Ozark Highlands Trail: Ozone to Lake Ft. Smith – Trip Report

Back in mid-March I had intended to hike Woolum to Lake Ft. Smith (LFS) all in one go. Due to blisters on my heels I decided to call it quits at Ozone (after 79 of 164 miles). You can read the full trip report here. After calling it quits I was hoping I could get the blisters healed up enough by Easter weekend (when I had a couple days off work) so I could finish up the Ozone to LFS section. One of the blisters wasn’t healed up quite as much as I would have liked, but I felt it was good enough to go ahead and give it a shot, so on the morning of March 31 I set out to finish the Ozone to LFS section. This blog will dive into the day by day details, with some overall thoughts at the end. Mile markers (MM) are approximate. 

Day 1: Ozone to Lewis Prong (MM 85-72)
Third crossing of Lewis Prong.

My alarm went off at 4:30 A.M. and I was on the road to LFS around 5:15 A.M. My parents were meeting me there and would shuttle me to Ozone. I got to LFS around 8:15 A.M., made a quick trip to the restroom, transferred my stuff to my parents’ car, and then we hit the road. I remembered my sunglasses this time. We arrived at Ozone around 10:00 A.M. It was quite chilly. I put on my rain jacket before I started to help keep me warm. Just after hitting the trail it started to sleet, and then a few minutes later it started to snow. It snowed for a few minutes, pretty heavily for about a minute or so. It was pretty crazy. I had expected some rain, but wasn’t expecting any snow. I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad omen. 

I was a little nervous about crossing the Mulberry River, simply due to having “river” in the name. Some of the creek crossings had been a little difficult, and the only other river crossing (Buffalo River) had been quite difficult. When I reached Mulberry River I was relieved. Many of the creeks I had crossed were larger than the Mulberry. Haha. I ended up taking my shoes and socks off and crossing in my sandals. It looked like it would be quite a while until the next major crossing so I decided to keep my trail runners and socks dry. I wanted to try and do as much as I could this time to prevent blisters. Shortly after crossing the Mulberry I stopped to take off my rain jacket. I eventually got to Boomer Branch around noon. I stopped and had lunch at the creek. 

I hit the trail again around 12:20 P.M. It got fairly windy at the top of the ridge between Hignite Creek and Waterfall Hollow. I stopped for a break in the Waterfall Hollow Falls area. I was a little bit worried about my feet. They hadn’t blistered, but they felt like they might. I ended up deciding not to tape them up. I took a break for a few minutes and then switched my outer socks for dry ones. (I was wearing liner socks and outer socks.) After that I continued on. The Waterfall Hollow Falls area was a cool area. It was slow going through there with my break and time spent taking pictures and video. 

There were several different creek crossings around the first crossing of Lewis Prong. I was able to do all of them in my trail runners and only got my toes wet. At the second crossing of Lewis Prong I didn’t see any way to get across without getting my feet wet, and I decided to do it in my trail runners since I was fairly close to camp. When I got to the third crossing of Lewis Prong I decided there was no way I was crossing where the trail crossed. It looked way too deep with a strong current. I ended up going downstream a bit and was able to cross only getting my toes wet. That crossing was another really cool spot. I spent lots of time taking pictures and video there. I reached my planned camp spot just on the other side around 5:00 P.M. I thought about going another 3 miles to the next marked camp spot on the map, but decided against it.

I was a little bit rusty getting camp set up. Haha. After camp was set up I started making dinner. Around 5:45 P.M., in the middle of making dinner, Chris and Adriene showed up. They asked where the next camp spot was, and I told them about a mile down the trail. They decided to call it a day and camp at the same spot. I was happy to have some company to spend the evening with. They were from Michigan and were hiking the trail from Dockery Gap to Richland Creek. I believe at one point I mentioned getting ready for the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and they said they plan on doing the Appalachian Trail (AT) next year. It was fun to get to talk about those plans. 

I realized shortly before bed time that I had forgot to mention a camp spot just down the trail across the creek. Kind of felt bad about that. I had really bad gas the entire evening, so they may have wanted to be at a different site. Hopefully they don’t hold it against me. Haha. We all hit the sack around 8:00 P.M. I listened to a podcast for a while before trying to get to sleep. 

Day 2: Lewis Prong to Lick Branch (MM 72-55)
Frost on my tent when I got up the second day.

On my second day I was up at 6:45 A.M. It was quite chilly. I had frost on/inside my tent. I was on trail around 8. It had been great to share a camp spot with Adriene and Chris. As was the norm for camping next to a creek, there was a big climb right away. The Arbaugh trailhead was at the top of the climb. The trail then descended down into Lynn Hollow. That was a really cool area. That was an area I likely would have enjoyed spending some more time exploring. After climbing out of there and crossing CR 6220 I came to a camp spot and took a snack break. After eating a snack, resting my feet, and snapping a few pictures, it was back on the trail. Between my start for the day and MM 65 there were a lot of waterfalls. Probably one of the better stretches of trail for a large number of waterfalls. After mile 65 there was another pretty good climb. 

At this point it was getting close to lunch time and my water was starting to get a little low. The map didn’t show any streams until MM 59. I wasn’t going to make it that far before lunch. Just before noon I ended up coming to a small stream near MM 63 that had just enough water going over a waterfall that it allowed me to fill up my bottle. I stopped there and had lunch. It was a little bit of a scramble to get to where I could fill up my bottle, but I was glad to have some more water. As I was eating lunch a woman walked by with her dog. It appeared they were out for a day hike as the woman had a small pack. I swapped socks before hitting the trail again at 12:30 P.M. 

Overlook between MM 60 and 61.

There ended up being several small streams after that which weren’t marked on the map. The stretch of trail between MM 61 and 60 was really neat. That stretch had some of the best overlook views of the whole trail. Most of the overlook views are hindered by trees, but this stretch had some more open overlook views. When I reached a camp spot near MM 59 around 2:30 P.M. I decided to take a snack break. That was a cool camp spot. It was a little bit of a walk to water, but if you have a way to bring some extra water back to camp, it’s a great spot. The last three miles to camp were pretty rough. It was a big descent followed by a stretch that was really rocky, with lots of loose rocks. Definitely tough on the feet. I reached the lone wet foot creek crossing of the day right before camp. I switched into my sandals to cross. I got to camp around 4:00 P.M. This ended up being my least favorite camp spot I stayed at along the whole trail. It’s right at the Lick Branch trailhead and next to a road. It had been a long day already, and I wasn’t sure if there were any other spots just down the trail, so I decided to stay. 

After getting to camp I dried out my tent footprint and the bottom of my tent. Once those were dry I got camp set up. After that I soaked my feet in the creek for a bit, made dinner, and then typed up notes for the day. This day was a nice change from the “normal” OHT day. Instead of several climbs, descents, and creek crossings, it was one big climb at the start, a 10 mile stretch of relatively little elevation change, and then a big descent at the end, with only one wet feet creek crossing. It was a nice change of pace. Despite being at a trailhead and next to a road, I didn’t see anybody that evening. 

Day 3: Lick Branch to Hare Mtn. (MM 55-41.5)
Waterfall in Marinoni Scenic Area.

On day 3 I was up at 7:00 A.M. There was a truck that drove by shortly before I got up. Once again I had some frost on/inside my tent. I was on the trail around 8:00 A.M. There was a climb up to Briar Gap before descending a bit to the Marinoni Scenic Area. That was one of my favorite areas along the whole trail. I spent some time at one of the waterfalls getting some video and pictures. I could have spent a lot more time in that area exploring, taking pictures, etc. After Marinoni there was about a mile stretch of walking in lots of pine stands above a drainage before descending down to Indian Creek. The stretch between Lick Branch and Indian Creek was probably my favorite stretch of trail.

I reached Indian Creek around 10:15 A.M. I stopped at the camp area before the creek and took a snack break. After the break I put my shoes back on knowing I might have to take them right back off. I didn’t want to walk to the creek in my sandals in case it was really rocky. I got to the creek after a short walk and determined the shoes would be coming off and I would be crossing in my sandals. Haha. One of my favorite waterfalls of the trip was around MM 47. It wasn’t the largest by any means, but the colors and the rock formations were really cool. I kind of regret not getting any pictures, but there were trees in the way and I didn’t feel like scrambling around to try and find a good picture spot.

I made it to Herrod’s Creek around 12:30 P.M. There were 4-5 stream crossings one right after the other. I crossed them all in my sandals. After the last crossing there was a campsite I stopped at for lunch. While I was eating I had a couple other backpackers go by, and then right as I was leaving a couple deer went by. I hit the trail again around 1:00 P.M. with 5 miles of uphill ahead of me before my camp spot. I wasn’t looking forward to that. It ended up not being too bad, but the last little bit of the climb was pretty tough. The views at the top were great though. At the top of the climb was Hare Mountain, the highest point on the OHT. There is a huge camping area at the top. There aren’t any creeks nearby, but thankfully there is a water well at the top. I was very thankful for having the Guthook app that made me aware of the well, otherwise I would have had to haul extra water there or camp somewhere else. 

Water well on Hare Mountain.

After getting to camp I got my tent footprint and bottom of tent dried. I then filled up my bottle and a bladder with water from the well. The bucket at the well leaked really bad, so it was a little bit of a circus trying to fill up the bottle/bladder before all the water leaked out. Haha. After that I got camp set up. Since I was on top of a mountain and had some spare time I figured I would try to post an update on social media. I ended up having service, but not quite good enough to post, so instead I typed up notes for the day. As I was doing that I noticed someone else setting up camp at another spot. I decided to walk down to the overlook area just outside the camping area and on the way stopped and chatted with the other backpacker (Clay). After chatting with him for a bit I went down to the overlook area, got some better cell service, and posted an update on social media. 

After that it was dinner time. Near where Clay had set up camp there was a random picnic table. I would like to know the story behind getting that up to the camp spot (there are no roads that go up there). I grabbed my stuff for dinner and joined Clay at the picnic table. As we were eating dinner another backpacker showed up. It turned out to be Rob, the creator of the OHT Facebook group. After I finished eating I took my stuff back to my camp and had to take a poop. I mention this because someone had left a shovel at the camp spot, and I immensely thank whoever did this. I hate digging cat holes with my little backpacking trowel. The roots and rocks in the soil along the OHT made it fairly difficult. The shovel made it so much easier. Haha. After that I rejoined Clay and Rob at the picnic table and we chatted for a bit. The wind made it quite chilly, and we all had to bundle up. At sunset Rob and I went down to the overlook area and passed Angie and Karey as they came into the camping area. After staying at the overlook area for a few minutes we came back to camp and I decided to call it a day. 

Day 4: Hare Mtn. – Spirit Creek (MM 41.5 – 23)
Leaving Hare Mountain.

On day 4 I was up at 6:45 A.M. There was no frost and I had very little condensation inside the tent. That was nice. I packed up a bit and then took some video and pictures of the sunrise. I finished packing up and then joined Clay and Rob at the picnic table to eat my breakfast. A little while after I got there Angie and Karey got out of their tents. It was great starting out the day at the picnic table with the four of them. I was the first one to leave camp at around 8:00 A.M. It was nice to have a downhill to start the day for once. 

There were great views just down the trail from the camping area. I spent a little while getting some pictures and video. It was quite chilly with the wind. The prior evening both Clay and Rob had mentioned something about running into a guy on the trail who had hurt his knee. He had decided to quit his hike and his partner had kept going. Right about mile 39 I ran into a guy walking towards me wearing a hoodie, sweatpants, and smoking a cigarette. I knew right away this was the same guy Clay and Rob had talked about since they mentioned the sweatpants. He asked me if I had just crossed a road, which I confirmed. He then turned around and walked a little ways back to where he had apparently made camp, with me following. He had apparently got some sort of directions from someone before his cell phone died. He told me thanks for confirming the road. It was quite odd. It definitely seemed like he was out of place. I would have liked to helped some more, but I wasn’t really sure if it was a good situation to be getting myself into, so I kept going once he turned off to go to his camp. 

As I started to get closer to highway 23 it sounded like there was some sort of rally car race happening on the highway. Once again, quite odd. Haha. Once I got to the highway I finally figured out it was large groups of ATVs on the highway. Shortly after crossing the highway I made it to the Rock House. That thing was pretty cool. I took a snack break there and then took some pictures and video. There were a whole lot of ATVs that went by on the highway while I was taking my break there. Shortly before reaching Fane Creek I ran into a couple people hiking back out who had camped there. I got to Fane Creek around 12:45 P.M. I was hungry and pretty worn out. I used my sandals to cross the creek and stopped for lunch on the other side. While I was eating lunch several ATVs went by on the road across the creek. They seemed to be everywhere on this day. 

The Rock House near Cherry Bend.

