Duration: 2 hours 36 minutes (breaks not included)
Type: Two different loops
The packed dirt beneath my feet was heaven to my restless legs. After 16+ hours cramped in a car over 1,000 miles, we were finally hitting the trails on our long awaited Southwest run-cation. Despite how anxious I was to get moving and pick up speed, I was stopped in my tracks almost immediately. There’s nothing like experiencing a sunrise in a new (to us), unexplored landscape. And this one, with its warm, golden rays stretching out slowly over these curious desert formations, was one for the books.
Our drive from Portland to Bryce Canyon was beautiful, but draining. We spent the night–well, barely a couple of hours–sleeping in the car off a forest road right outside of the park. I was adamant about getting to the trailhead by sunrise so 1) I could see it, and 2) so we could start our mini-adventure/shakeout run before the trails were crawling with hordes of people. We timed it just right, beginning the Fairyland Loop before anyone else was on the trail. We started out high, running along the rim gazing out over this vast canyon dotted with limestone hoodoos (those aforementioned “curious formations”), pinyon pine-juniper forests, and patches of snow. So different compared to any place we’d ever run! It was definitely turning into one of those adventures where I stop every two minutes to “oooh” and “ahhhh” at the scenery and capture it all on camera.
As we dropped down into the canyon, the formerly hardened, frozen dirt began to soften beneath the warmth of the sun, transforming into a thick, goopy clay that latched onto our shoes and refused to come off. Scraping and cleaning was futile as the continuation of this sludge-y tread made it impossible for our shoes to stay clay-free. With two-pound weights essentially strapped to our feet, we continued at a slower pace. Of course, we couldn’t really complain. There was so much to see I probably wouldn’t have been moving that fast anyway.
We climbed out of the forested area and wound our way through the ever fascinating hoodoos, eventually making our way up to a ridge where we were able to look out over the park again. We stood here for a good while in complete awe of this vibrant landscape with its multicolored layers of sedimentary rock dating back millions of years, bands of orange, pink, and white stretched across the hillsides in giant waves as far as the eye could see. From here, we dropped down, following the gentle curves of the route and making the pit stop at Tower Bridge before climbing back up to the rim to start our next running route: Queens Garden-Navajo Loop.
As expected, solitude was long gone by the time we made it up to Sunrise Point, and the Queens Garden Trail is one of the most popular in the park. After a short break on the rim to get a snack and clean the clay and rocks out of our shoes, we started the descent into the amphitheater via Queens Garden. Since the final part of the Fairyland Loop had been uphill, we took full advantage of this downhill section, flying down the trail, weaving our way through hikers and camera-toting tourists, all while getting up close and personal with the tightly packed maze of pinnacles and other myriad shapes and structures.
Once on the Navajo Trail, we found ourselves running through the forest again until reaching the final narrow uphill stretch leading to Sunset Point. (Note: We ascended the Two Bridges side of the loop, not the famous Wall Street side since it is closed during the winter months) Aside from the beauty of the towering rock walls on either side of us, we also admired (i.e. geeked out about) the stonework of the meticulous man-made retaining walls that helped form the switchbacks leading out of the canyon.
We jogged back to the parking lot, which was now completely full, and proceeded to throw on a change of clothes and unpack some food to make lunch. The line of cars circling the lot waiting for spaces to open up made me so grateful that we’d arrived early to avoid this mess. “No, we’re not leaving,” became a pretty standard phrase in the short time we were at the car. With fresh clothes and bagel sandwiches, we walked back out to the rim, found an empty bench, and enjoyed a few final moments basking in the beauty of Bryce Canyon before getting back on the road to our next run-cation destination and the crux of our entire trip: the Grand Canyon.
With Spring in full swing, Mack and I are excited to start ticking off some trails we’ve been dying to hit since we started trading hikes for adventure trail runs. We decided to be bold this past weekend and shoot for one of the longest ones on our list: the McKenzie River Trail. In retrospect (since we didn’t realize these coincidences beforehand), it was actually quite a fitting adventure to have in celebration of Mack’s 27th birthday. The trail is just under 27 miles long, and then there’s the name itself, M[a]cKenzie. It was meant to be!
