Natural Bridges (Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, OR)

Natural Bridges, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, January 2021

As if the secret beaches, spectacular cliffside vistas, and crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean were not enough, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor on the southern Oregon coast also boasts a number of natural bridges—iconic archways carved by the sea. The Natural Bridges viewpoint—at mile marker 346 on Highway 1, about 11 miles north of Brookings and 17 miles south of Gold beach—offers distant views of two such bridges. Here the endless force of the sea has carved away part of the vertical cliffs, allowing the waters to seep into a shady cove, shelter from the main, wild ocean beyond. The viewpoint—itself a wooden platform—is a short walk from the parking area, but many will not be content to end there: several steep routes lead down from the Oregon Coast Trail to the sea-facing cliffs and even across the bridges themselves. While crossing the lowest/southernmost bridge is not recommended, hikers can descend sharply down well-trodden paths to the span, where additional coves, arches, and rock islands come into view. The bridges are photogenic and particularly spectacular around sunrise or sunset. (Note: A note of warning: the trails leading down to the natural bridges are not official and can be very steep and sketchy in places; tread carefully and don’t push your luck.)

Narrow pathway approaching the lower bridge
The turnaround point (potentially dubious path over natural bridge ahead)
Thundering cove with another natural arch ahead
Cove and arch to the south
Approaching sunset
Natural bridges
Natural bridges after dusk (from the viewpoint)

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Indian Sands Loop (Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, OR)

Indian Sands Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, January 2021

The Indian Sands area, situated near the middle of Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, is a collection of crisp, windswept dunes, towering headlands, and thundering coves along the southern Oregon coast. Starting and ending at the Indian Sands Trailhead (mile marker 348.6 on Highway 101), a brief but beautiful circuit combines the sunny sands with thick forest cover, with terrific ocean views throughout much of the moderately-difficult hike.

Map of Indian Sands Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

The large and gravel parking lot for Indian Sands is well-marked and situated roughly nine miles northwest of Brookings, Oregon and 19 miles south of Gold Beach in Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. Park anywhere in the lot, but note that there are two trails that begin from this point: a wide, southbound route (after the entrance, to your left), which leads into a grove of tall Sitka spruce, and a northbound, narrower route, which is quickly enveloped by the dark forest. These are the start and end to the hike, respectively. Heading in the clockwise direction avoids a crushing ascent up a steep slope.

Taking off on the route toward Indian Sands

Taking the southbound track, the trail begins as a mild walk through an impressive stand of spindly conifers, with occasional ferns and salal dotting the understory. The modest descent, however, turns quickly into a sharp and precipitous decline, a drop that requires slow and careful deliberation, especially in the presence of mud or other moisture.

The downhill ends at a trail junction about 2/10 mile; head right on the Oregon Coast Trail, a nearly 400-mile route that traverses the length of the state’s rugged coastline. Continuing to decline, but at a much more gently clip, the trail quickly emerges into a clearing, where the dirt gives way to clumpy sand and views of the Pacific Ocean open up to the west.

Indian Sands and the Pacific Ocean beyond

Heading in a northwesterly direction, the Coast Trail passes a neon-green sign on the right (titled “188”—used to signal one’s location in case of an emergency) and then leaves the dense stand of stubby shore pines behind. Ahead is the heart of Indian Sands, an attractive, cliffside shelf of gently sloping dunes. Here, footsteps fan out in nearly all direction, and the main track is temporarily difficult to discern. But this is also a fantastic area to explore.

Thunderous cove at Indian Sands

Heading left for five minutes leads to an outcrop with views of seaside natural arch to the south, while heading straight—out toward the ocean—leads to a series of rocky crags, separated by deep chasms, where the swirling sea creates thunderous waves and froth.

Panorama at Indian Sands

The onward track bears right (north), dropping to clear a sandy bowl before heading toward what appears to be a dusty passage between the main hillside and a rugged peninsula. The passage turns out to lead to a dropoff: the cliffs give way to another scenic inlet to the north, where a minor drainage drops sharply to the ocean, with several sea stacks just out to sea. One can also see north up the coast toward Thomas Creek Bridge, China Beach, Thunder Rock Cove, and the Natural Bridges area, although all are obscured by the jagged angles of the cliffs.

Raucous ocean from the saddle at Indian Sands

Even as the sands give way to impassable cliffs, the trail continues onward by cutting sharply to the right. Follow the footsteps leading up a narrow track that hugs the scrubby hillside, then runs through a trio of evergreen arches, formed by the windswept spruces that envelop the sea-facing slopes.

Spruce-lined archway on the Oregon Coast Trail
Cove along Indian Sands loop

After the arches, hikers start to get a better view of the ravine to the east—your exit route. After a fourth, dark tree tunnel, the path crosses a minor stream that often bleeds into the trail itself. Now ascending steadily, the trail cuts left and enters a dim upland gully. Upon hearing the highway noise up ahead, the route forks; head right, leaving the Oregon Coast Trail behind—but not before briefly detouring to the left to observe a small waterfall, dropping gracefully into the wider creek below. (Note: Heading left, across the creek, leads toward Crook Point and Thomas Creek Bridge.)

Small waterfall in the dark forest north of Indian Sands

From the junction, a network of trails bears uphill—all paths generally lead to the same place, although the trail that hugs the highway before contouring southwest is the easiest and avoiding unnecessary descents. Follow this track as it snakes through dense forest and returns to the Indian Sands parking area at the northbound entry point.

This moderately challenging loop hike takes roughly one to two hours to complete: that is, if you take the time to explore the Indian Sands area and its many wild features. Speedsters can certainly finish in less time, but what is the fun in that?

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Thunder Rock Cove Loop (Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, OR)

Thunder Rock Cove Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, January 2021

Southwest Oregon’s Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor features some of the finest stretches of shoreline on the Pacific coast of the United States, and the short-but-spectacular Thunder Rock Cove Loop traverses one of its most picturesque pockets. The brief circuit skirts towering bluffs that plunge into Thunder Rock Cove (a.k.a., Seal Cove), approaches a seaside natural bridge, and features open views of the swirling Pacific Ocean. Along with nearby Natural Bridges, this is a must-see destination between Brookings and Gold Beach, Oregon and is best viewed in the morning or midday sun.

Map of Thunder Rock Cove Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Start and end the brief Thunder Rock Cove Loop at the Thunder Rock Cove Trailhead, an unmarked but popular parking area along Highway 101 (Oregon Coast Highway) (mile marker 347.8), roughly 11 miles north of Brookings and 17 miles south of Gold Beach. The graveled turnoff is situated just north of the signed pullout for Natural Bridges and features a large trail marker that indicates you are in the right place.

Start of the Thunder Rock Cove Loop

Take the path heading north from the parking lot: this is part of the lengthy Oregon Coast Trail, which transits the entire length of the Oregon shoreline. After traversing a short bridge and entering the spruce-and-fern-lined forest, bear left at the initial junction. (Note: Many hikers head right to reach nearby Secret Beach, a longer and more arduous hike.) Beyond, there are several spurs off to the left, leading to vistas of Thunder Rock Cove (a.k.a. Seal Cove), where the swirling sea cuts through a natural bridge carved in the ancient rock below. This picturesque spot is tantalizingly beautiful, with the turquoise waters lapping up against sheer vertical rock faces.

Looking down on Thunder Rock Cove

The views of the cove and archway improve as the trail continues, especially after the loop path descends a set of switchbacks along a fern-clad slope. Minutes later, the path leads out to a small, spruce-clad peninsula with magnificent views, especially to the west, where the sea seems to converge from all directions on a shallow basin, protected by sea stacks several hundred yards distant from the coast. Hikers can also see northward in the direction of Miners Gulch, Secret Beach, and Spruce Island, although none are quite visible due to the angle of the coastline.

