Masthead

The Play List

This month's top trips and picks.


Photos by DAN RANSOM
Above Image | White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire.

See In Color

SAN JUAN NATIONAL FOREST, CO

“This spot has the postcard grandeur of the Alps,” says photographer Kennan Harvey. And that’s about where the similarities end, because we guarantee you won’t be shoulder to shoulder with other visitors. Alas, no midday espresso either, unless you pack it in: Island Lake is 4.2 miles from the nearest trailhead. Check conditions (snowfields may persist through June, though unlikely this year) and head out on the Ice Lakes Trail past its namesake basin, which should be filled with an array of blooms in summer, near mile 2. If you do it as an overnight (recommended), set up camp near Upper Ice Lake in a cirque below five Thirteeners near mile 3.5, then continue .7 mile north to Island Lake (pictured) in the morning. Cast for small cutthroat, see if you can withstand the frigid water long enough to swim 100 yards to the island, or just sit and take it all in. “This is American wilderness. It’s endless,” Harvey says. Contact fs.usda.gov/sanjuan


In Deep

Discover one of many secrets hidden in new Bears Ears National Monument. Just be prepared for a lot of swimming on this trip through the Black Hole of White Canyon.

BY DOUG SCHNITZSPAHN

WE LAUGHED AT THE SIGN, even though it predicted danger ahead. WARNING: DO NOT ATTEMPT THE BLACK HOLE DESCENT. The fine print explained that due to flash flood debris, “safe retreat or rescue may not be possible.”

The sign is here because, while there are many hazardous places in the wild, this particular spot in southern Utah is proven deadly. You can get in over your head in a hurry and more than a few have. In 1996, a flash flood careened through the narrows, killing a teenage girl. In 2003, another left a logjam in the middle of the slot, making the canyon nearly impassable. The Bureau of Land Management erected the sign shortly after—and left it there even after another flood washed away the debris in 2006.

Indeed, mishaps in this slot canyon—part of the larger White Canyon, which splinters southwest toward Lake Powell—generate more search-and-rescue calls than anywhere else in the area.

The Black Hole is about 5 miles long, up to 500 feet deep, and as skinny as 10 feet across at points. In “normal” conditions, you have to swim through most of its belly. Even for a slot canyon—they all change with weather and time—it’s a particularly variable experience. That means that we can’t trust what we read online about the Black Hole, no matter how recent the last trip report. It can be a lazy river where you bob through a redrock cathedral, or it can be a death trap with mandatory rappels and keeper holes (pools of water with nothing but featureless slickrock on all sides, giving you no easy way to clamber out).

But that’s the allure here and with all slot canyons. There’s something beautifully and brazenly primal about walking into hazardous terrain. For the well-prepared, that’s fun.

My group of three wanted to visit it for a good time, of course, but it was more than that: The Black Hole is part of the highly contentious 1.4-millionacre Bears Ears National Monument, which former President Obama established last December. In the current political climate, however, the future of its protection seems uncertain.

It was a clear October day when we pulled up to the trailhead, and we ventured in without expectations. There had been no recent rain here or upstream, but if it looked dangerous or if any of the three of us had any reservations, we planned to turn back. So with one last nod at one another, we waded into the sinuous Black Hole.

Right away, we glimpsed just how apocalyptic this place can be. At least 50 feet above us, the massive, desiccated trunk of a cottonwood was lodged between walls of redrock. Whenever we had to scramble over piles of sticks and boulders that choked the passage, I felt my adrenaline rise, as though each one was a checkpoint I’d successfully passed.

And then we reached the spot in the Black Hole where swimming through the 70°F water is required. It’s the scariest section, but also the prettiest. The wavy walls are so close in places that you can reach out and nearly touch both sides.

We paddled downstream through the reddish water, using our waterproof packs as kickboards and twisting around each bend with anticipation. The Black Hole seemed to swallow us whole, but we didn’t mind.

When the natural fun-house ride ended and we were hiking the 2 miles back on dry land, talking felt inappropriate. We didn’t break the silence until, at the car, we cracked open beers and toasted our trip through the underworld. No one denied that we were lucky to have had perfect conditions and an easy passage, but we agreed that the BLM should put up a new sign: “WARNING, YOU MUST BE WELL-PREPARED TO SWIM THE BLACK HOLE.”

And the fine print might say, “But it will change your life.”

