the Snake River Basin. The 1.5-mile Caves Trail provides access to four cool, dark lava tubes, while the surface hike traverses an interesting mix of aa and pahoehoe lava flows.

Caves Trail Craters of the Moon hike information

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Map of Caves Trail, Craters of the Moon National Monument

The hike

Caving is a popular activity at Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument, but all spelunkers must first obtain a free permit at the Visitor Center situated at the start of the Loop Drive Tour. (Note: Because of the spread of white nose syndrome among bats, the park ranger at the time of the author’s visit in August 2019 were requiring that hikers seeking a cave permit must wear shoes that have never been in another cave previously.)

After obtaining a permit (a simple bat-shaped stamp), visitors can reach the Caves Trailhead only after driving most of the way around the one-way Loop Road through the park. Expect to see plenty of crowds at the trailhead on sunny summer days and weekends, with groups of kids flocking to the caves with their headlamps in tow. Be sure to wear sturdy, close-toed shoes, a jacket, and carry a flashlight or headlamp of your own before setting off on the Caves Trail, as the lava tubes are rocky, chilly, and, in some cases, pitch black.

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Start of the Caves Trail, Craters of the Moon National Monument

From the parking area, a paved, easy-to-follow path bears southwest across a craggy field of aa lava, part of the so-called Serrate Flow. The peaks to the north and east are the Pioneer Mountains and Lost River Range, while the tree-studded cinder cone to the south is Big Cinder Butte (6,515’), the highest volcanic feature at Craters of the Moon. After around 250 yards of hiking in the exposed sun, the trail cuts through a ridge of uplifted lava rock and traverses a small trench on the left. Shortly after, the lava turns from aa to pahoehoe, a smoother alternative. At 2/10 mile, an interpretive sign on the right explains the features of lava tubes.

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Looking back at the Caves Trail, toward the parking are and Pioneer Mountains

Dewdrop and Indian Tunnel Caves

Finally, at 3/10 mile, hikers will reach a trail junction, which doubles as the entrance area for Dewdrop Cave. This introductory cave is the shortest of the four and requires some minor scrambling to negotiate. Inside, there is a blocked-off section with green-tinted rock, while the main draw is the small water droplets inside the cave that give it its name. Also look for smooth pahoehoe flows, where the lava appears to have cooled after flowing over itself, forming slippery tube-like pillars.

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Dewdrop Cave

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Interesting lava flow in Dewdrop Cave

Back on the surface, bear right at the trail junction, heading in the direction of the second and most interesting of the lava tubes, Indian Tunnel Cave. At 4/10 mile, the well-trodden path passes over a section where the cave has collapsed on both sides—the natural end for all lava tubes with fragile ceilings. At 0.45 mile, another cave entrance is visible on the right. Venture a little further to the official start of the Indian Tunnel Cave.

Indian Tunnel is not a traditional cave, per se, as several collapses over time have spliced the lava tube into several sections, none of which is fully dark. It is these patches of light, however, in addition to the tunnel’s high and wide passage, that make this the most interesting cave of the four. To begin, descend the staircase into the broad tunnel, then follow the cave straight, passing under the first overhang. The iron tinge on the ceilings gives the cave a slight orange hue, a welcome contrast to the otherwise black and gray landscape.

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Just beyond the entrance to Indian Tunnel Cave

After skirting a rock jumble under a skylight, the cave darkens and narrows slightly—follow the path of least resistance to avoid the craggy surface rocks. The darkness is interrupted after a hundred yards or so by another skylight, this one leaving behind a boulder mass that requires some minor scrambling to clear. After a couple short cave sections, the trail makes way for the exit—a tiny wedge through a double-arched passageway, requiring hikers to duck their heads awkwardly, then pull themselves up out of the small tunnel.

From here, it is a straightforward walk back up to the surface. Once out of the cave, follow a series of stakes in the ground to make your way back to the initial entrance of the Indian Tunnel Cave. Then, once back on the paved trail, head back to the trail junction at Dewdrop Cave; this time, turn right toward Boy Scout and Beauty Caves.

Boy Scout and Beauty Caves

From the junction, it is roughly 250 yards across pahoehoe lava flows to the petite entrance to Boy Scout Cave on the left. This small passage, the second-longest of the group, is also the most strenuous. Hikers entering this cave will have to use caution on slippery and jagged rocks and, although the cave is not an extremely tight squeeze, it will sometimes require getting on hands and knees. The initial descent from the entrance is the steepest and most difficult. Those carrying backpacks are wise to shed them.