Natural bridge in Thunder Rock Cove
Swirling sea near Thunder Rock Cove

Intrepid hikers can continue out—sharply downhill—to the natural bridge, but most hikers will want to continue northward from the peninsula, following a narrow but discernable trail that hugs the cliffsides. The rest of the hike has no real ocean views but cuts through a dense forest of Sitka spruces and other conifers, with the understory lined by sword ferns.

At ½ mile, the loop trail climbs steeply back toward the start, then bears southeast through a sea of ferns to a trail junction at 6/10 mile. While heading left leads to Secret Beach, the loop trail continues right, quickly reconnecting with the initial junction. From here, bear left and, within a minute, return to the parking area, having completed the short but scenic hike.

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Cape Ferrelo Loop (Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, OR)

Cape Ferrelo Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, January 2021

For 296 miles, the restless Pacific Ocean laps up against the Oregon Coast, producing chilly beaches, windswept rock outcrops, and imposing sea stacks. While some more peaceful, wide-open beaches may be found further south in California, the word that best describes the Oregon seashore is rugged. What Maine’s Acadia National Park is to the eastern seaboard, the coastline of the Beaver State is to the west: picturesque and mysterious, the jagged bluffs and craggy capes of the Oregon Coast are an excellent hiking destination.

The stretch of coast in southwestern Oregon is particularly spectacular, highlighted by the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, which covers 12 miles of coastline between the towns of Brookings and Gold Beach. The park’s closest circuit hike to Brookings is the Cape Ferrelo Loop, which covers a little over a mile and is a relatively easy jaunt. From the headland, hikers get panoramic, unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding shoreline to the north and south, making this a must-see destination along the Oregon Coast Highway.

Map of Cape Ferrelo Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

There are more than a dozen trailheads in southwest Oregon’s Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, and Cape Ferrelo Viewpoint is the second southernmost of the bunch. From central Brookings, follow Highway 101 (Oregon Coast Highway) northward for roughly five miles; after passing the turnoff for the Lone Ranch Picnic Area, look for the marked spur road to Cape Ferrelo Viewpoint. Follow the paved track to its end, culminating in a circle with parking along the curb. (Note: If coming from Gold Beach or the north, follow Highway 101 to mile marker 351.9.)

At the parking area, visitors will observe the Oregon Coast Trail (which spans the entire coast of Oregon) heading both north and south. Follow the southbound track, which immediately cuts through a thicket of dense hedges—this is salal, a waxy shrub that is ubiquitous along the Oregon coast. Towering above is a stand of Sitka spruce, the most common conifer in the area.

Start of the Cape Ferrelo hike

After about 200 yards, the trail splits at an unmarked junction. Heading left is a short spur that leads to a bench overlooking Lone Ranch Beach, with numerous sea stacks beyond. On clear days, one can see as far as Crescent City and the northern California coast.

Viewpoint overlooking Lone Ranch Beach

Yet this is only a teaser for the viewpoints to come, so backtrack to the junction and turn left on the other fork, continuing toward Cape Ferrelo. From here the onward trail enters a dark passage—a tunnel in the trees formed by a thicket of Sitka spruce—producing a brief spooky feeling as hikers continue. Beyond the tunnel, the landscape opens up, revealing views both southward and to the north. Here there is another junction, with the main trail heading straight while a grassy path comes in from the left. This is the start of the loop section.

Entering the spruce tunnel

Bear right first, climbing up and over a small hillock, then descending to an open plain. One can begin to see the edge of the cape by now, and the well-trodden track continues westward toward the ocean. At ¼ mile (not including the initial spur), there is a lean sign for the Coast Trail; continue straight as the path treads closer to Cape Ferrelo.

Approaching Cape Ferrelo

About 2/10 mile later, the trail reaches the tip of Cape Ferrelo, where the flat grasslands of the headland give way to near-vertical cliffs, dropping several hundred feet to the turbulent ocean below. While the views due west are of endless sea, one can see more sea stacks to the north and south.

Northward view toward House Rock headland

Up the coast, the shoreline juts out briefly at House Rock, with the onward shore obscured by the spruce-lined bluffs. The continuing trail wraps around to the south, providing even better vistas of the Brookings area, with Twin Rocks and Goat Island visible in the distance.

Southward view of the cove at Lone Ranch Beach

From this southward view, the trail begins to fade, and multiple paths bear off in different directions. It is thus a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure to complete the loop; generally hugging the hillside, descending briefly (but not too much), is a good move. This eventually connects back with the grassy path that reconnects with the second junction near the start of the hike. From here, pass again through the spruce tunnel and pass the initial fork to return to the trailhead.

Northerly view again

All told, the Cape Ferrelo Loop is a relatively easy, one-mile stem-and-loop with magnificent seaside views and offers a nice introduction to the extensive trail system of Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor.

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Boy Scout Tree Trail to Fern Falls (Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, CA)

Boy Scout Tree Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, January 2021

Together with nearby Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, northern California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park contains arguably the most spectacular groves of coast redwoods in the world. Nearly the entire park, bounded by the Smith River to the north and the town of Crescent City to the west, is covered with old growth redwoods—the tallest, and nearly the thickest, trees in the world. While there are shorter trails in the park (such as Stout Grove) that offer up-close looks at these towering titans, perhaps the best hike in Jedediah Smith is the Boy Scout Tree Trail, situated deep in the woods along the unpaved Howland Hill Road. Here the gentle trail courses in and out of several ravines, lush with ferns and redwood trunks, ending just short of three miles at the modest—but beautiful—Fern Falls. Hike in the offseason to avoid the crowds, and try to walk on a sunny day, when the redwood forest is at its most photogenic.

Map of Boy Scout Tree Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

The Boy Scout Tree Trailhead is accessed from the Howland Hill Road, a 10-mile unpaved track that connects Crescent City with Hiouchi in northwest California, near the Pacific coast. The trailhead is closest—about two miles—to the western end of the road, but travelling the entirety of the neatly-groomed drive is worth the extra effort. In addition to being one of the most scenic redwood drives in California, Howland Hill Road was a primary filming location for the famous Ewok scenes in 1983’s Return of the Jedi.

The trailhead, marked by a sign for the “Boy Scout Tree Trail” on the north side, is rather small, with a restroom and somewhat limited parking. Arrive early to catch a parking spot, or simply park on one of the turnoffs nearby along Howland Hill Road.

Near the start of the Boy Scout Tree Trail

Although the trail sign indicates that it is 2.8 miles to Fern Falls, it is in reality more like three miles, but the entire walk has rather mild elevation gain and loss. This allows for a relatively easy stroll through spectacular redwood groves, with the beauty beginning right from the start. Some of the park’s largest and thickest trees line the first quarter mile of the Boy Scout Tree Trail, inviting visitors to take pictures and admire the colossal wonders.

Setting out into the redwoods

After crossing a short wooden bridge at 2/10 mile, the wide and well-trodden trail begins to climb the south-facing slope, still enveloped by a dense canopy of towering coast redwoods. The understory is dominated by sword ferns, as well as redwood sorrel, a clover look-alike that carpets the soggy floor.

Old growth redwoods along the Boy Scout Tree Trail

After the steady uphill, the trail rounds a beautiful right-hand bend, hugging a hillside on the left and overlooking a valley of redwoods down to the right. Pass under a fallen redwood at 6/10 mile, then continue along the northwesterly tread as it gradually climbs to clear a ridgeline. After cresting the ridge, the Boy Scout Tree Trail begins a steady downhill at about 9/10 mile.

Redwoods within the first mile of the hike

After a brief period where redwoods are smaller and less common, the magnificent wonders return in full force at a scenic gully encountered at about 1.15 miles. Here the silent sentinels jut upwards in the dozens, and the quiet splendor of the woods is interrupted only by the wind and chirping birds. Although the trail is gradually making its way toward—not away from—the edge of the park, with the town of Crescent City beyond, one would not know it from the serene landscapes here. There are few signs, aside from the well-crafted trail, of human development along these peaceful slopes.

