Reflections on Southern Utah's warm colors and a remedy for the Boise winter blues.
Related: (See Southern Utah Hikes/Bikes category listed on the right)
Zion National Park: Double Arch Alcove Hike
Angels Landing in Zion: Not for the Faint of Heart
Hiking Mt. Kinesava - Zion National Park
Utah Mountain Biking: The Cowbell and The Cryptobionic Highway
Canaan Mountain via Squirrel Canyon
Double Arch Alcove Hike: Zion NP
Boulder Mail Trail to Death Hollow in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the southwest
Paria Canyon - Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
In color meaning and symbolism, red is a physical stimulant. It triggers our adrenal gland, causing us to have energy and take action. It makes us more sensitive to our environment and invigorates us. Orange is the color of warmth, vitality, creativity, and it too increases our activity levels and gives us a sharper awareness of our surroundings. It's no wonder Fred and I escape the low-energy and dispassionate grays and browns of wintertime Boise to reinvigorate in Utah's red rock country. Somewhere between Paragonah and Parowan, on our drive southward to St. George and the Zion area, the landscape transforms from hints of pink to to the blazing oranges and reds of Red Mountain Wilderness. Or we travel to Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Staircase-Escalante areas for adventures in chocolate-brown, pink and maroon sandstone canyons. Like bees to flowers, we have found our way to Southern Utah many times over the past 20 years and there's so much yet to see.
If you had to identify one element responsible for the warm colors of Southern Utah, an element that jolts us out of our winter blues and spurs us onto adventure, it would be .....iron.
The Navajo Sandstone exposed in Zion National Park shows off the many colors that iron creates. When iron is exposed to oxygen, it produces varying colors; and these colors depend on what form of iron oxide is present. The accumulated sand grains get coated with iron oxide. Hematite is the iron oxide responsible for the saturated reds. Limonite is responsible for the yellows. It's believed that white sandstone formerly had color but then was "bleached" by ground waters that dissolved iron oxides from the upper heights of the Navajo Sandstone. There's a reason Zion gets over 4 million visitors a year: it has the thickest exposure of the colorful and cross-bedded ancient sand dunes that make up the Navajo Sandstone (2,200 feet).
Zion Canyon from cliffs of Mt. Kinesava
Bridge Mountain mid-horizon, East Temple to the left of it.
Hiking West Rim Trail after a March snowstorm - looking into Zion Canyon at Virgin River
Zion's West Rim Trail after a March snowstorm
Cross bedding of ancient sand dune - Zion National Park
Overlooking Zion Canyon and Virgin River from Cable Mountain
Angels Landing lower left
West Rim Trail - Zion National Park
Emerald Pools - Zion National Park
Zion's East Rim Trail
Portions of this trail now closed due to large rockfall
The color red is pervasive on the Colorado Plateau, a 130,000 square mile province roughly centered on the Four Corners region of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. It's fitting that, when one says "Colorado", one is also saying "the color red" in Spanish. It seems that the Colorado River has had a few names over time, but its name literally describes the red sandstone found in its waters. The Colorado Plateaus Province has 9 national parks, and I am lucky to have hiked or walked in all of them. It also contains 18 national monuments, of which Grand Staircase is my favorite. For our 40th birthdays, Fred and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim and back again the next day; for our 50th birthdays we hiked north rim to south rim. It is an experience never to be forgotten. Rim-to-rim hikers see just about every color of the spectrum in the sediment layers of the 5,000-foot drop and gain in the Grand Canyon, as well as the brown Vishnu Schist - the basement rocks of the Grand Canyon.
The Colorado Plateau Province: South-Southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, southwestern Colorado and Northwestern New Mexico. Nearly centered over the "Four Corners" region.
map from nps.gov
Sometime around 2,000 B.C. until 500 A.D., scientists say, nomadic hunter-gatherers from the Desert Archaic culture used red ochre paint to make pictographs of human-like figures onto the sandstone walls of what is now Horseshoe Canyon. It's a long drive for a short hike, but distances don't matter when standing in front of this incredible wall. As we stared at these red, almost eerie-looking figures, a park ranger quietly came up the path to sit on a nearby fallen cottonwood trunk, as he had almost every day to prevent vandalism. More recently, geologists date the rock art panel between 0 A.D. to 1,100 A.D. It has been interpreted as a sacred place for Archaic hunters.
The significant discovery of an old leather bag eroding from sand by visitors in 2005 helped archaeologists piece together a scenario of the Archaic hunter who placed it near the Great Gallery wall. The bag contained three small leather pouches, a water-rounded stone, and marsh-elder seeds. Two of the pouches were stained red by hematite, one of which held chert to make arrowheads; the other probably held pieces of this ore. The seeds were an emergency food cache. The flintknapper/hunter had collected more chert flakes than he needed and was heading southwest to his home. This was an excellent place for him to stash extra hunting tools and food in case of emergency, and an easy landmark to remember and describe to kin. He was walking through a natural travel corridor.
The "Holy Ghost" and the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon
Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah
Newspaper Rock - San Juan County, Utah
One of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the country.
Fremont, Ute, and Anasazi Native Americans contributed to this panel. Designs were created by pecking through the desert varnish to the lighter rock beneath.
Mesa Arch at Sunrise - Canyonlands National Park
The best spot to photograph this arch was already taken by a photographer and his tripod at 5:30 a.m.
Still more than enough places for photographs!
Death Hollow in Grand Staircase/Escalante' National Monument
(these are the actual colors - not saturated with Photoshop)
One of the most colorful canyons I have been in
In her book "Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert," Terry Tempest Williams effectively conveys how it feels to be in the red rock country. To read her words is to feel the warm sun, the rough sandstone, and the enormous space in the red rock canyons and mesas. She reflects on its physical and spiritual aspects. She grew up in Utah and is also an educator and environmental activist. The more I visit this beautiful place, the more I can relate to her writings. She reminds us to slow down and really "see" and contemplate the land. If we do that, then we can "hear the voice of our conscience. If we listen to that voice, it asks us to be conscious. And if we become conscious, we choose to live lives of consequence." Another quote from this book:
"Time and space. In the desert there is space. Space is the twin sister of time. If we have open space then we have open time to breathe, to dream, to dare, to play, to pray to move freely, so freely, in a world our minds have forgotten but our bodies remember. Time and space. This partnership is holy. In these redrock canyons, time creates space--an arch, an eye, this blue eye of sky. We remember why we love the desert; it is our tactile response to light, to silence, and to stillness."
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, Northern Arizona - "The Wave" in Coyote Buttes
Coyote Buttes in Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Only 20 people per day are allowed; we were able to get permits twice during Christmas Holidays before it became so popular!
Petroglyph at confluence of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness - Arizona
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Palmer's Penstemon in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah
Snow Canyon State Park - St. George, Utah
Fred on Upper Muley Twist Trail - Capitol Reef National Park
Off of Burr Road, south of Boulder, Utah
Great views of the Waterpocket Fold, hike through canyons and on top of mesa
Walking through snowmelt from higher up on plateau, but the water wasn't too cold!
Along Taylor Creek on the Double Arch Alcove Hike
Zion National Park Kolob Canyons section
Leaves were all rotating counter-clockwise in this small pond.
National Park Service. Analysis and Dating of the Great Gallery tool and Food Bag.
Natural History Museum of Utah. Bold Figures, Blurred History: The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon.
Weaver, Lance. 2020. What Gives Utah's "Red Rock Country" its Color? Utah Geological Survey.
Colors of the Navajo Sandstone. nps.gov.
sensationalcolor.com. Color Symbolism and the Meaning of Red.
Navajo Sandstone. Utah Geology.com.
Seldom summited, this remote, jagged mountain out of Jennie Lake with views of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains is a rewarding Class 2-3 hike, and is not as intimidating as it looks. Bag Points 8610 and 8568 on the way.
Jackson Peak: 8,124' - Boise National Forest
The 10 Essentials to Carry with you on Every Hike
North face of Wolf Mountain, Boise National Forest, 8,876'
Location: Northeast of Idaho City near central Idaho, Boise National Forest.
