Tag Archives: Mountains
16 September, 2016

The Burning Mountains of Portugal

I first smelled the smoke during the drive to Alcobaça. We were headed inland, taillights to Nazare and its worlds-largest-waves, when that first acrid whiff I find to be so intoxicating snuffed out the lingering scent of sea air. Later, I downshifted to first and piloted the car up the meandering, olive-lined alleys to the castle town of Ourem, pondering the oddity of a world in which fire can overtake water. The smoke intensified. While reading poolside at our pousada, I could feel the ashen clouds floating across the valley, the smoke on the crystalline water, delicately smothering my book and body as it perfumed my hair with wildfire aromatics. Peering over the wall of the hilltop village we saw a ridgeline on fire across the valley. A wall of smoke hung just above the horizon, masking the burning garnet in gray gauze.

Sunset during wildfire.

Sunset amongst the wildfire smoke and ash, viewed from Ourem.

Long Waits and Late Nights in Lisbon

Though a friend tipped me off to the presence of wildfires burning in the Portuguese countryside several weeks before our trip, the only smoke encountered in the capital city was that of the cigarette variety. Despite an abundance of signage announcing the country’s new tougher, anti-smoking ordinances, ashtrays were nearly as common as houseflies. The presence of cigarette smoke was jarring – I often go months without encountering any at home – but the flies were far more annoying. As was the waiting.

We stepped off our overnight flight to Lisbon and joined a crowd the likes I’ve which I’ve seldom seen outside of Seahawks games. A single line of people serpentined back and forth though dozens of hairpins, crossed the terminal from end to end, and eventually (thankfully after we had gotten on it) extended up the stairs and back toward the gates. Well over a thousand people queued to pass through an immigration checkpoint manned by just three agents. Over a thousand tired, anxious travelers stood in orderly fashion wondering what crimes they committed in a prior life to deserve such hell. I may have preferred an encounter with the Langoliers than so much humanity in so little space.

Long lines in Lisbon.

The rental car lines at Lisbon airport at 11am on a Monday.

The clock soon struck nine and another half dozen agents took their positions. Time to get through immigration: 1:45. We encountered a similar crush of people three days later, upon returning to the airport to pick up our rental car. Understaffed? A victim of its own popularity? Yes and yes. But also friendly. I’ll still take it over Newark.

Having not spent enough of our first day in Lisbon waiting in line, we dropped our bags at our hotel and promptly walked downtown to join the throngs in line for the famed Tram #28. The electric trams of route 28 travel through the hilly, graffiti-covered Alfama district of Lisbon, passing the city’s castle and other major sights. That it was over 100 degrees out and there was no shade didn’t matter. That the only people on line were tourists didn’t register.

Our travel skills were as rusty as the trolley tracks we waited alongside and whether it was the heat, the sleep-deprivation, or sheer laziness, we stood in the searing heat for over an hour waiting for the so-called “Tourist Tram.” And when the tram finally banged and clanged its way up and around a few hills in an ugly, littered, battered neighborhood, that layer of rust we’ve accumulated since returning home was knocked free and we alighted at the first stop we could.  What were we thinking?

Lisbon castle steps.

We followed this couple down the stairs, looking for a way back into town, only to discover it was a dead-end. Oops.

If asked to sum up our time in Portugal, I would describe it as a ten-day pub crawl broken up by long drives in the mountains, some nice meals, and a few side-trips to gawk at architectural marvels of centuries past. And in this regard, we were almost thankful for the heat as it made the Sagres and Super Bock – Portugal’s answer to the ubiquitous light lager that plagues every country – somewhat palatable. Our three nights in Lisbon went by quickly.  A trip to Belem to see the glorious Monasteiro dos Jeronimos and the hip LX Factory enclave on day two; a train ride to Sintra (Portugal’s less glitzy answer to Versailles) on day three.

Lisbon fog.

The big bridge in Lisbon with a wonderfully low fog bank. Reminiscent of San Francisco Bay.

The highlight of our time in Lisbon was spent eating and drinking. A late meal of tapas in the Bairro Alto neighborhood preceded a marvelous time spent listening to Fado with three new friends we shared a table with. Kristin had done her homework and learned of a hole-in-the-wall Fado club named A Tasca do Chico where many Fado singers have gotten their start. Singers drop in and perform in the darkened pub that sits no more than thirty while two guitarists – one on a Portuguese twelve-stringer and another on a Spanish six-string – provide accompaniment. Fado is folk music best sang loud and passionately. It’s about heartbreak and loss, and this will be evident to you with or without a friendly Lisboan artist buying you beers. Think of it as Flamenco without the dancing. Two performers this night stole the show. The last of which, a young, petite woman in stiletto heels, tights, and a breezy blouse could not be topped. We saw no reason to stay beyond her 2am performance.

Downtown Lisbon.

Downtown Lisbon. All cities should be so pedestrian-friendly.

One challenge you might have in visiting Portugal is that there are limited dining options available on Sundays. In this country that takes eating late to a level that even Italians would question, most restaurants shutter after lunch on Sundays. This is where talking to a local can really come in handy. We were directed to an admittedly trendy restaurant in the Chiado neighborhood called Sacramento. Wandering in without a reservation, we weren’t sat until nearly 11pm, but the meal was worth the wait. Tourists and locals blend in this swanky establishment for modern takes on Portuguese classics and a rather stellar wine selection.

The night ended with my asking for the bill in such near-perfect Portuguese, complete with accent, that the server did a double-take. Her flattery led to a twenty-minute chat about language which I’ll spare you, except to encourage you to make an effort to go beyond ola and obrigato when you visit.

Pena Palace

Pena Palace from atop the mountain in Sintra.

Walking the High Mountains of Estrella

The Audi A1, a car every bit as virile as the two-buck steak sauce that shares its name, barely fit through the stone archway leading up the cobbled streets to our pousada in Ourem. After three days of touring and imbibing in Lisbon, a brief stop at Buddha Eden (the most WTF thing of all the WTF things) and a lunchtime tour of the magnificent monastery in Alcobaca, I was thrilled to park the car and settle into two nights of eating well and doing nothing.

Portugal’s network of pousadas – historical buildings of significance transformed into inns of varying degrees of luxury – provides travelers with a unique opportunity to pillow up someplace unusual. The pousada in Ourem, where we stayed, was a 15th century hospital located quite literally in the shadow of a medieval castle. And for two nights it was our home, complete with half-board. Though a festival would be taking place the following week, the hilltop village of Ourem was deserted. The cobblestone alleys, the castle ruins, and the cafes were ours and ours alone. And while the other guests of the inn day-tripped to Fatima and other nearby towns of note, we enjoyed the quiet of the smoke-scented village and read by the pool and rested. For I knew we had a long day barreling down on us.

Alcobaca monastery cloister

I’m a sucker for cloister walkways of medieval monasteries.

I also knew better than to ask the hotel clerk in the mountain village of Manteigas about the routes we were planning to hike, but I did anyway. Locals, particularly those who may be inconvenienced by the trouble you get yourself in, will always try to steer to you to the safest option no matter how hard you try to convince them of your credentials. Boring! Thanks to a very helpful GPS-enabled map app and available trail descriptions and maps, I was able to narrow our day of hiking in Serra da Estrella Nature Park down to three options. The clerk confirmed that yes, the route I wanted to do – the only one with the 5-star difficulty rating — was the most scenic, but it was also overgrown, very hard to follow, and just two weeks ago an Italian couple staying at his hotel had to be rescued. He tried his best to steer me onto other shorter routes that held little interest, not realizing he was only increasing my desire with each word of warning. He also made the mistake of doubting Kristin’s abilities.

We'd be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

We’d be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

The twisty, cliffside drive to the trailhead – and ensuing race back down six hours later – were the highlights of the day. Those hours in between, spent hiking the Central Massif Route, were a tangle of slow-going searches for rock cairns and barely-visible trail blazes under a hundred-degree sun.

With the car parked at the highest point in mainland Portugal (the Azore Islands boast the country’s highest elevation), we followed the map out onto a rock-litter scrubland some 6,000 feet above sea level. There wasn’t a tree taller than myself as far as I could see. Nor was there any significant evidence of a trail. We followed the GPS track as best we could, stepping around cowpies and scampering down boulders, periodically encountering remnants of a trail here, a rock cairn there. We were making progress and eventually came to a trail sign. The route we wanted descended into a wide glacial valley from once-upon-a-time and down we went.

The scenery wasn’t really all that spectacular (though I admit it’s hard to impress those of us lucky to call the Pacific Northwest our backyard) but the route-finding difficulty lived up to the clerk’s warning. And though the jumble of rocks and bushes may not have been tall enough to provide respite from the searing sun, they were certainly tall enough to hide the cairns and blazes.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat. Anybody see a cairn?

