Wednesday, June 24, 2009

DAY TRIP REPORT - Joshua Tree National Park

Being a nearly lifelong resident of Virginia, I always get a kick out of traveling out west. To me, the environment differences couldn’t be more obvious. Often times when I see people give advice on backpacking, it is pretty clear their opinions are polarized to whatever happens to be in their backyard. My blog is no different as I tend to favor techniques and gear appropriate for the east coast while most backpacking gear manufacturers are grounded in the theory that the west is the only place to do anything outdoors. There is merit to both. With that said, if there is one thing Virginia has in abundance it is trees or other greenery. From floor to ceiling, if you aren’t near something green (and all the creepy crawlies that call this “home”), then you aren’t in Virginia. Heading to John Muir’s stomping ground within the Joshua Tree National Park was an expected blow to my ingrained “green” psyche and yet a welcomed memory to retain.

Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeastern California, west of Los Angeles (not to be confused with a U2 album). Declared a U.S. National Park in 1994 when the US Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act, it had previously been a U.S. National Monument since 1936. It includes over 1,234 sq miles of land. A large part of the park is designated to wilderness area; roughly 914 sq miles.

Straddling the San Bernardino County/Riverside County border, the park includes parts of two deserts, each an ecosystem whose characteristics are determined primarily by elevation. Below 3,000 feet, the Colorado Desert encompasses the eastern part of the park and features natural gardens of creosote bush, ocotillo, and cholla cactus. The Little San Bernardino Mountains run through the southwest edge of the park.

The higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave Desert is the special habitat of the Joshua tree, from which the park gets its name. In addition to Joshua tree forests, the western part of the park includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California's deserts. The dominant geologic features of this landscape are hills of bare rock, usually broken up into loose boulders. These hills are popular amongst rock climbing and scrambling enthusiasts. The flatland between these hills is sparsely forested with Joshua trees. Together with the boulder piles and Skull Rock, the trees make the landscape otherworldly. Five Washingtonia fan palm oases in the park are the few areas where water occurs naturally and wildlife abounds. The rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park were formed 100 million years ago from the cooling of magma beneath the surface. Groundwater is responsible for the weathering that created the spheres from rectangular blocks which were various sizes and stood at all angles in all configurations.

The ground is principally sandy with Joshua Trees, large rocks, and various brush and cactus throughout. In the short time I visited, I saw several animals which I’ll more simply refer to as rabbits, lizards, chipmunks, birds, huge red ants, and a rattlesnake - although I'm certain they have a more domestic local name. On the surface, the desert looks dead. Looking closer, the ground is full of holes and something is always buzzing or moving. In most cases, I felt uncomfortable as I was not familiar with this environment enough to know what I could expect from behind each rock, bush, and hole. My mind was a little too creative with the potential whereabouts and temperament of rattlesnakes which was a little discomforting. It is worth mentioning that I was about 30 seconds into the park and had just stepped out of my rental car as I moved towards the trailhead when I heard a rattle coming from a bush. It was literally square one step one, hence my reservations.

My impressions of Joshua Tree National Park are fairly simple – a nice place to visit, but once you’ve seen a square mile; you’ve seen pretty much all it has to offer as the rest is just the same stuff arranged a little differently.
Probably one of the things I enjoyed most was my return trip from Joshua Tree where I took a flight from Los Angeles. While waiting at LAX, I noticed a guy in front of me wearing a ULA-Equipment backpack. As I was going through security, next thing I know he started asking me questions about an Appalachian Trail hat I was wearing. As it turns out, he was from PA and thru-hiked the AT in 2008 with his brother. He was in LAX after returning from doing some hiking in New Zealand and was gearing up for a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. We talked quite a bit about gear, what worked and what didn't, and ultimately how he handled the AT. He said he took his time, nearly 7 months, partially because he took 100 "zero days". He also didn't have a single mail drop and instead elected to hike into town any time he needed food, laundry, etc. He said he had been using different kinds of tablets (MicroPur) to treat his water, but ended up not treating water at all from Virginia to Maine and reported no problems whatsoever. He used a Tarp Tent and a Gossamer Gear pack and quickly switched to running shoes after getting numerous blisters with boots. He said he enjoyed hiking through New Hampshire and Maine the most and reported it was also some of the hardest hiking with so many water crossings that keeping his feet dry was near impossible. He was in his mid-20's and said he realized about 2 weeks into his AT trip that he had a realistic chance on finishing it being that he really enjoyed being a YMCA outdoor educator and the initial steps of the AT. He reported that he hopes to finish the PCT and possibly even the CDT so he can join a couple of his friends who can claim they have done the Triple Crown. If you're interested, you can find more about him at his Trail Journal site (

