Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lathrop Trail, False Kiva and Murphy Point - Canyonlands NP

Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah is one of my most favorite places in the world. It may be my favorite national park, and it definitely is my favorite of the parks in Utah (with Zion being a very close 2nd). I've taken a total of  seven trips to Canyonlands since I started hiking in Colorado and beyond. Each trip has had a different itinerary involving a unique series of locations, trails, and camping experiences and each  of those adventures delivered challenges and moments of exhilaration.

Elephant Canyon in the Needles district
For me there is something special about Canyonlands that seems to guarantee a good, or at least memorable experience each time. I think it has to do with the vastness and silence of the park. There is a haunting energy to places like Canyonlands, where instead of huge mountains thrust up into the sky, you are surrounded by gaping voids of space - places where so much earth has been lost. 
looking down at the White Rim from Murphy Point
Of all the natural landscapes that I have visited on earth, my favorite places are deserts and river gorges. Deserts have a stillness and purity that appeals to me, but the most dramatic natural beauty that I have seen are in the vast canyons scoured out by thousands and millions of years of flowing water. The great rivers and gorges of the West have created the most spectacular and popular landscapes in America, including Canyonlands, Dinosaur, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Zion, and Grand Canyon national parks. The Colorado River is responsible for carving out the Grand Canyon, and Canyonlands.

overlooking the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers
Last March my coworker Chris and I set off for a weekend adventure in Canyonlands. We drove in at nigh time and camped at the Hittle Bottom campground on Hwy 128. The scenic byway that runs along the Colorado River into Moab is one of my favorite roads on earth. The Wingate sandstone cliffs that form the walls of the Colorado River gorge are astonishing and shine in the dawn light. I think camping at one of the many campsites along the river on Hwy 128 (prior to entering Castle Valley), and then driving into Moab in the morning is a great way to show new people the area, especially if you drive over from Denver and arrive in Utah at night.
Colorado River along Hwy 128
Most of the road parallels the river but one section goes through a huge valley of dark red and brown sandstone mesas and ridges that rise up on all sides like enormous ziggurats.  This valley, which holds the tiny community of Castle Valley, looks amazing in the bright sunlight, but looks otherworldly and ethereal in rainy or foggy conditions. Every time I pass through it I feel a strange kind of deja vu that I can only describe as "cosmic home". 

The first day we hiked the Lathrop Trail from the top of Island in the Sky down to the Colorado River nearly 11 miles and 1,865 feet below. Here's my hiking journal entry:

17 March 2015

This past weekend from Thursday night to Monday morning, Chris and I went camping in Canyonlands. Thursday (12th) night Chris drove us to the area outside Moab where we camped in a nice little campground on the Colorado River called Hittle Bottom. In the morning we continued on towards Moab. It is one of my favorite experiences to ride shotgun through Castle Valley on a bright spring day, feeling free and full of hope for the coming adventure. 

We drove through Moab, stopping to eat and get brats, and continued on to Island in the Sky to get our backcountry permit. We drove to the roadside trailhead for the Lathrop Canyon hike and cooked a quick breakfast of brats and an MSR meal while packing our backpacks up with everything we would need for the evening and return hike the next day. My pack felt heavy but definitely lighter than last season and definitely manageable. 

We hiked across a vast meadow of rice grass and cacti, the La Sal Mountains framing the horizon to the Northeast. Soon Lathrop Canyon came into view and far down below we could see the Colorado River, like a glassy tongue laying at the bottom of a red, gaping maw. We got to the rim and dropped down below to a shelf that led us around the pointed rim of Island in the Sky to a side canyon of bright tan and white sandstone. The canyon was like a giant, dry water slide filled with brittle rocks and yucca plants, sloping steeply to the dry wash and the White Rim below. 

We made our way from the huge alcove just below the rim of Island in the Sky, down some brutal switchbacks to a darker, brownish red shelf at the bottom of the boiling hot and bright sandstone dry wash. We then continued down off the shelf into a sandy wash that emptied out on the White Rim road, about 6 miles from our car at the trailhead. The views from the rim to the White Rim road were stunning, and some of the best I’ve ever seen in Canyonlands.

the White Rim and Lathrop Canyon Below
We rested, ate a little food, and then took Lathrop Canyon Road down below the White Rim to the deep, maroon layers of some ancient, muddy sandstone before getting to the flat, sandy wash that leads to the picnic area at the Colorado River. After a long, hot day of knee-breaking hiking we were ready to set up camp, eat, and watch the stars come out. Up river completely cliffed out behind a huge thicket of tamarisk, and down river was just huge chunks of muddy sandstone. We had no choice but to camp at the picnic area, or go back up the wash and try to find a camp on one of the sandy, yucca filled patches of cryptobiological crusts. The stars were beautiful and bright, and I used my Star Guide app to identify them and learn about the brightest stars I could see.

the Colorado River
In the morning we cooked our food with the murky waters of the Colorado River and in the chilly air of the morning, we packed up camp and headed back up the sandy wash towards the White Rim. The Airport Tower loomed in the distance, marking the general area where we would climb back above the White Rim. We actually made pretty remarkable time, reaching the White Rim road, 4 miles from the river, in under an hour and a half. We rested briefly, put on sunblock, ate an energy boost gel thing, and headed back up the red and brown wash, filled with broken shards of petrified beach sands, the ripples frozen in time.

