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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hiking Mount St. Helena

First off: Mount Saint Helena in California is not to be confused with Mount Saint Helens in Washington state. It is composed of volcanic rocks, but St. Helena is much more sedate than her northern cousin. You might even say more ladylike, being composed of rock that's been gently uplifted over the eons, rather than throwing hissy fits like St. Helens did a few decades ago.

St. Helens...
(photo credit: Wikipedia)

...vs. St. Helena
(photo credit: Betsy Malloy)
Located at the convergence of three counties (Sonoma, Napa and Lake), Mt. Saint Helena's multiple peaks can be seen from as far away as San Francisco, 56 miles to the south. From the top (on a clear day) you can see both the ocean to the west and the Sierras to the east, a distance spanning over 150 miles. From home, it's the first place I've always looked after a particularly cold storm to see if any snow has fallen; I've been known to jump in the car and drive up there just to throw a few snowballs. I know how this sounds to any of you who have just gone through the past winter on the east coast; here in mild Northern California, you take it when and where you can get it.

Paintbrush on the flank of St. Helena

Mark and I took a hike up to the top a few weeks ago, taking advantage of one of the gloriously sunny and warm days we've been having all year. There has to be an up side to being in the middle of a severe drought and hiking in early spring, I have to say, is one of the perks.

Madrone pokes out of the rocks.
The trailhead is located in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, just above the city of Calistoga (Napa county.) The park encompasses most of the mountain and is named for the "Treasure Island" author because he spent his honeymoon here with his new wife, holed up in an old miner's cabin. This romantic getaway was the only thing he could afford, being a poor writer who had yet to pen any famous novels. He spent the summer of 1880 walking around under the bay and pine trees, expounding upon the loveliness of it all (and no doubt contracting a horrible case of poison oak if,  back then, it was anything close to the lush growth we saw on our hike.)

All that remains of an old stage stop and Toll House Hotel. Picnic area of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.

This trail is memorable to me for many reasons, but the first and foremost: it was my very first serious hike. I made every foolish mistake on that trip, traveling back several times since to prove I'm not the ignorant buffoon I was in my early twenties.

That first hike up was a fiasco. A friend mentioned she was going for a day hike, and would I like to come along? Sure! I said, Sounds fun! I joined her and a few other friends and we drove up to the trailhead. We should have taken heed at the first ominous sign, when we encountered a small rattlesnake curled up smack in the middle of the trail within the first 100 feet. Safely circumventing it, we continued up, gasping from the incline we had not trained for, finally stumbling up to the top many hours later only to turn back around and conduct a (barely) controlled fall back down to the car. Ten miles is a long way when you haven't done much more than walk back and forth from your house to your car in the last year. We failed to bring water and had one orange between the four of us so even if it hadn't been a hot sunny day, it would not have been a pleasant experience. We were a dehydrated mess by the time we reached the car, and barreled down the mountain to the nearest 7-11, sucking down Big Gulps and potato chips as fast as we could.

Since then I've learned my lesson. On this hike we had four liters of water with us, along with apples, trail bars, dates and the first aid kit we always have in our pack. We were wearing shorts and t-shirts (it was forecast to be 78 degrees) but had also packed jackets just in case. Opposed to the cheap tennis shoes I had chosen for that first ill-fated hike, this time I was wearing my favorite hiking boots and heavy socks. No blisters for me this time, or ever again.

The first mile is shaded and pretty.

The first mile of trail is a zig-zagging walk up through pines and bay trees. Keep an eye out for the three-lobed leaves of the poison oak plant though; it's prevalent along this trail, especially in the forested sections. At about the one mile mark you'll see a curious granite marker shaped like an open book: this is where the newly married Stevenson's cabin was located. Look to the right of this marker and you'll see faint steps carved into the rock; this is the trail that leads to the fire road that will, in turn, lead to the peak.

Granite memorial marker at mile 1

Where the trail meets the fire road.
Once out on the fire road, the trail itself is not all that glamorous. The road is there for dual purposes: fire protection is of course a concern, but I suspect it is more heavily traveled by the technicians in charge of maintaining the many many (did I say many?) microwave, cell phone and radio transmitter towers on both the north and south peaks. It's really the view that makes this trail worth the climb. The trees of the bottom portion of the trail give way to shorter madrone and scrubby bushes, opening up a vista of vineyards, lakes and mountains and--if you luck out--the San Francisco skyline, the Sierras and the ocean in the distance.

The first view from the road. A farmer was burning that day down in the valley.

