Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Soldiers Pass - Brins Mesa Loop; Sedona Magic

~ 6 mile loop
800' Gain/Loss
Moderate Difficulty

Even for non-believers, Sedona is magical.  The supposed swirling energy vortexes that dot the area are truly no match for the sheer magic and beauty of the hematite (iron oxide) laden sandstone red rock (known as the Schnebly Hill Formation) framed by lighter bands of limestone. Once viewed, it is easy to see why these red rocks would easily inspire a spiritual response even to the most stoic, jaded visitor.

This inspiration is not isolated only to the artist, mystic or seeker of the sacred. For the hiker, Sedona is likely to create a sense of unabashed awe.  Guidebooks point to at least 150 trails, loops and cross-country treks with more being established every year. Though Sedona proper encompasses only 19 square miles of land, its trekable environs reach well beyond the city limits.

To deal with the overwhelming decision of what trail to tackle, there is no better place to stop than The Hike House. Located near the intersection of highways 89A and 179, their sage advice and “Sedona Trail Finder” computer program will help you find the right hike, practically customized for just for you.  They also have a nice gear and clothing store. Their snack shop is a good place to energize the body before or after a hike. Don’t miss this place.

For this trip, the Soldiers Pass – Brins Mesa – Cibola – Jordon Trail loop was selected. With a total mileage of about 6 miles and an elevation change of about 800 feet, this loop offers views, natural arches, sinkholes, sacred pools and a trek along a high mesa.
The trailhead is accessed by taking Soldiers Pass Road off of Hwy 89A, following it northerly through a subdivision until it intersects with Rim Shadows Road. Make a right and look carefully to the left as you drive on Rim Shadows for the small, but well established trailhead parking lot. 

Though others have stated otherwise, according to the Hike House and the most recent map I have, a Red Rocks Parking Pass (available at Ranger Stations and Hike House) is not required here as it is in many other trailhead parking lots. The lot can and often fills during peak hours and is locked after 6:00 pm. If you do find yourself behind the locked gate, it will automatically open when approached in a car.

Follow trail signs for the Soldiers Pass Trail as it parallels and crosses some wide jeep trails. Stay to the left of the Jordan Trail intersection as you step up to the Devils Kitchen, the only natural sinkhole in Sedona.  Continue on until you reach the Seven Sacred Pools, a series of naturally carved pools created by runoff from the surrounding terrain. 

The pools generally have some water in them year-round and wildlife frequent them in the early mornings and late afternoons.  This is where you will likely see the crowds thin out and won’t see any jeeps again until the end of the hike.  Red rock cliffs adorn on either side of the trail which makes it difficult to concentrate on the path before you.

A little more than a mile from the trailhead you may notice a side trail located just past a posted metal Forest Service Wilderness sign on your right. If you follow this well marked trail, (often blocked with stones and branches) you’ll be treated to a number of arches and alcoves on the side of the opposite mesa. The trail leads to a slick rock ledge and then sharply up just shy of one third of a mile to a series of three arches.

Returning again to the Soldiers Pass trail, you’ll soon begin to climb more steeply up a single track to the top of Soldiers Pass, topping out at about 2.2 miles from the trailhead.  I highly suggest that before you work your way up along a ridge to the top of Brins Mesa, stop and look behind to look down into Soldiers Creek Valley, the town of Sedona and Bell Rock in the distance.  At the Soldiers-Brins intersection, turn right towards the top of and across Brins Mesa.

The walk across the mesa is easy as you pass skeletons of large trees surrounded by abundant new growth oaks and cypress. This forest is rebounding wildly from a devastating fire in 2006.  To the north and east, you’ll be treated to views of Mormon Canyon, Schnebly Hill and Mitten Ridge. Soon the trail will lead to the edge of Brins Mesa and then drops sharply to a series of natural stone steps and a gravel strewn, slippery path into Mormon Canyon.  

Follow Brins Mesa Trail until you encounter a parking lot (the Brins Mesa/Jordon Trail trailhead) located about 2 miles from the Soldiers Pass intersection. Before reaching the lot, look right for the Cibola Pass trail and make the sharp right as it traverses towards Cibola Rock, an unusual formation that will eventual rise northeast of your position.

After almost a mile, keep an eye out for trail signs that leads to the Jordan Trail.  My trail map did not include some newly developed trails, Javelina and Ant Hill to name two, so be mindful that you don’t take an unplanned side trip.

The Jordon Trail continues about .7 miles further where it meets up with the Soldiers Pass Trail, just south of the Devils Kitchen. Turn left onto Soldiers Pass and follow it for about a half mile to your starting point trailhead parking lot.

The hike is a moderate one with a few steep climbs, jaw-dropping views and satisfying day hike mileage.  A quick Google search will give you numerous sites that also outline this hike, but I recommend a visit to David Creech’s hiking blog, featured below, as well as a stop to the Hike House for additional maps and friendly guidance.

