Tour of the Canyons Part 2: Zion

AD31837E-A17C-426E-B4C9-0BC6640E86A5From the park occupying the uppermost step – Bryce – the Grand Staircase descends to the region where Zion National Park is located. Covering roughly 232 square miles in southwest Utah, Zion is a nature lover’s playground, with a dizzying array of towering sandstone cliffs, narrow slot canyons, and miles of trails to explore.

Unfortunately, the geologic features that make Zion such a national treasure also make it a hazard – especially during the rainy season of July through September. During these months, heavy rains that saturate parched desert lands can lead to flash floods. In the canyons, tons of mud, boulders, and other debris are channeled through narrow spaces in fast moving currents that spell serious damage and destruction for anything in their path.

This was the case when we visited Zion in mid-July, arriving in the park only days after a series of flash floods had destroyed some of the most popular trails in the park – including Angels Landing, Upper Emerald Pools, and Kayenta.

In spite of the damage – a testament to the power of Mother Nature – we endeavored to make the most of our stay. Zion is still an incredibly impressive park to experience after all, and if anything, the damage left behind by the floods was only a reminder of the strong and sometimes violent forces that created the park’s remarkable features.

For our stay in Zion, we were thrilled to be joined by Dr. Anne Hallum, president and founder of our sister organization and namesake, AIR. She joined us on a number of hikes throughout the main canyon on trails that were still open – and beautiful – including hikes to the Lower Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock.

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On our way to the Lower Emerald Pools! …On the part of the trail still intact…

The next day, we opted for one of the longer – and more strenuous – routes from the canyon floor to the top of Observation Point, the highest point in the park. This trail is well maintained and marked, but very challenging (especially as a run!), as it climbs over 2500 feet in 4 miles. That said, it offers breathtaking (quite literally) views, as you climb the winding switchbacks in the first 1-2 miles, before ducking into one of the narrow canyons Zion is famed for – and getting a bit of respite from the morning sun in its cool shadows. When we were here last, we were treated to a herd of the park’s resident mountain goats here! After the canyon, the trail climbs another several exposed switchbacks before leveling out in the last mile along the top of the rim. Here, you’re able to relax and run or hike along a relatively flat section of fine red clay until you reach the eponymous observation point itself, and be rewarded with a panoramic view of the valley for all your hard work and near cardiac arrest. Check out our route here!

Interested in going? Be sure to visit the park website and plan your trip well in advance – Zion is popular, and reservations at nearby hotels fill up quickly! Also be aware that private cars are not allowed in the main canyon, but a convenient free shuttle will take you to all the major trailheads.

Next and final stop: Grand Canyon!

American River 50 Recap!

