Picture from my first day on my first solo hike. The fall colors were fantastic!
The first several backpacking trips I did were with my brother, and I really enjoyed doing the trips with him. However, I got to the point where I had enough vacation and the finances to be able to do a second trip each year, and I knew my brother wouldn’t be able to join me for that second trip. Thus, I had a decision to make: was I willing to do a backpacking trip solo? There were definitely some things I thought would be nice about it, but I was also fairly nervous about it. I decided to go ahead and give it a try, and back on this day in 2018 I started my first solo trip. You can read about the trip here. I have done three more solo trips since. So with several trips with my brother, as well as solo, what do I prefer? Before I answer that, let me list off my main pros and cons with solo backpacking.
I can go when I want. I don’t have to work out the logistics of going with someone else. I don’t have to try and find a time that works for someone else. I can plan a trip when it works best for me and go.
I can go my own pace. When we aren’t going uphill, my brother will generally keep up with me. However, I generally go uphill faster than him, and he is generally slower than I am at crossing creeks (taking shoes off, crossing, putting shoes back on). I’m also willing to do more miles in a day on my solo trips than with my brother. Most of the time it’s not a big deal, but occasionally I’ll get a bit annoyed having to wait on him. On the flip side, I’m often stopping to take pictures, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets annoyed sometimes from that. So it’s definitely nice solo hiking to be able to go as fast or as slow as I want (or stop for as many pictures as I want).
Free to do what I want. I’m big into photography, and my brother is big into fishing. Thus, when I’m on a trip with him, I generally try to plan camp spots next to a lake so he can get in some fishing. When I’m on a solo trip, I don’t have to worry about that, although I generally try to camp next to lakes anyway since they often make good photo ops. Haha. It’s also nice to be able to leave when I want, stop when I want, etc. My brother is really good about going along with my plan, but I’m likely willing to do some stuff solo that I wouldn’t do with him along.
More room in the tent. Even on my solo trips I take along the two person tent my brother and I use on our trips. It is so nice to have the extra room in the tent for sprawling out a bit more while sleeping, and for storing gear.
Different experience. There is just something different about getting out into the wilderness alone, especially in an area where you don’t see anybody for days. It probably isn’t for everybody. Even as someone who spends a lot of time alone normally, it can be a little uncomfortable at times.
Can’t split up gear. While I don’t save a whole lot of weight or room in my pack when my brother and I go on a trip, I know I save some. Every little bit of weight I can save is definitely a bonus.
Nobody to share the experience with. When I get to the top of a pass, camp at a beautiful lake, see a herd of elk, etc., it’s a bummer not to have somebody to share the experience with. I love having those shared memories with my brother.
It can get lonely. Particularly at camp. Being alone while I’m hiking doesn’t generally bug me. However, I tend to get to camp early in the afternoon, and spending the rest of the day at camp alone can definitely get lonely. This can obviously depend on the trip. If you’re hiking somewhere popular, you may see a lot of people hiking and be camped around other people. If you’re like me and try to avoid popular areas, you may go days without seeing anybody.
Bigger safety risk. This was my main concern when I was debating whether to solo hike. The only time I really feel less safe solo hiking is when I’m in grizzly territory. Outside of that, I don’t feel like there is significantly more chances of things going wrong while solo hiking. The bigger issue comes up when something does go wrong when solo hiking. I have started taking a Garmin InReach so I can check in each evening, and at least have the ability to send an SOS if something goes terribly wrong. Between my experience solo hiking and having the InReach, this concern has weakened some.
So which is my favorite? Both. I love having the experience of doing a trip with someone, and getting in a solo trip, each year. I definitely understand the solo thing isn’t for everybody though. And honestly, if I absolutely had to choose one, I would choose to have somebody along for the adventure. But don’t be afraid to at least give solo backpacking a shot. You’ll get a lot of crazy looks when you tell people you’re going alone!
