Maze Circuit

Leaving my kayak at the base of Water Canyon, I climbed upcanyon and hiked a circuit through much of the Maze district. This covered about 60 miles in four days, visiting several areas in the park with nice dramatic names — the Land of Standing Rocks, the Fins, the Maze itself, and, uh, Ernie’s Country.

This trip included several long off trail detours, and while most of the hike followed trails these were often just routes along canyon bottoms and stream washes. Over the four days I saw about five small groups of hikers and a few car camps; getting to the Maze requires coming in either by boat or by a reportedly long and grueling trip on jeep roads, an adventure in itself. Pretty wild country, and amazing backpacking.

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Even after all the canyon side trips I’d done upriver, hiking the two miles up from Water and into neighboring Shot Canyon was like entering a different world. The dominant layer in the Maze, the Fins and many of the district’s canyons is Cedar Mesa sandstone, which forms red and white bands that pile up into cliffs, mounds, towers, many holes in the rock, formations that simply defy easy description. I’d seen some areas with this stone upriver and in Salt Creek Canyon a few weeks ago, but the sheer scale and extent of it here was beyond anything I’d ever seen. Days in, I still found the terrain bewildering.

Below is the view from the bottom of Shot Canyon. From here the trail passes through the gap between these cliffs and climbs up to the canyon rim.

Climbing out of Shot Canyon brought me into the Land of Standing Rocks. This is a mesa that sits on top of the Cedar Mesa layer. Flat or gently undulating terrain, dirt and scrub and some slickrock, punctuated occasionally and dramatically by towers of uneroded Organ Rock Shale, a deep brown stone that formed over the Cedar Mesa. Looking towards some of these towers across canyons to the south:

The mesa offers fast and easy hiking. With a jeep road running through that most of the area’s trails connect to, the Land of Standing Rocks is effectively a binder that makes traveling between and accessing the canyons eating into it relatively easy.

After the trail met the road at Chimney Rock, one of the standing rocks, I followed the road a mile west before turning south into the Fins, a series of canyons ringed by some exceptionally crazy scenery. The canyon walls here have a pronounced wedding cake structure, with layers of relatively flat slickrock separated by cliffs of 20 or more feet. With periodic spots to scramble between layers this area is a blast to hike around and explore. Rather easy to get blasé about the risk, though. My boots stuck to the stone, but in many places a slip would lead to serious injury or death and I couldn’t let my attention wander.

The Fins are riddled with holes, small arches and bridges, and several very large arches. I was out hiking to look for a few specific arches; hunting these is pretty fun as most of the arches can only be seen in a small area or from specific angles, and even knowing the location of an arch there is a lot of route finding to do in trying out approaches. In the background below is one of the arches I was looking for, a triple arch that is pretty easy to get up and walk on. The surrounding area has several more nice arches.

Below is Tibbett Arch, the largest arch in the Maze district. Not much of a hunt here, this arch can be easily seen from the road a couple miles to the north.

Very dry country outside the canyons, unsurprisingly. In 15 miles of hiking from when I left Shot Canyon to when I entered the Maze the second day, the pothole below was the only water I found, tinted green with algae. Interesting taste. I could carry four liters of water, twice as much as I normally do while backpacking but still pushing it. I can’t imagine hiking here later in the year when the canyons themselves have dried up.

To the north of the Land of Standing Rocks lies the Maze proper, a network of canyons and side canyons and side side canyons that are all part of Horse Canyon and drain to the Green River upriver from where I left my kayak. After several hours in the Fins I returned to the road and hiked a trail on a ridge overlooking the Maze on either side, reaching the Chocolate Drops in the evening. These are standing rocks and the best known landmark in the district. After a long first day I camped a bit to the east of the drops. Viewing the drops and a northerly bit of the Maze:

The second day started with following cairns down a slightly tricky route to the canyon floor east of the drops. There were a couple attractions I wanted to see in this area of the canyon: a fairly obscure arch, and the Harvest Scene pictograph. This is the largest pictograph in the Maze, about a dozen life size figures painted thousands of years ago, before the Anasazi came to the area.

Returning north I scrambled up another route to regain the canyon rim at the Maze Overlook. This spot offers a great viewpoint back over the area I’d been hiking through the last one and a half days. The Chocolate Drops are to the left below, with the Land of Standing Rocks in the distance. While not a big area — north to south, the Maze covers only about 5 miles — the canyons here are so incredibly intricate that finding your way through them takes hours and hours and needs good route finding and map reading skills (or, if you’re lazy like I am, a GPS. I had quads loaded up on my phone and an iPod and frequently checked my position, which made quick travel through this area and, especially, the Fins, much easier).

I dropped back into the Maze and headed through the south fork of Horse Canyon, the area on the right side of the photo above. The hiking in this canyon is pretty nice, rugged. There is a trail here, which just follows the streambed and doesn’t seem to get as much use as the routes to the east. Slow going, lots of twisting around and walking through sand, with occasional batches of slickrock, as below, providing some relief. After four or five hours of hiking I was most of the way through the canyon and camped on the floor for the second night.