If I’m being completely honest though, I was actually hoping Mack would want to back out and save this run for another day for a few different reasons: 1) it would be our third ultramarathon distance run in the last five weeks, 2) it would be Cassie’s first ultramarathon distance (with her previous longest run being 16-18 miles), and 3) the earliest shuttle pick-up through McKenzie River Mountain Resort is 9:30 am (meaning we wouldn’t be able to start our run until at least 10 am)! The “no earlier than 10 am” factor is what really made me nervous. If we were just running the trail like a race (with no plans to stop), I wouldn’t have been worried, but on our adventure runs, I like to fit in longer breaks, take pictures, and explore side trip opportunities, which tends to add on quite a bit more time. Would we really be able to do that on this run with such a late start? Mack the birthday boy decided it was what he wanted to do though, so I did my best to set aside my worries.
We set off early Saturday morning in order to make our 9:30 am shuttle (which, by the way, is $30 per person and allows dogs). We were the only people hitching a ride that morning, so the 20 minute drive to the upper trailhead was pretty quiet, with the exception of the driver sharing a few tour guide-esque tidbits about the area and checking to see if we had a map. As soon as we were dropped off and got our packs situated, we crossed the footbridge at the trailhead, headed into the forest, and began the long trek back to the car.
Less than a mile in we came to the Clear Lake Trail junction, opting to stay on the MRT rather than taking the slightly shorter Clear Lake Trail (which does hook back up with the MRT at the south end of the lake) just to say we ran the trail in its entirety. According to our shuttle driver, there are numerous preserved trees standing underwater in Clear Lake due to the cold temperature of the water. The lake was created about 3,000 years ago when lava flow created a dam at the south end, allowing water to fill the area. Of course you can’t see these trees despite the clarity of the lake, but it’s an interesting anecdote about the area. We also got a small taste of the vibrant topaz colored water (which Tamolitch Blue Pool is known for) when we passed Great Spring on the eastern side of the lake.
The MRT is known for sections of volcanic rock, and the eastern side of Clear Lake is one of those sections. Although it wasn’t very difficult for Mack and I to run on, I was a little nervous for Cassie since the rock is sharper. We didn’t bring any sort of paw protection for her, but she seemed to do fine and never showed any indication that she was bothered by the rough terrain. It was around this time that we started getting pelted with sleet, too. Less than three miles in and we were already soaked! Re-entering the forest near the southern end of the lake provided some shelter and relief.
There was still quite a bit of snow on the ground before and after Clear Lake. I knew it would clear up eventually based on recent trip reports, but it did result in some pretty slow miles and even a little navigating to find the trail. It was hard to believe it was actually mid-May as we sunk into these ankle deep mounds of snow! Once we reached the junction with the Waterfalls Loop Trail and crossed the footbridge to stay on the MRT, the trail was clear. Now that we were running alongside the McKenzie again, we could admire the fiercely aqua blue tint of the water as it raged and tumbled downstream.
This next section between Clear Lake and Tamolitch Blue Pool encompasses the heart of the MRT. It’s also the most popular. Thankfully, due to the less-than-ideal weather and lack of sunshine, there were hardly any people on the trail (or maybe they were on the Waterfalls Trail on the opposite side of the river). Our first stop, and my absolute favorite part of the entire run, was Sahalie Falls. We scrambled down a short, steep side trail, traversing slick, rocky terrain and ducking under downed trees to reach the base of the 100-foot raging falls. We admired Sahalie for only a brief couple of minutes. The heavy mist blowing off the waterfall had us shivering almost instantly. Cassie didn’t seem to enjoy this part either.
Back on the trail, we came upon Koosah Falls soon after. We thought about finding a way to get down to the base like we had for Sahalie, but we still had many miles to run and it was already noon or so. We opted to admire the falls from a ledge above instead, then continued on to the next destination: Blue Pool.