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

DAY TRIP REPORT - Yosemite National Park

It has long since been a dream of mine to backpack the major parks within the United States. The parks which are on my list include Yellowstone, Redwoods, Arches, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite to name a few in the contiguous U.S. This dream has been perpetually “on hold” pending everything from funding, to vacation time, to waiting for my two sons to be at an appropriate age, and even my general health.

Recently I was fortunate enough to have a business conference which sent me to California. Being that the “business” aspect was only 4 days, it was my intent to burn the candle at both ends as much as possible to try to see everything I could in my limited time while stretching the trip to both weekends. Considering my options from my launching area of Los Angeles, I decided to make every effort to take a short trip to both Yosemite National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. My next two blogs will identify the highlights of these two amazing trips.

Yosemite National Park spans eastern portion of Tuloumne, Mariposa, and Madera counties in east Central California. It is always funny to me, being a Virginia native with minimal experience out west, to hear names like “Mariposa” which until now I thought was nothing more than a clever name for a lightweight Gossamer Gear backpack. The 1,189 sq mi park is roughly the size of Rhode Island and contains thousands of lakes and ponds, 1,600 miles of streams, 800 miles of hiking trails, and 350 miles of roads. Two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Merced and the Tuolumne, begin within Yosemite's borders and flow westward through the Sierra foothills, into the Central Valley of California.

Yosemite covers an area of 761,266 acres or 1,189 square miles and reaches across the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain chain. Yosemite is visited by over 3.5 million people each year, many of whom only spend time in the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley being that bulk of easily accessible attractions are readily visible within the immediate area. Although visiting in June isn’t ideal due to the crowds and heat, it was what I had to work with. Yosemite Valley represents only one percent of the park area, but this is where most visitors arrive and stay. El Capitan and Half Dome are two prominent granite cliff that loom over the valley and are also two of the most popular rock climbing destinations in the world because of their diverse range of climbing routes in addition to its year-round accessibility. Granite domes such as Sentinel Rock and Half Dome rise 3,000 feet and 4,800 feet, respectively, above the valley floor.

Yosemite has a Mediterranean climate, meaning most precipitation falls during the mild winter, and the other seasons are nearly dry (less than 3% of precipitation falls during the long, hot summers). While I was there, temperatures ranged from the 60’s to 70’s depending on the elevation. Being from Virginia and accustomed to humidity, it was amazingly comfortable to be in cool temperatures without all the fuss of the damp air.

The average (mean) daily temperatures range from 25 to 53°F at Tuolumne Meadows at 8,600 feet. At the Wawona Entrance (elevation 5,130 feet), average daily temperature ranges from 36 to 67°F. At the lower elevations below 5,000 feet, temperatures are hotter; the daily average high temperature at Yosemite Valley (elevation 3,966 feet) varies from 46 to 90°F. At elevations above 8,000 feet , the hot and often dry summer temperatures are moderated by frequent summer thunderstorms, along with snow that can persist into July. The combination of dry vegetation, low relative humidity, and thunderstorms results in frequent lightning-caused fires as well.