Distance/Elevation Gain: 12.5 miles round-trip, 3,800' net elevation gain including recovering lost elevation if you do both Wolf Mountain and Peak 8610. Trailhead = 6,080', Summit of Wolf Mountain = 8,876'.
Difficulty: Moderate Class 1 for 4.4 miles to Jennie Lake; Strenuous Class 2 scramble past Jennie Lake; Class 3 minimal exposure using hands to propel up rocks last 30' to summit.
Coordinates: Trailhead = 43.9932 -115.4521, Wolf Peak Summit = 44.0099 -115.3882
Date Hiked: 10/02/20
Maps: Boise National Forest Map - USDA, Jackson Peak Quadrangle, 7.5 min topo map, our GPS tracks below.
Driving directions: Jennie Lake Trailhead. Drive 21 north from Boise past Idaho City. Pass over Mores Creek Summit and descend. Just past Whoop-um-up park and ski area, turn east (right) onto forest road 384. The road is well-maintained, follow 384 for 6.3 miles to the junction with FS 348, just before the Willow Creek campground. Follow 348 for 7.4 miles, to a sign reading "road closed 0.2 miles". Take this and park at the trailhead to Jennie Lake.
Geology: Challis intrusive rocks (Eocene, 50 million years ago). See "geocurious" box below.
Considerations: Jennie Lake is a popular backpacking/hiking destination to view spring/summer wildflowers.
History of the name "Wolf Mountain": Arval Anderson, who made the first maps of the Sawtooth Wilderness Area for the Forestry Service in 1927, saw wolves on this mountain. The brass benchmark on top of Wolf Mountain is engraved with the date "1926" (see below). From Idaho: A Climbing Guide - Arval Anderson, Early Sawtooth Explorer and Surveyor."
On the way back from the summit
Fred, Anna, and Sylvie the dog
On ridge between Wolf Mountain and Jennie Lake basin
Points 8568 and 8610 can be summited on this ridge in addition to summiting Wolf Mountain!
We ascended ridge to the left of lake entrance, hiking due east
At the lake entrance, we scouted the lowest saddle to the left on the lake's surrounding wall and made a beeline towards it, walking around the lake briefly to the left/south, then due east up the ridge. It's a heart-pounding steep 600' climb to the ridge overlooking Jennie Lake through autumn bunch grasses, red shrubs and rocks that all too easily dislodge under your boot. Once on the ridge, there is no mistaking Wolf Mountain's location to the southeast. We ended up just north of Point 8568 and continued southwest 0.6 miles on the ridge to cairned Point 8610, Jennie Lake surrounded by trees below us to the right, and Wolf Mountain looming across the deep Rockey Creek streambed to our left. We would have to lose some elevation (260') and then regain it to get to Wolf's summit. The view was hazy due to smoke from Oregon and California wildfires.
Ridge to southeast of Jennie Lake; we headed up toward high point on the left. Hazy smoke due to CA and OR fires.
Many trees burned around Jennie Lake due to previous fire.
Climbing to the ridge overlooking Jennie Lake
First look at Wolf Mountain's north face from ridge above Jennie Lake
Point 8568 is to the far right in the image
Anna and Sylvie summiting Point 8610 on ridge that divides Jennie Lake basin (left) and Wolf Mountain's northern ridge (right).
Route-finding from Point 8610 on ridge to Wolf Mountain's north ridge (upper left ).
On Wolf Mountain's north ridge
To summit Wolf after summiting Point 8610, walk back down the ridge to just before Point 8568 where Wolf's north ridge is seen and drop down into deep stream gulley, cross this dry streambed and then head straight up aiming toward Wolf Mountain's northern ridge. After this climb out, an opening in the trees provides views of the sudden drop into the crater-like bowl of raw talus slopes and the granite block of the summit. Hike on the margin of the talus field, just above the steep cliffs to the left.
Anna and Sylvie arriving at base of Wolf Mountain's summit block.
We had walked over from Point 8610 along ridge behind her.
Anna and Sylvie had to wait just below the vertical rocks of the summit since this last challenge requires Class 3 scrambling using hands (photo below). Fred and I scrambled to the narrow summit with a prominence of almost 900 feet. We were elevated far above this part of central Idaho, looking north to Jackson Peak. Steep cliffs drop to the north and south. We wished Anna and Sylvie could be with us because it is these small summits that make you feel slightly precarious that are the best.
Final summit climb
For the Geocurious
The rocks of Wolf Mountain were created by the Farallon Plate sliding under (subduction) the North American Plate on North America's west coast causing the earth's crust to spread, triggering the intrusion of magma to form shallow granitic plutons ~52 million years ago. It would be great to check out this rock more closely to determine what this pluton is made of: granodiorite (> 20% quartz), quartz monzodiorite, or granite?
Another distinctive feature of this Eocene granite is the planar, high-angle jointing; and Wolf Mountain is a great example. Many spectacular peaks in central Idaho are in steeply jointed Eocene granite, which weathers to sharp peaks and steep topography.
View of Point 8610 (mid-image) from the summit of Wolf Mountain. We were just there!
Survey benchmark possibly installed by Arval Anderson, who made the first maps for the Sawtooth Wilderness Area.
Award-winning author and adventurer Lucy Jane Bledsoe articulates her thoughts on achieving a mountain summit:
"Perhaps it isn't will at all that fuels a person to the top of a mountain. Perhaps it's the ache for beauty. A desire to be dangled over the canyon of nothingness. To, in fact, lose one's will for a moment." Robert MacFarlane, author of Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit says, “Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence."
The feeling of standing on a summit far above all else is difficult to articulate, but one word that occurs to me repeatedly is "freedom". It's room, it's space, a feeling of no constraints, and the freedom of overcoming self-imposed constraints such as "that peak looks too hard to do." It is also the knowledge that this mountain has been here a lot longer than I, and will be here a lot longer after I go. It is the freedom to be able to see what that mountain sees. It's a feeling so unlike our everyday occurrences that I savor those moments and the ability to experience something that is so different. There is the matter of conquering, achieving and getting to the top, as George Mallory, the English mountaineer who was part of the first Mount Everest British expeditions in the 1920's says. He answers the question, "what is the use of climbing mountains?" in his quote:
“For the stone from the top for geologists, the knowledge of the limits of endurance for the doctors, but above all for the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man.”
― George Mallory
Always a welcome sight - the cairn at the top!
Summit of Wolf Mountain looking northwest
On the return, we had to climb out of the deep stream bed at Wolf's northern base and back up towards Point 8568 overlooking Jennie Lake. We made our way down that steep ridge into Jennie's basin. We made a quick hike back down the trail to the truck, it seemed a long way, as we had all run out of water. Bear Creek was still flowing next to us, even this late in the season! We were all dusty, especially Sylvie who normally has a white coat, but emerged out of that forest with a tan tinge to her hair. Sure made the day even better to be able to hike with her and Anna.
Heading back down
On the homestretch! - Jennie Lake Trail
Wolf Mountain and Peak 8610 via Jennie Lake Trailhead Topo Map
After gaining the ridge southeast of Jennie Lake, we walked along it to summit Point 8610; we then descended into Rockey Creek and then back up to summit Wolf Mountain via its north ridge.
click for larger image
Boise National Forest Large Fire History: 1980 - 2018.
DeGrey, L., Link, P. Digital Geology of Idaho: Challis Magmatic Episode. retrieved from internet.
Interactive Map. Idaho Geological Society. Retrieved from the internet.
Johnson, K. M., Lewis, R.S., Bennett, E.H., Kiilsgaard, T.H. Cretaceous and Tertiary Intrusive Rocks
of South-Central Idaho.
Moye, F.J., Hackett, W.R., Blakley, J.D., Snider, L.G. Regional Geologic Setting and Volcanic Stratigraphy of the Challis Volcanic Field, Central Idaho.
Navigate off Pioneer Cabin Trail's beaten path to walk on Johnstone's rocky east ridge for a massive view of Idaho's rugged Pioneer Mountains. We returned to this hike we dedicated to the memory of our great friend Henry Brown.