At about the two mile mark there is an outcropping of volcanic rock known locally as "The Bubbles." It's a popular spot for rock climbers to practice their skills. We stopped and watched a few climbers for a bit before continuing on our way.
"The Bubbles"

At about mile four, the road splits off; go to the left to reach the lower south peak, continue straight to get to the highest (northern-most) peak. If you choose the north peak (and why wouldn't you? why go all this way and miss out on the bragging rights?) you'll go downhill a ways into the saddle that straddles the two highest peaks. I think this is my favorite part of the trail: I like the view of both peaks on either side, with the open expanse of the valley below.

A sign that the "Fire Road" is more for maintenance.
Evidence of the volcanic origins of St. Helena
"Hey dumb dumb! You bring me gum gum?"

There's a nice little stretch of forest right before you round the corner for the final ascent. In this spot we found some snow on the side of the road, a remnant from the pitiful storm we had a few weeks before. It was fun to be reminded that it was still early spring, despite the warm weather and clear skies.

The saddle between the peaks.
A few blooms and what passes for snowfall in our dry year.

The view to the north.
The view to the south. Isn't it lovely?
The peak is a bit of a letdown actually; it's been graded flat and a cement pad has been poured to hold up a pretty impressive tower of transmitters. There's a slight hum from the electrical shed, and a black cyclone fence encloses everything to keep the curious and the vandals out of all that expensive equipment. There's a mound of rocks that represents the actual peak, with a plaque commemorating the Russian expedition that reached the it in 1841, naming the mountain after Princess Helena de Gagarin (wife of the commander in charge of Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast--another marvelous place to visit.)

The plaque. It's hard to read, even though it's been replaced at least once.
The USGS marker. Mt. St. Helena's height is 4,342 ft.
The snow capped Sierras are lined up to the east, 130 miles away.
One thing about being out on an exposed mountain in the spring: the wind can be brutal. They weren't the strongest gusts we've ever experienced (Death Valley in the springtime anyone?) but irritating to try to eat lunch with. That's where those outbuildings actually came in handy; we found a comfortable rock on the lee side of the electrical shed and were able to eat without having our granola bars fly into the next county. We spent about half an hour up there, taking pictures, watching all the lizards sunning themselves, and taking in the marvelous view.

Lunch under the tower (but out of the wind)

Our lunch view, looking west over Napa  and Sonoma valleys
 and out towards the coast.

We retraced our steps on the way down, taking a spur trail off to see an old mine shaft on the side of the mountain. You have to keep a sharp eye out for the turnoff to the trailhead; it's not well marked. In fact, the only marking was a gap in the bushes and a rusted steel signpost with no sign (if fell or was taken off I guess.) If you miss the turn and continue down the fire road it eventually meets the highway, but a mile or more from where your car is parked.

Old mine entrance, off a spur trail about a quarter mile from
the turnoff to the trailhead on the fire road.

The picnic area near the parking lot.
Back at the car we saw the parking lot had filled up completely. It was a little surprising because we hadn't really seen that many people on the trail. There are a few other spur trails in the area, and there were a lot of rock climbers in a few places along the way, so that must have accounted for all the vehicles. If you want a spot in the lot, it would be wise to get there before 9:00am. We saw a string of cars parked along the edges of the highway on our way down the road. The highway isn't very wide and is very curvy, so it would be dicey at best to try turning around or parking along the edge.

What trip is complete in our neck of the woods without a banana slug sighting?

The total roundtrip distance of the trail is a little over ten miles. The grade isn't extreme, so given the time (and water!) most people in moderate shape will be fine. There is no fee for parking or entering the park. There is, however, added incentive to finish the hike: just down the hill in the town of Calistoga there is a great little ice cream shop called Scoops & Swirls, just what a dusty hiker needs after a day on the trail. I suppose you could go wine tasting or take one of those fancy mud baths Calistoga is famous for, but I'm not sure why when you could get a big scoop of mint chip on a sugar cone and sit in the shade people watching. A free hike and a cone for $3.50; pretty good deal if you ask me.

Looking southwest toward the town of Calistoga.

For more information about the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park and Mount St. Helena click here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Muddy Footprints: Death Valley's Copper Canyon

I've been working my way through my grandfather's photographic slides and found a whole series from Copper Canyon, located in Death Valley.

The entrance to Copper Canyon (1954)

I did some research on the canyon because I got curious; I thought I knew most of the popular places, having crawled around Death Valley quite a bit in the last twenty years. I soon found out why I hadn't been there; Copper Canyon has been closed to the general public since the 1940s to preserve the multitude of fossilized tracks and artifacts residing there. It's an important find: Mary Leakey herself, among others, visited the area and helped with some of the identifications. My grandparents must have had an "in" with the rangers somehow because there were a lot of photographs of that area.