The morning of Saturday, April 7 in Folsom, California was a dismal, cold, and sloppy mess. Unrelenting rain for the past 12 hours had turned the roads and trails in the area into mini-rivers. The start line for the famed American River 50 Mile Endurance Run had to be moved; its original location was completely flooded.
Notwithstanding these less-than-ideal conditions (understatement of the year), nearly 500 hardy souls toed the line at 6am for one of the oldest ultras in the U.S., bravely ready to tackle the course and elements.
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Roger all smiles just before the 6am start.
Roger Montes was one of the starters, and excited to represent the Alliance for International Reforestation at his first 50 mile attempt. After just over 8 hours battling the rain and cold, he crossed the finish line in 6th place – a remarkable result given not just the weather but highly competitive field. We sat down with him afterwards for a re-cap of the day.
Q: So this was your first 50 miler. Overall, how did it play out for you?
A: The weather was tough, to be sure – and the biggest wildcard of the race. But once you’re at the start line, you just have to focus on what’s ahead; everyone has to deal with the same conditions, so it’s just how you manage through them. The first 25 miles were pretty flat and smooth, so I just focused on holding a steady pace through them. I was running in 5th throughout, and feeling good overall although I noticed a dull ache in my right knee after mile 20. When I got to the Beal’s Point aid station at mile 25, my wife Rachel was there. I told her I’d been having a bit of knee pain, but she helped me to put it into perspective and we agreed that she would meet me at the next aid station, and if it was still bothering me I’d drop – no sense in risking long-term injury. Shortly after Beal’s Point, the course transitioned to an unpaved trail, and the softer terrain helped my knee. I saw Rachel again at mile 31, and told her I was fine to continue. After that, it was just about maintaining a steady pace and saving enough energy for the last few miles to tackle the last big climb. I was able to do this, and passed another runner in front of me, although two more passed me just before the climb. It was a pretty strong field – huge congrats to Zach , Coree , and all the runners for great performances!
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Roger heading into Beal’s Point, at mile 25.
Q: Wow, so in spite of the conditions it sounds like a great race nevertheless. What was the most challenging part of it for you?
A: Honestly, it was the super slippery trails – and I didn’t bring the right shoes for the job. I was thinking that because so much of the route was on paved bike paths, that I could get away with a shoe tailored more towards the road than the trails. That was a huge mistake! The rain turned the trails into a slippery mess, and without the proper shoes I was sliding all over the place. This not only slowed me down a bit, but could have led to injury – I fell a couple of times out there!
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…and all smiles again afterwards! (just slightly more muddy)
Q: What, if anything, would you do differently next time? What were the biggest lessons learned?
A: Next time, for a race I’ve never done I will definitely invest time in scouting the course beforehand. [Editor’s Note: We did this for the Sean O’Brien 100K, and it made a world of difference on race day – barring an unforeseen injury, it helped tremendously!] It’s important to familiarize yourself not just with the race route, but also the types of terrain you’ll be running. If I had done this beforehand, I would have seen that the trails were the type of clay that can turn really nasty in the rain – and I would have prepared better with bringing the right shoes! All in all, though, it was a great experience – the race directors and volunteers put on an amazing race in terrible conditions. Huge thanks to them for being out in the rain for hours! And if anyone is considering this for their first 50 miler, I’d absolutely recommend it.

Live to fight another day a.k.a. first 100k attempt!

On February 3, just a short time ago, I lined up at 5am with hundreds of other lost, shivering souls to take on the infamous Sean O’Brien 100k – a trail race that traverses the rugged Santa Monica mountains of Southern California. With over 13,000 ft of elevation over a mix of rocky singletrack and long fire roads, I knew it was going to be a tough first attempt at a race of this distance. Moreover, this year’s event was going to be especially competitive – as the  SOB 100k is only one of five Golden Ticket races for a coveted Western States entry. At the start line, counting down the seconds before the horn blared, I did my best to remind myself to stay calm, enjoy the experience, and find some semblance of comfort in the knowledge that I’d put in a solid block of training to build up to this.

Everything after the start was a bit of a blur, with a few standout moments (both epically beautiful and epically catastrophic). I’ll do my best to recount:

  • Miles 0 – 6: A steep uphill climb in the pitch black. For over an hour, my world was reduced to the tiny illuminated patch of trail lit by my headlamp. Then, an amazing moment shortly after cresting the top of the climb, when the sun also rose above the mountains and lit the entire world pink. The view was amazing, and I ran along in stunned silence, scarcely believing I was fortunate enough to be doing this. At this point, I was running around 12th place in the women’s field.
  • Miles 7 – 17: A rocky singletrack rollercoaster along the Backbone trail. Lots of steep ups and downs, with lots of technical footwork. Another epic moment on a fun downhill section when Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ came over my playlist, and everything was perfect. I passed a couple of women, and was running around 10th place.
  • Miles 18 – 22: Loooooong fire road downhill, from the mountains to the beach. Had fun settling into my stride, and enjoying ocean views the entire way. Continued to pass some people on the downhill, and tried to ignore the nagging thought in the back of my mind that I soon was going to have to come alllllllllll the way back up this mountain.