The principal attraction of Boy Scout Cave is the frozen ice, visible year-round in the chilly lava tube. The first ice patches (in the summer) are found in the initial entry room, but thicker patches are visible the further one travels into the cave. Most will turn around after about 250 feet, where the lava tube thins to a shallow passage with very low ceilings.

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Boy Scout Cave

There are also alternative passages back near the entrance heading in the opposite direction, although these are even more strenuous than the main course.

Exiting the Boy Scout Cave the way you came in, climb back up to the main trail and continue in a northwesterly direction toward the final attraction of the hike: Beauty Cave. As the name suggests, Beauty has slightly more attractive features than the other caves, including modest lavacicles and dripping water. After an initial descent at the entrance, the rest of the cave—though short—is relatively easy to traverse. Again, there are other side passages to explore, although they end relatively quickly.

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Passageway in Beauty Cave

After visiting Beauty Cave, make your way back to the main trail junction at Dewdrop, then continue right, back to the parking area. All told, not including the caves, the trail distance clocks in between 1.5 and 1.6 miles. To be frank, the lava tubes, while offering a fun opportunity to try some spelunking, are not the nation’s finest: for more diverse and colorful lave tubes, try the collection of caves at Lava Beds National Monument in California.

Extra credit

To cap off a visit to Craters of the Moon, climb the short, 0.2-mile trail to the summit of Inferno Cone for panoramic views of the area.

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Inferno Cone (Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID)

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Inferno Cone, Craters of the Moon National Monument, August 2019

“A weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself” is how President Calvin Coolidge described the volcanic, lunar-like landscape in south-central Idaho when he created Craters of the Moon National Monument in 1924. In the years before the designation, hearty explorers and geologists had crisscrossed and documented the unique volcanic features of the area, discovering a mishmash of cooled lava beds, cinder cones, fissures, and lava tubes. Among the various landmarks is Inferno Cone, a cinder cone that rises several hundred feet from the surface, offering panoramic views of Craters of the Moon, the Pioneer Mountains, and the surrounding Snake River Basin. The popular Inferno Cone Trail provides short but steep access to the summit.

Inferno Cone Trail Craters of the Moon hike information

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Map of Inferno Cone Trail, Craters of the Moon National Monument

The hike

Craters of the Moon National Monument spans a massive 750,000 acres in south-central Idaho, but the vast majority of visitors are confined to the northwest corner of the park, where a 7-mile loop road offers up-close access to the various volcanic features. Inferno Cone is Stop #4 on the Loop Drive Tour. (Note: Stop by the Visitor Center for maps and other information.)

From the parking area, first check out the information panels, which explain that cinder cones, despite appearing to be volcanoes in themselves, are in fact just accumulations of volcanic cinders from nearby explosions. The area all around you, however, was shaped by volcanic activity, and not so long ago: only 2,000 years ago, the area was rocked by eruptions similar to what might find in Hawaii today. Today, the basaltic lava fields are some of the largest and best preserved in the world.

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Climbing the steep slope up Inferno Cone

The hike up Inferno Cone is straightforward, covering 160 feet in elevation gain over the course of 2/10 mile. Hikers will crest an initial hump about halfway up, followed by a brief pause and then another steep incline. There are no switchbacks to ease the climb, but the ascent is over soon enough, requiring about 10-15 minutes to reach the summit.

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Heading up Inferno Cone

While the ascent traverses only black soil, it comes as a surprise to find vegetation at the top of Inferno Cone. A healthy juniper offers shade in an otherwise exposed area, while patches of sagebrush and low grasses dot the high slopes.

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Lonely juniper on Inferno Cone, with Big Southern Butte and the Snake River Plain beyond

Beyond these hearty plants, there are few obstructions at the summit, facilitating 360-degree views of the area. The northward vista covers Paisley Cone (6,107’), Sunset Cone (6,410’), and the towering Pioneer Mountains beyond. To the northeast is the Lost River Range, which includes the highest peak in Idaho (Borah Peak, 12,662’), as well as Arco, the nearest town and first in the world to be lit by nuclear power. Beyond the juniper, to the east, the Big Southern Butte (7,550’) (outside the park) and a couple of kipukas—islands of sagebrush amid the lava fields—are visible in the distance.