Yosemite was designated a World Heritage Site in 1984 as it is internationally recognized for its spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, Giant Sequoia groves, and biological diversity. Almost 95% of the park is designated wilderness and to pretend that a trip of any length could summarize the amazing beauty and breathtaking scenery would be foolhardy.

Of California's 7,000 plant species, about 50% occur in the Sierra Nevada and more than 20% within Yosemite. There is suitable habitat or documentation for more than 160 rare plants in the park, with rare local geologic formations and unique soils characterizing the restricted ranges many of these plants occupy.

The geology of the Yosemite area is characterized by granitic rocks and remnants of older rock. About 10 million years ago during the shift of the plate tectonics, the Sierra Nevada was uplifted and then tilted to form its relatively gentle western slopes and the more dramatic eastern slopes. The uplift increased the steepness of stream and river beds, resulting in formation of deep, narrow canyons. About 1 million years ago, snow and ice accumulated, forming glaciers at the higher alpine meadows that moved down the river valleys. Snow can be seen on certain peaks year round. The movement of the ice cut and sculpted the U-shaped valley that attracts so many visitors to its scenic vistas today. For a guy from the east coast, it seemed a lot like a giant fishbowl. The valley was virtually flat and handled the bulk of the visitors who merely explored the vastness of the area between the surrounding granitic rocks walls.

The park has three groves of ancient Giant Sequoia trees; the Mariposa Grove (200 trees), the Tuolumne Grove (25 trees), and the Merced Grove (20 trees). This species grows larger in volume than any other and is one of the tallest and longest-lived. These trees were much more widespread before the start of the last Ice Age. I visited the Mariposa Grove and found them to be outstandingly beautiful. I had been to the Sequoia National Park earlier in the week and liked the fact that Yosemite didn’t fence in every tree as it allowed me to get up close and personal. The sounds and smells in a forest containing one of the giant Sequoias is almost something out of a fairytale.

The Mariposa Grove contains the fifth (publically known) largest tree in the world. This tree is lovingly referred to as “the Grizzly Giant”. This enormous tree is believed to be 2700 years old, the oldest known Sequoia tree. Sequoias are among the oldest known organisms on earth, surpassed only by the bristlecone pines. The Grizzly Giant is 100 feet in diameter at its base and is 209 feet high. It is the largest tree is Yosemite and is estimated to weigh 2 million pounds. The picture on this blog is of me with one of the smaller trees in the Grove. Keep in mind, I’m 6’6” and 280 pounds.

My experience in Yosemite was inspiring. The whole environment was so different than my normal stopping ground that I found myself merely starring off into the wilderness several times and being amazed by something as simple as the feeling of dirt. Animals and trees were different, the sounds and smells were different, and it all seemed so “wild”. I even got a kick out of chatting with the chipmunks and trying to avoid being eaten by a bear who walked around with her two cubs within a very close proximity. It was quite an amazing and enchanting experience - one which has left me reassured to educate my kids of the different environments of the world as it is as important to understand differences of wilderness as it is to appreciate differences in people and politics. I also learned that curvy roads are equally horrible and nauseating in California as they are in Virginia. Not limited to just Virginia either apparently, California also affords the right to drive to people who quite literally appear to have the genetic composition of fecal matter. On a sad note, I was also reminded how dangerous certain outdoor activities can be. While in the valley, I watched a helicopter pick up the remains of a touristist who fell off the climbing ladder on Half Dome. He simply slipped and tumbled to his death. It was sobering.

Bottom line – if you can’t find inspiration and a love for the outdoors in this environment – you might very well be dead.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lightweight Water Shoes and How to Cross a Stream

This spring, Virginia has received a significant amount of rain. Out west, snow at high altitude is melting. The result is our rivers and streams have an abundance of water. For drinking and bathing purposes, an abundance of water is great. When water crossing is necessary, an abundance of water is merely an opportunity to soak your gear and possibly get injured. So how can a lightweight backpacker effectively deal with water crossings without adding unnecessary ounces to his/her pack? Well, I have a couple of suggestions.