I got back on trail around 1:20 P.M. and a short while later ran into a couple guys who were camping at Fane Creek. There was a difficult climb out of Fane Creek, but there were several miles afterwards that were good for making miles, with the exception of several mud pits. I stopped at a little creek shortly before the Ragtown trailhead for a snack break and to fill up water. After that there was a difficult climb up to the trailhead. As I got close to the trailhead I started to smell smoke, but it wasn’t really smoky so I wasn’t sure what the deal was. Shortly before reaching the trailhead I ran into a guy going the opposite way who warned me I was coming up on a prescribed burn area, but he said I could go through it. Sure enough, after crossing the road at the trailhead, the trail went into an area that had just been burned. It was pretty eerie walking through an area with logs still smoldering. 

There was a camp spot right where the trail met Spirit Creek. Rob had actually recommended this spot since there were a couple cool waterfalls right there, but it was in the area they had burned. The wind was also blowing smoke up from the south. Thus, I decided to continue on to a camp spot further to the south hoping that it would have less smoke and be out of the burned area. I was able to rock hop across the creek where the trail crossed. There were several really cool waterfalls along the creek. It was a neat stretch of trail. I got to the camp spot at around 4:15 P.M. Thankfully it was outside of the burn area, but the area just across the creek was still in the burn area, so it still smelled like smoke. I wasn’t sure if there would be any other options relatively close if I continued on, so I decided to set up camp there.

After getting camp set up I soaked my feet in the creek for a bit, typed up notes, washed a pair of socks, and then made dinner. Shortly after finishing dinner a group of four other backpackers went by the opposite direction. It turned out they were all from Oklahoma City. It was cool running into a group from OKC. I listened to a podcast before trying to get to sleep. After it got dark I could look back up the trail and see a little bit of fire in the burn area. That was pretty crazy. 

Day 5: Spirit Creek to Lake Ft. Smith (LFS) (MM 23-0)
Patch of Mayapple (or an umbrella plant town, as I referred to them).

On day 5 I was up at 7:00 A.M. I didn’t have any condensation on the inside of my tent. That was awesome. My plan starting the day was to make it to Hurricane Creek (MM 10). Since it would be a shorter day I thought about going back up trail a bit to check out the waterfalls I had skipped the day before, but decided against it. I hit the trail around 8:00 A.M. There was a hard climb up and out of Spirit Creek followed by a descent to Salt Fork Creek. Just before reaching Salt Fork I met a couple from Florida hiking the opposite direction doing LFS to Woolum. I got to Salt Fork at 9:40 A.M. It looked like I could rock hop across. Just before getting all the way across my left foot slipped off one of the rocks and went into the creek. That was frustrating. Had it not been for that I would have made it across with getting my feet minimally wet. There were a couple guys on the opposite side of the creek who said they were doing the Shores Lake Loop. After looking at my map that evening I believe they had missed a turn, so hopefully they didn’t go too much farther before figuring that out. There was another tough climb after that up to White Rock. I made it to the trail register around 10:30 A.M. and stopped at the campsite there for a break. 

The two climbs that morning had worn me out. I wrote in the trail register something along the lines of “All downhill the rest of the day” and took a long snack break there. I hit the trail again around 11:00 A.M. It looked really smoky. I was hoping I didn’t have to go through any more prescribed burn areas. About 30 minutes after leaving White Rock I stopped at a small creek to fill up with water. Based on the map it didn’t look promising for water along the trail to Hurricane creek, so I filled up my bottle and most of one of my 2L bladders. As I kept walking, I started to realize the trail wasn’t going downhill, and came to the conclusion I should have written “generally downhill” in the trail register. Around MM 16 I passed three really small kids with (I’m assuming) their mom and grandma. Major kudos to the mom and grandma as it appeared they were carrying everything for the kids. They each had a fairly large backpack on.

After crossing FR-1003 the trail got fairly rough. It was on the side of a steep mountain in an area that had somewhat recently had a controlled burn done. There was very little shade. I finally found a spot at MM 14 to stop and have lunch around 12:30 P.M. There was a tree large enough to block enough of the sun to give me a shady spot to sit and have lunch. Definitely not ideal but it worked. I was really glad I had filled up the bladder with water since it allowed me to mix up an electrolyte drink and have some water to spare for the rest of the hike. I got back to hiking around 12:50 P.M. A little while after that it finally dawned on me that there was a relatively flat stretch of trail for several miles after White Rock and that it wasn’t all, or even generally, downhill the rest of the day. Only the last couple miles down to Hurricane Creek were downhill. I had seen that when looking at the map the day before, but for some reason I had thought it was all downhill when I reached White Rock. Haha. 

I didn’t run into another decent creek until shortly before Hurricane Creek. This made me really glad I had stopped at that creek shortly after White Rock to fill up. If you’re hiking between Hurricane Creek and Salt Fork Creek in a drier time, you’ll likely want to pack extra water in that stretch. I’m not sure if the creek I stopped at dries up when it gets warmer and drier. I believe you can go into White Rock proper and fill up if you need to, but that’s some extra hiking. 

About a mile before getting to camp my body decided it needed to take a poop. I ended up pushing through to camp. I crossed Hurricane Creek in my trail runners and immediately went to dig a cat hole after getting to camp. By the time I was finished digging the cat hole the urge had mainly gone away. I left the cat hole and walked back to camp. While walking back to camp I realized it was only 2:30 P.M. I walked around a bit to try to get the urge to come back, and finally got the poop out a few minutes later. After that I decided to go ahead and try to get to LFS before dark. I’m not sure what made me all gung ho all of a sudden to knock out 10 more miles. I dried my shoes out as best I could, switched socks, and got some food out to eat along the way since I likely wouldn’t be stopping for dinner. By the time I got back on trail it was 3:00 P.M. I figured if I was able to make 2 m.p.h. like I had been most of the trip I would get to LFS by 8:00 P.M., which would be just about the time it would be getting too dark to see without a headlamp. I figured I could make better time than that though, especially with not stopping for dinner. 

I had one last big uphill climb to do right off the bat that took me to Dockery’s Gap. After Dockery’s Gap it was all generally downhill or flat. I knew this for sure. Haha. As I was going down the other side towards Jack Creek I ran into a group of 3 day hikers going the opposite direction and then down at Jack Creek I ran into a group of 3 backpackers going the opposite direction. I believe it was around mile 6 I ran into a group of three people who had set up camp for the day. I was excited when I finally saw the lake, but that was short lived as I realized I had to hike a ways around the lake. Haha. The last major creek crossing was Frog Bayou. Clay and Adriene from my first night had started their hike at Dockery’s Gap since the water level at Frog Bayou was apparently too high. It had been a few days since any significant precipitation so I figured the water level should be pretty low, but there was still a little bit of uneasiness about what I would find when I got there. 

I made it to Frog Bayou around 5:15 P.M. It wasn’t a bad crossing at all. Most of it was about ankle deep, with a short stretch that was a little deeper. When I got to the other side I found a couple tent stakes on the ground, which was pretty ironic since I had lost two tent stakes on my OHT hike a couple weeks earlier. I picked them up and put them in my pocket. (In another ironic twist, I apparently left these at my camp spot at LFS as I can’t seem to find them now.) Just after MM 2 I ran into a family who had decided to do the Shepherd Springs Loop and had underestimated how long it was. They asked me if I had a map or knew how to get back to the campground. I told them to keep following the trail and it was about a mile and a half to the campground. I think that surprised them a bit. Haha. They’ll have a good adventure story to tell. 

I made it to the trailhead at LFS at 6:45 P.M., much earlier than I thought I would make it there. I got a selfie by the sign and then went to find a camp spot in the campground. After getting a camp spot I made dinner, got camp set up, and then typed up notes for the day. I ended up covering about 23 miles in about 11 hours, with roughly 1.5 hours of break time. I was really happy with that. I was really sore laying in bed that night though. 

Overall Thoughts

This west half of the trail seemed to have fewer “wet feet crossings” than the eastern half, and it seemed to get drier as I went west, although the stretch from Dockery’s Gap to LFS had quite a few smaller creek crossings. That was definitely nice for keeping the feet dry, but I often found the creeks to be the more scenic sections of the trail. 

There were lots more people out during this trip, which I’m sure had a lot to do with the better weather and holiday weekend. I enjoyed getting to spend a couple nights camping with other people.

On Friday and Saturday there were lots of ATVs out. I never actually crossed paths with any, but I could see them and hear them. Not really a big deal, but definitely wasn’t super peaceful hiking. 

A couple rock recliners at the camp spot I stayed at next to Spirit Creek.

Although they sound really uncomfortable, the rock recliners at many of the campsites were awesome after a long day of hiking. I loved getting to a campsite that had those. 

I thought the trail got quite a bit less interesting the last couple days. In particular the stretch after getting down from Hare Mountain to Dockery Gap. There were some scenic spots, but overall I found those last two days to be the most “boring” days. 

I saw very little wildlife while I was out hiking. The only large wildlife I saw in the 164 miles were a few deer. Not a big deal for me, but if you’re looking for wildlife, this may not be the trail to choose.

I highly recommend taking trekking poles. There were countless times they saved me from completely falling when I tripped on a rock, root, branch, etc. They were also really helpful for the creek crossings. I would hate to try and do the hike without them. 

Between all the entry points, this is a great trail for all sorts of different hikes. Day hikes, short sections hikes, or a thru hike. If you’re itching to get some hiking in outside of the normal summer “big mountain” hiking season, I think this is a great option. 

Although it would have been great to do it all in one go, I’m actually really glad it worked out the way it did. It was a great experience and I definitely think it helped to get me prepared for my CDT hike.

Favorite Spots Between Woolum and LFS (in no particular order)
  • Bloyd Ridge
  • Cedar Creek
  • Marinoni Scenic Area
  • Hare Mountain
  • Lynn Hollow

Ozark Highlands Trail – Woolum to Ozone: Trip Report

On March 11 I started a hike of the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) in northwest Arkansas that was supposed to go from Woolum to Lake Ft. Smith (LFS), a total of 164 miles. I was using it as a “shakedown” hike for my upcoming hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). In other words, test out gear, systems, etc. to figure out what worked and what didn’t and allow time to make needed changes prior to starting the CDT. Due to a blister that kept getting worse on my right heel I called it quits at Ozone, 79 miles in. This blog is a day by day account of the trip, with some overall thoughts at the end. Mile markers are approximate. 

Day 1: Woolum to Dry Creek (MM 164-153)

Day 1 started with my alarm going off at 4:30 A.M. I got stuff packed up and put in the car and hit the road to LFS around 5:15 A.M. I arrived at the park around 8:15 A.M., used the restroom in the visitor center, transferred my stuff to my parents’ car, and then we hit the road to Woolum. I realized about 20-30 minutes after leaving my car that I had left my sunglasses in my car, but at that point I didn’t want to take the time to turn around and get them. As we were going through Harrison we noticed the Walmart, so we stopped there so my parents could fill up with gas, and I went in and found some sunglasses to use on the trip. We got to Woolum at 11:30 A.M. I ate lunch, said goodbye to my parents, and hit the trail at noon.

Red line indicates approximate crossing location of Buffalo River.

Right off the bat I had to cross the Buffalo River. I had seen a post on Facebook just a few days prior of a couple guys swimming across the river at the end of their hike. I really didn’t want to swim across and get completely soaked right off the bat. When doing some research on this crossing I had come across a blog post that said it was apparently possible to cross without swimming by going upstream just a bit. I took several minutes trying to figure out where the most ideal crossing appeared to be. The image above shows approximately where I finally decided to cross (red line). It was impossible to tell how deep the river was all the way across, so I just took my best guess and thankfully I got lucky and it didn’t involve any swimming and I didn’t fall in. At its deepest it was just over my knees. (I’m 5’9” and the St. Joe gauge was at just over 5 feet at the time.)  

After getting across I stopped to get the gravel out of my shoes and then continued on. It started out with a dirt road walk for about the first 4 miles and then took off on a trail. The trail was a bit difficult to follow due to being covered in leaves, but it was well blazed so that helped. It rained lightly for a little bit around 2:30 P.M. I got into my rain jacket, but it never ended up raining hard enough to really need it. Overall the weather was really nice for the hike. After 11 miles I got to Dry Creek at around 5:00 P.M. and decided to stop for dinner. I had an Idahoan potatoes mix for the first time and wasn’t a fan of it. Thankfully I had put some jerky sticks in it which helped. It was a lot of food as well. I was wishing I had split it into two servings. It was good to find out I’m not a big fan of those though. 

After I finished eating it started to drizzle, so I hurried as best I could with a new tent to get camp set up. My tent requires trekking poles to set up, and as I was setting it up I realized one of my trekking pole tips was caked in mud. I went to the creek to wash it off and had a heck of a time washing it off. I’m not sure if it was mud or some sort of animal feces or what, but it was a pain to get off. I finally got camp set up, brushed my teeth, and did some planning for the next day. I could already tell my heels were starting to get sore and possibly blister, so that worried me. I typed up my notes for the day, listened to a podcast for a bit, and then called it a day. 

