My Ten Best Hiking Experiences of 2013

Honorable Mention: Icehouse Canyon to Icehouse Saddle and back via the Chapman Trail.

View just below Icehouse Saddle.

View just below Icehouse Saddle.

I haven’t made it back into the forest regularly since injuring myself. Of the 77 hikes I’ve done this year, only 8 have taken place after my IT band injury became too extreme to ignore any longer after finishing my Mt. Whitney hike on August 1st. Those 8 only add up to about the same mileage I did over 4 days at the Grand Canyon. My injury combined with some personal stuff kept me away from the forest and my blog.

Last Sunday I decided to go on a solo hike in one of my favorite areas of Angeles Forest–Icehouse Canyon. Part of what makes the place so great is the plethora of choices on has to continue on past Icehouse Saddle if one of three directions leading to Cucamonga Peak, Ontario Peak, or Mt. Baldy. So, I didn’t need to commit to much of anything when I started from the trailhead.

Adding to my enjoyment of just being in the forest was the fact I hadn’t hiked Icehouse Canyon before during this time of year. Some of the views opened up a bit as the deciduous trees have lost all their leaves, it was much colder, the light was different because the sun is at a lower angle this time of year, and the fallen leaves added some vibrant color to the forest floor. I spent a lot of time thinking about 2013 and what I’m hoping for in 2014. My knees handled the trip excellently, though the left one was a little sore the following day. In addition to the awesome terrain; being back in the forest, reflecting, and my knees holding up were what put this hike on this list. It’s still probably going to be a few months before I can consider hiking on back to back days. I’m hoping to be able to hike the High Sierra Trail (73.5 miles from Sequoia to Mt. Whitney and finishing at Whitney Portal) in summer 2014.

10. Car Camping Trip Staying at Upper Oso Campground

Red Rock to Gibralter Dam

Red Rock to Gibralter Dam

This was a three day-two night trip in Los Padres National Forest. If was the first overnight “training” trip for many of us planning on hiking Mt. Whitney. Over the three days, we (me, Debbie, Lorenzo, Etienne, Camila, Chloe, Olivia, and Roxanne) tested out gear and went on several short hikes. The best one was from Red Rock to Gibralter Dam where we got a great introduction to the Santa Ynez River Valley.

9. Monument Peak, Laguna Meadow Loop.

Big Laguna Trail between Noble Canyon Trail and Water-of-the-Woods.

Big Laguna Trail between Noble Canyon Trail and Water-of-the-Woods.

My friend Scott guided me on this hike. For me, It was a great introduction to the Laguna Mountains. We had lunch on Monument Peak where I fixated on a breathtaking view of the Anza Borrego Desert. We hiked along the Pacific Crest Trail for a while and by the time I was trekking through Laguna Meadow I was blown away by the range of experiences especially on a hike without that much elevation gain. At 15.1 miles with only 1750′ gain, this was our last training hike together before our Grand Canyon Trip.

8. Sequoia: Congress Trail with side trip to the Lincoln Tree

Near junction between Congress Trail and Alta Trail.

Near junction between Congress Trail and Alta Trail.

I found myself in Sequoia a lot this year. I find hiking through a forest filled Giant Sequoia’s to be one of the most spectacular experiences I’ve had hiking. The fact that these huge trees are living organisms can be tough to wrap one’s mind around. The Congress Trail is a very easy hike. In terms of high reward for little effort, it’s pretty hard to beat–which is why I wanted to take my daughter there. We had an great time father-daughter bonding, car camping at upper stony creek campground and trekking through this part of Giant Forest.

7. Mt. San Jacinto

Mt. San Jacinto Peak Scramble

Mt. San Jacinto Peak Scramble

This was an overnight backpacking trip where we (me, my wife, and Lorenzo) spent the night at Little Round Valley Campground which we all thought we excellent. We hiked up the Marion Mountain Trail, ate dinner at the peak under moonlight, and hiked back down to our campsite training for our planned 3:30 am start for our upcoming Whitney Trip. My wife pulling off peak scrambling down from the summit at night (a first for her) was almost as impressive as the terrain.

