Monday, 10 February 2020

Capitol Gorge Trail, Capitol Reef NP Running Route

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Length 7.6 km (4.7 mi), terrain: fairly flat, gain 223 meters

NOTE: This is desert country: bring water and don't hike/run in the afternoon in summer. Also, this canyon is a wash, meaning it turns into a rushing torrent within minutes when a shower hits the area: keep away when showers threaten! In fact, the whole Scenic Drive can have dangerous flash-flood spots, so check the weather report first. When I was there, it started raining at the turnaround-point, and I had to race to get back to the car and out of there as the roads started to flood!

This trail combines a lot of great stuff: petroglyphs, the "Pioneer Register", water tanks (potholes that fill with water in the spring) and lots of colorful rock in the impressive canyon walls.

To get there, take the Scenic Drive south from the Fruita Visitor Center. The paved road ends at the junction for Capitol Gorge Road, where you keep left. This is a gravel road, which is normally good enough for a normal 2-wheel-drive car. This drive itself is fun, winding into the gorge over little side-washes.
Hikers in the Capitol Gorge
The road ends at the trailhead parking lot, with its picnic shelter. There is a trail upwards here to the Golden Throne, a peak just north of the trailhead with great views. We'll stay down in the sandy wash inside the gorge, though, with just an easy run/hike out and back, with a couple of little side-hikes for added interest.

This route follows the road to the eastern edge of Capitol Reef National Park. The road actually continues eastwards to Notom Road, if you want to add distance. Or, alternatively, you can turn this into a shorter run by turning around at any time, something you might consider during hotter weather. I was here during the very cold spring of 2019, and we actually got snowfall on the next day!

OK, so here you are at the trailhead, in the middle of God's Country. Take a minute to soak-in the amazing canyon scenery. This sandy, rocky road used to be the main way into the area from the east, before Route 24 was built.
The wash at the start of the gorge
Some of the main sights of the run come up pretty quickly, so let's get to it.

The first part of the trail, the Narrows, is hemmed-in by the narrow, high gorge with its fascinating rock formations, little caves and colors. Some places are only 3 meters wide. You're running slightly downhill until the turnaround spot. We're following the wash, a usually dry creek bed.
In the Narrows
After about a half a kilometer, there are some petroglyphs (Native American rock carvings) off to the left in a side canyon. There are animals, antlered-beings, sunbursts and other interesting carvings in the red rock. If you haven't seen many of these before, here's your chance.

In another half-kilometer, you'll see the Pioneer Register, graffiti on the rock walls where pioneers coming through from the east carved their names, some as recent as the 1920s.
Pioneer names scratched into the rock walls
Then, at about the 1.4-kilometer mark, you come to a cool place to interrupt your run to climb up to see the "tanks", depressions in the slickrock above that fill with water every springtime. 

Climb these rocks to get to the tanks!
There are a series of tanks, and the little side-canyon is beautiful.
Some of the tanks above the trail
The wash widens and softens as you continue your vaguely downhill progress, with the slickrock looking more like gentle hills.
The canyon scenery is constantly changing
When you come to the park boundary sign, it's time to turn around and see it all from the other direction, which -- luckily -- is another great view of natural wonders in the Great American West.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Skull Rock Trail, Joshua Tree Running Route

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Length 2.7 km (1.7 mi), terrain: several small rises, gain 29 meters

Joshua Tree National Park in the Southern California desert is one of my favorite discoveries. When I first heard about it, I imagined viewing the unique joshua trees, tree-like relatives of agave (yucca) plants. What I didn't imagine was the amazing landscape where these trees grow.
Joshua Tree runner on the Skull Rock Trail
The national park includes several areas of jumbled sandstone boulders and slickrock, perfect places for scrambling around on the rocks. There are fun and easy climbs, great views and an impressive variety of plants and animals like you can only find in the desert. And this little trail goes through one of the nicest of these areas, Jumbo Rocks.
Blooming Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree lies in the transition country where the Mohave and the Sonoran Deserts come together, with plants and animals from both regions.

NOTE: To get there, take the main park road, Park Boulevard to a kilometer east of the Jumbo Rocks Campground turnoff. There is a line of parking spaces along each side of the road at the trailhead. Go to the south side of the road to find Skull Rock and the start of the run.
This short Skull Rock Trail takes you through some of the nicest scenery, without any real climbs.

It's a short run, but the rocks give you a lot of chances to climb, scramble and explore. This is some of the most fun rock-scrambling terrain that you'll ever see.
Skull Rock: looks like Halloween!
Skull Rock itself is right next to the road, at the trailhead. Just walk a few meters towards the big boulders right there at the parking strip. There are usually other people there, taking pictures, but if you just go a few meters further into the rocks, you'll be by yourself, surrounded by walls of rocks. It's very worthwhile to take some time here before starting the run.