Day 2: Dry Creek to Falling Water Creek (MM 153-138.5)
Climbing out of dry creek drainage.

My alarm went off at 6:00 A.M. and I was up shortly after that. I had a decent amount of condensation on the inside of the tent. It had rained a bit overnight so the outside of the tent was wet as well. I packed my backpack inside the tent and dried off the tent as best I could before taking it down and putting it into my backpack. I hit the trail around 7:15 A.M. It was much longer than I would have liked between getting up and hitting the trail. It would have been faster had I not spent time drying the tent and eating breakfast. I was in fog for the first couple hours of the hike. The hike up and out of Dry Creek was really cool. There were likely some good views I missed out on because of the fog, but the fog was really cool as well. The picture above was taken that morning. I also found out the fog was handy for making it easy to see spider web strings going across the trail. 

I got a little bit confused when I hit the Stack Rock trailhead as the blazes ended for a bit and Guthook didn’t show a short section of the road. I finally figured it out and continued on. It looked like they had recently completed a controlled burn in the area. The morning hike was difficult with lots of boggy/marshy and rocky areas. Definitely not good for feet that already seemed to be getting blisters. I ended up running into Benjamin right before Richland Creek and we stopped and chatted for a bit. He had driven down from Minnesota and was going from LFS to Woolum. It was nice to visit with someone else on the trail. I actually forgot to ask his name, but there was a trail register just down the trail that I was able to get it from. 

Richland Creek

I got to Richland Creek at around 11:45 A.M. It had been beautiful hiking weather all morning. I ate lunch next to the creek. There was a couple car camping not too far away. It was a cool spot. I hit the trail again around 12:45 P.M. It was a pretty steep climb out followed by a pretty steep descent. The trail was a little easier on the feet. My shoulders and heels were killing me though. I played around with some adjustments on my pack to try and help the shoulder pain. I knew if I didn’t figure something out I wasn’t making it the 164 miles. By the time I reached camp at 2:45 P.M. I hadn’t made a whole lot of progress in helping the shoulder pain. I was really glad to finally get to camp. I soaked my feet in the creek for a bit and then set up camp. As I was setting up camp I realized I was short a tent stake. I figured I must have left it at my camp spot that morning. With the new tent I was using I didn’t have to pull the tent stakes out of the ground to put up the tent, so I must have forgot to pull one out of the ground when I was packing up. Ironically I had considered putting in a couple spare stakes prior to the trip but decided not to. I ended up using some cord that came with the tent and wrapping that around a rock which worked fine. 

Shortly after getting camp set up it started to rain lightly. I hopped in my tent and went over the plan for the next day. After that I laid down until around 5:00 P.M., at which point I got out and cooked dinner. Thankfully there was a break in the rain long enough for me to get to have dinner outside of the tent. After dinner I got into the tent and listened to a podcast for a bit. While I was doing that it started to rain again. I was hoping it would stop raining so I could get out of the tent to brush my teeth, but I finally gave up on that and brushed my teeth inside the tent. I ended up spitting into the bottle I used for for drink mixes (rinsed it out the next morning). Not ideal, but it worked. Haha. After that I called it a day. 

Day 3: Falling Water Creek to Buck Brn (MM 138.5-122)
Damp sleeping pad in the morning.

I got up about 6:15 A.M. on day 3. My tent was wet again in the morning due to the rain. I noticed when I was packing up that my sleeping pad had got wet and soaked through. It wasn’t sopping wet, but it was definitely damp. That was a bummer. I ended up hitting the trail around 7:30 A.M. I stopped just down the trail for some photos. As I was finishing that up it started to rain. I put on my rain gear and actually needed it this time. Before long it was raining fairly hard. Having to do a tough uphill climb out of Falling Water Creek in my rain gear with it raining fairly hard wasn’t very pleasant. Even though I wasn’t getting soaked by the rain, I was pretty sure I was getting somewhat wet from my sweat. Haha. I was really glad to reach the top of that climb. It rained pretty steady for the first 4 miles or so, and then on and off after that. Although it wasn’t particularly pleasant, it was good practice as I haven’t done much hiking in the rain. I learned that I need to tuck my shirt into my rain pants, otherwise the bottom of it will get soaked. 

When I reached the Ben Hur trailhead I stopped and signed the trail register. I took off my pack while doing so. After that I had a lightbulb moment with my pack. I ended up putting it on a little bit higher than I had been, and messed with a couple other adjustments, and that ended up helping a lot. After that the shoulder pain wasn’t much of an issue. There were still a few instances where they would get sore, but nothing like they had been up to that point. I was really thankful I finally got the pack figured out. Except for the initial climb in the morning and the descent to Richland Creek, most of the morning was fairly easy walking. There wasn’t a whole lot of rocky sections, which was nice. The area around Richland Creek was really neat. I should have taken it slower through that area, but I was frustrated with being wet and figured it was a good time to make some miles since I didn’t want to get my big camera out. I had to get my feet wet crossing Richland Creek. 

Came across these near the Moore CCC camp. Exactly how I felt after hiking in the rain most of the morning.

I stopped at around 11:30 A.M. to have lunch next to a creek between MM 130 and 131. Just as I started to take off my rain gear it started to rain lightly. I ended up having lunch in a light rain/drizzle, which was frustrating. I got back on trail around noon. I was finally able to take off my rain coat around MM 128. Shortly after that I ran into Boy Scouts Troop 397 doing a short section hike from Fairview to the Moore CCC camp. I chatted with a couple of their leaders for a few minutes. They gave me a heads up that storms were in the forecast for Sunday night. I was already aware of that possibility when I started the hike, but it was nice to get an update and confirm that was still in the forecast. 

I got to Fairview Campground around 3:00 P.M. I took my rain pants off and took a break for a bit. I had a snack and used the restroom while I was there. I got back on the trail around 3:30 P.M. There were two miles left until camp, all downhill and fairly steep at times. Between Fairview and camp I ran into a group of 7 people doing a section hike from Ozone to Fairview. They let me know the Hurricane Creek crossings were doable, although one of them was difficult. That was good info to have. 

I got to camp around 4:30 P.M and got camp set up. The rest of the evening was my normal routine with dinner, typing up notes, and planning out the next day. Between the rain and creek crossings, my feet were wet pretty much the whole day. I was definitely tired of wearing wet shoes and socks by the end of the day. I went to bed knowing that the next day would likely be a rough day. 

Day 4: Buck Brn to Haw Creek Campground (MM 122-102.5)

On day 4 I was up at 7:00 A.M. It was still pretty dark when I got up, and it threw me off for a couple seconds when I saw 7:00 on my phone, but then I realized it was due to the time change. It had rained yet again overnight, so this was another morning with time spent drying the tent as best I could with my towel. I hit the trail at 7:45 A.M. I knew it was likely to be a long day. There was a camp spot around 16 miles in, which was ideal distance wise, but it was up on a ridge and it didn’t look like there was water anywhere near. Between the lack of water and thunderstorms in the forecast, I wasn’t too keen on that spot. Anything shorter would have put me a bit behind schedule, so I decided to try to make it to Haw Creek Campground, which was just under 20 miles. In addition, I wanted to get across the second crossing of Hurricane Creek, which was about 13 miles in, before the storms came through. So in addition to be a long distance day, I needed to hike it pretty hard to try and beat the storms. Ideally I would beat the storms to the campground, but at a minimum I needed to beat them to the second creek crossing. Thus why I wasn’t too thrilled about the day. Haha. 

Rock in the Bloyd Ridge area.

The first four miles didn’t get off to a good start for making good time. It was really rocky and it was a really cool stretch of trail. If I had to pick a favorite spot during this trip I would pick the Bloyd Ridge area. I took a little bit of time and snapped some photos but I would have loved to spent some more time going through that area. The trail got better for making time and miles once I got down to the Hurricane Creek area. Not too long after getting close to Hurricane Creek there were a couple light blue blazes intermingled with the white blazes. That threw me off a little bit. After that the blazes were few and far between for most of the day, especially compared with the rest of the trail up to that point. As I was hiking along I texted my dad through my inReach and asked him about the storm timing. He said storm chances started at 1:00 P.M. and peaked from 3:00 P.M. to 7:00 P.M. I felt comfortable that if the storms were later in the afternoon I would likely be ok with getting across the second creek crossing, but if they were as early at 1:00 P.M. I might be in trouble. 

I made it to the first crossing of Hurricane Creek at 11:15 A.M. It was a fairly wide crossing, but it never got above my knees, and wasn’t too swift. After I got to the other side I took a break for a few minutes to eat some trail mix and then hit the trail again. This stretch between the first and second crossing was where I had the most trouble following the trail my whole trip. It wasn’t bad by any means, but there were a couple areas where I actually lost the trail and it took me a minute or two to get back on it. I believe both times I missed a turn in the trail. I made it to the second crossing a little after 1:00 P.M. This one definitely looked more difficult than the first one. I took a couple minutes scouting out different crossing options, and where I finally decided to cross it looked like there was a short part that was fairly deep and swift. It ended up being a little over my knees in a couple spots, fairly swift, and was a little bit slick. I would say it was the second hardest crossing of the whole trip behind the Buffalo River. Thankfully I made it across without going in though. It may have been a wild ride if I had slipped and gone in. 

When I got to the other side I took a longer break than I had originally planned. For a few seconds I thought I had left an insole on the opposite side, but then realized I had left it in my shoe instead of taking it out prior to crossing. That was a relief. I ate some food and drank an electrolyte mix. While I was there I noticed the tape was coming off my right foot. I pulled it off and noticed the blister was fairly large and had opened up. I wasn’t too thrilled about that. I went ahead and took the tape off my left foot as well. I hung out for a bit to let them air out some before taping them back up. I ended up taping up the right foot again and leaving the left foot without tape. It was starting to look stormy so I put on my rain pants shortly before leaving, and then finally hit the trail around 1:45 P.M., thankful to have made it across before the storms came through. 

The next goal was to get up and over the ridge before the storms came through. It started to rain lightly around 3:15 P.M. when I was walking across the top of the ridge. It rained lightly on and off for the rest of the afternoon, which was really annoying with trying to decide what to do with my rain gear. There were at least 2 or 3 iterations of putting my jacket on, hiking a bit, and then taking it back off again, which required a stop each time taking it off or putting it on. I finally made it to camp around 4:30 P.M. I was so worn out. My feet had had it for the day. The campground was nearly empty. There were several tents set up in a spot, but nobody to be found. It was kind of odd. I found the fee station and looked at the info. According to one of the signs, the campground didn’t open “until the Friday prior to the third weekend in March,” which would mean the campground was closed. There was also a sign warning of a flash flood risk, which didn’t make me feel real comfortable. Haha. There was a $10/night fee, but all I had with me were a couple $20 bills. I thought about going farther, but I was so worn out I decided to stay. I didn’t pay at that moment and figured I would see if I could get some more info on if the campground was actually open and/or if I could find somebody with change for a $20. 

I picked one of the camp spots near the entrance to the campground and got my tent set up. I believe a little after 5 was when I started to hear thunder. I got everything put into my tent, and not too long after that it started to rain pretty hard. Shortly after it started raining the group of people that the tents belonged to showed up. Shortly after getting into the tent I started making dinner, and while I was doing that a stake come loose on my tent. I had to get out in the rain to put the stake back in so one side of my tent wouldn’t fall in. I also had a little bit of an issue with water splashing in to my tent when it was raining hard, and I believe there was some water coming through one of the seams in a corner. So a little bit of a frustrating stretch. I finished up dinner, typed up notes for the day, charged my phone and inReach, and made plans for the next day. I made a run to the bathroom shortly before going to bed while there was a little bit of a lull in the rain, and brushed my teeth in my tent once again. It was a long day, but I was so glad to have won the race against the storms.

Day 5: Haw Creek Campground to Little Piney Creek (MM 102.5 – 88)

On day 5 I was up around 7:15 A.M. It was a rough night. I’m a side sleeper, but it was uncomfortable to sleep on my sides due to sore hips. It also was uncomfortable to lay on my back because of the blisters on my heels. Haha. Since it was going to be a shorter day (“only” 13 miles) I took my time getting out of camp in the morning. Due to all the rain my tent and the tent footprint were a mess. I dried off the tent as best I could. I ended up taking the footprint to the nearby creek and got most of the mud washed off of it. After I got nearly everything packed up I went over to the creek and got some pictures (see picture at top of post). It was a really cool area. Unfortunately, due to all the rain, the water had turned from the beautiful blue color to brown. That was a bummer. Just as I was about to leave I ran into who I assumed was the campground host (he was cleaning the bathrooms). There were also a couple other spots at the campground that had been taken after the rain started. At that point I figured the campground was actually open. I asked the host if he had change for a $20, and he was able to give me change. That was awesome. After chatting with him for a bit I hit the trail just before 9:00 A.M. and paid my fee on the way out. The trail provides!

