Category Archives: Outdoors

Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala

Acatenango is a dormant volcano that rises nearly 4000m above the western highlands of Guatemala. The main reason to climb Acatenango is to get front row seats to the not so dormant and aptly named Fuego volcano which sits directly beside Acatenango. The climb also offers excellent views of the dormant Agua volcano and the countryside around Antigua.
We booked our tour with GT Adventure Tours and Travel in advance as they had a website and offered what we’re assuming are reasonable rates. It appeared as though the agency outsourced the shuttle and guides as other folks on the tour seemed ot have used other agencies with some paying less.

The morning of our hike, we were picked up at our hotel in Antigua, driven around to bunch of other hotels to pick up more hikers and then driven to the trail head beside the village of Le Soledad. We were immediately set upon by a group of children selling walking sticks which are highly recommended for anyone who hasn’t brought proper hiking poles. Ofcourse, they should  have been in school instead of selling walking sticks but they were so darned cute!

The hike to the base camp would be 1100m straight up, so  James insisted on purveying the services of a donkey to carry one of the packs up the gruelling climb. At $40 CDN, he decided to walk away from the deal, only to return moments later, reluctantly forking over the cash.   We soon noticed that there actually was no donkey and that one of our guides (all of whom were from the local village) had opted to pocket the cash and take the pack up himself. James was comforted by the knowledge that at least he wasn’t the douche bag that hired the 10 year old kid to carry a large pack, wondering aloud who could have stooped so low.  It turned out that the guide that was carrying our pack had, in turn, gotten his 14 year old son to carry his own pack and then hike back down again the same day – ouch! There are actually small horses available to be hired for people who can’t make the hike which I’d be very tempted to do if we ever returned.  This was one of the most consistently steep hikes we’ve done with very few switchbacks.

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kid stooping low while carrying up his dad’s pack

The initial trail was more like a trench, cut deeply into loose volcanic soil – showing the layers of previous eruptions. After passing through corn fields interspersed with Calla lilies, we reached the old growth cloud forest, thankful for it’s shade and cool air. Ascending out of the cloud forest we paused for lunch and got a chance to examine our meal kits which consisted of a not particularly appetizing bologna sandwich, a chicken sandwich on a ciabatta bun, some granola bars, a pastry and instant noodles (you might want to bring your own food).
After about 4 punishing hours, we cleared the tree line and the trail started to level off as we began moving around to the other side of the the volcano. The view opened up and we started hearing loud bangs that sounded like they were coming up from the valley below. Some parts of the trail on this section forked without markings to determine the correct route so even though we definitely recommended taking this hike at your own pace, if you do get away from the group, it’s also good to have a guide with you to lead the way.
Following another half-hour of hiking we finally made it to the camping area which consisted of a number of terraces cut out of the steep slope. The view of Acatenango was stunning with loud explosions followed by puffs of smoke. Our guides set out right away to chop down trees for firewood. Like British Columbia, climate change had allowed pine beetles to ravage the sub-alpine forest which made for lots of dead, dry wood for burning. Conspicuously absent were any outhouses which is a shame as they would have had great views. The thought of relieving oneself in an open outhouse while watching a volcano erupt would definitely have its charms!

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View of Agua from campsite

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Fuego

We soon started setting up tents and changing into warmer clothes as the temperature began dropping quickly. Eventually, we gathered around the fire to chat about the hike up and trade stories while periodically turning to watch an epic eruption. We lay our tin foil wrapped sandwiches and pastries on the fire to heat them up and were mostly successful in not burning them. As it got darker, the giant fireworks of magma shooting high into the air became visible. The larger eruptions elicited whoops and hollers from nearby campers.

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Ours was a quite international group including French, Swiss, Germans, a Brit and a Kiwi – good natured folks all around. The Kiwi, Aaron revealed that he had written an epic fantasy tale called Storm Wielder  (with favourable reviews on Amazon.com) and was to complete the trilogy with two more. The guides cooked up some tasty hot chocolate and provided a bottle of whiskey for any takers. James spent most of the evening fiddling with the tripod, trying to get pictures of Fuego erupting as well as of the surrounding countryside.

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We headed to bed early, wearing all of our clothes including toques (knit caps), neck warmers and down jackets to make up for the flimsy Coleman sleeping bags. The guides stayed up late, chatting loudly around the fire until the whiskey was gone.  We awoke frequently to the sound of loud eruptions – each time wanting to go out and take a look or a picture but always remaining in our sleeping bags. The altitude sickness drugs seemed to work well as we didn’t feel too bad except for some numb fingers. Eventually the tent warmed up a bit and we were able to shed some layers but were soon awake, dragging ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags for the 4:00 am hike to the summit.

We slowly headed up the now sandy trail part of a long queue, passing at least one person vomiting from the what we assumed was altitude sickness. Stopping to watch several large explosions and pausing at bottlenecks we eventually made our way to the summit which was completely devoid of vegetation. The gale force winds were bitterly cold and James was afraid to put on his large down jacket in case his outer shell got blown off the mountain while changing.

We eventually sat down to watch the sun rise, huddled together with a large group on the side of the peak facing the volcano. Sadly, we didn’t see any more epic eruptions and, after snapping a few more photos and with the cold starting to getting to us, we decided to head back down before the sun actually made an appearance . This wasn’t a problem as the views on the way down were still wide open and faced the rising sun.

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We were able to make good time on the way back to the camp by bounding down the sandy trail. Aaron decided to put his sprinting strategy to work, charging down different sections at a time. After quickly breaking camp, we started heading down the rest of the way, descending at a fairly aggressive pace with only the occasional slip on the soft trail.

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Aaron charging downhill

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Lower down, we passed a group of local farmers harvesting corn for tortillas with horses to carry their haul down to the village. It must have been back breaking labour!

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Once at the bottom, the group brought beers for ourselves as well as the guides. There seemed to be some confusion as we didn’t leave for a while after the incoming group was dropped off – some of whom looked woefully unprepared judging by their attire. Eventually we were off, taking an entirely different route back along dirt roads so the driver could give a lift to his friend whom he had been continuously texting while driving .

We had trouble walking the next few days but were glad we had this amazing experience!

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On the Hunt for Morels

The combination of hot dry summers and tinder dry trees — destroyed by an epidemic of pine beetle — create perfect conditions for forest fires to ignite. These fires can ravage hectares of trees and destroy homes, but they are also an opportunity for the forests to regenerate. A forest following a fire is a surreal place. The earth is covered in a layer of ash, and the trees are charred and blackened, but even so, there is hope. The following spring after a forest fire, patches of bright green growth are visible and blackened bark peels away to reveal the gold and red hue of wood beneath. And mysteriously, as if stirred from a long sleep, morels begin to appear, their conical peaks breaking through the layer of ash.

Eldorado PatchCan you see them?

Searching for morels begins a year in advance. The BC Wildfire Management Branch posts wildfires on their site and notes their locations and size. We search for fires that are sufficiently large enough and within a reasonable driving distance from Vancouver. It’s important to note, that many of these fires may be on private or protected land and/or in areas that are dangerous and inaccessible. We use backcountry road maps, but as in this last trip, found that they can quickly become out of date, as forest service roads are constantly changing and old roads not necessarily maintained.

NavigatingTrying to find the right road — in the end, we chose the wrong one
[Photo courtesy of Victor Chorobik]

As the last of the snow was still melting from the peaks, and the ground still moist from the infrequent spring rains, we ventured out up past the Coquihalla Summit to the Maka-Murray burn site. After a few wrong turns and a grueling drive up a ragged logging road, we reached Murray Lake. The lake is quite lovely and to our surprise a number of cabins lined the shore. On either end of the lake are Forest Service Rec sites, which are relatively private. That said, at the peak of summer, I imagine they could be over-run with overzealous ATVers, breaking the pristine silence with a constant buzz that has more sting that even the most persistent mosquito. Judging by the garbage left behind, litterers like to shoot off 22s and shot guns while drinking Bud, Corona Extra and, of course, Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Oh, I almost forgot the wine-tipped cigars.

We drove onwards towards Debbie Lake, closing in on the burn site. Arriving at a spot that looked sufficiently burned, we parked at the side of the road. With great trepidation and hope, we scanned the earth for any signs of morels. Francesca was the first to call out “found one!” and the game was on. It certainly wasn’t a bonanza. Mostly scattered few and far between, occasionally an El Dorado patch or ‘vein’ as we liked to call it would reveal itself.

First MorelsMorel growing in the ditch near where our cars were parked

The strength of the fire varied immensely, some areas completely black and void of life, others looking totally unscathed, as if the fire had leapt beyond it, leaving an island of refuge behind. In the past, we had found — much like the 3 bears — that morels preferred areas, not too burnt, not too alive, just somewhere in between. Half-dead. Here, it seemed, they appeared in unlikely places, but eventually a pattern did begin to emerge. It was dry now, but one could imagine where water had once flowed down gullies and pooled in depressions to provide the most fertile ground. Underfoot, you could feel how the ground would give slightly. Was there a dry crust? A thick layer of ash? Where did the sun fall? Was it north facing? In the shade and sheltered from the hot sun? The formula was definitely not perfect, and you would think, yes, this is the perfect place for a morel to grow, yet see nothing.

Morel growing among needlesMorel growing out of the pine needles

In the end, we got a decent haul. There were a couple of spots, an “Eldorado Patch” where we found quite a few. You couldn’t pick fast enough, as if worried it was a mirage, that might disappear without a moments notice.

After the pickReturning from a successful foraging adventure

Picking morels is thirsty work, and deserving of a post-pick cold beer. We found a lovely meadow at the side of a lake to lay down our picnic blankets. Our crew came well prepared, with fresh baked Italian bread, homemade fermented pickles, delicious cheeses, cured meats, craft beers and of course, the piéce de resistance. Freshly picked morels, sautéed in garlic and olive oil and slathered on thick slices of bread. Yum. So good! James set out to catch us a trout for lunch, and he came pretty close too, but in the end, it was just another couple of trout that got away — or, as James called it, catch and release.

Picnic by the lakeEating and relaxing after a job well done

Morels on baguetteMorels on slices of baguette

Our friends parted ways, heading back to Vancouver while we settled in to spend the night camping. We took an evening stroll and followed the shallow brook that trickled out from the lake. We found little black tadpoles, frogs and spawning Rainbow trout. The water was so shallow, with plenty of obstacles, which sadly included quite a bit of garbage, an ATV track that ran across the creek and even a chicken wire fish trap which we questioned the legality of. That, in addition to predatory birds such as the bald eagle that was perched in an overhead tree, made it hard to imagine how they managed to get as far upstream as they did.

James drinking wineEnjoying a mug of wine by the fire

Campsite Our campsite

Rainbow TroutSpawning Rainbow trout

Trout SpawningRainbow trout roe

In addition to all of the dandelions, there were plenty of wildflowers in bloom such as chocolate lilies, larkspur, indian paintbrush, calypso orchids and yellow and purple violets. Amidst the flowers were a network of burrows and we could hear the telltale chirp of a ground squirrel before he popped up his head from the grass.

Chocolate LilyChocolate lily

Indian PaintbrushIndian paintbrush

Ground squirrelGround squirrel

The next day, we decided to try picking for a few hours more before returning home. We headed up a different spur, this time following a road that rose above Debbie Lake towards Jono Lake. This area was quite exposed to the sun and both steep and rocky. We ended up finding a few sparsely scattered morels in a gully at the edge of the burn, but decided to continue our search from where we had left off the day before. As we turned back, we found a well-marked trailhead to Debbie Lake, which had escaped us the previous day. The trail was well used by ATVs and led down to quite a pretty lake. There was a little old log cabin tucked in the woods, its roof caved in by a fallen tree.

Cabin in the woodsCabin at Debbie LakeDebbie LakeDebbie Lake

Our decision to return to other site, paid off, and it wasn’t long before we were satisfied that we’d had ‘enough’. We felt a little guilty as other pickers had hidden many morels under strips of bark, hoping to return to find them fully grown at some later date. This was the first time we’d ever seen this technique and it’s desperation spoke to the relatively meagre yield and small size of this particular burn.

Lots of morelsThe fruits of our forage

Narvaez Bay Gulf Islands National Park on Saturna Island

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In the warmer months, Vancouver still has a few good options for spontaneous overnight camping excursions. When most provincial campsites are fully booked and forest rec sites are overflowing and unruly, Saturna Island offers a quiet escape with exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities.

Saturna has purposefully kept development at bay to retain its wild character. The island’s residents have historically opposed allowing camping, seeking to avoid rowdy camping culture and to reduce the risk of forest fires. The high ferry costs and end-of-the-milk-run nature of getting there also keep the crowds away.

Campers were finally able to get a foothold on the Island with the addition of the Narvaez Bay back country campsite, established to expand overnight opportunities in the young Gulf Islands Natural Park Reserve. The campsite makes circumnavigating Saturna in a kayak more feasible and also provides an excellent option for those wishing to hike, cycle or walk-in from the parking lot.

We’ve always taken bikes, but some hardy souls hike the 8km from the ferry terminal. If you decide to leave your car behind, overnight parking at the ferry terminal cost us $32. There are probably parking options in Tsawassan though, if you want to the bike the rest of the way to the ferry.

The ferrIMG_6633y trip takes about 3.5 hours, stopping at Galiano and Mayne, (where you must change ferries) and then continuing on to Pender and then, finally Saturna. After departing from Mayne, Ria excitedly asked, “Did you see that?” She had seen a splash, a dorsal fin off the bow or was it just a rogue wave? The wind was up and the water choppy, but several moments later, the undeniable fin of a large female orca whale broke the surface, once again. After years of paying exorbitant prices to be ferried around BC’s coastal waters, this was the first time we had ever spotted an orca from the ferry. We were gleeful. At first it appeared that this was a lone, transient orca, but further along the coast, a few more orcas appeared. We were turning in to Otter Bay on Pender Island, to drop off and pick up some passengers and then were on our way to Saturna Island. It appeared that the orcas would be accompanying us for part of the journey. You can find and report whale sightings in the area at the Orca Network website.

The bike ride from the terminal is pleasant with an elevation gain of about 130 m — reasonable for a gulf island. We only passed two cars on the way in and road was paved for most of it. The sides were lined with wild edibles such as stinging nettles and vanilla leaf, which, apparently, makes a good tea.

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There’s overnight parking at the park entrance and another 500 m to the campsite, most of which is downhill. The last couple of hundred metres passes beside an old homestead which still features some heirloom varieties of apple trees that ripen in August and September.

There’s no water at the campsite so we packed in about 10 litres although we ended up only using 6 in the mild weather. The fact that we didn’t need to cook with water probably helped keep our consumption to a minimum, as did the 3.5 litres of beer we brought. According to the park website, “moderate alcohol consumption” is allowed, whatever that means?!

When we finally arrived at the campsite, we were surprised to find 13 tents already set up and no spare tent pads to be had. Many of the campers had spilled over into the no camping area near the water. There’s also designated overflow camping in a clearing by the old homestead. However with the long grass and potential for ticks, we opted for an ocean-side site.

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At any rate, it doesn’t really matter where you set up your tent as the best place to hang out is a few hundred metres opposite the campsite at Echo Bay. A path leads to a rocky bay and then continues along to the tip of rocky peninsula with awe inspiring views of Mt. Baker, the San Juan islands and the snow capped mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. It also looked like a decent place for crabbing with drop offs and high cliffs to throw your traps from.

 

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Lion’s man jellyfish

 

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Aggregate green anemone

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Harbour seal in bull kelp

 

Echo Bay is also where the wildlife action is. While picnicking there, we’ve been visited by porpoises, river otters, seals and many varieties of birds such as terns, bald eagles, turkey vultures, hummingbirds and pigeon guillemots. The fast tidal currents of the gulf islands stir up the water off of the end of the island creating perfect conditions for sea life all the way up the food chain. The point at Echo Bay has the classic Gulf Island honey combed sandstone rock formations, filled with limpets and anemones below the high tide line.

If you go before mid may, there’s no charge for camping so you probably won’t get a visit from the park wardens that come by boat to collect camping fees. Fires aren’t permitted in the back country camp sites but we couldn’t resist the prospect of some Oyama smokies roasted over flame using the biolite with grill attachment accompanied by some brioche like Terra hot dog buns, Dijon mustard and sauerkraut.

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Mt Baker

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Calypso orchid – one of two varieties of orchid we found

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At dusk, we strolled back to Echo Bay, passing four small deer grazing in the old homestead clearing. They barely raised their heads as we passed by. A full moon sat above the bay, flanked by steep cliffs that framed the sky, ocean and Orcas Island — all different shades of lavender. We were cursing ourselves for leaving the camera back at camp. While we soaked in the view, the silence was broken by a loud blowing sound. Was it a seal? We waited. After a few minutes a humpback whale surfaced a couple of times in quick succession before diving back down. Racing to the end of the point for a better view, we arrived just in time to see the whale surface another few times — exhaling loudly before diving into the depths and out of sight.

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Monarch Head – a short hike up from the campsite

On Sunday, we meandered back to the ferry terminal. En route, we spotted a river otter loping along one of the side roads. It was the first time we’d seen one so far from the water.. Arriving at the terminal, we were tempted to hit the Wild Thyme Coffee House for lunch but opted for a third visit to the sunny, oceanside patio of the Lighthouse Pub.. We split a Cajun blackened halibut burger and a locally raised lamb burger served with Saltspring Island goat’s cheese. Both were delicious and were washed down with Lighthouse craft beers from Victoria.

We set up on the ferry-side dock to snack rest and wait for our departure The shore did have a few ochre starfish which we haven’t been seeing lately due to the wasting disease that is killing them off. There were a lot of feather duster worms though and a seal kept on surfacing close by to keep tabs on us.

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Feather duster worms

 

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The trip back was uneventful and, with one less stop, took less time. All in, it was $60 in ferry charges for two of us, there and back. Because we loaded the cost up on the Discover pass, we didn’t have to pay the few bucks for the bikes. All in all, it seemed a lot longer than an overnight trip and we’ll certainly be back.

 

 

 

 

Semaphore Lakes

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One of the best options for alpine camping nearish to Vancouver is Semaphore Lakes above the Pemberton Valley. Taking the dirt road to Gold Bridge, the trail head can be found near the summit of the pass on the left side of the road after driving up from the valley. An hour hike puts you in the alpine and completes most of the elevation gain with a further 30 minutes to the first of many good tent sites. Small but scenic salamander filled ponds sit in full view of glacier packed peaks and waterfalls.

The short distance to the camp site meant that we were much more willing to carry the luxuries of booze, wine, fresh pasta and camping chairs. There was also plenty of dead wood for camp fires. We enjoyed home made pesto with olives, sun-dried tomatoes and grated pecorino pepato for dinner washed down with red and white wine, beer and some choice tequila brought back from Mexico.

The peak of Locomotive Mountain is only a further 2 hours down the trail and features scrambling beside glaciers and scenic views of Pemberton valley.

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Cypress Peak

The late summer and early fall are south west BC’s premier alpine hiking season. This year marked our fourth attempt and first successful summiting of Cypress peak near Whistler. Not to be confused with Cypress Provincial Park on the Vancouver’s north shore, Cypress Peak is located across the highway from Garibaldi Provincial Park not far from Black Tusk.

I’d recommend using four-wheel drive to prevent a long logging road approach to the trailhead. The trail first descends into a creek which soon opens up into alpine meadows and scree slopes. If the water is high, it can be tricky finding a point to cross the creek so the hike is best attempted after a dry period.

We sourced the hike description from Matt Gunn’s excellent guide Scrambles in Southwest BC and the route finding right away set’s Cypress apart from less technical hikes. After the creek crossing, it’s best to follow a series of cairns to the right (looking up) of the scree slope. The soil and rock is some of the loosest we’ve come across so it’s avoid being directly beneath another hiker. There’s no real trail so it shouldn’t make much difference. Falling while stepping on loose rock or setting rocks rolling down the steep slope definitely tested the limits of our mental fortitude.

In late July, the scree slope was in full bloom with wild flowers.

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The scree slope eventually opened up to a basin with a stunning glacier and a view of the peak.

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We zig-zagged up the right of the glacier to a saddle and then proceeded south along the ridge to the summit approach which involved a slightly exposed step to the right of the ridge that we all enjoyed scrambling up.

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We passed a lone ptarmigan on the last few metres to the summit where we were rewarded by dramatic views of the coast mountains.

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During the drive back to the highway, you pass by Secret Lake which has exellent swimming. We were too knackered to bother with the short hike to the beach but did once skip the hike altogether on a hot day for a swim and picnic at the lake.

Definitely one of the best scrambles we’ve done in the area with most of the hiking done in the alpine, scenic glaciers, some exposure to keep things exciting and epic views!

 

 

Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

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When it comes to birdwatching in the lower mainland, the premiere destination is the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary west of Ladner, at the mouth of the Fraser River. The entrance fee for adults is $5 and $3 dollars for children. Tame ducks, chickadees and cranes will eat out of your hand as long as you shell out the 50 cents per bag of bird seed.

Within the first few minutes of arriving last Sunday, we saw many species of water fowl as well as more uncommon birds including black capped night herons (the only ones wintering in Canada), two species of owls, swans, eagles, sandhill cranes and snow geese. The snow geese flock that passes through Reifel makes its way from Russia’s Wrangel Island and can number up to 35,000 birds. Nearby at Boundary Bay you can also see snowy owls during the winter.

There are blinds for birdwatching but you can see most of the birds fairly up close just by walking along the well maintained trails.

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Hollyburn Snowshoeing

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Vancouver has three main snowshoeing destinations on the North Shore: Mount Seymour, Grouse Mountain and Hollyburn Ridge at Cypress Provincial Park. All three destinations have their strengths and Hollyburn benefits from its relative privacy from ski runs and its ease of access.

A group of us set out for Hollyburn on a recent Sunday afternoon to check out the trail conditions and enjoy the sunset. We parked in the Nordic Skiing lot opposite a grizzled old douglas fir and about a hundred meters from the trail head to the Hollyburn Hiker’s Access Trail. You can check current trail conditions on the Cypress Provincial Park website – in our case the lower part of the trail was solid ice requiring snowshoes, crampons or microspikes. Some people were getting by nicely with products similar to the STABILicers Lite Cleat Traction device pulled over their boots.

As we gained altitude, the trail conditions steadily improved becoming snowy with a light sun crust near the peak of Hollyburn. Unfortunately, with only 30% of the usual snow pack at this time of year, it was still too early for back-country skiing or split boarding with many bare sections near the bottom and exposed bushes and small trees near the top. Much of the trail follows a cut about as wide as a two lane road, affording good skiing or boarding opportunities when the snow is much deeper.  In our case, the cut meant a quicker ascent as we weren’t limited to the summer trail’s switchbacks and also allowed for better views of Grouse Mountain, Vancouver, Mt. Baker and the Cascade range on the way up.

There is also an excellent back-country route straight down to the road from the peak of Hollyburn but it shouldn’t be attempted without GPS, avalanche gear and a low risk of avalanche. For our own safety, we were able to make do with head lamps, water, trail mix and tea mixed with rakia, a tasty Croatian liquor. If you choose to snowshoe after dark, ensure that you bring extra batteries for your headlamps. Also, if you go early in the season before the snow trail markers are put in place, make sure at least one member of your group is familiar with the area as there were many different routes in the snow that people had created branching off from the main trail.

Another good idea is to bring an extra base layer in case you sweat and try and to avoid sweating in the first place by placing any extra layers in a back pack during the ascent. If you need to rent snowshoes, it’s far cheaper to rent in Vancouver as renting at Cypress, Grouse or Seymour is more expensive and you’ll also likely get dinged for a trail pass which is unnecessary unless you’re looking to check out some live music at the historic Hollyburn Lodge.

The clouds cleared for our descent back to the parking lot with stunning views of the sun setting over the mountains of Vancouver Island. All and all, a great time and a good way to get some exercise despite the less than ideal snow conditions and a stern warning from the park ranger. On that note, if you’re going to bring your dog, always ask people coming down if they’ve seen a ranger and keep a leash handy for the descent if it’s still daylight. You wouldn’t want a hefty fine for an off leash dog to ruin what would otherwise be a magical trip out on the North shore mountains.