First, despite the fact that many lightweight resources claim it is completely unnecessary, I always bring an extra pair of footwear if I know there is potential for a water crossing during my trip. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the theory that lightweight and breathable footwear dries quickly enough to use on the trail and in water because I’ve found that any shoe I wear seems to retain enough water to give me blisters and otherwise irritate my feet. As a result, my goal is to bring the absolute minimum secondary footwear necessary to effectively and responsibility cross water.

Although I have made shoes in the past of Tyvek and foam, I simply can’t duplicate the fit, finish, utility, cost, weight, and lightweight nature of the Sprint Aquatics Mesh Shoe ( At $4.50 a pair, and on sale now for $3.50, you honestly can’t go wrong. I should also mention that the sizing on their webpage is incorrect as I wear a 14 and their large fits just fine even though they claim it is for 11-12 size feet. My large pair weighs 54 grams or 1.9 ounces. You won’t be able to participate in a track and field event with them, but for their intended use, they are excellent.

So now that you have the proper footwear, the next step is to understand how to cross a body of water. First, pack everything you want to stay dry inside your pack. It is recommended that you use a dry bag, although a simple trash bag pack liner generally works just fine as long as it is twisted down at the top and otherwise free of holes. Locate a shallow area which is a short distance to your destination. Next, unclip your belt strap to ensure you have better lateral hip movement and can free yourself more easily from your shoulder straps in the event that you slip. Face upstream (i.e. the water should be coming at you) as you will be able to gain better perception from the water and any pending obstacles. Next, get a stick or something to put in front of you to aid with your balance and lean slightly forward on it as you walk to effectively give yourself three points of balance (foot + foot + stick). Remember to avoid walking on logs and rocks with algae, seaweed, plant life, etc. as they will likely be quite slippery. Generally speaking, keep your eyes on solid objects beneath the water as the moving water could distract you. With that said though, be leery of things floating at you such as sticks, trees, brush, fishing line, and even snakes. Shuffle your feet from side-to-side leading to the other side of the bank.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Micro-Sized Footcare Treatments

As disclosed by my son's pediatrician, I didn’t spend enough time with my shoes off as a child and as an adult I have fairly weak feet. As a result, my pack always has some footcare products to include Adventure Medical Kits Glacier Gels and Leukotape as discussed in other blogs. I have also been known to carry BodyGlide and Hydropel.

An important topic for lightweight backpackers is the need to repackage items which are otherwise bulky or heavy into something smaller and more lightweight. Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy for items such as BodyGlide and Hydropel. NOLS instructor and talented illustrator Mike Clellan had an excellent picture on his website which showed how he repackaged items (see picture) which he lovingly refers to as his “Dinky Kit”.

For items like Hydropel which comes in liquid form within a tube, it can be easily repackaged in a smaller container such as the widely available micro droppers. For something like BodyGlide which has the consistency of deodorant, it isn’t as easy. Unfortunately, the desire to repackage these items have left some to be inventive to the point that they degrade the product or otherwise make it unusable. I saw a posting on a forum where a guy had stuck his stick of deodorant into the microwave to turn it into liquid. He then poured it into a smaller container. This was a decent idea in theory, but within the new container he didn’t appear to have a way to get it out as the container itself was just smaller, not functional to raise and lower the deodorant stick. I think a better option would have been for him to find a lighter/smaller deodorant-style container and simply pour his heated solution into it so he didn’t lose the function of the container itself which allowed for the deodorant itselt to be pushed up within the container for easier application.

Instead of flatly repackaging BodyGlide, I found a couple of options even lighter than their 1.02 oz stick. First, they offer a .28 oz “mini”, but personally it looks like it is about a ¼ full and the rest is just dead air space to make the product look more full. Another option would be to use a new Band-Aid product called “Friction Block” which comes in a very dense .88oz stick. It is thereby physically smaller, lighter, and more full than the BodyGlide, and it is likely equally effective.