OK, so now that you've taken a look around, we're ready to get going. So turn southwest, with the road on your right, and follow the trail. There are occasional way-markers with direction-arrows.
Desert beauty
At first, the trail stays close to the road, but then starts curving away to the left as it skirts the big rock formations to the south.

When you see the campground down below you on the right side, take the trail down there towards the wooden message board and the outhouse.
The campground
You now turn right and run westwards along the paved campground road for the 0.5 miles through the beautiful campground. This is the life! Almost every site has its own private cliffs and rocks, and often its own joshua tree. I actually stayed at this campground, and the opportunity for further hiking/running/exploring is amazing.

When the campground road reaches the main road, cross it and turn right to follow the other half of the trail back to the trailhead.

The second half of the trail is quiet and natural, with very few people. It's my favorite part of the run.

On this half, it too follows the road at the beginning, but then turns off to the north and then follows ridges and canyons full of sand back to the start.
Along the ridge
You'll first head up and over two little ridges, then descend into the little canyon, lined by boulders and cliffs.
Great rock formations along the trail
There are signs at the end to take you back to the Skull Rock trailhead to the right side, and to combine the run with nearby Split Rock Loop Trail, which heads off to the left.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Tucson Saguaro Cactus Desert Running Route

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Length 8.4 km (5.2 mi), terrain: gradual rise, gain 127 meters

NOTE: The Sonora is a real desert: avoid the summer heat, and try to run in the early mornings. Bring water and a hat! The loop drive is open daily from 7 a.m. till sunset. It's also perfect country for a mountain bike!

When in Tucson, make sure you experience some of the amazing Sonoran Desert awaiting you outside town (assuming you're not there in the summer months!). And one of the great places to do that is in one of America's youngest national parks: Saguaro National Park. The park protects some of the densest portions of the saguaro cactus forests surrounding Tucson.
An impressive saguaro cactus
Saguaro are giants of the cactus world, rising massively like silent titans out of the sand and rock. They are pretty special beings, and are worth getting closer to. The white Saguaro flowers are Arizona's state flower, and the red fruit is a traditional food of the local Native Americans.

The park's loop drive also takes you by lots of other desert plants, like red-flowering ocotillos, mesquite trees, and other cacti like barrel-cactus, prickly-pear and cholla. It's a whole different world out in those national park hills!

There are actually two separate sections of the park, one east of town, one to the west. And each unit has a low-traffic loop drive that makes a great running trail in this little-visited park. The eastern Rincon unit loop is called the Cactus Forest Drive, and is a paved 8-mile loop (That one has the advantage of being smooth, starts at the visitor center, has more people on foot and bicycles and passes an ecology trail and some scenic rocks).

This particular run follows the shorter, unpaved loop in the west unit, the Bahada Loop. It has the advantage of having less traffic, and it's more natural, with few man-made intrusions.
Bahada Loop along Hohokam Road
The Bahada Loop is a rather rough dirt road with lots of dips and rises, circling a few small hills. It's just off Sandario Road, south of the town of Picture Rocks. The loop combines Hohokam Road on the south half of the loop, and Golden Gate Road on the north half.

The loop follows dusty Hohokam Road eastwards, heading lightly uphill for the first three kilometers. When Hohokam joins Golden Gate Road, you turn westwards and follow it downhill all the way back.

How to get there: follow Sandario Road either northwards or southwards until you hit Kinney Road, with the sign pointing to the Red Hills Visitor Center. Just 200 meters southeast of the junction, Hohokam Road heads off to the east. There's a little parking spot right at the speed-limit sign. You can also park at the Sus picnic area just a few hundred meters ahead, on the left side.

OK, ready for a desert run to remember? Turn eastwards on Hohokam Road and start moving.

You'll quickly pass the Sus picnic area on the left side, with its trail head for the Bahada Wash Trail, which parallels the road to Valley View. At just over a mile along the loop road, you'll pass the Hugh Norris Trail heading off to the right, rising into the Tucson Mountains to the southeast.
The saguaro forest
And just past the 2-kilometer mark, you'll come to Valley View, with more trailheads. There are a series of small rises to the left (north) that we will keep circling for the whole run.

During the next kilometer, the loop drive is just one-way for cars.

Enjoy the scenery. Some of the saguaros have holes in them, where birds nest. Keep your eyes open for lizards of various sizes and shapes.

At about the 3.5-kilometer mark, Hohokam runs into Golden Gate Road, where you turn left to head back west along the north side of those hills we have been rounding the whole time. The road is two-way for the rest of the loop.

After five kilometers, you'll pass the side-road for the Signal Hill picnic area to the right.

At the 7.5-kilometer mark, Golden Gate Road runs into Sandario Road, where you turn left to run 200 meters to where Kinney Road turns to the left. Now follow Kinney for 200 meters more to the start of the run, where Hohokam Road begins on the left side.