I have covered lots of lessons learned over the course of this blog series. There are likely many more small lessons I didn’t include. To close up this series, I want to cover what is probably the biggest lesson I have learned over the course of all my backpacking trips. This is to stay calm, think, and don’t rush when things don’t quite seem right or don’t go to plan. The S.T.O.P. acronym above is a great thing to keep in mind.
On our first trip, this may have resulted in me actually knowing we were still headed in the right direction, instead of just having a hunch/hoping we were. When I couldn’t find the trail in the Tetons, this could have resulted in me finding the trail again instead of taking the more dangerous route. When we were pumping water on the Highland Park trip and it got hard to pump, this may have saved us from having to cut the trip short due to a broken filter.
I could go on and on with this. There is a moment on nearly all of my backpacking trips where this would have likely saved or did save me some trouble. This S.T.O.P. acronym is often aimed towards people who are lost, but it comes in handy in many other situations as well. Rushed/hurried decisions, or those made while panicking, often aren’t the best decisions, and while you are backpacking, there can be severe consequences for bad decisions.
So when something goes awry in your next backpacking trip, S.T.O.P. Take a breath, relax, think, and take as much time as you can to make the best decision possible.
One more thing I want to touch on: you don’t need the best gear to do backpacking. My brother and I started off with a lot of cheap equipment on our first trips, and we were able to do the trips. Over the years, I have upgraded nearly all of my equipment to better equipment. It definitely helps in the comfort department, but it’s definitely not necessary. So don’t think to start out that you need to spend a boatload of money. You can definitely start off cheap like my brother and I did and work your way up to better equipment over time.
Prior to the backpacking trip my brother and I took in the Weminuche Wilderness in late July (trip report here) I had done nine other backpacking trips, none of which were in Colorado. Now I have done two backpacking trips to Colorado in essentially a month. Haha. That wasn’t the original plan this year, but COVID happened, and I got some Colorado backpacking in sooner than I expected. I had originally planned this trip as a 6 day trip, but I ended up only doing 5 days due to getting a blister on each heel. Since I’ll be running a half marathon in early October, I wanted to try and minimize damage to my feet. I still got to see most of what I wanted to, so I wasn’t too disappointed to cut a day off the trip. This honestly goes down towards the bottom of favorite hikes I have done, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad trip. Keep reading for the details of the trip and some overall thoughts/comments.
Day 1: I left my camp spot in the Conejos campground around 7:30 A.M., and reached the Elk Creek Trailhead just before 8:00 A.M. Just before I hit the trail, I talked to a guy who was going in with someone else on horseback, and he stated that they were going into Second Meadows to get some cows. That got me a little bit worried about running into them going the opposite way on the trail. I signed in at the trail register, and then hit the trail. The trail immediately crossed Elk Creek on a bridge, and quickly after that there was an unmarked trail intersection. I went right, and after hiking a short ways and pulling up Avenza Maps, I realized I had gone the wrong way. I went back and went the correct way. A few minutes later, I came upon another unmarked trail junction. I once again went right, and once again realized I had gone the wrong way after walking a short distance and pulling up Avenza maps. So a little bit of a frustrating start. Haha.
About 2 miles in, just before First Meadows, I ran into Roy. He was hiking out after spending 10 days backpacking around the area. We probably spent around 20 minutes chatting, mainly about photography. That was really neat. Just after that I came up to First Meadows (which ended up being my personal favorite of the four). I reached the start of Second Meadows just before noon. There were four guys there, three of whom were fishing. I talked to the one guy not fishing for a few minutes, then set my stuff down and took a lunch break. That was a neat spot to have lunch. After I ate I grabbed some pictures and then hit the trail again. Just after hitting the trail it started to thunder. I got sprinkled on a bit, but thankfully that was it.
