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Mark

The early-season opportunity to bike portions of Going to the Sun in Glacier National Park without any automobile traffic seems too good to be true. Miles of paved road passing alongside streams rushing with snowmelt, climbing into the high country, weaving through lush forests – all behind a gate and open only to bicycles and foot traffic. I’ve done enough recreational road biking and bike commuting to develop a sincere appreciation of a smooth surface, hard tires, and minimal traffic through beautiful landscapes but rarely plan trips around bicycling. Instead, like most backpackers, I plan my trips around trails. So it was a bit counter-intuitive to spend an extra day after a work trip that took me within an hour of Glacier National Park with the goal of spending an afternoon bicycling on pavement instead of putting my feet on a trail.

View in Glacier National Park

As someone who typically hikes and backpacks in wilderness areas or the more remote areas of national forest, the hustle and bustle of national parks is always a bit amusing to me. Arriving early in the afternoon on an overcast Saturday, I was able to get one of the last sites at Sprague Creek Campground (which filled up later in the evening) and awkwardly set up camp inside my vehicle before prepping for the ride up Going to the Sun Road. The forecast called for rain overnight and into the next day, with temperatures in the upper 30s in the morning. Needless to say, sleeping in the back of a Honda Element was a much more luxurious option than packing up a wet tent in a cold rain the next morning.

Lake McDonald Glacier National Park

Rolling out of the campground on my trusty touring bike was a blissful feeling. No more driving for the rest of the evening, just turning pedals and trying to keep my eyes on the road as mountains, waterfalls, and expansive valleys competed for my attention. The first few miles from the campground to Avalanche Creek were open to vehicles, but traffic was fairly light considering it was a weekend. Once past the gate at Avalanche Creek, the real fun began. There were plenty of other cyclists, but no other cars. None. No looking over the shoulder, no low-level anxiety about inattentive drivers, no exhaust fumes. Just open road and other cyclists. Given my late start, many of the cyclists I saw were on the downhill stretch of their ride while I labored up the mellow grade towards Logan Pass.

Biking Going to the Sun Road Montana

The temperature was in the mid-50s, which was perfect for biking steadily uphill. The flip side was that coming downhill would be rather chilly, so my saddlebags bulged with two pairs of gloves, a synthetic puffy jacket, and rain gear. Rather than hindering the view, the overcast sky and low hanging clouds made for dramatic lighting and a backdrop for the peaks that enhanced instead of obscured the mountains.

Biking During Spring in Glacier

The steeper sections of the climb to Logan Pass, especially those after The Loop, gave me plenty of time to concentrate on the surrounding panorama as I doggedly progressed toward the snow line. The road is open to cyclists as far as they would like to go and the natural place to turn around is where plowing has ended and several feet of snow remain. I took a few victory pictures at the snowline, which was around 17 miles from the campground and over 2,000 feet higher.

Closed Going to the Sun Road

The descent was simply thrilling. Watching mountain scenery sped by as I flew downhill at a safe but respectable clip without having to worry about inconveniencing motorists was sublime and, sadly, came to and end all too quickly. Miles that had taken me over two hours to gain were lost in a quarter of the time and I soon found myself pedaling easily along the flatter sections towards Lake McDonald and the campground.

Cycling to Logan Pass

Although my car camping skills were a bit rusty, I had made an effort in regard to food and drink. Soon after pulling back into camp, I was snacking on cheese and crackers, sipping wine, and waiting for water to boil for a heaping serving of ravioli and pesto. Views of Lake McDonald made my al fresco dining experience five-star. Once dinner was over, the increasingly dreary weather and my tired muscles compelled me to get in my sleeping bag fairly early.

The next morning I awoke to enjoy the fruits of my decisions, both good and bad. Sleeping in the vehicle was a good decision, as a cold rain poured over the campground while I made coffee from the comfort of my sleeping bag. Not stretching in any meaningful sense after returning to camp was not a good decision, especially combined with a four-hour drive home. But perhaps the best decision was to have broken out of my hiking-only focus on outdoor recreation that been all-consuming in recent months. The ride the previous day was one of the most soul-swelling and rejuvenating things I could recall doing recently. That recognition inspired another decision that morning – a goal to make an early-season ride on Going to the Sun Road an annual event.

Information: The park’s webpage on bicycling, which also contains links to the Road Status page, is the best place to get started on planning your bicycling trip:

Best Time to Go: Mid-May to June offer pleasant weather and most of the road should be open to bikes by then, although this depends on the year and plowing progress made by road crews. Weekends are best because the road crews are not working, but can be a bit more crowded.

Getting There: Bicyclists can start in West Glacier and travel east, or at St. Mary and travel west. Beginning in mid-May a free shuttle with room for bikes runs from Apgar near West Glacier to Avalanche Creek (where the vehicle closure is typically in place).

Maps: The basic park brochure map is sufficient for this adventure. Alternatively Trails Illustrated 215 is better suited for additional exploration in the park.