The wildfires in this part of Portugal were to the north of us – out of sight and out of smell – but they were on our minds all the same. We weren’t so much hiking as we were swimming across a hillside of knee-high grass as dry as a Hindenburg-era newspaper impaled on a saguaro cactus. Down, down we went, ever so slowly into the valley, trying our best not to slip on the grass. Trying so hard to stay on the rocks for traction, all the while wondering if sneakers-upon-granite could produce a spark. I tumbled once, rolling sideways off the ledge of a rock, fortunately landing on two uninjured feet, straddling a shrub. I heard the camera draped around my neck clink off a rock as I rolled and immediately panicked. One spark would be all it took.

There was a lake in the distance but zero chance of reaching it before a fire would overtake us. I put the camera in my backpack and distracted myself by wondering if the trekking poles we left at home could cause a spark.

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

We eventually crossed a broad grazing land at the far end of the valley and though the route was supposed to continue up and over the shoulder of a mountain, we could find no evidence of it doing so. After several back-and-forth searches for cairns and footprints, we had had enough. The highlights were behind us and the trail was far too much hassle with too little reward. So we followed a connector trail down a very steep hillside to one of the most popular routes in the park – the Glacier Route. The 17 km route led from the upper trailhead down to the village of Manteigas where we were staying, roughly paralleling the wonderfully windy road we drove up. And though we were able to hitchhike a little of the way back to the car, we ultimately found ourselves walking several miles along the side of the road to the car.

The thirteen miles we hiked took nearly six hours. The beer and ice cream at the summit restaurant almost made it worth it. The drive back down certainly did.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town, after the wind had extinguished most of the candles.

We slept soundly that night despite live music echoing off our hotel until 2am for the second night in a row. Though it was a weekday, it was the culmination of a two-week Catholic celebration of the Lady of Grace (Lady of Miracles, some say). The prior night we watched as thousands of devotees marched in a candlelit procession through the streets of Manteigas as four women carried a large statue through town. An orchestra and live rock band played through the night as festival goers enjoyed plentiful meat, wine, and beer for token prices.

Sipping Our Way Along the Douro

Portugal didn’t find its way into our basket of travel dreams because we wanted to see Lisbon or go hiking in the mountains, as fun as those things were. Nor do we have any interest in joining the throngs of sun worshipers in Algarve. No, it landed in the basket because many years ago I viewed a travel show about wine that culminated with a segment on Porto and the famed vineyards of the Douro River Valley. If I was to return to Portugal in the future, I would spend the entire time in the Douro.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The Douro River spills into the Atlantic at Porto, only the second largest city in Portugal, but certainly the most photogenic. And the river that flows past its hilly, multi-colored structures, pours out of a massive network of terraced vineyards where dozens of grape varieties are grown, turned into wine, and shipped throughout the world. To visit the Douro is to be both awed by the scenery and overwhelmed by the options of wine tastings. And though September is harvest time and the busiest tourist season of the year for the vineyards and cellars of the Douro, the crowds were manageable.

Porto skyline.

The beautiful Porto.

And so we spent our final days sipping port, enjoying the view from the villa-turned-guesthouse we booked in Mesao Frio, and watching the river flow by. In Porto, we wandered the alleys and streets, shopped at a street market, attended a free outdoor concert with the Portuguese Philharmonic Orchestra, walked the surfer’s beach and ate grilled sardines, drank more wine and port than we care to admit, and fell in love with a city that was every bit as beautiful as it seemed on the small screen all those years ago. A city I probably won’t return to in this life, but one I’ll remember fondly all the same.

It wouldn't be a European TFG post without a few bikes in the midst.

It wouldn’t be a TFG post from Europe without a few bikes shown.

 

 

26 August, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #2

Earlier this spring I posted a quick rundown of some of the hikes we had so far done in Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book (see here). Though we’re nowhere close to having gone through the entire guide — a book that represents a small fraction of the boundless hiking opportunities in Washington — we did check quite a few more off the list. Some we did as part of the overnight backpacking trip chronicled here; others were part of our recent Enchantment Traverse.

Now that summer is winding down, we expect to get out even more. Nothing stokes the fire of my passion for the outdoors like the coming autumn weather. We’re still dealing with some unusually warm 90-degree days here in western Washington, but I expect the weather to break by the time we get home from Portugal in a couple weeks. There’s still a few higher elevation hikes we hope to get in before the snows return.  But enough about that, on to the next installment…

Puget Sound Lowlands

We didn’t plan on doing any more of the lowland hikes once the weather started warming up, but one day we just felt like going for a run — and wanted an excuse to stop at a pizza place we like. So back to the Everett area we went…

Spencer Island (Hike #9)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Pavement, Grass, Woodchip

Verdict: Great for locals or bird watchers.

Spencer Island Bridge

The jacknife bridge heading out to Spencer Island. Photo by HikeOfTheWeek.com

The actual Spencer Island trail is a short soft-surface lollipop hike on an island in the Snohomish River estuary, just east of Everett. We parked along the river and ran the multi-use paved Langus Riverfront Trail two miles then crossed a small pedestrian bridge to the island. The trail simply loops around the southern tip of Spencer Island, winding along cattails and making its way back across the island on a levee. There’s some nice viewpoints for you to see the Cascades and plenty of egrets and herons to spot (and the odd turtle or two). We were there to get a workout in so no photos. I doubt we’d ever return, as there’s just too many options closer to home.

Skykomish River Valley

While the upper elevation trails slowly melted out from their winter burial, we made a few trips to the western slope of Stevens  Pass, for a fewer mid-elevation hikes to alpine lakes.

Greider Lakes (Hike #12)

Distance: 8.6 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Steep, crowded, but a worthy hike to a scenic lake.

Boulder Lake (Hike #13)

Distance: 13.8 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Overgrown, un-maintained, and technically closed, but the prettier of the two lakes.

Boulder Creek Bridge

Kristin crossing the technically-closed, hope-it-doesn’t-collapse Boulder Creek Bridge.

We combined these two hikes into one lengthy trail run of about 19 miles or so. It made for a long day, especially since the Boulder Lake trail is technically closed. The bridge across Boulder Creek had been blocked off, the decking and railings removed, and the trail beyond it in a complete state of abandon. Nevertheless, after much hemming and hawing on the banks of the impassable creek, we decided to risk it. Though Boulder Lake was certainly a worthy destination, it wasn’t worth the miles of rock, blowdown, and overgrown trail we had to deal with to reach it. Doing Greider Lake after Boulder Lake was a test of mental and physical endurance. And patience — there’s an awful lot of people that hike to Greider Lake. A nice hike, but there are better nearby, such as…

Bridal Veil Falls & Serene Lake (Hike #16)

Distance: 9 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A must-do early summer hike.

Lake Serene

Lake Serene has to be one of the most beautiful, lower elevation alpine lakes in western WA.

This was another combo hike that we decided to “run” that could actually be done separately. The mountains around here are filled with beautiful cliff-ringed, snow-fed alpine lakes, but Lake Serene was absolutely one of our favorites. Getting there isn’t easy. The climb up to the lake gets incredibly steep and is mainly a staircase for a mile long stretch that climbs nearly a thousand feet in that span. One thing to be sure, there will be ample two- and four-legged companions to keep you company. This hike is very popular. But for good reason. Fortunately, many people choose to go only as far as the waterfall. We hit the lake first, passing the base of the falls on our way, and then detoured up to the top of the falls (you can practically walk out over the edge… and chance death if you’d like) on the return. The climb to the top of the falls is another half-mile, very steep trail, but the falls are quite pretty. I do believe Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls will become an annual hike for us going forward.

Wenatchee River Valley

I flew home from Vancouver, BC on a Friday night, packed my gear, and drove out to Leavenworth an hour later so we could finally, after 14 years in the PNW, complete one of the most beautiful hikes in the region. The following two entries make up the two ends of the traverse, but miss the best part in my opinion.

Snow Lakes (Hike #56)

Distance: 13 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Unless you’re descending from the Enchantments, do Colchuck instead.

Colchuck Lake (Hike #57)

Distance: 8.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Absolutely worth doing, even just as an out-and-back.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake towards Aasgard Pass and the way up into the Enchantments.

Our 20-mile traverse began with a hike up to Colchuck Lake. It’s not a particularly challenging hike and the lake offers excellent swimming opportunities, ample (permit-only) backcountry camping, and a gentle descent back to the trailhead. It’s absolutely worth doing as a day-hike, even if you don’t intend to climb Aasgard Pass and do the traverse. The other end of that traverse descends from Snow Lakes. I would NEVER hike up that trail unless I was training to climb Mt. Rainier. Let me put it this way: I hated descending from Snow Lakes. It’s very steep (roughly 4,000 feet in six miles) and can be annoyingly rocky in spots. Now, this isn’t to say that the Snow Lakes area isn’t very pretty. It is. But you will never catch me coming up from that direction. Given that Colchuck (and several others) are just a little further up Icicle Creek road, I don’t know why you’d use this for a day-hike.

Blewett Pass

Of all the hikes we’ve been doing from this book, the Blewett Pass trails are probably the closest to our home. They’re also unique in that , though east of the mountains, they still have that rugged Cascade mountain feel we west-siders expect, but with drier conditions.

