First hikes with the pup!

Over the past few weeks I went hiking with our new one year old puppy, Paprika, trying to train her to become a great hiking dog. Luckily she is already a well behaved dog who walks well. We ended up doing two fairly long day-hikes (5+ miles) both on the same trail, but from different ends. We went to one of my favorite getaways near Tempe, the Mazatzal Mountains. In these mountains, there is a trail called the Ballantine trail, which is a really neat trail and it is one of a few where within less than 10 miles you can hike past both saguaros and pine trees.

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A view of the Mazatzal Mountains
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Our new puppy, Paprika!

The first hike we did was from the higher elevation end of the Ballantine trail, which seems to rarely be used. I can definitely understand why few people use it, as we spent 45 minutes on a rough, bumpy road, which Paprika was not the biggest fan of, especially on the way back. Once we got to the trailhead parking lot, I ran into a problem with this trail – I could not find the trailhead. After several attempts at hiking what looked like a trail, we finally found the trailhead. It is hard for me to call the first leg of this trail a trail, because it was more like finding where the grasses were slightly parted. As it turns out, Paprika is a great trailblazer, and she helped me find the trail many times.

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The “trail” we hiked.
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Paprika finding the trail for me!
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Another photo of Paprika trailblazing! (taken from my phone)

After the first 1/2 mile or so, I started to find more cairns which helped us keep on the trail better. The trail was really neat, because we started in a windswept valley, which was mostly grass and shrubby trees, but as we climbed further up into the valley, more taller trees appeared. Paprika did very well even with the increasing elevation. She was always quite a bit ahead, smelling everything she could!

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Paprika after a brief rest at our turn around point; she was excited to continue!
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The higher elevation forested part of the trail.
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Puppy climbing around on the giant boulders on the trail.

The trail had also recently received a lot of water, which was fun, but also meant someone got really muddy…. Towards the point where we turned around, the trail had pretty much become a pinyon pine/juniper forest, which I always enjoy hiking in. I eventually turned around because we got to a point in the trail where it become really narrow and was flanked by cacti, which I did not want the dog brushing up against. So we turned around and headed back down into the valley, and got to see some beautiful views on the way back. I also learned that Paprika does not have a full appreciation for steep valley walls and would sometimes try to go straight down instead of using switchbacks.

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She was looking for a faster way down the valley than the switch backs.
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Four Peaks in the distance.
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This was the valley we had just hiked down.
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A beautiful view of the Mazatzals.

Now the second hiking trip I did with Paprika started at the lower elevation trailhead for the Ballantine trail with our friend Eric Moody (check him out here). This trailhead is right off of highway 87, so it is very easy to get to, but the problem is that you hear the highway for the first 1/2 mile to 1 mile. This trail is very well kept however, so hiking it was very easy. During this leg of the trail, we hiked in mid-elevation Sonoran desert, which was a mix of shrubby trees/bushes and cacti.

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The skeleton of a saguaro cactus which was standing up quite well still. (taken from my phone)
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Paprika hiking along the lower end of the Ballentine. (taken from my phone)
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Unfortunately someone stepped on a cholla spike ball, but she at least was very willing to let me remove it from her foot! (photo credit: Eric Moody)

 

The coolest part from this hike was that the Mazatzals had recently received a ton of snow, so we were treated to seeing the high elevation peaks of the Mazatzals, the nearby Mt. Ord, and the famous Four Peaks all covered in snow. This made for some beautiful and juxtaposing landscapes with saguaros in the foreground and snowy mountains in the background. Arizona is pretty awesome like that!

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The snow covered high peaks of the Mazatzals. (photo credit: Eric Moody)
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A wide view of the snow covered peaks. (photo credit: Eric Moody)
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Only in Arizona, a saguaro cactus with snow covered mountains behind it. (taken from my phone)

Paprika did really well on this hike too, despite having stepped on a cholla ball. The only other thing that held her up was that some horse riders passed us early on the hike and she seems scared of the horses and reluctant to follow their trail. However with Eric and my encouragement, she carried on and completed her longest hike yet!

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A lovely view of the Mazatzals. (taken from my phone)
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A view of the more southern peaks of the Mazatzals. (taken from my phone)

Now that I have tested the waters with Paprika and hiking, I plan to continue to hike and eventually camp/backpack with her, so more on that in the future!

Hiking through the snow

Over Thanksgiving, I, with my fiancé Meghan, went and visited a former lab-mate (Brett Seymoure) in Fort Collins, CO. While we were there, we went and hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park. Now this park is mostly high elevation and mountains, so you can imagine that this late in the year the park was full of snow:

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A snow covered mountain side at Rocky Mountain National Park

I grew up in Houston, TX, went to college in San Antonio, TX, and now live in Phoenix, AZ. While I have skied in the past, snow is not something I have much experience with, and I have certainly never hiked in it before. It definitely took some getting used to – learning how to not slip, trying to find footing that would not put my foot in deep snow, and other things like that. Plus the cold – it was very cold, but when you hike you get hot quickly, and so there was definitely a balance I had to maintain between not being too hot or cold. Luckily, the snow was not frozen or too rough, so we did not need any special footgear, but we did have to use hiking poles to keep us from accidentally slipping.

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Friend and previous graduate student Scott Davies demonstrating the use of our hiking poles.
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A view of the trail covered in snow.

The hike ended up being very beautiful, though going uphill at high elevation in the snow was quite a workout. However, it was the day after Thanksgiving, so I will blame part of my slowness and struggle from eating too much the day before! The elevation definitely got to me, but it was totally worth it to see the amazing views.

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One of the breathtaking views from the top of our hike.
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Another breathtaking view in the park.

We ended up hiking up to about 11,000 feet and got some pretty breathtaking views of the park and Rockies. Also, like with many National Parks, once you get 1-2 miles on a trail, you run into much fewer people, and so we had a peaceful, quite hike in the snow.

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Looking over the dense pine forest we hiked through, which, even though it does not look it, was full of snow!
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Another view of the trail through the forest.

This was not my first time in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had been there several years ago, but in the summer. The park looked very different then as it did now, which was pretty awesome to compare.

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Summer (2012) in the park.
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Unfrozen water and lots of elk from summer 2012
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Late fall (2016) causing this lake to freeze over.
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Another view of the snowy mountains from this trip.

In the end, we had a great hike and got to see some amazing views. Not much wildlife was out unfortunately, but that is what you get in high elevation places in the winter. I cannot wait until the next time I can get to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is such a beautiful place, and I have much more to explore!

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Our group at the top of our hike with a beautiful Rocky Mountain landscape behind us. From left to right: Scott Davies, me, Meghan Duell, and Brett Seymoure.

Staying cool by getting high (elevation!)

Well, it is still hot in Tempe…. surprise surprise. So to cool off, I fled the mountains of Arizona and California over the past two weekends. First I went car camping in the White Mountains in Eastern Arizona, and got hailed on again. BUT, I was in my car the whole time so it was fine! The second trip was cabining near Big Bear Lake, CA with my long time friend Steve and his girlfriend Stacey. Both were great trips, where I was able to get nice and cool (especially while camping!) and enjoy some beautiful hikes and breath-taking views!

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A view across the Blue Range Primitive Area in the White Mountains

For those who are new to this blog, I adore the White Mountains in Arizona. The White Mountains are a large range along in central-eastern Arizona, full of high-elevation mixed coniferous forests and aspen trees. They also seem to get quite a bit more water than other high-elevation places in the state, like Flagstaff, because there is a lot of moss and lichen all around. The forests here have actually be called similar to those found in Washington and Oregon. And of course, since it was monsoon season, it was still raining quite a bit in the mountains, and I actually lost half a day of hiking because of  a storm (so I napped in my car). Another thing I like about the White Mountains is that they are so remote – a 4 to 5 hour drive from Phoenix – so that there are few people in the area. Yes, I am a slightly anti-social camper, mostly because whenever I seem to camp around other people they are loud or blaring music. #getoffmylawn

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One of my camping spots during the trip; it was in the middle of no where with no one around = quite and peaceful

I spent my first day near the town of Greer in the northern part of the mountains. I hiked a local trail called Squirrel Spring Trail, which was nice forest hike. Then I camped at an established campground called Winn Campground, which is where I had stayed before. It is a fairly large campground on top of a forested hill that I have never seen close to full. Unfortunately I did not get to spend much time there the next day, because it started raining at 7:00 AM. I had luckily just finished packing up, so I left and headed south on Highway 191, which is just a gorgeous drive through the mountains. I ended up picking a random side road at some point in a gap of rain to cook breakfast, since I did not have time to eat before the rain. After a nice breakfast I then drove to a trailhead near the Blue Range Primitive area, where I napped until the rain and hail stopped. Then I started along the trail, but was immediately disappointed. This trail had been completely burned from the 2011 fire that ravaged this area, and the nice forested hike I read about was no longer there:

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The landscape around Greer, AZ.
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A hike through the forests around Greer, AZ.
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The recovering burned area in the Blue Range Primitive Area.
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An example of how extensive the 2011 Wallow Fire burned areas are in the White Mountains.

After 45 minutes of hiking along this trail, I turned around and decided to find another trail. Luckily, just down the road was another trial that had been mostly spared, so I got another lovely forested hike, but with a different tree make-up from the Squirrel Spring Trail. Then after hiking along that trail for a while – not as long as I wanted as my phone kept changing time zones because I was close to the New Mexico border – I found a random forest road and camped alongside of it. Here are my photos from the hike:

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The lush, green understory of the forests in the White Mountains
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Another view of the forest, showing some trees with mosses and lichen on them.
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A small strand of aspen trees through the forest.
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This was one of the burned areas, and hiking through this patch of thistles on the trail was definitely not fun.

Before I made the sad, long drive back to Phoenix, I explored the lower(ish) elevation part of the Blue Range Primitive Area, and was totally taken aback by what I found. As I was driving, I realized that I was actually descending the Mogollon Rim (very prominent geological feature that cuts across Arizona), and the area reminded me a lot of the Sedona/Oak Creek Canyon area, which was awesome. At the bottom of the road, I was met by Blue River and a lush mid-elevation riparian area with giant cotton woods. I always love going through the transition from this habitat to the high-elevation coniferous forests, and this forest road was a great example of that.

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A view across the Blue Range Primitive Area from the road that descended into it.
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The road from along the Blue River after descending the Mogollon Rim.
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The lush riparian areas around Blue River.
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A view from the road as I ascended back up the Mogollon Rim.

This past weekend – Labor Day weekend – I again escaped the heat and joined my friends in the San Bernardino Mountains near Los Angels. We went to this area/town called Big Bear Lake, which was around 6,500-7,000 ft. Instead of camping, we got a place in town for the weekend and explored the area by car and by hiking. The town was very nice, full of interesting shops and restaurants, and the surrounding area was very beautiful. There are so many activities in the area, much like Lake Tahoe, but smaller, and it seems like a four-season place. While we were visiting, we hiked several trails in the surrounding area, namely Castle Rock and Cougar Crest Trails, giving us great views of the lake. We also explored the many small shops, where we saw some pretty awesome looking woodcrafts. We also explored several of the local restaurants and breweries, so we ate very well!

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Myself, Stacey, and Steve a top Castle Rock.
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A view of Big Bear Lake from Castle Rock.
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A view of the San Bernardino Mountains from Castle Rock.
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The forst and ephemeral stream bed along the Cougar Crest Trail.
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Another view of Big Bear Lake, but from the Cougar Crest Trail, which is on the opposite side of the lake from Castle Rock.
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An example of the beautiful woodwork found in the town.
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Another example of some of the woodwork from Big Bear Lake.

Overall, both of these trips were excellent escapes from the heat and very fun times. I cannot wait to continue escaping the heat when I can and also visiting these two places again in the future to further explore them!

Out-running Monsoon Storms, and Getting Hailed on…

It is monsoon season in Arizona right now, which means frequent afternoon storms across a large portion of the state. Many parts of AZ get most of their annual rainfall from the annual summer monsoon season. However, sometimes this rain comes in the form of crazy and powerful storms. Some of you might remember what happened to me last year during monsoon, when a giant tree fell over just missing our house!

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For more information on this event, check out my post from last year!

While Phoenix and the surrounding valley may get the occasionally intense storm, monsoon for us is mostly sandstorms, also called haboobs, followed by a thunderstorm. If you are in the many mountainous places across Arizona, you might have a very different monsoon experience. High elevation places, such as Flagstaff, seem to get afternoon storms pretty much every day, which I have experienced. These storms sometimes involve a lot of lightning and/or hail. The temperature can also drop 20+ degrees very quickly, which is a nice way to avoid the summer heat…. sometimes. These rainstorms definitely shift people’s activity though. When I was doing fieldwork in Flagstaff this summer before my trip to England, I would have to make sure to finish everything by the afternoon or I would risk getting rained on – with near certainty.

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A distant storm from one of my field sites in Flagstaff.
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The aftermath of an intense hailstorm in Flagstaff.

 

You might be asking why I am randomly talking about monsoon storms. Well, being a mountain-lover and trying to avoid the heat of the desert, I typically try to hike in the mountains whenever I can, but monsoon adds certain complications to this. Last week, I went hiking in the Mazatzal Mountains, north-east of Phoenix, on a trail called Barnhardt trail. This is a very popular trail that climbs along a beautiful valley before getting into the heart of the Mazatzals. My problem was that I started my hike late – sometime after 12 PM. I knew that a storm was inevitable, so I figured I would only get to hike a short while before I had to turn around to avoid the storm. Well, I might have miscalculated my timing. When I started, storms were starting to close in all around me:

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This if a photo from the Barnhardt trailhead.

But the specific area I was in still have sunny clear skies overhead, so I started hiking. I eventually lost myself to the beauty of the hike, as you can hopefully see form these pictures:

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However, one I stopped to take a rest, I realized that the clouds had closed in much faster than I predicted:

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I immediately turned around and started hiking back at a fast past. It got dark very fast, but I was still hopeful that I could escape the storms. I looked out past the valley, across to the mountains on the other side of Highway 87, and saw this:

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With these fear-inspiring images, I managed to keep a good pace, and as the trail leveled out, I knew I was within half a mile or so to my car. Unfortunately, that is when the first few raindrops started to fall. At first I thought, well I have rain gear, so I can probably avoid getting too wet and will just have a less fun trek in the rain. That was true for a while, but things got worse. The sound of falling rain gradually got much louder, and I started seeing things bouncing on the ground. It was starting to hail!

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Hail on the ground; from my iPhone to avoid damaging my camera.

I knew I was very close to my car at this point, but once it started hailing hard, I could not have been close enough. The hail was not too big – around dime size – but it definitely still hurt has it fell on my head.

I finally found my car and quickly got in, started it, and tried to get the hell out of there. It was hailing and raining very hard at this point, and with a slight feeling of panic, I quickly drove a way – probably faster than I should have. I was afraid of the road flooding before I could get out, which would leave me stranded for a while, so I pushed my driving skills to the limit, hoping that the pounding hail would not break my windshield and that I would not fishtail off the road.

After what seemed like an eternity driving through hail and rain, I dropped quite a bit in elevation as I reached highway 87, and eventually the hail/rain turned into just rain, and then nothing. Along the highway, there was no rain at all. I looked back and could not even see the mountains I had just been hiking in.

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Looking back, from my iPhone.

Thankfully I had escaped the storm with no issues, but I think I got lucky. I knew monsoon storms were typically intense at high elevations, but this was the first time I had gotten caught in a hail storm. My advice to those who wish to hike in the mountains in the near future – keep a close eye on the clouds and play it ultra-safe!

I hope you enjoyed this post – it was a bit different than my typical travelogs, but this is also my 50th post, so I wanted to make it special! Thank you to everyone who has kept up with and supported this blog, and I hope you continue to follow me as I pave my way to the next milestone – 100 posts!

Alpine Lakes and the Sierra Nevada High Country

On my way back from Sagehen Creek Field Station to Tempe, AZ, I took two side trips for fun. The first was the afternoon before I left, where I hiked up to the local high point, named Carpenter Ridge. Then on the drive home, I went to Yosemite National Park for several hours and explored the eastern side of the park. Both experiences were excellent, and Yosemite was definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

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The high country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Yosemite National Park.

Starting with my trip to Carpenter Ridge, I had to drive along several forest roads, during which I happened upon a mother black bear with two cubs. Unfortunately they were way to fast, and I did not get any pictures. I decided that chasing a mother bear and her cubs to get a photo was probably way to dangerous. Eventually I had to stop driving – because of a huge pile of snow in the middle of the road (in July!) – and walk to the base of Carpenter Ridge. From there, I hiked up a steep slope, rising bout 800 feet in elevation over a short distance, to get to the peak (just under 9,000 ft.). Once I summited the peak, I was met with wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, including Independence Lake, and distant views of many mountain peaks around Lake Tahoe. The plant life was also very interesting, because many of the bushes and small trees were stunted due to the winds. There were many colorful flowers blooming as well. I even saw hummingbirds near the peak! Below are some of the pictures I took during this trek.

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The road leading to the base of Carpenter Ridge (the peak in the background).
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A view of Independence Lake from Carpenter Ridge.
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Looking towards Lake Tahoe (not seen) from the peak.
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Some of the interesting and stunted plant life on top of the peak.
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A view of several high peaks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near lake Tahoe.
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Some of the flowers and shorter plants growing at the peak.
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These pretty purple/blue flowers were often visited by hummingbirds.
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The trees around the ridge were covered in moss and lichen, which made the forest look very green and alive.
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These pink flowers had the most interesting leaves.

Then on my drive home, I decided to stop by Yosemite National Park, because I had never been there before. I entered through the eastern entrance, which is around a 2.5 hour drive from the famous Yosemite Valley. Because of that long drive and the fact that the valley would be packed with people, I decided to save that place for another trip. Instead I explored three other famous locations in the high country of Yosemite National Park. I say high country, because for the most part, I was hiking between 8,000 and 11,000 feet. The first place I visited was Olmsted Point, which provides great views of the eastern part of Yosemite Valley and both the Cloud’s Rest and Half Dome peaks.

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A view down Yosemite Valley from Olmsted Point, with Cloud’s Rest and Half Dome peaks in the background.
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Another view from Olmsted point, in the opposite direction from Yosemite Valley.
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Looking towards Tenaya Lake from Olmsted Point.
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Another great view from Olmsted Point – there were many great views!

There is also a short (1.5 mile) trail that goes between Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake, a beautiful high elevation lake at around 8,200 ft. I was able to get some great photos of the lake with the mountains being reflected on its surface. The hike between the two points also took me through several meadows, where I was able to see some pretty flowers and wildlife.

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Tenaya Lake beautifully reflecting the nearby scenery.
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One of the many meadows on the trail between Tenaya Lake and Olmsted Point.
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A very wet and marshy meadow along the trail.
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A male deer with his antlers covered in velvet.
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A wash near the lake.
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Another view of Tenaya Lake with the mountains being reflected by the water.
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A zoomed in view of the mountains behind Tenaya Lake.

From there, I drove through the Tuolumne Meadows and did a hike up to the Gaylor Lakes. This trail not only provided me excellent views of the meadows, but once I crossed over the ridge towards the Gaylor Lakes, I was able to see many of the higher elevation peaks in Yosemite. There were two main lakes along this trail, a lower and upper lake. They both seem to be fed mostly by snow melt, and there was actually a huge snowbank by the upper lake continuously feeding it while I was there. I also saw several bird species, such as the Clark’s nutcracker, and several high elevation mammals, like the California ground squirrel and yellow-bellied marmot. I heard many of the ground squirrel alarm calls, which was a fun reminder of what I learned in my animal behavior classes – these squirrels tend to live in colonies and always have a few individuals on the lookout for predators, who then give alarm calls when they see a predator to alert everyone else in the colony. Here are my photos of my hike up to the Gaylor Lakes (I took a lot).

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The mountains near Tuolumne Meadows.
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A part of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks.
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A pair of Clark’s Nutcrackers
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A view of the lower Gaylor Lake from a ridge nearby.
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A view of the lower Gaylor Lake from its shoreline.
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Part of the Gaylor Lakes Trail.
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Part of the upper Gaylor Lake.
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Another view of the rocky area around the lake.
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A yellow-bellied marmot.
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The same marmot but on alert.
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A California ground squirrel.
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A snowbank melting straight into the Gaylor Lakes!
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A view of the Sierra Nevada/Yosemite high country from the Gaylor Lakes.
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The wind creating ripples and waves across the upper Gaylor Lake.
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A view of the trail passing by the upper Gaylor Lake.
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Two smaller lakes in the area around the Gaylor Lakes.
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Another view of the high country.
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The trail and stream going from the upper lake to the lower lake.

Yosemite was an incredible place to visit. Almost everywhere I looked there were breath-taking views. And while I was only able to explore a small portion of the park, I was completely captivated by its beauty, and cannot wait to go back and visit. I did not realize just how large Yosemite National Park was, and would definitely love to backpack all throughout the park, especially along the legendary John Muir trail!

The Beautiful Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay

While I was doing fieldwork near Lake Tahoe I took a couple days off to explore the surrounding areas. Of course the first trip I took was to visit Lake Tahoe itself, and it was an amazing trip!

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The beautiful blue water of Lake Tahoe

My adventure occurred at D.L. Bliss State Park near Emerald Bay in southern Lake Tahoe. This park has a trail that essentially goes around the entire perimeter of Emerald Bay, which is one of the most famous and pretty areas along Lake Tahoe. The trail was called the Rubicon trail and I hike it for around 13 miles total (to the end and back). Along the trail I was able to do some great birding and see some spectacular views of the lake. This is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Below are several pictures of Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay from a variety of viewpoints.

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Where Emerald Bay gets its name.

One of the most striking elements of this hike (aside from the lake) was the trees. There were many massive trees, and the forest community kept changing as I moved along the bay. Some areas were dominated by Jeffery pines, while others were very mixed and full of giant cedar trees.

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A stream that flowed through a forest from the mountains into the lake, full of pretty waterfalls.
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One of the giant cedar trees.
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More of the very tall trees found at various points along the lake.
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A view of the forest along Emerald Bay.
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A view of the forest along the lake.
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A very pretty orchid I found near the shore.
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A funny surprise I found along the trail.

I was also able to do some great birding here and picked up a few lifers, including a Townsend’s solitaire and white-headed woodpecker. Many of the birds were high up in the tall trees, so I did not get too many good pictures, but here are a few.

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There were many osprey nesting around the lake.
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A female common merganser cleaning herself in the sun.
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Two Canada geese hanging out near the shore.
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A great close-up of a Stellar’s jay.

If you ever visit Lake Tahoe, I highly recommend this hike. While there were some places along the trail where there were a larger number of people (near campsites), I mostly had the trail to myself. This was a great trail to get some amazing views of the Lake and see the diversity of forests around it.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Boyce Thompson Arboretum is a definite must see near Phoenix. For those who have yet to make the trip, I would recommend going now-ish. The arboretum is great to visit in the spring and summer (though it might be a bit warm!). Not only does the arboretum contain a great diversity of plant life, but it also attracts a large number of animals, especially birds, especially during spring migration.

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I recently went to Boyd Thompson with my mom when she visited. We had some weird weather (cold and rainy) but still saw a lot of cool animals and enjoyed many spring flowers.

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The cool thing about Boyce Thompson, is that it has more than just a Sonoran desert environment, which is still awesome by the way! There is a Chihuahuan desert area, an Australian area – complete with a eucalyptus forest! – a Sonoran desert riparian area, and a South American area. Here are a few images of some of the environments you can visit:

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A view of the Sonoran desert area
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This is a view of the Sonoran desert riparian zone before the trail depends into its heart.

The hummingbird garden was also fun to visit, especially now, as you can see several species of hummingbird there. Here is a picture of a broad-billed hummingbird, which is typically only found in Arizona and Mexico.

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There is also the demonstration garden, which has many different plants arranged to fit different garden plans/types. There were lots of things flowering while we was there, and I was able to get some pretty awesome bird photos.

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A flowering bottlebrush plant.

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A curve-billed thrasher
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This male Gambel’s quail posed for us for quite some time.
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A verdin picking at a flower.

The best moment was when a northern cardinal got within a few feet of me and let me take some really up close photos. Here is the best one!

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Again, I would highly recommend visiting this place; you will see amazing things and learn a great deal about plant diversity and natural history!

Sycamore Canyon Wilderness

Many of you have probably been to or at least heard of Oak Creek Canyon, which extends from Sedona into and up the Mogollon Rim. It is definitely one of the most beautiful places in Arizona, and it is also incredibly varied in habitat type. You start along Oak Creek in a mid elevation desert riparian area and then slowly transition into a high elevation mixed forest/riparian area. I’ve mentioned this place in previous blogs, and I highly recommend visiting it.

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A view down Oak Creek Canyon in the Summer

However, I’ve always had one issue with this place, and that is it is full of people! Well I believe I’ve found a way to remedy that problem. To the west is another canyon that follows a similar trajectory, called Sycamore Canyon. This canyon also happens to be a wilderness area, which means much fewer people and no man-made structures (roads, buildings etc.). I’ve been very interested in visiting this large wilderness area, and finally did recently.