Related: Goat Mountain, 11,913': Pioneer Mountain Range
This Hike for Henry Brown - Johnstone Peak (2016)
Norton Peak, 10,336' via Miner Lake - Smoky Mountains, Idaho
Johnstone Peak, 9,949' from Pioneer Cabin Trail near Ketchum, Idaho
Walk across talus field on hike to Johnstone Peak with view of Pioneer Mountains
On Johnstone's east ridge looking east to main crest of Pioneer Mountain Range.
Goat Mountain far left horizon.
Our GPS tracks
There are several ways to get up to Johnstone Peak, an almost 10,000-footer near Ketchum, Idaho. Its summit is in view for most of the way when approaching it from the north on Pioneer Cabin Trail where the final 1,000-foot gain involves route-finding on a faint, unmarked and rocky trail. At the top, we met two people who had ascended from Bear Gulch, to its south. It's an inspiring peak to us, not only for the breathtaking views of the main Pioneer Mountain crest, but also for remembering our friend Henry Brown. In 2016, we dedicated this hike to Henry because of his love for Idaho's wilderness (This Hike for Henry Brown).
Corral Creek near Pioneer Cabin Trailhead
First two miles of hike through shady forest
Reach ridge for first glimpse of Johnstone Peak and its northern-facing steep rock chutes
Trail blaze (marker) on tree at right
On the one-mile stretch of Johnstone Creek Trail with Johnstone Peak in view
Beginning of Johnstone's east ridge climb after one mile on Johnstone Creek Trail
View of Johnstone's summit is blocked by highest point on the horizon, however trail goes over this
A faint trail extends towards Johnstone's east ridge after the saddle at Johnstone Creek Trail is reached, just before its descent. The westward 1.6-mile climb to the summit first traverses the shady north side of the ridge, and then because of the northern steep chutes, it switches to the south side, going over a few talus fields. The summit is one large stable talus pile. Having done this hike a few times before, we know now to stay close to the ridge; when it begins to pull you to the south, keep west at about 260 degrees. The trail passes over a large talus field of a "pseudo peak"; and upon mounting it, you see Johnstone's summit across yet another talus field.
Faint trail (in foreground) heading west up Johnstone's east ridge; it goes through the trees on the right and then on the top/left side of highest prominence on the left.
View of Pioneer Mountains to the northeast
O! Lovely talus field - at least it is stable!
Some gorgeous textures and colors
Just when you are done climbing high points, the real summit is still on the horizon (Johnstone on right)
Except for a few stunted trees, the summit is bare and exposed, but it rises far above everything else, marking the area between the Wood River Valley and famous Mt. Baldy's ski mountain to the south and central Idaho's peaks to the north.
Four years ago, after the first dusting of snow, Fred and I stood on Johnstone's summit with a sign proclaiming "This Hike for Henry Brown". Henry, in his mid-50's had passed in August from lung cancer. He was a West Point grad, avid outdoorsman and excellent bow and rifle hunter, and had spent his last years in Hailey, south of Ketchum in the Wood River Valley. It was especially hard for Fred to lose his great friend, one that had shared his passion for wilderness and taught him valuable hunting skills. When Henry had moved back to Idaho, there was hope for many hikes in Idaho's beautiful wilderness. But these never happened and we were reminded that life can be cut short. More than ever we know that we are lucky to be able to walk the forests and rocky summits of Idaho and look forward to the next American West adventure.
In 2016, as we were on Johnstone's summit remembering Henry, an eagle flew high above, a symbol of Henry's spirit. And this time again as we were descending, a bald eagle, soaring effortlessly above the northern side of the peak made us stop as it passed by and out of sight. I had said the next time we summited Johnstone, we would be looking for an eagle. Once again we saw one, and felt Henry's presence.
Summit of Johnstone looking at Pioneer Mountain Range to the east
In 2016 on Johnstone Peak, in Henry Brown's "neck of the woods"
We will always remember Henry's friendship and his love of Idaho's wilderness
Johnstone Peak: This Hike for Henry Brown (2016)
Descending Johnstone with main crest of Pioneer Mountains to the northeast
Pioneer Cabin Trail
Pioneer Cabin built in 1938 by Sun Valley Company for the Alpine Touring branch of the ski school
Our GPS tracks and Elevation Profile (profile from summit to trailhead) - 5.3 miles, 3,000' gain
click on map and profile for larger PDF images
Geologic Map Of Idaho.
Geologic Map of Blaine County. Idaho State University. https://digitalatlas.cose.isu.edu/counties/blaine/geomap.htm
Trailing of the Sheep Festival - History of the Festival https://trailingofthesheep.org/about/history/
Wust, S. L., Link, P.K. 1988. Field Guide to the Pioneer Mountains Core Complex, South-Central Idaho.
A lightly-traveled serene single-track hike through lush green forest and wildflowers to a fire lookout near Lowman, Idaho. Views extend all the way to the northern Sawtooth Peaks.
Related: Mt. Heinen - Grand Slam Peaks Completed!
Alpine Peak: 9,861' - Sawtooth Wilderness - Never Stop Climbing Mountains
Reward Peak: 10,074' via Upper Redfish Lakes - Sawtooth Wilderness
Bald Mountain via Station Creek - Garden Valley, Idaho
Deacon, Greg, Fred and Kaleb on Jackson Peak's summit - 8,124'.
Sawtooth Peaks on the horizon.
Descending Jackson Peak
Fred and I jumped on the opportunity to hike with Greg and his two boys, Deacon and Kaleb to Jackson Peak Fire Lookout in northern Boise National Forest on a perfect-weather wildflower-filled June day, a great time to explore rugged central Idaho. We had all hiked Mt. Heinen near Arrowrock Reservoir, one of the four "Grand Slam Peaks" near Boise. They are now training for Mt. Borah, Idaho's highest, and Hyndman Peak, the highest in the Pioneer Mountains. Kaleb and Deacon are impressive; not many kids their age are up to such challenging hikes. Their positive attitude and motivation was a joy.
The nearly 3,500' elevation gain is not as tough as the same gain on Mt. Heinen because it is a steady climb with not much elevation loss on the way up. We have hiked this peak many times the past 20 years in several conditions: thunderstorms, through snowfields and in hot temps. We have talked to the tenants of the fire lookouts over the years and been able to stand on its top floor to see a 360-degree view of the Boise National Forest and as far away as the Sawtooth Mountains. This year we were prohibited from getting on the fire lookout building due to coronavirus restrictions.
My low-clearance passenger car made it up the mile-long dirt road to the trailhead from the Lowman Ponds parking area. In some years, the road is rutted and a high-clearance vehicle is needed. Great to hop into your vehicle at the trailhead at hike's end rather than walk that extra mile to the parking area at Lowman Ponds!
Jackson Peak Trailhead, one mile up Forest Road #530 from Lowman Ponds.
Jackson Peak Trail - Boise National Forest for more specific hike directions.
Jackson Peak Trail is well-marked and maintained. The first 1/2 mile treks through Oregon coast-like lushness with fern-lined tributaries leading to Richard's Creek noisily flowing below. After 0.75 miles, the trail swings southeast away and above this creek and switch-backs to the ridge through remnants of the 1988 Willis Gulch Fire, continuing up and around Richards Creek watershed source just below Jackson Peak. At the intersection with Forest Road #598, the locked gate to Jackson Peak lookout straddles this watershed to the north and Jackson Creek and the expansive lands of the Boise National Forest to the south.
Boise National Forest Large Fire History Map, 1980-2018.
First mile of hike near Richards Creek
Jackson Peak (left)
After switchbacks, trail goes through Willis Gulch Fire (1988) - burned trees on ridge leading to the summit.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata)
Dark Green Fritillary on Grey Rabbitbrush bloom
These guys are awesome!
Just before intersection with Forest Road #598 overlooking Richards Creek watershed - late summer.
From the gate, walk up the final 0.35 mile to the lookout, and lots of communication towers and a helipad. Although this detracts from a wilderness experience, it's a great reward to stand above everything else for miles. The unmistakable jagged northern Sawtooth peaks cut the horizon to the northeast, and the immense land of the Boise National Forest spanning 2.5 million acres of mountains, valleys and access roads spreads to the south.