Now that we weren’t running on snow or volcanic rock, the next few miles passed quickly. We finally ran into some mountain bikers (just two) as well. Since the MRT is a well known MTB trail, we were worried that we’d spend most of our day dodging cyclists, but these two were the first we’d seen since we’d started! Maybe the weather kept many of them away? Whatever the reason, we were happy for the solitude. Of course, once the trail opens out above Blue Pool, that solitude immediately disappears.
Thankfully, the crowd wasn’t too ridiculous when we arrived. I imagine it’s an absolute nightmare in the summer or on any bluebird weekend. On this semi-gloomy day though, we managed to snag a rocky ledge overlooking the pool and enjoy the spot for a short time while we snacked and took pictures. The next mile or so took us over more volcanic rock. It was slow going again, and we were running into more people now because of our close proximity to the trailhead for Tamolitch Pool.
Eventually, the rock gave way to cushiony singletrack as we descended to the level of the river. Now that we had passed the main highlights of the trail (Clear Lake, Sahalie and Koosah Falls, and Tamolitch Pool), we quickened our pace and made fewer stops. For the remainder of the trail, we got to soak in the beauty of the Willamette National Forest, with its lush old growth areas and a forest floor blanketed in green.
After passing the trailhead for Tamolitch Pool and another trailhead at Trail Bridge Reservoir, we hit our longest stretch (somewhere between 7.5-8 miles I believe). I think there were even a couple of uphill sections through this stretch. Nothing that strenuous though. The sun had come out by this point, so we enjoyed being shaded by the trees while still absorbing the warmth of the sun.
Once we made it to the Frissell Crossing Campground (with about six miles left to the car!), we took a slightly longer break (like 10-15 minutes) to eat some snacks, feed Cassie (who just wanted Goldfish as opposed to her own treats), and stretch out our legs before the final section. After that long of a pause, getting up to run again was difficult. It’s only when you stop that you start to notice the stiffness and soreness.
The snack break definitely gave us the boost we needed to push the last few miles. Crossing the river at Frissell put us on the same side as the highway, so peace and quiet weren’t as plentiful during this stretch. Our excitement grew though whenever we passed a landmark that we recognized on the map (Belknap Hot Springs first, then Paradise Campground). Once the guardrail (indicating the parking lot turnout) came into view through the trees, I knew we were done and our marathon day was complete. It had started to pour in the final half mile, so we’d made it back just in time to avoid getting completely soaked again. Cassie, needless to say, was exhausted and willingly hopped into her backseat hammock as soon as I opened the door. We quickly changed into some dry socks, shoes, and shirts and hit the road for the long drive home, stopping for some well deserved ice cream and candy at the nearest gas station. Maybe next year we’ll have to find 28 miles to run somewhere for Mack’s birthday?
References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; Mountain Shop
With at least two new Cascade volcanoes we want to tackle this Spring/Summer, Mack and I knew we needed to fit in at least one familiar climb to train on before then. After our Mt St Helens plans were scrapped due to weather (and permits are sold out for every weekend in May!), we decided to try for Hood. We originally intended to wait until Mack’s birthday weekend (Mother’s Day weekend), but the forecast was just too damn perfect to pass up. On Saturday afternoon, we packed up our gear (opting to leave behind harnesses, pickets, and rope this time around), took a short three hour nap, and hit the road at 10 pm.
The parking lot at Timberline Lodge was already bustling with climber activity and it was only 11:30 pm! We signed in at the climber’s register (creating a makeshift permit since there weren’t any left) and started up the climber’s trail at midnight. It’s amazing how strenuous this section felt compared to our first time last July. Maybe we were just out of shape (or moving faster since our packs were significantly lighter?), but I swear the hike up to Palmer Lift House felt more steep than last year!
Once at the lift house we took a slightly longer break to hydrate, eat a snack, trade trekking poles for ice axes, and don our crampons and helmets. Last year we waited to do this [crampons, helmets, ice axes] until we were at/near the Triangle Moraine. It was super windy and exposed, and our fingers went numb trying to get all of our gear on. Getting everything done in the sheltered vicinity of the lift house was far more comfortable.