6. A night alone on the summit of Mt. San Gorgonio.

Sunset from in front of the bump on Mt. San Gorgonio where I ate dinner.

Sunset from in front of the bump on Mt. San Gorgonio where I ate dinner.

Among the advantages of hiking on a weekday is it is possible to find yourself alone in some amazing places in nature. The summit of Mt. San Gorgonio is one of them and I was treated to a truly spectacular evening. The following day I hiked down the remarkable Sky High Trail (still covered in patches of snow) meeting my friend Scott at Dry Lake which offered me the amazing opportunity to traverse the mountain range.

5. Little Lakes Valley

Little Lakes Valley

Little Lakes Valley

This trip was another great car camping experience with my daughter. We stayed at Rock Creek Campground–which was excellent. In my view, Little Lakes Valley is a phenomenal introduction to the Eastern Sierras. The trail from Mosquito Flat to Morgan Pass is remarkable in how much of the terrain is lake, stream, and/or meadow. Starting out at over 10,000′ in elevation and making it up to over 11,000′ on a fairly gradual 3.5 mile one way trip to Morgan Pass yields an incredible opportunity to experience the high country of the Sierras with comparatively little effort.

4. Alta Peak

Alta Trail, JCT Alta Meadow to Alta Peak

Alta Trail, JCT Alta Meadow to Alta Peak

We (my wife, Etienne, and I) did this as a training hike for Mt. Whitney. For those living in the LA area who hike San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, and Mt. Baldy as Whitney training, I would add this to the list or replace any one of the above with this one–especially if your Whitney plan is multi-day. We started at the Sherman Tree Trail, hiked up the Alta Trail where the view at Panther Gap is stunning. We spent the night at Mehrten Meadow (though in the future I’d try to make it to Alta Meadow) and the following day hiked to the peak and then back down taking the trail to Lodgepole. The view from Alta peak was incredible and includes a view of Mt. Whitney for appropriate inspiration.

3.Snowshoeing in Giant Forest.

Moro Rock Crescent Meadow (road) January 2013

Moro Rock Crescent Meadow (road) January 2013

This was my first return to Sequoia since the mid 1970’s. Scott and I car camped at Potwisha Campground (where it got freezing cold at night). In January, with a temperature reading of 6 degrees at the trailhead, Scott and I were treated to phenomenal experience snowshoeing through Giant Forest. I was completely blown away and saw the place as Nature’s Version of New York City.

2. Mt. Whitney via Whitney Portal

Mt Whitney 2013.

Mt Whitney 2013.

This was a truly remarkable trip. It ranks second only because I went last year as well. Otherwise it’s really a coin toss with number one. This was the culmination of a lot of intense training with my wife for over a year as she went from novice hiker to backpacker. We we joined by our good friends Etienne and Camila. I never got around to blogging about it. The experience was radically different than what I had the year before. This more than any other hike instilled in me the impact of what we bring to a hike as a key component toward what we experience. I added lots of photos and dated them so it’s easy to see what was from 2012 versus 2013. Of potential interest to others is the scouting I did for campsites near Consultation Lake, where I might stay at the end of my hoped for High Sierra Trail trip in summer 2014.

1. The Grand Canyon rim to rim and back again.

The Grandeur of the  South Kaibab Trail as seen just below the Tonto Platform.

The Grandeur of the South Kaibab Trail as seen just below the Tonto Platform.

This was a four day backpacking trip I did with my friend Scott. It was a phenomenally diverse experience. I was a surprised by it’s intimacy as I was impressed by all the big things it’s been described as being. For me, the best stretch was the North Kaibab Trail, but in many ways that’s also a coin toss. It is clear why it is regarded as one of the “wonders of the world”. I wrote about 13 things that I think make it so, but there are significantly more than that …

A Patch Teeming With Lady Bugs

One of my favorite things about hiking is the unexpected interactions with life in the forest. Yesterday, on my weekly family and friends hike, we came across a patch teeming with lady bugs along the Gabrieleno Trail. My friend Lorenzo and I took great delight in photographing and watching them well past the time when the rest of our group had lost interest. I’ve only seen this many one other time which was with my brother in August 2011 along the Vincent Gulch Trail by the San Gabriel River. Click on an image to enlarge and begin a slide show.