 

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Arriving at the Mile 22 aid station, on a beautiful (and hot!) early spring day in Southern California.
  • Miles 23 – 31. OUCH. The uphill, back from the beach to the top of the mountain. This was up very steep singletrack that wound its way through Zuma Canyon. At this point of the day, it was mid-morning and the sun was starting to beat down. There were lots of cramping, dehydrated, overheated runners that I passed along the way.
  • Mile 31: The catastrophic moment. Just after cresting the climb, I settled in for what I was (hoping) would be a nice downhill reprieve. I was feeling good, and again started passing people on the downhill. On one section of off-camber trail, I made a move to pass someone and hopped to the left side of the trail – and felt my left knee give a little. I tried to shrug it off, but in the back of my mind I knew that it didn’t feel right.
  • Mile 31 – 40: Spent the next 10 miles trying to shake off the knee pain, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to run. The downhills were especially excruciating. By mile 38, I was reduced to walking. One by one, I counted all the people I had passed earlier pass me again. By mile 40, I noticed swelling in my left knee. I made the heartbreaking decision to drop.
  • Mile 40 – 42: This was a struggle to make my way to the next aid station, where my family would be able to meet me. Upon arriving, I met with the medic who checked out my knee and informed me that unless I wanted to do long-term damage, I should go ahead and stop. My race was done.

While I ultimately failed to achieve my race goal, in many ways I consider this first 100k attempt a success. I felt great throughout – strong and steady on the climbs, and smooth on the downhills – testament to the training and long miles that built up to the race. The heat was another wild card, but this was something that Roger and  I had prepared for: we packed a cooling towel, sun sleeves, and we had planned that I’d fill my cap with ice at every aid station. It worked: while the heat was getting the best of many people, I felt good throughout. Apart from my knee, if you had asked me at mile 42 if I could run the last 20 miles, the answer would have been an enthusiastic and whole-hearted YES.

With that said, injuries are a part of this beautiful, fun, and challenging sport. So is the need to make tough decisions with your long-term health in mind. While it was heartbreaking to drop from a race where I had been running in the top-10 for most of it, I also knew it was the right decision to make. Now, just a couple of short weeks after, I’m happy to report feeling well-recovered, and ready to tackle the next adventure.

One final note: Being able to do these events would be impossible without the amazing support of a crew and the volunteers who make these events happen. So first off, a HUGE THANKS to my amazing husband for his endless support and encouragement – from the time I told him I made the crazy decision to register, through to picking me up at mile 42, his support was unwavering. Thanks, too, to my dad and his wife who came out to cheer me on along the course! 8 hours is a looooong time to spectate and cheer – whew! – but their smiles were infectious and kept me going strong. Of course, a huge shoutout to the volunteers, who were also out there all day, attending to – and anticipating – all runners’ needs, even when we were unaware of them. You guys are amazing. Finally, a huge THANK YOU to the Alliance for International Reforestation – our sister organization – who Roger and I are representing this year in our races. We received a lot of interest about AIR on the race course, and really – being able to raise awareness of the incredible work this organization does – is the important thing. Thanks for reading.

Kicking off 2018 with an epic race schedule – for a cause

Happy New Year, adventurers! We hope you enjoyed a wonderful holiday break, with lots of great quality time with family, minimal travel delays and holiday stress-induced meltdowns, and copious amounts of just the right amount of heavily spiked eggnog.

We at AIR Adventures are especially excited to kick off 2018, as we have a great series of races lined up for this year. While we’re thrilled to be able to compete in these events, we’re even more excited to announce that we’ll be doing so to raise funds for our sister organization and namesake, the Alliance for International Reforestation! We’ll be starting off with some of the best-known – and toughest – races the west coast has to offer, including:

  • The Sean O-Brien 100K on February 3. Taking place in the rugged Santa Monica mountains, this race traverses 62 miles of rocky single track and fire roads with over 16,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s also one of a handful of Golden Ticket races for the prestigious Western States Endurance Run.
  • The American River 50 on April 7. An internationally known – and highly competitive – 50 miler that winds along the American River in NorCal, before kicking up a challenging climb to the finish.
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The AIR Adventures team will be representing the Alliance for International Reforestation at all events this year. Thanks to Champion System and Headsweats for the great gear.