The trek up to Crater Rock and the Hogsback from the lift house is pretty straightforward. Mack tends start to feeling the effects of altitude around this section, so we went slow and took our time. It was 3:56 am (earlier than I’d expected) when we reached Crater Rock. Crap. We were probably going to summit before the sunrise. Well, better than summiting too late. Four or five people were hanging out at Crater Rock, waiting to start the final stretch up the Hogsback through the Pearly Gates. Two guys in front of us led the way and we followed close behind. There was a pretty clear boot path most of the way up, which meant we rarely had to kick fresh steps.
About half way up, I started feeling a little whoozy. I’ve never had any sickly reactions to altitude. (I had to take slower, deeper breaths as I got closer to Camp Muir on Mt Rainier last Spring because it was a little harder to breath, but that’s about it) I’m fairly certain my reaction was to the plate of mozzarella sticks I’d eaten for “dinner” before we drove up. Such an idiotic move on my part. The ugly churning in my stomach definitely affected my concentration, but I forced myself to focus on my steps and ice axe technique. One misstep could result in me careening down this steep slope and into Devil’s Kitchen. Mack mentioned after our climb that despite his dizzying battle with altitude sickness, his mind became very lucid as we neared the top because he didn’t want to make a mistake that would compromise our safety.
I felt really anxious as we approached the entrance of the gates. The kick steps were a lot more shallow here, so we kicked in our own platforms. One of the guys in front of us wanted to get out a second tool to climb through the gates, so we were held up a few minutes, stuck in an awkward, slightly compromised position (and we were freezing!). I was happy when we finally started moving again. My mind and stomach settled once we passed through and walked the final little slope up to the summit. As I looked out on the land before us still blanketed in darkness and the colors of daylight starting to burst forth from the horizon, I felt perfectly content.
We considered holding out for the sunrise (which was supposed to be around 5:45 am). I didn’t feel like digging my watch out, so I don’t know what time we actually summited, but it was definitely a bit earlier than that. It was too cold to wait much longer and there was a long line of people already nearing the gates. Since descending is the most difficult and nerve-racking part (at least for me), we decided it’d be better to start moving. I snapped a few more pictures and we were off.
Down climbing through the Pearly Gates wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. We did run into a roped team from Timberline Mountain Guides, but the guide leading the way ended up being Brandon, our lead climbing instructor from Smith Rock back in March! We exchanged ‘hello’s and ‘great to see you again’s and Brandon had his team give us a little room to skirt by them through the narrow gates. We’re taking a Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue course (to review our skills from last year) through TMG in June. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Brandon is our instructor again.
The snow was still in great shape as we descended. I don’t think I ever felt nervous about my foot holds/platforms collapsing (like they had on several occasions when the snow was softer coming down the Old Chute the year before). A majority of the people coming up were still well below us, so I took the opportunity to take pictures while I wasn’t holding anybody up. The sun had risen in the last few minutes and I wanted to capture that beautiful mountain shadow stretching beyond Crater Rock.
We were just starting to feel comfortable with the descent when we looked below us to see the bergschrund wide open! It had been completely filled in on the way up, so I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it like this. How quickly the conditions had changed! There was still a snow bridge over its gaping mouth and climbers seemed to pass safely over it. We decided to do the same, but we knew we had to move fast when we got to it. Mack went first. He moved swiftly, but stopped short, thinking he’d completed the crossing. I was only a few yards away from him, but I started yelling (in a slightly panicked sort of way I imagine) at him to keep moving. As soon as he was in a safe spot, I started my crossing, keeping my gaze straight ahead (and on my feet of course) so I wasn’t tempted to stop and peer inside the crevasse. I breathed a sigh of relief once that was complete. Some climbers were already turning around because of the bergschrund. Others were traversing left to the Old Chute. Thank goodness we were heading down now!
Once at Crater Rock, we stopped to hydrate. I removed my helmet now that we were out of danger of ice falling and put on a beanie to warm my cold ears. I don’t think it was even 7 am yet, but it felt a lot later since we’d climbed through the night. After focusing extra hard coming down the Hogsback, we were now more relaxed and realized how tired we were. Napping right there by Crater Rock actually felt like a good idea with how sleepy I was, but we kept going. Warm sunshine awaited us down past the Palmer Lift House.