Redwood stand near the middle of the hike

From the fern-clad gully, the trail continues a steady descent, entering a grove again with massive redwoods that match those of the opening stretch in diameter and circumference. This is a particularly scenic stretch, with some of the most magical redwood trees in the world. Around 1.7 miles, the trail descends its first set of steps and traverses a bridge over Jordan Creek, a waterway that helps support the redwoods of the area.

Descending through an old growth redwood grove

After ascending steps on the opposite bank, there is a brief clearing, with views of a very, very tall tree ahead. From here the route drops to clear a second, smaller drainage at about 1.9 miles. Minutes later, hikers pass what seems like the largest tree of the hike on the right.

Massive redwood at about 2.0 miles

With the trail continuing to course steadily downhill, hikers are now high above the noisy drainage of Jordan Creek down to the left. The route passes through another excellent grove at about 2.3 miles and then descends a rare set of switchbacks before traversing another bridge over a minor, lush ravine. (Note: Somewhere around here, although not at all obvious or marked, is the namesake Boy Scout Tree. Other sites suggest the tree is a good distance from the trail and, with all the other impressive redwoods along the route, perhaps not worth the detour.)

At 2.8 miles, the trail descends to the banks of Jordan Creek, which performs a scenic meander resembling an oxbow. From here it is a short walk to the hike’s terminus, Fern Falls.

Although modest in stature (perhaps 15 to 20 feet tall), the tumbling cascade is a satisfying destination, surrounded by ferns and mosses and forming a small pool. (Note: The falls is most impressive during the rainy season in winter and spring.) Again, despite being very close to the western park boundary, this place feels like a world away from civilization.

Fern Falls, the hike’s terminus

Perhaps the only downside of this lovely trail is that it is not a loop, requiring hikers to retrace their steps for three miles. This is not terrible, of course, as the shift in light and perspective is likely to give hikers new views of the redwoods. The return journey involves some decent elevation gain of around 400 feet, followed by a steady descent back to the start.

More redwoods shots

All told, this moderately difficult hike makes for a great half-day hike. Allot about 3-5 hours, depending on pace and allowing for several scenic stops along the way.

Extra credit

If you haven’t had enough redwoods, stop by nearby Stout Grove—also on the Howland Hill Road—on your way out of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Here, a 7/10-mile stem-and-loop hike courses through an impressive grove of some of the area’s largest redwoods.

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Piestewa Peak (Phoenix Mountains Preserve, AZ)

Piestewa Peak, Phoenix Mountains Preserve, November 2020

Piestewa Peak (2,608’) is the second-highest summit in the Phoenix Mountains, a smattering of cactus-covered peaks in the heart of Arizona’s largest metropolis. Situated inside the Phoenix city limits, Piestewa Peak is extremely popular, but the panoramic views across nearly the entire metropolitan area make the crowded climb worthwhile. Along the way, the wide, impeccably-manicured trail passes hundreds of southern Arizona’s iconic saguaro cacti and mounts several jagged rock outcrops. The route to the summit climbs relentlessly, gaining 1,168 feet in elevation, but is relatively short at 1.1 miles. The peak is named for Lori Piestewa, who was the first female Native American soldier in the U.S. military ever killed in combat and the first woman in the U.S. armed forces to die in the Iraq War in 2003.

Map of Piestewa Peak hike, Phoenix Mountains Preserve; source: visitphoenix.com (https://www.visitphoenix.com/things-to-do/outdoors/biking-hiking/phoenix-mountains-preserve/)

The hike

Phoenix Mountains Preserve comprises several non-contiguous units arrayed across north-central Phoenix, but the hike to Piestewa Peak is in the main, largest unit at Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation Area. From East Glendale Ave/East Lincoln Drive, turn on to East Squaw Peak Drive and follow it past the entrance gate. Park in the first major parking area on the left. (Note: If full, there are plenty of other parking areas along the road with connector trails leading to the start.) Look for the trail sign at the southwest end of the parking lot; this is the start of the 1.1-mile Summit Trail, which hikers will follow all the way to Piestewa Peak.

Start of the Summit Trail toward Piestewa Peak

With the peak towering high above to the north, the Summit Trail (also doubling as Trail #302—Freedom Trail for now) begins climbing, heading northward first before reaching a first trail junction. The route continues up to the left, climbing westward to an initial set of switchbacks. The neatly-crafted path leads up to a bench with views of Phoenix at 2/10 mile, then settles into a northerly tread, continually climbing stony steps.

Looking down at the parking area at Phoenix Mountains Park

As the trail reaches a low saddle, the slope down to the right is dotted with saguaro cacti of various shapes and sizes, and hikers also get their first views down into the drainage to the west. By now, the skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix are in full view, with the city bounded by South Mountain and the Estrella Mountains to the south.

Views south toward Phoenix from the Summit Trail

From here the Summit Trail ascends the steeply sloping ridgeline, switchbacking up to a second bench and then two more at a trail junction at 0.55 miles. Here the Freedom Trail drops sharply off to the left, while the Summit Trail continues right and resumes the steady climb. Hikers can now see even further off to the west, where the heavily-populated plains stretch all the way to the White Tank Mountains.

Beyond the junction, the trail enters a brief steep stretch, but, after swinging around to the west side (nice and shady in the morning), the incline suddenly disappears, providing a mild respite from the steady ascent. This is a nice area to examine the jagged, angular rock—composed of a very old metamorphic layer that is primarily schist. As for the flora, in addition to the saguaros, one can spot ubiquitous creosote, mesquites, and ocotillos, as well as barrel, hedgehog, and prickly pear cacti.

Slopes of Piestewa Peak, with Saddleback Mountain in the distance

After treading along the west flank of the ridgeline, the trail returns to switchbacks with open views to the west, south, and east. By now, one can easily make out Camelback Mountain (2,706’), the highest peak in the Phoenix Mountains. Tall saguaro thrive up and down the spine of Piestewa Peak as hikers climb higher. At about the one-mile mark, visitors reach the steepest section; from here it is a sharp ascent up large stony stairsteps to a narrow notch. After wedging through the cleft, hikers are greeted with a choice: left or right to the various pinnacles of Piestewa Peak.

Views northeast across Phoenix Mountain Preserve

The panoramic views from Piestewa are simply excellent, as nearly the entirety of the Phoenix metropolitan area unfolds below in all directions. In addition to the usual southward and westward views, the frame looking north opens up for the first time on the hike: beyond the Phoenix Mountains lies Scottsdale, the Cave Creek area, and the McDowell and New River Mountains. On the horizon to the southeast, the Phoenix Valley stretches in the direction of Tucson, with the suburbs of Chandler, Gilbert, and Mesa in the foreground. Due east, one can see toward Tortilla Flat and the Superstition Mountains.

There are likely to be many other hikers at the peak on a busy morning, but the various summits offer a place for everyone to sit and take in the vistas. The toughest choice is deciding which way to face.

Phoenix from Piestewa Peak

When ready, return the way you came—this is a one-way hike. The downhill is, of course, easier than the steady climb, but watch your step as you descend the steps with deep troughs. All told, the out-and-back clocks in at about 2.2 miles, a roughly 2- to 3-hour journey.

Saguaro cacti from the Summit Trail
Camelback Mountain and the parking area from the Summit Trail
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Mastodon Peak Loop Trail (Joshua Tree National Park, CA)

Mastodon Peak Loop Trail, Joshua Tree National Park, October 2020

Mastodon Peak is a rocky knob in the Cottonwood Mountains of southern Joshua Tree National Park, situated in the Colorado Desert of southern California. From the modest summit, hikers gain 360-panoramic views, with the Eagle Mountains unfolding to the east, Cottonwood Mountains to the west, and Salton Sea to the south—miles of classic southwestern desert, replete with the iconic Mohave yucca, ocotillo, red barrel cactus, and other desert plants. The moderately-difficult Mastodon Peak Loop Trail forms a 2.5-mile circuit, passing through the wild oasis of Cottonwood Spring before climbing to the summit, then descending to a maze of sandy drainages, surrounded by Joshua Tree’s iconic chunky boulders. This is worthy stop for travelers driving on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix and, located near the southern boundary of the park, is considerably less-crowded than the desert Disneyland that is Joshua Tree’s Park Boulevard area.