We invite you all to follow along as we provide updates on our training – along with race reports – throughout the next several months. And of course, we also invite you to donate to the Alliance for International Reforestation here. We encourage you to match our race distance with a dollar per mile donation! So 62 miles = $62, or 50 miles = $50…you get the idea. 🙂

Thanks as always – and stay tuned for more updates!

Taking in a composition in red: Arches NP

From the high mountain wilderness of northern Wyoming and Montana we continued our journey south, to explore the desert canyons and mesas of Utah.

Since our visit to the Grand Canyon on our cross country trip two years ago, we’ve always wanted to revisit and spend a bit more time in this region – specifically the renowned ‘Grand Circle’ of national parks that includes Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Zion.

With limited time, we focused our trip on these latter two parks, with Arches NP being our first stop.

Located just outside Moab in southwest Utah, Arches is an ethereal composition in vibrant red sandstone of grandiose towers, impossibly balanced rocks, and the world’s largest concentration of natural arches. (It’s also by far the most phallic of the national parks. I mean just look at the cover photo).

With only a day to explore the park’s 76,519 acres, we decided the best way to do so would be by bike. We started out at the trailhead of a multi-use path just south of Moab, which took us straight to the park entrance. From here, the road kicked up and climbed a little over 1,000 feet – up to a vista point that afforded panoramic views of many of the giant phalluses amazing rock formations for which the park is famed.

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Balanced Rock. 3,600 tons of sandstone that could topple at any moment, but for now is standing strong for your Instagramming pleasure.

The road that winds through Arches is essentially an out-and-back route totaling a little over 45 miles. Along the way there are many offshoots that take you past the more well-known arches and formations, including Balanced Rock, the Windows, and Delicate Arch – to name a few.

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Arches NP by bike. Super hot fun in the desert sun. 

As the day heated up quickly, we did our best to conserve our energy and not go *too* hard on the bike. Of course, there may have been one or two occasions where we picked up the pace to have a bit of fun – and *maybe* took a couple of Strava CRs and QOMs in the process. 🙂

Check out our route here!

Interested in going? Check out the Arches NP website here, with info to help plan your visit. If you’re intending to do a longer bike ride like we did – or spend any extended amount of time there on a hike, run, etc., be sure to:

1) Go early. It gets hot quickly, and the mid-afternoon heat and sun can make your day much less pleasant than it should be.

2) Take plenty of water with you (Why? See point 1 above. It’s the desert. It gets hot and stays hot). If you need to refill your water bottles, there are fountains at both the Visitor’s Center as well as Devil’s Garden (the turn-around point of the out-and-back route).

Fee? Yes – $25. Pets? Yes – but not on trails. Bikes? Yes – on the road.

Stay tuned for our next adventures! We hope your summer was equally adventurous, exploring new trails and beautiful parks. Tell us all about it in the comments below!

 

Getting lost in the mountains of Grand Teton National Park.

Our next stop – Grand Teton National Park – was a short drive south from Yellowstone on the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. As Grand Teton borders Yellowstone on the south, vacationers often combine visits to both parks.

(Fun fact: Early French explorers named this mountain range; being overcome with awe at the majesty and scale of the peaks, they were of course reminded of breasts. ‘Grand Tetons’ literally translates to ‘big boobs’).

While a much smaller than its northerly neighbor, Yellowstone, the scenery of Grand Tetons is no less stunning. The park is named for the mountains that form most of its 309,944 acres. As the youngest mountains in the Rocky Mountain Range, the Grand Tetons are also some of the highest, with Grand Teton Peak (the largest boob) soaring to a height of 13,000 feet above the lakes at its base.

As with Yellowstone, we opted to explore Grand Teton by foot and by bike. Our first day took us on a 60 mile ride from Colter Bay through the Snake River Valley, where we were afforded unobstructed views of the mountains the entire way.

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Um, yeah, so this was pretty much our view for the entire bike ride. Tough to deal with, but somehow we managed.