Waterfall shortly after leaving Haw Creek Campground.

Right after leaving camp I had to cross the creek. Thankfully it was an easy crossing. There were a couple good photo ops right after I started. That seemed to be a theme of the trip. There ended up being several creek crossings in the first 4 miles that required getting my feet wet. I took my socks off and removed my insoles for the first couple, and then just decided to walk through the rest of them. There were lots of marshy/boggy areas and small creeks running down the trail as well. The descent down to Cedar Creek was a neat area, but I ended up slipping on a rock and falling on my way down. My left side took the brunt of the impact. I scraped up my elbow pretty good, but that seemed to be the worst of it. It could have been a lot worse. It was probably overdue. I was actually quite amazed I hadn’t slipped and fallen on a wet rock up to that point. I had come close a few times, but never fully fell. 

I made it to Cedar Creek around noon. That was a really cool area. I stopped at a camp site and had lunch, and while doing so had some of my stuff laying out to dry out. It was nice to get some stuff dried out. The morning had started out foggy, but it burned off pretty fast and turned into a beautiful day with blue skies. I was so thankful to see the sun. I realized when I started to get stuff out for lunch that I had put a pretty good dent in the bottom of my water bottle when I fell. Thankfully I hadn’t punctured it, although I had a couple bladders I could have used if needed. 

I got back onto the trail around 12:30 P.M. and finally put the sunglasses to use for the first time. The trail on the climb out of Cedar Creek was a bit crowded. There was lots of brush close to the trail that made it hard to use my trekking poles. Still easy to follow the trail though. It got somewhat windy on the ridges in the afternoon. There hadn’t been much wind the whole trip up until that point. It still wasn’t bad though. Bear Skull Falls was another really cool spot. Unfortunately the light wasn’t great for pictures. There were lots of downed trees on the climb out of Lick Creek. It kind of felt like a tree graveyard. It had happened a while back and all the trees that fell across the trail were cleared. I had originally planned to stay at a camp spot near MM 89.5, but I got there fairly early and wasn’t a huge fan of the spot, so I decided to go to another spot a mile down the trail. I got to that spot around 4:00 P.M. 

I got camp set up and in the process realized I must have left another tent stake at Haw Creek Campground, since I was now down to four. That was really frustrating. Thus I ended up having to use a couple rocks this time. You would think I would learn my lesson after the first time. After camp was set up I washed my hiking clothes off in the creek, and then took a sponge bath myself. While I was doing this I was in my underwear and somebody happened to drive by on a nearby road. Thankfully they didn’t look my way, otherwise I’m sure they would have been pretty surprised. I put on my sleeping clothes and hung my hiking clothes to dry. I was hoping they would dry out before the sun went down, otherwise it was going to be a cold start to the next morning. I tried not to move around camp much since it meant putting on my wet shoes. I eventually decided just to walk around camp barefoot, which probably wasn’t the best idea. Thankfully I never stepped on anything sharp. I made dinner, looked at plans for the next day, ate a snack, and then got everything put in my tent. Thankfully my hiking clothes dried out for the most part. For some reason my phone went through 75% of its battery during the day, so I go that charged up during the evening. I’m not sure if I left video mode on for a while at some point or what. 

As I was about to call it a day, I pulled the tape off my foot and noticed how large the blister was getting. I knew at that point I should probably call it quits. I may have been able to make it to the end, but my right heel probably would have been quite ugly by the end. I texted my parents through my inReach and they said they could pick me up at Ozone the next morning. That was great. After that I hit the sack. 

Day 6: Little Piney Creek to Ozone Campground (MM 88-85)

For day 6 I was up at 7:15 A.M. There was a little condensation inside my tent, but not as bad as it had been, likely due to the fact that I was finally able to leave my rain fly open overnight. Even better, I finally had a morning where the outside of my tent was dry. It was so nice not to have to mess with drying off the tent. The hike to Ozone was only 3 miles. I decided to leave tape off of my foot for the hike. I had told my parents I would be there around 9:30 or 10:00 A.M. I hit the trail a little after 8 and had to cross Little Piney Creek right away. I struggled with this crossing. Haha. It looked fairly deep where the trail crossed. Just upstream from the trail there were a couple logs that went across the creek, but one of them was several feet above the creek, and there was nothing to use for balance. I didn’t feel like sitting and scooting across, and I didn’t trust that I could keep my balance all the way across. I went back and forth a few times in my debate on how to cross, and eventually decided to cross where the trail crossed. That almost went bad in a hurry. The bank where the trail meets the creek is quite steep. As I started to go in, the bank gave way a little bit and I started to slide in. I was able to catch myself, mainly due to my trekking poles, but I noticed that it was likely at least thigh deep, if not deeper. I was able to get out and went upstream just a bit and crossed where it was much shallower. I should have done that all along. Haha. 

The second crossing of Little Piney Creek wasn’t a big deal. The climb up to Ozone was fairly tough. I was glad I did it in the morning when it was cool. I reached Ozone around 9:45 A.M., and my parents showed up about 5 minutes later. I got my stuff put in their car and it was off to LFS. 

Overall Thoughts

Although it was a bummer to quit early, there was still lots of great lessons/feedback learned in the time I was on the trail, and I had roughly doubled the mileage I had done on any previous single trip. It might actually be kind of nice to make a few tweaks and try those out on the second half of the trail. I’ll cover most of this in my gear blog. The biggest takeaway for me was footwear. This seems like an obvious choice due to the blisters, but it has just as much to do with the wet feet as it does with the blisters. I don’t remember the first couple days being too bad with wet feet, but from day 3 on it was rare for my shoes to be even remotely dry due to rain or small creeks running down the trail or large creek crossings. I’ll get into the footwear discussion more in my gear blog. It will probably be a somewhat lengthy part of that post. 

In my opinion most of the trail wasn’t that particularly beautiful, but there were definitely some really cool/beautiful spots and sections. I think it would be more beautiful once the vegetation starts to green up. However, at that point it’s likely warmer weather and you’ll have to deal with more ticks, so definitely some trade offs. I never spotted a tick on me, which blew my mind. The blue color of the water (as long as there hasn’t been a recent heavy rain) is amazing. Although the trail was a little bit difficult to follow in spots due to the leaves, it was really well blazed for the most part. Thank you to everyone who has put the blazes along the trail. Those were really helpful. They are so frequent in some spots that you go a couple minutes without seeing one and you start to wonder if you’re off trail. Haha. Also thanks to everyone who does trail maintenance. There were thorny bushes all over the place along the trail, which I’m sure makes trail maintenance difficult and sometimes painful. Between the rocky sections, the potential for constant wet feet, and not so level trail in some spots, the trail can be pretty rough on your feet. I would definitely say it is maintained trail, but not “groomed” trail. 

It seemed like leaves were almost always stuck to my trekking poles.

The leaves were a whole new experience. Like I already mentioned, they made it difficult to follow the trail in some spots. It was also really annoying not being able to see some smaller rocks underneath the leaves. You never knew when you were going to take a step and land on a rock you couldn’t see. I can’t even imagine doing this trail in the fall after the new leaves have fallen. It was also pretty annoying to have the leaves get stuck to my trekking poles. However, I’m sure I would have been walking through a lot of mud if it wasn’t for the leaves, so I was thankful for that aspect of them. 

Finally, a huge thanks to my parents who put in around 800 miles shuttling me around. I’m very thankful to have parents who are willing and able to do that for me. 

Hopefully there will be a part two coming soon, but we’ll see how things to over the next couple weeks. 

South San Juan Wilderness – Aug. 2020: Trip Report

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.

Trip Summary

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.

The start of Second Meadows.

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.

Looking down towards Elk Creek on my way to Dipping Lakes.

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.

Open plateau area along the CDT on my way to Red Lake.

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.

One of the massive cairns between the CDT and Laguna Venado.

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.

Lily covered pond on the hike out to the trailhead.

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.

Conclusions

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.

Trash

Trash left in a fire ring at Dipping Lakes.

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.

Weminuche Wilderness – July 2020: Trip Summary

Normally my brother and I would have done our annual backpacking trip in the vicinity of NW Wyoming. My dad’s side of the family has a reunion in Cody, WY each summer, so we get in our backpacking trip leading up to that, or afterwards. But as we all know, this year has been anything but normal. When the family reunion got cancelled, my brother and I scrapped our plan to do our second trip in the Wind River Range, and instead decided to go to the San Juans in Colorado since they were a shorter drive. It was the first time doing our trip outside of the NW Wyoming vicinity, so that was a little weird, but it was nice getting to finally do a trip in Colorado. I can finally tell people I have done a backpacking trip in Colorado. Haha. Keep reading for a summary of our trip. I will have some more blogs over the next couple weeks covering some things I did differently on this trip vs. previous trips, and lessons learned, so stay tuned for those.

Trip Summary

If you follow my trips, you know that they rarely, if ever, go to plan. This trip was no exception, but it really worked out for the better this time instead of being a disaster, so that was great.

Day 1: I had an “uh-oh” moment right off the bat on the first day when I realized I forgot the belt for my hiking pants at home (I hadn’t worn them on the drive up the previous day). Thankfully my brother came to the rescue. He had an extra belt with him that he let me use. The first day went as planned. We hiked from the Pine River Trailhead to just south of Little Emerald Lake (~11 miles). The weather for the hike was great. The hike up The Pine to the Lake Creek turnoff was easy. The hike after the turnoff was pretty strenuous. Of the ~2,000 ft of elevation gain, ~1,600 ft of it was done after the turnoff (last 5 miles). We were glad when we finally got to the lakes.

We had to camp about 1/4 mile south of Little Emerald. The first time we started to walk to the lake, it started raining moderately part way, so we went back to the tent and hung out there until it stopped. Unfortunately, it was cloudy, rainy, and gloomy for most of the time we were there. It was a really beautiful area, but because of the weather we were never able to see it at it’s best. We were able to spend some time at the lakes, but not as much as we would have liked. My brother got a little bit of fishing in at each lake, but never caught anything. I got very few pictures on this day, which was discouraging. When I was getting my bear bag at one point, I slipped off a wet log and somehow managed not to hurt myself too bad. Just a couple scrapes and bruises on one arm. That was quite lucky. I put my bear bag in a different spot after that. Haha. We saw three day hikers up at the lakes, and one person passed our camp headed out. As far as we were aware, we were the only people camped at the south side of the lakes. Just as the sun was setting, the clouds started to clear up, and we were treated to a nice rainbow and sunset. Having that ending to the day was definitely a morale booster.

Day 2: Our second day was a pretty wild day. Haha. This is where we started to deviate from plan. The day started off with great weather. The trail was easy to follow while hiking along the lakes. Once we reached the north side of Emerald Lake, the trail became difficult to follow. I’m not sure if we got off the main trail at some point, but there were points where we were pretty much bushwhacking our way along a very faint path. We finally met back up with a well beaten trail just north of Emerald Lake. The first half of the trail on this day was pretty overgrown in a lot of spots, even where there was a well beaten trail. Since it had rained quite a bit over the previous couple of days, all the vegetation was wet. Unfortunately my brother and I didn’t have the foresight to put on our rain gear, so after a couple miles, both of us were pretty much completely soaked. It was pretty miserable hiking.

As with the first day, most of the elevation gain was at the end of the hike. About 1,200 ft of the 1,600 ft of elevation gain was achieved in the last couple miles of the hike. Not too long after we started climbing my brother noticed a bear across the drainage. It was so far off it was hard to see, so big kudos to him for spotting it. That was the first bear we had ever seen while backpacking, so that was exciting. Thankfully it was a ways off. There were lots of waterfalls during the last couple miles of the hike, which helped take our minds off the difficult hike, if only for a moment. As we started getting close to Moon Lake, we started to hear thunder, and it was pretty stormy to our south. The thunder kept getting louder, and just below Moon Lake I saw a lightning strike that ended up being 3 or 4 miles away. I knew my brother was already worn out, so I was already contemplating camping at Moon Lake instead of going on to Rock Lake. The thunderstorm was the deciding factor to go ahead and stop at Moon Lake. We both pushed hard to get to Moon Lake, stopped at the first campsite we came to, and quickly got camp set up.

Thankfully the storm calmed down after that. There weren’t any more lightning strikes and the storm moved out without raining on us. As we were eating lunch, I noticed a rock chuck headed towards our camp spot. I couldn’t remember if I had left my bar bag open, so I got up really quick and chased it off so it didn’t get into the food. It turned out that the bear bag was closed. It was stormy all around us, but it ended up being a pretty nice afternoon at Moon Lake, so my brother did some fishing and I took some pictures and read. My brother caught several fish, which was good after not getting any at Emerald Lakes. It started looking like it might rain a little after 3:00, so we headed back to our campsite. My brother had left his trekking poles laying on the ground when we left camp, and when we got back we discovered the rock chuck had eaten most of the cork off of the handles. He ended up filing the rest of the cork off the handles. We discovered a little later that the rock chuck had also put a small hole in his dry bag. We were able to fix that with some duct tape. That definitely put a damper on the day.

