My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 5

For a short background on this series, see my first post.  

July 2017 – Teepee Pole Flats/Emerald Lake – Big Horn Mts., WY

Sunset while camped at Emerald Lake.

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.

My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 4

For a short background on this series, see my first post.  

August 2016 – Titcomb Basin – Wind River Range, WY

Island Lake as we were headed back to the trailhead.

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 Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 3

For a short background on this series, see my first post.  

August 2015 – Paintbrush & Cascade Canyons – Teton Range, WY

View from our camp spot on night two of this trip.

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.

My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 2

For a short background on this series, see my first post.  

July 2014 – Cloud Peak – Big Horn Mountains, WY

Lake Helen on the hike into Cloud Peak.

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.

My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 1

Intro

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

Picture of me with Table Mountain and the “Grand Tetons” in the background. The backpacking seed was being planted.

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.

Thoughts On “The Last Season”

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.”

Pg. 205

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.

Pg. 306

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. 

Logbook passage from Randy Morgenson on pg. 324

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

JourneyHugger vs Sea to Summit

8/2/20 Update: I never did hear back from JourneyHugger about getting a refund. My brother and I just finished a 5 day/4 night trip in the San Juan Mountains, and my brother tried out the JourneyHugger pad. It held up for the entire trip, and he seemed to really like it, so he bought it off me.


4/30/20 Update: I sent JourneyHugger an email on 4/26 requesting instructions for returning the sleeping pad. I also sent them a message on 4/28 using the contact form on their website. I have yet to hear back from them. If I end up hearing back from them, I’ll provide another update, but it looks like they may not live up to their promise of a full refund within 30 days. So buyer beware! As my brother said, at least I got the product, although I’m not sure I’ll use it. Haha.


For the last couple years I have used a Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Air Sleeping Pad on my backpacking trips. It has been fantastic, and the only knock I have on it has been the noise when I’m moving around. I’m always worried that I’m going to keep my brother awake when I’m backpacking with him. On my Idaho trip this past year, I was camped pretty close to some other backpackers, and I was worried it would be annoying to them. I may be making it worse than it really is, but it’s definitely noisier than a roll up or fold up foam pad.

A little while back, I saw an ad on Facebook for the JourneyHugger JourneyMattress. It was half off, and I could return it within 30 days of receiving it for a full refund, so I thought I would give it a shot and see if it happened to be quieter than my Sea to Summit pad. This brings me to this past weekend.

Over the weekend I set up my backpacking tent in my living room one afternoon, set up both pads in it, and then rolled around on both pads to compare the noise. Unfortunately, the noise seemed to be pretty much the same between both of them. However, while I had the JourneyMattress, I figured I would try to sleep on it for a night just to see how comfortable it was. Saturday night I set up my non-backpacking tent in my backyard and slept in the tent overnight. I started out with the JourneyMattress, but after about 30 minutes or so, I decided I better get my Sea to Summit pad and pillow. The JourneyMattress was actually really comfortable, but the built in pillow did not work for me for a few reasons.

First, the firmness of the pillow isn’t adjustable. I generally don’t inflate my standalone pillow as much as I could (more of a soft pillow feel vs a firm pillow feel). However, with the JourneyMattress, you have to inflate it until it’s firm since it’s part of the entire mattress.

Second, I generally drool a little when I sleep. Since I didn’t want to drool on my sleeping bag, I tried to put an empty pillowcase between my head and my sleeping bag. Not sure if that would stay in place all night or not, and it was a big hassle when I tried to cinch down the opening of my sleeping bag.

Third, I generally like to put one of my arms up next to the pillow (but not on it) when I’m trying to go to sleep. I couldn’t do that with the JourneyMattress unless I wanted to be at the edge of the mattress, which doesn’t work well with the mattress part.

If you take the built in pillow out of the JourneyMattress, I think it’s right there with the Sea to Summit pad as far as comfort goes, and if I remember correctly, all the other stats (R value, weight, size, etc) are all very similar to the Sea to Summit pad. I didn’t test it in cold weather, so I can’t say if it would keep me as warm as the Sea to Summit pad, but based on R value it should. One other thing I didn’t like as much on the JourneyMattress was the inflation valve. It wasn’t quite as good as the Sea to Summit valve, but not a dealbreaker by any means.