Weekly Nature Question #8: What Species of Snake is This?

My Weekly Nature Question is about my asking for help from the blogosphere (and other internet users) to learn about species living in Angeles Forest and to share that learning with others.  I’m really hoping that this turns out to be a viable and meaningful way to share knowledge.

The answer to last week’s plant question turned out to be Miner’s Lettuce and it is edible.  As more information is shared, it will appear on the Miner’s Lettuce Forest Life Page where there are already links to more information.

It turned out to be a good thing that I missed a week of this series largely due to my trip to Sequoia.  I didn’t know what the species was until last night when I saw that Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel identified the species through my Hiking Angeles Forest Facebook Page.  Thanks Dianne!  It turns out my photos are from the dried out period of the plant cycle.  So, that probably made it more difficult to identify.  I plan on going back to the trail in a month or two when the plant is green and take photos and add them to the forest life page.

This week nobody sent me any links to blog articles and I was unable to find any articles using the search feature in the WordPress Reader.

If you notice this post and have written (or decide to write) a post on Miner’s Lettuce, send me a link and I will add a link to its forest page and create a reference page like the one for 1Year. 365 Species to your blog.

This Week’s Question:  What species of snake is this?  I’m pretty sure it’s a gopher or garter snake but don’t know which species.

January 2013

January 2013

Above photo taken from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail

January 2013

January 2013

Above photo taken from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail

January 2013

January 2013

Above photo taken from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail

January 2013

January 2013

Above photo taken from the Lower Sam Merrill Trail

Snow Hiking in Los Angeles: The Baldy Bowl Trail

This is the second post in a series on snow hiking in Los Angeles.  My first post in this series emphasized an opportunity to hike at relatively low elevations closer to the edge of the city where a recent storm is required for snow to be present and no chains or special equipment are needed.

This one goes to the opposite extreme where snow is guaranteed until sometime in spring.  At 10,064 feet, Mt. Baldy is the highest point in Los Angeles County.  The trailhead from Manker Flats is above 6,100 feet and can often be in snow as well.  There is a ski area and restaurant up at Baldy Notch (elevation over 7,800 feet) and it’s worth taking a look at the weather conditions posted on their website (which typically includes an update on road conditions) before making the trip.  Unlike treks at lower elevations, it is important to carry chains.  It is also important to have microspikes, crampons and/or snowshoes as deep snow and icy conditions are common.  Due to over 3,900 feet of gain on this hike, conditions can change dramatically from a thin layer of mostly slippery ice to snow knee deep or more.  Therefore, I now carry both microspikes and snowshoes.

View of West Mt. Baldy from Mt. Baldy with Catalina Island in the distance.

View of West Mt. Baldy from Mt. Baldy with Catalina Island in the distance.

Interestingly, both times I’ve hiked the Baldy Bowl Trail (aka The Ski Hut Trail) in the snow it was with someone I met on Mt. Baldy last summer while I was training to hike to Mt. Whitney.  If I didn’t write this blog, I wouldn’t have stayed in contact with either of them.

The first hike was with Charles.  At that time, I only had snowshoes and the terrain from the trailhead to the ski hut was mostly soil with patches of ice and some stretches of shallow snow and I was better off carrying my snowshoes up to the ski hut on my back pack.   So, this portion of the trek was slow going and a little slippery for me.  Charles had crampons and experienced no problems.

Mt. San Antonio Ski Hut

Mt. San Antonio Ski Hut

At the ski hut, it didn’t look good from a time perspective for me to make the summit.  There were others there who all had crampons.  One of them had an ice axe and was about to head straight up the bowl.  Another had hiked the bowl in snow numerous times.  It was getting late and we all had concerns about the safety of my hiking the trail without crampons as it would get more icy and slippery after the mountain began to block the sun shining on the trail.  Charles could easily make the summit because his crampons would make it easy to negotiate the trail after dusk.  So, Charles and I agreed that he would go on ahead while I put on my snowshoes.  I would turn back after around 2:00 pm and talk to him later.  After everyone else left and I had my snowshoes on, I met a couple skiers who trekked up to the ski hut (which is nowhere near the maintained ski slopes) and were eventually planning to ski down a ridge that had been very good to them in the past.  At this point I realized that there were at least as many people hiking this trail in the snow as there are without it and that there is a large range of equipment used and activities pursued.

