Monday, April 29, 2013

East Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park, Ventura, CA

East Anacapa Island, Channel Islands NP – 3/16/13 – 3 Miles

As I have mentioned in these pages before, my hiking buddy Jeff plans epic extended hiking trips and I sometimes am invited along for the fun.  When possible he combines several destinations to get the most out of travel time and expense.  California is rich with national parks, preserves and wilderness areas and the hardest part is deciding what to see and what to save for another time.  Thus I found myself on an ocean/desert expedition with Jeff and our friend David.

Channel Islands National Park consists of a group of five islands about 15 miles off the coast of Ventura, California.  Occupied by native Chumash for thousands of years and subsequently by sheep and cattle ranchers, the islands are now protected.  They have been called the “North American Galapagos” because they are home to more than 150 endemic or unique species.  To whet our appetites for “it ain’t like this back home” hiking, we spent our first day exploring East Anacapa Island.

Anacapa Island is really three islets, East, Middle and West (clever), each accessible from the others only by boat.  Eroded by waves, the volcanic island has no gentle beaches but towering sea cliffs and sea caves.  We took an hour-long ferry ride to East Anacapa.  Our visit was optimally timed for the wildflowers and prior to nesting activity for sea birds (who aren’t very tolerant of humans when they are protecting nests).  The NPS website says: “Thousands of birds use Anacapa as a nesting area because of the relative lack of predators on the island. While the steep cliffs of West Anacapa are home to the largest breeding colony of endangered California brown pelicans, all the islets of Anacapa host the largest breeding colony of western gulls in the world. Western gulls begin their nesting efforts at the end of April, sometimes making their shallow nests just inches from island trails. Fluffy chicks hatch in May and June and fly away from the nest in July.”

The Anacapa Island web pages tell you everything you want to know about this fascinating place that not many people visit.  We explored the two-mile trail that meanders in a figure-eight pattern towards the western end, then walked over to the eastern edge near the lighthouse that was established in 1932.  Our day was foggy and overcast and the lighthouse foghorn sounded every couple of minutes…pretty darn loud.

Pictures?  Why, yes, I have some pictures.

Ready to board our ferry.  We were a little surprised by the foggy, chilly morning.  I guess we were expecting sunny California?

Sea lions are protected and can hang out anywhere they want.  While they are fun for us tourists, they are noisy and heavy, sometimes too heavy for the docks they like to plop onto, and they can be a nuisance to the boat owners.

But they are cute, huh?

The ferry ride across the Santa Barbara Channel was downright cold as we tried to hang out at the front of the boat.  Something I had not thought about at all was the probability of seeing dolphins and whales in the Channel.  Imagine our delight when we encountered a pod of dolphins, around 200 of them.  They were everywhere around the boat and a dozen or more swam at the bow, seeming to pull the boat along.  Their movements appeared effortless as they escorted us to East Anacapa Island.  

Our first glimpse of East Anacapa’s iconic arch and the lighthouse

The landing cove where we disembarked and the stairway to topside

A park ranger rode the ferry crossing with us to conduct a guided tour.  He was very knowledgeable and everybody wanted his ear to ask questions.  Later in the day while we were waiting to board the ferry for the return trip, I asked him about any effects of the current sequestration on the Channel Islands.  He shared that while the casual visitor will see little effect on this small park unit (unlike the Great Smoky Mountains NP where visitor services have been greatly impacted), their maintenance and improvements list is greatly delayed.  His biggest concern overall was how the hiring freeze already in effect will be extended and its impact on college students graduating with degrees in park service management and recreation.  Those who have worked unpaid internships with NPS have a short window of time to use priority status to take a job with NPS.  But…NPS has a hiring freeze…

Buildings originally put in place to serve the Coast Guard are now operated by the NPS.  (The Coast Guard continues to operate the lighthouse from the mainland.)  There is a tiny museum (unstaffed) and some brochures about the island and the walking trails, lots of cautions about cliffs and birds and fragile plant life.  Stay on the path, people.

A lovely spot for an outhouse

During my obligatory stop at the outhouse I had a major wardrobe malfunction:  my pants zipper broke off.  No way to fix it.  I only had two pairs of pants for the entire 10-day trip.  BUT…I did have safety pins.  A less than ideal fix (they popped open every time I sat down) but it got me through the day.  