Copper Canyon from afar. (1954)

Entrance to Copper Canyon nowadays is pretty limited. The park service offers three guided hiking tours a year consisting of 15 people each. You can imagine how competitive those slots are, so they've set up a lottery system for the lucky 45 people. The dates are announced at the beginning of each year, and you can enter your name and number of people in your party by phone about 30 days before the scheduled hike. Needless to say, Mark and I have bookmarked that site and will be calling next year (this year's dates have already passed.)

(You can read about the lottery here.)

The interesting formations in Copper Canyon. (1954)

I'm sure there were much looser restrictions back in the 50's when most of these photos were taken. It was probably less regulated, partly because they weren't fully aware of how extensive the site was. The rules (and fines) have only become more harsh as the black market price for archeological artifacts has gone up. Sadly, the park service has had to resort to removal and collection of some of the fossils found due to "ongoing threats of theft and vandalism" that have occurred there. Actually, people aren't the only threat to the site; the occasional flash flood and the ever advancing erosion are constantly wearing the rock down. Of course, that same action occasionally uncovers some new specimens, so I suppose you could say it's a "wash." (Sorry about that. Desert humor.)

A massive upturned wall of fossilized muddy ground dubbed "The Barnyard" Among the impressions in the "mud" are tracks made by Two-toed camels, horses, big cats, various bird species and mastodon. (1954)
Prehistoric Two-toed Camel and big Cat tracks (1954)
Cat track enlarged

In any case, I'm pretty sure my relatives weren't up to anything nefarious in the canyon. Not only do I not recall any evidence of ancient artifacts lying around their house, I have not been the recipient of vast sums of questionable inheritance money earmarked from shady artifact dealers. All I've got are these old pictures to prove not only that the place exists, but that my grandfather was there doing his best to document these amazing things.

That will have to do until we can win that lottery and go see it for ourselves. I just hope the thieves and vandals leave a little something for us to see.

More muddy footprints. (1954)
Once again, all photos included in this post were taken by my grandfather, Wesley D. Temple.

(Much of the information for this post came from this published survey:
It's very informative and contains much more than I can convey here--and why should I? It's all there if you're interested.)

Monday, April 7, 2014

50 Years Later

This headline greeted me yesterday morning like a slap in the face on the eve of my 50th birthday:

Kind of rude if you ask me.

This morning I woke up and found an email from my dentist reminding me of an appointment later this month, a reminder from the doctor that it was time for some important tests (you know, those tests) and a letter from AARP inviting me to join, now that I'm eligible. Boy, I never used to think the world was against me.
(Photo credit: AARP)
Mark and I spent yesterday hiking to the top of Mount Saint Helena, the highest point in these parts. It's a fairly easy hike five miles up a fire road to the peak at 4,342 feet. Despite my advancing age we made it up to the top in a few hours and back down at an even quicker pace. My knees are starting to make a sound similar to bending a piece of beef jerky when I hike uphill, but I choose to take that as a good thing. Who doesn't like beef jerky?

The view from the top of Mt. St. Helena: Napa valley just below, with Sonoma valley, the coastal mountain range and even a bit of Pt. Reyes National Seashore within view. 
I'm not ready to cash it in or anything, but I'd be lying if I said I feel as chipper as I did when I was twenty-five. But I would be telling the absolute truth when I say I feel way better than I did when I was 35; that was the year I blew a spinal disc and could hardly walk before finally giving up and having surgery to correct it. It's helpful to put things in perspective sometimes.

(Photo credit:
So this morning I took a little walk to work out the ten mile hike stiffness and dropped by Starbucks for my free birthday tea (you know how we old folks love a bargain.) As I rounded a corner of the strip mall I passed a young guy on his way to work. I noticed he slowed down once I passed him and in the reflection of the store window I saw him turn and, pardon the expression, check out my ass. I had to laugh to myself and wonder: does he know he's looking at a potential card-carrying AARP member?

Things could be worse I suppose.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The DNA of Adventure

Just yesterday I discovered that my love of adventure and the outdoors is more than just something I share with Mark. Yesterday I finally got a chance to crack open a very special box that was given to me after my father died; it contained some photographic slides taken by my grandfather when my father was growing up.

My 10 year old dad in a tree, 1948.
It started with what you'd expect: some family photos at the beach, a Halloween parade in which my second cousins were made up like scarecrows and princesses, my great grandparents holding their grandchildren. Then I slid open the other side of the box and it was like stepping into my own life, but way before I was even a speck of dirt in my father's eye.

Sunrise over the Panamint Range. Taken from Stovepipe Wells, 1955
Thankfully, my grandfather was much better about marking his photos with dates and places than I am. Almost every slide was notated with the place, names of the people in them and the year. It made it much easier for me to sort them out and figure out who the people were, since it's been years since most of them have passed away.