Map of Mastodon Peak Loop Trail, Joshua Tree National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Cottonwood Spring, which serves as the trailhead for this hike, is located in the Colorado Desert, one of the two deserts that meet in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. While the namesake Joshua trees are absent in the Colorado Desert, beautiful desert oases are more abundant, and the Cottonwood Spring Oasis is one of the most easily-accessible. From Interstate 10, take Exit 168 and follow Cottonwood Springs Road northward for nearly seven miles, passing through Cottonwood Canyon. Bear right at Cottonwood Visitor Center, then follow Cottonwood Oasis Road to its end, parking at the trailhead at Cottonwood Spring. From here, a clearly marked trail heads eastward toward Mastodon Peak and Lost Palms Oasis. Take this route as it descends quickly into Cottonwood Spring Oasis.

Approaching Cottonwood Spring Oasis

Nestled in an otherwise dry drainage in the Cottonwood Mountains, Cottonwood Spring Oasis is a lush paradise dotted with California Washingtonia (a.k.a. “fan palms”) towering dozens of feet high. Interspersed among the palms are namesake cottonwood trees, also fed by Cottonwood Spring, a rare source of water in the arid Colorado Desert. Cottonwood leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow in fall. The spring itself came to life via earthquake activity, which allowed water to seep out from the earth’s surface, creating the shady oasis seen today.

Beyond Cottonwood Spring Oasis, continue southeast on the Lost Palms Oasis Trail, which doubles as part of the Mastodon Peak Loop. The wide, easy-to-follow trail climbs gradually out of the sandy ravine, ascending a set of stairs at about 2/10 mile. (Note: A brief spur on the right leads to an example of bedrock mortars developed by the native Cahuilla people who used to dwell here.)

The Lost Palms Oasis Trail passes between two ocotillos

Slight variants on sagebrush, saltbush, and creosote predominate in the Colorado Desert, but more prominent plants—including Mohave yucca, California barrel cactus, buckhorn and pencil cholla, and ocotillo—become increasingly visible as the trail proceeds. After passing through a pair of ocotillos, the trail descends a set of stairs to clear another wash before ascending again to a basin with lots of spiky yucca plants. By now, hikers also start to get more open views of the surrounding Cottonwood Mountains.

Lost Palms Oasis Trail

The trail continues to climb to a junction at 7/10 mile, where the Mastodon Peak Trail bears off to the left. Take this turn and ascend through a rock garden and stony notch, with the summit of Mastodon Peak (3,285’)—one high outcrop among many—visible ahead. The rock formations of the area are the result of faulting and weathering, while the orangish hue is a product of chemical changes that have occurred when the mineral components of the metamorphic rock combine with water.

Climbing through the rock garden toward Mastodon Peak

There are a couple points in this section where the trail is harder to follow: keep your eyes peeled for trail cairns and rock dividers that keep hikers on the right track. After ascending a set of crumbly slopes, a spur trail leads off to the right: this unmaintained track leads to the summit of Mastodon Peak.

The final ascent requires some modest rock scrambling along the backside of the peak but is not particularly strenuous. Those reaching the summit are rewarded with wide-reaching vistas: north and west across Pinto Basin to the Hexie Mountains, east to the high Eagle Mountains, south across the Cottonwoods toward Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea, and west to Cottonwood Basin, with the Mojave Desert beyond. A mere mile from the trailhead, this summit panorama packs quite the punch for relatively little effort.

Views northwest toward Pinto Basin and the Hexie Mountains

Retrace your steps back down the spur trail to the main track, this time turning right to continue on with the loop. (Note: Follow signs for the campground.) After hugging the mountain on the right, the Mastodon Peak Loop Trail descends to the long-abandoned Mastodon Mine, a gold mine which—like nearly all mines in the area—provided brief but ephemeral hopes of profit.

Remains of Mastodon Mine

From the mine, the trail drops to a sandy wash at 1.45 miles. Follow the arroyo for around ¼ mile, then leave the wash on the right, descending again—amid gargantuan boulder—to a larger wash at 1.9 miles.

The trail leaves this drainage again on the right at 2.05 miles, after which the trail follows a narrow track into a side ravine with more palms, cottonwoods, and—curiously—non-native eucalyptus trees. Emptying into yet another wash, follow the sandy basin to a trail fork. Stay left, following the wash into a wider drainage with lots of creosote bush. Just before reaching Cottonwood Oasis Road, look for a marked path heading off to the left, which leads back to the road just short of the parking area. This is the end of the 2.5-mile hike.

Skirting around toward the end of the hike, with Cottonwood Campground and Visitor Center visible ahead

The Mastodon Peak Loop Trail is a moderately-difficult trek that should take between 1 ½ and 2 ½ hours. Of course, it’s best to avoid summer—but if you are in the area during the brutal hot months, plan to hike early in the morning.

Posted in California, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Top 10 Hikes in 2020

Crown Lake, Hoover Wilderness, July 2020

Well, what a strange year it has been. In the early days of 2020, it was hard to imagine that, by March, much of the world would be dealing with a global pandemic that would take the lives of millions and usher in lockdowns, mask mandates, and economic recessions. Yet through the course of it all, a curious thing occurred: as travel restrictions eased in the United States over the summer, hiking trails from coast-to-coast saw record numbers of visitors. After the initial burrowing of March and April, the number of people exploring the great outdoors—for better or for worse—seemed to take off like never before.

The visitation statistics at Live and Let Hike seem to reflect this dynamic. After taking a hit in March and April, the number of visitors to the site rose to record levels through the rest of the year. In 2018, my previous personal best, Live and Let Hike had 84,370 unique visitors and 172,517 page views. This past year smashed that record by wide margins, reaching 140,364 visitors and 227,354 page views in 2020.

While spending much of 2020—like others—at home, I was fortunate enough to get away for several brief hiking/backpacking adventures. In January and February, before Covid-19 devastated the United States, I spent several days in southern California at Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve and completed an arduous, 3-day backpacking trip on the Ohlone Wilderness Trail in the East Bay. As the pandemic swept across the country in the spring, March through May were spent primarily hiking close to home, exploring some of the many wonderful local parks of the Bay Area. By late spring and summer, loosening restrictions allowed me to branch out a bit, with brief overnight trips to California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Hoover Wilderness, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Snow Mountain Wilderness, and Trinity Alps area. Tragically, many of the places I visited early in the year—such as Big Basin, Mojave National Preserve, and Ohlone Wilderness—went up in flames in California’s devastating late-summer wildfires.

Driving through persistent wildfire smoke much of the way, an out-and-back road trip from California to Colorado in August and September allowed me to visit family and stop at a few parks I had not visited in years, including Colorado National Monument and Great Basin, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks. The return to Capitol Reef was particularly rewarding, as it had been more than five years since I had served there as a seasonal volunteer in 2014-2015 (and produced a comprehensive hiking guide to all the park’s hikes). I also spent time with my family hiking in the Collegiate Peaks area, near Salida, Colorado.

In the fall, alas, studying and working interfered more and more with hiking, although I managed a couple of short hikes in southern California and Arizona on a trip to Phoenix around election day. As with past years, the backlog of posts from 2020 hikers will bleed into 2021, as my timing from hike-to-blog-post seems to stretch longer and longer every year.

The top five most visited posts on Live and Let Hike in 2020 were, as usual, holdovers from previous years: (1) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Frontcountry”; (2) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Backcountry”; (3) Appalachian Trail – Maryland Section 1: Pen Mar to Raven Rock Hollow (South Mountain State Park, MD); (4) Rock Circuit Trail (Middlesex Fells Reservation, MA); and (5) Cliff Trail – Lower Trail Loop (Cunningham Falls State Park, MD).