The yellow flowers are called tree sunflower or coreopsis.  I’ve planted them in my yard as annuals, but they didn’t have trunks like these.  We were so fortunate to visit during the prime bloom time.  Sometimes on very clear days (not many of those) the brilliant yellow can be seen from the mainland.

Seagulls are the main residents on Anacapa and somehow they seemed much cuter than the ones at Myrtle Beach or in the Wal-Mart parking lots all across North Carolina.   Most of the time they were on the ground, but several times on some signal they all took to the air.  If you are creeped out by Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, do not go to Anacapa Island.

Seagulls and the Anacapa Lighthouse

The mist hung on all day

At the westernmost edge of East Anacapa, looking at Middle and West Anacapa

Steep cliffs on all sides of the island reminded me of the Cliffs of Moher in western Ireland

David waiting his turn at a seagull crossing

I spy seagulls hiding under the flowers

Iceplant, an invasive flower that the NPS is trying hard to eradicate

A boat carrying scuba divers, a very popular excursion from the mainland.  Diving, snorkeling and kayaking are all allowed at Anacapa Island, but the only access to the water is at the landing cove via the dock.  You can put in a kayak there and paddle to access some (small) beaches.

Protecting plants?  Not sure what’s up with these

The lighthouse sits on the high point of the island and we walked as close as we could.  The foghorn was pretty unbearable.  We didn’t hang around.

Because we walk pretty fast, we had plenty of spare time after our exploring, almost too much time.  We may or may not have taken a little siesta at a picnic table near the dock.  Eventually we boarded our ferry which took us for a sneak peak at the back side of East Anacapa.

The easternmost end as seen from the ferry

Blow up this photo as much as you can to find the sea lions lounging on the rocks on the back side of the island

On the ride back our trusty boat crew spotted a gray whale that sounded several times as we floated nearby, trying to guess where it would resurface.  No photos, just a great memory. 

Our California adventure is off to a rousing start.  Tomorrow:  Santa Cruz Island and the start of our overnight backpack trip!

"In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous."  ~Aristotle

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Gorges State Park Waterfalls

Gorges State Park Waterfalls – 2/23/13 – 5.5 Miles

Sneaking out of town for a February weekend in the mountains with Jim.  Rain, says the weatherman?  A great time to look for waterfalls, says I.  Our destination:  Gorges State Park in Transylvania County, North Carolina (known as the “Land of Waterfalls”).  The only state park west of Asheville, Gorges consists of 10,000 acres as part of Jocasee Gorges and includes many waterfalls, some accessible, some still hidden.

Okay, so the trip had been planned for a while, but rain is not a deterrent to a good time outdoors.  In fact, rain keeps the crowds away, hence increasing enjoyment for hardy souls.  See how smart (lucky) I am? 

Jim and I spent Friday meandering towards our weekend destination, browsing and eating in Brevard, NC.  Next we stopped at the visitor center for Gorges State Park to pick up maps and get the lay of the land.  The VC is brand spanking new, open since October 2012 and it is spectacular, reminiscent of a great lodge with high ceilings and covered wraparound decks.  Nobody there but us and a couple of park rangers, who were a great help in getting us oriented and making a plan for Saturday. 

Before dark we found our home-away-from-home, a delightfully cozy cabin at Cabins at Seven Foxes in Lake Toxaway, NC.  I can’t say enough good things about this little gem.  There are multiple cabins, all placed out of sight of each other on the steep mountainside, and the managers have established little walking trails in and around the property with vignettes to surprise and delight.  Around one corner are toy dinosaurs climbing a tree.  Around another is a “bathroom” scene complete with a claw foot tub, toilet, pedestal sink and mirror, all planted with ferns.  There is a tremendous (and very high up) tree house to be investigated.  Highly recommended and we plan to visit again.

Saturday morning, the trifecta for keeping most people indoors:  drizzly, chilly and foggy.  Let’s go find some waterfalls! 

In his book, North Carolina Waterfalls, Kevin Adams says, “If you could only see one waterfall in North Carolina, Whitewater Falls would be a good candidate.  To many people it’s the most spectacular waterfall in the East.”  But the fog was a ruling factor today.  You can’t just walk up and take a shower under Whitewater Falls – the viewing deck is across a small valley.  There was a chance we would only hear it today.  We were doubtful as we drove southbound on scenic NC 281 to the access area as visibility distance was short.  But what’s this?  Looks like a pullover to a view, perhaps? 