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Looking northeast toward Arco, the Pioneer Mountains, and the Lost River Range

Big Cinder Butte (6,515’) dominates the landscape to the south—this is the highest volcanic peak and largest cinder cone in Craters of the Moon. Beyond Big Cinder Butte, miles and miles of lava flows stretch to the horizon. (Note: This rarely-visited section of the park is reachable by way of the lengthy Wilderness Trail.)

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The author at Inferno Cone, with Big Cinder Butte beyond

Finally, looking west, one can peer over a collection of small but historically potent spatter cones, lava-spewing vents that were responsible for much of the lava protrusions covering the basin today. These cones are set against the backdrop of the much larger Silent Cone (6,357’), another cinder cone in the park.

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View of the spatter cones from Inferno Cone

Take a half hour or so to soak in the excellent views and admire the various volcanic features at one of the park’s best viewpoints. Then head back the way you came, descending sharply to the parking area for Inferno Cone. Most visitors from here will continue on to Stop #5, the Spatter Cones and Big Crater Area.

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Bradley Lake, Taggart Lake, and Beaver Creek Trail Loop (Grand Teton National Park, WY)

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Taggart Lake, Valley Trail, Grand Teton National Park, August 2019

As glaciers carved the various canyons of Grand Teton National Park, they pushed enormous heaps of rocky debris down to the base of the sharp peaks, forming what geologists and climatologists today call moraines. In the centuries—millennia—that passed, the retreating glaciers left behind still, blue lakes, and vibrant evergreen forests and meadows blanketed the moraines, creating the picturesque setting of today. The 5.8-mile hike to Bradley and Taggart Lakes—with a foray down the Beaver Creek Trail thrown in for good measure—traverses this moraine landscape, with excellent views of the Cathedral Group, including Grand Teton. The moderately difficult circuit, with some minor elevation gain, provides an easier alternative to other nearby day hikes that lead sharply uphill into the Teton Range.

Bradley Lake Taggart Lake Beaver Creek Trail hike information Grand Teton

Bradley and Taggart Lakes trail map Grand Teton

Map of Bradley and Taggart Lakes Loop, Grand Teton National Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

For hikers with the luxury of two cars—or a drop-off and pick-up—the ideal way to see Bradley and Taggart Lakes is via a one-way trek, starting at Lupine Meadows Trailhead and ending at Taggart Lake Trailhead. Most visitors will not have such a luxury, however, and should instead make a loop out of it, starting at Taggart Lake Trailhead, a popular parking area in the heart of Grand Teton National Park. Arrive early or late to minimize the crowds and maximize the likelihood of grabbing a parking spot.

From the Taggart Lake Trailhead (confusingly, also known as the Bradley Lake Trailhead), head straight on the gravel path that leads westward across a sagebrush plain. With few obstructions in the way, the opening section offers excellent views right away: ahead, on a clear day, the Cathedral Group—including Grand Teton (13,770’), Mount Owen (12,928’), Middle Teton (12,804’), Teewinot Mountain (12,325’), and Nez Perce Peak (11,901’)—dominates the skyline. These jagged peaks of the Teton Range are some of the youngest in North America, uplifting for less than 10 million years, at the same time that the bedrock that forms Jackson Hole has continued to drop.

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Stunning view of the Cathedral Group (Nez Perce Peak, Grand Teton, Mount Owen, and Teewinot Mountain) from the Taggart Lake Trail

The beauty is marred briefly by an unattractive string of power lines, which hikers pass under after about 200 yards. Here the route splits in four directions: a single-track continues straight, the wide path bears right, while a less visible, rutted double-track veers off to the left. Head north (right) on the broad path toward Taggart and Bradley Lakes. Follow this track for about 2/10 mile as the tree cover gets denser. The route splits again at 3/10 mile, with the old road heading left while the Taggart Lake Trail bears right. Stay right on this narrower path, which climbs gently through an aspen grove and crosses rumbling Taggart Creek. Look up to the left, where Grand Teton peeks above the trees, framed nicely with the tumbling cascades in the foreground.