Susan Dragoo

“What are some of the more scenic trails in the area?” my friend Joan asked a local man at a hiking store in Sedona, Arizona.

“All of them. They’re all scenic. Everywhere you look is scenic,” he said with a well-practiced manner, unable to hide his weariness with such questions. Even the trail map on display at the store was marked in bold black ink with exclamatory statements: “It’s scenic!!” “The views are amazing!” To say the least, it became apparent that we weren’t the first out-of-towners to ask the locals such seemingly innocent questions about hikes in the area.

Sedona Dayhkes

But after a few days in Sedona, I became more sympathetic to his sentiment, if not his attitude. Everywhere you look, it is scenic. Not just scenic, but grand. Magnificent is not too strong a word. Line up all the synonyms for “breathtaking” that you can because they all apply. Red rock spires ring the city, sandstone formations call to mind distant castles and alien landscapes, and it’s all made more dramatic when viewed in the golden light of sunrise and sunset. Limpid, turquoise waters flow south through Sedona’s mystical Oak Creek Canyon to the Verde River.

And, amid all this scenery, there are hiking trails everywhere. Literally, everywhere. In four days, Joan and I could only sample a few. But they were good and, yes, they were scenic. All of them are within the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness and three (Bear Mountain, Devil’s Bridge, and West Fork) are rated among the top 15 Sedona hikes by the Great Sedona Hikes guidebook.


Bear Mountain:

Hiking up Bear Mountain in Sedona Arizona

This strenuous, out-and-back hike involved 2,100 feet of ascent over about 2.5 miles and the views were well worth it. The literature contains several differing estimates of the elevation gain, but my GPS measured 2,100 feet, consistent with the Great Sedona Hikes guidebook. The descent was actually more difficult than the ascent, with many steep, sketchy spots along the trail. We experienced some light rain, and tiny hail at the 6,444-foot summit. This would definitely not be a trail for a rainy day! Total round trip mileage was almost 5 miles, which we did in about 4 1/2 hours.


Palatki Ruins:

Palatki Ruins Cliff Dwellings

A visit to these Sinagua ruins was good for a rest day after Bear Mountain. It is an easy walk to cliff dwellings and rock art, totaling about 1.2 miles. Make a reservation for a guided tour at (928) 282-3854. Take your time and soak up the interesting lore (and speculation) from the knowledgeable docents.
 

Devil’s Bridge:

Devil's Bridge Sedona Hike

Ending at the largest natural stone arch in the Sedona area, this trail attracts a lot of tourists — most of whom don’t seem to have a clue what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s an easy trail with some steep climbing at the end, 4.4 miles round trip from the Mescal Trail parking area. You may have to wait your turn to get out on the bridge for a photo, and don’t miss the short and less traveled trail to see the bridge from below.


Long Canyon:

Long Canyon Trail Sedona

In Long Canyon, we attempted to find a cliff dwelling I’d read about, located about 0.4 mile off trail and behind the “Ice Cream Cone” formation. After some slickrock scrambling and brambly bushwhacking, we gave up. I know it’s there but couldn’t find the right access point. It was otherwise an easy and enjoyable out-and-back hike, a little less than 5 miles round trip.


West Fork, Oak Creek Canyon:

West Fork Trail Oak Creek Sedona

It’s no wonder this mellow trail is one of the most popular hikes in the area. Its beauty combines red rock canyons, clear cool waters, and tall pine forest. Wear shoes you can wade in so you can enjoy the 13 creek crossings with abandon. You’ll see widely varying estimates of the distance to the trail’s end (where the canyon narrows and the footpath disappears into the creek), but my GPS said it was 4 miles. With side trips off trail to explore the creek, our round trip distance was about 8.4 miles. But don’t worry about the distance, take your time and enjoy this magical spot.

In four days, my friend and I barely scratched the surface of Sedona’s abundant hiking, but it was enough to get acquainted with the geography of the area and whet our appetites for more. And when we return, we’ll certainly know which trails are scenic, because we have it on good authority that it’s every single one.

Recommended Guidebook: Great Sedona Hikes, Revised 4th Edition, William Bohan and David Butler

More Information can be found at the Bear Mountain, Palatki Ruins, Devil's Bridge, Long Canyon, and Oak Creek Forest Service pages.

Mark

There are certain trails which, when hiked in certain seasons, can be so blissfully pleasant as to seem almost otherworldly. Each step is a pleasure. Every view is breathtaking. The scents of the forest are almost intoxicating. Chirping birds, chattering squirrels and rushing creeks create a soundtrack that is almost orchestral. Spending unhurried time in nature seems to be one of the most refreshing things humans can do for themselves and one of the few activities which consistently pays out rewards greater than the time and effort entered. With an eye towards those indescribable and abstract rewards, I headed to a favorite trail in the Bitterroot Mountains for a quick overnight trip.