I met the guys with the cows in Second Meadows. The trail ran around the edge of the meadow. I saw the first guy down in the meadow with a few cows, and a short while later ran into the second guy with a few more cows just as they were getting off the trail and going down into the meadow. Thankfully I didn’t run into them on the trail. That probably would have got interesting real quick. My plan had me camping somewhere along Second Meadows, but I knew I could likely get farther than that, which I did. Around 2:00 P.M., while I was in Third Meadows, it started to look pretty stormy, and started to thunder again, just at the same time the trail I was on pretty much disappeared, so I decided to call it a day.
I got camp set up, then went down to the creek to get water. It started to rain just as I got back to the tent. I laid down in the tent until it cleared up around 4:00 P.M. The rest of the evening consisted of cleaning my feet and socks, letting my feet soak in the cold creek for a bit, making dinner, and reading. I probably would have kept going a bit had it not been for the thunderstorms, but I was definitely happy with the progress I made during the day, and it ended up being a good place to stop.
Day 2: This was by far the shortest mileage day, but it was by no means easy. I got out of bed at 6:15 A.M. and probably spent 15 minutes trying to find a spot I could dig a cathole, but wasn’t having any luck. I finally gave up and made breakfast. While I was eating I saw an elk way off in the distance on the opposite side of the canyon. That was cool. After breakfast I tried again to find a spot to dig a cathole, and after about another 15 minutes was finally successful. After that I got camp packed up. The rain fly was soaked by condensation, both inside and outside. I always hate packing up a wet tent. I hit the trail at about 7:50, which was later than I had hoped. As I had mentioned in day 1 above, the trail by where I camped disappeared, so I tried a different trail I had found while wandering around the area. This one ended up taking me through a marsh and disappeared, and I eventually came to the conclusion that this couldn’t be the correct trail. I pulled up Avenza maps and used that to get me back to the correct trail, which could actually be seen where I got back to it.
In both Third Meadows and Fourth Meadows the trail was difficult to follow in spots. After Fourth Meadows there were a lot of blow downs, which made for slow progress. After the trail crossed Elk Creek, it completely disappeared. Either that or I completely missed it. However, I used Avenza Maps to try and stay on the trail as best I could, and never really could find any sort of trail. The entire segment between the red arrows in the image above didn’t seem to exist. It was really slow, difficult progress through marshy areas and over lots of blow downs. Had it not been for Avenza Maps, I would have been in a real dilemma. I’m not sure if I would have kept going or not. Thankfully the trail eventually reappeared, but it still remained difficult and hard to follow in several spots. The farther I got, the better the trail became. I was quite glad when I reached the intersection with the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). I made it to Dipping Lakes around 10:30 A.M. I would definitely put those 4 miles towards the top of the most difficult 4 miles of any trip I have done.
I had a Clif Bar and then spent a while trying to find a camp spot. I got camp set up and then rinsed off and soaked my feet for a while. I also rinsed off my socks, shoes, and bottom half of pants, as they were all really dirty from walking through the marshy areas and climbing over trees. After that I had lunch. After getting to Dipping Lakes I had gone back and forth several times about whether I wanted to try and do the hike to Red Lake and back. Finally, around 1:00, I decided to go ahead and head that way. It looked a little stormy, but nothing too threatening. Around 10 minutes down trail, I heard some thunder, and I took that as my sign to just stay at camp for the day. Haha.
While looking for camp spots, I noticed a couple with trash in the fire rings, so I got that cleaned up after getting back to my camp. It started to get pretty stormy around 2:00 P.M., so I got in my tent and laid down. It started raining around 2:15, and rained lightly for 15-20 minutes. I got up around 3, looked at maps, and did some reading. The rest of the evening after dinner was spent reading and taking some photos. The lake was like glass most of the evening, which made for some fun photography.
Day 3: I got out of bed at 6:45 A.M., made breakfast, and hit the trail just before 8. According to my calculation on Avenza maps, it was roughly 4.5 miles to Red Lake, with not much elevation gain. With my daypack, I figured it would only take 2 hours to get there, at most. So I figured a pretty easy day. I was quite wrong. Haha.