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Crossing Taggart Lake, with Grand Teton (13,770′) framed in the background

Continuing northward, the trail passes under power lines again and skirts the western fringes of a horse ranch on the right. As the well-trodden path edges westward, the incline steepens and, after crossing another stream at about 6/10 mile, follows the flowing creek uphill through the moraine. By 9/10 mile, the trail pulls away from the stream valley and the views of the Tetons return. In the lovely open meadow, the Taggart Lake Trail descends slightly and then reaches a junction at 1.1 miles. While most crowds will head left to Taggart Lake, instead bear right on the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail to head toward Bradley first. This relatively underutilized trail is breathtaking, featuring some of the best vantage points on the hike.

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Teton Range from the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail

After cutting through another small aspen grove, the cutoff trail again stretches across lush meadows with stunning views of the Cathedral Group. Various canyons cut deep incisions in the mountains, including (from left to right) Avalanche Canyon, Garnet Canyon, and Glacier Gulch. High up Avalanche Canyon, one can make out the outlines of Shoshoko Falls, a cascade that drops more than 200 feet. (Note: Avalanche Canyon is not accessible by official trail, but an occasionally used route leads up to the hike, one of the most strenuous but rewarding in the park.)

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Grouse on the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail

After 1/3 mile of slight dips and climbs, the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail embarks on a sharper ascent at around 1.5 miles. Tree cover blocks views during this section as the path weaves up a set of bends and switchbacks. Along the way, the first views of Taggart Lake appear—from a distance—on the left. After briefing leveling off, the trail amid the aspens and mixed conifers climbs again. At 1.9 miles, the trail finally tops the ridgeline—but Bradley Lake remains hidden behind two additional crests.

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View of Taggart Lake from the Bradley Lake Cutoff Trail

The narrow single-track now descends briefly before picking up the ascent again, clearing a second ridgeline. Switchbacks lead down again, then finally the path climbs to a third ridgeline, this one with obscured views of Bradley Lake. While the loop continues left, head right for a couple minutes to get down to the eastern shores of Bradley Lake. A series of social trails lead to the lake, where wading and swimming are allowed…if you can brave the chilly waters.

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Excellent vista from Bradley Lake

From Bradley Lake, the Teton Range rises more than 6,000 feet—one of the most picturesque spots in Grand Teton National Park. Here hikers have a good view of Garnet Canyon and the steep hillside that provides passage for hikers on the strenuous Amphitheater Lake Trail. Stop for lunch, a snack, or a dip at Bradley Lake before heading back the way you came to the nearby junction.

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Bradley Lake

From this junction, bear west (right) on the Valley Trail, a lengthy track that connects most of the park’s main lakes at the base of the Tetons. After a mild meander, the incline increases at about 2.25 miles, and the trail switchbacks up to crest the main ridgeline between Taggart and Bradley Lakes. The other side has fewer obstructions, allowing for frequent views of Taggart Lake as you approach. After a set of switchbacks to ease the descent, the Valley Trail levels off at around 2.9 miles amid thick tree cover.

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Heading toward Taggart Lake from Bradley Lake area

Finally, at about 3.1 miles, spur trails provide the first access to the shores of Taggart Lake. Like Bradley, Taggart Lake is also nestled in the shadow of the Cathedral Group, but with the added bonus of excellent views of Avalanche Canyon and Shoshoko Falls in the distance. Taggart is considerably more crowded, detracting slightly from the otherwise spectacular scenery.

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Avalanche Canyon and Nez Perce Peak from Taggart Lake

Follow the Valley Trail south as it hugs the eastern shores of Taggart Lake, then reach another junction at 3.5 miles. Heading left takes the quickest—and most popular—route back to Taggart Lake Trailhead. But those looking to extend the hike with a slightly longer loop should continue right toward the Beaver Creek area.

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Grand Tetons from Taggart Lake

This route continues to follow Taggart Lake toward its southern terminus. A wooden bridge provides passage over an inlet, followed by a moderately steep ascent that clears yet another ridgeline in the moraine. The Valley Trail crests the ridgetop at 3.9 miles, and the views of Taggart Lake and the Cathedral Group are replaced by sweeping vistas over meadows and Jackson Hole to the Gros Ventre Mountains beyond. The winding descent from here combines views both northward to the main Tetons and south to Jackson in one of the hike’s most memorable stretches.

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Meadows along the Valley Trail

At 4.25 miles, the Valley Trail drops back into the woods and finds relatively level ground, approaching Beaver Creek on the right. Take a left at the next junction, following the gentle stream in a southwesterly direction toward Taggart Lake Trailhead. The Beaver Creek Trail descends at a modest clip before the creek suddenly disappears for a short stretch before reappearing amid broad meadows a half-mile later. The willow-choked stream and open expanses provide excellent opportunities to spot moose and other creatures.