It started to rain around 3:30, and rained lightly for about an hour, so we laid in the tent for a while and relaxed. After it cleared up again, my brother went to try and catch some fish for dinner. He caught a couple fish quickly. Just as he started to fillet them and I started to get stuff set up to cook them, a cold front apparently came through and the wind got a little bit gusty out of the north. I found a spot somewhat out of the wind and my brother eventually made it over with the filleted fish. The last time we cooked fish on a trip something similar happened. Not sure if that is a sign we should heed or not. Haha. While cooking dinner, I went back up to camp and noticed the rock chuck in camp again, and then quickly noticed he had been eating the mesh used for back ventilation on my brother’s backpack. I chased the rock chuck out of camp and had to deliver the bad news to my brother. Needless to say, we were quite frustrated with the rock chuck at this point.

We eventually finished dinner and hung out around camp the rest of the evening. It started to rain lightly around 7:30, so we started to get ready for bed and then got in the tent. It ended up raining on and off throughout the night. At an elevation of 11,620 ft, this was the highest either of us had ever camped. Our previous high was ~10,400 ft in the Wind River Range. This camp spot is up near the top of favorite campsites, if not at the top of the list. It definitely took a lot of effort getting to it though.

Day 3: The original plan for this day had been to do a day hike from Rock Lake to one or more of the Ute Lakes, but since we stopped at Moon Lake the previous day, we decided to go over the ridge to Rock Lake, spend some time there, and then hike to Flint Lake. It would be a short and easy day, which would be nice after a couple tough days.

After our experience walking through the wet vegetation the previous day, we decided to put on our rain gear for the first part of this hike since it looked like we would be hiking through more wet vegetation. It was a short hike from Moon Lake up to the ridge, but it involved another ~800 ft of elevation gain. There wasn’t much of a trail between Moon Lake and Half Moon lake, but the hike up to Half Moon was pretty straightforward. Once we got close to Half Moon Lake, we took the rain gear off. We made it to the top of the ridge around 9:00 A.M. We were both really glad we had waited to go up and over the ridge. The sky/light was great for pictures and we weren’t in a rush to get up and over due to thunderstorms. The view from the ridge was incredible. It was definitely worth the difficult trek to get there.

We spent some time on the ridge getting pictures, and then headed down to Rock Lake. We spent some time at Rock Lake (my brother fishing, myself taking pictures and reading), and then headed on to Flint Lake. We got to Flint Lake around 11:40 A.M. After getting camp set up we headed over to the lake and spent some time there. I came really close to jumping in the lake, but couldn’t quite get the courage up to do it (I really hate getting in cold water). My brother caught several good sized cutthroats. I eventually headed back up to camp while my brother continued fishing. I tried laying down in the tent for a bit, but it was too hot in there, which was a change for the trip. My brother had a bull moose walk quite close by him while he was fishing. After eating dinner we went back down to the lake for most of the evening. It ended up being a beautiful day all day, and was the first day of the trip we didn’t get rained on, which was really nice.

Day 4: Our plan for this day was to hike down Flint Creek to The Pine, and then find a camp spot somewhere along The Pine. We had two separate people warn us the previous day about blow downs on the Flint Creek trail, so we were a little worried about what we were getting ourselves into. At some point along the trail there was a dry stretch of trail, and we both got excited since that was the first dry trail we had seen up until that point. It’s the little things. Haha.

Between blow downs and overgrowth, the trail was definitely in need of some work. The trail was easy to follow the whole time though. There were parts of it where it felt like what I imagine a rainforest to be like due to the dense, lush green vegetation. It was a lot different than what we were used to hiking through in our previous trips. At one point we were walking through some dense vegetation and three large birds took off right in front of my brother, which I’m pretty sure almost gave him a heart attack. It gave us both a pretty good laugh.

We reached The Pine just before 1:00 P.M. and took a break for lunch. We then headed down The Pine towards the trailhead. At one point we found some raspberries along the trail, and we each grabbed a couple. They were so good! I’m sure we both could have eaten a whole bush full, but there weren’t that many fully ripe, and we wanted to leave some for others. For the last couple miles or so of the day we could see an incredible waterfall coming down the mountain to the left of the trail. It was neat to be able to see that as we were hiking along. The first three established camp spots we passed were all occupied, so I started to worry we might not be able to find a spot. Thankfully the fourth spot we saw was open, so we stopped there for the day. Using the Avenza Maps app, I calculated we had about 8 miles left to get to the trailhead.

We hung out around camp until dinner time. Both of us let our feet soak in the river for a few minutes. That felt great. After dinner my brother tried some fishing in the river just upstream from camp. He caught one small fish. I read while he fished. After a while of that we came back to camp and hung out there until bedtime. It was another beautiful day without any rain, which was much appreciated.

Day 5: Nothing too exciting to cover about this day. We hiked out to the trailhead, and in the process saw lots of people hiking in and saw a couple snakes. We reached the trailhead around noon. The trailhead was packed, which was quite the contrast to when we started the hike. I’m assuming the main driver was the weather (bad when we started, great when we finished).

Overall Comments

Wildlife: We saw more wildlife in this trip than several of our previous trips combined. That was exciting. We saw pika, rock chucks, turkey, several deer, a bear, a moose, and a bald eagle.

Vegetation: As mentioned earlier, there were parts of this hike (particularly at higher elevations) that seemed quite rainforest-like. There were many, many parts of the trail where we were walking through dense vegetation even though there was a well beaten trail. That was a lot different than what we had hiked in previously. It was really neat. The wildflowers were fantastic, especially in the higher elevations. It seemed like we kept running across flowers that we hadn’t seen before. Finally, the hike along The Pine contains a lot of Aspen trees. I kept thinking how awesome that hike would be in the fall with the Aspen trees changing color.

People: The Pine was a fairly busy trail, but away from The Pine we really didn’t see too many people. It wasn’t as isolated as some of the hikes we have done in WY, but it wasn’t crowded either. The weather may have helped with that some.

Trash: I was actually quite surprised with how little trash we found during the trip. That was encouraging. We found a sock, some fishing line, an empty bug spray bottle, and some other small bits of trash. But all in all, it was quite clean, so kudos to everybody using those areas for keeping them clean.

Trip Report: Eagle Rock Loop

My Eagle Rock Loop route by day. Keep in mind water crossings will vary by person and based on water levels. There were many other crossings I was able to do without sandals. Topo map from MyTopo and trail based on this Forest Service document.

When I first heard about Eagle Rock Loop a couple years back, I was really excited to give it a try for a weekend backpacking trip. It would be nice to have a backpacking trip that was relatively close. This past weekend I finally got around to giving it a try. I started at the Little Missouri Trailhead on the NW side of the loop (where the Athens Big Fork Trail and Little Missouri Trail meet) and did the loop counter-clockwise. I’ll give an outline of each day below and then some overall thoughts at the bottom, along with some pictures, of course 🙂

Thursday

Camp spot Thursday night just above Little Missouri River.

I left OKC around 1:30 P.M. on Thursday, and got to the trailhead around 6:00 P.M. About the last 9 miles of the road are gravel. It’s in good shape with the exception of a few potholes. I was the only car at the trailhead when I got there. I was going to camp next to the parking lot, but there was a no camping sign posted, so I ate dinner and then got my stuff and crossed the river. Someone already had the established camp spot right across the river, so I started up the hill and found a (non-established) spot a couple minutes up the hill. While I was setting up camp, I noticed a tick crawling on my stuff. I was already nervous about ticks to begin with, so it didn’t help seeing one that quickly. Haha. After I got camp set up I went back down the hill and did some reading next to the river. While I was reading Rebecca came over and we chatted for a little while. Rebecca was the person at the established camp spot. She is from New Orleans and out of a job right now due to Covid-19, so she is doing a bunch of hiking around the area. She was at the end of her first day hiking the loop. After chatting for a bit we went back to our camps. I got ready for bed, finished reading the chapter, and then went to bed.

Friday

View from Eagle Rock Vista.

Friday morning I ate breakfast, got camp packed up, and hit the trail at 8:00 A.M. I took the side trail at the top of the first ridge (Hurricane Knob ridge), which provided a great view. After that it was down into the valley with Straight Creek, and then up to the top of the ridge of McKinley Mountain. Then it was down into the valley with Long Creek. I used my sandals to cross Long Creek. Of all the camp spots I saw along the Athens Big Fork (ABF) trail, the camp spots next to Long Creek were my favorite. After that it was up and over the ridge for the Brier Creek Mountains, and then down to Brier Creek. That was followed by the ridge for Leader Mountain, and then down to Blaylock Creek. I used my sandals to cross Blaylock Creek and then took a break for a few minutes. The crossing for Blaylock creek was a really neat spot. The trek down to Blaylock Creek, and then the trek back out, were the most difficult of all the valleys though. The next ridge was the ridge next to Brush Heap Mountain. I took the side trail that headed toward the top of Brush Heap Mountain. Part way up the trail, I realized I should have left my backpack at the bottom of the trail. I guess I thought the trail would be a little shorter. I turned around before I reached the top, but there were still some great views. I’ll have to go to the top next time I do the loop. After that it was down to East Saline Creek, and then up to Eagle Rock Vista.

I reached Eagle Rock Vista at 1:00 P.M. My plan was to camp at Eagle Rock Vista, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to kill that much time there. It was fairly windy there as well. I thought about continuing down to Viles Branch, but eventually decided to go ahead and camp at Eagle Rock Vista. I was completely worn out by the time I got there. I was really glad that was the last hill for the day. According to data from Charlie Williams’ website, it had been a combined elevation gain of ~2,150 ft. and elevation loss of ~2,000 ft. over seven miles for the day.

There were three camping spots that I saw along Eagle Rock Vista. I grabbed the middle one. I ate some trail mix and then got camp set up. I expected to have a lot of people come through during the afternoon, but actually had very few. I typed up some notes from the day, laid down for a while, and then did some reading. I noticed Rebecca walk by at one point, so a little while later I went and chatted with her for a bit. While we were chatting she mentioned she had cell service. I checked, and sure enough I had it as well. I resisted the urge to check anything since the point of doing the trip was to get away, so I turned my phone back to airplane mode. Haha. After chatting with her for a while I came back to my camp spot and worked on getting some pictures with my good camera.

I had quite a few people come through during the late afternoon and evening. Both of the other camp spots got occupied. I was hoping the wind would die down once the sun went down, but it stayed windy most of the night. I knew it would be a tough day, and it definitely was. I would put it right up there with the harder days I have had on trips in the “big mountains” (aka Rockies). It was fun seeing the different ridges and valleys, and Eagle Rock Vista was a nice reward at the end.

Saturday

I have to admit that I did take advantage of the cell service on Saturday morning before I left Eagle Rock Vista to check the weather and make sure there still was no rain in the forecast. Thankfully that was still the case. I hit the trail at 7:40 and headed down to Viles Branch. I ran into Rebecca one last time at her camp spot shortly after getting on Viles Branch. We chatted for a minute and then I continued on. There were a bunch of stream crossings along Viles Branch, but thankfully I was able to cross all of them without having to change into my sandals. I really liked the hike along Viles Branch. That was my favorite stretch of the loop.

Shortly before reaching the Little Missouri River I caught up Nick, another person backpacking the loop. We chatted as we hiked along the trail. He was also from Louisiana, and had hiked the loop several years back. We got to the river around 9:45, and that was a definite sandal crossing. As I was going to tie my boots onto my backpack, I noticed that Nick had clipped them onto his backpack with caribeners. I had some spare caribeners, and had one of those “why didn’t I think of that” moments. So thank you to Nick for helping me out with that. It was definitely handy the rest of the trip. Once we got across the river I knew we were supposed to start going upstream, but Nick started walking downstream. Since he had done the trail before I figured he knew where he was going, but after a minute I asked him if we should be going upstream. Then he mentioned he was going fishing, so I turned around and went to find the trail. While going back to the trail, I managed to get a stick between my trekking poles and my legs, which ended up tripping me and I fell. Thankfully I didn’t hurt anything. I’m sure I made a great first impression with Nick though. Haha. I took a break for a few minutes before hitting the trail again.