The top-viewed new posts in 2020, however, were: (1) White Rock Canyon – Arizona Hot Spring Canyon Trail Loop (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, AZ); (2) Steep Ravine – Matt Davis Trail Loop (Mount Tamalpais State Park, CA); (3) Mount Diablo via Eagle Peak and Mitchell Canyon (Mount Diablo State Park, CA); (4) Falls Trail Loop (Mount Diablo State Park, CA); and (5) Chalone Peak Trail (Pinnacles National Park, CA).

As is tradition with past years, I have compiled a list of my top ten favorite hikes from 2020. This was a very difficult choice as always, but the below captures some of my high points in an otherwise trying year.

10. Lost Lake Trail (San Isabel National Forest, CO)

While alpine lakes are ubiquitous in the Colorado Rockies, it is hard to match the splendid, peculiar qualities of Lost Lake, which boasts a rock island and stunning turquoise-green colors. The 2.5-mile out-and-back to the lake is a relatively easy jaunt from Colorado Highway 306 near Cottonwood Pass in the Collegiate Peaks. In addition to the spectacular lake, the Lost Lake Trail offers excellent views of the Continental Divide, Mount Yale, and the Cottonwood Creek drainage. This show-stopper is a must-see in the Buena Vista/Salida area of Colorado.

See my post on December 18, 2020 for a full trail description.

Lost Lake, San Isabel National Forest, August 2020

9. Buckhorn – Golden Wall Trail Loop (Dixie National Forest, UT)

While receiving a fraction of the visitors of nearby Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah’s Red Canyon area boasts similarly colorful hoodoos and multi-hued canyons begging to be explored. The Buckhorn and Golden Wall Trails combine to form an excellent loop starting and ending at the Red Canyon Campground, meandering among the red-orange knobs and lofty hillsides for four scenic miles.

See my post on September 14, 2020 for a full trail description.

Golden Wall Trail, Dixie National Forest, August 2020

8. Alpine Lakes Loop and Bristlecone-Glacier Trails (Great Basin National Park, NV)

Great Basin in remote eastern Nevada is one of the country’s least-visited national parks but harbors several prominent sights, including the tallest mountain entirely located in Nevada (Wheeler Peak), the only glacier in the state, and a large concentration of bristlecone pines, which can live longer than any other tree species on the planet. The Bristlecone-Glacier Trail leads to a spectacular bristlecone grove and ends at the base of Wheeler Peak (13,063’), which harbors Rock Glacier. The hike is easily combined with a trip to Stella and Teresa Lakes on the Alpine Lakes Loop.

See my post on August 27, 2020 for a full trail description.

Glacier Trail, Great Basin National Park, August 2020

7. Sidewinder Canyon (Death Valley National Park, CA)

The first of two hikes from Death Valley in the top 10, Sidewinder Canyon features three excellent slots, each with narrow bends, dark passages, and hidden nooks and arches. The speckled conglomerate produces some modest obstacles—but also some decent handholds—as hikers weave their way through the narrows to their end. This is certainly a top hike in Death Valley and a nice complement to #2 below.

See my post on March 14, 2020 for a full trail description.

Sidewinder Canyon, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

6. White Rock Canyon – Arizona Hot Spring Canyon Trail Loop (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, AZ)

Speaking of slots, this splendid loop hike—just over the Arizona border from Las Vegas and the Lake Mead area—traverses sinuous sandstone narrows and a hidden hot spring near the banks of the Colorado River. Arizona Hot Springs features 85- to 120-degree temperatures year-round, and the full color palate (especially reds, oranges, purples, greens, and blues) are on display on this circuit, which includes multiple layers of sandstone, lush vegetation, and clear river waters.

See my post on April 15, 2020 for a full trail description.

White Rock Canyon, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, January 2020

5. Lassen Peak Trail (Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA)

At 10,457 feet, Lassen Peak is one of the highest mountains in the Cascade Range, the centerpiece of Lassen Volcanic National Park, and one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous United States to have erupted since 1900. The Lassen Peak Trail—which gains 2,000 feet in 2.5 miles—climbs to the top of the caldera, revealing incredible views that stretch from the Trinity Alps, Mount Shasta, and the Coast Range to the north/west and Lake Almanor, the Sierra Nevada, and the Great Basin Desert to the south/east.

See my post on July 29, 2020 for a full trail description.

Lassen Peak Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park, June 2020

4. Ohlone Wilderness Trail (Ohlone Regional Wilderness, CA)

Traversing terrain as rugged and beautiful as parts of the Sierras, the 28-mile Ohlone Wilderness Trail connects Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore with Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Fremont in California’s East Bay region. The multi-day hike passes hidden valleys, rolling ridges, and scrubby peaks—including Rose Peak (3,817’) and Mission Peak (2,517’)—making this one of the most scenic hikes in the Bay Area. (Note: As of January 2021, Ohlone Wilderness is currently closed due to Covid-19 and the summer wildfires that affected the area.)

See my post on May 21, 2020 for a full trail description.

Ohlone Wilderness Trail, Ohlone Regional Wilderness, February 2020

3. Peekaboo Loop Trail (Bryce Canyon National Park, UT)

The Peekaboo Loop Trail descends below the rim of the Pink Cliffs in Utah’s Bryce Canyon and traverses a maze of multi-colored hoodoos, spires, and knobs in a strenuous, 4.9-mile stem-and-loop. While Bryce Canyon may be smaller than Utah’s four other national parks, the picturesque, other-worldly nature of the hoodoo landscape is virtually unparalleled.

See my post on September 14, 2020 for a full trail description.

Peekaboo Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

2. Golden Canyon, Badlands Loop, and Gower Gulch Trail Loop, including Red Cathedral & Zabriskie Point (Death Valley National Park, CA)

The sun-soaked badlands of the Furnace Creek area are one of the most iconic features of California’s Death Valley National Park and can be explored by way of a full-day loop hike that includes Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Red Cathedral, and Zabriskie Point. The colorful geology goes wild on this hike—with patches of bright yellow, deep red, chalky white, and even magenta and purple adorned the desert landscape.

See my post on March 7, 2020 for a full trail description.

Badlands Loop, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

1. Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (Hoover Wilderness/Yosemite National Park, CA)

Even in a year with several excellent hikes, there was simply no match for the striking beauty and blissful solitude of this 3-day backpack in the Twin Lakes area of California’s Sierra Nevada. The strenuous hike climbs through the Hoover Wilderness to the Sierra Crest, dropping briefly into Yosemite National Park and skirting five spectacular alpine lakes. This was undoubtedly the hiking highlight of 2020!

Robinson Lakes, Hoover Wilderness, July 2020

Honorable Mention:

Browns Creek Falls (San Isabel National Forest, CO)

Diablo Foothills Loop (Diablo Foothills Regional Park, CA)

Fall Canyon (Death Valley National Park, CA)

Kelso Dunes Trail (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

Ptarmigan Lake Trail (San Isabel National Forest, CO)

Rings Loop Trail (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

Snow Mountain Loop via Deafy Glade Trail (Snow Mountain Wilderness, CA)

South Fork Lakes (Trinity Alps Wilderness, CA)

Teutonia Peak (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

Trail Gulch Lake (Trinity Alps Wilderness, CA)

Posted in Arizona, California, Colorado, Death Valley National Park, East Bay, Lassen National Park, Moderate Hikes, Nevada, San Isabel National Forest, Strenuous Hikes, Utah, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (Hoover Wilderness/Yosemite National Park, CA)

Crown Lake, Hoover Wilderness, July 2020

Nestled in the mountains above the Twin Lakes area in California’s Sierra Nevada lies a wonderland of craggy granite, pristine lakes, and sun-soaked meadows, best explored as part of a multi-day backpacking trip. Here the High Sierra alpine zone separates Yosemite National Park from the much-less travelled Hoover Wilderness in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, combining the pleasures of a well-developed trail system with feelings of relative solitude and wonder. The route featured on Live and Let Hike runs through the best of it, covering a 3-day stem-and-loop with plenty of options for variation. The show-stoppers are the five named lakes along the hike—Barney, Robinson, Crown, Snow, and Peeler—as well as a brief dip into a remote section of Yosemite at Kerrick Meadow. Campsites are abundant, and epic views are interrupted only by peaceful conifer groves or thickets of quaking aspens.