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Sycamore Canyon Wilderness area is beautiful and quite large and has a good network of trails running through it (check it out here). Because it was still quite cold and wintery in the upper portions of the canyon, I decided to stick to the lower portions of the wilderness area for this trip. Plus, I want to save the upper portion for when all the deciduous trees have regained their leaves. The trail I decided to do was the Dogie Trail. This trail and others in the lower portions of the canyon can be accessed through Sedona or Cottonwood, while the upper portion are accessed through Flagstaff.

This trail starts in the wilderness area, but not in the main part of the canyon. It winds through the lovely red-rock country as it makes it way towards Sycamore Canyon.

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Along the way, I was treated to the spectacular contrast between the green vegetation and orange-red rocks.

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I was also given some great views of the Sycamore Canyon/Mogollon Rim walls.

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This trail stuck to the arid mid-elevation deserts and pinyon-juniper forests found throughout much of central Arizona.

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I was not able to make it to the lush desert riparian areas (deep in the main canyon), though I was also able to find several side canyons that at the right times of year would be flowing with water.

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This was definitely a very beautiful and wonderful wilderness area. Now that I’ve seen the lower portion of Sycamore Canyon, which does look very similar to the dryer, lower portions of Oak Creek Canyon, I am very excited to check out the upper portions and riparian areas of this canyon. More to come in the future from this very special place!

Woodchute Wilderness

To continue escaping from the desert heat, I took another journey to the Arizona Central Highlands, but this time to a wilderness area in the western half of the state. I went hiking  in the Woodchute Wilderness area, which is just north-east of Prescott. This wilderness area is within the Black Hills, which is a mountain range that stretches across I-17 in-between Phoenix and Flagstaff.

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The trail I hiked, the Woodchute trail, started off in a fairly dense pine forest.

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The trail then followed along a fairly open ridgeline for quite some ways, which offered great views of the Mogollon Rim, the red-rock country around Sedona, and the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.

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There were also some great views of western Arizona as well.

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Eventually the trail lead into a forested valley, which still had some snow!

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Then I climbed back out of the valley through a mixed coniferous forest, filled with pinyon pines and junipers, before rounding out in a flat, high elevation area dense with pine trees, which blocked out much of the sun.

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At this point it started to get dark, so I decided to head back and got a great view of the sunset along the way.

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This was a great hike, where I was able to not only escape the heat, but also escape the crowds and noise of the city. I highly recommend this wilderness area since it was not hard to get to and was very beautiful. This was also my 12th wilderness area in the state – one closer to hitting all 90!

Hellsgate Trail

Since its gotten rather warm in Tempe of late, I decided to escape and take a few trips to some beautiful places in Arizona’s Central Highlands. The Central Highlands is the transitional zone between the lower elevation deserts and the Colorado Plateau. It can vary greatly in elevation, as it is made up of several basins/valleys, such as the Verde Valley and Tonto Basin, along with several mountain ranges, including the Bradshaw Mountains, Mazatzal Mountains, and the Superstition Mountains. To escape the heat, I mainly stuck to the mountains found within this region.

The first hike I did was called Hellsgate Trail, which is a few miles east of Payson, and I was accompanied by a fellow grad student Eric Moody (check out his website!). This trail heads south of highway 260 and eventually ends up in the Hellsgate Wilderness area. In the Hellsgate Wilderness is the Hellsgate, which is the point where Tonto Creek and Haigler Creek meet. It is supposed to be a very steep and difficult hike once you hit the creeks, but we did not end up going that far. To get to that point, you really need to backpack in, as it is several miles away. We ended up hiking along the trail for a few miles, enjoying the cool weather and shady pine trees.

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We also did a bit of birding along the way!

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A dark-eyed junco we met along the way

Much of the trail we did was through a mixed coniferous forest, with ponderosa pines, alligator junipers, and pinyon pines being most common. There were also white and emory oaks scattered throughout.

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Occasionally we would be on the sunny sides of some ridges, which would cut down on the forest vegetation, but then we could get some good views of the surrounding area.

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Spring has not fully hit this area yet, so the bird diversity wasn’t incredibly high, but we saw many woodpeckers and nuthatches. We also saw juniper and bridled titmice and mountain chickadees. The most interesting bird we saw was the red crossbill, which I had never seen before!

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Sorry for the super backlit image!

We also saw many bumblebees along the trail, and there was a stream that was somewhat continuous throughout as well.

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All and all, it was a great hike, and it was very chill, as this squirrel we found demonstrates.

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