Blodgett Canyon

Multiple waterfalls, a distant natural arch, innumerable eye-catching rock formations, dramatic cliffs, and a charming campsite beside a cascade conveniently located at the edge of the snowline made the first five miles a fantastic early season hike that left little to be desired. Since I knew hiking any further than the campsite would involve treacherous and unpleasant postholing (which I’d had enough of on a prior trip to the Welcome Creek Wilderness), I walked with a complete absence of haste and fished at two appealing pools without success. These breaks served as a nice refresher in tying and untying knots and generally reassuring myself that I could still manage to get a fly onto the water more often than in the branches of riparian trees and shrubs (although that ratio could stand some improvement). 

Blodgett Creek Waterfall - Fishing Along the Way

Before packing up after my second attempt at fishing, I paused to appreciate the sound and movement around me. The creek roared through the rugged canyon bottom and reverberated off the cliffs that jutted out of the north slope; birdsong filled the air; the forest seemed to hum with the energy of spring. The sun was warm on my face, yet a chilly wind blew down the canyon from the higher elevations where it was for all intents and purposes still winter.

I strolled across talus slopes, relishing the complete exposure to the sun, and through dense coniferous forest that diffused the light into a soothing illuminative force that emanated from nowhere in particular. I crossed several small seasonal channels that emanated an urgent verdancy, as if they knew they would dry up once the snow melted and the relentless summer sun beat down. Some sections of the trail were still covered with firm snow that made for easy hiking, but for the most part I was walking on dirt. This allowed me to make good time and even with the breaks for fishing I found myself at the first large waterfall on Blodgett Creek. I’d camped near this waterfall, which blasts through a narrow chasm, twice before but had decided to push up to a second waterfall that cascaded rather than plunged and camp there instead.

Backpacking Blodgett Canyon Montana

I arrived at my destination just as the afternoon began its long downhill stretch to dusk and busied myself with the mundane yet joyful chores of setting up camp and establishing a home for the night. Given the nonthreatening forecast – negligible chance of precipitation, highs in the low 60s, lows in the upper 20s – I opted to bring a tarp and bivy sack shelter system with me on this trip. I usually relegate this system to my bikepacking trips, but figured I’d take it along and enjoy a lighter load. As I struggled to achieve appropriate tension in the ridgeline of the tarp and realized I would need a jackhammer to get stakes in the rocky ground, any satisfaction in weight savings had shifted to frustration. Finally, 15 minutes longer and a dozen more curse words than it would have taken me to set my solo tent up, I had managed to cobble together a reasonable excuse for a shelter using rocks to anchor out the guy lines. Needless to say, I was reminded of exactly why I had exited the tarp phase I briefly entered a few years back when experimenting with ultralight backpacking. When a piece of gear takes twice as long to erect and seems to require a background in trigonometry and structural engineering, offers two-thirds the protection, with its primary redeeming factor being that it weighs half as much (but causes three times the headaches), I struggle to think of it as a superior piece of equipment.

Backpacking Tarp

After my battle with the tarp was complete, I gathered water for the night – a task in which my chances of immediate success were fairly high. Filling up my bottles and water bladder beside the cascade was exhilarating. Spray from the rushing stream misted up and shifting winds occasionally blew it across my face. The cascade produced a cacophony that was an audible equivalent of the myriad and enchanting drops, rapids and sluices that were so visually enchanting. Such unanticipated moments of immersion and bliss were perfect reminders of backpacking’s inimitable appeal.

An abundance of dead and downed wood, a readymade fire ring, and the slight chill in the air made not having a fire seem almost sacrilegious, so I set about gathering and sorting various limbs and branches. In only a few minutes the necessary piles of kindling and wood of increasingly larger diameters was assembled and, after a brief snack, felt like I could dedicate much of the rest of the evening to leisurely exploring around camp, reading, and casually soaking up the atmosphere. These activities, with a significant amount of time devoted to photographing the landscape, occupied me until my stomach compelled me to light the stove and make a simple but filling dinner.

Sunset Throught the Forest and Over the Creek

With a full stomach and a light heart, I struck a match and lit the fire just as the sun began to fall behind the mountains at the head of the canyon. Once the fire was stable, I brewed up some tea to enjoy while I read “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. I felt a bit guilty taking the vintage (1900) edition of this book of poetry with me, but poems such as “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame” made me feel like the book was more at home out in the woods than on a bookshelf and that it was perhaps the most perfect companion for this particular trip. Flames, poetry, and the pleasant feeling of bare feet warmed by coals under a starry sky led me to delay retiring to my sleeping bag until it became more work to keep my eyes open than to give in and prepare camp for the night and walk over to the tarp.