Any visit to Sedona will undoubtedly result in the desire to return, explore further and discover so very much more. Perhaps you might also find a missing piece of yourself that you never knew was gone.  Sedona is like that.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Deer Springs to Suicide Rock Trail Report: Memories Renewed

~7 miles RT
Moderate Difficulty
1850 Elevation gain/loss

There are views, trees and trails that exist in a hiker's memory forever. It is difficult to describe to someone who may not frequent the outdoors or backcountry, but for many who seek out dirt paths and open skies, these places and things have a special hold on us. Not unlike a special song that resides in the soundtrack of a person's life, it is possible for a hiker to recall with extreme clarity when, where and with who he or she was with on a particular trek.  All it takes is a particular vista or bird song or vanilla-scent pine bark or the taste of dust on your tongue or the weight of a pack to bring all of it into focus.

For me, those moments are deeply rooted in the San Jacinto mountains. Located due west of Palm Springs, it was in those mountains and on those switchbacks where I learned a great deal about the wilderness, and about myself. For me, these rugged peaks are personal touchstones for so much of my life.

John Muir called the San Jacintos Southern California's own "range of light" since they are very similar in geology, climate, appearance and altitude to the Sierras. In fact the same forces that created it's northern cousins are responsible for the San Jacinto wilderness area.

My first excursion into this area was at age 13 climbing the Devil's Slide Trail to Skunk Cabbage Meadow. A relatively short hike but as anyone who's hiked the Devil's Slide, the 2.5 mile climb from Humber Park to the Saddle is notoriously steep for a beginning hiker and due to its popularity, a bit over-loved.

Other than the Palm Springs Tram, it is generally accepted as the most popular and fastest way to the higher elevations and hanging valleys that rest between San Jacinto and Tahquitz peaks. I've lost count on how many times I've been on that trail, but suffice to say it became as familiar as an old boot and eventually, about as exciting.

It certainly isn't the only way up, and though at one time I could easily boast that I had hiked every trail in the system in the area, there was one exception, the Deer Springs trail. That is no longer the case and I truly regret for not correcting that experience gap many years ago. Deer Springs is a sweetheart of a trail and highly recommended for anyone visiting and hiking the Idyllwild area.

From Deer Springs, one has access to the entirety of what these mountains have to offer, including San Jacinto peak, Round Valley and and all the rest without having to deal with an overly crowded parking area, heart breaking hiker limits or endless switchbacks that is the hallmark of Devil's Slide. For sure, it takes a few more steps to gain altitude, but the more moderate elevation gain allows a hiker to perhaps enjoy the scenery a bit more.

Last October was my first time on the trail with an inaugural trek to Suicide Rock. It occurred to me that the last time I had even visited Suicide Rock was via a face climb. But that was 35 years and 35 pounds ago. I prefer walking sticks to carabiners these days.  Accessing the top of Suicide Rock via this route was just as satisfying as the face climb done so long ago.

The trailhead is located directly across the street from the San Jacinto Nature Center, about a mile north of the small mountain community of Idyllwild. A turnout serves as the parking area with the trail leading quickly away from the adjacent highway noise. Follow the wide and well marked trail for about .5 miles after which you'll enter the San Jacinto Wilderness. You'll need a wilderness permit to enter the area from that point on. Unlike the Devil's Slide trail, you'll have no problem getting a permit for this trailhead at the ranger's station in Idyllwild the day before or even the morning of your hike.  The only restriction is that your group is no larger than 12 hikers per permit.

The trail is a steady but manageable climb from 5,600 feet to an eventual 7,450 elevation on top of Suicide Rock. Oaks and Mazanita will give way to magnificent Incense Cedar and Maidenhair Ferns as you near the Suicide Rock Junction 2.25 miles from the starting point.

Follow the signs to Suicide Rock another 1.25 miles on. A left turn at the junction leads to San Jacinto peak, but I'll leave that destination for another day.

Many of the trail guides you'll read will tell you that after the steady climb to the junction, the trail flattens and the mileage is right at or just below a mile to the Rock. Don't believe it. The trail continues to climb, albeit rolling but steep in parts, for the longest mile in hiking history. In other words, if you think the hard part of the hike is over when you reach the junction, it's not. Expect more of the same that you've already hiked to this point and you won't be too surprised or discouraged with the remaining section of trail.

The views from Suicide are spectacular. It affords a clear view of Tahquitz Rock, the town of Idyllwild and miles of flatland laying westerly towards the ocean. There are plenty of places on bare, flat rock, exposed to the sky, perfectly suited for gazing heavenly or spreading out a lunch. It's advised to be on the lookout for rattlers nesting in wide cracks on top of the bald, however. On the day we visited, a total of 6 of the snakes were spied, two of them coiled together and as large as a fire hose. They were content to let us visitors to have our time taking all of it in before returning the way you came for a nearly 7 mile round trip hike in Southern California's own alpine ruggedness.

The Deer Springs Trail is highly recommended as a convenient and lovely access to the wonderful peaks and valleys above Idyllwild. Don't pass it up just because it may add a mile or two to your destination. The extra trail time is well worth it.

Amazingly detailed plant guide following the entire trail: Deer Springs Plant Guide

Park Guide and Permit Information: San Jacinto State Park Guide