All the elevation gain was pretty much in the first half mile or so. The hike along the CDT was really neat. There were some fantastic views along that trail. At one point, I pulled up Avenza maps and realized that I had missed the trail to Red Lake. I had figured there would be a sign marking the trail junction, but that wasn’t the case. Thankfully I wasn’t too far past it. Since it was fairly flat and open, I cut across to the trail. However, it turned out that there was no “trail” to Red Lake. It was a cross country route marked my cairns, and it wasn’t marked that well. I was honestly using Avenza maps more than I was using cairns. However, it made for more of a zig-zag pattern getting to the lake, which added to the miles. It was rough ground as well, which made me realize how nice smooth maintained trails are. Once again, if it wasn’t for Avenza Maps, I’m not sure I would have actually kept going. I could have used my map and compass and possibly made it, but I’m not sure I would have been willing to risk getting myself lost.
I reached Red Lake around 10:30, and realized that one of my feet had a blister on the heel. That was a big bummer. It wasn’t really a scenic lake (in my opinion), but I would have liked to spend some time there resting. However, it was already looking stormy, and this was not a hike I wanted to do in a thunderstorm. Most of it is up on a high plateau with very few trees. So I took just enough time to eat a Clif Bar and refill on water, and then headed back towards camp. Sure enough, about 15 minutes after leaving Red Lake, I heard the first thunder. At that point the race was on to try to get back to camp before I got stormed on, and this was definitely not the route I wanted to be trying to race through.
I did a little better on the way back staying close to the trail marked on the map, but still got off course a couple times. I was really glad when I reached the actual trail again. I was in the zone booking it back to camp when, with a little under a mile to go, I passed a guy resting just off trail. I’m not sure if I saw him first, or he said something first, but either way he scared me pretty good. Haha. He was section hiking the CDT, and goes by the trail name Cache 22. We chatted for 20 minutes or so about backpacking, and then headed our separate ways. It was really cool to get to chat with him.
I got back to camp around 1:00 P.M. The roughly 9 miles round trip had turned into roughly 12, according to my Garmin. It was much harder than I had expected. It also didn’t help that I was quite stressed out about getting caught in a thunderstorm. Had there actually been a trail, I think it would have been quite easy. If I was going to do it again, I would actually keep going down the CDT a ways, as that seemed to have the more scenic views (again, in my opinion). If I were going to go to Red Lake again, I would likely try using my map and compass and just following a heading. Assuming I could stick to that heading, I think that would be the better option than trying to follow the cairns.
When I got back to camp there were a couple different storms around with thunder. I ate lunch and then washed my feet off. I ended up getting a blister on each heel during the hike. At that point I knew the 6 days was likely going to turn into 5. It started to rain just before 2:00 P.M., and I laid down in the tent until 3:00 P.M. It stayed cloudy and chilly the rest of the day, and I spent most of the rest of the day doing some reading.
Day 4: The original plan for this day was to go to Green Lake, but due to the blisters on my heels, I decided to skip Green Lake and get to Alverjones Lake. I knew that a good chunk of this hike was going to be in areas where I wouldn’t want to get caught in a thunderstorm. To try and avoid a repeat of the previous day, I set my alarm for 5:30 A.M., ate a Clif Bar instead of oatmeal for breakfast, and hit the trail around 6:30 A.M. The hike between Dipping Lakes and Trail Lake was easily the best section of this trip. The views once I started climbing above Dipping Lakes were spectacular. It was fantastic in the morning light. It definitely made me glad I got an early start. I stopped often to snap some photos, while in the back of my mind thinking I might regret it later if I get caught in a storm. Haha.
I reached Trail Lake around 8:30 A.M. The intersection where the trail to Alverjones Lake splits off of the CDT was actually marked. That was nice. There was a small pond there where I refilled my water. While I was doing that, another backpacker went by on the CDT. Prior to the trip, a coworker had mentioned he thought the trail towards Alverjones was marked by cairns, and after my experience with Red Lake, I had a hunch we was correct. It became obvious quite quickly that it would be a cross country route marked by cairns, at least initially. There was one spot with two massive cairns, one probably at least 7 feet tall, and another one probably over 6 feet tall. Those were quite impressive. I was really wishing I had someone with me to take a photo of me between the two massive cairns.
Things seemed to be going well until I got to a cairn and couldn’t see any more cairns. I pulled up Avenza Maps, and it showed that I was off trail a bit. I hiked back towards trail, eventually saw a couple more cairns, and then found an actual trail just above Laguna Venado. The trail came and went between there and Laguna Venado, and then was pretty consistent after Laguna Venado. My original plan had me going by Victoria Lake, but the maps indicated the hike might be pretty marshy, and based on what I had seen so far, I figured it probably wouldn’t be the kind of lake I consider scenic, so I decided to skip it. Most of the hike from near the Victoria Lake trail intersection to Alverjones Lake was through open meadow.
I reached Alverjones Lake a little after 11, and it was already starting to look a bit stormy. Once again, I was glad I had got the early start. I found a previously used camp site quickly, although I wasn’t a huge fan of it. There was a fire ring, and some pre cut firewood. It honestly looked like it was a campsite used by hunters. There were lots of cow pies around, and it was probably a 1/4 mile walk to the lake. However, the rest of the lake didn’t look too promising for camp sites, so I decided to stay there and got camp set up. I ate lunch, then went down to the lake to get water. These long walks to the water are when I’m really glad I have my 2L bag to fill up and bring to camp.
The first thunder was a little after 12. It started to rain about 1:15. It didn’t rain for very long. I read and listened to podcasts most of the afternoon. The clouds actually cleared up about 3:15 and there was a light breeze. All the previous days it had stayed cloudy after the storms, and went pretty much calm, so that was a little bit of a change. Several cows showed up on the opposite side of the lake. I figured they would probably stroll into my camp at some point, but they never did, thankfully. I believe about 5:00 P.M. a thunderstorm went up to my NE, and I was quite glad I wasn’t under that storm. It looked like it was dumping a lot of rain, had a bunch of thunder, and moved very, very slowly. I got some cold outflow winds from that storm around 7:20 P.M. Thankfully I was pretty much ready for bed already, so I hopped in my tent. I looked out of my tent towards the lake around 7:30 P.M. and noticed several elk walking along the opposite side of the lake. I counted 9 elk. That was really cool to watch them for a few minutes.
I eventually got into my tent for good around 8:00 P.M. and tried to get to sleep. It took me forever to get to sleep. It started raining lightly around 10:00 P.M., which I wasn’t thrilled about since that meant I would have a wet tent in the morning. I’m not sure what time I finally fell asleep, but it was much later than I would have liked.
Day 5: After the change in plans, the goal for this day was to hike out to the trailhead. I once again set my alarm for 5:30 A.M. and hit the trail around 6:30 A.M. I dried my tent off as best I could with my towel before getting it packed up. I ended up wearing my rain jacket and beanie starting out. This seemed like the coldest morning of the trip. If you look closely at my actual map, you can see that I went the wrong way at the first trail intersection. Once again, the intersection wasn’t marked, and I never even saw the other trail. I only found out I had gone the wrong way when I checked Avenza maps at the second intersection. I was able to see the correct trail taking off on my way back to the first intersection.
Just as I was about to stop to take off my rain jacket, a band of coyotes started making noise, and they seemed to be quite close, so I decided to keep going for a bit before I stopped. Haha. At some point during the hike I had a Ptarmigan take off just ahead of me, which scared me pretty good. Those things are quite good at scaring you. The trail was quite difficult in spots where it started going down into the canyon for Elk Creek. There were several spots that were quite steep and were nothing but loose rock and dirt. There were several instances where, if it hadn’t been for my trekking poles, I probably would have ended up on my butt. I passed a random trail sign partway down into the canyon. I had only seen signs at a few intersections, and this sign wasn’t in a spot where the map indicated any sort of trail intersection, so that had me a little bit confused. Not sure why it was placed there.