The below description assumes three full days of hiking, with two nights at Crown Lake (the second day is a day-hike loop). (Note: Components of the hike may also be completed as a day hike from the Robinson Creek Trailhead: Barney Lake is a popular destination, while adventurous hikers could make it to Crown Lake or Peeler Lake and back in a long, strenuous day. This area also provides access for the much longer, 50-mile Benson Lake Loop through northern Yosemite.)

Preparation and logistics

As with any backpacking trip, preparation is critical. The first decision to make is when to hike. The Crown/Peeler Lake area is virtually inaccessible to all but the heartiest hikers in wintertime, and dense snowpack generally does not dissipate until at least June. Temperatures drop again in late September, with winter arriving again soon after. So this leaves the June-September window as the best time to hike, although also the most crowded. It is hard to predict when the Sierra’s notorious mosquitoes will be present, so hikers may want to keep an eye on recent trip reports to determine how to avoid this misery-inducing nuisance.

Permits are required for overnight trips in the backcountry of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, where this hike starts and ends. In peak season (June-September), trailhead quotas are in effect, requiring an advance reservation. Fortunately, the Forest Service makes reserving a spot relatively quick and painless online at Recreation.gov. Book an entry date for the Robinson Creek Trailhead, the primary gateway into the Crown/Peeler Lake area. (Note: This is one of more popular trailheads in the area, so booking several weeks ahead—or for a mid-week start date—is recommended.) Permits can also be obtained in person at the Bridgeport Ranger District Office in Bridgeport, California (Google map here).

Once permits are in hand, some more detailed trip planning is required. How long will you spend? Where will you camp? For the best experience, at least three days are suggested—one day in, one day out, with one day of day hiking/rest. I also highly recommend spending the night before the hike somewhere at high elevation in order to acclimate to the altitude. (Note: For travelers coming from Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay Area, I suggest dispersed camping along State Route 108 in the vicinity of Sonora Pass—which is on the way to the Twin Lakes area.) Be prepared to pack in everything you need, as there are no services of any sort beyond the trailhead. In summer, definitely pack a rain jacket and plenty of warm/dry clothes, as afternoon thunderstorms are a near-daily occurrence.

The hike

On the day of your hiking permit, head to the trailhead by following Twin Lakes Road for 13.5 miles from the small tourist town of Bridgeport, California. The namesake pair of lakes is stunning in its own right and is a favorite destination for fishing enthusiasts. As the paved entry road skirts the north flank of Twin Lakes, the towering peaks close in, with Sawmill Ridge and Robinson Peak (10,793’) to the north and the Sierra Crest and Sawtooth Ridge visible to the south. The Twin Lakes area is classic Sierras, with craggy peaks and massive granite formations, inviting backpackers to explore.

The low point of the otherwise fantastic hike is undoubtedly the logistical hurdle of arranging multi-day parking and finding the trailhead. The hike begins and ends at the Mono Village Resort, situated at the western end of Twin Lakes, which is a sprawling RV camping and vacation destination. The number of summer travelers at the resort is preposterously large, with densely-packed RVs, blaring music, a bevy of campfires, and endless car traffic marring an otherwise beautiful destination. Some people like this—a Disneyland complete with a café, general store, dozens of motels/cabins, and evening entertainment—but it is a far cry from the backpacker’s ideal that awaits. The result is a curious mélange of flag-toting, beer-swilling mobile-home dwellers with the minimalist, Patagonia-toting overnight backpackers on a quest for solitude in the High Sierras.

Entry meadow near Mono Village Resort

To park at the site, hikers need to pay ($10/day) at the entrance to the resort, a steep price that almost certainly exceeds the cost of the backpacking permit. Backpackers’ parking is in the open, dusty lot along the banks of the lake, near the boating docks. Finding the Robinson Creek Trailhead and start of the Barney Lake Trail, the entry route for the Crown/Peeler Lake Loop, is challenging. To do so, follow the entry road into Mono Village Resort, passing the entrance station, then head straight—through the noisy campground—on the road that passes between trees with yellow blazes. Follow this track to its end, by which time a break in the trees—a pretty green meadow—appears ahead; stay to the right of this meadow, eventually finding another dirt track, roped off for “authorized vehicles only,” that continues beyond the campground. This route leads to overflow parking for the resort. After hugging the edge of the meadow for perhaps ¼ mile, a small wooden sign on the right indicates the start of the Barney Lake Trail. This is the Robinson Creek Trailhead.

DAY 1: Robinson Creek Trailhead to Crown Lake (7.6 mi. one-way)

Map of Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (Day 1) – Robinson Creek Trailhead to Crown Lake; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

Day 1 of the three-day hike gets hikers up and out of the Robinson Creek drainage—passing terrific meadows and rock outcrops that are only a mere teaser for the beauty to come—and ends at stunning Crown Lake, arguably the most spectacular of the many alpine lakes encountered on the three-day trip. Along the way, hikers cover the entire length of what many visitors do as a day hike: an out-and-back to Barney Lake, a spectacular sight in its own right but that is often crowded. Beyond Barney, the crowds thin and the trail climbs steadily up to a trail junction and high-elevation shelf where Robinson Lakes and Crown Lake reside. All told, this day requires about 7 ½ miles of hiking and nearly 2,500 feet in elevation gain—the hardest day of the hike.

From the start, the Barney Lake Trail begins mildly, bearing north and then west through a dense and shaded conifer forest. The first granite outcrop comes into view on the right after about 250 yards, and a large information board minutes later offers a map and details about the area. After a half-mile—still with relatively little elevation gain—the Barney Lake Trail officially enters the Hoover Wilderness, which spans 128,000 acres and two national forest jurisdictions (Humboldt-Toiyabe and Inyo National Forests).

Entering Hoover Wilderness

A few minutes later, the trail crosses a minor tributary of Robinson Creek, offering hikers a choice: a shortcut across the wet stream or a longer but drier workaround that bends off to the right. Both routes meet up again quickly, and the Barney Lake Trail continues onward. At 9/10 mile, the trail passes through a grove of lovely aspens, and then the landscape opens up for the first time as hikers enter the first of several scrubby meadows. However, a better show-stopper lies just ahead (at about 1.1 miles), when the trees give way to epic, unobstructed views of the glacial valley and granite-studded peaks of the Sierra Crest to the west.

Robinson Creek Valley with the Sierra Crest ahead

Eventually it is back into the trees again, with conifers interrupted occasionally by quaking aspens. At about 1.6 miles, hikers come level with Little Slide Canyon off to the left. This rugged offshoot boasts a towering mass dubbed the “Incredible Hulk,” a popular destination for skilled rock climbers. (Note: Above Little Slide Canyon are two remote lakes—Maltby and Ice Lakes—and it is possible to use Little Slide as an alternative route up to/down from Mule Pass and Crown Lake. The climb is rugged and brutal, however, and route finding is difficult around the two lakes, which are flanked by high walls.)

Little Slide Canyon from Robinson Creek drainage

By 2.3 miles, hikers will begin to hear the babbling waters of Robinson Creek off to the left, with a set of small cascades coming into view minutes later. From here, the trail cuts right and begins ascending the first set of switchbacks, climbing out of the woods to mount a granite shelf with fine views back east down the valley. After reentering the brushy canopy, the Barney Lake Trail levels off again, traverses a minor stream and, at about the three-mile mark, comes close to a set of cascades along Robinson Creek on the left. Another steep climb follows the base of a near-vertical granite slab on the right; from here it is a short jaunt to the northern reaches of Barney Lake.