Ingalls Creek (Hike #116)

Distance: 11 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Not unless you really enjoy climbing over fallen trees.

Sherpa Peak

The view of Sherpa Peak from Ingalls Creek trail.

We hiked several miles of the Ingalls Creek trail during our overnight hike in the Teanaway Valley, hiking the section from Cascade Creek to Fourth Creek. I cannot begin to tell you how many dozens (hundreds?) of blowdowns we had to climb over. The Ingalls Creek trail runs along the namesake creek, at the base of the south side of the Enchantments. It’s a very pretty hike, particularly as recent forest fires have yielded clearer views at Sherpa Peak and the Stuart Range due north of the trail, but it appears to get very little attention from volunteer groups or the Forest Service. Trip reports on sites like WTA.org suggest that few hikers continue up the trail beyond Falls Creek (downstream of where we were).

Naneum Meadow (Hike #119)

Distance: 7 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pretty meadow, but a rough drive.

Mount Lillian (Hike #120)

Distance: 7.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail, Double-Track

Verdict: Great views across to the Stuart Range, fun geology.

Mount Lillian hoodoos

Kristin running past the hoodoos near Mount Lillian.

We combined these two routes in a 13-mile loop that proved a bit too rocky, loose, and steep for us to run much of. But it was totally worth it, despite me bonking halfway through worst than I had in years. The Mount Lillian area offers great views across to the Stuart Range and snow-capped mountains, all while switchbacking your way past sandstone hoodoos and other geologic oddities. I can’t say the portion of the trail connecting Naneum Meadow with Mount Lillian was terribly fun to run, but it was scenic, even with the scars of wildfire evident everywhere. You’ll actually pass several meadows in this area and the chance of spotting elk is always present. As is finding some morel mushrooms if you got in May. Some of the trails have been torn up a bit from moto usage (quads and dirt bikes) but the area sees very little use on account of the rough forest roads one has to navigate to reach the trailhead. We actually flatted on the way back out, forcing me to put the spare tire on when we got onto pavement.

Wenatchee

I’ve mountain biked this next trail multiple times and always felt bad for never exposing Kristin to the beauty of the area. This year, after riding amongst the wildflowers with a large group of fellow mountain bikers, I returned with Kristin the following weekend and hit peak-bloom.

Sage Hills (Hike #122)

Distance: 10 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside trails.

Verdict: A must-do the third week of April.

balsam root

Sage Hills area covered in balsam root.

We skipped the book’s 5.5 mile route in favor of the ten-mile loop I mountain biked the prior weekend, making sure to climb all the way to the top of the area for the most wildflowers. A lot of us try to ride Sage Hills every April, but I had never seen the wildflowers blooming like they did when we went running. The fields were blanketed in balsam root, lupine, and indian paintrbrush, among others I forget the names of. And of course, the area smells of sage. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking a hike (a hilly one, mind you) along a yellow-painted hillside, then head to Wenatchee in mid-April and hike Sage Hills. It’s worth the 2+ hour drive from the Seattle area.

8 August, 2016

Traversing the Enchantments

I hadn’t seen a cairn in at least ten minutes. But there were boot tracks, and I knew we weren’t lost. The trail had to be down there somewhere. Still, this provided little comfort as I stared down a vertical cliff, wondering how we were going to descend from a ledge we shouldn’t have come to. We stepped and dropped and scrambled our way to what appeared to be a dead-end. Going down wasn’t an option; going back up the way we came was a task I’d rather not consider. As I grabbed the branch of an alpine larch for balance and swung around the cliff, trying not to look down and hoping Kristin could make the maneuver, it dawned on me that perhaps we shouldn’t have waited so long to do this hike.

For twelve years we’d been putting off this bucket-list hike. My, how it would have been easier when we were younger. Fitter.

For fourteen years we’ve lived a short two hours from one of the most beautiful hikes in Washington state, if not the entire country. And yet here we were, finally, for the first time. How many times have we pushed it off on account of me wanting to go mountain biking or Kristin going to visit family or one of us being on a business trip. Or because we didn’t have a permit or didn’t want to go without the dogs. The excuses were endless. I spent the last week in Vancouver, BC for work and only returned home Friday evening. We pulled into an overpriced Howard Johnson near the trailhead late Friday night after a short detour home so I could pack. And the only reason we did was because the motel was paid for, else we may have canceled again. Sometimes you just have to commit.

Trekking Aasgard Pass

The shuttle deposited us at the wrong trailhead, leaving us with an additional three-quarter mile walk up the road. None of us in the truck realized until the driver had already left. It served as a nice warm-up before the uphill hike to Colchuck Lake, a turquoise gem we had hiked to once before for an afternoon swim with a visiting cousin.  I remember then looking across the lake at the vertical granite wall known as Aasgard Pass and thrilling at the thought of finally, one of these days, cresting the pass and taking in the views of the Enchantment Basin beyond.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake to Aasgard Pass, left of Dragontail Peak.

Guidebook author Craig Romano has this to say about Aasgard Pass:

Beyond the lake, the way continues as a climber’s route to 7800-foot Aasgard Pass. Only experienced and extremely fit off-trail travelers should consider attempting this taxing and potentially dangerous climb involving 2200 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile.

Looking across the lake this time, knowing where we were headed, I was ecstatic. We were finally going to do it. But did it always look so steep? The closer we got to the start of the climb, the more the butterflies began to flutter. And the further the top seemed. I’m not sure what I expected, but the boulder fields and drifting piles of moondust made the going even slower than I had expected. Just getting around the lake to the beginning of the climb was an ordeal. Cairns (piles of rocks) marked a suggested route up the pass, but there is no trail nor one right way to go. Boot tracks can be found zigzagging across the scree slope in myriad directions. The climb was slow going, sketchy at times, and occasionally puzzling.

Aasgard Pass

Kristin roughly two-thirds of the way up Aasgard Pass.

Rock climbers scaled a nearby spire. Granite boulders the size of buses littered the hillside. Remnant fields of snow and trickles of meltwater added to the scenery and the challenge. This was alpine trekking like we had never experienced it before. And two hours after leaving the shores of Lake Colchuck, we reached the top. Two hours of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other toil brought us up the 40% grade.

And it was absolutely worth it.

Isolation Lake

Kristin tasting the rainbow in a slice of heaven.

The Enchantment Lakes Basin

Perched high atop a mountain-ringed plateau in central Washington lies the Enchantments. A basin home to some two-dozen turquoise lakes with names like Inspiration, Perfection, Tranquil, and Crystal, it is the crown jewel of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. And it was in danger of being loved to death. A permit system now regulates overnight stays in the area during the peak summer months — and permits can be very hard to get for those who don’t plan months in advance. Fortunately for those with the fitness (or misguided confidence), the 19-mile trek across the Enchantments from one end to the other can be done without a permit, provided you complete the route in a single day.

mountain goat

Mountain goat frolicking on the rocks near our lunch spot.

It is not a place one wants to hurry through. Dozens of sparkling lakes dot the landscape amid fields of snow and endless outcrops of glittery granite. We took a seat on the banks of Isolation Lake and alternated bites of our sandwiches with mouthfuls of Skittles and dried fruit, all the while snapping countless photos. The lakes, the mountains, the goats and the marmots. Every direction a new and interesting sight.

Enchantment Basin

A view from the trail into one of the lower lakes.

Being One with the Mountain Goats

Despite the lake’s name, we weren’t alone. There were some other hikers, for sure, but people tend to get pretty spread out in such a massive landscape. No, those lingering within earshot were not human. Mountain goats grazed mere yards away. A baby goat cried to its mama. Two nearby goats scampered along the rocks. Others walked ahead on the trail. I had missed a chance to photograph a mountain goat some fourteen years ago after nearly walking right into one on the McClellan Butte trail and I wasn’t going to miss my chance again. The mountain goats proved to be accommodating models.

Enchantment Basin

Three hikers heading in the opposite direction traverse the upper basin.

Though the majority of the elevation gain was behind us, we still had some twelve miles to go. We could have spent days soaking in the views, but we had to keep moving. The crossing typically takes between ten and twelve hours for those of similar ability and we wanted to avoid finishing in the dark (though we did have headlamps with us, just in case).

Enchantment Lakes

Kristin crossing a snow field in the upper Enchantments.

The thing we quickly realized about this hike is that the elevation profile is misleading. Sure, the route is primarily flat and then steeply downhill once you’re past Aasgard Pass, but the surface is highly technical. The eight miles through the basin and down towards Snow Lake are extremely rocky, dotted with lingering snow fields, and require periodic scrambling. The trekking poles we carried alternated between essential and hindrance, as we often needed to use our hands for grip on the too-steep terrain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is a major comfort knowing how capable Kristin is when it comes to outdoor travel. Yet, this route was pushing the limits of our comfort zone.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

 

Stay low and try not to fall.

Stay low and try not to fall.