The next morning I climbed out of the canyon, reached the road and crossed it to get back into the Fins for a few hours. More poking around looking for arches here, then I cut west back to the road and south to the Mother and Child (more standing rocks) to start the next leg of the trip. There is a well marked trail leaving from here which runs east almost all the way back to the river, skirting the Fins and traveling through Ernie’s Country.

Former grazeland, the hiking here is pretty mellow compared to the rest of the trip, only a bit of scrambling. The main attractions are convenient access to the southern parts of the Fins, some grand vistas such as below, and seclusion (the only other option to get back to Water Canyon would be to follow the jeep road).

Below is Whitmore Arch, the most user friendly arch I came across on the trip, and I think the second largest after Tibbett. Easily visible from the trail a few miles in, there is a quick hike up slickrock to get right under its span.

Well, another main attraction of this trail is that it actually has water available. There are two springs near the western part of the trail, both of which were running. These were the only places I saw water between the south fork of Horse Canyon and my return to Water Canyon two days later. Unfortunately, “running” in this context really means “dripping as if from a leaky faucet.” Both streams have water troughs installed the better part of a century ago, which are a little beat up and overgrown with weeds but still serviceable. I was able to fill up my water from these troughs and keep moving, thankfully. The water I took on here lasted until the streams midway down Water Canyon, though just barely.

Past the springs the trail flattens out further, and the eastern two thirds just follows washes and plains. I took another detour up into the Fins to look for some more arches from the canyon bottom, then returned to the trail and kept trudging along. Camped the last night along the trail, and the next morning reached the eastern terminus back at the jeep road and, shortly afterwards, the Doll House. This is another major landmark in the Maze, a small area with lots of spires of Cedar Mesa stone. Having seen so much of this stuff the last few days I was a little jaded getting here; the main points of interest about the Doll House are that (a) it is the only Cedar Mesa stone you can drive right up to in the Maze district, (b) it therefore gets a lot more concentrated traffic than all other areas, though I didn’t see anyone while I was there, and (c) the NPS disallows all off trail hiking in the area because of this traffic.

So I didn’t linger, and after a quick hike through the trails around the Doll House I continued north towards Water Canyon. I was getting a bit footsore at this point, but found the energy for one last side trip. There is a spur trail going to overlooks of the Colorado and Green Rivers, just a couple miles from the confluence. Great views, and nice to relax and reflect on the trip. The last miles of the Green are shown below; the confluence and a bit of the Colorado are on the right.

Returning to the main trail the drop back into Water Canyon was straightforward and I made it back to the kayak in the late afternoon. Enough light to paddle to the confluence and then down to Spanish Bottom, a flat area below the Doll House popular for camping, for the night. Some hiking the next morning (still sore), then the jetboat came in for the ride back to Moab. Quite the trip.

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Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons

Last week I did a nine night trip through some areas around western Canyonlands. This was a new sort of combination trip for me. I started kayaking on the Green River at Ruby Ranch, 95 miles from where it joins the Colorado River. From here the river passes through Labyrinth Canyon and then Stillwater Canyon as it enters Canyonlands and approaches the confluence. After five days I reached Water Canyon, a side canyon five miles up from the confluence that offers access to the Maze district of Canyonlands, on the west side of the river. From here I did a four day backpacking trip, running a circuit through the Maze and returning to the kayak. The last night I paddled to Spanish Bottom, a few miles below the confluence on the Colorado, and was picked up by a jetboat the next day for a ride back to Moab. I used Tex’s Riverways for the dropoff and pickup, who did a fine job and are I think the only outfitter around for arranging this sort of self guided trip.

This structure worked out great, and the two segments of the trip had very different characters, so I’ll talk about them in separate posts. Overall though, both segments were excellent and this is one of the best trips of its length I can remember doing.

The kayaking portion of the trip established a nice rhythm. Each day I did a hike of a few hours, usually in the afternoon, one or two other short side trips, with kayaking interspersed between. The kayaking is very mellow flatwater, with the river sliding along at one or two miles an hour and only a couple class 1 riffles on the entire trip. Sometimes the river gets upcanyon winds, though I didn’t encounter anything strong.

Labyrinth Canyon starts a few miles below Ruby Ranch and continues another 50 or so miles. Canyon walls quickly grow to about 1000 feet, and stay that way for the remainder, very dramatic. Typical views from the river:

Exploring side canyons offered the most variety. Labyrinth Canyon is riddled with side canyons, with new ones sprouting every few miles for the canyon’s entire length and often winding ten miles or more away from the river. With 90 miles to cover in five days I could only see a tiny fraction of what was on offer.

After a few hours of paddling the first day, I made it to Three Canyon, a fairly long side canyon with many side canyons of its own, two of which open right on the river (hence the name). Good hiking here heading as far back into the various side side canyons as I could. Most canyon hikes end at pour-overs like the ones below. These cliffs are hundreds of feet high, though with unbroken and often overhanging walls even a ten foot jump is usually impossible to get around.

The second day’s hike was another 15 miles or so downstream, at Keg Spring Canyon. There are several springs far upcanyon, including the eponymous one, with a nice stream flowing until close to the canyon’s mouth. This canyon didn’t have any of its own side canyons that I checked out, though the main canyon itself offered good variety as it shifted between desert, riparian areas, and slickrock moving up. Eventually it became too overgrown and I retreated to the kayak to continue on.