DO IT: You need at least five hours to travel the Black Hole. The approach is negligible, but there’s a 2-mile road walk at the end if you don’t leave a shuttle car.
TRAILHEAD: 37.797526, -110.304644; 57 miles south of Hanksville on UT 95. (Look for the parking lot at mile marker 57.)
GUIDE: North Wash Outfitters (northwashoutfitters.com) in Blanding; tours start at $145/person
CONTACT: bit.do/bears-ears-blm


The Great Wide Open

Lolo National Forest, Montana

In the stretch of mountains spanning northwest Montana up to the Idaho border, trout swim legendary rivers like the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork; wolverines, grizzly bears, and moose amble through the evergreen forests; and locals complain it’s too crowded if there’s one other car at the trailhead. In short, it’s paradise—especially in early summer, when wildflowers bloom and before August’s wildfire season rolls around.

BY ELISABETH KWAK-HEFFERAN

The insider

If you live in northwest Montana and enjoy the outdoors, you either know Alden Wright or wish you did. The lifelong Missoulian holds (or has held) leadership positions in the Rocky Mountaineers hiking club, the Missoula Nordic Ski Club, and the Thursday Night Ride mountain biking group, amassing decades’ worth of knowledge about local trails. For most of the past 30 years, Wright has celebrated his birthday by leading an ascent up 10,157-foot Trapper Peak—this last April with 75 candles on his cake.

Dayhike

The proposed Great Burn wilderness area, a 275,000-acre zone straddling the Montana-Idaho border, draws its name from the catastrophic 1910 wildfires that torched 3 million acres in less than three days. Lucky side effect: The burn kept out logging and development for a century, preserving this now-recovered expanse of subalpine terrain, lush valleys, craggy cliffs, and glittering lakes. Wright’s favorite day-size sampler is the 7.2-mile out-and-back up to Heart and Pearl Lakes, a one-two punch of 6,000-foot tarns tucked in rocky cirques.

Multisport trip

The best way to cover 45 miles in a weekend? Two-wheeled assist. Mountain bikes are allowed on the first 14 miles of the Main Rattlesnake Corridor (Trail 515) in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. Pedal up the wide gravel path along Rattlesnake Creek to the Rattlesnake Wilderness boundary (a manageable 1,250 feet of elevation gain), then stash your bike and start climbing into the lake-dotted high country on foot. Follow Trail 534 along Lake Creek and switchback up to the trio of Carter, Roosevelt, and McKinley Lakes—all excellent spots to pitch a tent and cast for west-slope cutthroat trout. Next day, swing south on Trail 517 to climb 8,057-foot Mosquito Peak for views of the wilderness’s rocky ridgelines and snow-speckled summits before descending to Wright’s favorite camp spot, Sanders Lake. The triangular tarn sits beneath a sharp ridge with infinity-pool views. (Find an established site near the shore.) To close the three-day circuit, follow a trail along Wrangle Creek back to your bike.

Best wildflowers

April through June, find a display of golden arrowleaf balsamroot, fuchsia bitterroots, purple phlox and pasqueflowers, and magenta shooting stars on the hills around Missoula. But while you can hardly hike a trail within 10 miles of town without tripping over those blooms, finding Wright’s favorite flower—the rare, pale-pink steer’s head—takes a little more sleuthing. Best bet: Hit the Rattlesnake Wilderness’s Stuart Peak Trail “about two weeks after the snow melts on the peak,” Wright says (typically late May, depending on snowpack). Scan the meadow about 4.5 miles up for the curly-headed blooms that really do resemble horned cows (pictured below). Bag 7,960-foot Stuart by continuing another 4.5 miles.

Wildlife hike

There are no sure things in wildlife-watching. But if you’re the betting type, chances are good on Petty Mountain in the Grave Creek Range, where a 150-strong herd of bighorn sheep frequents the 7,270-foot peak’s precipitous slopes. Scan for the bighorns across a narrow canyon just .5 mile in on the Petty Pasture Trail. Keep going and look for them again as you climb above treeline en route to the summit (13 miles round-trip). Bonus: You might also spy moose near Petty Creek or elk higher up on the arid slopes.

Posthike refuel

Wright favors the dark beers at Lolo Peak Brewing Company, a microbrewery in the small town of Lolo with a sunny timber deck outside and Norman Maclean quotes embedded in the bar inside. For something lighter, try the seasonal Cherry Kriek Lambic. And if your hike ends late, you’re in luck: Unlike many other Montana breweries, Lolo Peak has a license to serve past 8 p.m.

Trip planner

SEASON April through October; June is best for flora PERMIT None CONTACT fs.usda.gov/lolo


All Aboard: Party Hikes

Camping with a handful of friends is fun. Camping with 200 of them? That’s a new type of good time.

BY CASEY LYONS

IT’S NOT THAT I DON’T LIKE CROWDS. Wait, no, yes, it is—especially in the backcountry, where I go to get away from the hordes, not join them.

