DESERTS: LOW & HIGH     (February - March 2016)  

Climate Change

Our Palm Springs RV park was fully booked so we couldn’t have stayed longer if we had wanted to but we were ready to leave—we were eager to escape its unseasonable heat. Frequent day time highs of 90 degrees in early February instead of the typical low 70’s had brought us to our knees. Hiking and biking had become willful events instead of fun outings.

Call us wimps, but we’re loving the “tail gate step” option on our new truck.
We felt held captive by the weather. We’d planned to hike from Tucson after leaving Palm Springs but it was smoking hot there as well. And worse yet, friends hiking from a favorite campground there shared a photo of a trailside rattlesnake that was drawn out by the heat. Our next major destination in March, the Grand Canyon, still had too much snow, so the search was on for a new sports venue. 

We eventually sold ourselves on moving 30 miles down the freeway towards LA to nondescript Banning as an intermediate solution. About 1,800’ higher, it provided a major climate shift. Typically only about 10 degrees cooler than Palm Springs, during this peculiar weather interval, the temperatures there were running as much as 20 degrees lower. We recoiled from the harshness of the low 60 degree temperature and the sharp wind the day we arrived but loved it. We could add a few layers and enjoy hiking and biking again, as well as sleep better at night. The temps would rise to 80 in a few days, but the cooler air was literally a breath of fresh air.

Banning was less than an ideal location because we had to drive everywhere. But camping on the edge of town made one of the region’s primer hiking areas, Idyllwild, a 40 minute drive instead of an hour and a half like it was from Palm Springs (on different roads). Unlike many hikers, we’d never been willing to commit to the 3 hour round trip drive to Idyllwild when in Palm Springs but did make the journey several times from Banning.

Likewise, we had loved doing our “out-the-door” bike rides from Palm Springs but relented while in Banning and made our first drive to a biking opportunity in over 15 years. Low 70 degree temperatures and cool ocean breezes in San Bernardino made for a pleasant long-distance ride on the Santa Ana River Trail multi-use path to Riverside.

When descending on our longest hiking trail from Palm Springs, we often joked about “Where’s the Segway to take us down?” It was always an exhausting hike and we would have loved a lift from a Segway. Of course, there are only 2 ways down: on our own feet or in a Search & Research gurney. But on the other side of the same mountain, near Idyllwild on the trail down from Black Mountain Lookout, the trail was the next best thing to descending on a Segway.

Black Mountain lookout trail looks entirely different from the Palm Springs side of the same mountain.
It was a little baffling because both hikes were in the  San Jacinto mountains and were about the same by our stats: 14 miles, 4700’ gain, and 34,000 steps but we practically floated down Black Mountain. The glow of chocolate in our bellies after a late lunch, the smell of a pine forest on a warm afternoon, a gentle breeze, and an easy trail on which to casually swing our legs and flop down a foot without too much attention made for a pleasant, drifty experience. In contrast, on the east facing slope from Palm Springs, the rocky trail surface demanded intense concentration every step of the way.

The Black Mountain Trail was at a  higher elevation than the Palm Springs route, which made ascending harder but Black Mountain trail was shorter, so we did it twice to reach our exercise target. It was sweet however to know that the final descent only represented 25% of the miles instead of the usual 50%. But we were convinced that it was the lower physical and mental demands of the Black Mountain Trail, not the up/down/up/down sequence that made it almost dreamy.

Along with being surprised by how much trail surface conditions seemed to dictate fatigue, we also had a good mini case study in altitude acclimation. We’d slept at 2,300’ in Banning for 4 nights before our first set of laps on Black Mountain in the 5,000-7,500’ range and then did the double workout again after 8 nights at Banning. We shaved more than 10 minutes off our ascent time between the 2 hikes and found the hike after 8 nights at 2,300’ much less distressing. It reinforced our altitude acclimation experience when doing training hikes in the Italian Alps, which was that every additional day at altitude visibly improves performance for weeks.