Barney Lake, with the Juggernaut and Crown Point

Barney Lake, the first of the five main lakes on the hike, is situated at about 8,250 feet and is a popular destination for day hikers. Flanked by steep slopes to the west and east, the lake also offers the first good views of Crown Point (11,346’) and a ridgetop known to climbers as “The Juggernaut.”

There is a sandy beach at the northern end of Barney Lake, with several rocky outcrops along the western flank that offer a fine place to stop for lunch or a snack. (Note: By now, it’s perhaps late morning on Day 1.) Expect to see plenty of crowds on a nice summer day—but the weather can turn fast, with afternoon thunderstorms creeping up almost daily.

Crossing Robinson Creek

When ready, continue along the Robinson Creek Trail, leaving the day-hiker crowds behind. The next mile is relatively flat and easy, although the path traverses several rocky patches as it follows the western banks of Barney Lake. Beyond the lake, the valley is blanketed by lush green meadows and sporadic pines. At 4.6 miles (about 2/3 mile past the start of Barney Lake), the trail crosses Robinson Creek, where hikers must rock-hop or trudge through the chilly waters to reach the opposite side. Upstream is a beautiful, though small, waterfall, one of the few prominent cascades along the hike.

As the vegetation thickens again, plunging the area into day-long shade, the trail follows the east banks of Robinson Creek and then crosses back again to the west side at 4.85 miles. After more than a mile with limited elevation gain, the trail beyond the crossing makes up for lost time: seemingly endless switchbacks lead hikers up into the granite wonderland, ascending about 700 feet in the next half-mile. This brutal stretch is made better by the increasingly picturesque scenery: streaked and cracked granite walls in all directions, plunging down into thickets of conifers, with the Sierra Crest within sight to the south and west.

At about 5.4 miles, the relentless switchbacks finally ease, but the trail continues to climb, working through a granite notch at about 5.9 miles. Finally, at 6.2 miles, hikers reach the first junction of the hike—and the start of a loop section that links four magnificent lakes. While most continue right toward Peeler Lake, I recommend heading left toward Robinson Lakes and Crown Lake—the latter being your destination for the night. (Note: Follow the sign for “Rock Island Pass” and “Mule Pass.”)

Trail junction – start of the loop section

The trail after the junction begins with a dip but eventually settles into some more uphill switchbacks before traversing a graveyard for massive boulders—a conspicuous rock field that cuts through the trees. After the boulder field, hikers encounter the first of several ponds on the right. This one is small and a dark green color, but this is just a preview for a second, larger pond that is significantly more picturesque. This spectacular, nameless body of water is pure snowmelt, taking on a beautiful turquoise hue. A break in the trees reveals the craggy edifice of Crown Point high above. Despite the attraction of swimming in this awesome spot, beware: this is probably the coldest body of water on the entire hike. (Note: Trust me, we tried them all.)

Spectacular turquoise pool

Beyond the turquoise pond, the trail stays to the left of a flowing stream, a remote waterway that is leading to Robinson Lakes, the second of the five main lakes on the hike. The trail hugs the north side of the first Robinson Lake, then follows a narrow isthmus between both lakes before rising to the best viewpoint of the lakes—roughly 20-30 feet above the shores, where one gets a framed vista of the second lake with the Robinson Creek Valley beyond. This is one of the best views on the entire hike.

Yet Robinson Lakes is a mere waypoint en route to the main prize…continue eastward as the trail traverses a series of small hills and granite jumbles. By now, the trail seems like it drags on forever. But finally, after 7.6 miles of hiking on the day, it all becomes worth it: hikers arrive at the shores of spectacular Crown Lake, the jewel of the area and one of the most stunning places yours truly has ever seen.

Crown Lake

The still waters of Crown Lake sit in a bowl between Crown Point, The Juggernaut, and the western reaches of Sawtooth Ridge—all prominent granite behemoths along the Sierra Crest. Across the lake is a patch of lush green wetlands, as well as a bulging granite knoll that appears to rise right out of the waters. The best views come by crossing the stream at the base of the lake—a traverse that is tricky and may require getting wet feet—then walking a few feet such that The Juggernaut is framed by the spectacular lake. At certain times of day, the reflections in the water are absolutely terrific.

Yours truly at Crown Lake

This is your home for the next two nights, so keep an eye out for a camping spot. While camping within 50 yards of the shore is prohibited, there are some decent, previously-disturbed sites on the east side of the creek. Others can travel onward a bit to camp in the verdant meadow—although this offers perhaps not as terrific views of the lake with the cliffs behind. While Hoover Wilderness remains relatively off-the-beaten-path, expect there to be a handful groups at the lake on summer weekends. While remote, it will not feel entirely isolated from humanity.

DAY 2: Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (8.8 mi. loop)

Map of Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (Day 2); created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The sun rises over chilly Crown Lake, the start of a pleasant, easier day than the day prior. Today’s goal is to complete, as a day hike, a roughly nine-mile circuit that dips into an isolated section of Yosemite National Park before returning via Peeler Lake back into the Hoover Wilderness. Along the way, hikers are greeted with stunning vistas, pleasant woodland strolls, and open, flowery meadows.

Morning at Crown Lake

The circuit begins by returning to the main trail at Crown Lake and continuing southward, hugging the lake’s western banks for a moment before skirting a muddy floodplain on the left. After ¼ mile, the trail begins to switchback again, rising to clear a rock outcrop with fine views looking back at Crown Lake and the Robinson Creek drainage, with Kettle Peak dominating the opposite ridgeline.

Hiking alongside Crown Lake
Crown Lake from above, with Kettle Peak and the Robinson Creek Valley beyond

After the vista point, the single-track bounds up another set of switches, then traverses a grassy shelf and cuts through a granite notch. Two ponds on the left also offer additional campsites. Amid the brushy scrub, fed by a tributary that gradually tumbles into Crown Lake, hikers reach a trail junction at 2/3 mile. Here the Mule Pass Trail bears off to the left—leading to a spectacular pass that is worthy of visit if you have an additional day at Crown Lake. (Note: The Mule Pass Trail also provides access to the brutal Little Slide Canyon alternative route, mentioned above.) But the main loop bears right, ascending toward Rock Island Pass and Yosemite.

A little beyond the trail fork, the path mounts another set of switchbacks and then cuts across a large rock slide. At about one mile, the path approaches the base of a longer set of winding switchbacks, a steady uphill section that ascends through a cleft along the east-facing hillside. As usual, the views of Robinson Creek drainage improve as one gets higher and higher, but they disappear temporarily as hikers reach the top of the switchbacks at 1.4 miles, after which the trail traverses a flat plain and descends. Just beyond, hikers get their first view of Snow Lake—the fourth main lake of the 3-day hike and, at just over 10,000 feet, the highest of the five. This serene lake is perhaps not as spectacular as the others, but it is likely to be all-but-deserted.

Snow Lake, near Rock Island Pass

After staying high for almost the length of the lake, the trail finally drops down to the banks, where the chilly waters lap up against the scrubby shores, inviting hikers to dip their toes—if even for a second before the alpine chill settles in. One can now see the continuation of the stony mountains beyond—into Yosemite.

Looking back at Snow Lake and Hoover Wilderness

Once past Snow Lake, it is a mild climb to Rock Island Pass, which marks the boundary between the Hoover Wilderness and Yosemite National Park, about two miles from Crown Lake. The Yosemite landscape unfolds beyond, and—despite entering one of the country’s most popular national parks—the subsequent section is the most wild and least-travelled part of the whole hike.