At the Jenny Lake Visitor Center, we were happy to discover a 2-way bike trail that paralleled the main valley road for several miles. The trail – the Grand Teton Multi-Use Pathway – took us ~ 8 miles to the town of Moose, where we opted to turn back. However, the trail – which was one of the best maintained we’ve ever ridden – extended another 12 miles to the town of Jackson. If we’d had more time (and not rushing due to family dinner obligations) we would have loved to take it! All in all, the ride offered a beautiful stretch of gently rolling terrain with epic mountain views – and a nice reprieve from the significant climbing from previous days. On the way back, we picked up the pace quite a bit, snagging a Strava course record (or two) in the process.

Check out our bike route here!

The following day we took to the trails, eager to explore the mountains. We started from the Jenny Lake Trailhead near the Visitor’s Center, and took the Jenny Lake Trail up to Inspiration Point, before doubling back and then turning on Cascade Canyon Trail and following that along a swiftly rushing creek up to Lake Solitude. Along the way, we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of a mother black bear and her cub, happily munching away on huckleberries on the side of the trail!

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Best shot we could get of Mama (lower right) & Baby Bear from the super-safe distance we were keeping.

We were very careful in passing them both at a safe distance – and we’re glad we remembered our bear spray. However, both mother and baby seemed 1,000x more interested in their berry breakfast than us, and we happily wished them a good day before continuing on.

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The trail was technical in some places, but for the most part very runnable.

All in all, the trail took us up some 8 miles and roughly 2,500 feet before ending at a snow-covered valley with the ice-filled Lake Solitude at the center – a far cry from the sweltering, 90+ degree valley floor where we had started less than 2 hours earlier.

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The views on the way to Lake Solitude were beautiful.

We stopped to enjoy the views – and a quick bite to eat – before turning back. On the way down, we opted to soak our legs in the mountain creek – which felt so so good on our tired muscles!

Check out our run/hike route here!

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The view at Lake Solitude. Why we do what we do.

Throughout our stay, we were struck by the difference in environment stewardship (or lack thereof) demonstrated by the companies that managed the lodging/dining at Grand Teton vs. Yellowstone. In Yellowstone, they have all but eliminated plastic bags and styrofoam from the park, and Xanterra (the company that constructed and manages the accommodations there) prides itself on its use of environmentally responsible materials – from beetle-killed pine in the construction of its lodges, to compostable food containers. In Grand Teton, in contrast, the Grand Tetons Lodging Company offers plastic bags and styrofoam at all of its general stores, dining, and hotels, and there is a notable lack of designated recycling or compost containers – all of which seem antithetical to the purpose and mission of the National Park System. We invite the readers of this blog to write the Grand Tetons Lodging Company (www.gtlc.com) and ask them to commit to greater environmental stewardship in their management, including the elimination of styrofoam and plastic bags from their facilities, and the provision of more recycling receptacles.

Interested in visiting the Grand Teton NP? While we enjoyed our time there, we personally will not be visiting overnight again until the GTLC cleans up its act and commits to a greater standard of environmental responsibility. We encourage you to do the same. That said, you can still visit the park for a day hike or bike ride, without patronizing GTLC facilities. Feel free to check out the run and bike ride routes we did, or check the park website for other suggestions.

Fee? Yes – $30 per vehicle. Annual National Park Passes also accepted. Dogs? Yes – on leashes and in parking areas and along roads. Dogs and other pets are not permitted on trails in any national park. MTB? Yes – on designated trails.

Next stop: Utah – Arches and Zion NP!

Yellowstone: Because what could be more epic than a park on top of a supervolcano.

Following our visit to Craters of the Moon in Idaho, we turned to the northeast, making our way towards the wilderness and famed national parks of northern Wyoming. Our first stop was none other than the flagship park of the National Park Service: the iconic Yellowstone.

Apart from its distinction as the first national park, Yellowstone is also a geologist nerd’s delight: It’s essentially 2.2 million acres atop an ancient supervolcano. Everything in the park – from the rivers and lakes, to the flora and fauna – is in turn affected by the volcanic forces at work. Within the 30 by 45 mile caldera are some of the most impressive geysers and hot springs in the world, including the emblematic Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Springs, along with lesser known (but equally awesome) features like Dragon’s Breath, Artists Paintpots, and others.