After that I was on the struggle bus for a while. I knew I was supposed to cross the river again, and got to a point where I couldn’t see an obvious spot where the trail kept going straight, and it looked like a good spot to cross the river, so I crossed the river. I found out pretty quick that was not the right choice, so I had to go back and cross back over. Once I kept going straight I found where the trail was. Had I actually put myself in the right spot on the map, I would have known that was the wrong spot, but I didn’t have myself in the right spot, so that was mostly my fault. Shortly after that I went through the Winding Stairs area and crossed the river at the appropriate spot. The Winding Stairs area was a little anti-climcatic for me, so that had me confused as well. The stress/frustration about trying to follow the trail probably didn’t help. There were a ton of people there, which made me think I was closer to Albert Pike than I was, which also got me really confused. I found out after I got home there is a parking lot fairly close to Winding Stairs, thus why there were so many people. But that got me really confused as I was hiking through there. A while after that I came to a stream crossing that had blue markings and double diagonal white markings. The trail markings up to that point had been a single white rectangle. That got me really confused. After I crossed the stream there was a sign for a parking lot. Once again, I had no idea about the parking lot near Winding Stairs, so that again made me think I was close to Albert Pike, but a sign said it was still 2 miles to Albert Pike. So between the first river crossing and Albert Pike, I was all sorts of confused. Once I actually got close to Albert Pike and was next to the road, I finally realized where I was on the map. I got to Albert Pike at 1:00 P.M., and it was time for a much needed break and a reset. I was already fairly worn out, but knew I wanted to get farther down the trail that day.

I took about a 30 minute break at Albert Pike, during which I let my feet sit in the river for a few minutes, ate some trail mix, drank some water, and looked at the upcoming trail on the map. Then it was back to the trail again. There were a couple creek crossings shortly after that where I had to put on my sandals to cross. At the next river crossing I met Rainey and Gary from Dallas. I spent a few minutes there chatting with them. They had been on the trail the whole week and were on their way out. Gary recommended I check out the Ozark Highland Trail, so I’ll have to check that out at some point. Just before I left they pulled a couple packets of applesauce out of the river, which I thought was a pretty genius idea. I’ll have to keep that in mind for future trips. I was a little nervous to cross the river with them watching after what happened earlier with Nick, but I made it across fine. Haha.

While I was talking with Gary and Rainey, they mentioned they would likely camp near the double crossing down the trail. I had no idea what they were talking about, but it ended up being the next crossing. It was a creek crossing followed by crossing the river. I didn’t realize it was the double crossing though, so I put my boots back on after crossing the creek, and then headed down a social trail that went who knows where. After a short walk, I figured it wasn’t the correct trail, and then went back and realized I was supposed to cross the river at that spot, so I had to put my sandals right back on. I made it across there and kept on hiking. I found a decent camp spot shortly after 5:00 P.M. and decided to call it a day. I was really worn out again. I got camp set up and then took a dip in the river to rinse off. I’m usually not one to hop in a river, lake, etc. since I’m really not a fan of cold water, but I knew it was going to be a warm evening/night, and I felt gross, so I wanted to get cleaned off. It was definitely cold, but I felt a whole lot better once I got dried off and warmed back up.

After that I went and talked to Nick and Nicole. They were camped in a spot just up the hill from me, and had got there right after I arrived. They had driven up all the way from Houston. They hadn’t planned on doing the whole loop, but someone talked them into it after they started hiking. They didn’t bring any sandals with them, so they had done all the river/creek crossings barefoot. These are not nice, soft dirt bottom river crossings. These are rocky, slick, really hurt your feet river crossings. I’m sure I would have called it quits after the first couple crossings, but they had powered through, so kudos to them. I chatted with them for a few minutes then went and ate dinner. After dinner I got my good camera out to try and get some pictures since I hadn’t had it out since Eagle Rock Vista that morning. After that I read and then went to bed.

I knew Saturday night was going to be warm, so when I set up camp I unzipped my sleeping bag and had it available to use as a blanket, and slept straight on my sleeping pad. It actually worked out really well. I should have done that the prior night. Made me glad I got a sleeping bag that can unzip all the way.

All the river/creek crossings throughout the day that required sandals were a huge pain. I would estimate it easily added an hour to the hike. I will admit that the cold water always felt good on the feet though. Haha. It ended up being a 15 mile day, which I’m pretty sure is the longest I have ever hiked in a day. The only other day I can think of that comes close is a day in Utah that I believe was in the 13-14 mile range.

Sunday

Little Missouri Falls

I hit the trail at 7:45 Sunday morning. About a 1/4 mile or so up the trail I reached Little Missouri Falls. I figured I was close, but I didn’t realize I was that close. That was definitely one of my favorite spots along the loop. Farther down the trail I saw some sort of large cat looking animal run off. If I had to take a guess I would say it was a bobcat, but I didn’t get a great look at it. It didn’t appear to be a mountain lion. I passed three different pairs of people between the falls and the trailhead, two of which I knew I had seen previously on the trail. One pair had camped up at Eagle Rock Vista the same night I did, and the other pair I had passed in Viles Branch. It was fun to see them again. I got lucky and met one of the pairs at what appeared to be a spot where I had to cross the river, but they let me know I could stay on the side I was on. Sure enough, I hiked about 20-30 yards and ran into the trail again. It looked like flooding had washed the trail out at some point. Huge thanks to them for the tip. I got to the trailhead at 9:40 A.M., which was the only place I had to use sandals for a stream crossing that day. I cleaned myself off a bit, changed into some clean clothes, ate a Clif bar, got gear loaded into the car, and then hit the road. I got into Mena, AR just after 11, so I stopped at Wendy’s and got a BBQ cheeseburger for lunch. That and the sweet tea tasted wonderful. Haha. After that it was back to OKC.

Overall Thoughts

For not being a “big mountain” hike, I was actually quite impressed. You don’t get the grand views of the granite peaks, cirques, and alpine lakes, but it is a different kind of beauty. There are some pretty cool views from the ridges along the ABF, but other than that you are in pretty dense forest most of the time. The creeks and Little Missouri River have some really pretty spots. It was also really cool to cross the “little” Little Missouri River and the “big” Little Missouri River, and see it change from big to little along the hike. And for not being a “big mountain” hike, I was actually quite surprised with how difficult it was. If you don’t do ABF, it really wouldn’t be too bad, but the ABF adds a lot of difficulty to it.

If you do this hike when the weather is nice hiking weather, don’t expect to get away from people, although if you do it during the workweek the crowds would likely be smaller. Outside of the Winding Stairs and Albert Pike areas, the traffic really wasn’t too bad though.

Speaking of weather, be sure to be aware of what the weather has done recently, and what the forecast is. Heavy rains can cause the creeks and river to rise very quickly, and make crossings dangerous or impossible. Back in 2010 a flash flood of the Little Missouri River in the Albert Pike area killed 20 people. Charlie Williams has some good advice in the “Water Crossings” section on his page.

The trail is fairly easy to follow most of the time. There are definitely some confusing spots at stream/river crossings and where there are a bunch of social trails though. I never felt like I was completely lost, but I was definitely frustrated at times that it wasn’t marked better in spots. Be ready to go around, over, or under trees. There were lots of downed trees across the trail. Some appeared recent, but most of them looked like they had been there a while. Trekking poles were a tremendous help for the stream crossings. I probably would have used sandals at several more crossings if I didn’t have my trekking poles to help with balance while crossing on rocks, so I would highly recommend those. Also, bring sandals or some sort of shoes for water crossings. I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole trail in sandals, and I doubt many people will want to hike in wet boots. I talked to several people who saw at least one snake. Thankfully I never saw any. I never found any ticks on me, much to my surprise. I didn’t wear sunscreen at all. Between having pants, a long sleeve, a hat, and the trail being in the shade most of the time, I didn’t need it. That would probably be a different story if I did the hike in winter when the trees didn’t have leaves. I’m not going to be surprised if I start breaking out in a rash from poison ivy, oak, etc. I think I may already be starting to get a rash in a couple spots. Big question is probably how bad is it going to be. Haha.

There were definitely lessons learned on this trip that will hopefully make any future trips much smoother. I’m not sure if I would do it the same way next time or not. With all the different trailheads, there are many, many different ways to do the loop. I may try starting at Little Missouri Falls next time, go clockwise, camp in Viles Branch the first night and camp at Long Creek on ABF the second night. That would split up the ridges over a couple days, and spread the mileage out a little more evenly. Not really sure there is a best way to do it. The vast majority of people I talked to started at Albert Pike. With all the different trailheads, you can easily split the loop up into different day hikes if you’re not a fan of backpacking.

Finally, I hope I got everybody’s names correct. If not, I’m sorry. I tried to jot them down in my notes as soon as I could. Haha. Thank you to those who chatted with me for a bit and kept me company on the trail, even if it was just for a few minutes. I always enjoy getting to know fellow backpackers along the trail, especially when I’m hiking by myself. If you have any questions about the hike, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’ll do my best to try and answer. Also, just do a google search for “Eagle Rock Loop Arkansas” and you’ll be able to find plenty of other great write ups on the loop. I have placed some links to other write ups below.

I will likely get pictures posted from my good camera early next week. I’ll post on my Facebook page when they are up.

Forest Service Info

Ouachitamaps.com (Charlie Williams)

The Outbound Collective

Fayetteville Flyer

Trip Report: Sawtooth Mountains 2019

Sawtooth Map Export
Planned route. Read below to find out what actually happened. 

This past Saturday I left for a 5 day backpacking trip in the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho. The plan was to start at Stanley Lake and do the loop down to Grandjean, up North Fork Baron Creek to Sawtooth Lake, and then back to Stanley Lake (see map above). But if you know me very well, you know that my backpacking trips rarely go according to plan. This was no exception. Keep reading for the details. 

Day 1

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Picture near Bridal Veil Falls (looking opposite direction of falls).

Day 1 got off to a very early start with a 6:30 A.M. flight to Denver, followed by a short layover and then a flight to Boise. That all went very smooth, even getting to Boise 15 minutes early. I got my rental car, and then headed to the post office to pick up my gear. It was still a little before 11 when I got my gear, so I packed as much as I could in the post office parking lot, and then stopped by a Subway to grab lunch before hitting the road to the trailhead. The drive to the trailhead took about 2.5 hours. 

It was in the lower 80s according to the car thermostat. I converted my pants into shorts before starting, which was the first time I had ever hiked with them as shorts. I finished getting my backpack packed and then hit the trail at roughly 2:45. There is a pretty amazing view of McGown Peak from the trailhead. I’m not used to having the great view right off the bat. Most of the hikes I have done require some hiking before the great views start. I stopped a short ways down the trail to fill up with water. On the first mile or so of the trail, there was very little shade, which got me wondering if I had packed enough sunscreen. Thankfully the forest got more dense, and the shade was definitely appreciated. 

I was a little worried about how late I would get to my planned camp spot having got a late start, but I made really good time and got there around 5. That was even with stopping several times for pictures. I camped at the junction with the Elk Creek Trail, which apparently isn’t a trail anymore. There is a tree “blocking” the trail from the main trail (picture above right). When I stopped to camp, I didn’t even see the sign for the trail (picture above left), but figured if it wasn’t the trail, it was close enough. (The next day as I was leaving, I actually noticed the sign for the trail.) I set up camp, and then taped up a couple of my toes that were already starting to get a sore spot.

A note regarding this tape. I used Leukotape, which definitely worked as advertised. However, I had watched a video prior to the trip where someone had put the tape on strips of wax paper so she didn’t have to take the whole role. I tried this at home, and it seemed to work. However, when I tried to remove the tape at my camp spot, it was very difficult to get the tape off without ripping the wax paper and leaving some on the tape. I’m assuming it was partly due to the tape being on the wax paper for a while in combination with the wax paper becoming “brittle” due to getting creased once it was packed. Next year I will likely wrap the tape around something (pencil, pen, etc.).

I ate dinner, and then did some reading before calling it a day. 

Day 2 

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Picture from Observation Peak looking southeast.

I got up at 7 on Sunday and got breakfast ready. Once breakfast was finished I got camp packed up and hit the trail towards Observation Peak. Not too long after leaving camp the trail entered forest that had burned. At this point, I really started to question whether I had brought enough sunscreen, as I was pretty sure most of the rest of the hike didn’t have much shade.

It was a fairly short hike to get to the intersection with the Observation Peak trail. I got up to the peak around 10. There were great views all the way up to the peak. It was difficult to see the trail in a couple spots, but I was able to find it again quickly. There was very little shade on the peak, but luckily there were a few trees that provided a shady spot. The views from the peak were spectacular, and definitely exceeded what I was expecting. I spent about 40 minutes at the peak resting, eating a snack, and getting pictures. It took me about 40 minutes to get back down to the trail junction, where a couple other hikers were just starting to head up. 