Still, lots of clouds below us so a view of the falls was still iffy.  There were no cars in the parking lot on this Saturday morning, not a good sign.  We walked the quarter-mile paved trail and descended multiple sets of steps for this view.  No blue sky and a little misty, but not bad, eh?  I’ll trade that for solitude any day.

The upper section of Whitewater Falls

Flowing water is mesmer- izing, the patterns that form and then change, and the sound crashing over the rocks.  This is one big waterfall, 2,560 feet high. 

Encouraged by seeing Whitewater Falls and only the slightest drizzle of rain now, Jim and I drove back to the entrance to Gorges State Park.  Next up:  five waterfalls on the Horsepasture River.  Many years ago Jim and I visited some of these waterfalls, but since then a private landowner closed access through his property.  People were parking all up and down NC 281, jumping over the guard rail, eroding the mountainside and generally making a nuisance so he wisely (I think) posted and enforces no trespassing. 

In his book Kevin Adams gives an alternate access route via an old forest service road that marks some of the property line between Gorges SP and the private landowner, still a little sketchy for a rule follower like me.  Now for the good news:  now Gorges SP has a dandy little trail that gets you legally (technically) everywhere you want to go.  (This post-dates Adams’ book).

From the parking area for backcountry camping, the Rainbow Falls Trail got us started.  The park map shows this trail ending at Rainbow Falls (3 miles roundtrip), but the very informative lady ranger told me that the trail keeps going, crossing the park boundary into Pisgah National Forest (side note:  I tell ya, that Pisgah NF gets around, it is spread all over western NC).  The blazes end at the boundary and the trail narrows but there is no doubt about where it’s going.  

Hidden Falls, a tease of what’s coming along the Horse- pasture River.  This waterfall could be easily missed because it's down a little side scramble with nothing to indicate what's there.   Notice the mist near the center top of the photo.  

Rainbow Falls is a powerhouse.   Because of the preceding days of rain, we heard the thundering storm long before we reached it, and the wind created by the flow quickly saturated our clothes.  I hastily snapped one sorry photograph before putting my camera away to protect it from the moisture.  On sunny days the mist creates multiple rainbows near the base of the waterfall.  Today the spray was so forceful that we couldn’t even stand there and look at it.  Wow.

We crossed the park boundary and followed the trail along the river to Turtleback Falls. 

Turtleback Falls head on

Turtleback Falls is located at an almost 90-degree right turn in the Horse- pasture River, rather incredible.  We hung out here for a while, enjoyed a snack and watched big chunks of trees bob around in a whirlpool at the base of the falls.

Climbing up past Turtleback, the old trail is clearly now not accessible.  The new trail skirts the edge of the river, hugging the public forest/ private land boundary.   Now we were headed to Drift Falls, on that fella’s private land so we could only gaze from a distance.  Drift Falls was commonly referred to as Bust-Your-Butt Falls because many people enjoyed sliding down it.  Not no more.

Exclamation Point

Here at the base of Drift Falls the river was running high and spread out wide so we could not get near the middle for a head-on photograph.

Retracing our steps along the trail was as much fun as going up in the first place.  I just love walking beside moving water, don’t you?  And we had another waterfall that we saved for last on the return leg:  Stairway Falls.  The park ranger also gave me this scoop about a side trail off of the Rainbow Falls Trail and again going outside the boundary line down to the Horsepasture River. 

Found the side trail, quite steep and rugged

Always on the lookout for interesting fungi

Close-up – what does it look like to you?

At the bottom of the steep trail, beside the river was a large flat campsite with multiple fire rings and Jim said, “Doesn’t look like much of a waterfall to me.”  Ah, Grasshopper, look for more signs.  I picked up the trail as it continued downriver and after another quarter-mile of even narrower, steeper trail we found this charming, peaceful place.

Stairway Falls

So…five waterfalls (six counting Whitewater Falls) and zero people on the trails.  I call that a great day. 

Bonus:  Saw this good- looking fellow swaggering beside the road on our way back to our cabin.

Bonus #2:  On Sunday morning the skies were blue again and Jim headed off on his trusty bicycle for a couple of hours.  Thumbing through Adams’ book, and now understanding the layout of the area, I couldn’t resist looking for one more waterfall.  Found this sanctuary off of NC 281, a scramble less than .2 miles below the Thompson River Bridge (thus the Thompson River).  You just have to know where to look.