Oops! It doesn’t look too bad but the ‘stang was stuck.
Mustangs as Off-Road Vehicles
If you’ve ever wondered how Ford Mustangs perform as off-road vehicles, a 30-something man from Colorado could tell you “Not well.” He flagged us hoping for a tow, or at least a ride, after he stalled his stallion in a ridge of road grading leavings. 

Neither he nor his female companion were injured and his explanation of swerving  to avoid an oncoming car he didn’t see while taking a sip of water made little sense. It was a one-and-a-half-lane-wide, straight, level, dirt road with the sun at his back and he ended up on the wrong side of the road atop the inverted ditch. It didn’t compute at all for me and Bill reconciled it by deciding he was going too fast, hit a pot-hole or a rock, and launched himself onto the dirt mound.

Regardless of how it happened, we realized we’d happened upon an accident illustrating the leading cause of death in Death Valley: single car accidents. Most investigations conclude “distracted driver/excess speed” and this scene seemed textbook. Fortunately for him there were neither injuries or an investigation, only an expensive tow job.

Simply Delightful
Gentle breezes, 77 degrees at 7 pm, 16% humidity, and a sky heavily laden with stars was a to-die-for ambiance for our simple dinner at an aluminum picnic table in Death Valley. We came for the potential wildflower super-bloom but it was the al fresco dining that wowed us the first night. It was the bonus for coming despite the 90 degree day time highs we’d worked hard to escape.

Fields of Desert Gold in bloom.
Spring break had meant that the RV hook-up sites where we could use our air conditioner were booked for a full month so we resorted to our best strategizing to score a top-notch site in our favorite hillside, primitive, no-reservtions campground, Texas Springs. The ambiance there is always sublime however it’s usually colder during our typical Thanksgiving week visits. Arriving at 10:30 am on a Monday morning when check-out was noon did the trick: there were a number of open slots and a single, top-of-the row site. (On Thursday when we left, the campground was full by 9:30 am). Being at the upper end enhances the panorama and an end spot guarantees an unobstructed view of the colorful mud mounds and mountains beyond.

Lucky for us that we were again smitten with the ambiance because the wildflower bloom didn’t wow us. There must have been millions of Desert Gold, a daisy-like flower, but there weren’t many species to enjoy. Our first wash-walk sported a half-dozen different types of blooms and yet we’d seen 4 of them at the sewage dump station when we arrived.

We drove the length of the valley for about 2 hours, stopping numerous times to walk up washes, and very slowly added a new flower here and there. Being accustomed to parsing the details in the desert, we did notice huge expanses of the valley floor that were tinged a subtle yellow-green by the Desert Gold, though it would be easy to miss the color shift if you weren’t looking for it. 

We were disappointed both by the paucity of species and by the generally ordinary look of the flowers.  Unlike other floral feasts we’d enjoyed other places, this one didn’t leave us in awe of Mother Nature’s limitless design creativity. We were primed for Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream and got vanilla.

Perfect conditions to highlight erosion within the volcanic craters.
The epic wildflower bloom was what brought us to Death Valley in the unwelcome heat but we had a grand time even though they were a side show for us. Our drives/rides-like-a-car truck  melted our resistance to driving and we happily spent the hours it took to cover the elevation changes from -280’ on the road to Badwater to over 2,000’ at Ubehebe Crater in search of flowers. There were a couple of new flowers at the Crater but better yet, the flat light that a landscape photographer was cursing was magnificent for capturing the erosion patterns around the craters. 

Sissi, our new truck, was so much more refined on washboard roads than our previous truck that we comfortably traveled to 2 “must see” points on the park’s list for visitors that we’d passed-by when in our Chevy. 

Our 72 hour visit to Death Valley was a hugely satisfying mix that included doing some barefooting on a favorite hike, hunting for wildflowers, visiting both familiar and new sights, and once again, being mesmerized by the tranquility of the Texas Springs primitive campground. 