Twelve miles and some eight hours into the hike, we were ready to have it over with. The views were amazing, we saw ample wildlife — marmots, chipmunks, and at least two dozen mountain goats — but the terrain soon wore us down. Eleven hours of walking on granite soon had our feet hot and sore. Blisters formed on my pinky toes, and the stress of worrying about our footing and the precarious nature of the trail exhausted our minds. We spent the final five miles descending some three thousand feet on aching feet and wondering when and if we’d ever do this again.

mountain goat follows hiker

This particular goat followed us for a while.

I can’t answer that. Not yet anyway. I’d like to think we’ll return again in the future for an overnight hike. After all, there is so much up there that we hadn’t seen yet. And I really can’t think of anywhere I’ve been that is more beautiful. The photos, as impressive as I think they came out, don’t do the place justice. The landscape is just too big, the colors too stark, to fit in these little images. But if I learned anything, I now know not to underestimate the difficulty of this hike. It’s far harder than its measurements suggest. 19 miles and 5000 feet of climbing may not sound that hard, but this trip took every bit of eleven hours to complete with a modest amount of down time. Chew on that before you tackle it. And then have a great time.

Some parts of the descent made for some interesting moments.

Some parts of the descent were more interesting than others.

 

Perfection Lake

Hiking alongside Perfection Lake before beginning the descent.

13 June, 2016

Backpacking the Teanaway Valley

If you were to ask me, interview style, what my biggest weakness is, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer. Not with my body aching as it does from sunburnt head to blistered toes. No, I would not pause in telling you that I often underestimate the challenge of my grand ideas. I don’t come up short, but the finish line is only reached through much pain and suffering along the way. I was acutely aware of this habit yesterday afternoon as we faced our final climb of an arduous weekend spent backpacking the Teanaway Valley. The climb, a 2.5 mile grunt climbing 2,200 feet up Bean Creek, was a stark reminder of how much easier these types of trips seem in the planning stages.

Equipped with a new 2-pound, two-person tent, one of the lightest and most compact on the market, we set off to explore one of the most picturesque areas of central Washington. The Teanaway Valley in Wenatchee National Forest is a place I’ve gone mountain biking numerous times over the years, and on some of these very trails, but never on foot, and never such a route. We began at the seldom-used Standup Creek trailhead, at the end of a steep dirt road featuring a dozen water bars that nearly damaged our car. We bottomed out on several of them on the way up and dug the front into a few more on the way back down. Fortunately, the car survived to deliver us to the overgrown, un-maintained Standup Creek trail (#1369). Up we went, hiking seemingly straight uphill at times. Four miles and three-thousand feet of elevation later, we reached our reward.

Standup Creek

Kristin atop the Standup Creek divide.

The descent into the adjacent drainage valley was covered in snow drifts, requiring some tricky route-finding. While Kristin can dance her petite frame across the drifts without care, I broke through on more than one occasion, plunging me groin-deep in snow. Fortunately, the east-facing slope only held snow above 5,600 feet and we were soon onto the Stafford Creek trail (#1359) and climbing again. The upper Teanaway Valley features a ridge that runs east-west at roughly 6,200 feet above sea level. Either side of this ridge is fluted with a number of drainages, V-shaped valleys that tumble down into the main creek on either side. On the south side, that’s the Teanaway River, to the north it’s Ingalls Creek. There is no flat land in this area. To hike it is to commit yourself to rising and falling in and out of these various drainage valleys. But the view of the Stuart Mountain Range to the north makes it all worth it.

Stuart Range

The view of the Stuart Range, looking north from the County Line Trail atop Stafford Creek.

Forest fire swept through the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge several years ago and many of the trails that descend this lesser-visited area have been left to return to nature. Oh, they’re still on the maps, but carry the warning: “Trail overgrown, hard to find.” Dropping off the north side of the County Line ridge, between Navaho Peak and Iron Peak, are several of these hard-to-follow trails. We sat atop the ridge, enjoying the view of the Stuart Range while eating our tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches, and decided to go for it. The upper reaches of the Cascade Creek trail (#1217)  was buried in snow, but the map showed a dashed line staying just left of the creek. If we skirt the snow to the left, and double back towards the creek, we should intersect the remnants of the trail. Or so we thought.

Cascade Creek trail.

Descending the Cascade Creek drainage from Navaho Pass. One of the few areas we weren’t pushing through brush.

In reality, the trail is gone. Completely. There are also several creeks, cliffs, and a jumble of fallen trees littering this scarily-steep valley that made this descent one of the most arduous things either of us have ever done on two feet. The trail, just 2.4 miles in length, descending some 2,400 feet in elevation, shouldn’t have taken more than 40 minutes to descend. If the trail was a thing. It was not. Instead, we spent 3 hours bushwhacking our way down the Cascade Creek drainage. We stumbled across the remnants of the trail on several occasions, only to have it disappear under a tangle of fallen trees and adolescent alders steps later. Visibility was seldom more than twenty feet as the spring growth was borderline impenetrable. Three nervous hours of treacherous descending only to be met with the roaring waters of Ingalls Creek. Clinging to the banks, and dancing from one rock to the next in hope of a  reasonably dry crossing, we saw our hope evaporating. Screw it. Planting my trekking poles with all my might to brace against the current, I waded out into the water. I have no idea what voodoo magic my newly-purchased hiking pants had been enchanted with, but they did an astoundingly good job of repelling the frigid water as it raced around my knees and thighs. Kristin, some eight inches shorter than me, followed next and managed to step so the water never crested her thighs. We scrambled out of Ingalls Creek on the north bank, intercepted the Ingalls Creek trail (#1215) and found an empty campsite mere steps away. Incredibly, it was the campsite marked on the map that I had hoped to find.

Cascade Creek trail.

Bushwhacking the Cascade Creek trail… or what’s left of it.

We pitched camp, made a fire, put our boots and socks too close to said fire, and piled into our rather snug tent at 8:30, exhausted. We woke several times due to the cold, but otherwise slept straight through the night until after 8 a.m. Eleven hours of sleep should have been enough rest, but day two proved harder still.

campsite

Our campsite at the intersection of the Ingalls Creek and Cascade Creek trails.

There was an unspeakable dread lingering over our camp as we had our granola and coffee: the fear that the uphill climb out of the Ingalls Creek area was going to be as difficult as our descent into it was. Fortunately, the trail we were to take back to the south didn’t bear the “trail overgrown, hard to find” warning. It was also marked as being open to equestrians so, in theory, it should be a bit more well trodden. And it was. Our climb up Fourth Creek (#1219) was an enjoyable, scenic several miles that climbed relatively gently compared to the steep ascents of the prior day (and of those to come). Unfortunately, the easy three miles we anticipated along Ingalls Creek were anything but. The forest fire had left the area a maze of pick-up-sticks. And this being part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (note the capital “W”), trail maintenance can be done with hand tools only. No chainsaws allowed in Wilderness. So, for three miles, we climbed over, under, and around countless fallen trees that aren’t likely to be cleared anytime soon. No wonder we didn’t have to compete for a backcountry campsite: few people make it more than a few miles up the Ingalls Creek trail!

Sherpa Peak

The view of Sherpa Peak from the Ingalls Creek trail.

Our re-crossing of Ingalls Creek three miles upstream (and past several tributaries) was far easier. The cold night had also brought the flow rate down a bit — rivers run highest in the mid afternoon after the sun had all day to melt more snow. We were able to cross without the water lapping above our knees. Which, since we had another 12 miles to go, was nice.

Ingalls Creek

Crossing Ingalls Creek at the base of Fourth Creek.

From Fourth Creek we descended the Beverly Creek trail (#1391), took a deep breath, and turned up the Bean Creek trail (#1391.1). We were spent. The blisters on my heel had torn free, the skin flapping around under my socks. The heat of the day and the weight of our packs had begun to take its toll. I so wanted to be done. Kristin, forever steady, just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and urged us on. Conversation soon shifted to the plate of ribs we would enjoy back in Cle Elum, once we got to town. And, before long, we were cresting the Bean Creek divide and about to descend into the Standup Creek drainage, ready to complete our lollipop route with a 4-mile descent back to the car. We ran into another couple enjoying the view from atop the divide. They had done a similar overnight hike, minus the descent to Ingalls Creek. They too spent 3 hours bushwhacking along a portion of forgotten County Line trail. Mutual badassery was agreed-upon.

Beverly Creek.

Enjoying a gentle descent down the Beverly Creek trail.

Our hike was ultimately just 25.4 miles according to our GPS, but included 8,750 feet of elevation gain. That’s a whole lot of climbing for such a short distance. Too much if you ask me. This was a beautiful place to go hiking, but I can’t say I’d ever do this route again. There’s no reason to drop down to the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge again, least of all on any of the overgrown trails that should, in all honesty, probably be removed from the registry, erased from the maps, and left to revert to nature. It would be far too easy for someone less experienced and less fit to get in a very bad predicament attempting the descent down Cascade Creek. The sign atop the County Line ridge pointing to where the trail used to be is only tempting fate. But, for those who want an adventure, a physical test, and are looking to surround themselves with tremendous views and few people, this is a route worth considering. We only encountered other hikers on Stafford Creek and Bean Creek trails. Otherwise, we saw nobody. It was just us, the mountains, and our thoughts.