After hiking to the saddle at Bowknot Bend, where the river starts a seven mile wrap around a plateau before closing to 1000 feet or so from its earlier location, I spent the next afternoon at Two Mile Canyon. More appealingly named than Ten Mile Canyon further upstream, this canyon looked to offer some scramble routes to escape Labyrinth and get to the canyon’s rim, which I was keen on seeing. In the end, I wasn’t able to get all the way out. After a good talus slog, climbing 800 of the requisite 1000 feet I came up to a 200 foot cliff that ran continuously as far as I could see.

Seeing this, the surrounding cliffs, and just how much drier it was up here than on the canyon floor gave me a bit more appreciation for just how incredibly inhospitable this country is. There were still animal tracks though, having the river so close by makes things a bit liveable it seems. The view of the Green River and lower cliffs, from the same spot as the above photo:

Another 15 or 20 miles below Two Mile Canyon brought the end of Labyrinth, with the river opening up as it passed Bighorn Mesa. This is Stillwater Canyon, not as dramatic but still interesting, gradually heightening and closing in along the approach to the Colorado. The view about halfway down Stillwater:

Traveling through upper Stillwater was my longest day, 30 miles on the water, though I still had time to get in some great hiking at Anderson Bottom. I stopped here just to get water from a spring near the river, but got distracted and wandered west and north in the valley to end up at a fun little slot canyon, the only real slot I came across on the trip. After some twisting passages and not too tricky upclimbing I ended up on the rim above the bottom, all slickrock and fun to walk along, and an old cattle path back to the floor. The view from within the slot, and looking in from the rim above:

Past Anderson Bottom I spent the fourth night at the Turk’s Head, a formation still capped by the same layer that makes up the White Rim just to the east. The next morning I hiked around looking for granaries, mostly fruitlessly, and kayaked the remaining 17 miles to Water Canyon. Left my kayak near the water, and started backpacking up canyon towards the Maze.

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White Rim Road

The White Rim Road is a jeep road running through the Island in the Sky region of Canyonlands, along a bench mostly of white sandstone that separates the island — a raised plateau at about 6000′ — from the Colorado and Green rivers at 4000′ or so. Along with some dirt roads outside the park and a few miles of pavement, the road forms a circuit of about 100 miles. On Sunday and Monday I biked a variation of this route, going through Long Canyon and the Potash road along the Colorado to bypass the closed-at-the-time Shafer trail which is the normal start of the trip, dropping into the white rim from the Canyonlands visitor center. This increased the ride length to about 112 miles.

These were long days, though by starting early and finishing late I was never too pressed for time and was able to get a lot of sightseeing and some light hiking in. Most people spend more time on the route, either driving or mountain biking with a support car or three. Biking the road self supported I didn’t have this option, and since there are no water sources on the trail two days is about the upper limit on time without taking several gallons of water along. I packed nearly two gallons on the bike’s frame and despite temperatures in the 60s went through nearly all of it.

From the initial drop into Long Canyon until the climb out of Horsethief 90 some miles later, the scenery was spectacular throughout. Cliffs, canyons, towers, mesas, buttes, plains just filling your vision at all times. Many times hard to focus on the road, which is fortunately smooth and easy for almost the entire route.

Especially nice was to follow the Colorado along, then join up with the Green, heading upriver from the confluence of the two. Next week I’ll be floating this section of the Green down to the confluence, to see this same country from a different angle.

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Salt Creek Canyon

I’m spending all of March in Moab, with lots of mountain biking, assorted rambling, and several trips lined up. The first of these was over the weekend, a backpacking trip through Salt Creek Canyon in the Needles district of Canyonlands NP. This canyon is about 25 miles long, with probably hundreds of miles of smaller canyons feeding into it. I hiked maybe 35 miles over two days going from end to end, connecting back to my car with a bike shuttle this morning.

The lower parts of the canyon are narrow and twisty, following along as the floor goes from sand to damp sand to a nice stream and healthy riparian environment. This is one of the few canyons in the area where water flows most of the year.

The first day was overcast, with some spitting snow in the afternoon. Though it would clear in the evening, this put a bit of a damper on exploring the area. Towards the end of the day I did however make a side trip to see Angel Arch, a dramatic arc 1.5 miles off the main trail. There were several more very impressive arches along the trail, very neat to be walking along and suddenly notice such large holes in the rock.

Beyond Angel Arch the the canyon stops meandering and opens up. These upper portions are an ideal location for farming and have many Anasazi ruins scattered about. The trail passes close by or in easy view of several different sets of ruins, all of which I took the time to gawk at. Despite knowing next to nothing about how these people lived I was fascinated by the remains of their houses, granaries, and, especially, drawings. Hard to pin down but I think I was struck by seeing this work in such an impermanent landscape; who knows how long these ruins will still be here at all.

This hike was very nice, though I feel like I just barely scratched the surface of what can be seen here. Much of this was from breezing through at a quick pace; even more was from doing the hike blind. Going in I had no real idea for where to find or look for ruins, and saw only a fraction of those that dot the canyon. Someday I’d like to hike this canyon again with more time and preparation, but for now this has been a good lesson that the country around here doesn’t give up its secrets easily.

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Little Cottonwood Canyon

I spent the winter staying in North Salt Lake and did a lot of skiing, almost all of it out of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Less than ten miles long, this canyon is the epicenter of Utah skiing, home to the Alta and Snowbird resorts and packed with great and super accessible terrain. Most of the skiing I did, 21 out of 30 days, was in the backcountry. In previous years I’ve spent a couple weeks here skiing at the resorts, but this was my first real experience with backcountry powder skiing.

This has been tons of fun. The combination of great scenery, great exercise, a quiet unhurried pace, and usually excellent untracked descents form a gestalt that moves the experience far beyond what I can find at resorts. In the future I will be skiing in this vein almost exclusively.

Most of the skiing I did was right across the road from Alta — Emma Ridge, Mount Superior, Days Fork and Cardiff Fork. All well trafficked areas, backcountry skiing is far more popular here than in the places I’ve been in California or Oregon. Below is Cardiff Fork, from the shoulder of Superior. This is the fork at its most pristine, on account of dangerous avalanche conditions keeping folks away. Note the large slide in the foreground; after taking this, I skied the safer (on that day) main face of Superior.

I also saw some of the four forks on the south side of the canyon — White Pine, Red Pine, Maybird and Hogum — stretching west from Snowbird. These are also popular, but less so, and cover a large area with beautiful terrain. My most aggressive day of the season started by touring through these forks to reach Thunder Ridge, close to the mouth of the canyon. Below is Hogum Fork. It’s hard to believe this is four miles from the suburbs.

After ascending to Thunder Ridge, then going down the other side because I ascended in the wrong place, then traversing a mile north and ascending it again, I reached the top of the Coalpit Headwall, the face seen below. This was a great descent, nearly a vertical mile back to the road. The upper parts were nice, with an inch or two of soft stuff over wind board (I expected this going in, didn’t known if I’d have another chance to ski the face this season), then transitioning to powder as the route entered glades and a banked river gully for the exit.

A couple weeks later, looking for a better route I approached Thunder Ridge from the north (where I took the above photo), but had to abandon that attempt as it was taking even longer than the first route. Being able to efficiently travel through this terrain is a skill I’m still working on, and there are multiple other approaches to this ridge I want to try in the future. Still, it’s hard to complain too much about the failures; below is the view back up on the descent from that attempt.

Probably my favorite descent of the season was below Thunder Ridge, in the Y Couloir. A little over 3000′ vertical in a chute that’s usually 20 to 30 feet wide but not too steep, I slowly laid a boot track up and then skied back down, fresh tracks and great snow. Looking down the couloir at the road:

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Baja Wrapup

I had a couple weeks on the boat between my week back in the states and the end of the trip proper. I didn’t have anything horribly ambitious planned here, but took the time to see the area around La Paz some more and go to a couple spots — Isla Partida and Bahia la Ventana — I’d really been wanting to spend some time at.

Leaving La Paz in the morning on October 29, I spent the first day at Puerto Ballendra, about 12 miles to the north. Nice snorkeling, with a small lagoon in the back that had some great birding.

That night I headed to Bahia la Ventana, about 25 miles away. This is a fairly laid back area with a lot of small resorts, rentals and vacation homes, and a very popular area for wind sports. The bay is backed by a small plain which heats through the day, drawing thermal winds fairly consistently in winter afternoons. My interest here was in kiteboarding, but the day I arrived conditions were calm with nothing forecast for several days (maybe should have checked before making the trip over).

I took this time to head back towards La Paz and turn north to anchor at Isla Partida. This island is just north of Isla Espiritu Santo, separated by a very narrow channel, and has similar great anchorages all along the west side. I stayed in one of these for kayaking, hiking and snorkeling in the area. The main highlight here are Los Islotes, shown below, two small islands off the north end of Isla Partida and a few miles from my anchorage.

I kayaked up to the Islotes twice with snorkeling gear in tow. Back in 2008 I did a couple excellent dives here (90 to 150 minutes each, yay for rebreathers), one of the main highlights of that trip. The snorkeling here is first rate too, great stuff ringing the islets right near the surface. The main attraction are the many sea lions living on the islets, fantastically, even aggressively curious in playing with divers and snorkelers. Good tidal currents and deep surrounding water bring a tremendous amount of fish life, with very clear water and small amounts of coral. For much of the day when I was there the islets were crowded with boat traffic, with day boats from La Paz bringing snorkelers, divers, and kayakers, and plenty of chartered and private boats doing the same. Still, it’s easy enough to get away from the crowds and on both days I was in the water for hours, great time.

With my remaining time I did a nice kayaking trip circling Isla Partida, and several short hikes on trails around the island. All the area around La Paz got a lot of rain in the fall, and Espiritu Santo and Partida were both much greener with plants than even when I passed through a couple weeks earlier.

From Partida I made my way back to Bahia la Ventana in time for the winds to pick up. I stayed here the rest of the trip, and ended up kiteboarding for seven days in varying conditions. This was a great setup. Just inside of my anchorage was a concession, La Ventana Xperience, setting up on the beach for the season. The folks running the place, Jeff and Ozzy, were great, and I took a couple short lessons from them and spent a lot of time in the evenings talking. The lessons, practicing and good weather helped tremendously in building my skills in the sport, and as time progressed I went from not really knowing what I was doing to the point where I could easily launch and ride the kite, and reliably tack and ride upwind.

Kiteboarding is an interesting sport. Intimidating from the outset and with a steep learning curve, but once I got a feel for the kite things suddenly became smooth and simple, and lots of fun. Really want to work more on the sport, and looking forward to spending more time with it on future sailing trips.

Eventually it came time for me to head back to La Paz and fly back to the US. I’m still working on absorbing and making sense of the whole trip, but it’s been an incredible experience. I think that at the most basic level I conceived this trip as a litmus test for whether I should proceed with my longstanding dream of sailing the Pacific. To that end the trip was a resounding success; I’ve really just had a glimpse of what can be done, traveling the world by boat, and even now I’m consumed with the desire to see more.

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Cabo to La Paz

Reaching Cabo San Lucas was a huge milestone for the trip, the end of my traveling along the Pacific coast of the peninsula and putting me in sight of my destination, La Paz.

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I didn’t stop in Cabo though — I had enough supplies and don’t care for the town that much (aside: Cabo is an odd nickname for the place, the word just means “cape”). Instead, I continued on to try to reach Cabo Los Frailes, 50 miles further, before sunset. The coast between Cabo and its neighboring town, San Jose del Cabo, is continuous resorts, but afterwards there is very little coastal development, just occasional clusters of houses.

Still, this trip up the coast wasn’t great. It was cloudy, some spitting rain, with a headwind and rough water for most of the day. Big change from the gorgeous weather I’d had for weeks. Made it up though and got to Los Frailes in the early evening, exhausted from some 55 hours of continuous travel since Punta Hughes.

Another guy motored in shortly afterwards (we were the only two at the anchorage) and talked. I’d recognized him as coming through Punta Hughes several days before, though he had the sense to stopover in Cabo and learned about a storm coming towards the peninsula, the reason for the unsettled weather. I hadn’t checked the forecast in days and didn’t know about this, and the next morning downloaded and beheld this forecast for the following day, October 16:

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was Hurricane Paul, a storm that peaked at Category 3 and was I think still hurricane strength as it headed north, following the coast of Baja Sur along the same path I had finished up just days before. If I’d still been at Punta Hughes I could have sheltered in Bahia Magdalena, if I’d still been to the north I would have had to either race down to Magdalena, retreat to Turtle Bay, or stick it out wherever I happened to be; there are no other well protected anchorages in these 300 odd miles of coastline.

Having inadvertently located myself some 200 miles from the storm’s path, I would have to prepare some for its passage but had no urgent steps to take. That day I went kayaking around the point and snorkeled a few times on its north side. This is a few miles south of Cabo Pulmo, a coral reef (the only one in Baja) I dove at several years back. I was hoping to do some snorkeling up there but skipped that given the weather. Still, Cabo Los Frailes had some good snorkeling, with lots of fish and small amounts of coral.

Snorkeling the north side of the point also let me check it out as an anchorage, and in the afternoon I moved my boat there to give me protection from the southeast winds the storm would be generating. The evening and early in the night were rolly and uncomfortable as winds were still northerly, but in the middle of the night the winds shifted to the southeast and increased in strength, and were pretty strong by dawn. Things were still uncomfortable through the morning, bouncy and with several squalls, but were I’m sure far better than on the south side of the point. The view from the boat at dawn:

In the afternoon conditions started to settle, and I resumed heading north to take advantage of the tailwind, sailing well into the night before the wind slacked. In the morning it picked back up a bit, and I sailed the last 20 odd miles to my target anchorage, halfway up the west side of Isla Espiritu Santo. This is a large island not far from La Paz, almost perfect for cruising by boat as its western side is a long series of protected bays. I’d spent some time here on a dive charter in 2008, and have been wanting to see more of the island. Beautiful desert scenery, great water.

I only had a couple days before I needed to be in La Paz. Spent the first kayaking around the anchorage, snorkeling and photographing at a couple outlying islands. One is a small frigatebird colony; all day long the birds would display for each other, or lazily circle above the island.

The next day I went kayaking to some of the bays to the north, more snorkeling. The island has great, protected kayaking, keen on doing more in this area in the next couple weeks.

Several hours of motoring the following morning brought me in to La Paz, finally. I needed to fly back to the states this week for work, and will be returning this weekend for a couple more weeks exploring the area before the trip ends.

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Sailing Pacific Baja Sur

Reaching Turtle Bay still left me with about 500 miles of sailing to reach Cabo San Lucas, before I could turn north towards La Paz. A long haul, but so far this has been my favorite part of the trip. All the stops were great and I was able to sail most of the way when traveling through.

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Leaving in the night got me to Isla Asuncion, 55 miles to the south, the next morning. I just stayed here one night, but this was one of my favorite stops of the whole trip. A small island a mile long and a mile or two offshore, the island is a large sea lion colony with a lot of clear water and tons of life. Kayaked around the island for an initial survey, followed by sea lions the whole time and with large groups of juveniles coming out in a couple places to investigate me.

Spent the rest of the day snorkeling in various places over the island, great time and the best of the trip thus far. Rocky palm kelp bottom sheltering lots of fish with some large schools, lots of visits from sea lions, saw several turtles and mobula rays (like smaller manta rays).

Wrapping up afterwards, snorkeling around the boat anchored in warm, clear water, fish all around, was something. I hadn’t been actively seeking this out, but this experience so embodied an ideal of sailing for me, what I have daydreamed about it being like, well enough beyond anything I’ve done before, that I just had to sit for a bit to absorb. Pretty simple, really, but unforgettable all the same.

Could have easily stayed here longer, but left early the next morning almost just to preserve this island as it was in my mind. Motored through the morning, then was able to sail when the wind steadily picked up approaching the next stop at Punta Abreojos. The main point here shelters a small town, with a second point a couple miles east. The second point is less developed with a scattering of houses, sand road and some cars and RVs of surfers camping up on the short bluffs. I anchored near this second point and surfed for a few days.

For someone who knows what they’re doing, this point had what was probably the best wave of the trip: tall, steep, well formed waves during the sets. I, however, am still working on being able to take off on steep waves, and while I got several very good rides I found the wave somewhat intimidating. First, the waves were large and powerful enough — double overhead during the larger sets — that getting caught in the whitewater was like being thrown in a washing machine for several seconds. Second, the point is rocky, a jagged conglomerate that cut my legs up some and kept me from finding easier rides closer in. Still, this was a good learning experience and prepared me well for the rest of the trip.

After a couple nights, left in the afternoon, sailed on the sea breeze until it died after sunset and motored to Scorpion Bay, about 75 miles further south along the coast. This is another surf spot, and the most well known of the ones I went to on this trip. A series of point breaks inside Punta Pequena, the swell here was I think not quite right for the spot and only generating good surf in one or two spots. The other breaks still had some surf, just smaller and inconsistent, and while I moved around a bit trying spots and having fun I ended up gravitating to the same break it seemed as everyone else in the area. As the afternoon went on the break got pretty crowded, but the next morning was quieter and I was able to get in some really nice, long rides before continuing my way south.

Sailed almost all the way to the next stop at Punta Hughes, 100 miles to the south. This is an awesome place. A sharp point at the north end of Bahia Santa Maria, a bay about 8 miles across on the outskirts of Bahia Magdalena, this spot had my favorite surfing of the trip, great pristine scenery, and a ton of nearby side trips and areas to explore. Quiet and isolated too, with a small surf camp on the point near the break and a larger fishing camp further in. Stayed here three nights.

The surf spot here is a right point break, the same as all the other breaks I surfed this trip. Excellent shape for me, with waves that were steep but not too steep, and large but not too large (overhead plus), and a clean, steady break that let me take long rides back in to the beach over and over again. No crowds; several people were staying at the surf camp but I was usually alone on the break.

Part of why I liked this spot so much is that I was able to really feel how much my surfing has advanced over this trip. At the start I mostly just knew how to catch rides in the whitewater and on mushy waves — steadily breaking, with no curl or steepness. By the end I was able to ride steeper waves and, particularly, stay in the unbroken part of the wave rather than in the whitewater. Riding an unbroken wave has an amazing feel to it; the closest experience I can think of is skiing fresh powder for the first time after a while on groomed trails. I can easily see now how surfing is such an obsession for so many people. While this was my last surfing of the trip, I can’t wait to get back to it. The break, in the morning:

Plenty of other stuff to do around Punta Hughes. My favorite side trip was kayaking to Laguna Santa Maria at the inside of the point. There is a small mangrove forest here, with great birding at the lagoon’s mouth and in the maze of channels reaching back to the surrounding sand dunes. Mangrove forests become more common while heading south along the peninsula, and there are a bunch in Bahia Magdalena just east of here which I would like to see someday. This was a good introduction though, and a nice place to while away the afternoon. The lagoon, and some of its residents:

The point is also good for hiking, with trails along the coast, sparse vegetation and occasional paths for climbing up the peaks which form the point.

I debated a bit about whether to spend time in Bahia Magdalena proper, but ended up nixing this on account of the weather — the wind had been steadily picking up the last 24 hours I was at Punta Hughes, and I wanted to take advantage of it before it died. Between Bahia Magdalena and Cabo San Lucas there is nothing but beaches, with no good anchorages, and from Punta Hughes I had a passage of about 200 miles to do in one go. After leaving in the morning on October 12, the winds kept up for more than a day, and I was able to sail the first 140 miles or so continuously, the longest I’ve done. Really nice. In the afternoon, had a booby come by and circle around the boat repeatedly trying to land in the rigging, crash landing on the deck twice. It’s an odd thing to come up from the cabin and find a bird floundering about next to the cockpit.

The wind died the second afternoon and I started motoring, and after more than 40 hours got to Cabo in the middle of the night. I didn’t anchor here, just motored on by up the coast and towards the Sea of Cortez.

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Sailing Pacific Baja Norte

From Ensenada I started picking my way down Baja’s pacific coast. My initial goal was to get to Turtle Bay, a protected bay with a small town and some services not quite half way down the pacific coast.

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The first stop was at Islas Todos Santos, a pair of small islands a couple hours west from Ensenada. There are some nice anchorages here on the east side of the islands, but these were filled up by an aquaculture operation and I ended up at an exposed, rocky anchorage further north, staying for several hours. Some hiking ashore, kayaking around the islands, and snorkeling, all very nice. Pelicans and gulls all over the islands.

Upon leaving the islands, I found that the boat’s new alternator was no longer working. I’d adjusted it earlier as the V-belt had been slipping, and now it refused to work at all. Incredibly aggravating. I returned to Ensenada to decompress and consider my options. Having yet another alternator, solar charger or generator shipped to Ensenada would take a while to get through customs, and returning to San Diego to sort things out would be both another large delay and pretty demoralizing. I ended up getting a taxi to the Costco in Ensenada, buying an array of six batteries to lay on the floor of the cabin, and started south without any way to charge them.

My electricity needs are pretty light, and this ended up working out, but the whole experience has been a good lesson in the importance of redundancy for critical systems — I started the trip with three ways to move the boat (sails, inboard diesel, kicker) but only one way to charge the batteries. There are no marinas and very few services along the 750+ miles of coast between Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas, and if the alternator had failed further on in this stretch it would have been a bad situation.

After the false start, I headed south for good on September 23. This began with a 115 mile run down to Isla San Martin, far enough away to get Ensenada out of my head. This is a great island, a volcanic cone about 500 feet high and a couple miles across, symmetric except for a natural breakwater on the southeast side with a fishing camp, where I anchored for the night. Kayaked around the island — lots of birds, some sea lions, kelp everywhere. Would like to do some diving here someday. Mostly too deep and exposed for snorkeling, though I did a bit on the east side and found a vibrant, healthy kelp forest. Hiked ashore in several places too, though didn’t get too far as the island is mostly cactus, chaparral and a’a lava, not a good fit for shorts and sandals.

The next stop was just in the lee of Cabo San Quintin, 10 miles to the south. I stayed and surfed here for four days, great spot. By a good margin the best surfing I’d ever done up to this point, combining a friendly break on a sand beach where I practiced the first two days with a point break that I spent the last two days at, the first real point break I’d surfed. Uncrowded, just a couple groups came in by truck. This would end up being the most secluded of the spots I surfed at on this trip. It’s hard to get completely isolated in Baja from what I’ve seen — most points shelter a village or fishing camp. Not really a bad thing, but different from, say, Alaska or even the more remote parts of California.

Below is the point break at Cabo San Quintin. The main break is actually off in the distance, but on larger sets it could be ridden all the way in to this beach. Did that several times, by far the best rides I’d ever had.

Some good hiking elsewhere on the cape, and a bit of kayaking.

I’d originally wanted to spend less time at Cabo San Quintin, and surf at several places further south in Baja Norte. Staying here longer was due to a combination of factors. First, I was having a lot of fun and feeling lazy, but second, at this time Hurricane Miriam was several hundred miles to the south and moving north, and I wanted to stay close to Bahia San Quintin, which would give me a protected anchorage if the storm became a problem. Fortunately, it dissipated well to the south and all I saw of its remnants were some cloudy skies.

The pacific hurricane season is generally considered to extend through October, but late in the season they seem to mostly affect Baja Sur and my original plan was to stay in Baja Norte, monitor the weather (downloading GRIB forecast maps via satellite phone, worked great) and not head south until after the risk of a hurricane had passed. In the end I headed south too early though, and narrowly (and inadvertently) dodged Hurricane Paul when it rolled up Baja in the middle of October. I’ll get to that later.

Most cruising boats don’t head south until November, avoiding the risk of hurricanes almost entirely. I am sure I will sail this coast again, but I don’t know if I’ll stick to that approach or play things looser, as I did on this trip.

Anyhow, with the threat from Miriam passed I cut plans for other surfing spots in Baja Norte and left Cabo San Quintin straight for Isla Cedros, which involved a 90 mile crossing that is considerably faster than following the coast the whole way down. Unfortunately, on this stretch my autopilot finally died. Since I’d installed it back in 2007 it has found several increasingly inventive ways to fail, all in the drive unit and which I was able to fix with duct tape, epoxy etc., but now the electronics themselves were dying with nothing I could do. I had a backup pilot, but had forgotten it broke several years ago, whoops.

So this left me without an autopilot for the remainder of the trip, a situation I’d dreaded somewhat but which turned out to be not that bad. With the motor running I rigged the tiller so it only needed adjusting every few minutes, and under sail I worked out how to balance the main, jib and tiller so that the boat kept a fairly steady course without needing any correction. The run to Cedros was under sail until the wind died 10 miles from the end, and making the crossing in comfort with no pilot or using the tiller had me feeling like a real sailor for maybe the first time the entire trip.

Isla Cedros is the largest island on the pacific side of Baja, 20 miles long and with a high spine of volcanic peaks. Stayed for a night about half way down the east side. abruptly different climate from San Quintin and earlier. First, it was much hotter than points to the north or the south, the hottest I saw on the entire pacific side of Baja. This was balanced though by great water temperature. From Catalina down to Cabo San Quintin I just wore suits and a t-shirt while in the water, but would get chilled and eventually need to leave. From Cedros on the water was quite warm and I could stay in indefinitely. Really nice snorkeling here, the terrain is boring but lots of fish and the water is just so nice. Hiked a use path up an arroyo to try to get to the island’s divide (following a guidebook) but turned after a couple hours and lots of meandering.

From Cedros I made the 40 mile trip down to Turtle Bay to get some diesel and food, arriving October 1. Stayed a night, went snorkeling — tons of lobsters, literally carpeting the floor in places — then continued on south.

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Baja 2012 Kickoff

Two weeks ago on September 5 I started my big trip for this year, a sail from Moss Landing down the coast of California and the Baja peninsula to La Paz, 100 miles inside the Sea of Cortez. This is about 1500 miles, of which I am already about 1/3 done. Yesterday I arrived in Ensenada, the first port south of the border and about 60 miles past San Diego. This morning I cleared customs, and I will be continuing on tomorrow. The trip so far:

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I’m doing this trip on Grand Illusion, the Great Dane 28 I’ve owned since 2006 and sailed from Moss Landing to Catalina and back in 2008 (need to write that trip up…). This is a great, solid boat, though a little cramped with all the junk I’ve got piled aboard. Besides provisions for another two months, 30 gallons each of fuel and water and a pile of cruising gear, I have a kayak, two surfboards, a kiteboard with three kites, snorkeling gear and a scuba tank with regulator.

For the next month or so I’m planning to slow down my pace, stick to the coast and pick my my way down, exploring and enjoying the area. I’m hoping to get to La Paz around the beginning of November, then spend a couple weeks nearby before flying back to the US. Not sure yet about my long term plans for the boat itself, but most likely I’ll take it up the Sea of Cortez next winter and trailer it into the US.

So far the trip has been going pretty good. From Moss Landing I sailed 48 hours straight down to Bechers Bay on Santa Rosa island. For the first 24 hours I was motoring, but around Point Piedras Blancas the wind started up and I was able to sail nearly continuously down past Point Conception, really nice. Had similar weather to this in 2008, though the wind was stronger then and snapped the boat’s boom around Point Arguello, which kind of put a damper on sailing for the rest of that trip. Nothing drastic this time around, though I did fry the engine’s alternator at some point — combination of some corroded terminals and a bad wiring design.

Even without the alternator the boat still ran fine, just no battery charging, and I was able to stay at Santa Rosa for a few days before heading to the mainland to fix the engine. Santa Rosa is my favorite of the northern channel islands, had a great time hiking here back in 2008. Things were a little curtailed this time, unfortunately. I didn’t bring hiking boots, just sandals, and even those I lost the second day on the island, when they were blown off the boat in some truly ferocious winds. Which kind of put a damper on doing any serious hiking on the island.

Instead, I spent the rest of the time on Rosa kiteboarding in Bechers Bay. There is a sand beach of a mile or so long on the south side of the bay, which gets strong sideshore winds. Launching and landing here are tricky due to backing cliffs which induce gusty, intermittent wind on the beach itself, but once out on the water I had a great time getting up and kiting around. I am very new to kiteboarding, need more lessons and spend most of my time sitting in the water rather than up on the board, but had a lot of fun here and felt steady improvements in skill and comfort. Looking at the beach from the east:

From Santa Rosa I headed east to the Channel Islands Harbor south of Ventura, got a transient slip and stayed for a few days while taking care of the alternator and other supplies. Replacing the alternator on this boat should be simple, just changing over a few wires, slipping on the V-belt and bolting it into place. Unfortunately, of the two replacement/spare alternators I’d ordered the first was defective, and it took the better part of a day dorking around with the electrics and then working with some folks at the boatyard next door before we just swapped in the second alternator, which worked fine, thankfully.

With the engine squared, last Thursday night I headed to Catalina for a long weekend. I stayed on the inside a few miles north of Avalon. This area, and for that matter most of the inside of the island, gets a lot of boat traffic, but close in there’s good kayaking and the snorkeling is excellent. Snorkeling around Long Point is one of my favorite memories from 2008, and coming back was great. Fairly clear water, lots of fish and kelp, cool water but warm enough to swim in trunks for 30-45 min at a time. Lots of fun, spent most of my time on the island kayaking around and snorkeling in various spots.

On Saturday I went south to Avalon and rented a bike to see the island with. I’d also done this in 2008 with my Mom, which was nice but only covered one piece of the island (biking to the airport and back, maybe 12 miles total). This time I still didn’t see all the roads on the island, but made it out to Little Harbor on the west side, then biking back in a loop. Very hot, but nice biking. Little Harbor:

Sailed (well, motored) overnight on Sunday to get to San Diego, where I spent a night to get more supplies, go to the zoo (nice!) and then head down to Ensenada. Lots of dolphins in the water riding with the boat as I approached Ensenada.

Posted in Baja 2012, Kiteboarding, Sailing, Sea Kayaking, Snorkeling | Comments Off on Baja 2012 Kickoff