We all sat at the picnic table near the lookout, celebrating our hike, thankful for the trail camaraderie and the peace of central Idaho. Hearing Deacon's and Kaleb's dreams of summiting higher peaks reminded Fred and I of our previous summit goals. Wistfully, I tell them that they have plenty of years ahead of them with so many mountains in the American west to climb. So many mountains to climb, wilderness to experience, trails to walk, but not as much time for Fred and I.
The recurring topic discussed during the descent was what flavor ice cream we would have at the Sourdough Lodge in Lowman afterwards to celebrate our summit success.
Love Idaho. Never stop climbing mountains.
"I think probably one of the important things that happened to me was growing up in Idaho in the mountains, in the woods, and having a very strong presence of the wilderness around me. That never felt like emptiness. It always felt like presence."
- Marilynne Robinson, novelist - winner of 2005 Pulitzer prize for novel Gilead
360-degree view on Jackson Peak summit - complete with barking dog in top floor of lookout.
Summit view northeast to Sawtooth Mountains
Sue at Jackson Peak Lookout, Boise National Forest
Late summer when rabbitbrush bloom
History of Jackson Peak Fire Lookout
A two-story, glass-walled log structure was erected in 1927 according to the Idaho Statesman newspaper. It was anchored by half-inch steel cables at each corner due to continuous high-speed winds. In 1981, a two-story flat roof house was installed. The 1988 Willis Gulch Fire threatened the lookout. In 1990, a new modified hip roof where all sides slope downwards to the walls was installed (From ronkemnow.weebly.com).
A strong relationship between the National Forest and the Southern Idaho Timber Protective Organization was established in 1925. It was then that Idaho state forestry law provided for a State Forestry Board that would enforce fire regulations. For a thorough history of fire management in Boise National Forest, check out History of the Boise National Forest 1905 - 1976 by Elizabeth M. Smith, p. 111.
Rex's Fire Lookout Page
USDA Forest Service information on staffed and unstaffed fire lookouts
Kaleb on summit of Jackson Peak, 8,124'
Our GPS tracks
click on map for larger interactive map of region
Boise National Forest - Home - USDA Forest Service - retrieved from the internet
Boise National Forest Large Fire History - 1980 - 2018.
Forest Lookouts. ronkemnow.weebly.com
Idaho Geological Survey - Interactive Map - retrieved from internet
Idaho Statesman. May 29, 2018. Across the U.S., reports of tick-borne illness are rising. Here's what's happening in Idaho.
Smith, Elizabeth M. History of the Boise National Forest, 1905 - 1976. Idaho State Historical Society - Boise, 1983.
Our attempt at a relentless 3,500-foot gain, sections of Class 3-4 climbing, and route-finding journey under cliffs and over ridges make this fabled summit complete with petroglyphs elusive for now. I recommend this tough, extraordinary hike even if you don't intend on summiting. But do your research first.
Related: Utah Mountain Biking: The Cowbell and the Cryptobionic Highway (cryptobiotic crusts)
Angels Landing in Zion: Not for the Faint of Heart
Southern Utah Hiking and Biking in a Pandemic: Zion, Wire Mesa, and Snow Canyon
Canaan Mountain via Squirrel Canyon
East cliff face of Mt. Kinesava. Summit cannot be seen from this vantage point.
Route goes through trees at base of cliffs in shadow, then up to the right following trees to notch. After this, still hundreds of feet climb to summit.
Fred and I decided to hike Mt. Kinesava when we were riding on the Wire Pass Trail near Springdale, Utah a few months ago and we saw it towering over the southern entrance to Zion National Park. When we finally had a cool day during a more recent hike/bike vacation, we gave it a try. Even though we didn't make it, this mountain is one of the most memorable I have ever hiked. Majestic Mt. Kinesava remains elusive, invincible, its petroglyphs unreachable, at least to us. A grudge peak.
Kinesava is more than a hike, it's an experience. The view of red and orange cliffs and pinnacles that tower the more you climb, the increasingly spectacular views of Zion Canyon behind you and the ever-shrinking town of Springdale below create a unique "surround-view" experience of being "perched" for hours. Kinesava's refusal to let just anyone walk on her summit may be the reason why Native Americans chose this place to carve petroglyphs on the mesa just above these challenging rock walls. Landmarks in Zion, like Mt. Kinesava and Sinawava are named after Paiute deities.
You have to do your homework for this cross-country hike, but there are few summit reports available. There is a break in the cliff band that surrounds Kinesava's base created by an apparent old landslide where you can enter the terrain that will take you up to the cliffs. You must catch this same entry point on your exit, so a good idea to look back to note where this is by looking at landmarks. Rock cairns mark faint trails, but it seems like you usually find these more often on the way down. Cairns left by previous hikers were helpful in the Class 3-4 sections.
For a more detailed hike description, click on "Trip Stats" above. You have to navigate over three ridges before you get to the base of the sheer walls, where you scramble and climb across narrow sections of the cliff in a horizontal/diagonal direction following the line of trees. Here, the climb is Class 3 (climbing with use of hands) up more or less vertical rocks, making your way to the right along cliff base. Where we reached too much exposure (Class 4), we backtracked to find a safer route. It took us longer than we wanted to navigate through the horizontal band of trees under the pinnacled vertical cliffs. We reached a comfortable platform with a good view of the "catwalk", a very narrow section that must be traversed to gain access to the final climb up the diagonal band of trees to the notch that lands you on the plateau above. This is where we stopped; it looked pretty difficult and we didn't have enough time to summit AND get down (see image below). Once on the plateau, Mt. Kinesava's summit is another 300-400 foot climb. (See our GPS tracks below).
Zion Canyon from east face of Mt. Kinesava
Mt. Kinesava from Chinle Trail (on a different hike)
Looking at east face of Mt. Kinesava in the morning. The summit is just behind the largest prominence, mostly hidden from this view. Gate, 1.1 miles from Chinle Trailhead marks Zion National Park boundary. Chinle trail continues to the left. The route goes up the fan-shaped debris slide through the trees, continuing through trees to right of prominence up to notch.
First set of Ridges just after Zion NP Boundary
Heading cross-country towards 3 main lower ridges. We went up the ridge to the right in the photo.
We ascended the left (west) ridge, and descended the right (middle) ridge on the way back. At the top of the ridge to the right is a trail and the 3 telephone poles at entry through break in cliff band to arrive at plateau above cliff.
We had to lose some elevation and side-hill the left ridge into the small canyon. Aim for the telephone wires and 3 large poles on middle ridge saddle just under passage through cliff band.
Small canyon between left and middle ridges. After descending from west, or left ridge into this canyon, it took us right up to saddle with 3 telephone poles.
Aim for three telephone poles at base of trail that goes through cliff break landslide. On our way back down, we stayed on the ridge that these poles are on, to the right of this image (the "middle" ridge).
Rock slide over bottom cliff base is entry/exit onto plateau above. Defined trail here.
Cairn that marks entry from steep second ridge through lower cliffs to plateau above. These white rocks can be seen above to aim for on the way down off the plateau.
Approaching horizontal band of trees under sheer cliffs
Everywhere you look, it's spectacular!
Reached horizontal band of trees for a cliffside lunch - Zion Canyon view.
Fun "passageway" to to get to vertical rocks
Zion Canyon from cliffs of Mt. Kinesava - 6,400 feet
Keep on Exploring - Never Stop Climbing Mountains!
This is where we stopped.
Trail continues through trees on far left, over the "catwalk" and up through trees to notch.
The Way Down
The view of the cliff-hugging narrow "catwalk" and vertical rock towers is intimidating. It's a different feeling entirely as I sit here at my desk writing this post, where I am not facing this astonishing scene of exposed walls and loose rocks to climb - it's easy to think now I can do it. Edward Abbey, in his book Desert Solitaire said that Southern Utah "is the most beautiful place on earth." My words don't do justice when describing what it's like to hike in this extraordinary place, where all natural elements seem to fit almost magically together. The orange and green, the soft sand and the hard cross-bedded rocks, the cliffs and the undulating lowlands and streams. The expansive desert with steep mesas standing like platforms under a wide sky. Places to rest and absorb the views among imposing and rugged terrain. Prickly cacti and slender, waving penstemon.
