At the end of July my brother and I did our annual backpacking trip. This year we went to the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. You can read the trip summary here. I changed several things up on this trip compared to previous trips. Below I cover the major changes I made and my thoughts on how they went.
Trail Runners & Socks: Leading up to this trip I had been wearing some Lowa boots, and before that had worn Merrell boots. My socks leading up to this trip were Darn Tough socks. With both pairs of boots, my big toe on my right foot was generally quite sore by the end of each trip. It was so bad after my Eagle Rock Loop trip earlier this year that I knew I needed to try something different. I had discovered that most thru hikers switch to trail runners, so I started doing some research on those. I tried several different pairs and landed on the Brooks Cascadia 14. I have really liked Feetures socks for my running, so I decided to give them a try for backpacking. I was quite pleased with the shoe and sock combination at the end of the trip. My feet felt great at the end of the trip. There were some moments where my feet or toes started to get sore while hiking, but it was never anything that lasted. When I would get them wet, they would usually dry out pretty quickly. The main complaint I had with them was getting small gravel in them occasionally. I definitely plan to stick with these for now.
Sandals: Leading up to this trip I had been using a pair of Cabela’s sandals for crossing creeks/rivers and for walking around camp. They worked fine, but I decided to try some Xero Shoes Z-Trail Sandals since they are less bulky and weigh less. The first thing I noticed about the Xero sandals on this trip was that they were more difficult to take on and off. I also thought the Xero sandals were less comfortable. However, I plan on sticking with the Xero sandals since I feel the bulk/weight savings are worth giving up the ease and comfort of the Cabela’s sandals. Since I’m now going to be using trail runners, I’ll likely start changing into my sandals for creek crossings less and crossing in my trail runners instead, so changing in and out of the sandals will likely be less of an issue.
Maps: In the trips leading up to this one, I had brought along a couple different paper maps when available: a wider view topo map (such as a Nat Geo Trails illustrated map) as well as a much more detailed custom USGS quad map from MyTopo. While doing some research leading up to this trip I came across the Avenza Maps smartphone app. I decided to try that out for this trip. Instead of buying a paper Nat Geo Trails Illustrated map, I purchased the digital version on Avenza Maps, and plotted out several possible routes using the app. While it was a little bit of a pain to plot a path in the app, it was definitely nice to get a mileage estimate once it was plotted. For the actual hike, I still brought a custom USGS quad map from MyTopo, but I also played around with the Avenza Maps app. The Avenza Maps app was super handy for quickly figuring out where we were on the trail. However, I did find myself paying less attention to what we should expect on the trail based on the topo map, and thus not paying attention to what we were actually covering on trail, and thus not comparing the two to make sure everything made sense. Not a huge deal on this trip, but I could see a scenario where it would take me longer to realize I had gone the wrong way if I wasn’t checking the app too terribly often, whereas I might notice it sooner if I was paying close attention to what I was seeing vs what the topo map shows. The MyTopo map was much nicer when I wanted to look at a wider view than what could be seen on the phone screen. Finally, the Avenza Maps app uses the USGS quad maps as is, which could mean your route would fall on several different maps. The MyTopo maps allow you to customize the map so that a single map could include multiple USGS quad maps, which could mean your route may fall on a single map. So there are pros and cons to both. I could definitely see doing trips with only the Avenza Maps app, but it also makes me a little nervous relying completely on an electronic device, so I’ll probably keep bringing along a paper map as backup.
Camp Chair: My brother and I generally don’t hike for the entire day. We’ll usually reach our destination by mid afternoon or earlier. After that my brother will do some fishing, if possible, and I’ll usually try to get some pictures or do some reading. After my Eagle Rock Loop trip, I realized that it would be really nice to have a chair to use for reading or watching my brother fish, so I purchased the REI Flexlite Air Chair. This came in really handy many times during this trip. I wouldn’t bring this if I knew I would be hiking most of the time. But if I know that I will likely be done hiking early most of the days, and I have the space and don’t mind the weight, I’ll probably bring this along.