So, overall, if the built in pillow works for you, then I think this is a great pad, especially if you can get it on sale for $60 like I did. But mine will be getting returned.

What sleeping pad do you use on backpacking trips?

Sawtooths: Getting My Gear There (and back)

Last year after my trip to the Uinta Mountains in Utah, I posted a blog about getting my gear and myself to the trailhead and back. After looking back on the Utah trip, I decided to make a couple changes for the trip to the Sawtooths this year. I figured I would go ahead and share those changes and a couple thoughts/recommendations.

Why?

Before I get into the details of the changes, I figured I would provide a quick explanation of why I ship my gear instead of flying with it.

  1. There are a couple items I can ship that I can’t take on an airplane (even in checked luggage): bear spray and stove fuel. While I could buy these items in the city I fly into, I hate buying it, only using a small portion of it (or none of it at all), and then having to get rid of it.
  2. I have more confidence in shipping with USPS than with checked luggage on an airline. On my two trips so far, my layovers have generally been pretty short, and it makes me nervous that my bags may not make it from one plane to another if there is a time crunch. I would really hate to get to my final airport and not have my gear show up. With shipping it, I can send it early, and that way if something goes wrong during shipping, there is still some wiggle room.

The one major drawback of this is cost. I have flown Southwest both trips, and with Southwest I wouldn’t have to pay for a checked bag, whereas shipping cost me around $200 round trip for both Utah and Idaho. So there is definitely a trade off. For me, it’s worth paying the $200 and having a lower chance (in my opinion) of the gear not making it. If you fly with another airline that charges for bags, the shipping cost may not be as big of a deal.

So with that said, here were the changes I made this year.

Shipping 1 Package

Last year I shipped two packages. This year I only shipped one (same size). How did I manage that? Mainly by putting my sleeping bag in my carry on instead of shipping it. Last year, I knew it would be several days between when I shipped the packages and when I would pick them up, so I didn’t want to leave my sleeping bag compressed for several days to save room (not good for a down sleeping bag). But once I got to thinking about it after last year’s trip, I realized I could put the sleeping bag in my carry on and compress it, since it would only be like that for several hours (similar to a normal day of hiking). And with taking the sleeping bag out of one of the packages, I figured I could probably fit everything into a single package. Thankfully I was able to make it work. The pictures below show how I packed the shipped package if you are curious.

Larger Carry On

To fit the sleeping bag in my carry on along with everything else, I had to get a different carry on. Last year I used a laptop style backpack. This year I bought a true carry on suitcase that would hold more stuff than the backpack. In addition to the sleeping bag, I had some clothes for after the trip, a couple books, iPad, toiletry items, a pair of shoes, and other miscellaneous items.

Verdict?

The cost to ship my single package this year was nearly identical to what I paid to ship the two packages last year, and one package is definitely easier to carry around than two. So I will stay with the single package going forward. The single package ended up being around 40 lbs., so keep that in mind. I assume if you’re going backpacking, you can lift up and carry a 40 lb. package, but figured I would point it out anyway. A couple things to keep in mind when shipping the package though:

  1. Don’t ship too early. Based on my experience and what I have read online, the post office will only hold your package for 10 days (if you are doing general delivery). You can calculate shipping time on the USPS website, and thus figure out roughly which day you can send it to avoid sending it too early. If you are able to contact the post office, they may be willing to hold the package longer if needed. However, I tried calling the Boise post office that accepts general delivery many, many times (I would say at least 20) over the course of a couple weeks prior to shipping my package, and never got anybody to pick up. If you would like to send it a little earlier, I would suggest contacting the post office before you actually ship it.
  2. Matches: each of the four times I have shipped my package(s), the matches have caused some questioning/hesitation with the postal service employee(s). When I shipped my stuff back to OKC from Boise this year, one of the postal workers in Boise actually had me pull out the matches to make sure they were the proper kind. They have to be strike on box only matches, not strike anywhere matches. So be ready to get questioned on this, and it’s probably a good idea to have them somewhere easily accessible in case you do get asked to pull them out to verify they are the proper type. 

Do you have any tips for shipping your gear or an alternative method you use? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments. If you have any questions about something I didn’t cover in here or my post from last year, reach out and I’ll see if I can provide an answer or share some knowledge I have gained from doing this a couple times now.

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.