Severe Weather Alerts
After coping with unseasonably hot temperatures for about a month, we were rattled by rain and snow in the 5 day forecast. Death Valley and every potential destination in range would be experiencing a 20+ degree temperature drop accompanied by rain and the Grand Canyon, our next layover point, was in for more snow. Out went Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Our best bet was to make the one day drive from Death Valley to Las Vegas and find that big hike that had always eluded us before the storm hit and then we’d hunker down. There we would have the internet access we lacked in Death Valley to track the storms and plan our next move.

The New Normal: Doubles
We broke-down and paid double our usual Las Vegas RV park prices to cut our driving time to the BLM’s Red Rock Canyon south of the city. At Red Rock, we could hike and bike, but we’d have to ‘do doubles’ to get the work-outs we wanted. 

Difficulty finding suitable trails makes our training goal of a weekly 4,200’+ gain hike challenging and this fall at Zion NP, we finally resorted to doing a single hike twice in the same day to get the gain. Locating long, high trails is one problem but in the winter, snow is another challenge. We’d already hiked in snow more than we cared for this winter so in Banning near Palm Springs, we did doubles again. Like at Zion, we were still in snow, but it was manageable.

A view of some of the yellow rock at Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas.
From Las Vegas, it was a matter of keeping the drive time low and not driving off-road to trail heads that made ‘doubles’ an attractive option. Turtlehead Peak, Red Rock Canyon’s highest trail, was a little low so we hiked up and down two and a half times to get the gain. A busy trail, a number of hikers said “Twice?” or “What gives?” The unexpected bonus was repeatedly being told how inspiring we were, a comment that we came by in Palm Springs doing ’singles’. We finished under the first sprinkles of the arriving storm system. 

Overcoming our mental resistance to doing doubles had the obvious advantage of opening up more trails to us but our bodies liked them as well. Seemingly up/down/up/down was less stressful on our muscles and joints than doing the same distance and gain as up/down. We’re now viewing doubles as another form of cross-training rather than a second-best activity.

We also did doubles on our bike ride at Red Rock Canyon. We had to steel our will since we knew we’d be doing the week’s big hike the following day because of the rain forecast but it was worth it for a ride so low on traffic and so high in scenic value. At close to 30 miles and 3,000’ gain, it was a dandy workout and we surprised ourselves by being faster the second time around.


I always have a bit of giddy excitement on our approach to the Grand Canyon and during our first afternoon there. It’s not the images of the canyon itself that thrills me but it’s the package. I love being in high desert campgrounds like at the Grand Canyon and Bandelier, NM because of the brilliant, clear, blue skies that make such a stunning backdrop to the low, thin, conifer forests. Of course, the canyon is a gorgeous backyard and provides a great recreational focus but it is the sparking skies of the outdoor setting that I anticipate, that energize me.

Despite the dire warnings, we felt well prepared for the challenge.
A New Event
I’d booked a site for 11 nights in the highly sought after Trailer Village within the park a year in advance when building our Phantom Ranch reservations for 2015/16. After I nabbed a cabin in December and one in March, I immediately booked the RV park to bracket the expansion of our Phantom Ranch stay in either direction for both months.  

We had kept our March dates after scoring a 3 night reservation for the Ranch in December as a contingency plan for bad weather or an injury. After actually having a 4 night stay at the Ranch in December, we didn’t feel we need to repeat the stay so soon, so canceled for the Ranch but kept the RV site reservations just 'cuz. When hiking out of the Canyon in December, a new use for those reservations presented itself. We decided to test ourselves on the difficult loop from the top of the South Rim, down to the Phantom Ranch and up again, all in one day, after chatting with folks on the trail that were doing it.