My great-grandparents were rock hounds. They belonged to the Rock and Mineral Society here in town and loved nothing more than to search the mountains and valleys for interesting specimens for their collection. My great-grandfather would slice them open in his workshop, polishing the nice ones and even making jewelry with the jade and granite he found. I was aware of that, having visited his displays in the county fair and being the recipient of some of his handiwork. What I wasn't aware of was that many items from their collection were found in Death Valley.

My great-grandmother (checkered shirt) and friends looking for rocks and minerals for their collections. (1952)
I was dumbfounded when I pulled out the first slide and saw some of the same scenes I have taken with my own camera: the Panamint Range, the Funeral Mountains, Scotty's Castle, Badwater. And then there were the photos from places I had heard of but have never been: Copper Canyon, Devil's Hole, Sauerkraut Trail out of Scotty's Castle area. These places have since been closed to the public because they contain prehistoric artifacts.

Devil's Hole where the endangered Devil's Hole Pupfish are found.
Today it is barred off from the public to protect the fish. (1952)
Prehistoric Mastadon tracks in Copper Canyon (1954)
The red cap was placed there to show the scale of the
huge footprints in the rock.
Petroglyphs along Sauerkraut Trail, Death Valley (1954)

Back in their day it was Death Valley National Monument. It was a huge tract of land set aside for the people to enjoy, without as many of the restrictions that a National Park designation would require. So it was ok to drive out into the desert and fill your car up with rocks as long as they didn't have petroglyphs on them. I think there were gentleman's agreements that some of the more fragile areas were to be respected, but for the most part it was an open playground. And I'm happy to report that my grandfather and great-grandparents were adventurous to the core.

This photo was labeled: "Ranger Alexander, Petroglyph Rock, Jayhawker Canyon" (1954)
I can't imagine how long it must have taken them to even get there: with today's freeway system and modern vehicles it takes us ten hours of driving at sixty-five miles per hour to reach Death Valley. In 1947 there was no straight-as-an-arrow Highway 5 to speed you all the way down to Bakersfield. They would have had to take a series of farm roads across the valley all the way down, then a smaller highway through Tehachapi Pass. All of this in a big Ford without today's luxuries of power steering, power brakes or air conditioning. Once they were in the valley, they tackled the gravel roads and back canyons without benefit of four wheel drive or special tires. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I feel like a wimp with our leather seats and hoity-toity high clearance and air shocks.

Of course, four wheel drive does come in handy sometimes.
(photo labeled: "Ford stuck in Amargosa River, 1953")
If you look closely, you can see the red cap that was placed near the mammoth tracks in the back window of the car.

In the photo: my great-grandfather (nearest car), my father taking off his shirt and a friend of the family.
There were a few photos of where they stayed while they were there: Stovepipe Wells seemed to be the accommodation of choice for them; it made sense if they were collecting rocks, as most of the geodes and more recent volcanic activity seemed to be clustered in the northern part of the valley. There were also photos of some of the popular attractions there:

Stovepipe Wells Hotel, 1952
Picnic at Scotty's Castle, complete with burro, 1955.
The yellow box says "Kids! Cut out this free action photo!" 
Good to know the cereal box offers were around even then. 
Death Valley Airport, still there today, but I don't think it can accommodate such large planes anymore. (1954)
Signpost in Marble Canyon, 1955
Mesquite Sand Dunes, 1955

I still can't get over the fact that I have been visiting Death Valley all this time without knowing my family's history there. And I can't stop looking at all the photos. It's funny, some of them could have been taken just yesterday, the terrain hasn't really changed that much. But then you notice the cars, and the clothes, and if you're very familiar with the place, slight changes in the attractions. Here's one of those "what's wrong with this picture" shots:

That's right: you were allowed to drive out onto the Racetrack back in 1953, a big no-no today.

The more I think about it, the more it all comes clear to me. It's not just that I'm a tomboy. It's not that I learned to love the outdoors just because my husband likes it. I had no choice, really; I've got dirt and adventure ground into my very DNA.

I can't tell you how proud that makes me feel.

~IMPORTANT NOTE: All photos in this post were taken by my grandfather, Wesley D. Temple. I want to give him full credit because a.) I wasn't even aware he was a photography enthusiast and b.) I think they're pretty awesome, especially considering the equipment available back then, and the challenging light conditions that exist in Death Valley.~

(Another note: I'm still working on scanning all the slides and plan a few more posts using the images. If you're interested, take a look at the blog in the next few weeks--we might both be surprised at what we find!)