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Valley Trail heading toward Beaver Creek, with Jackson Hole and Gros Ventre Mountains in the background

At 5.1 miles, the Beaver Creek Trail begins to cut away from the stream valley and climbs northward. As the smooth hillsides give way to jagged rock outcrops, there are nice views of Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains. By 5.5 miles, the trail approaches the opening meadow, within striking distance of the trailhead and Teton Park Road. Bear right at the junction at 5.6 miles, then stay straight as you return to the initial, four-way junction below the power lines. From here it is a short, level walk back to the parking area.

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Meadows along the Beaver Creek Trail

The entire, 5.8-mile circuit is moderately difficult, with only brief and relatively mild ascents. Yet to take in the full beauty of the place, it is recommended to allot 4-5 hours for the round-trip hike.

Extra credit

For a tougher hike that heads into the Teton Range, try nearby Death Canyon, Cascade Canyon, or Paintbrush Canyon. Or take a walk along the easier lakeshore trails at Leigh, String, Jenny, or Phelps Lake.

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Death Canyon Trail to Patrol Cabin (Grand Teton National Park, WY)

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Death Canyon Trail, Grand Teton National Park, August 2019

It’s not too often that one can say that they overcame death. But conquering the Death Canyon Trail in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park offers such an opportunity. The beauty of the canyon—with its rushing cascades, inviting meadows, and cool forests—belies the ominous name, making this one of the finest hikes in Grand Teton. While the Death Canyon Trail ventures deep into the Teton Range, a patrol cabin—roughly 3.9 miles from the trailhead—serves as a reasonable turnaround point for a day hike. Along the way, hikers will encounter fields of wildflowers, excellent views of Phelps Lake and Jackson Hole, and thundering cascades. While one of the easier canyons in the parks to enter, the trail through Death gains more than 1,000 feet in elevation, and the up-and-down section between the canyon and Phelps Lake Overlook can be particularly brutal on the return journey, especially in the midday sun.

Death Canyon Trail hike information Grand Teton

Death Canyon Trail map Grand Teton

Map of Death Canyon hike to the patrol cabin, Grand Teton National Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

One would think that the extremely rough, rock-studded road leading to the Death Canyon Trailhead in southern Grand Teton National Park would deter visitors to the area. But the allure of the canyon’s name, location close to Jackson, and development of the newly-opened Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve have made Death Canyon surprisingly crowded. Granted, the crowds pale in comparison to the throngs of visitors at nearby Jenny Lake or Colter Bay and tend to thin out after the first 1.5 miles of hiking, where the Death Canyon Trail diverts from the popular Valley Trail. Nonetheless, it is unexpectedly difficult to find a parking spot at the end of the Death Canyon Road. (Note: Vehicles with low clearance or poor tread tend to be parked partway down the road, requiring a short walk to the trailhead. Also note that the Death Canyon Trailhead is sometimes called the Whitegrass Trailhead.)

Once a parking spot is secured, however, make your way to the start of the hike, where an information board provides a map and limited information on the area. In addition to the hike up Death Canyon, this is a popular starting point for shorter walks around Phelps Lake and long, multi-day backpacking trips up to the Teton Crest, Alaska Basin, Open Canyon, and beyond.

The trail that starts from here is actually a short connector, a brief 125-yard jaunt along a wide path to a junction with the Valley Trail. This lengthy single-track runs largely for miles through the forest moraines at the base of the Teton Range, connecting Death Canyon to Bradley, Taggart, and Jenny Lakes to the north and Open Canyon, Granite Canyon, and Jackson Hole Resort to the south.

Bear left at the junction, following the Valley Trail as it bears westward through thick woods. Climbing at a mild clip, the trail thins and crosses two gentle streams before breaking out into a series of sloping meadows, dotted with a panoply of wildflowers. Look for scarlet Indian paintbrush, harebell, showy fleabane, and various types of asters, among others. Views back east to Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains gradually improve, while the ascent noticeably steepens.