After another hour we had paused to check out a couple mines (Chris did, I stayed on the trail asking him if it was worth the walk), then moved on up the shelves along the canyon wall before arriving back at the bottom of the glowing, white hot sandstone chute that formed the switchbacks out of the canyon. The climb up was daunting but I took it slow and after another half hour, I had climbed back up to the highest shelf below the rim of Island in the Sky.

We made our way back up onto the rim and slowly crossed back over the vast meadow of Grey’s Pasture, our legs threatening to give out with each step. It felt like a miracle to get back to the car where I collapsed into the passenger side seat. Total hiked over the two days in Lathrop Canyon was about 22 miles, hiked in a total of around 8 hours. Also, this is the first hike tracked with my new D-Tour GPS device.

We were exhausted but felt supremely accomplished. We knew we couldn’t hike down to our intended backcountry site back down on the White Rim road at the Gooseberry site, so we checked around for places to camp. We ended up going all the way back to the campground at Hittle Bottom where we got the last spot, and had a nice dinner of fire grilled brats, cheese, “beef stew”, “beef stroganoff”, pop tarts, peanut M&Ms, and beer. We also saw an adorable, tiny little ground owl just standing on a fence post like something from a Miyazaki movie. We had a campfire and I stayed up later than Chris to look at the stars blazing in the Milky Way. The following morning (14th) we awoke, packed up camp and left Hittle Bottom for Moab. We ate breakfast, and headed to Arches natl park so Chris could say he had been there. We did the short yet strenuous Delicate Arch hike. It was pretty cool but waaaaaay too many people. 

After that we drove out to Upheaval Dome and after a bit of searching, we found the unmarked, kind of secret trail to the “class II archaeological site”, the False Kiva. It was an easy hike across the mesa-top to the rim but then we dropped sharply down into a small canyon towards a huge alcove that looks out on the Candlestick rock formation. After scaling the cliff-face for a couple hundred feet, a
steep scramble up some chalky scree brings you to the deep alcove that holds the False Kiva. It was bigger than I thought and I was thrilled to be there alone (with Chris) and the amazing and iconic view. I got a few pictures of me standing in the center of the rock ring before signing the visitors register and beginning the hike back to the car.
the False Kiva, with the Candlestick in the background
An hour later we arrived back at our car, sweaty and aching, but thrilled to have accomplished one of our main mission objectives for the trip; what we called the Secret Level (I like to pretend I'm in a video game when I'm hiking). Total was about 1.6 miles in under 2 hours. From there we went to Murphy Point, hiked out 1.8 miles to the end of the point and made our last camp for the trip. We felt serene but sad to have come to the end of our adventure so soon, but we had accomplished a lot, including tons of great pictures of a beautiful and dramatic landscape, achieving our special goal of the unmarked, unmapped False Kiva, and over 30 miles of hiking in just 3 days. Not bad for our first backpacking trip of the season!
the very tip of Murphy Point on the Island in the Sky

I didn't have my GoPro for that hike but checkout my YouTube channel for some other videos

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Twin Owls Loop - Rocky Mountain NP

Rocky Mountain National Park is about an hour and a half from Denver. It is 415 square miles in size, located in the Front Range between Grand Lake and Estes Park. The park straddles the Continental Divide, with towering mountains like Longs Peak rising above fantastic glacial valleys, mountain lakes, green meadows, and aspen woodlands.

Black Lake (lower center) from Longs Peak

 I've hiked many miles through RMNP over the last few years and before 2015 I had camped there twice, in the Moraine Park Campground - along with a hundred other people. However, in the spring and summer of 2015 I hiked over 155 miles in the park and camped three times in the backcountry, by myself (scary).

Longs Peak from my campsite at the Boulderfield

I prefer to hike and camp with other people but this summer I ended up going solo more often than not. Since my car is a piece of poo, I usually get a rental car to drive into the mountains or over to Utah, but cars can be expensive on longer trips with many gas tank refills. Consequently most of my trips this summer were short and close by. Luckily, I have one very beautiful national park just a short drive away.