Although Mack is a much faster runner than me, I’m somehow faster at power hiking up and down snowy hills (with or without crampons). Similar to our July climb, I would power ahead, putting maybe 50 yards between us before stopping to wait for him to catch up (or at least get closer). At one point, I was so sleepy while I waited that I sat down on the slope, dug my ice axe in for good measure, laid my head down, and closed my eyes. It felt so good. I legitimately could’ve fallen asleep there. Once at the lift house, we put away our ice axes and got out our trekking poles. Mack removed his crampons, but I decided to keep mine on and deal with them once we reached the parking lot. We also attempted to put on sunscreen, but it had frozen in the tubes! Thankfully, neither of us were in the sun too long, so we didn’t end up burning. At this point, it was around 8 am (maybe a little after). We were almost done.
We were coming down a lot earlier than last year, so there weren’t many skiers/snowboarders yet. We actually had a fairly peaceful hike back to the car. Our feet were killing us by this point though. As much as I love my La Sportiva Nepal boots for the mountains, they sure do a number on my feet by the end of our climbs. It was turning out to be a perfect bluebird day. We had beautiful views of the Central Oregon volcanoes to the south, and I turned around often to gaze upon Mt Hood in all her glory. It was 9:28 am when we reached the parking lot. Wow! About 2.5 hours faster than last time! We rewarded ourselves with a refreshing four hour nap back at home, then beers and all the food we could eat later that night.
Since Havasupai, all of our weekends have been spent in the Tillamook State Forest training for our upcoming 50K. This past weekend, we wanted a change of pace. Our original plan had been to take Cassie on her first Cascade volcano climb on Mt St Helens, but that fell through the night before due to increasingly terrible weather conditions. We threw around the idea of running the 22-mile Wilson River Trail before falling asleep Saturday night, but then we didn’t wake up until after 8 am the next morning. Too late to start Wilson River, especially since we’d have to do a car shuttle. We sat in bed for awhile trying to think of a shorter, less strenuous route that would only involve taking one car. My anxiety worsened as the minutes passed and we didn’t have a plan in place. I experience a sort of writer’s block when it comes to thinking up last minute trips where the details aren’t hammered out the night before. Mack, ever the optimist, reassured me that we’d figure something out soon enough.
I remembered reading in some recent trip reports that the Coyote Wall/Catherine Creek area in the gorge was now snow-free and had wildflowers popping up, so I got out the map and quickly traced out a route that would take us through the Labyrinth, Catherine Creek, and Coyote Wall. Finally a semblance of a plan! We packed up our running gear, slathered some tick prevention oil on Cassie (the area is notorious for them), and hit the road just before 10 am, arriving at the trailhead shortly after 11:15. As expected, the parking area was packed, but we managed to snag a spot near the highway. The trails here are a popular mountain biking destination. As we started down the paved road leading to the trails, we noticed tons of bikers, but only a handful of hikers. No runners.
After passing the Coyote Wall Trail (our return route), we took the next left, heading uphill on the Labyrinth Trail. Mack and I have not spent much time in this part of the gorge, so the landscape was so foreign to us. We’re used to hiking through dense forests on the western side, so running up rocky mountain bike trails and scrambling over basalt protrusions with completely uninhibited views of the Columbia River behind us was a new experience! A short ways up, Labyrinth Creek came into view and Cassie dragged me down to take a dip. The creek tumbles down multi-tiered Labyrinth Falls further upstream (which I neglected to photograph because Cassie kept trying to pull me into the water again). After a brief side trip to see the falls, we continued up the winding trail, passing through grassy meadows as we climbed. I was grateful for the overcast skies. Complete exposure to the sun would’ve made the elevation gain feel a lot worse.