Bear Bag: On our previous trips, my brother and I have both used a BearVault BV450 for carrying our food. As I started to pack my food the day before we were supposed to leave, I realized my food wouldn’t fit in my BearVault. I could make it work if I didn’t bring along an extra day of food, but I didn’t want to take that chance. I checked to see if I could get a BearVault BV500 locally, but that didn’t appear to be possible, so I made a last minute trip to REI and got an Ursack Major XL. This weighed less than my BearVault, which was a big plus, and I was easily able to fit my food in it, along with some of my brother’s food. Thankfully we always had a place to secure it, but had we been above treeline, that would have been a problem with this bag. I was also pretty nervous about a bunch of water getting into the bag or the bag soaking up water if it rained hard. It never rained hard enough on our trip to see if this would happen. There is an odor-proof/water-proof bag you can get that goes inside the Ursack, so I may purchase that at some point to help ease the worry about water getting into the bag and potentially ruining some food. The BearVault is nice since you can pretty much stick it anywhere and it’s sealed from the rain, but if I know I’ll have places to hang the bag and there are no regulations requiring hard sided containers, I’ll likely bring along the Ursack on future trips.
Food/Water: I started to type this out and realized that there was enough to write a whole separate post, so be on the lookout for that post next week.
For a short background on this series, see my first post.
July 2018 – Highland Park – Big Horn Mts., WY
This was another one of the train wreck trips mentioned in the previous blog. The first couple days went really well, other than leaving the Sawtooth Lakes area sooner than we would have liked due to storms. On our hike the third day, I had planned to stop at a particular lake for a little while so my brother could do some fishing. The map showed the trail going right next to the lake, but it never came that close. We realized pretty quickly that we had missed it, but we decided to keep going. Things just went downhill from there.
We ended up stopping later at a different lake for lunch. My brother tried some fishing, but we weren’t sure the lake even had fish. We kept moving and made it up to Highland Park mid-afternoon, where we decided to camp. It was stormy around, and the wind came up pretty good around dinner time. While the wind was blowing, we went to go get water from a small pond nearby. The wind had caused the water to become quite dirty. After pumping some water, it became quite difficult to pump, but we kept at it and we eventually got our water. The next morning, while taking a break on our hike and filling up with more water, my brother noticed he had “floaties” in his water, at which point we realized our water filter was likely bad. Since our only back up was boiling water, we decided to hike out that day (a day early).
Thankfully neither my bother or I got sick. After this I realized I hadn’t put enough thought into the water filter going bad/breaking situation. While we could have boiled water if it came down to it, once I started really thinking about it, it was not a great option. It would have been very time consuming (small amount at a time, having to let it cool before pouring in our bladders) and would have used a lot, if not all, of the fuel we had with us. After this trip, we both got Sawyer Mini filters to use as back up in case we had an issue again. So definitely put some thought into what your back up plan is if your primary water filtration system has problems. I’m not saying you can’t use boiling, but just know the pros and cons of each method.
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.
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).
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.
For a short background on this series, see my first post.
July 2017 – Teepee Pole Flats/Emerald Lake – Big Horn Mts., WY
This trip, along with three of the following four trips, were pretty much train wrecks. There were lots of valuable lessons learned during this stretch. Haha.
The plan for this trip was to do the purple loop in the map above, starting at the yellow star and going counter clockwise. However, on the first day, we ran into a creek crossing that we didn’t feel comfortable crossing because of the depth and current (roughly in the vicinity of the red star). We briefly looked for other options, then decided to head back to Teepee Pole Flats (pink star) and figure out what we wanted to do. We ended up camping at Teepee Pole Flats, and then hiked back out to the campground at the trailhead the next day and stayed there for a night. After that we hiked to Emerald Lake (orange star) and spent a night there before hiking back out. So what lessons did I take away from this?
First, trekking poles were on my list of gear to get for the next trip. I had never used them since I figured they were additional items to bring along that I didn’t necessarily need, but they would have been really useful for this creek crossing. I have taken trekking poles and used them throughout each trip since this trip. They were a tremendous help for all the creek/river crossings on the Eagle Rock Loop hike I did earlier this year.
Second, I wish we would have taken longer to try and find a spot to cross that we were comfortable with. I’m not sure if we would have found one, but we definitely had some time to look, and I think it would have been worth taking some more time to try and save completing the loop. I’m pretty sure if we had had trekking poles, and had taken some time to find a better crossing, we could have got across that creek.
Finally, a good pack makes a big difference. Up until this trip, my brother and I had used cheap packs we bought at Walmart. I remember after our last trip with those packs my shoulders were killing me. For this trip, my brother and I each got an Osprey pack and had REI fit us. This helped tremendously. The fitting was definitely a good move since there were some adjustments they made I would have had no idea I could have made. So while not necessary, a good pack will definitely make the trips more comfortable.
For a short background on this series, see my first post.
August 2016 – Titcomb Basin – Wind River Range, WY
This was a trip that actually went pretty much as planned with no big hiccups. We (my brother and I) got incredibly lucky on the second day though. We had stayed at Barbara Lake the first night, and on the second day we hiked to Island Lake. As the hike to Island Lake progressed, it looked like it was getting stormy behind us. I wasn’t 100% sure it was headed towards us, but I figured we better try to get to Island Lake as soon as we could in case it was coming our way. We usually stopped for lunch each day on our hikes, but if I remember correctly, on this day we just took a short break for snacks and water and then kept going. I’m sure my brother wasn’t too happy with me by the time we got to Island Lake. By the time we got to Island Lake, the storm appeared like it was pretty close, so we grabbed the first suitable camp spot we found. As we were finishing setting up the tent it started to sprinkle, and not too long after we were in the tent, it was a full on downpour with some very small hail/grapuel included as well. This still holds as the most intense storm I have been through while backpacking. After the storm moved through, we overheard several stories of people getting caught in the storm in Titcomb Basin, which is not a good place to try and find shelter from a storm.
Since I’m already a weather nerd (my degree is in meteorology), I’m probably more tuned into the sky than a lot of people while out backpacking, but this was a great reminder to pay attention to the sky throughout the day. This storm was a great example of how quickly conditions can deteriorate. However, we had plenty of warning the storm was coming. Enough so that we were able to push hard to Island Lake, and got lucky enough to beat the storm. If you’re tuned into the sky, you’ll almost always have some warning that storms are coming and can take appropriate action. Had we not been paying attention to the sky, we likely would have taken our time on the trail and been caught in the storm on the trail somewhere.
Also, know how to set up your tent so in a situation like this you can get it set up quickly, and have your rain gear in a spot where you can get to it quickly in case you are still on the trail when you get caught in a storm.
My first takeaway from this trip was that I wasn’t a big fan of backpacking in Grand Teton National Park. Why? In the park, we were only allowed to camp in designated spots, and we had to have a permit for the specific spot we were staying at for that specific night. Had we been able to reserve these a little bit ahead of time, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But we weren’t, so we had to go to the visitor’s center the day we wanted to start our trip and see which camp spots were open on which nights, and then try and figure out a trip that worked with the camp spots available.
I will point out that if you can commit to the trip early in the year, you can reserve backcountry camp spots in advance (this year the reservation system was open Jan. 8 through May 15). So if you are able to set your trip in stone that early, then this can work for you. Also, there are probably a couple hikes I could do where I could camp just outside the park and then do day hikes into the park.
Thankfully we were able to figure out a way to do the loop we wanted. However, I hesitate to go back to the Tetons for backpacking since I really don’t want to take a two day road trip (one way) only to find out the route I want to do isn’t available. It’s also a bummer since it doesn’t allow any flexibility. If you get part way into your trip and decide you want to change plans, you’re out of luck. I’ll probably be back at some point, but if I’m not able to get reservations made ahead of time, I’ll likely choose somewhere else to go. Just keep this in mind if you are planning a hike in a national park.
Second: if the trail disappears, take some time to evaluate and see if you can find it. We came to a spot on the trail where it seemed to disappear, except for a faint path going up a steep hill with loose rock. I really wasn’t a fan of following that path, but I didn’t see another route, so my brother and I took it. It put my brother and I in a dangerous position, and a couple hikers behind us started to follow us as well. It turned out the actual trail did go a different way that was much safer. Thankfully someone further down the trail who knew the correct route started running towards us and yelling, and the two hikers behind us ended up taking the actual trail. But had I just taken a minute longer to try and find the actual trail, I likely would have found it.
Third takeaway was that I really missed having my DSLR. I only took my cell phone on the Cloud Peak trip and on this trip. My cell phone got some decent pictures, but I could have got much better pictures with my DSLR. So, although a pain, for each trip from this point forward I have lugged around my DSLR.
For a short background on this series, see my first post.
July 2014 – Cloud Peak – Big Horn Mountains, WY
This was the first true backpacking trip for my brother and I. Two main lessons came from this trip.
First, mosquitoes can be downright awful in the mountains. I had grown up with mosquitoes in Wyoming, but never had I been swarmed by as many as we were on this trip. I remember being in our tent and we could hear the hum of all the mosquitoes outside. I can’t remember if we brought bug spray or not, but this trip definitely moved bug spray to the essential list of items to take on future backpacking trips.
Second, it is very easy to get lost. From what I had read prior to the trip, the hike from Mistymoon Lake was pretty straightforward, and my brother and I made it to the peak without any problems. The approximate route we took is reflected by the blue line in the image above. However, on the way down, we somehow managed to take a slightly different route. I believe it was something like the red line the screenshot above, although I’m not sure where we actually got off our original route. We were following cairns on the way down since most of the route was boulder/rock hopping without any trail, and the cairns we followed took us a different route on the way down. We had no idea we were going a different way until we eventually realized we were somewhere we hadn’t been on our way up. That was not a good feeling. Based on our map, I was pretty sure we were headed in the same general direction, so we kept going and thankfully we met back up with our original route, but it could have been pretty bad if that different route had taken us in a different direction. So don’t think just because you made it to your destination that the trip back will be no problem and you can let your guard down.
Almost 10 years ago, back in August 2010, my brother and I did a day hike to Table Mountain in the Teton Range in Wyoming. Little did I know what that would lead to a few years later. It took a few years due to my job situation, but in July of 2014 my brother and I did our first true backpacking trip. We have done a backpacking trip each year since, and each of the last couple years I have been able to do a solo trip as well. Back in early May a thought crossed my mind that it would be fun to put together a blog series about lessons learned on trips so far as I get ready for my two big trips this year, and thus this blog series was born. There have been lots and lots of lessons learned, but this series just tries to capture the main ones from each trip. I hope you enjoy, and hopefully at least one of these will help you out on your backpacking journeys.
August 2010 – Table Mountain – Teton Range, WY
This was a pretty straightforward and short day hike that went off without any big problems. I have since learned to be very thankful when hikes go to plan, as I have had several that have not. My main takeaway from this trip: a simple day hike may very well plant the seed that eventually grows into the desire to get into backpacking. I don’t think I had given backpacking a whole lot of thought before this trip, but I credit this trip for being a big part of getting me into backpacking. It is similar to what happened to me with running. I started out doing sprints for track, got convinced to do cross country in high school, ended up eventually doing a half marathon, and then finally did a full marathon. Haha. If you are interested in backpacking, day hikes can be a great way to “get your feet wet” and see if it’s something you would like to pursue.
Also, if I remember correctly, I gave my brother grief about how he was crossing a creek on this trip, and then I ended up being the one to fall in. Haha. So be careful about what kind of advice you dish out.
Sitting on a rock for the noon radio check, halfway down the South Fork, I feel no questions, no troubles, just a great oneness with all welling up inside me. This moment is all that is, all that ever will be. Memories can never equal the experience, and at best we can only attempt to visualize the future. The best we can do is absorb the most possible from Great Moments Like These.
Quote from Randy Morgenson on page 270
Earlier this month, when I hiked the Eagle Rock Loop, I started reading “The Last Season” by Eric Blehm. I can’t even remember how I came across this book, but it seemed like a good trail reading book, so I had ordered it just in case I did the Eagle Rock Loop this spring. I got partway through the book on the hike, and finished the book Saturday evening. I just expected an intriguing story, but got so much more. It was so good, in fact, that I skimmed through the entire book yesterday to jot down some quotes to keep for reference and to use for this post.
I had never heard of the Randy Morgenson story until reading this book. After reading the book, I’m sure like a lot of people, I really wish I could have known Randy. But after reading this book, I felt like I had actually got to know Randy to some extent. It seems like we would have had a lot in common. I love being in the wilderness (or backcountry as they refer to it in the book) and consider the mountains to be my happy place. I have a love for the backcountry and like to see it taken care of (although I’m not nearly at the level Randy was). I’m into photography. I’m not much of a social person. I don’t want to have any kids. Cindy Purcell was quoted in the book as saying “His dreams had conflicts. His ghosts were big and scary. But his spirit was so full of joy and love that he could overcome his doubts and move through them.” I can definitely relate to that. It was kind of eerie how much of myself I saw in Randy.
After reading the book, I feel like there is so much I learned from Randy even though I never met him. At times I’m guilty of being what Randy referred to as a “trail pounder,” someone rushing down the trail not taking the time to enjoy the sights and sounds. Granted, I’m usually on a somewhat tight schedule and don’t have the entire summer to spend in the backcountry, but on my upcoming trips, I will have to try and do a better job of slowing down and taking it all in.
More than anything, Randy had taught her to “pay attention and don’t walk too fast. You might miss something.”
Both shared stories of how Randy helped them to keep their priorities straight – to take notice of their surroundings, to not rush through life, and to be gentle on the land.
While reading through this book, I happened to come across the “Out Alive” podcast by Backpacker Magazine, and have listened to several of those while reading through this book. Between those podcasts and this book, I have gained a whole new respect for the backcountry. After all, if something bad could happen to Randy, how much more likely is it that something bad could happen to me? But instead of scaring me out of the backcountry, the book reinforced my feeling that the mountains and backcountry are a special place. Such a special place, that even with the risks, how can I not want to spend time there? I will definitely be more thoughtful with my decisions in the backcountry, both out of caution for myself and anybody traveling with me, and out of respect for the environment.
In addition, I’ll definitely have to consider more off trail ventures in the future. I tend to stick to trails while I’m backpacking. I have always been intrigued by going to places off marked trails, but have never really had the courage to give it a try. After reading this book, I think there is definitely something special about finding those places that are rarely visited, or at least less so than places along the trails. Not sure I’ll do this much, but it’s definitely something to consider when I’m looking into trips and routes.
All of your life, someone is pointing the way, directing you this way and that, determining for you which road is best traveled…Here is your chance to find your own way. Don’t ask me how to get to McGee Canyon or Lake Double-Eleven-0. Go, on your own. Be adventuresome. Don’t forever seek the easiest way. Take the way you find. Don’t demand trail signs and sturdy bridges. Don’t demand we show you the mountains. Seek them and find them yourself…. This is your birthright as an animal, most commonly denied you. Be free enough from intentions to find goodness wherever you are and in whatever is happening. Here for once in your life you needn’t do anything, be anywhere at a determined time, walk in a certain direction. You can now live by whim.
Here’s your one chance to get lost, fall in the creek, find a beautiful place.
Logbook passage from Randy Morgenson on pages 313-314
I doubt he will ever read this, but huge kudos to Eric for putting together this book. I can’t even imagine all the research that had to go into it. Thank you for forever capturing the life of someone all people visiting the backcountry should have as a role model. Even for those of us who never met Randy, we can get to know him through this book and learn from him even though we never met him. I think this should be required reading for anybody entering the backcountry.
I leave you with one final passage from the book, the quote from Randy Morgenson that closes out the book:
I wish only to be alive and to experience this living to the fullest. To feel deeply about my days, to feel the goodness of life and the beauty of my world, this is my preference.
I am human and experience the emotions of humanity: elation, frustration, loneliness, love. And the greatest of these is love, love for the world and its creatures, love for life. It comes easily here. I have loved a thousand mountain meadows and alpine peaks.
To be thoroughly aware each day that I’m alive, to be deeply sensitive to the world I inhabit and the world that I am, not to roam rough-shod over the broad surface of this planet for achievement but to know where I step, and to tread lightly.
I would rather my footsteps never be seen, and the sound of my voice be heard only by those near, and never echo, than leave in my wake the fame of those whom we commonly call great.
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 🙂
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 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.
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.
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.
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.