I reached Elk Creek about 9:45 A.M. I stopped for a break, refilled water, and ate a Clif Bar. I had heard some voices as I got close to the Elk Creek trail, but nobody came by while I was taking my break. After that I resumed my trek towards the trailhead. I passed several people hiking in. All appeared to be day hikers. I reached the trailhead around 11:45 A.M., and noticed what looked like a trail crew sitting next to their van eating. I asked them if they were about to start some trail maintenance, which was actually a pretty stupid question. If I had been observant, I would have noticed they looked pretty worn out. I’ll blame it on being worn out and probably dehydrated myself. Haha. But they replied they had just finished a four day trip of trail maintenance. I assumed they had been the voices I heard as I got close to the Elk Creek Trail. I chatted with them for a couple minutes, and then opened up my trunk to start putting stuff in.
That is when I noticed that at least one mouse had made my car home while I was backpacking. That quickly put a big damper on the day. It had eaten most of the food that I had in the trunk, and left evidence of itself all throughout the car. I spent a while looking through the car to see if I could find it, but had no luck. This was the second time I had had this happen, and I got quite frustrated. I had planned to use the restroom, get my tent out and let it dry out, and each lunch, but I decided to just get to Chama and try to get the mouse situation taken care of. Looking back on it, I would have loved to stick around and chat with the trail crew, and I’m really bummed I didn’t, but I really wanted to try and get that mouse out of the car as soon as I could.
I drove to Chama, NM, bought some mouse traps and peanut butter, and then got a room at “The Hotel and Shops”. It wasn’t anything fancy by any means, but it had a bed, a shower, was in a great location, and they had some tasty looking sweets for purchase, which was really all I needed. Haha. The customer service was great as well. Once I got everything out of the car, I put some peanut butter on the traps and put them in the car. I got washed up, got some cheesecake from the hotel for lunch, then got stuff organized and did some reading. For dinner I got a green chile smothered cheeseburger and a slice of apple pie from The Boxcar Cafe.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, this hike goes towards the bottom of the list of favorite hikes I have done. It just seemed like a lot of effort for not that much scenery. The only part I really considered scenic was the part along the CDT, which was just a small portion of the trip. The trip up Elk Creek wasn’t too bad either. If you’re into meadows, this would be a good trip for you. There are some massive meadows/open areas on this trip. While I was quite impressed with some of the meadows, I would much rather hike through forest or in an area with views of big mountains. Also, much of the forest on this hike was dead, I’m assuming from a beetle infestation, so that was a bummer. It made finding a camp spot away from dead trees nearly impossible, unless I wanted to be out in the middle of a large open area, which wasn’t preferable either.
With that said, though, the experience of hiking cross country was a good experience to have. I definitely have some work to do to get better at that. Haha. You often hear of large mountains making people feel small, but the huge open plateau between the CDT and Laguna Venado made me feel quite small as well, which wasn’t really expected. That may be the most isolated I have ever felt. I could see forever in pretty much every direction. There was no trail, and really no evidence of any human activity other than the occasional cairn. The only other trip that I may have felt more isolated was my solo trip in the Uintas when I didn’t see anybody for nearly 3 days.
One thing I forgot mention in my Weminuche Wilderness trip summary, and was the same on this trip, was the lack of mosquitoes. That was so nice. There was plenty of evidence of wildlife on this trip, although I didn’t really see much other than the elk. I was super excited to get to see the big group of elk though. That was easily more elk than I had seen in all my previous trips combined.
So, in short, met some great people, saw a new area, had some new experiences, but just not quite the scenery I would have liked.
If you pack it in, please pack it out. Fortunately, most of the trail was quite clean, but a couple camp spots at Dipping Lakes had some trash left in the fire rings. I had brought a bag just in case I ran into something like this, so before I left Dipping Lakes I picked up the trash and packed it out. Please do the same if you come across trash while you’re out in the backcountry.