We caught a defined trail on the way down that took us a bit too far to the west. The most important thing to remember is to aim for the large white boulders on the edge of plateau; it's your exit point to the ridges below.
Hopefully next time I attempt this hike, we will be able to conquer this section, see the petroglyphs on the plateau above, and summit. I already feel lucky to be able to see these sights that not many others have seen before, and to be able to hike with my husband. We have fun! Life is really good.
"Freedom begins between the ears."
- Edward Abbey, environmental advocate and author of Desert Solitaire
Heading off cliffs onto "third ridge". Springdale, Utah below in river bottom with Virgin River
"Our updated trailhead will add 2 hours to the trip, which means that now fewer of you should ever attempt it. DO NOT GET STUCK ON THIS ROUTE IN THE DARK!!!!!"
Our route up (blue) and route down (red)
Bottom of map shows approach to Zion National Park boundary fence via Chinle Trail (Trailhead on Utah State 9 Highway just before Springdale). I recommend using the ridge that the red trail traverses just after fenceline.
Google Earth image of our hike up after crossing Zion NP boundary fence
To avoid losing elevation on the way up, better to take the ridge to the right (east) of the one we took up. This leads up to only break in the cliffs that surround the bottom. Town of Springdale at lower right.
Chesher, Greer K. Zion Canyon: A Storied Land. 2007. The University of Arizona Press.
Quarnstrom, Evan. Zion National Park: Tackling Mt. Kinesava. Website: Evan Quarnstrom: Stories of Travel and Adventure.
The Hiker's Code: Brush Up on Trail Etiquette in Time for Hiking Season. Posted 11/5/19 on Utah.com
Zion: Mt. Kinesava. Favorite Hikes In and Around Zion National Park. zionnational-park.com
When temperatures soar in St. George, Utah, head up to the Pine Valley Mountains to look over Southern Utah and Arizona mountains in a cool, beautiful forest with mature stands of aspens, Mountain Mahogany trees, and plenty of trails and peaks to explore.
Related: Canaan Mountain via Squirrel Canyon
Angels Landing in Zion: Not for the Faint of Heart
View of southern aspect of Pine Valley Mountains, the largest laccolith in the U.S., from Hurricane, Utah
The highest peak is Signal Peak at 10, 365 feet.
North side of Pine Valley Mountains, from town of Pine Valley, Southern Utah
Forsyth trail passes by large crags
Our Hike: Forsyth Trailhead --> Summit Trail #3021--> spur trail to Burger summit
Many people consider Southern Utah synonymous with slot canyons and colorful cliffs, hoodoos, and mesas. Its famous national parks - Zion, Bryce and Arches are gems with spectacular scenes. Except when the temperatures reach 100 degrees. In a way you could say we were lucky because of the hot temps in St. George - otherwise we might have never discovered the cool Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, where we summited Burger Peak to see a vast view of the hot desert below.
The Pine Valley Mountains are less than an hour's drive north of St. George, and provide the forested backdrop to the little town of Pine Valley. The drive itself is beautiful, as you pass by a huge cinder cone and gorgeous Snow Canyon State Park. We felt lucky to have "stumbled" onto this wilderness, the second-largest in Utah because of the many trail and peak opportunities. It has the most diverse flora of any Utah mountain range, with ~ 1,000 species identified so far, and numerous meadows. We met a backpacker on a separate hike near Whipple Valley who said he had to go "two meadows over" for his first night. He was doing a loop trip using Summit Trail, which treks 35 miles between entry points at Whipple Valley and Forsyth trailhead, up and along highest Pine Valley Mountains ridge.
The first mile wanders through large stands of mature Mountain Mahogany and Ponderosa Pines. Stream crossings over Forsyth Creek are easy, with low stream flow. This forest is so unique, because it has such a wide variety of trees. Tree dead fall on the first mile attests to destructive bark beetles that have plagued many forests throughout the west. At mile two, the trail steepens and follows Forsyth Creek as the canyon narrows. It climbs steadily for the next 4.5 miles to the peak; we ran into our first snow bank around 9,000 feet. A spur trail heading north from Summit Trail takes you to the peak. The view of Southern Utah from the steep cliffs at this intersection is incredible.
Forsyth Creek video
First mile of Forsyth Trail
This forest is filled with large, towering aspens. I make a mental note to return in the autumn. Many had names and dates carved into their trunks. The carving above has a date of August 24, 1951. The depiction of a mountain range with a moon overhead made this one unique. This is possibly a Basque sheep herder carving or "arborglyph". There are many Basque carvings in the high countries of the west; the sheep herders had a lot of time to pass and many carved not only their names, but also simple scenes of life in the mountains.
Lunch break at small meadow - 4.2 miles in on Summit Trail
The spur trail that leaves Summit trail is easy to spot on the left once you walk past killer views of the desert floor below: Snow Valley, Red Mountain, and Zion National Park. Ponderosa Pines and firs, and steep crags dominate Burger's summit. For all practical purposes, we made it to the summit; we stopped at 10, 240 feet due to deep large snow fields. We savored the smell of pines and cool breezes while we looked down at the baking desert.
Finally get an opening in the forest ~ 5.7 miles into the hike to view vast Southern Utah: St. George, Zion National Park
View of Signal Peak, highest point in Pine Valley Mountains from near Burger Peak's summit
Rock walls to walk between and around at Burger Peak's summit
The 6.4 mile hike back gave us a lot of time to appreciate this beautiful forest with its mature, towering canopy. We had made a trail through the snow that others could follow easily to the summit. We saw only 4 other hikers the whole day. We were so impressed with this wilderness that we hiked to Whipple Valley a few days later.
Pine Valley has an interesting history. It was discovered by Mormon pioneers Gunlock Bill Hamblin, Jacob Hamblin, and Isaac Riddle when they were moving cattle north of Santa Clara for summer grazing. A sawmill to process lumber was erected in 1856. The tall white Pine Valley Chapel stands out as you drive through town. Built in 1868, it is the oldest meetinghouse in continuous use of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Regrettably, The Pine Valley Heritage Center in town was closed as we finished the hike. We will be back to explore more of this exquisite wilderness. Possibly some snowshoeing in the winter? For now, we head back to the sweltering St. George heat and its red sandstone to look up to the granite crags and cool Pine Valley Mountains.
Break at the intersection sign - done with most of the large snow drifts!
Descending rugged Forsyth Canyon
Pine Valley Chapel
Downloaded from internet: https://www.thisistheplace.org/pine-valley-chapel-rental
Topo map and elevation profile for Burger Peak, Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, Dixie National Forest, Utah
3,670' elevation gain in 6.4 miles
Town of Pine Valley north, trail heads south
click on map for larger image
Google Earth image of our tracks from Pine Valley (north, or top of image) Utah to Burger Peak summit via Summit Trail
While many stayed home during COVID-19 isolation orders, we ventured to Southern Utah for an unplanned visit to quiet Zion National Park, a spectacular Wire Mesa mountain bike ride, and Snow Canyon State Park.
Related: Angel's Landing in Zion: Not for the Faint of Heart
Canaan Mountain via Squirrel Canyon
Zion National Park - Double Arch Alcove Hike
Utah Mountain Biking - The Cowbell and the Cryptobionic "Highway"
Snow Canyon State Park near St. George, Utah
Snow Canyon State Park - April 1, 2020
The spring of 2020 will always be remembered as the time of the Coronavirus pandemic. After Fred and I did more research than usual, we managed to get away on our annual Southern Utah trip despite Idaho's order to self-isolate. It states, “The isolation order does not prohibit outdoor activity such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but a safe distance of six feet must be kept between those who do not live in the same household.” Utah’s orders were similar. We are very experienced in the art of social distancing - it comes naturally. This time, however, as we planned our getaway from Boise to sunnier climes, there was a lot more to consider: where could we stay? Could we bring our trailer? Are the Utah state parks and Zion National Park closed? Can we go on trails? Can we go at all?