Our route and elevation profile for those familiar with the area.

Our route and elevation profile for those familiar with the area.

12 April, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #1

Long before embarking on a two year cycling odyssey, prior to our amassing a stable of nine different bicycles (now only three), and before my love affair with mountain biking, we were hikers. Kristin and I stole away whenever we could during our college years to go backpacking. It wasn’t easy with my Saturdays being spent with the track team, not to mention our studies, but the Appalachian Trail ran just twenty miles from our campus in eastern Pennsylvania and we took advantage of it as often as we could. It wasn’t long before we had sectioned nearly 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail, biting off scenic chunks in North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, and, of course, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, our stomping grounds.

Hiking gave way to mountain biking and trail running over the years, but something unexpected happened after our bike tour: I wanted to go hiking. It wasn’t that I was tired of cycling — I’ve been mountain biking three to four times a week lately — but something else entirely. Something unexpected.

I missed our time together.

Spending 21 months with someone, virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week without interruption, can be a lot to get used to. It was. There were days we now joke about, in which we simply wanted to go eight hours without seeing one another. Please! The best birthday gift she ever gave me was a half-day of freedom to wander Paris without her. And for her without me.

We had our moments when we argued and yelled and occasionally cursed at one another (usually on a really hilly ride in hundred-degree heat or intense cold and freezing rain) and this excessive amount of togetherness is often the first thing married couples ask us about when they learn of our trip. But for every bit as challenging as that was, it’s been equally difficult readjusting to the opposite: seeing that same person for just a few hours each night is no longer enough.

Enter hiking. We picked up a copy of Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book, an excellent guidebook containing maps and directions and information for 125 different day hikes stretching from Whidbey Island to the town of Wenatchee and north to Chelan, essentially, a slightly north-of-center tract across the state from the coast to just east of the mountains, in apple country. I have a bin filled with dozens of trail maps for all over the state, but my knowledge of the trails along Highway 2 is comparatively lacking, given that we have always lived along I-90, the other major east-west route in western Washington.

Most of the really good hikes in Washington are buried under snow for seven months of the year, which raises another reason for buying this book: it contains a number of lowland and island hikes, many we hadn’t done before (much of our exploration has tended to be where it is legal to mountain bike). So we started going hiking — and sometimes trail running — once every weekend with that thought that it would be nice to check off each of the hikes in this book in a calendar year. We’ve done a couple of two-a-days and even spent a weekend away on Whidbey Island in which we hiked four separate trails in the book. Some are quite short, but we hope to be able to link together several of the trails into longer loops as the weather improves and the snow melts.

Below are some thoughts on the day hikes we’ve done so far, along with recommendations for those we feel are worth doing. The conversations we have and the dreams and plans we share during those hikes will remain private. For now…

Whidbey Island

Normally when we go to Whidbey Island it’s to go mountain biking and trail running at Fort Ebey State Park or to gawk at the bridge at Deception Pass. These other hikes were a first for us.

Double Bluff (Hike #1)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Sand and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Best left to the local dog walkers.

Double Bluff Whidbey Island

The rocky far end of the Double Bluff beach walk.

The hike is a flat four-mile hike (out and back) along the beach. It’s a fine hike for locals and very popular with dog owners as the dogs can safely run off-leash at the base of a bluff, but I wouldn’t make a point of walking this route again, given the nicer walk at Ebey’s Landing. That said, the beach at Double Bluff has better footing than the one at Ebey Landing so those with walking difficulty should consider it. It is scenic, just not as scenic as some of the others.

South Whidbey State Park (Hike #2)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path

Verdict: Do it for the old-growth.

western red cedar old growth

Western Red Cedar over 500 years old and saved from logging in the 70s by a couple of literal “tree huggers”.

This short hike on the inland side of the road loops past several amazing old-growth trees, including a Western Red Cedar over 500 years old. It can be muddy in spots (we were there in February) and the walk through the upland part of the park is along an old wagon road with younger alder trees and not entirely worth the effort, but it is a nice, small park with a very attractive forest.

Greenbank Farm (Hike #3)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Grassland

Verdict: Worth a visit while you wait for the galleries to open.

Greenbank farm.

View of the farm and bay from the grassy ridge.

A network of trails looping through the forest and across the grassy ridge provide a nice place to take a stroll before or after your visit to the galleries and cafe at the Greenbank Farm complex. Views of the water and an opportunity for off-leash dog play are abundant. The forest isn’t particularly pretty, but the grassy area is quite nice. It’s worth stopping, even if only to stretch your legs.

Ebey’s Landing (Hike #4)

Distance: 5.6 miles

Surface: Sandy Trail and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Arguably the best hike on Whidbey Island!

Ebey's Landing

Kristin along the bluff at Ebey’s Landing.

If we were to do this hike again, we wouldn’t bother descending to the beach as the cobble/gravel surface made for a very unpleasant 2.5 mile return trip. Instead, we’d simply stay on the bluff where the trail begins. Follow the bluff northward for wonderful views of the beach below and the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound. Combine this hike with a trip to Coupeville for lunch!

Goose Rock (Hike #5)

Distance: 2.5 miles

Surface: Hilly Forest Path

Verdict: Worth the effort!

Goose Rock trail.

The steep path up Goose Rock near Deception Pass.

The climb up to the bridge provides some great views of Deception Pass and the forested trail that loops around — and then over — Goose Rock is very scenic. The switchbacks up to Goose Rock are steep (400 foot climb in 0.4 miles), but the views are worth the effort. It was quite windy and cold atop Goose Rock when we went in March so bring a coat if you want to linger.

Hoypus Point (Hike #6)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Paved Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

View of Deception pass.

Looking across to Goose Rock from Hoypus Point Trail.

The closed-to-vehicles paved path that heads to Hoypus Point is a lovely mile-long trail offers plenty of majestic trees, waterfront views, and benches to enjoy. The trail that loops through the forest was exceedingly muddy in spots and relatively forgettable, save for a few areas of larger second-growth trees and towering firs and cedars.

Skykomish River Valley

We’ve never done any hiking along Highway 2 west of Steven’s Pass before. We were happy to have this guidebook motivate us to check it out.

Wallace Falls (Hike #14)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Exceptionally beautiful falls, but very crowded

Wallace Lake (Hike #15)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pleasant hike without the crowds

Wallace Falls.

Wallace Falls is certainly worth the effort (and the crowds).

We combined Wallace Falls and Wallace Lake into a single 10+ mile hike. We chose to do this on a cloudy day in early March when the falls were at their most impressive. Several hundred other people chose to do the same. It was quite surprising how crowded the trail was given the steepness of the terrain, but the view of the falls more than makes up for the extra people. As crowded as the hike to the falls was, the hike to the lake on the Greg Ball trail was every bit as empty. We enjoyed a very peaceful walk through a beautiful forest en route to the lake, only to have the rain start when we got there. These two hikes can be looped with a road, but we did them as a “Y”. Both are worth doing, but next time I’d go during mid-week.

Wenatchee River Valley

We did these next two in a single day and then went to Leavenworth for lunch and some light shopping.

Tumwater Pipeline Trail (Hike #52)

Distance: 2.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

This trail offers excellent views of the Wenatchee River and, in the spring, you’ll be able to watch some of the area kayakers having a blast in the meltwater. The trail crosses a water-logged bridge and then follows a rocky path along the side of a hill upstream for about a mile before seemingly petering out. It’s popular with dog walkers and those looking to stretch their legs before driving home.

Wenatchee River in spring.

Wenatchee River from the Tumwater Pipeline Trail, just beyond the bridge.

Peshastin Pinnacles (Hike #53)

Distance: 1.5 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside

Verdict: Leave it to the climbers

Peshastin Pinnacles outside of Cashmere is a postage-stamp of a park with several towering sandstone outcrops that are very popular with rock climbers. The trails that wind around the pinnacles are very steep, sandy, and not enjoyable to hike on. To be honest, I have no idea why this is even in the guidebook.

Peshastin Pinnacles

Peshastin Pinnacles are scenic, but not great for hiking.

2 July, 2015

Brutal Cycling in Beautiful Abruzzo

I’m a fan of symmetry and even numbers. I like bookends that match, months with thirty days, and I love that my half-birthday is on April Fool’s Day and that my mother’s birthday is my brother’s half-birthday… and vice-versa. Neat and tidy, even-Steven. Whoever he is.

When it was time to plan our return to Italy, retrieve our squirreled-away bicycles, and rejoin the open road, I knew it had to be on a certain day and to a certain place. Because symmetry. We left the USA on June 23rd, six months to the day we last rode our bicycles. Unfortunately, because of time zones, layovers, and the vagaries of utilizing hotel rewards points, we couldn’t check into the Rome Cavalieri hotel until the next night: six months and a day.  Drats. Nevertheless, just a few doors down from the very same room we boxed our bicycles up on December 26th, I anxiously reassembled our steel steeds and, after a brief tune-up from a local bike shop (who generously replaced a missing part with a used one they had lying around), soon had them ready to roll with new brake pads, chains, and cassettes. We pedaled out of Rome on June 27th, six months to the day we left that same hotel, sans bikes, on a train for Napoli.

This time there would be no trains.

Just as we never thought it would take nearly seven months to eventually cross Italy, we didn’t quite expect it to take five days to reach the Adriatic Sea from Rome. Despite my best efforts to ensure that the only thing that changed in our trip was the month — that our six-month detour could be harmlessly plucked and set aside like a single hibiscus from a bountiful shrub — I had forgotten a very important piece of equipment: our legs. And it was without those road-tested legs that we found ourselves wrestling our fully-loaded bikes up one of the Giro de Italia’s mountain stages.

We seldom pass a market without stopping.

We seldom pass a market without stopping, especially one that is “Not Just Fruit!”

I never heard of Abruzzo before last week. Tuscany, Umbria, Amalfi Coast, Rome, Napoli, Cinque Terre? Yes, of course. All of them and more. But Abruzzo… never heard of it. Allow me to enlighten. Abruzzo is a region in southern Italy that reaches from the crest of Monti Simbruini east of Rome (Lazio region) all the way across the country to the Adriatic Sea. It’s home to several regional parks, dozens of hilltop towns, winding rivers, turquoise lakes, and more mountains than I care to mention while the wound is so raw. Too soon. It’s also home to Barrea, where Kristin and I were reminded, for the umpteenth time, what a magical, wonderful world we live in.

Our route out of Rome first led through Rome. All roads as the saying goes. We soon made our way onto the backroads of Lazio, angling northeastward into a headwind that would accompany us all week. Our first climb brought us to the hilltop town of Tivoli, a town with a lovely name, perched atop a steep cliff, flanked by waterfalls, and covered in beige. So much beige. We set out with the plan of riding no more than 40 miles on our first day back on the bikes and stuck to the plan, having done plenty of climbing under a scorching sun. We stopped often for large bottles of acqua minerale, frizzante per favore and tried to hide in every bit of shade we could find as the thermometer on my sun-baked Garmin read 106.4° F.

With no campground to be found, and not about to wild-camp five hours before sunset, we happily pulled into a small guesthouse with a pizzeria on the ground floor. An Italian every-grandma showed us where to lock our bicycles in her personal garage and insisted on helping carry our panniers up the stairs to our room. It wasn’t camping, but it was great to be back in small-town Italy.

Kristin back in the saddle and making her way up our biggest mountain pass.

Kristin back in the saddle and making her way up the biggest mountain pass of the week.

The next few days rank as some of the most difficult cycling we’ve done on this tour, and arguably the toughest in Kristin’s life. Whereas I have a long and demented history of throwing my periodically unfit self at ill-conceived tests of endurance, Kristin prefers to wade in gradually. She can suffer with the best of them, I’ve seen her do it, but always with a gradual build-up.

We should have known our route was of questionable sanity when a group of road cyclists yelled, “No, No!” to us as we veered off a highway onto a narrow road leading up a steep hill. It climbed nearly 900 feet in 2 miles. Whose idea was this? Mine. While on a computer, in Florida. The descent into the town of Subiaco lifted our spirits. We sipped our espressos on plastic chairs while eyeing a collection of classic Alfa Romeos that had gathered in the parking lot. But the climbing soon continued, our first of three mountain passes. Cycling-themed graffiti covered the roads, encouraging slogans and designs aimed to inspire riders a fraction of my size, on bikes lighter than a single pannier. This was not a good sign.

Local flavor in Filettino, Italy.

Local flavor in Filettino, Italy.

Kristin was off and walking. Early and often. The heat, the hills, the headwind, and lack of conditioning were taking their toll. Yoga was no preparation for this kind of test. Too much too soon. I zoomed out the elevation profile on the GPS and saw, just beyond this mountain pass that Kristin barely survived, lay another major climb just a few miles beyond the descent. Her eyes begin to water at the news.

Bicycle touring, as we were quickly reminded, is a series of highs and lows. As is life. But, as you may have gathered from reading this blog over the past 15 months (wow!), the highs are higher and the lows are lower out on the road. And the changes can come quickly.

We reached the base of the next hill, again too early in the day for stealth camping without shade and low on water. Kristin was all but trembling with fear at the thought of another climb when we rounded a bend and encountered the sign for a campground. The campground was still under construction, having recently been revived after years of closure, and we were quite sad to hear that the restaurant advertised on the ages-old sign was not open. Nor was the snack bar and store. The teenage girl from reception approached our campsite a few minutes later, arms full of room-temperature bottles of Peroni. A gift to the tired cyclists who had just ascended 3,900 feet of climbing in 30 measly miles.

Mountainside springs like this provide crisp, tasty, clear water.

Mountainside springs like this provide crisp, tasty, clear water. Just don’t drink from the pools.

The next day, our first in Abruzzo, was even harder. I load up on fresh fruit and cold pizza in the cute little hilltop town of Filletino and prepare for another sun-baked mountain pass. I wait every mile or so for fifteen to twenty minutes, hand over some apricots or a handful of cherry tomatoes, and we continue on. Kristin spends the day fighting back tears and willing her legs to work to no avail. Her spirits rise on the descent into Capistrello and then fade just as soon as we realize we have another climb before us in order to reach the town of Avezzano where a bike shop points us to a friend’s motel on the outskirts of town.

Hilltop towns like Capistrello lose their charm after a long day in the saddle.

Hilltop towns like Capistrello lose their charm after a long day in the saddle.

The fourth day back on the bikes, some fifty miles short of where I thought we’d be at that time, wasn’t the most difficult, but it was the worst. A long approach to the day’s major mountain pass, a portion of this year’s Stage 8 course on the Giro de Italia, didn’t help restore Kristin’s strength, nor her confidence. Off and walking near the base of the climb, I finally had to resort to leapfrogging both bikes up the mountain on my own when finally, in a world of pint-sized Fiats and Citroens, a white pickup truck rounded the hairpin beneath us. I waved the driver over, a twenty-something guy with a Specialized S-Works mountain bike in the bed of his truck, and pantomimed that my tired wife needed a lift to the top of the mountain pass. He understood and nodded his agreement and less than two minutes later, I was back on my bike watching Kristin drive away in a stranger’s car, her bike and panniers strewn across the back of his pickup truck. But I wasn’t worried: mountain bikers are good people.

Rolling past the eastern end of Lake Barrea.

Rolling past the eastern end of Lake Barrea.

Free to enjoy the climb, I shifted into a stiffer gear and attacked the hill. My legs were back and I was in Italy, cycling one of the mountain passes on the Giro! Life is beautiful, indeed! And Kristin was safe (I hoped!) and relieved (I knew!). We had a marvelous lunch of capicola, provolone, and ham sandwiches together some eighty minutes later, a meal that would have taken place hours later had that pickup truck not have come cruising by.

We finished the final mountain pass on our route to the Adriatic in a campground in the hilltop town of Barrea where, on our walk back from dinner, we were treated to a view so exquisite that I almost had to pinch myself. The twinkling lights of several hillside villages shone in the twilight as the last rays of the sun speared the distant clouds, illuminating the mountain-ringed lake down below us. If I had seen a view so spectacular before, it was only on the cover of a glossy travel magazine. The photo below barely does it justice.

The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea.

The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea.

We reached the Adriatic on our fifth day after a 62 mile, primarily downhill, ride from Barrea to Fossacesia. Kristin rode like she had the nine months prior to our detour. She just had to knock the rust off. She would have preferred a chisel over the sledgehammer I handed her. We’re spending a couple nights at a campground on a cobble-strewn beach, resting up before following the coast southeastward. It’s not the wilderness we prefer, but it’s got a pool, a restaurant, WiFi and a market stocked with groceries. All within walking distance. The bicycles will not be ridden today. That’s a promise.

One of the best steak sandwiches I ever had (made!) while camping!

Campground Steak Sandwich: Sautee sliced onion, one red chili pepper and sliced olives in oil with salt & pepper. Add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and mix. Set aside. Pan-fry a 1/4″ steak in olive oil, sprinkle with garlic powder, melt two slices of provolone on top. Serve on a hoagie roll topped with the sauteed vegetables. Absolutely delicious improv dinner from camp store groceries!

Special Thanks: Kristin and I would like to once again thank Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc., for their generous monthly sponsorship of our trip. We raise a glass of Limoncello in your honor!

19 March, 2015

Our Grand Hakone Loop

Some days need to be recorded for posterity. Our second full day in Japan, chronicled in this post, was one of those days.