I slept adequately but intermittently, grateful for the background noise of the cascade which quickly lulled me back to sleep when I found myself awake. Opting to enjoy coffee from my sleeping bag, I took my time and let the sun warm the canyon before doing a quick exploratory hike downstream to check for additional cascades. I didn’t have to go far before running into an impressive section of the creek where water slid down sheer rock after leaving the turbulent path created by a jumble of boulders and then continued its downward path in another section of rocks of all shapes and sizes. Returning to camp but reluctant to finish packing and leave, I postponed my departure by making a cup of tea to sip while contemplating my surroundings. I knew the longer I stayed the harder it would be to leave, so I forced myself to push through the bittersweet inevitability of leaving such a beautiful place and headed down the trail. 

After a quick downhill mile, I paused by a pool in the stream created by a logjam and carefully scouted for trout. Sure enough, there were several swimming in the depths of the pool but they were incredibly skittish and none headed for the surface to feast on the few insects that buzzed through the air and occasionally landed on the water. I tried my luck anyways and set up my Tenkara fly rod and line, which is a process so simple and easy that it makes me think I must be forgetting something. Despite my best efforts, the fish were decidedly uninterested in what I was offering and several passersby had kindly commented that it was indeed rather early in the season to be fishing, but wished me luck.

Blodgett Creek Cascade

As I contemplated admitting defeat and easing down the trail, the unmistakable sound and telltale circle of a fish snatching a fly off the surface at the upstream end of the pool caught my attention. With renewed determination and enthusiasm, I slowly moved toward where the action was and scouted the waters for a few minutes before tossing my fly towards a trout I spotted at the head of the pool. The first few casts didn’t catch its eye, but one landed at the perfect spot on the current and the trout slowly rose as the fly drifted through the pool. Suddenly, that most beautiful burst of water – a trout snatching a dry fly – appeared and the fish was on the line. A quick landing and release and I continued upstream, where I quickly snagged my fly on a log jam, nearly fell in the frigid water trying to get the fly loose, then broke the tippet. I decided to end on the high note of the catch and not the low note of the snapped line and headed down the trail.

Spring Hiking and Wildflowers, Bitterroot Mountains

I tried to be a discerning angler, but it wasn’t long before I paused to fish another pool. Several trout were rising and I landed one quickly before entering into a long stretch of no action. So it goes. I suppose fishing is like hiking in certain ways – it’s not always about the destination (the catch), the journey (waving around a fishing pole in a beautiful place) is sometimes the most important aspect. 

With the high country still snowbound, and likely to remain so until mid-summer, trips like this one provide a great opportunity to stretch the legs and enjoy the shorter journeys and smaller fish, to admire the mountain scenery from the valley floor a bit longer, and to simply enjoy being alive and outside.

Aaron

Spring Giveaway

Note: This giveaway ended 6/2/17

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HikerBox

Spring has sprung and in Colorado that means drying trails and couloirs packed with stable, hard snow. In go the ski boots and from the closet come trail shoes and mountaineering boots. Sadly, my last pair of shoes died a grizzly death at the hands (feet?) of my extra-wide pinky knuckle because I was too lazy to lace them correctly. Below are my tips on funny looking lacing for funny looking feet.

Altra Lone Peak 2.5 Mesh Wear

My 2016 Lone Peak 2.5's - ready for the trash bin thanks to a 2" long hole.

Altra Lone Peak 3.0 - How to Lace Hiking Shoes

Fresh Lone Peak 3.0's - they look so helpless!

Since it was about time to get down to it I figured I'd share what works for me and add in some resources at the end since everyone's feet are different. I generally have two problems with shoes - my wide right forefoot and slippery heels. I have learned to address these issues by lacing my footwear to reduce tension in the front of the shoe and lock down tension at the base of the ankle. First I'll show what I do on my Altra Lone Peak trail shoes, then move to mountaineering boots since boot lacing tends to be different than glorified sneakers.  Keep in mind, lacing techniques only go so far and still require a lot of in-store fitting with various brands.

The first technique is straightforward - simply skip some laces where the shoe is too narrow. The tension will still pull down on the front of your shoes but allow some extra width. If this doesn't add enough width, you can try leaving the lace looser there by tying a surgeon's knot (begin by looping your laces together as if you were starting to tie your shoes, but wrap around an extra turn) at the top to allow you to tighten only the upper laces.

Hiking Shoe Lacing Tips

Skipping loops can add width where you need it.  

Next I want to address my heel slip by tying a heel lock. The idea is to bring tension from the base of the ankle down through the heel to prevent the foot from moving up and down in the shoe. Regular lacing only brings tension into the sides. I start by lacing the shoe up to the top hole:

Skipping Laces for Wide Feet Trail Runners

Next I make a loop:

Trail Runner Lacing

Then pass the opposite lace through the loop:

Backpacking Shoe Lacing - Heel Lock

Tension the laces and you should notice more downward pressure on the top of your foot instead of the usual sideways squeeze.

