Celebrating Winter Solstice on the Beach in San Diego

A day at the beach is great any time of year, but it feels particularly great in December.

San Diego might be the best place in Southern California for a beach visit. The SkiZer was lucky enough to spend a couple of days exploring San Diego’s gorgeous beach locations and came away mighty impressed.

The low-angle winter solstice sun painted beach communities in golden light, temperatures were in the 70s, the sand enticing and warm.

Black’s Beach near Torrey Pines.
The foot ferry from downtown San Diego goes to Coronado.
The Hotel del Coronado is the centerpiece of the pristine beach there.
La Jolla Shores is a wide strand, a great place for a walk.
Visitors check out the seals and sea lions near La Jolla Cove.
The recreation path on Mission Beach attracts a steady stream of traffic.
A surfer leaves the waves of San Onofre in north San Diego County.
Sunset Cliffs on Point Loma offers great views of the crashing waves.

In a Great Year, Whitefish Mountain Makes a Move to Get Even Better

The skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort is about to get better.

The resort will announce on Jan. 13 that it’s adding a chairlift to serve its excellent East Rim terrain. The $1.2 million project will relocate the unused front-side Chair 5 to the East Rim.

The chairlift will serve the upper-mountain eastern section of the resort and allow access to the back-side Flower Point and Big Creek Express chairlifts.

It has been a great year at Whitefish Mountain, with huge storms in December helping the resort score record crowds over the holidays. The chairlift relocation was approved by the resort’s board in early January, said Riley Polumbus, public relations manager.

The move will not open up new terrain, but will allow access to an upper-mountain chairlift and improve skier flow, Polumbus said.

The news is fantastic, if you ask the SkiZer. He learned of the chairlift move after arriving at Whitefish Mountain for a prearranged trip to the resort.

Whitefish Mountain is one of SkiZer’s favorites. The move will reduce pressure on the main Big Mountain Express that serves the front side and also make it easier to ski a great section of the mountain. Besides the advanced terrain of the East Rim, several intermediate runs will be served by the relocated chairlift.

As for the day: The skiing was great. SkiZer stepped off the plane and was skiing within two hours — you have to love that kind of access.

 Day 21: Whitefish Mountain Resort

  • Vertical for the day: 9,000
  • Vertical for the year: 314,000
A view of the East Rim from Inspiration, one of Whitefish Mountain’s front-side runs.
Riley Polumbus skis the soft snow on the front side of Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Brian Schott skis in the chutes on the East Rim at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Ghosts of Roche Harbor Await Visitors at the Afterglow Vista

Afterglow Vista Mausoleum

Meet the McMillins.

They’re some of San Juan Island’s favorite ghosts. In their bizarre home in the middle of a forest near Roche Harbor, Wash., they share some laughs and like to entertain visitors from time to time.

And I do mean bizarre. It’s the kind of place you need to see to believe.

The Mausoleum Walk

sanjuanislandFrom Friday Harbor, the ferry destination for San Juan Island, bike or drive to Roche Harbor. The trail starts near the airfield; follow the signs leading into the woods.

The trail winds through an old cemetery, then eventually hits a gravel road. Keep walking down the road and deeper into a dreary forest straight out of a Stephen King story. Eventually, you’ll come to the arched entrance for the Afterglow Vista Mausoleum.

Afterglow Vista: Step inside for a bizarre experience.

Come to the Table

In the middle of a clearing, you’ll find a limestone table ringed by six chairs. It’s surrounded by 30-foot columns supporting a concrete ring with fleur-de-lis designs.

John S. McMillin

The ashes of the McMillin family members are stored inside the bases of the chairs.

John S. McMillin, the family patriarch, is the man behind the mausoleum. The industrialist McMillin made a fortune on the limestone quarry and lime-kiln at Roche Harbor in the 1800s, and built the nearby Hotel de Haro, now part of the Roche Harbor Resort.

McMillin created the mausoleum during the 1930s as a final resting place to honor what he believed in: The Masonic Order, the Bible and the Sigma Chi fraternity, among other things.

The stairway leading to the McMillin family mausoleum.
Ashes for members of the McMillin family are stored in the chairs at the Afterglow Vista Mausoleum.
The names of McMillin family members are on the backs of each chair.
One column of the mausoleum structure was intentionally left broken to symbolize death as “the broken column of life.”

The Ghosts

The ghost stories about the Afterglow Vista Mausoleum go like this:

  • Blue orbs are sometimes seen floating above the chairs at night.
  • Sounds and voices are sometimes heard.
  • Cold spots seem to linger near the table and chairs.
  • On full-moon nights, the ghosts of the family may be seen sitting talking and laughing around the table.
  • Visitors who sit in the chairs report feeling nervous, as if they are violating a sacred space.
  • Those who sit on the table have said it felt like invisible hands were shoving them, trying to make them move.

And for ghost-story lovers, it gets better. The ashes of Adah Beeny, the McMillin family’s governess, are also are interred at the mausoleum. Her ghost is said to haunt a different location nearby — McMillin’s Restaurant in Roche Harbor. Adah has been said to turn on appliances and lights, and she also likes to open and shut doors in the restaurant.

The historic Hotel de Haro at Roche Harbor.

SkiZer Suggests

When to visit: If you aren’t into getting scared and just want to see the mausoleum, go at midday. The mausoleum is eerie, no getting around it, but at midday your brain won’t be conjuring strange noises and nervous feelings. If, on the other hand, you’d like freak yourself out, a visit at sunset does the trick. The woods are dark and the setting is beyond weird.

Bike it? That’s what I did. The ride from Friday Harbor can be done as a 22-mile loop, with mostly rolling terrain.

Drink up: You may need to calm your nerves after an Afterglow Vista visit. McMillin’s, at the Roche Harbor complex, is the perfect place for a drink. And you may just run into the precocious Adah.

McMillin’s: Where the ghost of Ada Beane likes to play tricks.



Hit the Trails This Fall on Mount Rainier


The Emmons Glacier from a ridgeline below Mount Ruth.

Originally published by The Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Read it here.

In September, something magical happens to the hiking trails on the northeast side of Mount Rainier National Park.

The crowds disappear.

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, there’s renewed interest in “America’s best idea.” Visitation nationwide peaked in late August when special programs celebrated the 100th birthday. At Mount Rainier, hour-long waits to get into the park were common.

While birthday parties are fun, it’s also nice when everyone goes home.

“Fall hiking is wonderful,” said Raphael Hagen, interpretation park ranger at Sunrise Visitor Center in Mount Rainier National Park. “The crowds drop off considerably.”

“You can feel the difference in crowds after Labor Day,” said Kindra Ramos of the Washington Trails Association. September hiking is great, she said, because “you have the fall color and there are no bugs.”

The clock is ticking for anyone interested in fall hiking on the high trails of Mount Rainier. Snow typically closes access to Sunrise (6,400 feet) by early October. Chinook Pass (5,430 feet) on State Route 410, the most direct route from Eastern Washington, usually closes in early November and so do the trails out of the White River entrance to the park.

You can still squeeze in some fall hiking on the scenic northeast side of the Mount Rainier National Park. From day-hikes to multiday backpacking trips, here are five sure-fire fall adventures before the snow flies.

The view of Mount Rainier at sunset from Burroughs Mountain.

Sunrise area

Burroughs Mountain: Round trip: Up to 12 miles. Elevation gain: Up to 1,400 feet.

This might be the best day hike on Mount Rainier. Views are stunning and just get better the farther and higher you go.

Burroughs is a series of three exceptional mountain viewpoints that head from the Sunrise Visitor Center toward Mount Rainier. The hike can be done as a loop, connecting with a trail back to Sunrise on First Burroughs Mountain.

Starting at Sunrise, hike the trail clockwise from the south side of the parking lot. The first mile is flat, then climbs steeply up First Burroughs Mountain to an overlook of the White River and Emmons Glacier far below.

From here, climb to the top of First Burroughs and continue if you have the energy onto Second and Third Burroughs mountains. From the top of Third Burroughs, your views of the Winthrop Glacier and the Willis Wall on Mount Rainier’s north side are nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Backcountry camping option: Sunrise campground.


A backcountry camp above Spray Park on the northwest side of Mount Rainier.

Sunrise to Mowich, Wonderland Trail: Total distance: 22 miles. Minimum trip duration: Three days, two nights.

This journey is a classic for anyone wanting a taste of the Wonderland Trail. It follows the contour of the north side of Mount Rainier from east to west, exiting at the Mowich Lake Trailhead. (A car shuttle/hitchhike is necessary.)

Starting at Sunrise, hike the Wonderland Trail from the northwest side of the parking lot. The first two miles of the trail will be crowded; after that, day-hikers will be weeded out. At five miles in, a great first-night campsite is Granite Creek, set in a lovely subalpine forest.

From here, subsequent days are spent going around the Winthrop and Carbon glaciers, which reach far down the flanks of the mountain. A springy, one-person-at-a-time suspension bridge over the Carbon Glacier is a highlight.

From there, take the Wonderland alternate route up the northwest flank of Mount Rainier through gorgeous Spray Park to the Mowich Lake trailhead.

White River area

Summerland/Panhandle Gap: Round trip: 12 miles. Elevation gain: 2,950 feet.

Climb to the most picturesque portion of the Wonderland Trail. Even better, spend the night at one of the sweetest campsites Mount Rainier has to offer.

Start at the Fryingpan Creek trailhead three miles from the White River entrance. One mile in, you’ll hook onto the Wonderland Trail and gradually climb through forest to Summerland, a backcountry camp in a beautiful waterfall-strewn basin just below Little Tahoma peak (11,138 feet).

From here, it’s a crime not to keep going 1.4 miles to Panhandle Gap, the highest point on the Wonderland Trail at 6,800 feet and deep in the Rainier backcountry. Many Wonderland Trail hikers call Panhandle Gap their trip highlight.

Backcountry camping option: Summerland.

A hiker near Glacier Basin on Mount Rainier.

Glacier Basin: Roundtrip: 6.5 miles. Elevation gain: 1,600 feet.

This trail follows the main climbing route up on the northeast side of Mount Rainier.

Starting at the White River Campground, follow the chalky White River as it tumbles from the Emmons Glacier. After one mile, the trail intersects with the Emmons Moraine trail; stay right and continue climbing through subalpine forest a little over two miles into Glacier Basin.

Consider continuing on a side hike up a climbers’ trail to the ridgeline below Mount Ruth (8,690 feet). The trail climbs steeply to the east, and if you can reach the ridgeline, you’ll be rewarded with mind-blowing views of the Emmons, the largest glacier in the Continental United States.

Backcountry camping option: Glacier Basin.

Chinook Pass

Naches Peak Loop: Round trip: 3.5 miles. Elevation gain: 500 feet.

From kids to grannies, anyone can have a great time on this trail. It’s easy, but delivers with great views of Mount Rainier, flowing fields of wildflowers and ripe huckleberries in late summer and early fall.

Park a half-mile west of Chinook Pass at the Tipsoo Lake parking lot. Hike the route clockwise to Chinook Pass until it intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail, then head southeast around Naches Peak. Once you reach the high point on the southeast shoulder, you’ll intersect with the Naches Loop Trail back to your car and also have fantastic views of Mount Rainier.

Consider a short climb up Naches Peak (6,452 feet) for a picnic and pictures.

Tips for your Mount Rainier trip

Weekdays are best for exploring the hiking trails on the northeast side of Mount Rainier National Park.

Consider going during off-hours. Start early or late and you may find yourself completely alone.

The Burroughs Mountain trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park, but if you go at sunset, it will be empty.

Other tips:

  • Backcountry camping permits: You must have permits to camp in Rainier’s popular backcountry. Get a permit (they are free) up to a day in advance of a trip at the White River Wilderness Information Center, (360) 569-6670; 7:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily through Oct. 10.
  • Car camping: The full-service White River Campground is first-come, first-served with 112 sites just off the road to Sunrise and operates through September. The Silver Springs Forest Service campground is seven miles north of the White River entrance on State Route 410 and operates into October.
  • Lodging: Crystal Mountain ski area (crystalhotels.com; (888) 754-6400) and the Alta Crystal Resort (www.altacrystalresort.com; (800) 277-6475) offer the closest lodging to the northeast side of the park; the nearby towns of Greenwater and Enumclaw offer many more options.
  • Check the website for updates and information: nps.gov/mora


Find Your Joy in Our National Parks

Sunset in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

What’s the ultimate road trip?

For me, it was something I called a Spirit Quest.

It was fall 2015, and I had just been laid off from a soul-sucking job at Microsoft. I definitely needed a lift to my spirits. So I hit the road in the West with a carload of camping gear, two bikes and my hiking boots. My only plan was to “experience joy and beauty.”

My Spirit Quest found unlimited joy and beauty in our National Parks. As I think back on that trip, it’s hard to pick out a highlight.

Continental Divide bike ride in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Was it Crater Lake National Park, where I did my favorite bicycle ride ever one gorgeous day? Or perhaps it was the day I rode in Arches National Park and then did two incredible hikes to immerse myself in the mind-blowing rock formations? And what about all the rides and hikes at Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, Rocky Mountain, Teton and Yellowstone National Parks?

It was a fantastic trip.

I’ve been thinking about my Spirit Quest as the National Parks celebrate their 100th birthday on Aug. 25. The parks are our national treasure, not just because of their beauty, but how they make us feel.

On top of it all, the National Parks are an amazing bargain. An America the Beautiful Pass costs just $80 for an entire year, giving you access to the most beautiful places in our country.

If you’re 62, a Senior Pass gives you unlimited access for just $10 — for the rest of your life.

You may complain about the federal government, but tell me what agency delivers more at such a bargain?

I’m not the only one who knows the secret of a National Parks road trip. As my Spirit Quest went on, I met so many people doing just what I was doing. Most were retired, doing trips on the cheap by camping, and spending days really exploring these stunning places. In our individual quests, there was an immediate connection.

So happy birthday, National Parks. Whenever I need a lift to my spirits, I think of you.

Canadian Rockies ‘Best Hike’ Draws a Crowd for a Reason

Doug hiking at “The Nub” just north of Mount Assiniboine.

Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

  • Total distance, plus side trips: 45 miles

When you hike to uber-popular Mount Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies, expect to share the scenery.

Is that a bad thing? Not at all.

Hundreds of hikers joined us at the “Matterhorn of the Rockies,” but the crowds didn’t detract from the beauty of this very special place. In some ways, the diverse crowd — which included Japanese tour groups, American dirt-baggers, families with dogs, wealthy fly-in lodge lizards, and straight-up hard-core backpackers — seemed to add to the experience.

No bad actors ruined the scene, which felt a little like attending a backwoods good-vibes music festival filled with peace and love.

Maybe it was the scenery. The hike along the spine of the Canadian Rockies to Mount Assiniboine is called “one of the best hikes in the world” for a reason.


The hike

The best way to take this journey is point-to-point, from Sunshine Village ski area to the Mount Shark trailhead more than 36 hiking miles away to the south.

Our group — Dale Delong, Ken Sands, Doug Orr and the SkiZer — rendezvoused in nearby Canmore, Alberta, a popular mountain town just southeast of Banff. We left one car at the exit point at Mount Shark and then headed in one car to Sunshine.

You have to love a hike that starts with a gondola ride at a ski area. By taking the Sunshine gondola (open only on weekends in summer months), we saved ourselves about 3.8 miles of hiking and easily 2,000 vertical feet of climbing.

Exiting the gondola cabin, we did a short climb to Sunshine Meadows and started what would be a stunning first day of hiking mostly above-treeline along the Continental Divide.

Ken climbs to Sunshine Meadows.
Dale and Doug hiking above treeline at Citadel Pass.

It was all scenic fun for the first 6.4 miles, but when we reached Citadel Pass (elevation 7,700 feet) it got serious. We took a knee-buckling 2,000-foot descent over 2.7 miles to Porcupine Campground, our first night’s stop.

The campground was overrun when we arrived, but a friendly, help-your-neighbor vibe prevailed. We eventually found a place for the tents and settled in.

Shaking off a rough first day at Porcupine Campground.

Day 2 was a 10.5-mile grinder to the base of Assiniboine. Much of the hike is done in the woods, but eventually we hit treeline near Og Lake and got a taste of what we were in for when we finally got a view of the great peak.

Mount Assiniboine makes an appearance as hikers near Og Lake.

Mount Assiniboine (11,870 feet) is an amazing sight. Jagged, vertical rock, hanging glaciers, cascading waterfalls — the Matterhorn of the Rockies has it all. It stands above a gorgeous basin dominated by the high-mountain Lake Magog where we would spend our next three nights.

The Lake Magog Campground was our base for exploring the area on some excellent day hikes. It’s a huge place, complete with several cooking areas (including a covered shelter) and several pit toilets. The scene is festive and cooperative — everyone is there to enjoy the beauty.

The covered cooking shelter at Lake Magog campground.
SkiZer pounds a Kokanee at the Assiniboine Lodge “tea time.”

Our journey out to Mount Shark would span 16 miles over two days. We stayed at Big Springs (10 miles from Assiniboine), an excellent forested campground with a frigid spring-fed river made for soaking sore feet.

The final day was a sprint for the car, followed by showers and a burger run in Canmore, the perfect end to a week in the Rockies.

Our group, from left: Doug Orr, the SkiZer, Dale Delong and Ken Sands.

SkiZer suggests

Assiniboine Lodge “tea time”: The rich folks fly in and stay at Assiniboine Lodge, about 2 km (1.2 miles) from the Lake Magog Campground. From 4-6 p.m., the lodge hosts a popular tea/happy hour where cakes, tea, lemonade, beer and wine may be purchased. It’s fun (the SkiZer heartily enjoyed his three $7 beers) and quite a people-watching experience.

Helicopter services: If you don’t have the juice to make it to Assiniboine on foot, you can purchase helicopter transport. Many at the Lake Magog Campground were doing just that, saving their energy for day hikes around the area. In addition, if you want to lower your hiking weight, you can also send gear via helicopter (our group sent 30 pounds of food) and pick it up at the Assiniboine Lodge.

Best day hikes: We did two excellent hikes — “The Nub,” a beautiful 1,200-foot climb just north of Assiniboine, and Wonder Peak, a taxing 2,250-foot scramble to a spectacular viewpoint to the southeast.

Bear worries: Considerable time and energy are spent worrying about grizzly bears in this area. We saw none. That said, we carried bear spray and saw some hikers carrying air horns.

Blister rating: Five out of five. Doug can attest to the pain.

Doug’s feet took a pounding, ending up with a visit to the doctor.

Foggy, Wet and Fast on Mt. Hood

Base area of Mt. Hood Meadows.

Day 23: March 11, 2016

The day looked promising when we rolled into the parking lot at Mt. Hood Meadows. New snow, a new mountain to explore.

Soon, any great expectations for Day 23 of the SkiZer season were forgotten.

The falling snow turned to rain. A dense fog hung over the slopes, closing all but a handful of chairlifts. Off-piste was beyond funky, leaving only a few groomed runs to ski.

The SkiZer and his cousin, Tom Olason, gamely tried to make the best of it. But after a few runs, it was clear the day was a washout, prompting us to hit the whiskey flask early. The liquid fire warmed up an otherwise dreary day.

Our biggest problem was the fog. Not really knowing where we were going, or which chairlifts were open, we spent a lot of time trying to navigate in the abyss.

At a certain point, the day turned into what the SkiZer called “a naked grab for vertical.” We settled for skiing a few fast groomers over and over to simply log some runs. After hitting 21,000 vertical, we called it.

Mt. Hood Meadows is probably very nice. It’s hard to know based on this day.

A wet groomer for the SkiZer at Mt. Hood Meadows.
Tom Olason hits the foggy slopes off the Hood River Express.
Happy trails: SkiZer and Tom call it an early day.

Rockin’ the Good Times in Leavenworth

Lee Bob and the Truth perform at the Timbrrr! Festival. (Leslie Kelly)

Day 16: Jan. 30, 2016

You have to love a place where you can eat good food, party, see a killer concert and then go skiing the next day.

After a night of rockin’ it at the Timbrrr! Winter Music Festival (shoutout to my new favorite band, Lee Bob and the Truth!), I hit the tracks at Leavenworth the next morning. Admittedly, my head was hurting, but nothing a day on skis couldn’t fix.

Hatchery finish
Skiers enjoy the trails at Leavenworth Fish Hatchery.

First I loaded up on an excellent breakfast and a few cups of restorative coffee at the Icicle Inn. By 8 a.m., I was skiing on the Icicle River Trails at Leavenworth Fish Hatchery. Conditions couldn’t have been better for skate-skiing — the trails were groomed, frozen and fast.

“This snow will make you feel like Superman,” said Jim Ward, owner of Sulla Vita, an excellent Leavenworth restaurant. I ran into Jim as he was coming off the trails. Part of my foggy brain was due to the wine I’d had with Jim the night before — but for some reason, he looked great. Why me?

In the cool Icicle River Valley, fog hung at tree level as I blazed around the hatchery’s 8K of flat trails in no time — then skied the outer loop a second time to get in a little more. I burned to the finish as the fog was lifting in the valley and in my head.

Skate-skiers on the outer loop along the Icicle River at the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery.

Later, I hit the Nordic trails at Leavenworth Ski Hill. The old-school ski hill is a ropetow-served alpine ski area, but it’s also home to the town’s most challenging Nordic trails that snake up the mountainside.

In contrast to the hatchery trails, the ski hill was nearly empty. These hilly 7K are a push and will challenge even the fittest skier. Conditions were great and by the time the sun poked through to bathe the ski hill in warm light, I was feeling human again.

Ski Hill classic ski
A classic skier enjoys the tracks at Leavenworth Ski Hill.