I started to head towards Trail Creek Lakes and ran into a few other hikers headed towards Observation Peak. I stopped at a creek a short hike down the trail to fill up with water. I was getting pretty low on water at that point, so it was a relief to get some more. I rested for a bit more, ate some trail mix, and put on some more sunscreen. I was going to convert my pants to shorts once again, but I figured I better not so I could save sunscreen. I kept going towards Trail Creek Lakes and arrived about 12:30. Right off the bat I could see at least a couple camps set up, and ran into a guy from one of the camps. We chatted for a little bit, and then I continued on to find a camp spot. 

I found a camp spot pretty quickly, but I wasn’t a huge fan of it. It was pretty darn close to another camp, and closer to the water and trail than regulations allow (although it was hard to find a camp spot that was far enough from the trail and water). It was also really fine dirt/dust, which I knew would get on everything. I went ahead and set up my tent anyway since I figured it would be hard to find another camp spot and so nobody else took the spot. I figured I would look for another spot while going to the second lake. 

From reading a guide book, I knew there was a way to get up to the second lake via a gulch on the north side of the lower lake. I hiked around the north side of the lower lake and didn’t see this gulch, so I decided to hike up the hill near the creek between the two lakes. It was steep and had a lot of loose rock. I knew it wasn’t the best idea, but it looked doable and I didn’t feel like trying to find the other way. Two-thirds of the way up my foot slipped and I hit the ground hard. I knew right away I had hurt my left hand. I fully expected one of my fingers to be crooked when I looked at the hand, but thankfully none of them were. I was pretty sure I had broke at least one of them though, possibly two. I laid there for a couple minutes gathering myself and taking stock of my situation. 

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Looking down at the first Trail Creek Lake from the second Trail Creek Lake.

With as far up as I had made it, I knew going back down wasn’t an option, so I got back up and continued up the hill to the second lake. I made it up to the second lake, got a few pictures, and then worked on finding a different way down. I found the gulch referenced in the guidebook, and took that way down to the first lake. I found a possible camp spot on the way down, but I wasn’t 100% sure that my tent would fit, and at that point I didn’t feel like hauling my tent up there to find out. 

The rest of the day was pretty rough due to very little shade, warm temperatures, gusty winds, and the dusty conditions. The hand injury just made it that much worse. A while after I got back down to the lower lake, I also discovered I must have landed on my hip when I hit the ground, as I had a pretty good scrape and bruise there as well. I didn’t do a whole lot the rest of the day other than hang out at camp and read. 

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As I was making dinner that evening, I noticed the saying on the bottom of the packaging (picture above). I just had to laugh as I probably got what I deserved picking a camping spot that went against regulations. I put on my rain cover (which was nearly impossible with my injured hand) shortly before calling it a day. I read in my tent for a while before finally deciding to try and get to sleep. Unfortunately, my sleeping pad is pretty noisy when I move, so I was paranoid the whole night that I was bugging the neighbors every time I moved. That didn’t help anything either. 

Day 3

On Monday, I got up a little before 7. I got breakfast ready and then got camp packed up. I decided to hike back out instead of continuing on with the hike as planned. If my fingers were broke, I didn’t want to do any more damage to them than had already been done. Once camp was packed up I hit the trail back towards Stanley Lake, at about 8:15. I was back at the trailhead around 11:40. I rinsed off some at Stanley Lake and changed into a new pair of clothes. I drove into Stanley to get a drink at the convenience store before heading back to Boise. I got back to Boise a little after 3 and stopped at a travel center to figure out what my options were. I decided I had three options: stay in Boise until Saturday, fly home early, or drive home. All three options were roughly the same cost, so I decided to go ahead and leave early to save a couple days of PTO. I got a hotel room and pretty much spent the rest of the day getting my backpacking gear cleaned up and getting stuff situated to pack and ship the next day. 

Day 4

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Picture of injured hand after getting to the hotel.

On Tuesday I got up at 6:30, and left from the hotel around 7:45. I dropped my gear off at the post office and then headed to an urgent care clinic to get my fingers checked. According to the X-rays, there were no fractures. Ironically that was more frustrating. Had I known that I probably would have finished the hike. But I was definitely relieved I wasn’t going to have to wear a splint. That would have made work really frustrating since I do a lot of typing. 

I wandered around downtown for a little bit and got a couple fire hydrant pictures, then ate lunch at Westside Drive In. If you are looking for something to eat in Boise, I highly recommend their meatloaf sandwich. It was delicious. At that diner I got the “fortune” above. Once again I just had to laugh, as my injured hand and hip would beg to differ otherwise. After lunch I headed to the airport.

Conclusion

The little bit of the hike I got to do far exceeded my expectations. For relatively low elevation mountains, I was pretty impressed. It was definitely warmer than I would prefer during the afternoon, and the lack of shade on the second day didn’t help much. If I try the trip again, I’ll avoid Labor Day weekend, likely do it later in the year, and bring more sunscreen. I was really bummed I didn’t get to finish the loop as I didn’t even make it to the part I really wanted to make it to. The trails were very easy to follow, with the exception of a couple brief spots going up to Observation Peak. I didn’t see any significant wildlife. I saw quit a bit of hoof tracks on the trail though. And next time I’ll be more careful about picking my camp spot, as karma apparently has my number. 

Trash

The only trash I found during the hike was a plastic bottle cap at the lower Trail Creek Lake, at my camp spot. For as many people as I saw during this hike, especially at Trail Creek Lakes, I was quite impressed that was the only trash I saw. Kudos to all the visitors for keeping it clean.

Trip Report: Aero Lakes

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Last week my brother and I completed a four day backpacking trip to the Aero Lakes area of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in southern Montana. We had wanted to do a trip in the Beartooths the past couple years, but had decided not to each year due to reports of lots of snow remaining. We finally decided to just give it a try this year. This is a blog post to share our experience and provide some details that hopefully will be useful to other people who make the trip in the future. 

Day 1

Blog Map 1
Map with markers to details I point out below.

We started off from Cody, WY at around 7:30 A.M. and drove to the upper Lady of the Lake trailhead (marked with the green circle on the map). We arrived a little after 9 A.M. One of our maps showed the trailhead here, and it appears to be marked as the official trailhead. However, the map above shows the trail beginning at the blue circle. There appeared to be a parking area in the vicinity of the blue circle based on what we could see walking by, but I’m not sure about the feasibility of getting to that spot unless you have a high clearance vehicle since, based on the map, you have to cross the creek with your vehicle. In addition, it still appeared you had to cross some sort of creek/wet area without a bridge from the blue parking area. The green trailhead has a footbridge across the creek. However, the green trailhead adds about 1/4 to 1/2 mile to the hike. The dirt road to the trailhead (green circle) is a little rough, but it can be reached with a sedan as long as you take it easy and are careful. 

The hike in was pretty straightforward until we reached the area where Star Creek and Zimmer Creek meet (yellow star on map above). As you approach this spot you will see a trail take off to the left (see picture below).

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Trail junction shortly before Broadwater River.

We went straight, following the better looking trail (red arrow in picture). Shortly thereafter we crossed the creek and continued on our hike. However, I quickly realized that we were following a creek going with the flow of water, which I knew wasn’t correct, so we subsequently backtracked, crossed the creek again, went back to the Y, and took the trail that goes off to the left (green arrow in picture), which ended up being the correct trail. The trail that we took initially (red arrow) follows Broadwater River briefly, and then Sky Top Creek until eventually dead ending (according to a guidebook I read), but it wasn’t marked on either of the maps I had. So if you do this hike, make sure you take the trail that goes to the left. If you have to cross a large creek at this point, you are taking the wrong trail. The correct trail crosses a creek, but a much smaller one. On the correct trail, you will be to the left of a creek, going against the flow of water. 

The hike up Zimmer Creek was pretty straightforward. There is a cairn on the opposite side of the creek to indicate where to cross to head up to the Aero Lakes. I believe the map above shows the trail crossing Zimmer Creek earlier than we did (we crossed at the cairn). I have shown where I believe we crossed (pink dotted line). We were able to cross on boulders. The hike from this point up to Aero Lakes was brutal. It was a long, steep climb with loose rocks, boulders, and snow once we got near the top. The guidebook I read says it is referred to as Cardiac Hill, and climbs about 900 ft in roughly a mile. 

Notice on the map above I show us not following the trail up to Lower Aero Lakes (our route shown in pink dotted line). We realized after coming back down that the route we took up was different, and I’m guessing we went up a ravine/canyon to the north of where the actual trail runs. We ended up at the same cairn by Zimmer Creek coming down, but the route we took was definitely different. We were obviously able to do it the different way going up, but it would have been easier to follow the actual trail. Still very difficult, but easier. So if you’re not following a trail, you’re probably going up the wrong ravine/canyon. We apparently just missed the trail, which starts a little ways away from the creek behind the cairn. 

I believe it took us a little under 6 hours to reach Lower Aero Lake from the trailhead. After reaching Lower Aero, we found a camp spot on the point on the southern part of the lake, just to the southeast of where you reach Lower Aero. A few notes on this spot: 

  • It provides great shelter from the wind from every direction other than the north (which came in very handy one evening).
  • You have a great view to the north, including Glacier Peak, Mount Villard, and The Spires. 
  • If you plan on hiking up to Upper Aero Lake, you will have to hike around the western/northwestern side of Lower Aero, which takes roughly an hour. 
  • Our two person tent was a very tight fit in this spot.

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Our camp spot at Lower Aero Lake (green arrow).

In my opinion, this is one of the best camp spots on the lake. However, had we camped at the NW part of the lake (yellow arrow), it would have knocked about 2 hours off each of our day hikes we did. So if you want to reduce hiking time towards Upper Aero, I would probably recommend camping somewhere along the western/northwestern side of the lake (which several people did while we were up there). Finally, if you camp up on the northwest side of Lower Aero (yellow arrow area), it may be a little noisy at night due to a couple waterfalls, so keep this in mind if you like it quiet when you sleep. 

We spent the rest of the day hanging out at Lower Aero. 

Day 2

Blog Map 2
Map with approximate route for day 2 (pink line).

The goal for day 2 was to take a day hike to Upper Aero Lake and then over to Rough Lake and back. When we looked out the tent after getting up, we were surprised to see about 2/3 of the lake had a thin layer of ice over it. That was pretty cool to see. From our campsite, we weren’t quite sure how to get to Upper Aero, as it appeared there was a cliff that would prevent us from going the shortest/easiest way, but we saw a couple other backpackers camped near the cliff, so we figured we would see if they knew how to get there. 

We hiked around the lake and eventually got to their camp. They said they hadn’t been able to figure out how to get to Upper Aero. As we were talking with them, a mountain goat wandered down into their camp, probably about 50 yards from us. The dog with the other backpackers saw the mountain goat, and subsequently took off after it chasing it off. Even though it was brief, it was cool to get to see the mountain goat. Shortly thereafter, a group of 4 other backpackers showed up, and they were able to figure out a way down the cliff (see picture below). Thankfully so, as our alternative routes would have been much harder and I’m not sure they would have even worked, so kudos to them.

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Route down cliff on north side of Lower Aero Lake (pink line).

We headed towards Upper Aero, and took some time to get pictures of the two waterfalls between Upper Aero and Lower Aero. We crossed the creek between the two lakes, and made our way to the east side of Upper Aero. Our plan was to hike along the east side of Upper Aero, and then go over a pass to Rough Lake (pink route in map above). However, we only made it to the black “X”. It looked possible to keep going, but it appeared it would be slow going due to snow and boulder hopping. I believe it was around noon when me made it to this point, and it was already starting to look a little stormy, so we decided to call it off getting to Rough Lake and just spend some time at Upper Aero so my brother could get in some fishing at Upper Aero. We hung out at Upper Aero for a little while then headed back to camp, stopping on the NW part of Lower Aero so my brother could fish some in a different spot. 

Later that evening we had a storm come through that kicked the wind up pretty good and had a little rain with it. I would say gusts around 30 mph. I was definitely thankful for our sheltered camp spot. It stayed windy for a while, but gradually calmed down, and was pretty calm by dark.

Day 3

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Map with approximate route for day 3 (pink line).

We had thought about heading towards the Goose Lake area on this day, but since we didn’t make it to Rough Lake on day 2, we decided to give it another shot on day 3 with an earlier start and a different route. We left shortly after 7:00 A.M. (vs. about 9:00 A.M. on day 2) and headed up towards Upper Aero again. We decided to go up and over a different pass this time. You can see the approximate route we took on the map above. 

The climb up to the pass wasn’t too bad. Lots of boulder hopping and walking across snow. A portion of the climb down the other side was really steep, but not too long. I have no idea if we went the easiest way or not, but it got us where we were wanting to go. We made it down to Shelter Lake, then to Lone Elk Lake, and then to Rough Lake. It took us about 3 hours to get to Rough Lake from our camp spot, with about an hour of that just hiking around Lower Aero. The hike from Shelter Lake to Rough Lake wasn’t bad at all. We spent some time at Rough Lake, then spent some time at Lone Elk Lake on the way back out, and then headed back to camp. 