I also have the same problems on my mountaineering boots (Scarpa Charmoz), which use a different lacing system and come up higher on my ankle. The first step is easy enough - simply find where your foot is too wide for the boot and skip the nearest laces:

Lacing with Mountaineering Boots

The heel lock is a little trickier since these eyelets are open at the back. We can get a similar effect by skipping the laces closest to where your ankle starts:

Heel Lock

Then loop the opposite laces through and tightening up:

Finishing the Heel Lock Lacing on Mountaineering Boots

That's what I do, but you likely have much different issues so here are some resources that might work better for your funny feet and hopefully something here works for you: A great video covering the heel lock and several additional techniques, endless combinations available on Ians Shoelace Site, and lastly a more British approach to locking down the heel. If not - post in the comments!

JimR

“Looks like you’re going in circles” is a way to tell someone that they're wasting their time. Talking in circles generally isn’t a compliment either. However, walking in a circle can be a good thing for backpackers, provided they’re walking around something interesting. Think about it. Logistics become pretty easy. No ride back to the start is required. In the case of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), walking in a circle is a great experience.

Hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail

As you may have guessed from the trail’s name, the TRT involves walking around Lake Tahoe. The largest alpine lake in North America, Tahoe is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, sitting on the border of California and Nevada and nestled against the Sierra Nevada. The trail itself is approximately 170 miles, so there is more to it than just keeping the lake to your right. In fact, much of the route is in National Forest with other parks and wilderness areas thrown in for good measure. Quite often, the lake itself is out of sight.

The TRT is a great choice for the first-time distance hiker; or anyone that wants a beautiful hike with a minimum of logistical issues to deal with. If you’ve left your car at the start, it should be handy when you finish. As far as resupply, stops in South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe City are well spaced and convenient to the trail. If you’re flying to the trail, shuttles are established to either town from the Reno airport. Summer and early fall feature consistently dry weather. A permit is required for the Desolation Wilderness, but there are no quotas for thru-hikers. Plus, it can be had with a phone call and $5 or $10, depending upon your hiking speed. You’ll also need a California Campfire Permit. That one is free for passing an Internet quiz.

TRT Thruhiking-Boulders and Forest

For my spin around the lake I flew into Reno early last September and caught a shuttle to Tahoe City, which was to be my starting point. After checking into a local hotel, my first stop was Alpenglow outdoor store, right down the street. There I got a fuel canister, friendly service, and a big load of concern. The guy at the counter said he heard the trail was dry for 50 miles past Watson Lake (my first night stop). Crap! Fifty miles is a helluva long way to carry water. That much weight in my pack would be a backbreaker for me. (As I mentioned, long sections of the TRT are nowhere near Lake Tahoe. It’s not like I would be able to dip a cup in the lake whenever I got thirsty.) I made a phone call to the Tahoe Rim Trail Association and the helpful folks there confirmed that their website was correct; the trail was dry, but not that dry. Despite the ongoing drought there would be water where I was planning on it with the longest dry stretch around 13 miles. Whew. It was definitely time to head to the Tahoe Mountain Brewing Company to settle my nerves.

In the morning it was a short walk through town to the trail. It immediately started climbing from the 6,225 foot elevation of the lake, but nothing terribly steep. Soon I was already getting occasional views of Lake Tahoe as the trail bounced between 7,000 and 8,000 feet for the first 20+ miles. This, and all sections of the trail, was well marked and fairly easy to follow. For planning water and camp stops I carried the Blackwoods Press Pocket Atlas of the trail and also downloaded Guthook’s TRT Guide onto my phone. Though not an exact match, they were close in terms of mileage.

Once the Mt. Rose Wilderness Area was reached, the next 7 miles was a climb through open terrain to reach the summit of Relay Peak. At 10,330 feet, the peak is the highest point on the trail with some great nearby views of the lake. Another area highlight across the north shore was Galena Falls, a 60 foot cascade that was still flowing well in spite of the drought. The spot is popular with day hikers and was busy as I passed through. Traveling down the east side of Lake Tahoe was scenic and relatively easy with no major climbs or drops, but water was definitely a concern. Side hikes to water hydrants added to the mileage. I had access to water each day, but there were dry camps.

Hiking Near South Lake Tahoe

After 80 miles and five days of hiking I reached South Lake Tahoe. The town can be accessed by walking a couple miles down a steep road or catching a $2 bus located at a stop a short side hike off the TRT. Take the bus. South Tahoe is a great town to resupply with hotels at any price point, Sports LTD for fuel and other equipment, a grocery and plenty of restaurants. And, they are all within easy walking distance of the transit center. There’s even casinos across the street in Stateline, Nevada if you’re so inclined. I stayed at the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel. It was a tad pricey for a hiker stop, but very nice. In addition, it was next door to the transit center, had a laundry on site, held a resupply box for me and had a $2 happy hour. Hard to beat. With rain scheduled for the next day I took a zero. It rained for 15 minutes and was cloudy much of the day. It would have been a great day to hike, but my legs weren’t complaining about the day off. It turned out that my zero day had the only significant cloud cover of the entire trip. Bring sunscreen.