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Meadow along the Valley Trail, approaching Phelps Lake Overlook

A huge pine tree on the left at around 9/10 mile ushers in the final approach to Phelps Lake Overlook, which is at around 7,200 feet in elevation, a 400-foot gain from the trail’s start. Better views lie beyond, but the overlook offers the hike’s first look at the crystal blue waters of Phelps Lake, the product of glacial melt after the most recent Ice Age. Phelps Lake Overlook is a popular endpoint in itself—hikers looking for a short hike, perhaps with children, are likely to turn around here and return to the trailhead. But those eyeing Death Canyon should continue onward.

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Phelps Lake Overlook

Instead of heading straight toward the dramatic entrance to the canyon, the Valley Trail from here actually drops sharply, shedding more than 400 feet in elevation in around a half-mile. As the trail switchbacks down the hillside, visitors are rewarded with standout vistas: unobstructed views of Phelps Lake to the south, with an open meadow blanketing the slopes to the north and west. A seasonal waterfall, visible at around the 1.6-mile mark, drips off a wall on the right. Meanwhile, one begins to make out the dramatic entrance to Death Canyon to the west—where sheer cliffs of granite and gneiss, rising to more than 2,000 feet, appear to narrow to a near-convergence. Death Canyon is calling…

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Another terrific view of Phelps Lake, with Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains beyond

Finally, at around 1.7 miles, the trail bottoms out and splits: many hikers will head left, continuing on the Valley Trail as it wraps around the north flanks of Phelps Lake. But the Death Canyon Trail charts its own course to the right. Another short descent leads westward back into the forest, where hikers can hear—and eventually see—the cascading creek that carved the deep gorge. Towering pines are interspersed with granite slopes, small meadows, and rock slides.

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Heading toward Death Canyon

At about the two-mile mark, the trail begins a lengthy ascent, which covers around 1,100 feet in elevation gain in the next 1.6 miles. A flat rock outcrop on the left offers a place to stop for a snack and short rest before the steady climb. As the trail gains height, the rumble of the cascades grows louder—although, for now, hikers will keep their distance from the creek. At 2.25 miles, the route abruptly cuts east, away from the stream and traversing another rock slide. A quarter mile further, a left-hand switchback returns hikers to their westward trace. Additional boulder slides break up the wooded sections, offering increasingly distant views of Phelps Lake.

At about 2.7 miles, a side canyon enters from the right, and the woods become increasingly sparse. Minutes later, the path traverses a ledge section with relatively steep drop-offs to the left. At 3.1 miles, the Death Canyon Trail passes a wide alcove coated with strips of black varnish (reminiscent of similar features in Utah’s canyon country).

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Rushing creek along Death Canyon Trail

At last, the trail meets the banks of the creek at 3.2 miles—another fine place to stop for a short break. Here the sun shines brightly on the iron-coated creek, with roaring torrents of water cutting down through the canyon.

By now, hikers can begin to make out the end to the ascent above—a line of trees where the incline levels off. But this is still several hundred feet above your present location—and thus the switchbacks return, starting with a right-hand cut that clears another level of climbing. Minutes later, a right-hand switchback offers views again of the varnished alcove.

 

At 3.3 miles, the trail returns to the creek side, with even more impressive cascades. There is a third opportunity to get close to the creek after another pair of switchbacks, followed by the final ascent.

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Switchbacks leading up Death Canyon

At 3.6 miles, hikers can breathe a sigh of relief when the relentless climb suddenly stops, and the water upstream is quiet and peaceful, gathering in small pools with occasional but minor dips. Upper Death Canyon is largely flat and serene, a popular hangout for moose and other critters. Breaks in the woods offer views of the craggy peaks of the Alaska Basin area to the north, as well as Prospectors Mountain (11,241’) to the south.

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Quieter section of Death Canyon, beyond the cascades

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View toward Alaska Basin from Death Canyon

At last, at 3.9 miles, hikers will reach the patrol cabin and trail junction—an underwhelming site, but at least a decent turnaround point. Of course, backpackers and endurance day hikers can continue onward, either further up Death Canyon or up the steep ascent on the Alaska Basin Trail to Static Peak Divide. But most visitors will head back from here, returning the way they came.

 

With this, hikers can claim they have cheated death—at least after returning to the trailhead, by way of the unwelcome 400-foot slog back uphill from the Death Canyon Trail junction to Phelps Lake Overlook. While the entire out-and-back clocks in at around 7.8 miles, trekkers should expect to take longer than the rule-of-thumb, 2-miles-per-hour pace. A comfortable bet is to allot between 5-7 hours for the round-trip, making Death Canyon almost a full-day walk.

Posted in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment