Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Death Valley

I was in the area for work, and I had the weekend off, so I decided to go check out Death Valley National Park. It was a nice drive over through the desert, lots of spectacular views of the mountains. Upon arriving I stopped at the Stovepipe Wells area to get a pass and talk to the rangers for suggestions on what to do. They recommended a canyon which had some slot canyons that could be explored. Armed with this knowledge and a map, I set out. On the way I stopped at Badwater, the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere.
The salt flats at Badwater
Its hard to see, but there is a sign on the cliff at sea level.
After walking around some, I continued down to Sidewinder Canyon. This is no trail here, and the first challenge is finding the right canyon to walk up, as there are a number that open into the same area. Once you've found the correct one, it is a pleasant walk up the canyon. 
Looking back towards Death Valley
About a mile up the canyon, the first slot canyon leaves to the right. I have never been hiking in a slot canyon, so this was a very cool experience for me. It is amazing to think that the occasional flash flood has carved all of the canyons in the area. 

I explored the first two slot canyons, then continued up the main canyon. After hiking back to my car, I decided to drive north and stop at sights that looked interesting. The first was the natural bridge. This area reminded me of Arches NP, but with only one.
Natural Bridge, with some people for scale.

A dry waterfall.
Next was the Devil's Golf Course. This area was in the middle of the valley, and I was there around sunset. 
Only the Devil could play golf on land like this.
I think Telescope Peak is the highest mountain here.

The mountains on the East side of the valley.

Telescope Peak again.

Looking North.
By the time I got back to my car, it was almost dark, so I headed back home, for a long drive in the dark desert.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

W6/NC-317 Wiedemann Hill

I hiked this hill on on cloudy and cool Saturday morning. The most direct route to the summit starts in a gated community, so I started at the Bishop Ranch Regional Open Space Preserve. From the trailhead, there is a short but steep climb up to the ridge, then a nice walk along the top. There has been so much rain recently that the trail was extremely muddy, and as slippery as ice and snow in some places.
So much mud.
There were a lot of grazing cattle up top, and even a sign warning hikers that the cows were more wary of hikers and dogs while calving. The other end of the ridge trail drops into the neighborhood mentioned above. There is a walk along the streets up to an access road for the towers on the summit. Climb over the gate and it is a short walk to the top. 
The end of the neighborhood.

The Alameda - Contra Costa boundary runs through the peak
I set up on the lee side of the peak, looking over the neighborhood I had just walked through. The clouds were low, and I was in and out of them while at the summit. 
View to the east.
Since the ARRL DX contest was going on I only activated on 30 meters. I made a quick 10 contacts, then packed up, since I wanted to go home and participate in the contest with a more capable rig. I briefly tried VHF, but didn't get any takers. On my way down the hill I slipped and slid in the mud, and landed on my back, getting very muddy in the process. As much as California needs the rain, I'll be glad when the trails dry out and it warms up some.

Grimacing in the cold wind.

Trailhead: Park on Morgan Drive. Lots and lots of space. No fees.
Website: SOTA Site
Maps: There were some at the trailhead, but they only covered the section in the park. Also see KB1KXL SOTA Hikes map
Route: Hike up the Grey Fox Trail up to the Redtail Hawk Trail. Follow along the ridge to the trailhead on Ashbourne Cir. Turn left, and walk uphill along the road. Make a left on Cliffside Ct, then follow the access road that continues past the end of the paved road.
Red Tape: It is unclear what land the summit is on. I didn't see anyone else on the trails. Neighbors were friendly.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

W6/NC-338 Brushy Peak

Brushy Peak is a nice little peak in the hills above Livermore, and a very pleasant peak to operate from, and aptly named. From a distance, it is the only peak in the area with trees on top, and it looks like brush is growing at the summit (at least as seen from Maguire Peak, W6/NC-516). There is a large parking lot at the end of Laughlin Road, with a bathroom. This peak is very easy to do as a loop, and I recommend doing it counter-clockwise. The beginning of the trail is in a small canyon, but after a switchback it begins to climb. During the wetter seasons, you may encounter cattle grazing in the park, so be sure to shut gates behind you.
The true peak is on the right.
Eventually you climb up enough to get great views of the peak and of the Livermore valley area. Follow the trail to its high point, which is in the col between the true summit and a lower peak. Turn off the trail towards the true peak and head uphill. You will reach a well-maintained barbed wire fence. Follow this to the high point, and you will be inside the activation zone. The summit is closed because it is a sacred space for Native Americans, and entry requires a guide.
The fence near the high point.
There are many live oaks, or bring a pole and lash it to the fence. There are also many rocks for sitting, so bring a pad. I threw my antenna over a tree and got on HF. I made 10 contacts on 20, 30, and 40 meters. I called on VHF, but didn't get any responses. Self spotting and a directional antenna would have helped in this regard.
The operating position.
The Sierra Nevada mountains were visible across the Central Valley, but didn't come out in the picture.
When you're done, head downhill to the trail and continue to follow the loop around. If you take the right trail at the junction (head uphill a little bit), you will be rewarded with more great views as you head down.
Looking towards Livermore.
Calling CQ.

Trailhead: There is a large parking lot at the end of Laughlin Road. No fees.
Website: SOTA Site
Maps: http://www.ebparks.org/Assets/_Nav_Categories/Parks/Maps/Brushy+Peak+map.pdfKB1KXL SOTA Hikes map
Route: Take the Brushy Peak Loop Trail to the high point, then head uphill to the fence. Follow the fence to its high point. Hike up is exposed, but lots of shade at the top.
Red Tape: The summit is closed, unless you're on a guided tour, because it is a sacred space for the Native Americans. The high point of the fence is inside the activation zone, but requires off-trail travel to reach.

Monday, February 13, 2017

W6/NC-399 Coyote Peak

There were still a number of hours of daylight left when I finished hiking W6/NC-367, so I decided to activate Coyote Peak. Initially I followed the directions given on the SOTA site to the top of Country View Drive. However, there is a large gate and a sign that says the area is closed for habitat restoration. Combined with the fact I saw a park ranger on my way up, I decided not to climb the fence. Instead, I parked at the Pueblo Day Use Area on the other side of the peak. From here it is a 600 foot climb over one mile to the summit, an easy hike. From the parking lot, take the Hidden Springs Trail to the summit.
The trail at the far end of the fence.
This trail is a fire road, and appears to be popular with mountain bikers. The first section follows a seasonal stream, which was flowing fast when I was there. The summit is visible from the lot, and for a good portion of the hike.
A tall tower at the summit.
At the top there is a tall tower, and a few benches. Setup at one of the benches that looks north over the Bay Area and enjoy the views while you operate. When I was there, there was a steady stream of other people, some of whom must not get out a lot. Some were amazed at the views, which were nice.
South San Jose
I made 17 QSOs, all but one on HF. I initially CQed on 20m, but I didn't get any answers. It was evening, so I thought I might get some help from gray line propagation. 40 and 30 came through, about the same number of contacts on each. KX0R had a hard time hearing me on 40, trying multiple times, but didn't get the point until I went up to 30m. He is one of my most contacted chasers, so it was nice to get though eventually.
Late Afternoon.

The same hills at sunset. So many nice colors.
The park closes at sunset, so I gave myself 30 minutes to get back to the car, and I made it with a few minutes to spare. I was surprised to see people still heading up that late in the day. Overall, this was a very nice peak, and I would recommend climbing it on a clear day if you are able to.

Trailhead: Pueblo Day Use Area. There are a number of small parking lots along the road. I parked at the one where the road makes a U-turn, across the street from the Hidden Springs Trail.
Website: SOTA Site
Maps: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/parks/parkfinder/Documents/Santa-Teresa-map.pdfKB1KXL SOTA Hikes map
Route: Hidden Springs Trail is the shortest, other trails also go to the summit. Also possible to start at the base of the mountain.
Red Tape: Don't cut switchbacks. Don't ignore signs saying the area is closed.
Other: Bring a pair of binoculars for the summit.


This week the rain stopped on Friday, so I headed out to take advantage of the good weather. My original plan was to go to Henry Coe SP, but the road to Hunting Hollow was closed due to a mud slide. Since I was in the area, I decided to go to this unnamed peak instead. It is the high point of Coyote Lake Harvey Bear Ranch County Park (what a mouthful). This park is a mix of open grassland and typical Diablo Range forest. If I had gone a few weeks later, there probably would have been many wildflowers blooming. I parked in a lot at the south end of the park and hiked the length of the park to the summit along some muddy trails.
Looking back at the parking lot.
There are a number of different options from this trailhead, but I took the Coyote Ridge Trail to the north end of the park, then followed the directions described by the other climbers on the SOTA page. Along the way there are excellent views of the southern Santa Clara Valley, and the Gilroy area.
Looking West across the Santa Clara Valley
At the top, the trail makes a small loop around a summit, which is not the true summit, but is well inside the activation zone. It appears the true summit is just outside the park. I set up on this knoll, and got busy making contacts. There is a clump of trees near the top which will provide shade or an antenna support, if you need either. It was very windy, and got cold when the sun was behind clouds. In all I made 17 contacts, all but one on HF. I retraced my steps to get back to the car.
The view from the summit.

Trailhead: I started from the parking lot on Mendoza Ranch Road (no fee). Much shorter hike from the end of Coyote Lake Road (fee).
Website: SOTA Site
Maps: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/parks/parkfinder/Documents/CoyoteLakeGuideMap.pdfKB1KXL SOTA Hikes map
Route: I took Coyote Ridge Trail to Ed Wilson Trail. Many other trails in park. See the SOTA site for shorter route description.
Red Tape: None

Saturday, February 11, 2017

WSPR and Antennas

Last fall I purchased an Ultimate 3s WSPR/QRSS transmitter kit from QRP Labs. I bought the U3S, GPS module, receiver module and case, for the 30m band. Recently I got around to finishing the transmitter half and set it up for WSPR. Watching the spots come in is a lot of fun, seeing how far I can get with only 23dBm (thats 200mW for those who aren't engineers). Looking at the map of spots, it appears that my antenna might have nulls pointed at New England and the Carolinas. Maybe that's why I've yet to work any states in those regions. I have not seen many spots from Asia or the pacific, and have seen none from Europe, South America or Africa.
24 hours of spots of KB1KXL, ending 0020 UTC 2/8/2017.

I think that my antenna is to blame for the lack of results in those directions. It is a low (~15 feet) doublet, cut for 40m, and in an inverted-V configuration. I'm feeding it with 300 ohm twin lead, which has to pass through a metal window frame. I also have to keep the feedline low in some rose bushes until it gets to the antenna tree so that it can pass under the power lines. Also, one of the legs passes through a few trees. The tuner in my KX3 is able to match it on all bands 80-6. My guess is the low height and all of the compromises I had to make in order to get it up are limiting the range and ability to hear dx. To upgrade I'm going to try running some small coax through the window to a balun outside, under the theory that it will reduce losses while going through the window. A more difficult upgrade is to get a tall pole to support the center of the antenna.
Using the online VOACAP modeling for coverage area, it looks like I can get some improvement from going from a dipole at 5 meters to one at 10 meters.
Dipole at 5 meters (17 ft)

Dipole at 10 meters (33 ft)
 These plots were generated on 2-3-2017 at 0100 UTC, location Sacramento, 5W, CW, on 40m. All others settings were left at the defaults.

At some point I'll switch the Ultimate 3S over to QRSS and see how that does. I'll post an update with some results when I do. Next I need to get the Raspberry Pi set up with a sound card so I can have my own WSPR/QRSS grabber...

Thursday, February 9, 2017

SOTA Station

As of September 2017, my portable SOTA station is:
  • Transceiver - LNR Precision MTR 3B. Lightweight, very low current draw, covers the most popular SOTA bands.
  • Tuner - Elecraft T1 autotuner. Much easier to have the microprocessor do the work rather than my fingers.
  • Antenna - home made norcal doublet. Seems to work well. 
  • Paddle - Palm Pico Single.
  • Headphones - Panasonic earbuds. I found a comfortable pair, and own 2 or 3 of them now.
  • Koss inline volume control. Saves my ears from the really loud signals and the very loud sidetone from the MTR.
  • Battery - either a 500mAh LiPo or a 1500mAh LiFePo, both purchased from HobbyKing. All my power connectors are power poles. 
  • Antenna Support - 20 foot fishing pole from walmart.
  • Various ropes to hold up antenna.
  • Notebook and pen for logging.
  • VHF Transceiver - Kenwood TH-F6A. I have an aftermarket 12in whip.
My setup on Sierra Morena.
Overall I'm very happy with this setup. It is compact and lightweight, so it is easy to bring on both day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips. It is CW only, but CW is the best mode so this is not a problem.

Previous equipment includes:
  • BLT tuner. This didn't work on 20m, and I got tired of manually tuning, so I bought the T1.
Here's the old setup with the BLT.
Future activations may include:
  • KX3. I bought some side plates and a cover for travel. I also need a bigger battery for longer operations, and a reason to bring all those bands and modes. Maybe for a VHF contest.
  • Amplifier. Maybe I'll get one that can be taken into the woods.
  • Trapped EFHW. I have the traps, I just need to design and build them and the antenna. I also need to make the matching unun for the end. If I do it right I could get 40/30/20 meters without a tuner or feed line.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

W6/NC-150 Black Mountain

Black Mountain is a prominent peak along the peninsula. There are many trails on the mountain, many of them open to bikers, and a backpack camp near the summit. There are also a plethora of options to choose from when deciding on a route to the top. The summit is open, with a few stands of trees near the top. On a nice day there are excellent views of the bay area from the summit. This trip, however, was very wet.
It was overcast as I left the parking lot and headed downhill on the Skid Road trail. All of the recent rains had turned the trail into a sea of mud.
So much mud.
I got down without slipping, and crossed the numerous, very full streams at the bottom of the canyon. One section of the trail looked like there had been a small slide, but it was not big enough to block the trail.
The streams were all full.

As I hiked up the other side, the wind and rain picked up, especially when I got to the backpackers camp. It was chilly, and it reminded me of hiking above tree line in New England. My original plan was to do a HF & VHF activation, but with the wind and rain I decided to do a quick VHF only activation. Near the towers on top I found some trees on the lee side that offered some much-appreciated shelter.
Some sheltering trees. The towers are behind me.
I made six contacts, five on 2m and one on 70cm in about 20 minutes. There is a fair bit of interference from the towers. It was intermittent on 2 and 70, but constant on 1.25m, so no contacts there. As I headed down, the rain started for real, and did not let up until I drove down to the valley.
A very wet hiker.
I saw some deer while I was hiking here as well, but my camera did not cooperate, so no pictures. When I activated last September, I enjoyed clear blue skies, and had a much better time at the summit.
The summit, September 2016.

Trailhead: I started from Skyline Ridge Parking. Also trailheads on Page Mill Road, at Rancho San Antonio, and other places.
Website: Sota Site
Maps: http://www.openspace.org/sites/default/files/map_MB.pdfKB1KXL SOTA Hikes map
Route: I took Skid Road Trail to Canyon Trail to Indian Creek Trail to Montebello Road. There are many other options in the area. For an easier hike, start on Page Mill Road. For a harder hike, start at Rancho San Antonio, or another trailhead at the base of the mountain. Also lots of options for mountain bikers.
Red Tape: None

W6/NC-209 Sierra Morena

Sierra Morena is an extremely easy peak to activate. It is located in the El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This area is popular with mountain bikers, and you will probably see some while you're out. From the parking lot at Skeggs Point, it is a short distance up the hill. From the parking lot, cross the road, turn right and walk down the road a few hundred feet. Follow the paved fire road, then continue onto the dirt road. Shortly past the junction on the left there is the remains of an old fire road. 
Turn right where the trail appears to turn white.
Looking back, trail on the right, old fire road going up on left.

Follow this old road up the hill a short distance, pushing through some trees and brush. At the top there is a clearing. Toss your antenna over a tree branch and you'll be on the air. 
Clearing at the summit.

I got my doublet up about 25 feet in an inverted-v configuration over a pine tree branch. This year I made 6 contacts, including one on 222 MHz, my first on that band. The weather was supposed to get rainy in the afternoon, so I didn't linger because I wanted to activate Black Mountain before it got too wet. On my way back I saw three deer, and managed to get a picture before they ran off into the woods.
Oh deer!

Trailhead: Skeggs Point Lot, Skyline Blvd.
Website: Sota Page
Maps: At Trailhead. KB1KXL SOTA Hikes map
Route: Follow paved road to gate. Continue on fire road, past trail intersection. On the right is the remains of an old fire road. Take this back to a clearing at the summit. See pictures.
Red Tape: None.

Monday, February 6, 2017

W6/NC-298 Vollmer Peak

I activated this peak shortly after Abrott Benchmark. I drove up to the parking lot, and sat in my car for a while to let the heaviest rain showers pass. Once they seemed to be over, I headed up. When I activated the peak in December last year, I took the trails to the top. This time, because of the rain and mud, I opted to take the paved fire road. Having done both, I recommend the trails (Vollmer Peak Trail, starts at same place).
Once at the top I looked around for somewhere sheltered to set up. The building at the far end of the summit has a covered entryway, so I set up there. In December I sat at the edge of the gravel area, looking out over the bay. I made 5 QSOs on 20 meters. As I was taking down the HF antenna, the rain stopped, so I took out my HT and made a number of contacts on 2m. K6EL was on, and we talked about my route for a different peak. He also tried to convince some of the other ops I worked to go out and do some activations. K6EL is usually the first person to answer my CQs on HF, so it was nice to actually talk to him. When I started to get cold, I packed up and headed back the way I came.
The view on a sunny, December day.

Trailhead: Put "Redwood Valley Railroad" into your GPS. The trailhead parking is just past the train parking, off of Grizzly Peak Blvd.
Website: Sota PagePark page.
Maps: http://www.ebparks.org/Assets/_Nav_Categories/Parks/Maps/Tilden+map.pdfKB1KXL SOTA Hikes map
Route: From the parking lot, either follow the paved road (Seaview Trail) to the top, or take the Vollmer Peak Trail to the Seaview Trail. For a longer hike, start at a different trailhead in Tilden Park. There are a number of nice trails that wind through the hills.
Red Tape: None

W6/NC-417 Abrott Benchmark

The weather report for Saturday was rain in the morning, and getting better as the day went on. Armed with this knowledge I decided to go out and do some activations, deciding that the weather would get better the longer I stayed out. How wrong I was. It was an easy drive to the trailhead in the Kennedy Grove Recreation Area, and the big lot was nearly empty.
The grove at the parking lot.

In fact, I did not see anyone else on the trails. I took the Laurel Loop trail to the Lower Sea Foam trail to the Upper Sea Foam trail, but there are a number of different options to get there. There are free maps available at the trailheads, but they don't cover the section of the hike outside of the park.
On the way up. That's San Pablo dam and reservoir.

At the highest point of the Upper Sea Foam Trail the trail makes a sharp turn. At this point head away from the trail, and cross the fence. When I was there (2/2017), there was a gap with only one strand of barbed wire, next to the gate. There is a fire road on the other side, down a bit. Follow the road to the left, and it will head downhill until it breaks out of the trees and starts climbing. The peak is easy to see once you're out of the woods.

If you come to another fence, turn left up the hill to the summit. If you cross the fence then you will have gone too far. The summit has some flat areas to set up, with the fence running across it. There is a USGS benchmark at the summit, so its easy to figure out if you're at the correct point.
The summit benchmark.
I set up, and the rain started to pick up. I brought a sheet of tyvek for some shelter. The wind kept it plastered to my back, and it worked until rain started pooling in the bottom. I kept the radios in a plastic bag to keep them dry. My log however, got damp. I made 10 contacts on 30 and 20 meters, including one in NH. By this point I was wet and getting cold so I didn't try VHF. I packed up, and hiked down in the rain and mud. By the time I got back to the parking lot, the rain had mostly stopped. 
So much mud (and water).
Overall it was a nice hike, and the summit seemed like it would be pleasant to operate from in nicer weather. This weekend of activations, though, made me realize my wet-weather SOTA setup is totally inadequate. This might not be a problem, since California is so sunny, but being more prepared is good in general. 

Trailhead: Kennedy Grove Regional Recreation Area off of San Pablo Dam Road. Parking free November - March, a few dollars rest of the year.
Website: Sota Page. Park site: http://www.ebparks.org/parks/kennedy
Maps: KB1KXL SOTA Hikes map
Route: Get to the high point of the Upper Sea Foam Trail. Head away from the trail into the woods, cross the fence, and follow the fire road on the other side left (generally North at this point). Very muddy and slippery in/after rain.
Red Tape: It is unclear what land the summit is on, but it is not in the Kennedy Grove park.