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Roads to Summits

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Created/Edited: Apr 24, 2007 / Apr 24, 2007

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They Built a Road to the Top... What To Do?

Does a road to a summit cheapen the summit experience? Given that mountaintops are a natural place to install communications towers and the like, it’s no surprise that many peaks have roads that lead to the summit. On one extreme, you could drive the entire route and then lay claim to a successful ‘summit visit’. I don’t think any climber or hiker would accept this as a proper way to ‘climb’ a mountain, but nevertheless, there are other points to consider, and I welcome input and dialogue on the subject.


In no particular order:


The road is the only viable hiking option to the summit, barring advanced 4th or 5th-class routes, or brutal and unattractive bushwhacking. In this case, there are no other ‘usual’ hiking routes to the top. Do you simply ignore this peak altogether? Do you cut the difference and hike the road? How far up to you drive before parking, if the option exists?


In the southwest United States, many desert peaks have roads to the top as natural and discrete places to install various towers. I can imagine the authorities assuming that no one would be interested in the peak for any other reason – in the days before such esoteric lists such as the county/state highpoints or prominence lists came into being and popularized by the internet.


So… do you hike the road if no other option exists? Case in favor: Cunningham Mountain in La Paz County, Arizona. A rugged desert peak with plenty of prominence, a rough, steep road leads to the top, and although it’s gated against public vehicles, it is open to foot traffic. Admittedly the road is unattractive, but the peak is otherwise very difficult to climb otherwise. With the road as an option, a fairly fun and easy half-day hike to the top is an option, with outstanding views of the deserts below.


Should we have removed this peak from our lists altogether because the road is the only option to the top?


I believe that most hikers and climbers adopt a personal set of ‘rules’ and guidelines in what they’ll do to count a peak as properly climbed under human power. Some use a required minimum elevation gain, parking early then hiking the road to the top. Others simply want to visit the top and if the road is drivable to the top, will use that option.


Who is to say whose rules are better?


The United States state and county highpoint rules are deliberately open on this rule. The rule is – visit the top, and you can count it. A climber might cringe at the openness of this rule, but if my 90-year old aunt gets it into her head to visit a few state highpoints in her car, should I adopt an attitude that ‘it won’t count in my book’ because she drove to the top?


Another point to consider, and this has a personal aspect to me: you, or a loved one and long-time hiking partner, is addled by an infirmity (e.g. arthritis). You can hike a fairly gentle road to the top, or hike a lengthy trail with some scramble sections. If you are fit and have the time, I’m sure many of us would choose the trail. But if the infirmity is enough to hold you back from the trail option, does taking the road make the ascent any less worthy? My wife was a warrior hiker in her 20s and 30s, felled recently by arthritis. She can still do trail and road hikes of reasonable length (6 miles tops, perhaps). In our case, the road option is our only realistic option in many instances.


Is road hiking necessarily bad? Some of our most enjoyable hikes have been along roads. In a few cases the roads are well graded and well kept, and if closed to public vehicle traffic, become nothing more than ‘wide trails’. I cite Keystone Peak in southern Arizona as a good example or a good road, well kept, with great views all the way up.


Is road driving necessarily bad? It’s rare a road that leads to a summit is smooth enough for most passenger vehicles all the way up. The vast majority do require high-clearance and 4-wheel drive, and in some circumstances the act of driving the road is far more challenging and exhilarating than a hike would have been. My canonical example: Santiago Peak in southern California, which is the highpoint of Orange County and a highly prominent peak as well. The hiking options are few and usually very long (and a lot through that ugly low manzanita scrub common to SoCal). Years ago when Indian Truck Trail was open to public traffic, I bashed my truck up that road to very nearly the top, and had a great time. I don’t pretend to have ‘climbed’ Santiago Peak, and frankly, absolutely nothing about that peak interested me other than its list credentials. To me, the road was really the only viable way to make that peak interesting. A wilderness experience it is not, but I had a fun few hours.


If a road to the top is bad, is a road ‘almost’ to the top bad as well? Where would we draw the line? Do we diminish hikers who parked at Whitney Portal (el. 8,000 feet) to hike California’s highest peak? Should we have required they park in the Owens Valley and hike the mountain ‘properly’? Would an ascent of Mount Whitney be any less impressive if the road had been built to 10,000 feet?


I can think of many other variables and conditions that could alter the decision-making as to whether to follow a trail or a road. Time availability is one big issue. It’s nice if you live near a peak with a long trail, where you can plan for a long day or an overnight. But if you’re just passing through with maybe a half-day available, is taking the road less honorable?


For the record, here are my personal ‘rules’, all of which are self-negotiable:


Whenever possible I try to follow a trail if one is available. If the only trail options are way too long and I am pressed for time, I will consider the road. If I drive the road I usually park early and usually try to have at least 1,000 feet of gain, perhaps more if possible, but oftentimes the nature of the road leaves little choice as to where to park. If it is a ‘worthy’ mountain that includes a road option, I will strongly lean toward the trail routes unless circumstances force me against the trails (of course, this begs the question as to what is ‘worthy’…). When hiking with my wife, we must adjust our options accordingly. She likes trails as well, but cannot take on the lengthy 12-milers any more. Some case samples:


Sandia Crest, New Mexico: Not living in or near Albuquerque, I don’t usually have the time for the 15-mile La Luz Trail hike to the top. Passing through in 2000 I took the tram to the ridge and hiked through snow and some ice and sludge to the top, which was a lot of fun and felt like an ‘accomplishment’, however minor. In 2003, with my wife and with a plane to catch within two hours, we made a quick drive up the paved highway to the top.


Pikes Peak, Colorado: Again, not a local, and just passing through in 2002, I drove the road because I thought that experience would be fascinating, and it was… however, guilt set in and on the drive down, I parked about 3 miles and 1,000 feet down and hiked back up so that at least I could sleep at night with a sound mind. One day I would love to visit at length and hike the standard routes to the top.


Harquahala Mountain, Arizona: A rough 4wd Jeep road leads to the top. In 1997, I drove in about 3 miles and hiked the remaining 7 miles, thereby ‘climbing’ the peak entirely along the road. In 2004, with my wife (and before her arthritis set in), we hiked the lesser-known mule-team supply trail up the north side. I live just 90 minutes from the trailhead. If someone was just passing through and wanted Harqy for his or her list, I would not begrudge them if they drove the road. It is not an easy road, requiring a good vehicle and knowledge about 4-wheel driving.


Mount Mansfield, Vermont: Time was the major variable, but we felt driving the toll road to the spine of the range and hiking the trail to the top was a nice alternative.


Mount Washington, New Hampshire: I have not done this one yet, but its ‘worthiness’ is so well-known that I will definitely follow the trail routes to the top as opposed to the road or railway. My wife, on the other hand, will probably be obliged to take the road or railway. In my book, she’ll get the same credit as I will.


Santiago Peak, California: Already discussed, but briefly: a brush-covered range in Southern California with little to recommend it other than its status as Orange County’s highpoint. No time nor interest to hike it, I happily drove the 4-wd road to the top, and don’t feel the least bit conflicted by this, seven years after the fact.


In a nutshell, I choose the option that best fits the mountain, our time availability, and our skill and or ability level. I am constantly ‘adjusting’ my self-imposed rules, as there always seems to be a mountain that refuses to be pigeon-holed so easily.


So… what are your thoughts?




Images

Keystone Peak (Nov \'06)

Comments


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Bob SihlerInteresting

Bob Sihler

Voted 10/10

I hope this generates some good discussions, and I hope people won't use their votes to express their points of view.

That said, here's my quick two cents; maybe I'll elaborate if this thread really gets going--

If there's a road to the top and it's open to vehicles, I'm not interested in hiking or climbing the peak. I've made exceptions, and I imagine I will again, but it's my general rule. It simply irks me to put in real effort only to be surrounded by people who drove up and walked maybe a few feet. So there's almost no chance I'll climb or hike Pikes or Mount Washington, not even in winter; after all, why take the risk when I can wait for the road to open in the summer?

I have no qualms about driving as high as I can and then climbing or hiking the rest, though; it seems silly to me not to. I know many others disagree and would discount the "climb," and I respect that. But no way am I parking at, say, Camp Bird to climb Mount Sneffels. If I have 4wd, I'm driving all the way to the end of the Yankee Boy Basin road, and that's exactly what I've done all three times I've been there. And I consider that my hikes and climbs on Sneffels and in its neighborhood "count." I still did the hard parts under my own power, after all.

One exception I've made is on Mount Evans in Colorado. There are some fine snow climbs and Class 4, even low Class 5, routes there, and I did downclimb from the summit once to do a harder variation of the Snave route. And I would return there to do climbs from Summit Lake; it's a great place to practice and get acclimated without tiring yourself getting there.

Good read, and hats off to you for posting something that some people might blast you for. Sadly, I've seen it happen on similarly-themed submissions.

Posted Apr 24, 2007 5:50 pm

Bob SihlerEdit

Bob Sihler

Voted 10/10

This is not to say I won't drive up something if, say, I'm just looking for something to do, want to enjoy the scenery and nothing more, or have a very young child with me. I'm just saying I don't want to hike or climb something that has a road to the top.
Posted Apr 24, 2007 6:09 pm

McCannsterWho cares if there's a road?

McCannster

Voted 10/10

It's still a mountain. So what if there are people who drive up when you arrive at the summit?
Posted Apr 24, 2007 9:12 pm

Gangolf HaubExtend this to cable cars and chair lifts

Gangolf Haub

Hasn't voted

These thoughts are valid also for other kind of "aided" access to mountains - maybe even more so. If there is a road it means that the mountain is easily accessible at least from one side and thus maybe not the challenge you are looking for anyway. If there is a cable-car it might be a otherwise inaccessible (or barely accessible) peak which happens to be close to a glacier which skiers love to ski in summer. You can say you summit a mountain if you take the road - but can you say the same if you take the cable-car?

Imho the biggest drawbacks about roads on mountains are the crowds and the installations on top rather than the roads themselves. I like to avoid these mountains but have been seen on some of them.

Is it fair to take the road? Make that up with yourself.
Posted Apr 25, 2007 4:41 am

Nigel LewisRe: Extend this to cable cars and chair lifts

Nigel Lewis

Hasn't voted

Add railways to that! The victorians built a small gauge railway up Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales (and higher than anything in England or Ireland). I haven't taken it, but there are lots that do.

N
Posted Apr 25, 2007 7:11 pm

Mark DoironRe: Extend this to cable cars and chair lifts

Mark Doiron

Voted 10/10

And what about trams? As a kid, I climbed Mt. San Jacinto from Idylwild, a mountain community. However, you can take the tram from Palm Springs, far below in the desert, then hike to the summit from the tram station. But, there are those who hike it all the way from Palm Springs--a might hefty climb! I think the point is that different folks have different abilities and desires and time constraints, and the road/train/tram issue reflects that.

--mark d.
Posted Apr 27, 2007 11:24 am

ScottWinter solution

Scott

Hasn't voted

This is a very good article with some good points. Many mountains with roads to the summits are still worth climbing because some really nice routes also exist. Below is a good example:

Blue Mountain

Should we have removed this peak from our lists altogether because the road is the only option to the top?

Another viable option if the road is the only viable way up is to climb the peak in winter when the road is closed and snow covered. Might be worth mentioning on the page.
Posted Apr 25, 2007 11:03 am

Mark DoironRoads Aren't Necessarily Easy

Mark Doiron

Voted 10/10

Roads aren't necessarily the easy way to hike to the top. Roads can be devoid of shade, and can be steeper than switch-backed trails.

As far as climbing a mountain with a road to the top: The example of Mt. Evans that Bob Sihler brings up is a good one. Last year Curtis and I climbed it from Summit Lake. Upon reaching the top, I felt that I had "earned" that summit. A similar situation is with Mt. Scott in the Wichita Mtns. I've only driven to the top, and I won't sign the climber's log until I at least hike the road (I'm not a technical climber, so that option is out).

mark d.
Posted Apr 25, 2007 11:26 am

Bob SihlerRe: Roads Aren't Necessarily Easy

Bob Sihler

Voted 10/10

"Roads aren't necessarily the easy way to hike to the top. Roads can be devoid of shade, and can be steeper than switch-backed trails."

The Lake Como Road in Colorado's Sangre De Cristos. I drove as far as my rented SUV could go, which was further than most other cars but not even to 9000', and hiked the rest of the way. Hot and steep almost all the way, and harder than most trails for those reasons. Good post, Mark.
Posted Apr 25, 2007 5:48 pm

ericnoelRoads

ericnoel

Voted 10/10

Good topic. A decade ago I would have said that driving to the top was lame. Now, I'm all for it. My views have evolved and a big part of that is that I am more list oriented now, ie peakbagging. That causes a change in what I'm am trying to do outdoors. Before I hoped for a good experience, while still valuing specific destinations along the way or at the end. There was still value in driving to see places as long as I've lived. Taking a non-summit example, I don't think seeing the Grand Canyon from the rim as a windshield tourist is as rewarding as going Rim to Rim. But I also think it is clearly better than never seeing the Grand Canyon, therefore it has always had some aesthetic/pleasure value even if not "earned". Now the summits are more important to me, this has increased my emphasis on making it and decreased the importance of experience. I do find this somewhat troubling. But I also rationalize it by thinking that time saved driving Peak A will allow me more time to hike Peak B.

When I do peak planning now, I often try to structure combinations of primarily hiking and then compliment it with driving for peakbagging. For instance my recent plan in AZ was to hike Signal Peak and then drive Harquahala on the way back. Or to hike Browns Peak and then drive up Pinal Peak afterwards. I do this a lot now, try to match a good hike and exercise with a nearby driveup so that I can get the qualitative part in but with more quantity of summits to boot.

As mentioned by Scott, the distance issue becomes a big factor for me. When constrained by time and having committed more time and money to getting to an area, I'm more determined to seize my limited chance to make the time. I was stopped by unexpected snow three weeks ago in WA. I turned around and went home and will have to return in May and that was the right choice. But if that had happened last week in AZ, I would have kept going and risked a return after dark or a night spent sleeping in the car etc. It's not absolute, but the rules change if you can't come back again soon.

I've also come to enjoy the process of driving up mtns at times. In some cases it is sheer busy work. But there have been other times when solving the navigational puzzle of unmapped roads or surmounting dubious roads in the Accord was more adventurous than some hikes. And in some sense more dangerous, I should imagine that statistically driving on dirt roads even if sober is still statistically more dangerous than say a class 1 hike in good weather. And certainly I'm risking more of my money with my car in some cases and if I should get stuck I'm also risking my time. I've done plenty of hikes shorter than a certain 14 miler which comes to mind that ended in a $389 towing bill. You never know. When I did Harquahala the first time in 2005 I drove partway, got stopped and hiked to the top. I can tell you that trying to prod that 2WD pickup up the road was harder than hiking the remainder. And moving the damn rocks out of the way was physically harder than hiking it. So driving ain't always so easy.

As far as a rule, to me you made the summit, car or not. I can understand a qualitative argument against driveups but a quantitative one to me is sheerly arbitrary. The truth is that there are extrememly few peaks which can be driven to the literal top. In most cases a 50 foot walk or whatever is needed. So what people who discount driveups are saying usually amounts to the notion that you didn't walk far enough. Well, how far is far enough? I guess 3000 ft is what the Colorado Mtn CLub says. Others have other rules. The problem is that people are forced to make up some figure out of thin air. And even if you do follow such a rule, to me it implies that a peak is somehow earned in a way a driveup isn't. I sort of feel that is so. And yet at the same time I know that virtually every trip is dependent on a car for most of the trip. And waste a week doing so. You can hike Mauna Loa and Drive Mauna Kea and either way a plane is covering 98% of the distance and a car covering the other 1.9% for Mauna Loa and 2% for Mauna Kea.

If I go hike Rainier via the standard route, I'll be driving 100+ miles and hiking 10. So I drove 90% of the route or whatever but that is good enough? Oh wait, Rainier is now a pain cause the roads are washed out. The mtn is the same as always but the approach via roads is restricted. So hardly anyone is climbing Rainier right now. Which pretty much proves the point (generally, there are always exceptions) that even if you are willing to "earn" the peak, you still need that motorized vehicle to make it happen for all practical purposes for almost every peak. Those who earn their peaks, and this includes me even if I hike it, are still beholden to their cars to make the whole thing work. So to exclude an ascent because it was too dependant on the car without acknowleding that reliance that we all have on them for our trips. Plan what your next five trips would be without using some form of car/bus/train owned by you or anyone else. If you are left with the local hill or some really long walks that you don't have time for, well then you like me need a car to make it happen much of the time.
Posted Apr 25, 2007 7:49 pm

Aaron DyerNo

Aaron Dyer

Hasn't voted

Whether or not the mountains should be removed from the list because they have roads to the top is pointless to argue, because then you have to wonder about mountains with roads up a long way to a trail head. Point is, roads should be for access to construction only if necessary, I don't think public access to summits via roads does anything except lower the value of the summit and make the place more of a commodity.
Posted Apr 25, 2007 10:21 pm

MoapaPkHelicopters

MoapaPk

Voted 10/10

In my state, many summits have helicopter-accessed weather stations and transmission towers -- some are on mountains otherwise accessed only by class 3 routes. I admit that I feel the wilderness experience seems a little diminished on these peaks.

But most USGS and CGS benchmarks, placed since the mid 50's, were from crews flown in by helicopter,
Posted Apr 26, 2007 1:05 am

Theonestarheavy on my mind

Theonestar

Voted 10/10

I am really new to climbing, and just recently I made a mistake of going to a mountain that you drive to the top. I thought one of the trailheads started at the bottom of the mountain. I didn't realize it started at the top. I thought to myself "well there goes my 'climber's log' entry. My friend and I ended up finding the trail we had come for and hiked it down half way (due to time restraints) then turned around and climbed it back up before visiting the "summit" lookout. I figured I did do something more than most of the "visitors". I did sign the climbers log-maybe that was wrong to do, but I did explain my confusion and that unfortunately most of the climb was a drive. I must say that the thrill of the climb and the satisfaction of completion definitely wasn't there. Claiming a drive as a summit sucess weighs heavily on your conscience because never feeling the accomplishment of the climb is such a loss. I know it weighed on mine.
Posted Apr 26, 2007 9:20 am

surgentExcellent points!

surgent

Hasn't voted

Judging by the responses so far my suspicion is confirmed: rather than a firm, discrete blank-and-white assessment, it seems we (or most of 'we') adopt a continuum outlook on the subject. Everytime I think I've got my feeling about the subject locked in, there's always a peak with its own unique set of circumstances to make me reconsider. Like you, I want that wilderness experience and that satisfaction of having accomplished something out of a climb. 95% of the time I'm able to do that, the other 5% circumstances forces me to adopt a different strategy.

As an addendum on my Pikes Peak experience: I have summitted 5 other 14ers in my life, all of which required hefty hiking or climbing. Counting Pikes I have 6 14ers to my credit. From a list perspective I say I have 6 14ers, but from a climbing perspective I really have 5. It doesn't bug me too much, though.

I appreciate the responses and enjoy reading them. I have talked to individuals about this before, but never on a forum like this.
Posted Apr 26, 2007 11:38 am

WoundedKneeNice article, Scott,

WoundedKnee

Hasn't voted

and something I think about pretty often. First off, I think lists are lists. The objective is to reach the summit of peaks on said list, and nobody should be able to lord over anyone else what constitutes a legitimate summit (provided you touch the top of the peak).

To me, your article raises the question of why peakbaggers get into the game in the first place. I personally did so as a direct cause of enjoying hiking and climbing, and I found peakbagging lists to be an interesting way of visiting areas I never would have heard of otherwise. That said, it's easy to see (especially here in the southeast) how peakbagging can become a boring series of drive-ups to summits. To keep this from happening, I try to combine drive-ups and hikes in the same trip. For instance, I'm adding nearby drive-ups to Apple Orchard mountain (a P2k peak) and Rocky Mountain to a trip where I plan to hike Bald Knob and Mt. Pleasant together in a 12 mile hike. This allows me to tick some drive-ups off my list (these have no really good hiking options) while getting out and doing what I enjoy.

I think all anyone can do is set their own personal rules and follow those. This assures the best way of getting satisfaction from our limited leisure time.

On a personal note, it would be very unlikely for me to drive-up to major objectives (ultras, state highpoints such as Mt Mitchell) if another option is available, but that's just a personal feeling. I did a strenuous hike to summit Mt. Mitchell, but do not consider summit claims by those who parked just below the summit and ambled up any less legitimate than mine...I just think they had less fun. ;-)
Posted Apr 26, 2007 1:23 pm

395guydifferent challenges

395guy

Hasn't voted

I'm not a technical climber so I'm sometimes limited by how I can bag a peak. If there are roads to/near the top, I try to find a challenging way to get to the top.

In 2003, I hiked Democrat-Lincoln-Bross (3 Colorado 14ers) from Kite Lake. I was told while on the trail that I would be surprised to discover how close the dirt road on the backside came to the top of Lincoln once I got to that peak. I'm glad I did the Kite Lake trail instead of the other side.

In 2003, I ran the Pikes Peak Marathon (but that was on the Barr Trail, not the road).

In 2004, I rode my mountain bike to the top of Santiago peak in Orange County. That is one of the great classic mountain bike rides for SoCal, one of my favorite mountain bike rides ever.

In 2005, I rode my road bike from Idaho Springs to the top of Mt Evans (28.5 miles up to 14,100', the highest paved road in the world). I'm glad I had a triple chain ring! That is still one of my all-time favorite bike rides ever. Yes, I did hike the remaining 100+ feet to the true summit.

This summer I'm considering bagging White Mtn (a California 14er) which has a road to the top, that has even been summitted by a group of unicyclists! I'll probably hike it instead of riding my mountain bike. But it is tempting to ride my mountain bike to the top since it's one of the few "bikeable 14ers" in the country.

For me, driving to a peak doesn't constitute truly bagging it. But the nice thing about having a road is that it presents some creative options for getting to the top. Biking to the top is a worthy summit bid because that takes some enormous quads and lungs. If you hike, climb, or bike to the summit under your own power, I say, good job!
Posted Apr 26, 2007 4:42 pm

climber46Standards for peakbagging

climber46

Hasn't voted

I think it depends on the peak bagging standard which indicates what is generally expected by the local peakbagging community. For example, here in Northern New England, Mount Washington,NH and Mt. Mansfield,VT must be climbed from the bottom for 4,000-footer club purposes, however, for State Highpointers Club purposes, driving to near the top is acceptable. Somehow, somewhere down the line, the two differing standards became generally accepted for each peakbagging club and so aspiring hikers(and non-hikers) continue to follow those standards. You could also argue that outside of political boundaries, many state highpoints would be completely irrelevant. You could also argue the basis of 4,000 feet for peaks in New England. It is a round number measured in the English system. But what if the standard were 1200 or 1500 meter peaks? Hmm, how many peaks would fall off the list?

Even though it takes away from the natural beauty of some of the highest summits, I think it is okay to have a road up a few summits. Just so it is only the one token road summit of a particular area of mountains. It at least allows people who might otherwise never get to experience the beauty of the mountains to experience it. Perhaps it influences people to get into mountain climbing once they realize how wonderful it is to stand on a high summit with 360 degree views.
Posted Apr 26, 2007 5:27 pm

jamesrodomRelax

Hasn't voted

I think those of us who consider ourselves avid hikers/climbers need to take long, hard look at the arrogance and elitism of which we are sometimes guilty [and I include myself, on occasion] when we consider questions such as these. Climbing a mountain is not inherently superior to driving to the top. It simply involves an activity that I find much more enjoyable, under most circumstances. I think those of us who in any way look down on others who don't share this enjoyment, or even allow their presence to influence OUR enjoyment, need to ask what it is we get out of this activity in the first place.
Posted Apr 27, 2007 12:52 pm

Dmitry PrussExisting roads are only half of the issue

Dmitry Pruss

Hasn't voted

What about the future ATV trails and jeep roads which scour more and more land with every passing season?

I don't see any problems with hiking or skiing a closed road. Finding a spiderweb of ATV tracks, being surrounded by smoke-belching machines where you expected some solitude is another matter.
Posted Apr 27, 2007 2:01 pm

tyler mIn Nevada

tyler m

Hasn't voted

in the Great Basin, were there are countless peaks in areas miles and miles and..... from any civilization, let alone water, but with spectacular views of scenery unknown else where, vehicles are the only option. but i definitely would not put it on a list of climbs, but mebbi a list of views, driving to the top is a completely different event than climbing. climbing is a way of experiencing a place, driving to the top is doing what it takes to get somwhere, to have time to enjoy an area/place that you would never experience otherwise (ex- Mount Grant and its spectacular view of Walker Lake and the Sierra, White Mtn Peak) and sometimes, the 4wd trail to the top is potentially fun in its own way...
Posted Apr 27, 2007 2:54 pm

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