Once again that evening we had a storm come through. This one looked a lot worse than the evening before as it approached. During the storm there was plenty of lightning approximately 1/2 to 1 mile away, but we only got moderate rain for a little while, and the wind really didn’t come up much with this storm. It wasn’t near as bad as I thought it would be, thankfully. It cleared out a little before sunset, and we got treated to a pretty cool sunset with the storm clouds. 

Day 4

Day 4 was our day to hike back out. We took our time getting camp put up in the morning, and my brother got in some more fishing. We left around 9:30 A.M. As I mentioned earlier, we took a different route going down than we took coming up, and there was a trail pretty much the whole way down, which helped a lot. We somehow managed to overlook the boulder crossing we used for Zimmer Creek on the way in, and ended up crossing through the water little further downstream. The hike out was pretty uneventful. It took us about 4.5 hours to make it back to the trailhead. 

Final Thoughts

Despite the difficult hike in, it was well worth it. It is a beautiful area, and it was really cool to see the huge mountain lakes. There was lots of boulder hopping and walking on snow once up to Lower Aero lake. There is a spotty trail around the west/northwest side of Lower Aero and up to the creek between Upper and Lower Aero, but other than that it is pretty much figure out which route you think is best. Along the entire route, there were plenty of muddy and marshy areas, likely due to both snow runoff and rainfall. 

The mosquitos were definitely a nuisance up to and including Lower Aero. They weren’t nearly as bad at Upper Aero for some reason. Mosquitos were pretty bad at Lone Elk Lake as well. 

There were plenty of wildflowers bloomed on our trip, although it would probably be better if you waited another week or two. 

We saw a few smaller animals (rock chucks, pikas, etc.), but the mountain goat was the only large animal we saw during the trip. We saw plenty of hoof prints throughout the trip, but no bear tracks.

If you want to get away from people, this probably isn’t the hike for you. I believe there were roughly 15 other people we saw come through Lower Aero Lake while we were there, which I’m pretty sure is more than we have seen on our 3 Big Horn Mountain backpacking trips combined. However, it was by no means crowded. We met in person with only about half of those people. 

All in all, it was a great trip with great scenery, and was definitely one of the smoother trips my brother and I have had. 

Finally, just want to do a shout out to Dmitria and Kate. We ran into them several times during the course of our trip. It was pretty crazy how similar our trips were, and it was fun getting to share plans and what we each had done since last seeing each other. Hopefully my brother and I didn’t bug you two too bad. 

Stay tuned to my Facebook page as I will post on there when I have pictures from the trip posted to my website, which will likely be late this week.

If you have any questions about this hike, don’t hesitate to send me a message using the contact page, or send an email to info@brentuphoto.com.

Fishing

My brother did a lot of fishing while we were up there, so I figured I would provide a quick note on fishing during our trip.

  • Lower Aero Lake: caught a lot of Brooke Trout out of this lake, with a few around 12 inches in length. My brother says he had one about 16 inches come off right at shore. 
  • Upper Aero Lake: probably spent about an hour fishing this lake, but never got any bites.
  • Rough Lake: probably spent about an hour fishing this lake, but never got any bites.
  • Lone Elk Lake: probably spent about 45 minutes fishing this lake, and caught a few very small Brooke Trout. 

Trash

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The picture above is the trash other people left behind that we packed out. With as popular as this area seemed to be, I’m actually surprised (and pleased) we didn’t see more. Regardless, please pick up after yourself if you are out hiking/backpacking, and if you see any trash left behind, please pick it up and pack it out. 

 

Trip Report: Uintas Backpacking Trip

On Sept. 20 I started a backpacking trip into the High Uintas Wilderness Area from the Highline trailhead. My brother and I have done several backpacking trips in Wyoming, but this was my first attempt at a solo backpacking trip. A day by day summary of the trip is provided below. If you have any questions about my trip, don’t hesitate to contact me! I have posted a gallery with some more pictures here.

Day 1

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East Fork of the Duchesne River drainage near Packard Lake.

The day began with an early morning flight from OKC to Denver, and then a flight from Denver to Salt Lake City (SLC). The flights went smoothly and were on time, and I landed in SLC around 10 A.M. It was roughly $200 cheaper to get my rental car away from the airport, so I got an Uber ride to the Enterprise location. Once I had my rental, I headed to the post office a couple blocks up the street to pick up my backpacking gear. Once that was in hand I hit the road to the Highline Trailhead. I stopped along the interstate in Park City for a quick lunch, then stopped at the Chevron in Kamas to get my recreation pass. I’m glad I did that since they were aware of a few “fee free” days, so I only had to get a 3 day pass instead of a 7 day. The next stop was the trailhead. Since it was my first solo trip, I was a little worried about fitting everything in my pack, but I didn’t have any issues getting everything packed. I got all my gear packed up and hit the trail around 2:45.  I’ll have a future blog post about my thoughts on the logistics of getting myself and my gear to the trailhead.

I was thinking about trying to make it to Naturalist Basin on this day, but with the later start, I decided to camp at Wilder Lake, and take some time to go check out Wyman and Packard Lakes. The first 1.5 miles or so were all downhill, which was nice, but I knew that meant it would be uphill for the last 1.5 miles back out. Between the trailhead and Wilder Lake I saw several people hiking out. I talked to one couple who seemed to have difficulty getting to Wyman and Packard Lakes, so that got me a little bit worried. But the trail was fine for me, so I’m not sure if they took a wrong turn somewhere or what.

I got my camp set up at Wilder Lake and then headed to Wyman and Packard Lakes. It was a short, easy hike to both lakes, especially with only my daypack on. The view down the drainage for the East Fork of the Duchesne River near Packard Lake was really neat, particularly with some fall color sprinkled in. Down towards the bottom of the drainage I could see some smoke, which I found out after the hike was part of the Murdock Fire. This would come into play later in the trip. I headed back to camp and cooked dinner. Probably around 6:30 or 7:00 a group of three showed up and set up camp down on the other end of the lake. It wasn’t too long after they showed up that I called it a day and hit the sack.

Day 2

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Rock Creek drainage from Rocky Sea Pass.

After not getting much sleep due to being cold, I got up for day 2 to find my Camelbak somewhat frozen. The hose was completely frozen, and some of the water in the main bladder was frozen. I was able to warm up enough of the liquid water that I was able to thaw out my Camelbak hose and make breakfast. After that I got packed up and hit the trail.

The original plan was to hike all the way to Gladys Lake and camp there. However, after the cold night, I figured I would go ahead and camp at Brinkley Lake due to a slightly lower elevation and more shelter from any wind. Plus it meant less distance I had to carry my large pack. On the way to Rocky Sea Pass, I passed one sign for Four Lakes Basin that pointed to the right, and didn’t give it much thought until I came to another sign for Four Lakes Basin that also pointed to the right. The second sign was the correct turn. After taking a look at that first sign on the way out, I believe it was supposed to point straight, but it was just crooked. Something to keep in mind if you plan on hiking there.

The western side of Rocky Sea pass is a relatively gradual grade (compared to the east side). I took a few minute break at the top of the pass to take in the views and try out my map & compass skills. After the break I headed down the east side of the pass. It’s not completely vertical, but it’s not far from it. Thankfully the trail switchbacks, which makes it easier. I still managed to fall on my butt once though. It wasn’t too long of a hike to Brinkley after getting to the bottom of the pass. I got camp set up and relaxed the rest of the day. I only saw one person the entire day (on the west side of the pass).

Day 3

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Gladys Lake

After learning some lessons the first night, I was able to stay warmer the second night, and I didn’t have a frozen Camelbak when I woke up this day. Brinkley Lake was like glass when I got up, and I was able to get some really neat reflection pictures. After that I ate breakfast, got my daypack packed, and hit the trail. Had I camped at Gladys Lake, I may have tried to summit Spread Eagle Peak on this day, but I decided against that pretty early on and just decided to hike the loop up to Rosalie Lake, Gladys Lake, Lightning Lake, and back to Brinkley.

The hike up to Rosalie lake was mostly in forest, but it opened up once up to Rosalie Lake. From there to Lightning Lake the hike was right around tree line with some great views. There were a few places along this stretch where the trail got pretty faint, but it was only for a short distance, so it was pretty easy to find where the trail picked up again. This was a really neat section of trail, and I took my time taking lots of pictures. I was definitely glad that I decided to camp at Brinkley Lake and just take the leisurely stroll on this loop. After Lightning Lake the hike back to Brinkley Lake was once again mainly in forest. Around 2:00 it started to get a little bit smoky, so I was glad I got the trip in early in the day and was able to get pictures that weren’t too hazy.

After I got back to camp I decided to stop using my main water filter (Katadyn Hiker) and go to my backup filter (Sawyer mini water filter). I was having issues with the Katadyn being difficult to pump. Not sure what the issue was, but this was the second trip in the row where this was a problem (and I was using a new filter on this trip). While it was a little bit of an inconvenience, it was kind of nice to get some experience with the Sawyer. I’ll have a post later on about my thoughts on the pros and cons of each.

Day 4

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Jean and Dean Lakes in Four Lakes Basin.

The original plan for this day was to hike back over Rocky Sea pass and stay in Four Lakes Basin that night. However, I decided that morning to skip Four Lakes Basin and head to Naturalist Basin. I could do Four Lakes Basin on a different hike, and this would allow me to explore Naturalist Basin the next morning when the smoke was (hopefully) at a minimum. Neither of those happened. Haha.

On the way up to Rocky Sea Pass I saw a family of Mountain Goats. I had never seen Mountain Goats before, so that was exciting. Remember the Murdock Fire? When I got to the top of Rocky Sea Pass that morning, it looked like Naturalist Basin was already fairly smoky from the fire, and it looked like Four Lakes Basin was pretty clear. So I decided to head to Four Lakes Basin after all and get some pictures there since it was clear. I got down into Four Lakes Basin, and tried to find a camp spot that was out of the wind, but didn’t have much luck. My tent almost took flight while I was setting it up, but thankfully I was able to grab it before it did. While I was snacking on some trail mix in my tent, I decided I didn’t want to spend the afternoon walking around in the strong wind, and I didn’t feel like being bored out of my mind for several hours, so I packed everything back up and headed towards Naturalist Basin. As I got closer and closer to Naturalist Basin, the smoke continued to get worse and worse. It finally got to the point where it was so thick and enough ash falling out of the air that I didn’t feel comfortable continuing on, so I headed back towards Four Lakes Basin.

With the strong winds that day, I assumed that fire had made it close to the Highline Trail, so I started thinking of my options. I took a look at one of my topo maps and saw that I should be able to get out south to the Grandview trailhead. I decided to start heading south towards that trailhead, and possibly hike out that way instead of to the Highline trailhead. When I got to Pinto Lake about a mile south of the Highline trail, I decided to camp there. However, from this vantage point, it looked like the fire may still be south of the Highline trail, so I thought once again about trying to hike out on the Highline trail. After it started to get a little smoky at this lake and I noticed there were some cows at this lake, I decided to hike back to the intersection with the Highline trail and camp there. Assuming the fire wasn’t at the trail, I figured I could get up early the next morning and hike out, hoping the smoke would clear up overnight. By this point I was completely worn out, and my feet were quite sore. I think that was easily the most I had ever hiked during a day with a big pack on. I got camp set up, ate dinner, and called it a day.

Day 5

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Fall colors while driving down the mountain.

I did not sleep well at all leading up to this day due to being worried about having to hike out through the Grandview trailhead. I got up at 5:00 A.M. It rained some overnight, which was desperately needed up there, although it wasn’t near enough to make much of a dent. However, a lot of the rain ended up freezing to my rain cover. So the cold temps along with the wet rain cover made it a little bit of a pain to get things packed up. But I got everything packed up and hit the trail around 5:45 A.M. This was my first experience hiking in the dark (with a headlamp of course), which was different. Thankfully it was an easy trail to follow. I made it out to the trailhead without any issues other than really sore feet. I was pretty bummed that I didn’t get to explore Four Lakes Basin or Naturalist Basin, but I was really glad to make it out to my vehicle and not have to go out through the Grandview Trailhead. On the way down the mountain, I stopped several times to get pictures of the fall colors.

 

In summary, I’m still happy with the trip. I was still able to get some good pictures, and the smoke could have been a much bigger problem than it was. It also provided valuable experience that can be applied to future trips. The trails were all easy to follow and intersections marked well, so no issues there. Outside of seeing several people on that first day hike in, I saw very few people the rest of the hike. While there are definitely some pros to solo backpacking, I think I prefer having someone that I can share the trip with.

Plus, going out a day earlier than planned gave me some extra time to explore Park City, and I was able to take some time to get some fire hydrant pictures in Park City, which I will post to my website in the next couple days. But if you haven’t done so already, go check out the other photos from the backpacking trip. I look forward to exploring the Uintas further in future trips.