If I’m being completely honest, I was finding it difficult to enjoy our run. We were experiencing perfect weather, running through gorgeous scenery, and getting outside as a family. What’s not to enjoy? As it often does, my mind drifted into more negative thinking: Why am I so weak and sluggish on these hills? If I can barely make it up these, how am I going to survive the numerous hills on the Tillamook Burn course next weekend? At the rate we’re going, are we going to be able to complete this 13-15 mile route? I can’t believe we started so late! Ugh, there are so many user paths in this section! Are we even on the correct one? God, I hope we’re not lost… (The list goes on)
This area is stunning though. It definitely softened the blow of some of my pessimistic thoughts. Some of our favorite aspects of the Labyrinth were the groves of oak trees we passed through. Their mostly bare, scrawny limbs and often crooked, angular trunks added a striking contrast to the blossoming meadow landscape. Eerie, but equally beautiful. The diversity was a pleasant, unexpected surprise!
We continued on what appeared to be the main trail, running up and across more expansive fields dotted with trees every so often. We climbed up hills, plateaued in spots, stepped off the trail when bikers came roaring down the steeper inclines, and always had a view of the river stretched out before us. The crisscrossing user paths continued to confuse us though. Most of them lacked signs, which led me to believe that a lot of them were probably social, unofficial trails. With numerous signs asking visitors to stay on the ‘trail’ to avoid harming fragile vegetation, Mack and I avoided these paths. However, after one final climb, we came to a signed junction indicating we had reached Atwood Road Trail. Damn.
Our goal had been to run to the Catherine Creek TH so we could get in some longer miles, explore the Catherine Creek area, and THEN meet up with Atwood Road Trail to continue to Coyote Wall. Somehow we’d missed a junction (with the Rowland Basin Trail I think?) and gone up the Upper Labyrinth Trail. Needless to say, I was annoyed. I knew Atwood Road Trail could still take us to Catherine Creek and we could just run the section in reverse, but it was clear to me that neither of us knew the area all that well. Since we’d started late, we decided it would be better to just continue to Coyote Wall from the junction and explore Catherine Creek another day. Sadly, this cut our mileage nearly in half. Better safe than sorry though.
*In retrospect, the reason (I think) we missed the junction is because we didn’t know that the Rowland Basin Trail was the name of the trail that would eventually take us to the Catherine Creek TH. Both of us thought the Labyrinth Trail continued to Catherine Creek. There’s a good chance we probably reached a signed junction but disregarded it because Rowland Basin Trail wasn’t even on our radar. Sigh.
I was pretty reluctant about having to do a shorter run, so I wasn’t in the best mood as we completed our short stretch on Atwood Road Trail. When we arrived at the junction with Old Ranch Road Trail (sometimes referred to as “Old Jeep Road” in various hike descriptions), we turned left onto this track and descended a grassy hillside. After all the climbing we’d started with, running downhill felt so good. Balsam root was more common in this section, too. The bright, yellow blooms were an instant remedy for my current sulky disposition.
We ran all the way down to the junction with the Coyote Wall Trail and turned right to head back uphill. There are a few different paths that head up and crisscross in this area. We stayed on the one(s) closest to the edge of the basalt cliffs to take in the view of their mighty presence as we ran.
Our turnaround was going to be the upper viewpoint (which, after re-reading the hike description, is marked by a large ponderosa pine). I’m not entirely sure we made it there, but we did get pretty far up. We turned around after seeing a boundary sign. Perfect timing actually. The clouds rolled in and it started to rain. At that point, I didn’t feel bad that we’d decided to ixnay the Catherine Creek portion of our route. We began the descent back to the main road.
The rain let up for a little while as we descended the Coyote Wall Trail, so we decided to make a few stops to take in the view and photograph the balsam root and desert parsley, which were incredibly abundant along the trail. Of course the rain didn’t cease for very long. After reaching the junction with the Old Ranch Road Trail, we continued our descent through a maze of trails (though I’m pretty sure we were basically on the Little Moab Trail) that eventually spit us out onto the paved road leading to the parking lot. The rain was falling harder and harder, so I guess we finished at just the right time. Not everything went according to plan (I mean, even this plan wasn’t according to the original plan), but we rolled with the punches and ended up having a fantastic day in a new area of the gorge.