After catching the first bus of the morning it was back to the trail. Although I was at the southern end of the lake, I continued walking south. This is where the TRT picked up some mileage by continuing past the lake for another 25 miles or so. Through the area, the views were not the lake but mountains, impressively still holding snow in mid-September. From there on out, lakes and snowmelt streams were abundant enough that running dry was no longer a concern.

Dick's Lake TRT Hike

At mile 109, the trail turned back north, and also joined with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The two trails shared the tread for the next 50 miles. I met a few southbound PCT hikers on that stretch; all noticeably faster and younger than myself. Mile 121 provides another opportunity to resupply and get ice cream at Echo Lake, if you arrive before Labor Day. All I could do was stare through the window before shuffling on into the Desolation Wilderness. Here was the section that required the permit and it was worth the price of admission. The mountains and valleys had been scoured by glaciers that emptied the area of topsoil. The most dramatic spot was Aloha Lake surrounded by stark granite shorelines and snowy surrounding mountains.

Hiking on the TRT Dicks Pass

The great views continued as I headed north. Several beautiful lakes beckoned me to slow down, but I kept moving. There was more great scenery ahead. I did take a long break at Dicks Pass where I dined with marmots. At 9,400 feet, there were remarkable views in every direction. Shortly after Desolation Wilderness, there’s Granite Chief Wilderness with tremendous views of its own including Twin Peaks. It was near there that I made my last camp. It was a cool, clear night followed by a sunny day; the same weather I had on every day of the trip. The main difference was the start of fall color as I began the final drop into Tahoe City, where I had begun hiking eleven days and 170 miles before. At that point I was only a half mile from my hotel which was holding a change of clothes for me from my earlier stay. In the morning, a shuttle arrived right in front to carry me back to the Reno Airport. Logistically, this was one of the easiest hikes ever; just go in a circle. However, with a trail and scenery that rivaled any I’ve seen, it was no waste of time.

Granite Chief Wilderness on the Tahoe Rim Trail


Information: A great source of information to start planning is the trail’s support organization website.

Two permits are required to hike the entire trail. A California Campfire Permit can be had for free by passing a short test. This is required even to use a camp stove. (Campfires themselves are prohibited through most of the Tahoe Basin.) A Desolation Wilderness Permit can be obtained at recreation.gov. However, there are quotas in place during the busy season. Thru-hikers can avoid any limit by calling the Forest Service directly at (530) 543-2694 no more than two weeks before the date they plan to enter the area. My permit for two nights cost $10.

Best Time to Go: Generally the trail is snow free from Mid-July to Mid-September. However, with the large snowpack this year, it would be a good idea to contact the Tahoe Rim Trail Association closer to your planned hike to get an idea of how the “melt” is progressing. Water and mosquitoes both become more scarce as the season progresses.

Getting There: From Reno, NV to Tahoe City take I-80 West to CA-89 South. From Reno to South Lake Tahoe take US-395 South to US-50 West. Both cities are served by regularly scheduled shuttles from the Reno airport. More information on shuttles is available here and here.

Books: Tahoe Rim Trail by Tim Hauseman is a complete guide and endorsed by the TRT Association.

Maps: Maps are available to download here. On the trail I carried the Tahoe Rim Trail Pocket Atlas by Blackwoods Press, and a Tom Harrison map is also available. In addition, I downloaded Guthook’s TRT Guide onto my iPhone.

Mark

It is doubtful that T.S. Eliot had backpackers in mind when he wrote that “April is the cruellest month”. Literary context aside, I’ve found this observation to be unpleasantly accurate in regard to outdoor recreation in Montana. After the short days and cold nights of winter, April tantalizes eager hikers with longer days, blue skies and mild temperatures in the valleys. The skis are put away, but the trails are either too snowy or too muddy to provide much enjoyment. Conditions on most rivers, not to mention the combined water and air temperature, are lacking in the eyes of all but the brave and the bold.

Early Spring Montana Hiking

Even though snowline is only a few miles from the mouths of most canyons in the mountains of the Northern Rockies, the temptation to get out and backpack is difficult to resist. I yielded to such temptation on a recent April weekend and headed over to the east side of the Sapphire Mountains to a low-elevation trailhead for the Welcome Creek Wilderness. Unlike Glacier National Park or the Beartooth Mountains, the landscape of Welcome Creek Wilderness does not draw visitors from far and wide – or even many visitors from nearby. Without lakes, waterfalls, or much in the way of alpine scenery, Welcome Creek Wilderness comes up short in the scenery department when compared to its neighbors.

Despite its lack of scenic highlights, this wilderness offered me a decent place to stretch my legs fairly early in the season and solitude was guaranteed almost as surely as sunset. As long as asphalt isn’t involved, I’ve never been overly critical of most landscapes, opting instead to simply enjoy the subtleties of nature when the superlatives weren’t available. I planned to hike about five miles up Welcome Creek to Carron Cabin, a shelter built during the mining days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that I’d visited two years prior on an equally ill-advised early season outing.