Visions of red and orange rocks, azure skies and red-blooming cacti outweighed the risks, so off we were, with assurances from the manager at the Marriott Hotel in St. George that we wouldn’t be sent home after the 9-hour drive. We had to leave our tent trailer behind as all parks and campgrounds were closed. Into the truck went hiking boots, bike helmets, backpacks, clothes for a few weather conditions, food and clean bikes. The promise of gear-grinding, rock-hopping, open-air adventures and the freedom to explore awaited us. Just a few more rules this time.
The chilly morning lent crystal crispness to a clear sky; on our bikes, we faced the yellow and rust-red sandstone towers standing like sentinels along the gravel road in Snow Canyon State Park. The occasional CLINK of small rocks hitting my bike, the crunch of gravel under tires and the pleasant “good morning” greetings of couples walking along the road were the only sounds. Breathe deeply that clean desert air. We stash our bikes at the end of the road and walk a small distance up a narrow white ledge-lined canyon, following a sand wash with smoothed boulders. In the shade of a towering wall the temperature cools suddenly. I catch that unmistakable scent that only desert washes can produce – a sweet mixture of mesquite, yucca and sage, and the earthy scent of damp sand underneath.
Snow Canyon State Park is a beautiful place to bike, walk and hike. We like to ride West Canyon Road and then find a high sandstone lookout and scramble up the slickrock for our lunch. This canyon was used by Anasazi and Paiute Indians; more recently, its beautiful ancient sand dunes were featured in Hollywood movies such as Jeremiah Johnson and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While looking for lost cattle, Mormon pioneers discovered what is now Snow Canyon in the 1850's. Be sure to check out the black basalt that fills some of these canyons, filling what used to be a topographic low (stream), but is now a topographic high due to the great volume of the flows.
Current restrictions as of 4/17/20: Governor of Utah's directive entitled "Stay Safe, Stay Home" which prohibits anyone from going to Snow Canyon State Park that does not live in the county in which it resides (Washington County). All users are to be ready to verify residency.
Map of Snow Canyon State Park
The Geology of Snow Canyon State Park
Snow Canyon State Park, Utah
Bridge Mountain on east rim of Zion Canyon
Zion National Park, April 3, 2020
“Sulking indoors for the duration of this crisis is an obnoxious thought”, said Paul Theroux, Wall Street Journal travel writer. In his article addressing the stay-at-home directives, “A Wanderer’s Guide to Staying Home”, he mentions past famous people who wrote from home or nearby, like Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau. He says, “to self-isolate means confinement; for habitual travelers it is something like punishment”; then he concludes that the “ultimate freedom in travel lies in the road trip – setting off in your own car.”
My bare hands stung in the freezing wind blowing through Zion Canyon’s morning half-light as the hulking sandstone giants lining the eastern side shut out the sunlight to the canyon bottom. Fumbling with my camera and tripod, I spent no time looking for gloves, as the light on Bridge Mountain, a massive, cross-bedded ancient sand dune was changing. The visitor's center was abandoned, all parking places empty. Part of me felt jubilant that I should have Zion all to myself, to photograph without constraint; the other part felt a slight uneasiness at the absence of people in this place that is visited by four million people each year. The sun now sat on top of Bridge Mountain's ridge; it was time to move on.
We weren't surprised when we saw the sign "Angel's Landing Is Closed." It is probably the most famous hike in Zion, and for good reason; to get to a breathtaking view of Zion Canyon, you hold onto bolted chains much of the way while climbing up a narrow fin of sandstone, walls dropping straight down for hundreds of feet on either side. The sign read, "Violation of this closure may result in a fine of up to $5,000, 6 months in jail, or both." I have seen a line of people waiting to ascend but today it was eerily vacant. We continued past this and walked the West Rim Trail to where plants grow on sandstone walls overlooking Telephone Canyon. When we went to the only open shop we could find to get ice cream afterwards, the employee there told us that Zion National Park was closed just one-half hour ago. We'll always remember this lucky day when under sunny skies and perfect weather, we were able to hike Zion on nearly empty trails. Too bad we couldn't do Angels Landing!
Zion National Park info and map
Indian Paintbrush in Navajo Sandstone
From East Rim Trail looking at the Virgin River, Angels Landing and Cathedral Mountain - Zion National Park
From the Kayenta Trail looking up toward Castle Dome and Mount Majestic - Zion National Park
Angels Landing on the right; Great White Throne on the left - Zion National Park
West Rim Trail - Zion - 10 years ago after a March snowstorm
Emerald Pools Trail - Zion
View of Mount Kinesava from Eagle Crags Trail south of Zion National Park
Wire Mesa Mountain Bike Ride, April 4, 2020
The Wire Mesa loop is a 7.6-mile rock-navigating, killer view single track source of joy. We rode counter clockwise, having prominent Mount Kinesava with its vertical cliffs and other Zion Canyon temples in view until we reached the end of the mesa and the trail contoured to the west. Most of this trail winds in and out of junipers, up and down over forgiving sandstone rocks, close to the mesa's edge. We were surprised at the number of groups of hikers, campers, and bikers practicing their own wilderness social distancing. The steep road up to the mesa from Rockville is best attempted with a 4WD vehicle. Deep tire ruts attested to those who had traveled this clay-soil road probably the week before when there were downpours.
Utah mountain bikers are technically skilled, focused on mapping a route up and over sandstone. We got better at this skill as we rode, but we did end up walking our bikes over many "steep" rocks.
After this ride, we hiked in the Canaan Mountain Wilderness administered by the Bureau of Land Management, near Wire Mesa. We encountered many cheerful hiking families and couples. The BLM's current Coronavirus Advisory states "Please follow recommendations from the CDC and your state and local health authorities before visiting your public lands..."
It will be interesting to find out what directives and orders we must follow for our hiking and back packing trips this summer while we do what we love to do - "natural" social distancing. Meanwhile, the red sand on our bike chains attests to the great adventures we had in Southern Utah.
MTB Project - REI - Wire Mesa Loop Information
Wire Mesa Trail - Mount Kinesava on left, along with temples and mountains in Zion Canyon
A great camp spot on Wire Mesa Trail. Mount Kinesava on left
The art of "social distancing"
Ahhh, that beautiful red clay/sand soil of Southern Utah!
Map of Wire Mesa Trail south of Zion National Park, north of Canaan Mountain Wilderness
Click for larger image
Summit an ancient caldera remnant in the "Tucson Mountain Chaos" just south of Saguaro National Park - just be careful of the "jumping cholla".
Related: Tucson Mountains Tour: Golden Gate Mountain, Bobcat Ridge, and Little Cat Mountain
Elephant Head Peak - Santa Rita Mountains, Southern Arizona
We started on the Yetman Trailhead, not far from Golden Gate Mountain, instead of the Sarasota Trailhead which is closer to Cat Mountain so we could spend as much time as possible walking through this beautiful Tucson Mountain Park encompassing much of an ancient caldera, and weave around thorny saguaros and jumping chollas. We had also started at the Yetman trail a few days before, when we hiked three high points in this park: Golden Gate Mountain, Little Cat Mountain and Bobcat Ridge. All four peaks could be summited in one long day.
Golden Gate Mountain's southeast slopes and cholla.
Fred and Scott near Yetman trailhead under the north cliffs of Golden Gate Mountain
Reach the saddle between Golden Gate Mountain and Bren Peak at 0.4 miles from Yetman trailhead, an excellent place to get a perspective on three high points: Bobcat Ridge, Little Cat Mountain and Cat Mountain. A textured green carpet sweeps down valley and up the slopes of these brooding, rugged mountains. The only thing that distracts from this scene is the housing development in the valley to the west.
This pleasant view makes it difficult to imagine the sudden event of a magma chamber spewing the searing ash that formed this ancient caldera landscape. Tucson Mountain Chaos is the term given by geologists to the valley rocks that underlie the Cat Mountain Tuff, the compacted ash that forms these peaks. There is no definite answer to the thousands-feet thickness of this Cretaceous-age tuff. Were these rocks below the Cat Mountain Tuff rafted from deeper levels by the rising magma? Or, was this rock caused by a landslide in a caldera that had accumulated the tuff? To make the geologic puzzle even more complicated, spreading of the Earth during Basin and Range faulting makes the geologist's task of identifying the age relationship of the rocks more difficult.
Yetman Trail heads to three summits from left to right: Bobcat Ridge, Cat Mountain in middle horizon with Little Cat in front of it.
At 1.6 miles, Yetman intersects with Sarasota Trail. Bobcat Ridge is gained by going left and staying on Yetman Trail. For Cat Mountain, turn sharp right (south) onto Sarasota. In 1.4 miles, Explorer Trail intersects with Sarasota. You can hike on either trail to get to Cat Mountain. On our approach, we took Explorer Trail which wraps around the base of Little Cat Mountain for 0.8 miles to meet up again with Sarasota and also Starr Pass Trail.
The worn-out "You are Here" red dot marks the intersection of Sarasota and Explorer Trails. Our route: Explorer (pink) trail to pass under the north flank of Cat Mountain.
Arizona Barrel Cactus
Cat Mountain from Explorer Trail on its north side. We went up low saddle to the left of the summit block to gain lower ridge.
From our vantage point on the Explorer trail, we could see the gentler rise of Cat Mountain's east ridge. The three-trail intersection (Starr Pass, Explorer and Sarasota) is well-marked as are other intersections in this well-cared-for park. We continued on the Explorer trail for 0.6 miles until we saw a manageable route to the ridge, leaving it earlier than the standard cairned route (1.0 miles past 3-way junction), making our own path. A sea of detached teddy bear cholla branches, those little mobile yellow ovals armored with extremely sharp spines made us pick our footsteps carefully. However, I wasn't careful enough; one jumped up and stuck my pant leg to my calf. I remembered a hike many years ago when we used a metal comb to remove a cholla piece from a dog's leg. Scott and Fred somehow got the prickly thing off me and we resumed our cross-country hike with no serious injury except for a few red spots on my skin.
The day grew colder and cloudier. The broken dark red and tan rocks deposited on the slopes from the tuff cliffs above crunched under our boots. The occasional cactus spine scraped against our packs and in some cases grabbed on.
Three-way intersection. From here, exit Explorer Trail for more difficult ascent up Cat Mountain's northwest ridge. "Standard" and less difficult route leaves Explorer 1.0 mile after this intersection.
"Teddy Bear Cholla"
After getting off Explorer, we looked for the best way up. Rocks formed a natural staircase. Four or five Coues Whitetail deer perched far above on steep cliffs stopped to watch us, curious at three humans stumbling through the cacti. The ridge walk was straightforward and it felt good to follow its natural route and rhythm, using hands when needed. We came upon cairns marking the final ascent to the summit and a complete change of view of the open sky and the sprawl of Tucson far below us. There's just one Class 3 crack with mild exposure to navigate, with just enough ledges to place feet and hands. Frequent rock cairns mark an obvious path.
Picking our way to Cat Mountain's east ridge.
Saguaro and cholla garden below last summit approach
Scott ascending the last part of ridge climb
Sweet cactus garden before final ascent.
Fred on the summit of Cat Mountain
Golden Gate Mountain on the right; Yetman Trail goes through the saddle to its right.
Every ridge scramble, every summit has its own unique personality. The scramble up Cat Mountain's east ridge is challenging yet not scary, exposed but safe, with the right amount of rocks and cactus gardens making it aesthetically friendly. You're never bored with looking at saguaros and chollas because with each one, there is a different size or form. This summit has one very unusual feature - a plastic white boulder that houses a radio repeater. Looking at Cat Mountain from Tucson area, you would not suspect the spacious flat areas on its summit. A steady cold wind cut short our time lounging on the top, but we got a good look at Golden Gate Mountain to the northwest and the steep drop-off to the south.
As we walked down, the clouds closed again, the temperature dropped, and the wind chilled. We hiked back via Sarasota Trail at the three-way intersection. We added another summit to our "three friends who like to hike" resume', and more stories for reminiscing. This will go down in the books as one of our more mellow hikes together. Never stop climbing mountains!
Scott and Fred
Looking at Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson and Rincon Mountains on right horizon.
Fred and Sue on Cat!
Parting shot of Cat Mountain from Sarasota Trail.
Our GPS tracks to Cat Mountain from Yetman Trailhead
Red line is our Class 2 ascent route; blue line is cairned trail and our descent.
Elevation profile over entire 11.5-mile hike.
With a second try, we made it to the lonesome summit of Elephant Head in the sparsely traveled Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson.
Related: Tucson Mountains Tour: Golden Gate Mountain, Bobcat Ridge, and Little Cat Mountain
Cat Mountain, 3,852' - Tucson Mountain Park
Elephant Head Peak summit - Santa Rita Mountains
"Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization."
- Edward Abbey - from Desert Solitaire
On our first attempt at summiting Elephant Head Peak, a huge winter storm was blowing into southern Arizona, so by the time we reached the saddle just below the exposed ridge to the summit, we staggered against a roaring wind bent on toppling us over. We had to go back down. The storm produced a thick white blanket over the tops of the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountain ranges overlooking Tucson. Six days later we reached Elephant Head summit on a warm, calm and sunny day, but the Santa Rita Mountain range behind us still held large patches of snow.
The almost ghostly figure of bare Elephant Head Peak stands out in stark contrast against the base of the dark brown and green Santa Rita Mountains in the Santa Cruz Valley near the southern Arizona border. The Cretaceous-age Elephant Head formed much later than the Triassic-age Mt. Wrightson rocks at the higher elevations of these mountains.
Elephant Head Peak, 5, 641' in Mt. Wrightson Wilderness in the northwest Santa Rita Mountains
First attempt: bracing against the wind on saddle beneath Elephant Head Peak, 5,641'.
On the way to the bottom of Chino Canyon looking at Elephant Head Peak. Hike to saddle on the right following cairns.
This hike packs in a wide variety of plants, views and terrain for its relatively short distance and manageable elevation gain. Begin by crossing the stream in Agua Caliente Canyon to walk through knee-high bunch grasses, then pass by the intersection for Little Elephant Head (Peak 5,139'). Catch the first glimpse of Elephant Head Peak on the horizon. Magenta and red fruits of huge Santa Rita prickly pear cacti dot the sides of the trail. Tall rock walls that support an old mining road still stand looking down Chino Canyon. Suddenly, around a corner, an enormous view of the pinkish-tan hulk of Elephant Head Peak overlooks deep Chino Canyon, its rounded rocks and southern cliffs dotted with green shrubs and a few trees. A steep drop with occasional Arizona Rainbow cacti growing in moss brings you to a soothing waterfall. The final ridge climb is the funnest part of the hike, as it requires using old oak tree branches and plenty of rock hand-holds. The rock affords great traction as the ridge drops on both sides for a huge view of all the major ranges to the north, including Baboquivari Peak, the native Tohono O'odham peoples' most sacred place. A close-up to the east of the rugged Santa Rita Mountains provides a beautiful backdrop.
One mile into the hike, intersect with mining road built in the early 1900's and an old Santa Rita prickly pear and take a right past sign.
Cairn marking cross-country trail that crosses Chino Canyon to ascend to saddle to the right (southeast) of Elephant Head Peak.
Chino Canyon at creek crossing
This elevation is too high and cool for saguaros to grow. This hike travels through the transition between desert grassland and oak grassland biomes of Arizona's Sky Island region. The ocotillo "forests" are remarkable and so are the mature Santa Rita Prickly Pears; they tolerate the cooler winters. Their pads can turn purple during the winter.
So many things make this a repeat-hike in the future: solitude, desert wilderness, route-finding, fun Class 2-3 climbing, and views. Plans: Elephant Head Peak plus Little Elephant Head (Peak 5,149').
On Elephant Head's east ridge looking at the final climb: trail goes around just to the right side of ridge.
Yep! This is the trail! See the cairns......