Entering Yosemite National Park at Rock Island Pass

After a gradual decline at a low tilt, the trail drops more steadily as it reenters a forest of dense conifers. The trail descends an unnamed offshoot of the Rancheria Creek drainage and Kerrick Canyon, with the main valley eventually coming into view at about 3.5 miles. After crossing a dry wash, the path climbs briefly to a stony crest with partly obscured views of Kerrick Meadow and the broader valley. Beyond, the trail continues its descent, now heading steadily northward, finally reaching a flat meadow area and creek crossing at about 3.9 miles. The area is scattered with lovely, still ponds—making for nice lunch spots in this remote section of Yosemite.

At mile four on the day, the trail reaches another junction. Bear right toward Kerrick Meadow and Peeler Lake, beginning a mild and pleasant jaunt along the length of the meadows. Interrupted occasionally by wooded thickets and stony outcrops, most of the next mile traverses open moraine and is a decent place to spot wildlife—deer, marmots, and perhaps elk or bears. Off to the east, the wooded slopes rise to the granite peak of Crown Point, while to the west, the mountains rise to an unnamed point at 10,339 feet, with Acker Peak (10,988’) beyond.

A small pond at Kerrick Meadow

At 5.4 miles, in a particularly open section, the trail forks again. The left turn leads north to Buckeye Pass, while the right turn continues the loop by heading toward Peeler Lake and Hoover Wilderness. Bear right, continuing to hug the edge of the meadow before crossing the tributary creek three times en route to Peeler Lake. At about 5.75 miles, a 10- to 12-foot waterfall careens off an orange-tinted cliff on the left, with the tumbling cascades continuing upstream.

Small waterfall along the Peeler Lake Trail, still in Yosemite

At about the six-mile mark, the ascending trail officially leaves Yosemite and returns to the Hoover Wilderness, and beautiful Peeler Lake—the last and largest of the five—comes into view. This massive glacial spectacle is deep and chilly and flanked on either side by towering peaks—Cirque Mountain (10,714’) to the north and Crown Point to the south.

Peeler Lake and Crown Point (11,346′)

Second only to Barney in popularity, Peeler Lake is often crawling with visitors on the east side, but the quiet western shores offer continued solitude and arguably better views. After stopping for a break at the lake, continue along the Peeler Lake Trail, which skirts the northern banks for the next half-mile. After passing a popular camping area at 6.3 miles, the path traverses a rocky section to clear a granite slope coming in from the left, and then exits the lake by way of a turquoise-colored cove at the northern end of the waters.

Cross a boulder-choked ravine beyond the end of the lake, then climb steeply to another, unmarked junction at about 6.7 miles. The onward path continues to follow the right-hand side of a rock-lined canyon, dropping to briefly cross a minor creek before ambling back to the right bank again minutes later. From here it is a short jaunt back to the initial junction—encountered yesterday—that marks the start of the Peeler Lake Loop and provides access to the exit route back down the Robinson Creek Valley toward Twin Lakes.

Return to the terrific turquoise pool

To return to camp, head right at the fork, retracing your steps from yesterday—dropping down initially before climbing through woods and boulder fields to Robinson Lakes and, finally, Crown Lake. All told, this day hike loop covers about 8.8 miles. Take in the rest of the afternoon and evening at the shores of Crown Lake, resting for the hike out the subsequent day.

DAY 3: Crown Lake to Robinson Creek Trailhead (7.6 mi. one-way)

Unless planning to take the absurdly strenuous alternative route—up Mule Pass, past Maltby and Ice Lakes, and down Little Slide Canyon (really not recommended; trust me, we did it)—your final day will consist of retracing your steps from two days prior, a mostly downhill 7.6 miles back to Mono Village Resort and Twin Lakes. As you descend, enjoy the clear morning skies and wonderful vistas from the shelf above the Robinson Creek Valley, as well as the numerous stream crossings and meadow traverses. The crowds return again at Barney Lake—and the final two miles of easy but monotonous walking through dense woods can feel like an eternity—but soon enough, hikers are back at the start of the Barney Lake Trail.

Robinson Lakes again

Return to your car at the banks of Twin Lakes full of satisfaction after completing a three-day, roughly 24-mile excursion into one of the most beautiful stretches of the Sierra Nevada.

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Grimes Point Petroglyph Trail (Grimes Point Archaeological Area, NV)

Grimes Point Petroglyph Trail, Grimes Point Archaeological Area, September 2020

For travelers driving Nevada’s Highway 50—the “Loneliest Road in America”—Grimes Point is an excellent spot to get out and stretch your legs, taking advantage of a short trail to a fantastic set of ancient petroglyphs. Undoubtedly more vivid and more interesting than Hickison Petroglyphs, which is roughly 125 miles to the east, these etchings in the basalt rock date to around 6,000-7,000 years old. When they were carved, this area was a lush marshland, replete with freshwater lakes, a stark contrast with the landscape today—sagebrush-laden desert flats, typical of much of Nevada’s Great Basin.

A short interpretive trail at Grimes Point Archaeological Area circumnavigates a cluster of basalt boulders and offers several informative waysides that detail the natural and human history of the area. The brief stem-and-loop is best done—perhaps like all hikes—when it is not too hot, as the entire hike is exposed with no shade to protect against the scorching summer sun.

The hike

Grimes Point Archaeological Area is situated just off Highway 50, about 10 miles southeast of Fallon, Nevada. The same turnoff from Highway 50 also leads to nearby Hidden Cave, another archaeological site. There is a well-developed parking area at Grimes Point, complete with restrooms and plenty of information kiosks.

Start of Grimes Point Petroglyph Trail

The gravel trail begins at a cut in the short, stony wall to the left of the restrooms, and then gradually climbs amid sagebrush and creosote bushes, which are ubiquitous in the Great Basin Desert. In about 50 yards, the trail forks, with the intersecting Overlook Trail heading off to the right. (Note: This steep spur trail climbs to the summit of a nearby hill, offering views of Lahontan Valley. It is excluded from this description but probably a worthwhile detour if it is not blazing hot.) Continue left on the Grimes Point Petroglyph Trail.

After a gentle climb, the first petroglyphs begin to appear amid the rock field of basalt boulders. The first of several interpretive signs—titled “Lasting Impressions”—helps visitors point out and interpret the carvings. The pockmarked holes in the nearby boulder are potentially up to 7,000 years old and typify what archaeologists have dubbed the “Pit and Groove” technique. There are also etched lines—much more common—that date to around 1,000-1,500 B.C. and take on the “Great Basin Pecked” style.

Steps later, hikers arrive at a second sign—“Marks of Time”—and there are distant petroglyphs on the boulders off to the left. Archaeologists believe that, rather than writing, petroglyphs at Grimes Point are instead a form of drawings, or rock art. By now, hikers can also see northwest across the vast basin of Lahontan Valley and the Carson Sink: this area was once part of the vast Lake Lahontan, which once blanketed around 8,500 squares miles but was mostly dried up by 9,000 years ago.

Basalt boulders at Grimes Point

Petroglyphs—and occasional pictographs—become increasingly visible as the trail continues past a junction at 1/10 mile. This is the start of the loop section; head left first to complete the circuit in a clockwise direction. Several more informative markers tell the story of Lake Lahontan and the rock drawings at Grimes Point. Yet archaeologists remain puzzled by the meaning of many of the etchings: some clearly resemble snakes and potentially human figures, but others are considerably vaguer and open to interpretation.

As the trail edges northward, then southeast, it reaches the trail’s high point at about ¼ mile. From here the path descends gradually, passing the start of the Overlook Connector Trail on the right and then returning to the start of the loop. Bear left and continue down the original stem section to return to the parking area.

More petroglyphs at Grimes Point

The entire hike takes around 20-30 minutes, although curious hikers and budding archaeologists—seeking to spot as many petroglyphs as possible—could spend hours at the site. Grimes Point is well-worth the stop for travelers transiting Highway 50 across central Nevada.

Smoke-filled Lahontan Valley

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