Showing posts from August, 2011

Capulin Volcano National Monument

Location: Capulin, New Mexico
Date: August 19, 2011

New Mexico contains a great array of volcanic features that is comparable only to, and perhaps more diverse than, Hawaii.  Among the volcanic features are the vast lava fields of El Malpais National Monument, the supervolcano at the Valles Caldera, and the cinder cones in the northeast part of the state, including Capulin Volcano National Monument.  Of the many cinder cones in the region, Capulin was chosen to be protected because it is a nearly perfect example of a cinder cone volcano.

Cinder cones are conical volcanoes that are built of cinders, or small pieces of lava with many air pockets in them.  Perhaps the most famous example of a cinder cone volcano is ParĂ­cutin, a volcano that began erupting in 1943 in a corn field in Mexico.  Within a year ParĂ­cutin grew to be 1,100 feet above the field.

Capulin erupted about 60,000 years ago and is now extinct because cinder cones usually have only one life.  The volcano rises 1,300 fee…

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Location: northeast of Alamosa, Colorado
Date: August 18, 2011

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is the most recent place to be designated a "national park" in the United States, having received the designation in 2004 when the Nature Conservancy donated 97,000 acres to expand the park and create the adjacent Baca National Wildlife Refuge.  The park was originally designated at national monument in 1932.

The main attraction of the park are the sand dunes, which at up to 750 feet high (Star Dune) are the highest in North America.  The sand dunes formed at the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as sand grains originally part of the San Juan Mountains to the west were blown across the the plains and accumulated at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  A small section of these mountains are contained within the park and reach to over 13,500 feet, creating a very diverse park.

There are a few hiking trails in the park, including one along the base of…

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Location: northeast of Montrose, Colorado
Date: August 18, 2011

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in western Colorado encompasses the most dramatic section of the Gunnison River's descent from the Rocky Mountains to its confluence with the Colorado River.  The Black Canyon is a very narrow and steep canyon that the Gunnison River rapidly descends through.  The canyon itself is as few as 40 feet wide at river level, while the Painted Wall, the highest sheer cliff in Colorado, rises 2,250 feet above the river.

The park is most easily accessed from the south side of the canyon, but a few facilities are open on the north side during the summer.  The South Rim road travels along the canyon rim for a few miles, leading to several viewpoints.  There are few trails mileage-wise on the south side with most leading short distances to overlooks.

The canyon formed as the very hard rock of the surrounding area was uplifted and cut by fast-moving water.  The river is one of the steepe…

Colorado National Monument

Location: Grand Junction, Colorado
Date: August 17, 2011

Colorado National Monument in far western Colorado near the Utah border encompasses steep canyons cut from the red sandstone of the Colorado Plateau.  This monument is just west of Grand Junction and is easily accessed from Interstate 70.

A 23 mile park road travels from Grand Junction to Fruita via several viewpoints and facilities atop the plateau overlooking the canyons.  Both ends of the road begin in the valley and rapidly ascend to the plateau.  The vegetation here is the classic pinyon-juniper woodland of the Colorado Plateau where bighorn sheep, coyotes, ravens, lizards, and jays are common.

There are several different features that have been carved out of the plateau, including the Coke Ovens, Pipe Organ, Window Rock, and Balanced Rock.  The most popular canyons, including Monument Canyon, are in the northern part of the park.  Several trails provide access to the canyons as well as upland areas, and many people bike th…

Golden Spike National Historic Site

Location: Promontory, Utah
Date: August 17, 2011

Golden Spike National Monument memorializes the site where the first transcontinental railroad was ceremoniously completed on May 10, 1869.  This is where the Union Pacific Railroad, building track westward from Omaha joined the eastward advancing tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad, which originated in Sacramento.  Both railroads built tracks parallel to each other for miles both east and west of the site, but ultimately Promontory was chosen as the location to join the two.

The site also encompasses several miles of the original grades, which have been turned into driving tour routes.  The most interesting section of this drive is along the entrance road to the east of the visitor center where both tracks descend to the valley below and pass locations of cuts and trestles.  Also along this section is Chinese Arch, a rock arch named in honor of the thousands of Chinese workers that built the railroad.

The visitor center is located a…

Hyndman Peak, ID

Summit elevation: 12,009 ft (3,660 m)
Distance: about 12 miles (19.3 km) round trip
Elevation gain: 5,009 ft (1,526 m)
Class: 2
Date: August 13, 2011

Hyndman Peak, at 12,009 feet, is the 9th highest peak in Idaho as well as the highest point in the Pioneer Mountains and Sawtooth National Forest.  It is located east of Ketchum/Sun Valley and northeast of Hailey on the border of Blaine and Custer counties.  The trailhead is at the end of National Forest road 203 at the confluence of the North Fork and main stem of Hyndman Creek and is reached by heading northeast from Idaho route 75 and passing through the community of Triumph.

I reached the trailhead by about 8:00 am and the parking lot was over half full.  The first 3 miles of the hike follow Hyndman Creek to the base of Cobb Peak, the massive southwest face of which looms over the valley for the latter half the these 3 miles.  This section of the hike has a low gradient, makes for quick travel, and is a popular mountain bike trip. …

Borah Peak, ID

Summit elevation: 12,662 ft (3,859 m)
Distance: 7 miles (11.3 km) round trip
Elevation gain: 5,550 ft (1,692 m)
Class: 3
Date: August 8, 2011

Borah Peak in the Lost River Mountains is the highest point in Idaho and the 11th highest state high point in the United States.  The route to the summit is only 3.5 miles one way but gains 5,550 feet making for a very steep ascent.  Along the route, Chicken Out Ridge, at over 11,000 feet, is a very difficult class 3 section that will test the nerves of anyone who attempts it.  The peak, as well as the rest of the Lost River Mountains are on Salmon-Challis National Forest.

The trailhead is accessed via a dirt road heading east from US route 93 north of Mackay and south of Challis.  It is strongly recommended that you begin hiking between 5:00 and 6:00 am depending on your pace in order to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and lightning, which may occur regardless of precipitation.  There is a campground at the trailhead, but no water is available at…

Alice Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness

Distance: ~11 miles (17.7 km) round trip
Elevation: 8,596 ft (2,620 m)
Elevation gain: 1,600 ft (488 m)
Date: August 7, 2011

Alice Lake is one of the largest, most spectacular, and most popular of the hundreds of lakes in the Sawtooth Wilderness in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in central Idaho.  Most hikes to Alice Lake start at the Pettit Lake trailhead and can be done as a day hike or backpack.  A backpack trip loop through the Alice and Toxaway Lake valleys is perhaps the best short backpack trip hike in Idaho, and there are numerous opportunities to extend this trip throughout the Sawtooth Wilderness.

From the trailhead, the trail parallels Pettit Lake for one mile, and after this point it is an excellent trail with gentle elevation gain for 3/4 of the way and moderate gain for the remainder.  However, the first four stream crossings do not have bridges and can be difficult to make early in the summer when the water is high.  There is a small waterfall about halfway up t…