Summit of Elephant Head Peak - Santa Rita Mountains - Mt. Wrightson highest peak.
Near the summit looking down the east ridge to saddle (top of image) where trail ascends.
Santa Rita Prickly Pear
Devils's Cashbox - limestone butte south of Elephant Head Peak
Ocotillo and Santa Rita Prickly Pear
Our GPS tracks from Trail #930 Trailhead (south) to Elephant Head Peak (north) Contour intervals = 40'.
click on map for larger image
Profile for ascent: 3.4 miles with 2,000' net elevation gain
Point at which you leave Quantrell Mine Trail and descend into Chino Canyon - there may or may not be a cairn at this point.
An Archipelago in a Cordilleran Gap - The Sky Islands of Arizona and Sonora. Brusca, R., Moore, W.
Ganesha: Hindu Diety. Doniger, W. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ganesha
Geologic Map of the Mt. Wrightson Quadrangle. https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/Prodesc/proddesc_9405.htm
Mesozoic Stratigraphy of the Santa Rita Mountains, Southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Drewes, H. 1971. https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/0658c/report.pdf
Plutonic Rocks of the Santa Rita Mountains, Southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Drewes, H. 1976. Geological Survey Professional Paper 915. https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/0915/report.pdf
Quantrell Mine Trail. Coronado National Forest. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service.
Summit three scenic high points in the "Tucson Mountain Chaos" using a combination of established trails and off-trail climbs through exquisite Lower Sonoran desert ecosystem.
Saguaros at Golden Gate Mountain summit
Golden Gate Mountain Summit, 4,288 feet- located on the right side of trail.
Yetman Trailhead and Golden Gate Mountain
It's not every day you can hike through valleys with rocks formally called "Tucson Mountain Chaos" and climb mountains made of compacted ash spewed from a huge volcanic eruption that created a 12-mile wide caldera whose floor collapsed onto an emptied magma chamber. At least this seems to be the current theory of the geologically complex Tucson Mountain Park. Geologists still debate and puzzle over the formation of this area. If you do this hike that I describe here, you will travel on the caldera floor through a beautiful Sonoran desert ecosystem.
On this yearly Tucson visit, Fred and I were looking for different peaks in the area to summit. Not that we are tired of peaks in the Santa Catalinas and Rincon Mountains. A winter storm had dumped a lot of snow at elevations above 5,000 feet, so we opted for a warmer experience instead. Tucson Mountain Park is managed by Pima County. Its great website has an interactive map and lists features and activities in this 20,000-acre park that is "one of the largest natural resource areas owned and managed by a local government in the U.S." Outdoor activities range from picnicking to hiking, mountain bike riding and wildlife viewing. On Cat Mountain (a few days after this hike), we were lucky to see five grey Coues whitetail deer, atop steep and rocky rust-colored cliffs.
I love celebrating holidays on the trail. There is a certain fellowship that occurs with greetings of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy New Year!" On this Christmas morning, the chill wind stung our faces, but it wasn't long before we felt warmth from the winter sun.
The north walls of Golden Gate Mountain, the first summit of our Tucson Mountain Park tour
Golden Gate Mountain
At the Yetman trailhead, we set out to discover a new area with hike directions from Earthline. At the saddle between Golden Gate Mountain and Bren's Benchmark, 0.4 miles from the trailhead, we oriented ourselves and looked southeast to mountain summits, not yet knowing which ones we would be climbing. We took a right 0.1 miles past the saddle at the cairned trail that gains the Golden Gate through a break between cliffs, and began our climb to Golden Gate Mountain, our highest summit at 4,288 feet (see photo below).
The golden color of the rocks perhaps gave this peak its name. Cat Mountain Tuff, a thick layer of consolidated ash, makes up the bulk of these peaks.
Tucson Mountain Chaos is the term given by geologists to the rocks that underlie the Cat Mountain Tuff, seen in the valleys. There is no definite answer to the thousands-feet thickness of this Cretaceous-age tuff. Were these rocks below the Cat Mountain Tuff rafted from deeper levels by the rising magma? Or, was this rock caused by a landslide in a caldera that had accumulated the tuff? Of course, when you throw in the geometry of faulting that occurred later when Basin and Range was spreading, it makes the geologist's task of identifying the age relationship of the rocks more difficult.
Dodging teddy bear chollas and barrel cactus spines, we marveled at a rare cristate saguaro thrusting up from a steep, south-facing slope under orange cliffs. Theories for the abnormal crest growth range from genetic mutations to lightning strikes. The trail threads between welded tuff towers and tops out, weaves to the left following cairns to the summit. Tucson spreads below, mountain ranges surround on the horizon. Below us, a white cloud moved across the valley and swept over us, briefly covering the peak with fog that created a rare, softly illuminated desert scene. Light rain produced vivid oranges, yellows and greens. Return to Yetman Trail via the same path.
Cristate saguaro on left. Bren Benchmark across valley.
Scenes from the summit of Golden Gate Mountain, Tucson Mountain Park
View of Golden Gate Mountain from Yetman Trail (looking west).
Yetman Trail runs through lowest point on saddle to the right.
Peak 3,380' on Bobcat Ridge
From return to Yetman trail, hike down-valley 1.15 miles to the intersection with the Sarasota Trail. Stay on Yetman to the left (east) for 0.2 miles to arrive at a flat saddle. Bobcat Ridge trail (not marked with signs but obvious) takes off to the right (southwest). The views of Tucson open up as you near the top, Peak 3,380'. It is a relaxed summit with beautiful vegetation, a favorite local hiker destination. From this summit, the steep northern walls of Little Cat Mountain comes into clear view; there's a lot of descending before the climb. To its left (southeast), the dark, enormous hulk that is Cat Mountain will have to be summited another day. Total mileage = 4.3 miles.
Bobcat Ridge near Peak 3,380
From Bobcat Ridge looking northwest to saddle between Golden Gate Mountain (left) and Bren's Benchmark (right).
The Yetman Trail traverses the saddle.
Bobcat Ridge Trail leading away from Peak 3,380 toward Little Cat Mountain behind saguaros. Cat Mountain on the left.
Little Cat Mountain
From Peak 3,380, continue southeast on Bobcat Ridge Trail 0.7 miles to intersection with Explorer Trail; total mileage = 5.0 miles. Turn left (southeast) to climb to saddle in a short distance. At top of saddle, at arrow sign for Explorer Trail, hike up to saddle of Little Cat Mountain to the right (south). Fewer cairns than those of Golden Gate mark this off-trail approach which climbs a quick 400' to the summit, passing a relatively flat grassy area once the trail tops the saddle. From this summit, look to your left; an outrageous view of dark orange and black volcanic Cat Mountain appears as you stand on a cliff overlooking Tucson. The lowering sun and long shadows made this scene even more dramatic.
We returned via our ascent to Explorer trail (signs with pink arrow), then made a loop around base of Bobcat Ridge by following Sarasota Trail (signs with maroon arrow), then finally on Yetman Trail to trailhead. Total distance: 9.25 miles. We vowed to climb Cat Mountain, then returned to its summit a few days later with our friend Scott, to celebrate the New Year and plan for hikes together in the beautiful southwestern deserts.
Saddle near summit of Little Cat Mountain - faint trails ascend from this saddle between Bobcat Ridge and Little Cat on Explorer Trail
View of Cat Mountain from summit of Little Cat Mountain
Cat Mountain on the left (we did that peak a few days later)
Little Cat is behind the saguaro
Our GPS tracks
Trails in southeastern Tucson Mountain Park
click on map for larger image
Lipman, P.W. 1994. Tucson Mountains Caldera: A Cretaceous Ash Flow Caldera in Southern Arizona. USGS Research on Mineral Resources 1994: Part B, Guidebook for Field Trips. U.S. Geological Survey.
Tucson Mountains Geology: Complex and Controversial.
Lipman, P.W. Geologic Map of the Tucson Mountains Caldera, Southern Arizona.
Tucson Mountain Chaos. Arizona State Geology: Blog of the State Geologist of Arizona. Retrieved from internet. http://arizonageology.blogspot.com/2009/04/tucson-mountain-chaos.html
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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