Entering the Wilderness Area

I arrived mid-day at an empty trailhead, strolled across Rock Creek on a nifty suspension bridge, crossed the swollen channel of Welcome Creek on a downed tree, and a few steps later passed the wilderness boundary sign. Things would go figuratively downhill from here, although the trail gradually gained around 1,000 feet of elevation in the five miles to the cabin. Perhaps a mile in I hit the first of many snowdrifts, each with their own charm, at the base of talus slopes. The snow was packed down in places by previous visitors and didn’t provide much difficulty (that would come later, when the snow deepened), but it did require that I slow my pace a bit. I continued on at a decent stride, with the soundtrack of rushing water, chattering squirrels, and chirping birds distracting me from the inconveniences of the footpath.

Rock Creek Suspension Bridge Montana

After crossing Welcome Creek on a well-built and rustic log bridge, roughly the halfway point of my trip to the cabin, I took a break to drink some water and have a snack before starting a section of trail which I had found to be especially pleasant on my prior trip. Traversing the hillside about 100 feet above Welcome Creek, this section of trail was less brushy than the creek-bottom trail that preceded it and afforded more expansive views of the steep canyon. No more than a quarter-mile into this stretch of trail I hit snow and could see where wiser but less determined hikers had turned back. Short on wisdom and overflowing with determination, I started a slog to the cabin that saw me postholing in knee-deep snowdrifts, scrambling over and under downfall, enjoying a few hundred feet of snow-free trail, then repeating the order with limited variation for the next two miles.

Trail Along Creek in Welcome Creek Montana

The workout of postholing through snow with a backpack, climbing over a downed tree, then postholing some more is one that no machine in a gym can emulate. A combination of exertion and anticipation led me to see mirages of the cabin after about an hour, with every dark spot and cluster of downed trees manifesting itself as the outline of the linear needle in the organic haystack. Just as I started to wonder if this trip had been a good idea after all, I reached the cabin and set down my pack.

Backpacking Near Carron Cabin

Dilapidated but still retaining its basic structural elements, the Carron Cabin has an intriguing presence. A quintessential “relic of a bygone era”, the cabin seems to embody a simultaneously charming and haunting corner of Americana that is worthy of a more eloquent and thoughtful description than I can provide in this humble narrative. While not exceedingly well-documented, a collection of papers at the University of Montana Archives (the Bud Moore Papers; Moore was a trapper, forester and general outdoorsman in Montana for much of the second half of the 20th century) contains several journals from a person who spent a significant amount of time trapping, hunting and hiking in the area – with the permission of the optimistically named mining claimant Lucky Hancock – prior to it becoming a designated wilderness area. Additionally, there are several digitized photographs of the cabin from the 1970s available online as part of the Montana Memory Project.

While the cabin would provide some shelter to an exceedingly desperate hiker, an absolutely ideal campsite is situated beneath a stately Ponderosa pine behind the cabin. Sheltered from the snow, this spot was bone dry in many places and only slightly damp in others – a much more preferable alternative to setting up camp on snow or taking my chances trying to get cozy in the cabin. 

Camping in a “rustic” miners cabin has a certain charm to it, but my sober analysis of the situation dissuaded me from doing this based on the following points: I didn’t have enough Ibuprofen to deal with the headaches I would have from hitting my head on the low doorframe when going in and out, I couldn’t remember if my tetanus shot was up to date (the cabin could be included as an outlier on the Rust Belt due to the abundance of rusting tools, nails, and other artifacts), and I didn’t want to take my chances with getting hantavirus from its resident rodents. I set up camp quickly, stretched, and then leaned back against the pine and watched the black shadows of trees stretch out onto the perfectly white canvas created by lingering snow on the steep talus slope on the opposite side of Welcome Creek.

Welcome Creek Camping

As twilight settled into the canyon I did some of my final stretches for the evening and cooked dinner, enjoying pasta and tuna with spinach and mushrooms. I didn’t feel like struggling to start a fire, or struggling in general, so I wound the evening down with a few sips of scotch, some music, and some tea candles. The photocopied pages of the guidebook I brought along contained a few paragraphs titled “Lawlessness on Welcome Creek” which described the bust of the nearby gold boomtown of Quigley, the resulting horse thievery, and an outlaw named Frank Brady who was killed by sheriffs near Welcome Creek in 1904. Watching gray clouds float through the dark sky while “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead drifted through my ears allowed me to ponder how the song paired perfectly with the history of the area. The lyrics about crime and desperation in the West seemed to almost come from the mouths of the ghosts of the men who had lived, worked, thieved, and died in the thousands of places in the West with rugged landscapes and rugged histories, of which Welcome Creek Wilderness was just one:

We used to play for silver, now we play for life 
One’s for sport and one’s for blood at the point of a knife
Now the die is shaken, now the die must fall . . .