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Yellowstone gets its name from the colored rock surrounding the Yellowstone River, which winds its way throughout the park.

(Important note: When exploring the park’s geysers and hot springs, stick to the boardwalks. The surrounding area is not only fragile, but surrounded by boiling sulfuric acid; you will die a horrible death if you jump in. 😊 )

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These helpful signs found throughout the park show the impending doom that awaits if you step off the boardwalk. You will get hurt while onlookers point and laugh or walk away indifferently.

We spent a total of 4 days in Yellowstone, which we agreed was still not enough time to fully take in and appreciate this massive park. That said, we tried our best to explore as much of it as we could by foot and by bike.

One of our favorite runs/hikes took us to the summit of Mt. Washburn and back down. We started at the trailhead on Dunraven Pass, just off Grand Loop Road. From there, we climbed roughly ~1,500 feet over 3.5 miles to the summit. Along the way, we were afforded sweeping views of the surrounding meadows and countryside, awash in varying shades of lavender, rose, and yellow wildflower blooms.

Near the summit we were happily greeted by a small herd of bighorn sheep! They seemed unafraid of humans, and we did our best to give them sufficient space as we continued to make our way to the summit.

Check out our route up Mt. Washburn here!

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Bighorn sheep silently judging our mountain running skills near the summit of Mount Washburn.

(Another important note: Yellowstone provides a refuge to several species of wildlife; apart from bighorn sheep, it’s also home to buffalo, elk, moose, grizzly and black bears, wolves, and others. If you encounter any wild animal in the park, please be respectful of them and give them space. The park offers guidelines of 100 yards for non-carnivorous species like buffalo and elk, and 200 yards for carnivorous species like bear and wolves. Additionally, it’s a good idea to carry – and know how to use! – bear spray when running, hiking, or biking in Yellowstone or other parks in the region. While bears are not generally aggressive unless provoked, it’s best to be prepared).

The following day, we opted for a bike ride that took us on a 68 mile loop from Canyon Village clockwise to Norris, through Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower, and back up Mt. Washburn before descending back into Canyon. While the ride was challenging – with nearly 6,000 feet of climbing – it was also one of the best ways to experience the the park. We were able to see so much that we otherwise would have missed in the car – including a big bull buffalo rolling in the dust on the side of the road (!), just barely hidden by a small pine grove, or a pair of marmot chasing each other over and around fallen trees.

On our ride, we made another ascent up Mt. Washburn, this time starting from the northern side at the Tower-Roosevelt junction, and making our way up 2,300+ feet over ~10 miles to the summit. The climb offered us breathtaking (quite literally) views of the valley below that we would not have enjoyed or appreciated as much if we had been speeding by in our little Toyota.

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Our bike ride took us through some of the most beautiful – and less traveled – areas of Yellowstone.

Check out our bike route here! (FYI, if you opt to do this route, Mammoth offers a nice halfway(-ish) point for refilling your water bottles).

Before closing out this entry on Yellowstone, we owe a shoutout to Xanterra, the company that manages much of the lodging and dining throughout Yellowstone. They make a concerted effort to prioritize environmental stewardship in everything they do: from building their lodges with beetle-killed pine, to eliminating plastic and styrofoam from both lodging and restaurants. We mention this, because this was in marked contrast to the environmental *irresponsibility* we observed in the dining, general stores, and lodging at Grand Tetons, our next stop.

So our final tally for Yellowstone: 68 miles biked; 26 miles run/hiked; hundreds of buffalo, 10 bighorn sheep, 6 elk, 3 moose, 2 pika, 2 marmot, and 1 bear (grizzly!) sighted.

Interested in going? With ideal weather conditions, late spring and summer are the most popular times to visit Yellowstone. If you’re planning to visit during the months of April – August, be sure to book your lodging/camping reservations months ahead of time.

Fee? Yes – $30 per vehicle for a day pass; national park annual pass also accepted.

Dogs and other pets? Yes, but not on trails. MTB? Yes – on designated trails. Check signs!

Next stop: Grand Tetons!