  Finch Lake in Wild Basin of RMNP

I made it a goal to hike to every named lake that is accessible by an established trail in RMNP, so most of my trips in the park this summer were to various lakes. For this post, I will show my most recent adventure in RMNP - Twin Owls Loop, including Gem Lake. 

The elevation profile at the bottom of the map only represents the red half of the hike. The yellow half of the trail shows how far I got before the batteries in the GPS died and needed to be replaced. More on that when I review my D-Tour GPS device. 

This hike was a 14 mile long loop around Lumpy Ridge which included the iconic rock structures called the Twin Owls. At the midpoint of the loop there was a 1 mile side trip option to Bridal Veil Falls which I elected to do. Below is the Twin Owls Loop entry from my hiking log.

Bridal Veil Falls

10 October 2015

Today I went up to the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead in RMNP and did the Twin Owls loop. The rock formations making up Lumpy Ridge are strangely shaped and reminiscent of the squashed granite formations in the Lost Creek wilderness. The Lumpy Ridge granite is closer to grayish white and seems to erode differently than the orange Lost Creek granite, forming a lot more cracks and large domes, cones and spires.
The hike started on the side of a long meadow that afforded a beautiful view of Longs Peak, the highest point in the backbone of the park. I took the clockwise direction around the loop, walking west past the front of Lumpy Ridge beneath rock formations such as the Book, and the Pear, Sundance, and of course the Twin Owls before winding up and around the mountain through Black Canyon to the north side of the ridge. From there I made a side trip up to Bridal Veil Falls, which were cool but not particularly dramatic under an overcast sky. Maybe it would be better in the spring when there are less dead leaves and more water is flowing. I went back down to the Cow Creek trail and followed that all the way to the east end of the ridge and then up on top of the ridge where I traversed along it until reaching Gem Lake. The lake was lovely and shallow, tucked into an eroded amphitheater of granite. I saw it had no inlet or outlet, but instead is sustained by snowmelt and rainfall. It was close to dusk so the lake looked mostly black but I imagine on a sunny morning it would look clear and beautiful. From there I hiked what felt like a very short distance back down off the ridge to the trailhead.

Gem Lake

I love Rocky Mountain National Park for its wildflowers and wildlife, its vistas and miles of trail and for the great diversity of habitats that you get to experience in one vast and wild place. I feel exhilarated to explore new areas of the park and I haven't found one that I didn't like. The Twin Owls Loop area is really different from Bear Lake or East Inlet valley, and if I were a climber I bet I would consider that place to be akin with Shangri La, but overall I give Lumpy Ridge and the surrounding trails a 3 out of 5, so far. I like the solitude, the fall colors, good mix of climbing and descending, the views of Longs Peak and the other mountains, and the inclusion of Bridal Veil Falls and Gem Lake. There are some campsites along the trail but none seemed particularly fun. At this point I get most excited for a hike that is physically challenging, mentally engaging, and rewards me with dramatic views, solitude and wonder.  Adventuregasm!

Gem Lake provides a short but fun hike for the family up to a lovely little alpine tarn, with a different character from some of the more austere lakes in the park. 

The Twin Owls Loop is a nice option for a mildly strenuous but moderate length hike and provides a unique view of the park's more easy going side. It would also be appropriate for a beginner backpacking trip.

I'll close with the GoPro video showing parts of the hike and focusing on the water flowing throughout the area, and Gem Lake. **all my videos look WAY better if you view them directly from YouTube my YouTube channel: Exoskeletron on fullscreen**

Sunday, October 18, 2015


Hello! Welcome to Sunbeast Adventuregasm - Hiking Adventures in Colorado and Beyond! 

This blog will be a collection of stories, descriptions, pictures, videos and some product reviews from all the hiking that I do here in Colorado and in the dramatic and stark surrounding country of the West. 

Who am I? Just a random person living in Denver. My name is Ross and I am 30 years old. I've lived in the Denver metro area for about 7 years but I was born and raised in the Fox Valley of Wisconsin. 

Hiking, backpacking and camping are my passion, and while I do not consider myself a photographer, I do bring my GoPro Hero, and my iphone on most hikes so I can document my adventures. I also carry with me a GPS device so I can track how far I've hiked (and find my way back if I get lost). So far I've hiked about 350 miles in 2015. 

I anticipate that most of my posts will include a description of the hike along with what I liked and didn't like about it, pictures, video from my GoPro, a map and profile of the trail from my GPS, and perhaps a product review if I'm using something new or have an issue with something I've used on the hike. I will try to upload most hike info soon after completing a hike, but I will also be putting up content about previous adventures. 

So, look for more posts to come, and thank you for visiting! Here's a video from one of my adventures last year: