Mining claim marker in Basin and Range National Monument.

Red Rock Audubon Field Trip to Basin and Range National Monument Memorial Day Weekend, May 26-27, 2018

Audubon members participated in a successful mining claim marker take-down and trash pick-up field trip, helping save birds and bees and removing trash from our shared public lands.

Red Rock Audubon teamed up with, and six birders headed three hours north to Basin and Range National Monument, one of the new national monuments in Nevada. Our goal was to go camping and do a bit of birding, but mainly to knock down a bunch of illegal, abandoned, bird-killing hollow-pipe mining claim markers. These hollow-pipes act as traps for cavity nesting birds and other creatures that seek hollow cavities (e.g., old woodpecker holes in a Joshua tree, rotten holes in old cottonwood trees, etc.). Birds go into the pipes to inspect the “cavity” for nesting, but then can’t get out. Birds, lizards, chipmunks, bats, and insects of all kinds become trapped in the pipes and die from thirst or starvation.


Where are we and what are we doing? Doug points the way.

We headed north and entered the monument on Seaman Wash Road where we were greeted by grand, open landscapes, Horned Larks, Common Ravens, and Red-tailed Hawks. We proceeded to an area on the northeast edge of the monument (off Timber Mountain Pass Road) and hiked into the hills to begin taking down abandoned mining claim markers. In the area, we broke up into groups of one or two to take down the markers, which generally were arranged in lines about 600-feet apart and running east-west across the landscape.


Hollow pipe on ridge high above Coal Valley

These pipes were put up in the early 1990s, and after about 25 years, we were pleased to find only a handful or two of dead birds, a couple of bats and lizards, a chipmunk, and only a few thousand dead bees and other insects in about 40 upright pipes. While working, we were treated to the songs of Black-throated Sparrows, Sagebrush Sparrows, Northern Mockingbirds, and other species hiding in the trees. When hiking in difficult terrain, it isn’t always easy to stop and find the birds.


Doug approaching a pipe on a rocky outcrop


Andrea working on steep terrain

The early-summer temperatures were warm, but we were cooled by strong afternoon breezes and the occasional clouds breaking off the thunderstorms higher in the mountains. In camp, dinner was a bit breezy, but soon after dark the winds died and we were able to sit in a circle spending time chatting, plotting, and catching up on old business. We were under seasonal fire restrictions, so we had to imagine a campfire in the center of our circle.


Campsite with grand, wide-open views

In the morning, an American Badger wandered through camp, perhaps looking for a taste treat dropped during dinner, but it didn’t stick around. After breakfast, we headed to a nearby area in sagebrush flats at the edge of the pinyon-juniper zone and cleared out another 10 markers before the first two of us departed for home. Pinyon Jays, Gray Vireos, Violet-green Swallows, Scott’s Oriole, more Northern Mockingbirds, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, and other birds kept us company while walking among pinyon and juniper trees set in a sea of sagebrush.


Sunrise over Coal Valley


Camp visitor (American Badger)

The four remaining birders broke into two groups and cleared out two more small areas of mining claim markers, which completed our efforts to clear out the entire northern section (several square miles) of the area infested with mining claim markers.


Hollow pipe and 6-8 Gray Vireos (not shown) chasing each other around in circles and singing like crazy in the Pinyon-Juniper-Sagebrush habitat

In the late afternoon, two of us headed out to do some sightseeing, and the other two of us drove to the south side of the mountain to pick off a few more pipes before heading home. It’s a good thing we did — we found and released a live Great Basin Whiptail Lizard from a pipe — always a nice feeling! We also saw numerous Side-blotched Lizards, a Horned Lizard, and a Great Basin Collared Lizard. After that happy note, we headed home. We did, however, pick up seven tires abandoned along the roadway before exiting the national monument.


This is one lucky Great Basin Whiptail Lizard

The last two of us, Troy and Andrea, camped for a second night. In departing camp en route to petroglyph areas for more sightseeing, they took the scenic backroads rather than the faster main road. To their surprise, they spotted another line of mining claim markers. Decisions … decisions: save more birds or see some amazing petroglyphs? In the true spirit of Audubon, they hiked several miles and knocked down another dozen markers! They said: the petroglyphs will be there for another trip, but we can do something good for the birds today.


Non-native Bird Species

Yellow-crowned Bishop (Euplectes afer), Northern Red Bishop
(Euplectes franciscanus), or something else?

I got this little, short-tailed bird at my seed feeder today (October 22, 2017), and I’m thinking it is a Yellow-crowned Bishop. Any suggestions are welcome. The bird is about 2/3rds the size of House Finches with which it was feeding, making it about 4 inches long.


After asking around and being given a key to these little brown birds, consensus is leaning towards Northern Red Bishop largely based on the lack of streaking on the chest.



Virgin Valley Water District Wants Unlimited and Unfettered Access to Water

Gold Butte National Monument is under threat from the Trump Administration because they want more mineral extraction (mostly gas and oil) at the expense of the landscape and the Outdoor Recreation Industry. Wildcatters looked for oil in Gold Butte in the 1980s and found none, and what the old-time prospectors used to say remains true today: you can find anything you look for in Gold Butte, but not in economical quantities (except maybe ecotourism and the outdoor industry, but that is a different topic).


This pipe was a dry hole: no oil here

Prospectors found all kinds of minerals. Most famously they found gold, but they also mined silver, lead, copper, uranium, manganese, mica, vermiculite, and other minerals. As we see today, however, most of the mines played out years ago. Gold was essentially done by 1910, copper died in 1918 except for a spurt in the 1950s, and uranium was done in 1980s. One gold mine operated during the 1940s and another in the 1990s, but those weren’t commercially viable either.


Gold Butte Mine

Prospectors also found and claimed water, perhaps the most valuable extractable resource in the desert. They captured surface flows and mined subsurface water. But just like the other extractable resources in Gold Butte, water seems not to be available in commercial quantities. In fact, most springs have gone dry in recent decades, and all of the wells and windmills are dry or gone.


Ruby Spring — barely damp enough to attract flies and a few honey bees


Garden Spring Windmill — dry for decades


Windmill Mine — but no windmill and no water


This washed out earthen dam used to hold back the outflow from the marsh at St. Thomas Gap

This land has been drying out since the end of the last Ice Age, but people keep trying to catch and store water with hopes of the “good old days” coming back. Perhaps the best example is the exquisite stone dam at Whitney Pocket. But the history of this dam is the history of Gold Butte: the land continues to dry out, the people continue to hold out hope, and the land just keeps on drying out.


Stone dam built at Whitney Pocket by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s

A few springs (e.g., Red Bluff Spring, Horse Spring, Agua Chiquita Spring) remain in central and southern Gold Butte, but they don’t produce much water. Similarly, there are a few springs in northern Gold Butte (e.g., Cabin Spring, Dud Spring, Government Spring) that produce a little water, and one still creates a small stream in wet years.


Cabin Canyon on the north side of Virgin Peak: after an extremely wet winter, water flows in the creek

As they used to say in the Old West, or perhaps still do, whisky is for drinking — water is for fighting. Gold Butte National Monument is under threat from the Trump Administration because they want more mineral extraction: but what they really want now is water. The issue of water rights was settled in the National Monument Proclamation where it says, in plain-and-simple black-and-white text: all existing water rights remain the same before and after the designation of Gold Butte National Monument:

The establishment of the monument is subject to 
valid existing rights, including valid existing water rights.

It is disappointing to learn that the Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) is reneging on agreements and compromises made during the long process of drawing a boundary around Gold Butte National Monument, compromises that cut the northern 50,000 acres out of the original national monument proposal. The VVWD, the Governor, and the conservation community all agreed on the boundary and the language specifying that VVWD would always have access to their lawful water rights —  access that never has been denied.

Despite the agreements and the text of the monument proclamation, the VVWD now appears angry that they can’t have unlimited and unfettered access to the several springs in question, arguing, in effect, that they should be able to put a 4-lane highway into the mountains and up to the springs should they desire.

Well, I hate to tell them, but monument or not, the VVWD will never have unlimited and unfettered access to these springs because these are on public lands, not VVWD private property, and We the People of America have a say in how our lands are managed and how the VVWD can access its water rights. I suspect that We the People will insist on minimal damage to our landscape inside and outside the monument.

Furthermore, VVWD seems to argue that access to these few springs is essential to the survival of Mesquite. Well, they should find no solace in the fact that most springs in the Gold Butte region have gone dry in the last few decades. Hanging their hopes on their few remaining springs will be disappointing.

S120_09914a.jpgDry reservoir below the dry Grapevine Spring

In particular, Nickel Spring is barely a trickle, not the gusher that we’ve been promised by the VVWD. Even to the non-expert, it is plain to see that barely a trickle flows over the solid rocks. If there were lots of water, the canyon would be full of cottonwood trees — but there are none. Catclaw and mesquite trees thrive below the spring, but they are desert adapted and drought tolerant. Hanging one’s hopes for the salvation of Mesquite on Nickel Spring is a fool’s hope.

Nickel Canyon looking towards Nickel Spring — where are the cottonwood trees?

Nickel Spring — barely a trickle

Eclipse August 21, 2017

Eclipse. The earth and moon spin in their eternal orbits around each other and around the sun, always throwing shadows off into space. Sometimes the shadows cross paths with one or the other celestial body, and today the moon travelled directly between the sun and earth as seen from North America.

The zone of totality crossed far north of Las Vegas, but Liz and I headed north last night to Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and camped at Upper Lake Campground. We were only a bit more than an hour north of town, but after a relaxing morning watching the few early-migrating birds (Yellow Warblers, House Wren, Western Grebes), we settled in to watch the eclipse. Direct evidence of planet-sized events is inspiring.

Stormy weather enveloped Las Vegas and all points south of us, but we were right on the edge of the storm system, so we got to see most of the eclipse. Early on, we were under clear skies, but as the eclipse progressed, we got more and more heavy clouds. We could see rain just south of us.

Being so far south, I was surprised that we had such a narrow sliver of sun during the height of the eclipse. We made a pin-hole viewer but mostly used our solar glasses (purchased for the last eclipse) and even shot a few photos through the glasses. As the clouds moved in, we were able to look directly at the sun and take photos without the filter.


Progression of the solar eclipse as seen from Pahranagat NWR


Our National Monuments are Special Places


Gold Butte National Monument

Our national monuments are special places, and the Antiquities Act, which was used to designate them, is an important tool to get the right thing done when unreasonable politics get in the way.

In Nevada, the Antiquities Act was used to designate Basin and Range National Monument and Gold Butte National Monument. Both of these places were supported by the vast majority of Nevadans, but obstructionist Republican politics, having vowed to ensure that our first black president would suffer a failed administration, stymied the will of the people in these and many other cases.

After years of work by many individuals, organizations, and coalitions, and after repeatedly introducing legislation over several years, the people of Nevada asked the president to use authority, granted by congress to the president under the Antiquities Act, to declare Basin and Range and Gold Butte as national monuments.

These were not some random patches of desert real estate chosen by environmentalist to lock out industry. These places are special areas with specific reasons for conserving them.


Basin and Range National Monument. Coal Valley with view west into Garden Valley

Basin and Range National Monument, established in 2015, set aside two large valley basins and all or parts of eight surrounding mountain ranges. This is the Basin and Range Province, the iconic landscape of Nevada, and just like many other states have conserved parts of their iconic landscapes, Nevada has now conserved a part of its iconic landscape. Think of Arizona conserving the Grand Canyon National Park, California conserving Yosemite, and Utah conserving Zion National Park. In this respect, Nevada is now on par with surrounding states.

Basin and Range National Monument conserves some of the last unspoiled basins in Nevada, which is to say that it conserves some of the Basin and Range ecosystem. This helps protect habitat for plants and wildlife unique to this area, and it ensures that outdoor enthusiasts have places to experience these habitats in their primeval state for off-highway driving, camping, and hunting. Conservation of this area also protects the sheep and cattle ranching lifestyle, and the land-art sculpture “City,” from encroachment by industry.

Basin and Range also protects important pieces of Nevada history. The area has been populated by humans for thousands of years, and the native people lived in the area for many generations left their marks. The area also protects some of the earliest (1860s) mining history in southern Nevada, which also tells important stories of conflicts between competing cultures.


Gold Butte National Monument, petroglyphs made by the Paiute people

Gold Butte National Monument, established in 2016, sets aside stunning landscapes and the long history of human use of the land. Like the well-known Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Gold Butte sets aside red-and-white sandstone crags and towering limestone mountains for recreation, but Gold Butte also includes geologically interesting metamorphic mountains (where rock hounds have searched for semiprecious stones over the years) and granite mountains reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park or the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Gold Butte even has its own volcano. Except for the metamorphic mountains, these are the same rock layers that make up the Grand Canyon, and Gold Butte truly is Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon, the difference is that ours is all jumbled up.

Gold Butte protects important pieces of Nevada history. The area has been populated by humans for thousands of years, and native people used the area and left their marks in several areas. Gold Butte also protects early (1880s) ranching and mining history in southern Nevada, and includes stone structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Gold Butte long has been designated for the conservation of Desert Bighorn Sheep and Desert Tortoise, and it provides habitat for other rare and sensitive plant and animal species.

Using the Antiquities Act to set aside conservation areas cuts through congressional inabilities to get the right thing done. In doing so, we the people are saying that these are among the last remaining special places in Nevada and now is the time to think carefully about our future. While some few would like to develop these area and use them up now and forever, the rest of us are saying that we should save some places where future generations can decide what to do with them. It is a bit like tithing to the church or saving for retirement. We are taking something we have today and setting it aside for higher purposes. Future generation can decide to do something else, but we are preserving for them the option to decide.

I grew up in Los Angeles. I remember playing outdoors in the orange and avocado groves. I’ve seen cities expand and take over the landscape as my favorite outdoor spaces were developed for housing and industry. Conservationists are doing the same thing cities and states are doing: long range, large scale, land-use planning. It is time to use all land-use planning tools, including the Antiquities Act, to plan a future that works for everyone: industrial lands where industry is good, housing lands where housing is good, and recreation lands where recreation is good.

S120_17536 copy.jpg

Sunset over Gold Butte National Monument

Mine Markers– Why do I do it?


A mining claim marker standing silently for decades capturing and killing birds

When we look around the world these days, we see many problems that need to be fixed and we want to help. As individuals, however, most things are too big for one person to fix alone. On our own, we can’t fix global climate change; we can’t fix poverty; we can’t fix world hunger.

So we find little things where we can make a difference. I watch birds, so I am in tune with problems facing birds. For example, most species of migratory song birds in North America have experienced large population declines in the last 50 years, some declining as much as 90%. Researchers attribute much of this decline to habitat loss on the wintering grounds in South America, and a combination of habitat loss and mortality during the breeding season in North America.

This is too big for me alone to fix.

There are, however, small things that I can do to help the birds. So far as I know, the only population of Inca Doves in Las Vegas lives around my yard. They used to be widespread in southern Nevada, but now you have to go to southern Arizona to find very many of them. I feed and water the birds every day trying to support my little population.

I’m a hiker, and in the last few years, I became aware of another problem that is harming birds. In the western United States, we have about 1 million hollow mining claim markers. Our migratory, cavity nesting birds see these markers and drop in to investigate them as a possible nest site. Unfortunately, they never come out. Knocking down mine markers is something I can do while hiking to make the world a better place for birds.


Volunteers in Gold Butte taking down a mining claim marker

When I started knocking down markers, I found many dead birds and became appalled by the situation. Now it has become a quest to knock down markers and save birds.

In Gold Butte, I’ve spearheaded efforts to knock down hollow mining claim markers. Our team was assigned (by the BLM and NDOW) 508 Quarter Sections in Gold Butte to search for mine markers. A Section is a square 1 mile on a side, so a Quarter Section is square, 1/2 miles on a side. A square 1/2 miles on a side is a lot of land!


Volunteer in Gold Butte after taking down a mining claim marker

During late 2015 through 2016, the team searched 456 Quarter Sections and found 289 markers, of which 112 were already down, so we knocked down 177 upright markers. In those upright markers, we found the remains of 342 dead birds, 23 dead mammals (including 4 bats), 19 lizards, and tens of thousands of dead insects (mostly bees and beetles). One marker contained 41 dead birds. Most of the dead birds were Ash-throated Flycatchers, but we found 21 wrens (Canyon, Rock, and Cactus), 10 Western Screech Owls, 1 Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and even 1 European Starling.

We will keep working until the remaining 52 Quarter Sections are cleared, although most of these are on the steep, forested, highest ridges of Virgin Peak and probably will be searched by the BLM using a helicopter during the start of next fire season.

Mining claim markers are a big problem, but this is something I can do to make a difference on my own. We can each make a difference working alone.


Contents of a mining claim marker: one mummified Ash-throated Flycatcher and eight Ash-throated Flycatcher skulls


Contents of a mining claim marker: decomposed remains of about 20 Ash-throated Flycatchers

October Birding on Mt. Charleston with Red Rock Audubon

On a cool mid-October morning, with extreme high winds in the forecast, I led a group of nine birders into the mountains to see what we could see at this time of year. Seven of us were local Red Rock Audubon-ers, and we had two out-of-state visitors (one from Ohio and another from Texas).

We drove up Lee Canyon Road talking about the ecology of desert vegetation zones as they change with elevation, then turned onto the Mack’s Canyon Road and took the 4-mile dirt road through the Pinyon-Juniper Forest. The lightly maintained road was fine, such as a narrow, winding road can be while traversing hillsides with steep drop-offs and grand views north across the Nevada Test Site.

When we had climbed into a forest of Ponderosa Pine and White Fir, we stopped at Mack’s Spring. We were glad to find that water was still flowing this late in the year (despite 10 years of drought), and we found lots of wind, but birds were not to be seen. Disappointed, I figured that the wind and cold were keeping them away — and I feared that another “bird-and-hike” would be a birding bust. We did hear something barking in the woods, which we attributed to a squirrel, and we saw a Townsend’s Solitaire and three Dark-eyed Juncos, but who wants to drive that far and see only a handful of birds?

Trying to save the day, we shifted from birding to hiking and started up Mack’s Canyon where we started seeing Bristlecone Pines and lots of just-past-bloom Rubber Rabbitbrush. We also started seeing birds and stumbled into a fairly large mixed flock of Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers, Mountain Chickadees, and Pygmy Nuthatches. Interestingly, the flock came from the direction of the spring and were quickly moving farther up the canyon.

After the flock had passed by us, we decided to salvage the birding by moving to Deer Creek Picnic Area and giving that area a try. Returning to the spring, we realized that the area was now full of birds with lots of Townsend’s Solitaire and Cassin’s Finches. A Brown Creeper came in and gave us a nice, close look while it hunted on “our side” of the tree. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Pygmy Nuthatches, and Yellow-rumps came in for baths (the kinglets showed off their damp ruby crowns). We were most impressed by the large number of Solitaires all in one place — as many as four Solitaires in the binoculars at one time. Perhaps Solitaires aren’t so solitary during fall migration? Also, with so many Townsend’s Solitaires, we realized that our “squirrel barking in the woods” was actually the call of a Townsend’s Solitaire. We did, however, see four Mt. Charleston (Palmer’s) Chipmunks and one Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, plus one 4-point buck Mule Deer.



Audubon Birders at Mack’s Spring


Audubon Birders at Mack’s Spring

We used up our “Deer Creek” time at Mack’s Spring, but all decided to stay a little longer and visit Deer Creek Picnic Area anyways. We drove over and started up the trail. The pond at the bottom was dry, but soon we saw water trickling in the streambed. Just after passing a noisy group of kids playing in the water, we started seeing them again: lots of Townsend’s Solitaire! We counted 10, and we saw most of them at the same time!


We saw three species of woodpeckers: Red-naped Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, and something that we called a Downy Woodpecker because of its small bill, but we now think it was a Hairy Woodpecker with a shorter than average bill. We also saw one Cedar Waxwing — who’s ever seen just one Cedar Waxwing?

We birded Deer Creek for only an hour, but before we left, we heard that squirrel barking in the woods again, but this time we saw a Mt. Charleston Chipmunk on the hillside flicking its tail in time with the bark. I wonder if he was trying to confuse us or the Townsend’s Solitaire?


Audubon Birders in Deer Creek Picnic Area



Mack’s Canyon

Deer Creek

Northern Flicker 1 2
Red-naped Sapsucker 0 2
Hairy Woodpecker 0 1
Clark’s Nutcracker 1 0
Common Raven 1 1
Mountain Chickadee 2 1
Pygmy Nuthatch 6 0
Brown Creeper 1 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 3 2
Townsend’s Solitaire 6 10
American Robin 0 2
Cedar Waxwing 0 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 15 1
Dark-eyed Junco 3 0
Cassin’s Finch 15 0

The Quest Survives

On August 18, 2016, I began what I hoped would be a 21-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail (JMT) totaling some 245 miles without resupply, or at the least, I would do the final 43-mile section of my 40-some-year quest to finish the JMT.

I started at Horseshoe Meadow (10,000 ft elevation) with a heavy pack, but the altitude didn’t affect me too much and I was moving well. On the 4th day, I summited Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft elevation; highest peak in the lower 48 states) from the west side. I’d done it before from the east side, so this was a new route for me. It felt good to make the summit with surprisingly little effort.


Summit of Mt. Whitney (Red John and Steve from MN made a flag)

The 5th day seemed long and hard, although I rested for a couple of hours at midday waiting in a valley bottom for an thunder storm to pass by. I hiked into the late evening, and when I slid into my sleeping bag, I noticed a sore spot on the front of my right shin. Little did I know, it was the start of shin splints, which I’d never experienced.

On day 6, my shin hurt with every step as I hobbled over the highest pass on the JMT. At 13,153 feet, Forrester Pass is high and steep, and although I was moving, I needed to stop at every stream crossing to soak and numb my shin in the near-freezing water. On the way down the other side (going down was more painful), some friendly hikers gave me two 800-mg ibuprofen tablets. Half of one, plus more freezing water and leaning heavily on my trekking poles, helped me finish the 10-mile day, but I was beat and discouraged from the pain.


Soaking my leg in near-freezing lake water

I decided to make day 7 a short, easy day to let my leg rest, but by lunchtime, I decided that I needed to get out and sent Liz a satellite message to please come and pick me up. With the aid of cold water, trekking poles, and drugs, I could move, so I decided that I needed to move while I could. I spent the rest of the day hobbling over several more miles.

The next day, the 8th and last day, I hiked over Kearsarge Pass, a relatively easy pass at only 11,709 feet elevation, and down to the Onion Valley Trailhead (9,185 ft). Liz arrived shortly before I arrived at the trailhead, and it was quite a sight to come around a corner on the trail and see her coming up with an empty backpack to help me carry the load the rest of the way down.


Liz coming up the trail!

So although I hiked some 70 miles, I left 12 miles — only 12 of 211 — of the JMT undone. I came so close to finishing the quest that I started in 1973. Maybe it is good to leave a quest incomplete: now I have something to look forward to next year.


Done: Onion Valley Trailhead

After thoughts: Five days post hike: the shin is still unhappy but I can walk more-or-less normally. After about two weeks, my shin was more-or-less back to normal. Five months later, I’ve done a lot of hard hiking, but I not had any problem with the shin.


Results of the 2016 Trip relative to the Previous Hikes

Working on the Bucket List — John Muir Trail 2016

Over the last several years, as Liz and I have gotten older, we have been working on our Bucket List items.

  • Jim retires by 50 years of age — check
  • Jim and Liz bird Newfoundland seabird colonies — check
  • Jim and Liz visit Missouri Botanical Gardens — check
  • Jim and Liz bird the Alaska Marine Ferry to at least Juneau — check
  • Jim and Liz hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back — check
  • Jim finishes the John Muir Trail (JMT)

We are getting close to the end of the list. Sure, some items have been forgotten and others will be added, but “Jim finishes the John Muir Trail” is next up.

The  John Muir Trail (JMT) is a popular trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California that runs through some of the most scenic terrain in the United States. The trail was named to honor John Muir, a preeminent, late 19th century conservationist who was a driving force behind establishing Yosemite National Park and other conservation areas in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an effort that resulted in establishment the “Sierra” Club. Planning for the trail began in the 1900s, and construction began in 1915, the year after Muir’s death.


Map of My History and 2016 Goals for the John Muir Trail

Completed in 1938, the John Muir Trail runs from the bottom of Yosemite Valley (Happy Isles; 4,100 ft elevation) north to Tuolumne Meadows (8,600 ft elevation; where John Muir first learned to love these mountains), and then south through high country (35% of the trail is over 10,000 feet elevation) to the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft elevation; highest point in the continental United States). The trail was originally 212 miles, but rerouting over the years has added a few miles, so now it seems to be 214 based on GPS tracks with careful editing using Google Earth images. In addition, the trail technically ends atop Mt. Whitney, and hikers still need to hike at least 11 miles farther to reach civilization, so as a technical matter, hikers doing the entire trail need to hike 225 miles.

The bucket-list item reads “Jim finishes the John Muir Trail” — that implies Jim tried but didn’t finish before?

Cathedral Peak.jpg

First time on the JMT (Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite, near Cathedral Peak, circa 1972)

Well, not exactly. In 1973 when I was 15, between my freshmen and sophomore years in high school, I hiked with a high school friend named Tom (last name lost to history) from Rock Creek to Yosemite Valley, a total of about 102 miles in 30 days, and about 88 miles on the JMT.

The following year, in 1974 at age 16, between my high school sophomore and junior years, I hiked with Steve Ponting (another high school friend) from Kings Canyon to Rock Creek (113 miles). I then walked back into the wilderness alone and hiked farther north to Reds Meadow (43 miles), a total of 156 miles in 32 days, and about 111 miles on the JMT.

So, in those two years, I did about 199 miles on the JMT, but there was some overlap, so I’ve only done a total of 171 JMT miles. The entire trail is 214, so I’ve not walked on 43 miles of the JMT.

Actually, it isn’t quite that simple, as I’ve hiked several times on parts of the JMT. In 2008, I hiked with Liz and my sister and her family from Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows (about 35 miles), and during several years Liz and I hiked various routes from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley (25-35 miles each). In 2005, we did the traditional JMT route from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. Thus, in total I’ve walked about 300 JMT miles, but those 43 un-walked miles still hang on me.

After hiking during my high-school summers of 1973 and 1974, life got busy (working in the mountains of northern Idaho; 1975 and 1976) and I drifted into other endeavors (e.g., climbing the big walls in Yosemite; 1977; hiking in northern Alaska 1978), but I’ve always planned to go back to the Sierras and finish the southern 43 miles of the JMT. I’ve thought about thru-hiking the entire trail, I’ve thought about just doing the minimal 43-mile section, and I’ve thought about doing it all again in sections.

This summer, I’m hiking the entire trail from a bit south of Mt. Whitney to Yosemite Valley (242 miles).

Hiking from south to north, the trail starts over Mt. Whitney, but it is very difficult to get permits for that section, so I’ll start at the next trailhead south where it is easy to get walk-up permits. Permits for these mountains are “entry permits,” so once a hiker enters, they can go more-or-less anywhere for as long as they want, and that is my plan.

I’ll leave during the third week of August, entering west of Lone Pine, California, at the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead. From there, I’ll head north about 20 miles to meet the JMT near Crabtree Meadows and climb Mt. Whitney (14,500 ft) from the west side as a day-hike. This will be my second ascent of our highest mountain (first in 2002), but the first from the west side.

From the summit of Mt. Whitney, I’ll turn around and hike north 43 miles to Woods Creek, the point where I joined the JMT in 1974 (starting from Kings Canyon). I’ll then continue north 86 miles to Mono Creek, the point where I joined the JMT in 1973. From there, I’ll keep hiking north to Reds Meadows, another 28 miles, to where I ended in 1974. Continuing north, I walk another 60 miles all the way to Yosemite Valley, completing the entire JMT in one run — but we’ll see how it goes

I’ll be carrying a SPOT device, which allows me use the satellite phone system to send geo-referenced pre-recorded messages from the trail. Visitors can follow my progress by opening my SPOT webpage where messages will be displayed on a map. I hope to start hiking slowly until I get my mountain lungs and legs, then pick up the pace — I’ll need to average about 10 miles per day to reach Yosemite Valley in 24 days.

I’m excited!

[Postscript: I failed to complete my quest, but be sure to read about the details.

Trip to Washington, D.C., for Public Lands

June 14, Tuesday — Las Vegas to Washington DC

Up early with Liz who dropped me at the airport about 3:30 for a 6:00 am flight. The flight to Denver was uneventful, but it was nice seeing my territory from the air. We even flew over Gold Butte and I got photos of the Colorado River delta at Lake Mead.


Scheduled to fly


Departing Las Vegas (view north)


Nice view of the neighborhood (view east)


Flying over southern Gold Butte (view south)


North Rim of the Grand Canyon (view south)


Colorado River and Navajo Mountain (view south)


Rocky Mountains, Colorado (view south)


Leaving the western mountains and entering the Great Plains (view south)


Landing at Denver Airport


Flight delays


Clouds over middle America


Landing in Washington, D.C.

In Denver, the flight to DC was delayed about 2 hours. I spent about one of those hours hiking a loop on our concourse. Departing Denver, the land was different and I couldn’t figure out where we were. I got lots of landscape photos, but the Mississippi River was the only one where I recognized features on the ground.


It pains me to even say the name of this airport


Riding the train into D.C. (Washington Monument out the window (view northwest)

In DC, I bought a card and took the metro to near the hotel. Unfortunately, there were several exits from the subway, and I took the one that gave me the longest walk. At least I got to see some of Chinatown.


Comfortable bed at the Courtyard Marriott

I found the hotel, Courtyard Marriott at F and 9th and got checked in. The day had seemed long and draining, even though I’d done nothing, but perhaps the 2:45 wake up was getting to me. In the room, I relaxed a few minutes, then did a FaceBook check-in to let the world know I’d arrived. To my surprise, Annette Magnus responded to my post with a “come downstairs and meet me for dinner.” No to pass up an offer like that, we had a great chance to chat and catch up on what we’d been doing back in Las Vegas and some information about what we’d be doing here.

Back in the room, I did more social media, cleared out the email, read a bit, and hit the sack about 10:00 pm. It was getting late here, but that was on 7:00 pm “brain” time, but even so I conked out for the duration.

June 15, Wednesday — Washington DC

I decided to skip breakfast so I could sleep an extra hour and got up about 7:30 am. By 8:00 am I was out the door and heading to the Pew offices just around the corner. It was convenient that they put us up in an adjoining building.

The morning meeting was a pep talk and rehearsals for the day ahead, and although they had coffee, there were no snacks, so I struck out on my skipping breakfast gamble.

After the meetings, we piled into two cabs and headed to the Dirkson Senate Building. First things first, we got lunch in the basement (philly cheese steak), then headed upstairs to Senator Heller’s office.

After a polite wait, Jeremy Harrell took us into a meeting room where we had an interesting discussion about northern Nevada land bills (the Senator is moving them along) and Gold Butte. The Senator is opposed to designation as a National Monument, but is interested in a second Clark County Lands Bill. We shall see how things go. But anyways, I went away thinking that Heller isn’t really the devil I make him out to be.

From Heller’s office, our contingent walked across the street to the Capitol Building where, after several layers of security, we go into Senator Reid’s office. We were met by Sara and Timothy and had a nice chat, then the Senator came in and spent about 3 minutes apologizing for why he couldn’t meet with us. We finished the meeting with Sara.

Four of us spent about an hour walking on the National Mall and visiting the Botanical Garden.

Back to Dirkson for a 2-hour reception. Nice chance to chat with lots of people working on lots of different land campaigns. Highlights included the VetsVoices guys (Steve and Garrett) and the GB Working Group voices I head on the weekly phone conversations.

Back to the hotel for writing and social media, then to bed late at about 11:15 pm. At least I’m sleeping in until 8:00 am.

June 16, Thursday — Washington DC

Breakfast with the crew, then off to Dina Titus’ office (Titus and Ben Rosenbaum). We had a nice chat and she said there was a chance the monument would be paired with Stonewall and declared within a month. That would be exciting. Titus seemed tired.

From there, we took a cab to CEQ across the street from the White House. Good meeting with Sally Hardin (Michael Degnan couldn’t make it), but not remarkable. Photos in front of the White House.

Walked a few blocks to the DOI building. Got there early and stopped for lunch. I didn’t eat, but the AC was nice on a hot, humid day.

We had a 1-hour delay, so we walked to the Washington Monument and back. The DOI building looked old and tired, and the restroom felt like an old visitor center restroom. Good meeting with Nikki Buffa, but she suggested Gold Butte might be set aside due to fears of armed insurrection (not another Malheur Sec. Jewel says). Nikki was interested in the northern boundary issue, but suggested that I needed to chat with Reid’s office (Carrie set up the meeting for tomorrow).

After the meetings, we returned to the hotel and left our bags, then Patrick and I went to the National Museum of the American Indian. It was an interesting cultural experience to visit the museum with a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo. Patrick showed me around exhibits of his people. He was so excited to share, and I was so eager to learn.

Took cab to Vietnam Veterans Memorial and walked a bit. Brought back powerful emotions from when I was a young man. We took a long walk on the mall, then cabbed back to the hotel.

Dinner alone in the hotel restaurant, then social media and to bed late.

June 17, Friday — Washington DC to Las Vegas

Had a hard time sleeping. Stayed awake thinking about the meeting in the morning. Got enough sleep in parts, and could have stayed up at 5 am, but got up about 8:30 am. Breakfast at the hotel buffet, then checked out about 10:00 am leaving $10 in the room.

I walked a bit more than a mile to the Hart Senate Building. It was warm and humid outside, but the morning was fresh and it was nice to walk, get some exercise, and see the people (first obviously homeless people), birds (mostly robins, starlings, and house sparrows), and Eastern Gray Squirrels (seemed to be a lot of Sciurids out this morning. It had rained overnight, so there was wetness in places, and that added to the humidity.

I arrived at the Hart Senate Office Building about 10:30 am. Thought about relaxing outside, but decided to cool off and dry out inside. Met Sara Moffit and Thomas (Tim? the BLM intern) in Reid’s office (#522) at 11:00 am and talked about map issues regarding the northern boundary. I wanted to make sure they knew about the Mud Spire area and how that would make a nice site for the Visitor Center, but willing to compromise in other areas. Matching boundaries with Parashant make some sense, and I really don’t want to give away the Bunkerville Ridge area. It sounds like DOI is really afraid of antagonizing Bundy, and Reid may have to give a little to keep a lot. DOI is talking about pulling the boundary back to Whitney Pocket, which would be a real tragedy, but Sara says this is just the first whack at the ball and Reid will try to get it all if he can.

Sara also said that Reid had tried to get “garden valley” twice before in the 2000 and 2006 Lincoln County bills, but it didn’ts work that time. This gives data points to the story that Basin and Range didn’t come out of nowhere. There was 15 years of work put into the project, but I still wonder why the conservation community didn’t rally the first two times.

After the meeting, I walked over to the capital and got a few photos with the Gold Butte sign, then walked all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.

Along the way, I toured the Botanical Gardens again. It is such a cool place (actually hot and very humid) with Gray Catbirds, Red-wing Blackbirds, and Song sparrows inside. The cactus section was closed for roof repairs, which is disappointing because I wanted to use the Gold Butte sign with the cactus. I did get some nice orchid and other photos for Liz. Maybe it is time to visit Washington again.

Walked up to the Washington Monument, then on down to the WWII memorial. It was interesting, but without the features I expected (no tanks). There was a nice pond with fountains, lots of stars, and a pillar for each state and territory.

Continued along the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. Stopped about where MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. For such a powerful place, it was interesting that there was no marker in the flagstones memorializing the event. I’ll have to pay more attention to photos from the event to see exactly where he stood (on his platform). Sitting on the plane next to a Black lady and an Asian lady, I think about how far we’ve come — yet how far we have to go.

Inside the memorial I was one of hundreds of people taking photos and contemplating the events that led to this memorial. I started to read the 2nd inaugural speech on the wall, but decided I needed to get going. There are a lot of steep steps up to the memorial, and as I was leaving, an elderly man was taking his last, wavering, step upwards. I offered him a hand to steady his last step, but he smiled and wanted to do it on his own. I guess it was an event for him too. He was dark skinned and I didn’t think black, but maybe so.

From there, I hustled back up the Mall, following along the shaded walk on the other side of the Reflecting Pool. I stopped to set off SPOT between the Reflecting Pool and the WWII memorial, then hiked on to near the Smithsonian. There I detoured right and walk out Independence Ave to 7th, then down to the L’Enfant Plaza to catch the subway to the airport. I had hiked pretty hard and was soaked in sweat by the time I got to the subway.

I found my way to the subway with the kindness of strangers, and after getting off the train, I gave my left-over card with $5.60 left on it to the ticketing guy who was helping tourists buy tickets. I asked him to give it to someone who needed it, perhaps a single mother or a vet, and he suggested a homeless person. I got the impression that I wasn’t the first to give away my card before departing, but that it was an uncommon event. The ticket agent seemed surprised and delighted to have it.

The airport was really crowded, so I’m glad a saved one last clean shirt for the trip home. Everything worked out and the flight departed on time for Charlotte, which was only 45 minutes away, but took twice that long just because of taxi out and taxi in time.

Charlotte was much more peaceful, and we departed there on time too. We chased the setting sun all the way to the middle of Arkansas, and even now more than an hour farther west (western Oklahoma [got tracks]), we still have a grand glow of orange on the horizon as we are passing what looks like a great salt flat with a small lake; I wonder is this is the place we visited at the Prairie Chicken Festival.

We are now in the northeast corner NM and we still have sunset orange in the northwest sky (other side of the plane). Out my window, it is essentially dark with lots of lights on the ground in places but not here. We also have a nearly full moon tonight. A bit farther along, I can see the lights of ABQ in the distance coming out from behind the Sandia Crest,

Looking forward to getting home and seeing Liz.