It began, like so many mornings on the other side of the world do, wide awake at 4 a.m.  Jet lagged and excited I quietly slipped out from under the duvet, padded across the tatami  mats, and set the kettle on for tea. We were in a ryokan — the highly recommended Aura Tachibana to be exact — for two nights of traditional Japanese luxury set in the hot spring resort region of Hakone in the mountains southeast of Mt. Fuji. It was supposed to be our treat after five nights of hosteling in Tokyo. Instead it ended up being a comforting retreat following the memorial service for Kristin’s father, Eric. The stress of the prior weeks had taken their toll; my saddened bride slept for ten hours, her body clock immune to the 14 time zones we crossed.

Clad in our yukatas and split-toed socks and corresponding sandals, we sat down to a breakfast consisting of seven courses, one of which contained nine separate seasonal side dishes. The centerpiece was dried horse mackerel. A bowl of miso soup with crab claws flanked a dish of sesame tofu and couscous salad. Any taste buds that weren’t completely shocked from this bevy of tasty, yet unusual breakfast offerings were soon reeling in puckered discomfort from the record-levels of sourness packed into the pickled plums.  But enough about the food… for now.

Breakfast on our second morning at Aura Tachibana... we came straight from the hot spring baths.

Breakfast on our second morning at Aura Tachibana… we came straight from the hot spring baths to an incredible feast containing everything from dried fish to raw octopus to dumplings and soup and white bait.

We were blessed with a clearing sky and a plan: we would spend the day circling the Hakone National Park by rail, cable car, ropeway, boat, and by foot. By piecing together the info from several tourist maps of the area, I was able to convince myself — and Kristin — that this loop was feasible. Not only was it doable, but it should be considered mandatory. Here’s how to have one of the best days of your traveling life while in Japan.

It begins at Hakone-Yumoto station, a short walk down the hill from our ryokan. There we boarded the narrow gauge Hakone Tozan train to Gora. The two-car train climbed steadily into the mountains, stopping three times to switchback up the Haya River valley. At each switchback the two train conductors would alight from their respective ends of the train, meet on the side of the tracks in the middle, exchange pleasantries, then reboard the train. Off we’d go in the opposite direction we were just traveling, continuing along for a lovely, scenic 40-minute journey that ascends over 400 meters in elevation!

HakoneMap

The train, cable car and ropeway even appear on Google Maps. The Old Tokaido Road roughly parallels the unlabeled secondary road returning back from the south end of the lake to Hakone-Yumoto.

Once at Gora Station we exited the turnstiles from the train tracks, walked a few yards, and quickly and painlessly bought our tickets for the Hakone Tozan Cable Car, or what I think a lot of westerners would refer to as a funicular. Two two-car trains glide back and forth up the steep mountainside, ascending over 200 meters in just over 1 kilometer. The ten minute ride, like the switchbacking train, isn’t just transportation, but novelty entertainment! Unfortunately for us, being there in March, the hydrangeas that line the tracks of both the train and cable car were still several months from blooming. If you come in June for the flowers, expect long lines.

The cable car took us to Sounzan Station at an elevation of 768 meters. There the transit prices rose steeply, but so did the wow factor! We bought a one-way ticket on the Hakone Ropeway, all the way to Lake Ashi at Togendai. The four kilometer aerial gondola ride took us up and over the sulphur-spewing vents of Owakudani (where you can buy blackened geothermal vent-cooked eggs said to add 7 years to your life) high in the mountains. Keep your eyes peeled to the right hand side of the gondola as you crest the ridge as the sudden appearance of Mt. Fuji is not to be missed. Chances are, the collective gasping of the other people aboard your gondola will draw your attention.

Mt. Fuji comes into view on the Hakone Ropeway after cresting the ridge.

Mt. Fuji comes into view on the Hakone Ropeway after cresting the ridge.

Mt. Fuji was partially covered in clouds at first, but the sky was clearing by the minute. What a view to see Fuji from above the treetops and ridgelines of the other mountains to the south. I couldn’t stop taking photos, even as we transitioned from one gondola to another at Owakudani. So excited were we to see Mt. Fuji that we completely forgot to visit the tourist center at the top of the mountain (1044 meters above sea level) and buy our sulphur-blackened eggs.

Japan’s most famous volcano gradually dropped out of view behind the neighboring ring of mountains as we descended to Lake Ashi at Togendai station. And the closer we got to the lake, so did the 308 ton Vasa touring ship, a gorgeous green and gold replica of a 17th century Swedish warship of the same name. We opted for 1st class tickets for a few extra bucks and recommend you do the same for a spot on the spacious, raised quarterdeck at the stern of the ship. While the rest of the ship was jam-packed with people, we were able to move around, take photos from both sides of the ship, and avoid being jostled. There was also a comfortable inside cabin, but it was too nice a day to need it. In total, our transit costs for all four modes of transit, including the 1st class tickets for the cruise, totaled 7400 yen ($61 USD at time of writing).

Once in Togendai, we boarded this pirate-styled tour ship for a 30-minut ride across the lake to Hakone-Mache.

Once in Togendai, we boarded this 17th century warship-styled tour ship for a 30-minute ride across the lake to Hakone-Machi.

We disembarked the Vasa after a thirty minute cruise to the south end of Lake Ashi, in Hakone-Machi. A quick lunch of curry chicken katsu and ramen (Japanese comfort food) and then we were off on foot along the Avenue of Cedars, a 17th century section of the Old Tokaido Road that was lined with cedar trees in order to protect travelers during the windy, frigid winters. The Avenue of Cedars took us halfway to Moto-hokone and, more importantly, to a magical spot on Lake Ashi’s coast where Mt. Fuji can be seen rising above the waters of the lake, fishermen in the foreground, and a bright orange Torii Gate on a distant shore. It’s a quintessential photo-op; there’s no reason to buy the postcard when you can take the shot yourself.

The southern shores of Lake Ashi offer an unblocked view of Mt. Fuji with the Hakone Shrine in the foreground.

The southern shores of Lake Ashi offer an unblocked view of Mt. Fuji with the Hakone Shrine in the foreground.

Now, if the weather isn’t cooperating or you don’t feel up to a six mile hike in the hills, there’s a bus from Moto-Hokone that will take you all the way back to Hakone-Yumoto station. But, if you’re up for some adventure, spot the bus stop, cross the street, and head up the unmarked side road for several hundred meters. The trailhead for the Old Tokaido Road, an Edo-era stone-paved road, will be on your left. You can’t miss it.

It was brutal with 21st century hiking boots. I couldn't imagine walking it in 17th century sandals.

The Old Tokaido Road, originally built in the 17th century, leads from Lake Ashi past the Amazake teahouse.

The road is chock full of history and contains some historical signage along the way, translated into Korean and English. But it’s also extremely slippery after a rain and a very rugged surface. Hiking boots are highly recommended and trekking poles would really help for balance. The trail crosses route 732 multiple times and will periodically seem to disappear. Learn the style of signs that are used to mark the trail and stay on the lookout for them. The Old Tokaido Road is easy to follow for the first several kilometers, to the historical thatch-roofed Amazake Chaya teahouse (worth a stop, but its namesake rice-porridge tea is pricey), but it then turns to a narrow nature path that joins and leaves the roadway through a series of steep switchbacks and the signage becomes less frequent. We ended up walking the last two miles along route 732 which may or may not be the only way to complete the loop — we saw no signs. Don’t fret though, as the trail is never far from the road and there seemed to be a bus stop every 400 meters. We eventually made our way back to our ryokan, completely on foot from Hakone-Machi in roughly 3 hours, including a stop at the teahouse. We tend to hike very quickly though.

The road eventually turns to a trail and that trail but never gets too far from the road... and the safety of a passing bus if you need it.

The road eventually turns to a trail and that trail can get a little hard to follow, but you’ll never gets too far from the road… and the safety of a passing bus if you need it.

Back at the ryokan, we wasted no time in changing into our yukata and heading down to the hot spring baths. In addition to terrific multi-course meals, ryokans are famous for their public hot baths. Attending one can be a bit intimidating at first, but we’re happy to report that there’s nothing to worry about. You’re naked with other naked people, but it’s Japan. Not only is nobody going to stare, but they’re going to try their hardest to be invisible and act as if you are too. Also, the vast majority of hot springs, onsen, are separated by gender. Just grab a locker for your room key, clothes, and any valuables you foolishly brought with you and grab a wash cloth. Your first stop is the showering area. Aura Tachibana has a spacious bathing area with a dozen or more stalls where you can sit on a wooden seat and use the shower hose and faucet to wash yourself good and clean. Body wash, shampoo, and conditioner was provided along with a small cedar bucket for you to finish rinsing off with. Once you’re good and clean, grab your (rinsed-out) washcloth and mosy over to the hot springs. Feel free to carry the washcloth in front of your privates if you’d like or just toss it on your head and strut your stuff. Whatever you do, don’t let the washcloth or any other towels or clothing enter the water. That’s a big no-no. Unlike a hot-tub, the water is minimally treated (if at all) so it’s important that no dirt, grime, or clothing go in the water. Japanese men place their washcloths atop their head.