White Owl Falls - my church on this Sunday morning.   Thanks be to God.

“Good luck and good work for the happy mountain raindrops, 

each one of them a high waterfall in itself, descending from the cliffs and hollows of the clouds to the cliffs and hollows of the rocks, out of the sky-thunder into the thunder of the falling rivers.”  ~John Muir

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Clear Winter's Day at Gorgeous Linville Gorge

Linville Gorge Hike:  Shortoff Mountain & Table Rock – 2/9/13 – 16.3 Miles – 4,524 Elevation Gain

“Have you ever hiked at Linville Gorge?

“Yes, went up Shortoff Mountain and all along the eastern edge of the Gorge to Table Rock.”

“They say the views are incredible.  What did you think?”

“Don’t know.  We couldn’t see a thing.”

During our Mountains-To-Sea Trail project, Danny and I hiked on a schedule, seldom changing because of weather, so I did not see Linville Gorge the first time I hiked there because of thick fog and drizzling rain.  So when the Berg Wanderers planned an ambitious day hike there, I was happy to have another go at it and crossed my fingers that it would not be raining again or, more likely, snowing or icy enough to make it unsafe.  Turns out we had a perfect made-to-order winter day. 

Linville Gorge has been called the Grand Canyon of the East.  Created by the flow of the Linville River, the Gorge is 12 miles long and 2,000 feet deep.  It is designated as a wilderness area and is mostly unsigned, although the MST white blazes can be followed along the eastern rim.  An Outward Bound facility is located near the Table Rock access.  Although remote, the Gorge is a popular place on weekends and during good weather. 

Starting from the parking area on Wolf Pit Road at the southern end of the Gorge, we were suited up for the cold.  Shortoff Mountain (behind us) was our first challenge.  

A one-mile blue blazed trail connected us with the Mountains-To-Sea Trail that runs con- currently with the Shortoff Trail.  Lake James is in the background.  Otherwise it’s an unattractive trail in the winter, the result of a devastating fire in 2007.  When we hiked through here in the fall of 2010, in spite of the rain we could see the fall colors of small trees making a comeback.  

Near the top of the climb the trail runs close along the edge of the Gorge.  Everyone wanted a photo with this tree.  (Notice the white dusting on the mountains in the background.)

From here the walking was easy for a few miles along the eastern edge of the Gorge.  As it curves around to the left we could see Table Rock and Hawks Bill, which have always looked like cat's ears to me.   I have many photos of these distinctive peaks from southern and northern points along the MST.

As we made our way through the scorched landscape, Table Rock became more distinct. 

On a clear winter’s day:  the gorgeous Gorge

Closer to the edge, looking to the left side of the Gorge.  Linville River down below but we couldn’t see it.

We planned to stop for lunch at a big rock outcropping that proved to be farther away than I thought, at the top of a very steep climb.  This was my first strenuous hike in several months and I was feeling it.  So how far are we going anyway?  Well, with this group, the hike “evolves” and after checking the time and feeling pretty confident, we decided to go all the way to the summit of Table Rock…oh, and then all the way back down.  One member of the group decided to turn around at the lunch spot (smart man) and I gave him my car keys in case he got cold waiting for us.  The temp was in the high 40’s, which can be chilly when you’re sitting still, but we were plenty warm, working hard going up that mountain.  It felt fanastic, a clear and cool day, big views of the wide-open world.

Next up, an area called the Chimneys, rock formations stacked to look like…yes, chimneys.  This is a very popular climbing spot and also a bird nesting spot for species including peregrine falcons, so sometimes access is limited or closed.

Looking back the way we came

Still on the MST, we passed through the Chimneys and the Table Rock parking area and headed up the short but steep side trail to the summit of Table Rock – encountered a bit of ice, so watch your step!

Grandfather Mountain from the summit of Table Rock

Looking back the other way from the summit, Lake James in the background. 

 So, that was a fun eight miles, huh?  Now let’s go all the way back. 

Balancing rocks

A last look at Table Rock

We discovered more mountains on our return leg – who put them there?  We finished the last mile in the dark, not uncommon for this crowd, and I was prepared with my headlamp.  I later learned the stats for the day:  16.3 miles, 4,524 feet elevation gain (which means a corresponding 4,524 feet of descent).  No wonder my legs were shaking until Wednesday.  

"Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” ~Steven Wright