Which is to say, it took me a little while to wrap my head around the Fjällräven Classic USA, a two-night backpacking trip with more than 200 strangers. It was the United States’ first party hike of this magnitude, but it has a proven precedent. The original Fjällräven Classic, held annually in Sweden, attracts some 2,000 hikers. The Swedish gear brand created the event to celebrate a shared love of backpacking, and last year introduced it to America, in State Forest State Park, Colorado.

It’s rare to have such a gathering of the tribe—in nature, no less—so I pocketed my apprehension. Anyway, I’m still too young to turn into a curmudgeon.

It started on a high plateau and felt like the beginning of an adventure race, minus the competitiveness. The organizers had to cajole people to the starting line. When a shotgun blast marked the official beginning, I sauntered through.

A half-dozen miles led to the first campsite—a treeline meadow with nearby water and a long draw to the west toward the setting sun. But it wasn’t the sort of scene for going to bed early: Get 200 backpackers together and someone’s sure to have brought a guitar, at least one can sing, and someone discovers that an empty bear canister makes a decent bongo.

The morning unfolded with the casualness of a drum circle. People came and went, each at his or her own pace, out, up, and into the high country to an alpine pass above a lake. There, boots came off, naps were had, and the whole thing felt like summer camp for adults, with beer at the end.

I embraced the crowd. There’s a time for solitude, sure, but it’s not around an impromptu campfire sing-along with 200 people.

This year, Fjällräven is hosting Classics in Colorado, Sweden, Denmark, and Hong Kong. Get more information at classic.fjallraven.com.


You’re Invited

Denali National Park’s 100th Birthday Party

June 10, 2017

BY AMY ECKERT

The park officially turned 100 in February, but June seems like a better month to celebrate the Last Frontier. Come to Summerfest to enjoy live music, check out pop-up exhibits that explain the park’s topography and history, or, of course, hike. Park rangers will lead twice-daily, off-trail treks into Denali’s backcountry, which promises to be a bushwhacking good time.

Where

Denali Visitor Center and nearby Murie Science and Learning Center

Dress Code

Hiking boots

RSVP

No reservation required and all events are free. Learn more at go.nps.gov/ Denali100.


Pillars of the Earth

You might need a neck massage after hiking to—and looking up at—these lofty rock towers.

BY LAURA LANCASTER

Devils Tower

DEVILS TOWER NATIONAL MONUMENT, WYOMING

Rising from the plains of northeastern Wyoming, all brown lines and squared top, this 867-foot formation looks like a stone gumdrop. It’s so otherworldly, in fact, that the Kiowa believed the Great Spirit created the tower when he raised the ground to save seven sisters from a giant bear. (Scientists, of course, have their own ideas: that the tower is magma that pushed to the surface or that it’s the remnant of a bygone volcano.) Make your own theory on the 3-mile Red Beds Trail. From the visitor center, head clockwise, hiking 1.3 miles through ponderosa forest and grasslands, with views of the tower’s northern face. Stay right at the first intersection and enter the Spearfish formation—an exposed layer of 200-million-year-old sandstone, siltstone, and shale, oxidized red by iron sediment—at mile 1.5. On the way around, spot a sandstone hoodoo with a rock perched precariously on top of a 20-foot-tall pillar. And imagine how it got there. Contact nps.gov/deto

Giant Stairs

PALISADES INTERSTATE PARK, NEW JERSEY/NEW YORK

Between the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, and the Chrysler Building, there’s a lot of competition to be New York’s most iconic silhouette. But consider the 540-foot-tall Palisades, a 20-mile long colonnade that rises above the Hudson River. See the cliffy wall of basalt—eroded into sharp, hexagonal edges over the past 200 million years—on the 9-mile Giant Stairs Loop. Link the Closter Dock and Shore Trails along the Hudson, scanning for the Man-in-the-Rock Pillar, which looks like a face etched into the cliffs, near mile 2. Next, scramble .5 mile over massive slabs of basalt that fell from the wall above (the “Giant Stairs”) and watch for a waterfall that spills 100 feet over basalt columns. Close the circuit on the Long Path. Contact nynjtc.org

Devil’s Honeycomb

HUGHES MOUNTAIN NATURAL AREA, MISSOURI

Climb to the top of 1,200-foot Hughes Mountain for its 100-mile views of the Ozarks, but stay to explore one of the oldest columnar basalt formations in the U.S. Perched high above the plains, the Devil’s Honeycomb is a cluster of 1.5-billion-year-old interlocking hexagonal rock towers, worn smooth over millennia by wind and rain. Get the best vantage on the Devil’s Honeycomb Trail, a 2-mile out-and-back to the summit of Hughes. Ascend through blackjack oak and red cedar until the trees start to thin out at mile .8. A post to your left marks the end of the official trail. Head cross-country southeast, where you’ll see six-sided columns mixed in with a kaleidoscope of wildflowers: rock pink, yellow star grass, and wild hyacinths (blooming in May and June). Retrace your steps on the return. Contact bit.do/hughesmountain


Get Crackin’.