Kristin reported some light chatting among the other women in the hot springs but none of the other men in the hot springs were talkative beyond konichiwa. My formal reply of hajimemashite was greeted with a chuckle. Point taken: naked strangers can probably go with the informal greeting.

The onsen aren’t just about a relaxing soak, but are really for bathing. The drying room and locker area had a number of sinks stocked with razor blades, cotton swabs, shaving cream, lotions, and hair care products. It sure beats a truckstop shower stall.

Our second and final dinner at Aura Tachibana was one for the record books. They have three menus, one for each night of your stay (at nearly $300 USD per couple per night, including taxes/gratuity, they don’t get many people who stay more than 3 nights). I’d tell you all about it, but at nine courses and twenty-two dishes, I think it’s best to just let some of the pictures do the talking. Fortunately, each meal came with a printed menu (in English) that helped to identify the dishes.

Our appetizer on the second night contained shrimp pudding, butterfish, green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a turkey pastrami.

Our appetizer on the second night contained shrimp pudding, pufferfish (no poison, we were assured), green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a random slice of turkey pastrami which, after all of this raw fish, was much appreciated.

The sashimi course had tuna, octopus, konnyaku, and clam.

The sashimi course had tuna, octopus, konnyaku, and clam.

The perfect end to a perfect day: homemade Grand Marnier ice cream with a caramel drizzle.

The perfect end to a perfect day: homemade Grand Marnier ice cream with a caramel drizzle.

If the last few paragraphs felt a bit rushed, they were. It’s almost dinner time here on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi and reliving those two days at the ryokan are making my mouth water. It was the type of experience I wish everyone could have… and savor. What a day! Four modes of transportation, incredible views of Mt. Fuji, a 10 kilometer hike on a 17th century road, a soak in a hot spring, and two world-class meals to bookend what, as of now, has to go down as one of my greatest days ever.

Ahhh… it’s great to be back on the road!

27 October, 2014

Cycling the Spanish Sierra

“It’s going to be a six day ride to Madrid.”

“I thought you said it was only 400 kilometers. We could do that in four days, three if we had to,” she countered from across the room.

“Well, that’s before I saw this.” I  turned the map while pointing at the road marked LR-333. “Look how squiggly it is! I hope you’re ready to do some climbing.” The look on her face was one I had seen before. Kristin wore a bemused smile that showed a lack of surprise mixed with an obvious nervousness but I could also see a trace of excitement in her eyes. She didn’t quite find it as thrilling as I did, but she’d be up for it, I knew. She trusts me. Or, at the least, trusts me to not want to have to push her bike for her.

We had been in Pamplona for three days and, truthfully, I didn’t want to leave. Ever. We had a comfortable budget hostal just feet from Plaza del Castillo and its wonderful cafes where we consumed our fill of pintxos and vino, often at more than one location per night, and the vibe of the city just suited me. The guidebook erroneously says that arriving outside of the famed San Fermin festival season leaves you feeling like you’re the only one who missed the party. I didn’t want a party: I wanted to spend my days sipping espresso at Cafe Iruna, hammering at the keys of my laptop in the shadow of the Ernest Hemingway statue, strolling the cobbled streets of the historic quarter and soaking in the late autumn sunshine in the city’s immaculate parks. And I did, that is when not looking online for a furnished apartment we could rent. A return trip, perhaps?

Leaving Pamplona through the grapes and approaching the cliffs of Extauri.

Leaving Pamplona through the grapes and approaching the cliffs of Etxauri.

We did leave, begrudgingly, and not to follow the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route as we had once thought we might — a journey across northern Spain to Portugal will have to wait as we’re headed south through the heart of Spain to Morocco. Our exit took us northwest out of Pamplona across Basque country to Etxauri, a massive limestone escarpment featuring over  700 designated rock climbing routes. The detailed climbing information sign, map, and trailheads showed just the sort of commitment to recreation that we look for in a place and had me, again, wondering about a longer stay. A return trip? Definitely.

Climbing Etxauri, a massive escarpment popular among rock climbers.

Climbing Etxauri, a massive escarpment popular among rock climbers.

From Etxauri we continued west (briefly along the Camino de Santiago out of necessity, as it turns out) to Logroño and onward to the wine producing region of La Rioja. And upon filling our goatskin bota with one of the region’s cheaper offerings we left the lower elevations behind and climbed through the canyons of Rio Najerilla along LR-113. And, from there, higher still on that impossible squiggle of a road, LR-333. With dusk approaching early in the shadow of the mountains, we camped in a glorious mix of autumnal hardwoods and pine at 4300 feet (1310 meters) above sea level. A pipe jutting from the bedrock provided fresh spring water, straight from the source.

Winding along Rio Najerilla as we climb into the mountains.

Winding along Rio Najerilla as we climb into the mountains.

It was a cold night, but we’d be warm soon enough. Daybreak brought a two-mile, 750-foot climb to the top of the pass in bright sunshine. The road switchbacked its way up the flanks of the mountain, out of the pine trees and into the heather where a Great Pyrenees (of course) sat in the shade of a boulder, keeping one eye on us and its other on the sheep scattered across the hillside. It was our highest pass since the Rocky Mountains, but wouldn’t even be the highest of the day. The four mile descent was straight and fast, with gentle curves that nary needed any braking. My habit of leading us up the steeper slopes and down the longer flanks held true throughout the week, just the way I like it. It’s better to have the love be long and the heartache be swift.

Kristin nearing the summit of our first major pass in the Spanish Sierra.

Kristin nearing the summit of our first major pass in the Spanish Sierra.

Climbing again, this time past random horses left to wander, caballos de montaña, as the sign said, and upwards to a new high point in our trip: Puerto de Santa Ines at 1753 meters (5,751 feet). The ski lodge at the top of the pass was open, serving up ice cold cerveza for the dozens of basket-carrying mushroom hunters clambering over the hillside. And a couple of cyclists with the best October tans they’ve ever had.

Big mountain descent!

Big mountain descent!

Maybe it was the mile-high altitude. Perhaps it was the two (or was it three?) beers. Or conceivably it was just the joy of being on a bike in the mountains of Spain, but I hoot-and-hollered the whole way down the mountain. Six miles worth of pine forest and mushroom hunters and S-curves and switchbacks flew past as I tucked my head, took the fingers off the brakes, took command of the road, and watched the speedometer inch closer and closer to 50 mph. I didn’t hit it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Must be all that weight I lost.

Our route to Madrid opened up onto the wide plains south of the Sistema Ibérico mountain range after that last big descent, but still packed plenty of varying topography. Only now, instead of ski slopes, the lesser summits played home to hilltop towns, castles, and medieval-looking lookout towers, many undoubtedly linked to the time of the Moors. We rolled into Barcones, not even a dot on my map, and found an elderly woman padding up the cobbled street, one hand clutching the neck of a heavy, tattered blue robe. The aforementioned Hemingway might have said she looked peasantly. “Hola senora. ¿Donde esta el agua de la ciudad?” I asked, waving an empty water bottle in my hand and hoping she could direct us to the town’s water pipe. “Aqui, aqui. Mi casa!” She replied, taking the bottle from my hand and motioning for us to follow her. She disappeared into a darkened room behind a heavy beaded curtain, shouting in Spanish at someone inside. She returned with our bottles and promptly took the others we had and filled those too.  We said our thanks and goodbyes and were back on the road, hydrated, dusty, sweaty, and so thrilled to be able, again, to communicate. At least on an elementary level. And therein lies something I never expected. I couldn’t guess how comforting it was to hear that first hola or appreciate how wonderful it would be to hear a cashier tell me a total and, with a couple of seconds to think about it, know that doce y ochenta meant I owed twelve euro and eighty cents. Without having to see the digital tally! Language and communication isn’t something we have to think about much in our normal everyday lives, but man is it a relief after going two months without it. But I digress…

We regretted leaving Atienza, but we were in a camping mood...

We regretted leaving Atienza, but we were in a camping mood…

...and found a great place to camp atop a plateau south of town.

…and found a great place to sleep atop a plateau a few miles south of town.

It’s been a great week of cycling (with over 20,000 feet of elevation gain), and better yet, it’s been great to be back in the wilds, among nature. Though the only noise we might hear these next few nights is the elevator down the hall, I’ll go to sleep remembering the sounds of the past two nights: that of coyotes yipping and barking as they gave chase to the the deer nosing around our tent. Our route from Madrid takes us through more mountains and national parks en route to Seville then onward to the Mediterranean coast.

Special Thanks: What we’re lacking in quality, we’re making up for in quantity while here in Spain. Special thanks to my friend Kevin Axt for clicking the donate button and contributing to our cerveza fund. The great thing about the bars in Spain is that every drink comes with small plates of snacks so, even a fizzy yellow lager can still feel like a meal! And speaking of beer, I want to give my brother-in-law Mike a big congratulations for landing his new gig at Flying Fish Brewery in NJ. Salud!