Our best estimates were that it would be about 18 miles with 5,000’ of elevation gain—likely our biggest event ever. We anticipated that it would take us 10-12 hours but that we’d do well with it despite the dire admonitions from the park service not to attempt it. Of course, people do it every day and we knew that. My wild guess is that a least 25 people per day make the hike, mostly 30-somethings.

We awoke to snow on the ground the next morning but were feeling all the more triumphant about our big round trip hike to the Ranch because our “day after” bodies were uninjured. It was a personal best for each of us: over 20 miles and a tad over 5,000’ gain with a whopping 44,000+ steps in a single day. In addition, it was done on a scant bit of altitude acclimation—only 2 nights at our starting elevation of about 7,000’. We were gasping for air on the slightest inclines on our arrival day but the threat of snow pushed us to launch without the benefit of significant acclimation for our grand circle.

We had our picnic lunch at 11:00 am at Phantom Ranch and then it was back to the South Rim.
We’d been watching for the opportunity to break-through the 20 mile barrier but the several planned hikes over the last couple of years always fell short by being in the 18+ mile range. Our trophy Grand Canyon loop also clocked 18 miles but we had enough daylight and energy left to tack-on walking part way back to our rigs to improve our stats instead of immediately hopping a bus. Aside from getting chilled from the icy cold wind at the rim, the bonus walk was perfect: it topped off both our mileage and our gain as well as giving us a warm-down for our muscles.

We’d anticipated having to go as fast as we possibly could to complete the hike in the less than 12 hours of daylight. The plan was to take no photos, keep chit-chat with fellow hikers to what could be done on the move, and for the other to press-on when one of us stopped for any reason and meet-up at familiar landmarks. But luckily we were making such good time and feeling so strong that we lightened up after the first hour. I made 4 quick photo stops and we briefly paused to chat several times with a solo hiker and a couple.

Happily, rather than constantly stare at our feet to keep them at maximal RPMs, we were able to enjoy the scenery. Kaibab Trail is spectacular, especially on the descent, because its multiple promontories protrude into the canyon. And with its higher starting elevation and sparse vegetation fully revealing the abundance red layers, it could easily be called the Red Trail. In contrast, Bright Angel Trail on which we ascended is an “innie” trail that switches back and forth within the confines of an inner canyon. And compared to Kaibab, Bright Angel could be named the Green Trail because of the relatively more lush terrain that includes cottonwood trees along its creek. Familiar with the joys of both trails, it was all the more captivating to experience both in a single day.

Our second snow storm at the Grand Canyon this year.
We were chagrinned to be passed by fellow ‘grand circle' hikers on the way down Kaibab but were confident that we were both up to the task and moving fast enough to be off the trail before dark, which was good enough. Our trail mates were all significantly younger than us, which was some consolation.  But as we thought might happen, we dropped them all—except the trail runners—half way up the return trail without popping ibuprofen as some were already doing.

We are strong uphill hikers and had hoped that even though we were pooped from the descent on Kaibab, that we’d be refreshed by our nostalgic lunch stop at Phantom Ranch and that our uphill skills would take over. Part of it is our conditioning and part of it is our ketogenic diet which keeps the fatty acid fuel flowing seamlessly to our muscles, even without eating, and reduces the build-up of carbohydrate metabolic waste products.

Early in the descent, it was stunningly clear that all of the ‘smashing’ or myofascial release work we’d been doing on our bodies since December was helping our trail sturdiness too. My rough estimate was that I’d already logged over 100 hours DIY of tissue release work and I had known from Day 1 that it was transforming my body. This hike confirmed that I’d hit a new level of balance in my tissues, both during the hike and the morning after. 

After decades of intermittent spasms in my right glutes (buttock muscles), being hobbled by various pulls on my knees hundreds of times, an ankle sprain that never quite recovered, and a persistent kink in my spine, I was now free of those pains (one of them by only days). The smashing had been a journey of “peeling the onion”. I always had 3-5 project areas I was emphasizing and as many areas that I’d occasionally cruise-through. Over and over again a ‘non-issue’ area would suddenly pop up as urgent. Presumably a constellation of kinks and tugs were being sufficiently released that the hinderances in other areas could surface to become my next project.