A good thing about so many people hiking this trail in snow is the trail is made clear by those who arrive early.

A good thing about so many people hiking this trail in snow is the trail is made clear by those who arrive early.

It was a pleasure to get my snowshoes on and start snowshoeing in deeper snow as I made my way up the trail.  It turned out to be quicker for me to hike through the rocky base of the bowl in snow than it is in normal conditions as enough snow filled in the space between rocks and made a more uniform surface.

Looking up at the ridge from the base of Baldy Bowl.

Looking up at the ridge from the base of Baldy Bowl.

After passing through the comparatively flat base of the bowl the trail gets steep and the snow became much deeper.  As a result, the advantages of snowshoes on this part of the trail became apparent.  My feet didn’t go as far into the deep snow and the Televators on my snowshoes which support raising my heal while keeping the snowshoe flush with the terrain made it significantly easier to handle the steeper slopes.

One of the steeper portions of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

One of the steeper portions of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

With my new found speed, it didn’t take long to pass Charles.  It soon became clear that I would have a shot at making the summit after all.  I caught up with another hiker named Jim and joined him for the last part of the way to the summit.

Kyle Kuns at Mt. Baldy (photo by Jim).

Kyle Kuns at Mt. Baldy (photo by Jim).

There were excellent views all the way down the mountain.  I was once again slowed below the ski hut allowing Charles to catch up with me after he also made the summit.

View looking down the Baldy Bowl Trail and across toward Thunder Mountain, Telegraph Peak, Timber Mountain, Cucamonga Peak, and Ontario Peak. (click to enlarge).

View looking down the Baldy Bowl Trail and across toward Thunder Mountain, Telegraph Peak, Timber Mountain, Cucamonga Peak, and Ontario Peak. (click to enlarge).

The next hike with Scott was significantly different and he also blogged about it.  Learning from my last trek, I bought a pair of Kahtoola microspikes  which worked fantastically on the lower part of the trail where there was more soil and slippery ice than snow.  These are lightweight enough (and would have been very helpful on my trek to Mt. Whitney) that I’ll be bringing them on this year’s summer trip to the High Sierras.  A key component of this hike was the weather.  The hike began under clear skies with clouds off far in the distance below us.

Clouds off in the distance as seen from the Baldy Bowl Trail below the Ski Hut.

Clouds off in the distance as seen from the Baldy Bowl Trail below the ski hut.

We saw the clouds rolling in as we made our way up the mountain.  After we crossed the base of the bowl and started making our way up the steeper part of the mountain, the clouds started reaching our level.  The view south began to be completely blocked by incoming clouds.

Clouds rolling in along the steeper part of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

Clouds rolling in along the steeper part of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

When the trail met the ridge the view was split between clouds coming up quickly from the south and clear skies to the north.

Clouds to the south, clear skies to the north along the Ridge of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

Clouds to the south, clear skies to the north along the Ridge of the Baldy Bowl Trail. (Click to enlarge)

As we moved higher, the clouds continued moving in quickly and began to darken causing me to start to think about the possibility of getting caught in a snowstorm.

View south from the ridge along the Baldy Bowl Trail.

View south from the ridge along the Baldy Bowl Trail. (click to enlarge)

As impressive as the speed that the clouds were overtaking us was their depth.  At least a few hours from the trailhead, it became unclear whether or not we could summit and make it back down the mountain before snow started.  In addition, Scott was breaking in new hiking boots and it was his first time snowshoeing causing him to be more tired than on his previous summit.  So, we both decided that we wanted to head back.

Tall clouds starting to overtake the higher elevations.

Tall clouds starting to overtake the higher elevations. (Click to enlarge).

The way down was filled with amazing views of fast swirling clouds.  The sky was so turbulent that the scene would usually change before I could snap a photo.

Swirling and turbulent clouds made an amazing trek down to the trailhead.

Swirling and turbulent clouds made an amazing trek down to the trailhead.

At times it felt mostly sunny with only a hint of the cloud formations.

View along the base of the bowl just above the Ski Hut.

View along the base of the bowl just above the Ski Hut. (click to enlarge)

At others we were in the mist of the clouds.

Scott Turner photographing the mist just below the Ski Hut.

Scott Turner photographing the mist just below the Ski Hut.

Once we got below the clouds we were treated to a pretty clear view out to the ocean.

View out toward Catalina Island down near the bottom of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

View out toward Catalina Island down near the bottom of the Baldy Bowl Trail.

I had two very different days where I thought about different challenges.  Hiking in the snow can require special equipment like snow shoes to be safe.  The trail looks different in the snow and will be significantly harder to follow in a storm where lack of visibility can become a serious issue and the trail can disappear with snowfall.  Driving home could become a problem without chains.  All this and more should be considered in determining when to turn back.  The mountain will be there another day.  As recently as last Sunday someone died on this mountain.  This is a hard climb without snow.  If you go, be careful and be willing to turn back too early rather than too late.  That said, this place is amazing and I’ve taken numerous photos of the Baldy Bowl Trail these past two years on over ten assents.  If you’re ready for it, it’s a must do.

Nature’s Version of New York City

Last weekend I journeyed outside of Angeles Forest to Sequoia with Scott Turner.  Scott is the author of the blog 1000 Miles and has already written excellently about our hike on the Marble Falls Trail from our campsite at Potwisha, our snowshoeing trek through Giant Forest, and on Giant Sequoia trees.

As I was snowshoeing through Giant Forest I became aware that my reactions to the trees and forest were similar in some ways to my reactions to the buildings and urbanism of New York City.  Like the skyscrapers of New York, I was in awe of the size of the trees and found them just as difficult to photograph for the same reasons.  I couldn’t get far enough away from a tree to angle the camera in a way that didn’t yield large distortions because other trees got in the way.  Even when the forest opened up a bit allowing a reasonable photo of an individual tree, other trees around it were close enough to falsely appear to dramatically angle inward.  The distortions remain even after cropping out about half of an image that was already in portrait mode to begin with as shown in the cropped photo below.

Scott Turner next to a Giant Sequoia along the Crescent Trail.

Scott Turner next to a Giant Sequoia along the Crescent Trail (click on image to see it shrunk down to fit your screen).

It was during my early attempts to photograph individual trees that I realized that the spatial composition of Giant Forest is proportionally similar to New York City.  So, I started looking for other similarities.  Skyscrapers typically have a ground floor that is articulated differently than the floors above.  The ground floor usually emphasizes the entryway and often has display windows, views into a lobby, or other features to give the building a more human scaled street presence.  Similarly, the transition from the trunk to the root system in the Giant Sequoias is so large as to be proportionately the same scale as the entryway of a skyscraper.  In the snow where the tapering out of the trunk at the base creates a surface for the snow to rest upon, the tree has an even more clearly articulated human scaled trail level presence.

Kyle Kuns at the base of a Giant Sequoia taking in the scale of the tree's connection to the ground.  Photo by Scott Turner.

Kyle Kuns at the base of a Giant Sequoia taking in the scale of the tree’s connection to the ground. Photo by Scott Turner.

I’m told that New Yorkers can easily spot tourists by noticing them stopping frequently to look up, often in a jaw dropped daze as they marvel at the skyline, at times dangerously oblivious to what is taking place at the street level around them.  Residents, on the other hand, are accustomed to the massive non-human scale of the skyscrapers.  On my three visits to New York City, I also looked upward frequently as I was often awestruck by the skyscrapers height and interested to see the tops of the towers and how they met the sky.  In the Giant Forest, I found myself stopping just as frequently along the trail, jaw dropped, and looking up to marvel at the impressive height of the trees for the same reasons.

Looking up from inside as small cluster of Giant Sequoias

Looking up from inside as small cluster of Giant Sequoias.

For brief periods of time the awe inspiring verticality of the environment becomes somewhat peripheral to the immediate ground level focus required to move through the environment.  I say peripheral because there is always an awareness of the skyline even when one is looking straight ahead.  In both places there is a rich and varied texture to the ground level experience.  The skyscrapers in New York City come in various shapes, heights, materials, architectural styles, and functions.  There is a long history of their construction where things like technology and materials evolved allowing for more extraordinary projects to be realized.  The trees in Giant Forest also come in different heights, trunk thicknesses, shapes of their branches, and species.  Some trees have lived thousands of years, some are just taking root.  Both places are full of fascinating juxtapositions.

Trail level texture of Giant Forest.

Trail level texture of Giant Forest (click to enlarge).

In both places there are wonderful surprises.  A good example from New York City is the base of the Citicorp Building.  My favorite one from this trip to Giant Forest was seeing a young Giant Sequoia (taller than me) growing out of a fallen one.

Young Giant Sequoia growing out of a fallen one.

Young Giant Sequoia growing out of a fallen one.

Both places are densely packed with tall structures covering large areas.  They are places of verticality.  Moving through them yields few opportunities for a long view that isn’t simply a view down a street or trail.  There are stretches (usually not very long)  where the buildings or trees that surround while spectacular in another context are average for these places.

Densely packed verticality along the Alta Trail.

Densely packed verticality along the Alta Trail.

Those stretches are important and make any horizontal opening up of the ground level special.  In New York City there are small parks (by NY standards) like Bryant Park and plazas like that of the Seagram Building.  In the Giant Forest there are clearings that provide the horizontal space to bask in more sunlight (when it’s not cloudy or snowing) and  be far enough away from the trees to better take in their splendor (and take less distorted photos).

Small clearing along the Crescent Trail.

Small clearing along the Crescent Trail.

With all their verticality, both places also possess magnificently grand horizontal space where the skyline can be seen with little distortion.  These are places of radically different texture than what surrounds them and of a large enough scale to provide a captivating contrast.  Functionally, other things are going on in these places.  Central Park is the obvious example from New York City.  Meadows (which are technically a different ecosystem than the forest they are surrounded by) are what Giant Forest has for grand horizontal space.

Crescent Meadow (click to enlarge).

Crescent Meadow (click to enlarge).

In New York City, there are large projects involving multiple buildings that create a local place unto their own.  The cluster of buildings is recognizable from afar and there is a real sense of being within their domain as a unique place within the city.  Rockefeller Center is a good example.  In Giant forest there are several impressive groups of trees that grew up together forming a clearly defined local inside and outside.

View looking at the outside of the Parker Group.

View looking at the outside of the Parker Group.

View looking up from inside the Founders Group.

View looking up from inside of the Founders Group.

New York City has numerous individual skyscrapers (like the Empire State Building) that are world famous for their size and design and are destinations unto their own.  Similarly, Giant Forest has several trees that are world famous for their phenomenal size and beauty.  The Giant Sequoia known as The President is an excellent example.  National Geographic recently published an article and a video about The President.  It is worth watching the short video because it shows an elaborately created photo without any distortion that gives the best sense of scale of these amazing trees that I’ve seen.  According to National Geographic, this tree is 27 feet in diameter, 247 feet tall, holds nearly 2 billion leaves, is 3,200 years old, and still growing.  So, having learned about The President before going to Giant Forest, I made it a point to visit it and was definitely impressed by its magnificence.

Kyle Kuns in front of The President.  Vertical Panorama photo by Scott Turner

Kyle Kuns in front of The President. Vertical Panorama photo by Scott Turner

It got pretty cold (my car thermometer read 6 degrees when we left the visitor’s center) on this snowshoeing trek.  We even found ourselves trekking through a light snow fall.  Stopping for long made my hands get painfully cold.  The place is so photogenic, I stopped often anyway and took many photos of the Giant Forest, I even got a couple with bears.  I’m looking forward to returning.