You don’t have to be a birder to appreciate this. Chicks bust out of their eggs through the end of spring, so hit your local trails this month to try to see (and not touch, obviously) the little fuzzballs waddling around their nests and begging for food.

BY ALI WUNDERMAN

PEREGRINE FALCON

Youth sports have never been so competitive: There’s a lot of pressure in raising a baby to be the fastest member of the animal kingdom. Scan rocky cliff faces for ledges where the speedy families nest. Hikers can spot the white puffball babies looking for their parents while they’re out grabbing dinner. SPY THEM 4-mile River of Rocks Trail, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, PA

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD

Flash meets ferocity in this bird that’s been known to dive-bomb unsuspecting hikers. Look for their intricately woven nests hanging between reeds in wetland areas. Naked bird babies emerge from sky-blue eggs, quickly turning fluff into handsome feathers. Beware the territorial parents. SPY THEM 4.7-mile Olema Marsh Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, CA

LEWIS’S WOODPECKER

These babies complete a family band that specializes in squawks and literal headbanging. Listen for them rocking out in cavities of dead trees; with as many as nine babies in a nest, it’s a racket. Look for the chicks craning out of tree holes begging for mom to spit up in their mouths. Yum. SPY THEM 2-mile Valle Grande Trail, Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM

OSEATE SPOONBILL

It takes a village to raise these awkwardly lanky babies. Look for colonies of the not-quite-flamingos among mangroves; the collective parents have a tendency to suddenly and randomly flock into the sky as a group. The babies aren’t pink yet, but they’re still oh-so-cute. SPY THEM 2.5-mile Kirby Nature Trail, Big Thicket National Preserve, TX

AMERICAN KESTREL

You have good opportunities to spot these pigeon-size raptors because (1) they’re the continent’s most common falcon, and (2) the late-bloomers hang around the nest well after fledging. Look for their poop-covered cavities inside tree hollows or rock crevices in open woodland areas. SPY THEM 1-mile Prairie Nature Trail, Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, ND

Photos by iStock.com.


Follow Randy

Editors here like to think we have it good. But the sweetest gig goes to BACKPACKER Get Out More Tour ambassador Randy Propster, who spends April to October in the field, giving clinics at outdoor retail stores across the country and hiking and camping in between (find him at a stop near you: backpacker.com/getoutmore). After rolling through Arizona, he came back with these Tucson-area recommendations.

BY RANDY PROPSTER

Go small. 3.3-mile Marshall Gulch to Aspen Trail Loop, Pusch Ridge Wilderness: Circle 8,280-foot Marshall Peak in the Santa Catalinas. Contact bit.do/pusch-ridge-wild

Go big. 11-mile Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, Saguaro National Park: Follow the Rincon Mountains to explore the east corner of the park. Contact nps.gov/sagu

Go nuts. 18.5-mile Arizona Trail, Passage #11, Coronado National Forest: Cross a series of canyons and mountain passes on this section of the long path. Contact aztrail.org


In The Club

…in which we honor the best hiking clubs in the country.

BY TYLER VANDERMOLEN

Given that these folks live where we dream of hiking one day (page 52), it’s no surprise that they’re, well, all-around badasses. The volunteer-based Alaska Trail Stewards spent their inaugural year in 2016 repairing paths around Anchorage, putting in 1,183 hours to build and maintain 25 miles of trails. They’re 60 strong right now, but Alaska is a big state, so lend a hand if you’re one of the lucky few who call the Last Frontier home. Learn more at bit.do/ak-trail-stewards.


Get a Fresh Perspective

WHITE MOUNTAIN NATIONAL FOREST, NH

Every hiker knows the feeling of cresting a high point you’ve been working toward for the past few hours—or even days. Look out and the whole world unfolds before you, opportunity in every direction. Where will you go? At the end of New Hampshire’s Jewell Trail, already 4 miles in and having gained 2,800 feet, there are two good options. You could head north on the Gulfside Trail along the spine of the Presidentials’ Jefferson, Adams, and Madison (pictured). Or, you could do as photographer Harry Lichtman did, and take it south up 6,289-foot Mt. Washington, less than a mile away. Either way, Lichtman recommends an alpine start to avoid summer’s crowds. Set aside more time than you think you’ll need, too: You’ll want to linger on the ridge. Contact fs.usda.gov/whitemountain


To read the rest of “The Play List”, please see the June 2017 issue of Backpacker in the Texture app.