A favorite view of the inner canyon from the S Kaibab Trail.
We both woke up the morning after the big hike with multiple aches but sensed that just moving around after the stillness of the night would wash much of it from our bodies. I didn’t need to hang on to furniture like I usually did for my first steps, not knowing whether it would be severe calf stiffness, knee pain, or glute spasm that would threaten to knock me over.  There was none of that and none of the overnight discomfort that typically trashed my post-big-hike sleep. I was overall more stiff than Bill but we were both elated that it was all familiar, transient discomfort.

What an affirmation: we’d done the monster hike that had only been on our bucket list since December and it had coincided with having reached the pinnacle of our soft tissue health. We joked about breaking out the champagne as we crested the South Rim but laughed because it would poison our ketogenic metabolisms. We instead would celebrate with multiple rounds of congratulations for the next 24 hours and looked forward to repeating the hike in a week.

A Different Kind of Doubles
Initially, we’d planned to do the grand circle hike a second time because it was a stellar training opportunity but as T minus 0 grew closer, we were both clear that we actively wanted to repeat the effort: we were hyped. It would be more fun the second time because we now knew we would easily make the return to the rim in around 9 hours and because it was such a beautiful hike. The Italian Dolomites are still our favorite, but doing both Kaibab and Bright Angel trails in a single day packs a big punch of visual delight.

The real bonus for me on our second big loop was that we shaved 32 minutes off of our previous 3:38 descent on Kaibab and that it had been me that had been holding us back. It was a stunning improvement and I knew it was because of the intervening tissue work I’d done.

Hammocks were trending at the Grand Canyon but there was no ladder in sight for these.
Each time I stressed myself, deeper layers of tissue imbalances percolated to the surface, which I could then address. Forty-eight hours after our first round trip hike to Phantom Ranch, we did an unexpectedly hard, 38 mile bike ride. Previously silent leg tissues were shouting and I spent as much as 2 hours a day before our second hike to unravel the kinks and densities and it paid off handsomely. By about a half an hour into our 3 hour Kaibab descent, I could tell that the movement wave through my ankles, knees, and hips had a new smoothness, a smoothness that allowed me to effortlessly glide down Kaibab’s very challenging trail surface. For me, catapulting my movement pattern to a new level will be the greatest accomplishment of our epic hike.

One challenge begets another: after so successfully bumping up our Grand Canyon hiking days from 10 mile events to two 20 milers in 6 days, suddenly doing the classic “Rim-2-Rim” was within reach. At about 24 miles, perhaps 5,000’ gain, and possibly 14 hours, we started getting excited about the prospect of hiking from the North Rim to the South Rim via Phantom Ranch in October even though we’d have to do some of the hike in the dark. More ‘doubles’ would be in our future because we’d now be aiming for at least one 20 mile hike per month along with retaining our goal of doing a hike of at least 4,200’ each week.

The logistical challenges however were problematic: the risk of snow at the starting point on the North Rim, the potential for desiccating heat in the 2500’ valley of Phantom Ranch, seasonal water sources being shut, and getting trailer or hotel reservations at both rims when the North Rim indoor lodging was ready fully booked. We would press-on with training and planning. If the weather or other issues made it impossible, we’d try again in 2017.

With planning details for doing the Rim-2-Rim whizzing in our brains, we turned our attention to arriving in Albuquerque, NM. We’d visit our friend Iva in Phoenix along the way and then settle-in for our annual month-long stay. The RV park’s price per day for a month’s stay is less than half the daily rate and it’s only a 10 minute drive to the South Sandia peak trailhead. The forecast of freezing and near-freezing nights and wind wasn’t welcome but it was in the 90’s at our other favorite SW destinations so, once again, Albuquerque looked good as an intermediate solution.