Backpacking from Exshaw to Cougar Creek

Backpacking from Exshaw to Cougar Creek

I was looking for a challenging, largely off-trail backpacking trip to do just before the arrival of summer. The mountains sandwiched between Canmore, an increasingly busy and overgrown former mining town, and Lake Minnewanka, the longest lake in the mountain parks of the Canadian Rockies, are surprisingly untraveled despite being so close to so many people. With three days to spare, I decided to hike a (nearly complete) loop from the industrial town of Exshaw to Canmore’s Cougar Creek. At 60-km long and choked with flood debris, this proved to give me just the right amount of challenge.

Exshaw cement plant
Exshaw cement plant (and gateway to Banff NP)
Ancient shells
Ancient shells (which make good cement)

I started by scrambling up “Mount Exshaw”, really just a steep rocky hill overlooking the cement plant. This isn’t your typical mountain scenery but it’s certainly impressive to look down upon the factory that’s slowly levelling an entire mountain. After signing the nearly empty summit register, I continued north to Exshaw Ridge. The views really open up here. At times it’s sharp with big drops on both sides, more often it’s grassy and wide open. I passed by sheltered flat spots with great views that would make perfect camp sites. Perhaps another day – I had other plans in mind.

So many good places to camp
So many good places to camp
Classic front range Rockies limestone
View from the ridge – classic front range Rockies limestone

Eventually, the ridge becomes quite technical with a high-angle knife-edge ridge that would require a good bit of climbing skill. And rope. I chose to descend to the creek, carefully making my way down the steep-ish slope. I’ve enjoyed wearing the cushy Altra Olympus shoes with their thick sole that agrees with my recovering foot, but on the loose rocky terrain, they proved very sloppy. Half the time my foot shifted inside the shoe to the point where I was walking on the upper as much as the insole. I’m looking forward to toughening up my feet enough that I can go back to a more rugged shoe.

Once down in the creek I realized it wasn’t flowing. Not a drop of water – bone dry. I typically carry fairly little water in these parts as it’s so easy to find. Up on the hot ridge, I’d finished most of what I’d taken with me. After some tough walking through the creek bed, scrambling over fallen trees and displaced boulders, the sound of flowing water suddenly caught my attention. Crisp, cold, clear water! There was just one little stretch of the creek where it flowed, before disappearing underground again. I tanked up. I’d have been ok without it but this made my evening and the following morning much more comfortable.

Flood debris
Debris from the 2013 flood has made walking quite challenging in the upper reaches of the front-range creeks and canyons

I crested Exshaw Pass at nearly 11pm after a long day and a late start but there was still plenty of light. I love hiking so near Summer Solstice. There’s a nice protected spot to camp with great views back to the bright flashing signal beacon on the top of the cement plant.

Eggs for breakfast? (I left them, of course)
Eggs for breakfast? (I left them, of course)

The following morning I made my way up higher over a shoulder then dropped down toward the South Ghost River. In the upper reaches I could find no trail so I simply flowed the creek. Unlike Exshaw Creek, this side of the pass is not choked with flood debris but rather wiped totally clean by the water that raged through here three years ago. The exposed rock is smooth and slick.

Slick rock
Slick rock

South Ghost River is a popular destination for climbers who come in by a much more direct route but, on this day, despite bring a weekend, I saw no one. I followed the riverbed upstream until it became a tricky slot canyon. The polished rock and pools of cold water reminded me very much of the canyons of Utah. I’d love to come back and explore further but on this day I thought it was best to follow the sage advice a Park Ranger once gave me: never go up anything unless you’re sure you can get back down. Instead, I bushwacked up through the forest to meet the a surprisingly well-defined trail.

More stick rock
More stick rock

My second night I camped at Stenton Lake. The weather had turned quite rainy and I was glad to set up my shelter early. The night before was quite cold and I hadn’t slept well, so a brief nap before making dinner was delightful. Stenton Lake is a beautiful place to camp, surrounded by impressive mountains with open, unobstructed views.

I slept well until the early morning light and a strange cold sensation woke me. The walls of my pyramid shelter were sagging in, weighed down by two inches of fresh, wet snow. How different the world looked when I popped my head out of the tent!

Before & After (the snow storm)
Before & After (the snow storm)

The walk from Stenton to Cougar Canyon was cold. The wet snow soaked my feet and I kept my long johns on until cresting the col that marks the boundary with Banff National Park. All this fresh snow, though, made for spectacular scenery.

June in the Rockies
June in the Rockies

Post-flood, Cougar Canyon has become a long, rough walk. You really get a sense of how the torrents of water filled these creeks and turned them into raging gorges. The very upper reaches near the col are actually quite pleasant but that calmness rapidly turns into chaos as the water must have picked up speed and force, dragging car-sized boulders down and smashing them into helpless trees. Beyond this zone, it becomes more walkable with only chair-sized boulders to hop over and the odd boulder choke to scramble down. It’s actually really quite fun!

Sun, cloud, and skiffs of snow
Sun, cloud, and skiffs of snow

I was happy to start seeing climbers playing on the canyon cliffs as that meant I was nearing the bottom of Cougar Canyon. It came as a bit of shock being in the midst of crowds of people out enjoying what had become a beautiful Sunday afternoon, after not having seen anyone for the last three days. Just a few short hours away from this popular destination, you’ll feel like you’re somewhere truly remote and wild.

Waterfalls of Glacier National Park

Waterfalls of Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is only a few hours away from where I grew up but, up until last month, I’d never visited. I’m not sure what took me so long. This southern most part of the Canadian Rockies is stunning!

Wildflowers and open meadows along the Belly River
Wildflowers and open meadows along the Belly River

Glacier gets a lot of snow – up to 40 feet in a season – and it tends to stick around late into the summer, so I was looking for a good early-season backpacking trip. Belly River in the remote north-east corner of the park seemed like the perfect choice. It’s a nice relaxing walk through meadows and along beautiful tortoise lakes. What I didn’t expect, for such a tranquil place, is so many thundering waterfalls.

Gross Ventre Falls
Gross Ventre Falls

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Experimenting with a new tent
Experimenting with a new tent

We passed by and visited a number of waterfalls each day but my favourite by far was the unnamed falls above Mokowanis Lake. Mokowanis itself is very pretty, surrounded by impressive mountains and lush forest. The official trail ends not far beyond the lake-side campsite but it’s easy to continue further up the valley. As you round a bend in the trail, all of sudden the falls appear, two levels high and thundering down toward you. Spectacular!

Mokowanis Lake
Mokowanis Lake
Falls above Mokowanis Lake
Falls above Mokowanis Lake

It’s possible to follow a faint trail further, quickly becoming quite steep as it ascends the headwall over which the waterfall tumbles. The going is rough but when you get to the top, you’re rewarded with another beautiful sight, this time it’s the intensely tortoise Margaret Lake.

Margaret Lake
Margaret Lake
Sunbeam
Sunbeam
Snack time
Snack time

After camping at Mokowanis Lake, we headed to Elizabeth Lake, stopping at another waterfall, Dawn Mist Falls. It’s aptly named. Mist fills the air as water thunders down.

Dawn Mist Falls
Dawn Mist Falls
Elizabeth Lake at Sunset
Elizabeth Lake at Sunset

To round out our four days exploring this area we decided to make it something of a loop by taking the Lee Ridge trail back to the road. No waterfalls here as it ascends upward away from the river quite rapidly but the views of the valley and out toward the endless rolling prairie are very nice.

Gable Pass
Gable Pass

Belly River was a great introduction to hiking in Glacier, particularly for early in the season. There’s a lot more that I look forward to exploring here.

Cycling the Icefield Parkway

Cycling the Icefield Parkway

I first cycled the Icefield Parkway three years ago with a great group of friends. It was a really fun and memorable trip. We stayed together in hostels and shared delicious meals every night. There were lots of stories and laughter. That trip was at the end of summer and I’ve been thinking about returning to see this famous scenic road in spring ever since. I finally had the chance this year.

Spring in the mountains
Spring in the mountains

I started in Banff and had a wonderful time cycling along the Bow Valley Parkway on a warm, sunny spring day. The birds were out and the flowers were blooming. Everything was perfect. The next day I cycled from Lake Louise to Rampart Creek. The air quickly got colder and before long it was raining. It never came down very hard but it was that kind of cold half rain / half snow that almost sticks to you as you cycle into it. As I descended from Bow Pass down to Saskatchewan Crossing, the pavement turned from nice and smooth to heavily cracked. Going downhill felt like a jackhammer on my thin-tired road bike. Parks Canada is slowly repaving the road, working their way north. I’d wait until they’re finished to do this trip again.

A touch of winter lingers
A touch of winter lingers on

The next day’s weather forecast was for much worse: 6 inches of fresh snow over night. I decided to sleep in to let the worst of the storm pass by. I needn’t have worried. There was lots of fresh snow everywhere but the road was dry and the cold weather seemed to keep the traffic rather quiet. I stopped at Athabasca Falls for the night, 110 km from Rampart Creek. I’d thought of making it a shorter day by spending the night at Beauty Creek but it doesn’t open until late May. This ended up being my biggest cycling day yet!

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I cycled through Jasper the following day and all the way up to Maligne Lake. Last fall I canoed the length of the lake, one of my favourite trips of the year. It was nice to experience the scenery approaching the lake at cycling speed, but it sure is a long and unrelenting uphill. I knew I was going slowly when a black bear walked right past me!

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Black bear out for a stroll
Black bear out for a stroll
Maligne Lake
Maligne Lake

I still had time and energy after finishing the Icefield Parkway (which, officially, ends in Jasper). Over the next few days I did side trips to Miette Hotsprings (and enjoyed a very relaxing afternoon soaking up the heat), Edith Cavell Road (that has fantastically smooth pavement and long, sweeping turns on the downhill), and historic mining town Nordegg. All in, I cycled 500 km over a week and enjoyed some spectacular spring scenery. Having now cycled the Icefield Parkway in both spring and at the end of summer, I’d have to say they’re both great!

500 km of great cycling
500 km of great cycling

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Backpacking in Utah’s Coyote Gulch

Backpacking in Utah’s Coyote Gulch

I passed through Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument four years ago after visiting some of the classic highlights of the US South West, like the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. Escalante has far fewer visitors but it’s no less impressive. This rugged landscape, filled with endless twisting canyons, was one of the last areas in the United States to be mapped and explored. I’ve been excited to get a closer look ever since.

Coyote Gulch trailhead
Coyote Gulch trailhead

Coyote Gulch is the most popular backpacking trip in Escalante. Imagine a wide-open canyon with massive towering walls, a gentle stream meandering through, lazy cottonwood trees to provide shade on a hot day, and the sound of birdsong echoing off the canyon walls. This secret world is all but hidden from the sandblasted desert above.

Lots of sand on the approach
Lots of sand on the approach

There are many ways to enter Coyote Gulch. We chose the most direct. After a short walk across slickrock and deep sand, a chasm in the earth suddenly appears. Almost straight down – hundreds of feet. It looked most intimidating.

Suddenly, there it is!
Suddenly, there it is!

We took our time and slowly scrambled down, using our hands nearly the entire way. For an experienced climber, it’s not that hard but we met some hikers who told us they wouldn’t even do it with a rope. Let’s just say falling here would be a bad idea.

That's a pretty steep climb
That’s a pretty steep climb

Entering the gulch this way is very dramatic. Suddenly, you’re right in the deepest part with massive sandstone walls towering high above. Millennia of erosion have created spectacular arches and windows and pillars that seem to defy gravity.

Surrounded by massive canyon walls
Surrounded by massive canyon walls
A window on the world
A window on the world

We picked a nice spot to camp on the flat packed sand just above the stream but once I started cooking dinner, I realized I’d forgotten my spoon. Oh no! After a bit of wandering around I spotted an ideally shaped piece of driftwood. Some quick carving made it the perfect utensil. Of course, I found my spoon the next morning. I’d forgotten the sage advice: always pack your backpack in the same way so you know where everything is.

Hand-made spoon... and gruel for dinner
Hand-made spoon… and gruel for dinner
Yikes!
Yikes!
Peaceful cottonwood trees provide much-needed shade
Peaceful cottonwood trees provide much-needed shade

We spent two nights camping in the gulch, exploring it from the point we’d entered all the way to the confluence with the Escalante River. There are some challenging small waterfalls to scramble down or around but for the most part it’s quite a peaceful walk.

Scrambling through a mini slot canyon
Scrambling through a mini slot canyon

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To make it all the way to the confluence with the Escalante River you have to scramble around an “impassable boulder choke”. A pile car-sized boulders are jammed into a narrowing of the canyon and the only way around is a mildly scary scramble across downward-slopping slickrock that drops off into thin air. I gingerly made my way across. On the way back up, I thought I’d have a closer look at the boulder choke from below. It looked like I could possibly squeeze through between some of the large rocks. I managed to wriggle myself through with the waterfall crashing down right beside me. Then I spotted another tight little squeeze. A few more of these awkward movements and I found myself back up at the top. So, the boulder choke isn’t so “impassable” after all. Of course, the next flood could completely change this little passage, so don’t count on in being there if you venture down the gulch.

A boulder choke blocks further progress
A boulder choke blocks further progress
Gently cross this slickrock to get around the boulder choke
Gently cross this slickrock to get around the boulder choke

Panamint City Ghost Town Backpacking Trip

Panamint City Ghost Town Backpacking Trip

I had the chance to visit Death Valley this spring. I loved exploring the desert, camping and backpacking throughout this vast park. The wildflowers were out-of-this world, adding a splash of colour to such a tranquil landscape. When I heard about the forgotten Panamint City ghost town I was really excited to make a backpacking trip to see it but I had no idea what sort of hike I was in for.

Bushwacking is not what I expected to be doing in the desert
Bushwacking is not what I expected to be doing in the desert

The “trail” to Panamint City follows an old jeep road that winds its way up through Surprise Canyon. The road washed out in a flash flood in the 1980s but I figured if there used to be a road, it couldn’t be that hard of a hike. I was quite wrong. Apparently, a lot can change in a few years. The trail now goes right up through the middle of steep slippery chutes while water crashes down, trying to wash you away with it. Death Valley is a very dry place but here I found myself trying hard to avoid stepping in pools of water. Most of the time it was hard to imagine a road ever twisting its way through this rugged canyon.

Yes, this is the "trail"
Yes, this is the “trail”
A frog in the desert?!!
A frog in the desert?!!

As you climb up through the canyon you start to see some evidence that, yes, there once was a road. Tools discarded beside the trail here, a rusting tractor tangled in overgrown bushes over there…

Some signs of the road remain
Some signs of the road remain
Where did I leave the car keys again?
Where did I leave the car keys again?

After what seemed like hours I finally started to see some evidence of the ghost town. We’d started the hike late in the day and were now racing the setting sun, whose dying light made the bits of ruins I could spot seem quite spooky. We set up camp among the crumbling old houses as darkness descended into the canyon. The following morning brought bright sunlight into the crisp canyon air.

In some places they mark trail junctions with piles of rocks. Here...
In some places they mark trail junctions with piles of rocks. Here…
Old buildings lie in ruins
Old buildings lie in ruins
Panamint City
Panamint City

Panamint City itself was a thriving mining town in the 1870s with over 2,000 residents at its peak. How it got there, though, is a rather strange story. Most mining towns start out with a rush of hopefuls jumping on the coattails of long-time prospectors who discover a rich find. Here, it wasn’t prospectors but stagecoach robbers! William L. Kennedy, Robert L. Stewart, and Richard C. Jacobs were hiding out in Surprise Canyon after knocking off a number of Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Hearing that silver had been discovered in nearby canyons, they started looking around. Low and behold, they discovered a lot more than you’d find on any stagecoach! But how to get it out?

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Ready to move in
Ready to move in. Just needs a little TLC

Our intrepid stagecoach bandits contacted two Nevada State Senators who agreed to grant them amnesty while purchasing claims for themselves and to pay off what the trio had stolen from Wells Fargo. The senators invested heavily (over $1 million – that was a lot in the 1870s!) while our bandits devised a cunning plan to intercept the growing production of silver which Wells Fargo now refused to transport. The senators were forced to create their own shipping company and our bandits found themselves outwitted. Knowing who they were dealing with, the senators had the silver ore cast into 400 pound cannon balls! Let’s see someone try to steal one of those.

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Despite riches pouring out of Panamint City and dreamers pouring in, by late 1875 many of the best veins were played out and people began to leave in droves. Then in 1876 a flash flood washed away much of the town. Another struck again in 1901 (I think I’m seeing a trend here – maybe not such a good place to live).

An old house, now an emergency shelter and a great place to explore the past
An old house, now an emergency shelter and a great place to explore the past
View from the shelter veranda
View from the shelter veranda
Peaking inside
Peaking inside
Not so shabby
Not so shabby
Not sure I'd sleep on that
Not sure I’d sleep on that

Sporadic attempts at mining continued up to the 1980s and many of the buildings and vehicles you’ll find here are from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s but there are many originals too, including the huge smoke stack that dominates the scenery.

Room with a view
Room with a view
I love texture
I love texture
This thing used to run on rails
This thing used to run on rails
An old radio
An old radio

Death Valley has some stunning scenery and a rich history. I really enjoyed exploring this vast area and hope to be back again.

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Ballarat – A Tale of Two Towns

Ballarat – A Tale of Two Towns

Last December I visited Ballarat, the historic Australian gold boom town. Unlike many mining towns, the gold continued to flow for decades and the town grew large enough to survive even after gold production declined. Nearly 50 years after the discovery of gold in the hills not far from Melbourne, another rich gold find popped up, this time half way around the world. Taking its name from the now famous Australian city, Ballarat California was born in 1897. I’ve just had the opportunity to visit and the contrast between the two towns couldn’t be more striking.

Top - tourists arrive in droves each day at Ballarat, Australia Bottom - little remains of Ballarat, California
Top – tourists arrive in droves each day at Ballarat, Australia
Bottom – little remains of Ballarat, California

When you visit Ballarat, Australia you visit along with thousands of other people. I definitely felt like I was in a place of historic importance but it also felt like a bit of a tourist trap. When you visit Ballarat, California, you’ll be lucky to see another soul.

Australia - tourists pose at recreated storefronts California - a signpost in the desert is all that marks this ghost town
Australia – tourists pose at recreated storefronts
California – a signpost in the desert is all that marks this ghost town

20,000 hopeful miners rushed into Australia’s Ballarat when gold was discovered in 1851. At that same time, the deserts of California were considered inhospitable wasteland. Nearby Death Valley had yet to be discovered for its borax mines and it was many years more until tourists even heard of this area.

Australia - massive machinery hoists gold ore from the depths of a mine California - an unknown building lies in ruins
Australia – massive machinery hoists gold ore from the depths of a mine
California – an unknown building lies in ruins

Miners hoping to get rich rushed into Ballarat, California too. Shortly after the discovery of gold in 1897, the town hit a peak population of 500. It started to feel like a happening place with a Wells Fargo bank, post office, school, jail, morgue, three hotels, and seven saloons (saloons are the lifeblood of any self-respecting mining town!). At the same time Australia’s Ballarat already had many respectable hotels, including the Craigs Royal Hotel which the Duke of Edinburgh visited to much fanfare.

Australia - an incredibly hot food furnace powers mining operations California - an old car rusts in the hot desert sun
Australia – an incredibly hot wood furnace powers mining operations
California – an old car rusts in the hot desert sun

California’s Ballarat was short-lived. In 1905 the mine shut down and by 1917 it was a ghost town. In 1905 enthusiastic promoters were calling Australia’s Ballarat the “Athens of Australia” as the city made a successful transition from gold rush town to a modern industrial city. When California’s Ballarat died in 1917, its namesake was already reflecting on its own history by building the Avenue of Honour, Australia’s longest memorial avenue.

Australia - historic buildings transport visitors back in time California - about the newest thing you'll find here is this truck
Australia – historic buildings transport visitors back in time
California – about the newest thing you’ll find here is this truck

Two towns flood with hopeful miners fuelled with gold rush fever. One grows and flourishes. The other withers and dies. Today you can visit both. You can see and touch their history, feel transported to a time long since passed. But how different your experiences will be.

Backpacking Death Valley’s Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop

Backpacking Death Valley’s Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop

Death Valley is exceptionally dry. To be considered a desert, an area must receive less than 10 inches of rain per year. Death Valley is fortunate to get even two inches. That means it’s really hard to find water. You have to carry a lot if you want to do a multi-day hike in the park. The Cottonwood-Marble Canyon loop is one of the few places where natural springs let you explore the wilderness for days without the need to carry gallons and gallons of water.

So hot
So hot, not a cloud in the sky

The drive to the trailhead is rough. Plowing through the deep sand reminded me of winter driving through snowdrifts. We were glad to have an AWD vehicle. We got a late start to the day and by the time we got hiking it was mid-afternoon. The thermometer read 95 degrees (35°C).

The canyon closes in providing some shade
The canyon closes in providing some shade

The first day of walking follows a jeep track through a long and open wash. The intense sun beat down and sapped my energy. I felt tired and drank my water quickly but I still felt incredibly happy to be walking through the desert on my first backpacking trip since injuring my foot last year. A few miles down the jeep track, the wash narrows and the scenery becomes more dramatic with high cliffs towering overhead. I was happy to reach the end of the road where bright green cottonwood trees made me feel like I’d discovered an oasis in the desert.

Cottonwood Springs
An oasis in the desert
Only in the desert would you be happy to drink this water
Only in the desert would you be happy to drink this water

You can easily hike this loop in three days but we decided to extend it to four. Without any time constraints it felt great to linger, enjoying the wildflowers and the solitude of the desert wilderness. Wildflowers very much defined the second day’s walk. There’s no established trail through this area but it was very easy to follow where others had gone before – just look for the only ground not blanketed in brightly coloured flowers.

The trail is easy to follow - it's the only place without flowers!
The trail is easy to follow – it’s the only place without flowers!
Yet more wildflowers
Yet more wildflowers
Cactus flowers
Cactus flowers

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Tiny flowers
Tiny flowers

Shortly before getting to Cottonwood Springs, there’s a tricky section. Our route description said to look for signs of wild horses to know that we were getting close. We spotted what looked like fresh tracks in the sand and bent over looking at them. Suddenly we heard a sound and looked up to see a wild horse right in front of us! A whole herd of them! After a few moments of sniffing us out, they just walked right past, escorting the baby rather cautiously. What beautiful animals.

Wild horses!
Wild horses!
Guarding the baby
Guarding the baby
Camping in the shade
Camping in the shade

The next day we made our way from Cottonwood Canyon up the gradually slopping plateau and down into Dead Horse Canyon.

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The navigation is a bit tricky. I wanted to see if I could do it with just the route description – no map or GPS. I ended up one saddle over from the one we wanted and the descent down into Dead Horse Canyon looked like it was on the edge of being safe. Resorting to the GPS I realized the mistake. This was just a blessing in disguise – it gave me the opportunity to walk along the ridge with fantastic views all the way over to the correct saddle.

An old sign to help miners find their way
An old sign to help miners find their way
Zebra-tailed lizard
Zebra-tailed lizard
Indian Paintbrush
Indian Paintbrush
Camped in Dead Horse Canyon
Camped in Dead Horse Canyon

The final day of this loop is perhaps the most spectacular. We descended through narrow slot canyons with cliffs towering overhead. The colours change constantly from blue and white zebra stripes to bright reds and golds.

Marvelling at the narrows of Marble Canyon
Marvelling at the narrows of Marble Canyon
Downclimbing a dryfall
Downclimbing a dryfall

In many places, though, the walls of the canyon were caked in mud. A huge flash flood ripped through these canyons last October leaving behind a thick deposit of mud. In places it remained on the walls far far above my head. This would not have been a good place to be during that storm.

Mud from a huge flash flood remains caked on the canyon cliffs
Mud from a huge flash flood remains caked on the canyon cliffs
Just follow the wash
Just follow the wash

My foot felt sore after the hike. I still have a long way to go to get back to where I was a year ago. I couldn’t be more happy to be back out hiking in the wilderness, though, and I can’t imagine a better place to do it than here. I love the tranquility of the desert with its expansive scenery and starry night skies. Where to go hiking next?

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