Leaving Texas, fourth day of July
Sun so hot, clouds so low
The eagles filled the sky
Catch the Detroit Lightning out of Santa Fe
Great Northern out of Cheyenne, from sea to shining sea

Gotta get to Tulsa, first train we can ride
Got to settle one old score, and one small point of pride . . .

Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down
Dug for him a shallow grave and laid his body down
Half a mile from Tucson by the morning light
One man gone and another to go, my old buddy you’re moving much too slow

I entered my tent to go to sleep just as a crescent moon rose above the mountainside and slept the type of deep sleep that is a luxury any time, but especially so when backpacking. I felt fortunate to awake feeling well-rested, as I wanted to start hiking before the sun came out and warmed the snow up too much. I enjoyed some coffee, read a chapter or two in the paperback Western novel I’d brought along, and generally just enjoyed being alive and breathing in fresh mountain air for a few minutes before packing up.

Carron Cabin Welcome Creek Wilderness

Other than the distinct pleasure of putting my warm feet into damp, cold boots the hike out was relatively unremarkable. I was able to get into a good rhythm hiking through the tracks I’d made on my way in and made decent time. As is always the case with backpacking trips, I arrived back at the trailhead in greater spirits then when I had left and without an ounce of regret. However, the postholing and sloppy conditions of the trail did remind me that there is such a thing as "too early" in the season for backpacking in certain landscapes. Whether or not I will remember this lesson next April is anyone's guess.

Jen

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that a one-sized fits all approach to gear simply doesn’t work for me – whether it is a mountain bike or a sleeping bag. Finally in 2015, after many years of utilizing a men’s sleeping bag (which dominate the higher end sleeping bag market) I decided to learn from my mistakes, branch out from the mold, and purchase a down sleeping bag designed specifically for women from Seattle-based manufacturer Feathered Friends, who currently offer 9 different women’s-specific models in their complete sleeping bag lineup.

Feathered Friends Petrel UL 10 Degree Women's Sleeping Bag Review.JPG

I opted for the 10 degree rated Petrel. As a cold sleeper who mostly overnights in the nearly always chilly higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains, I hoped would allow for a better night’s sleep than the 20 degree down bag I’d previously utilized. The Petrel 10 Degree Sleeping Bag is the warmest 3-season women’s sleeping bag that Feathered Friends offers, and as you might expect from the name of the company, it is a down bag made from 20-21 ounces of 950+ down fill. It features a cut with more room in the hips and less in the shoulders to fit the average woman better than your average men’s or unisex bag. Feathered Friends however, does state that their women’s cut has been well received by men as well.

Petrel Sleeping Bag Zipped with Hood Closed.JPG

For their women’s models, the company also adds a higher proportion of down fill to the bag and with more targeting the footbox. The bag comes in two different versions – the Petrel Nano features 20 and 30 denier outer/lining fabrics, while the Petrel UL reviewed here features 10 and 15 denier fabrics to save 2-3 ounces. In all cases, the shell fabric is breathable but water resistant. All versions of the Petrel are offered in multiple colors and small (fits up to 5’3”) and medium (up to 5’9”) sizes. The medium size UL here is listed with an average weight of 33 ounces – weighing an actual 33.5 ounces on the scale.

Petrel UL Unzipped and Loft.JPG

The first thing I noticed about the Petrel is just how lofty this bag is – we are talking about a 10 degree bag after all – which goes a long way towards warmth at night, but it can make packing a bit of a challenge. However, with a little work I’m still able to get this into an Exped Schnozzel (Feathered Friends does include a standard stuff sack and storage bag), and a 13 liter Sea to Summit UltraSil Dry Sack is also a great size that makes compression a bit easier to fit into my ULA Circuit while still keeping things dry.

Petrel Sleeping Bag Packed Size - Sea to Summit 13L Ultra-Sil.JPG

At night is where the loft pays off though. For my maximum comfort, I’d rate the bag warm into the 20s, but again, I sleep quite cold and have been known to stock up on the hot Nalgene bottles on chilly nights. Experiences with the rating will vary. However, to get it to the 10 degree mark I would indeed be adding in additional insulation, including thermals, hat/mittens, and a down jacket. If you’re a warmer sleeper and/or backpacking in warmer locales, the Feathered Friends Egret 20 (see a review of the Egret Nano 20 here in Issue 31) is also worth a look.

Trapezoidal Footbox -Feathered Friends Petrel UL.JPG

The two way zipper rarely snags (when a little care is used) and the snap at the top of the bag is an especially nice feature – no Velcro or fasteners to touch your nose and wake you up at night. The hood fits nicely, but seems a bit smaller than previous bags that I’ve owned. The bag’s draft tube and collar both work to seal in heat. While the overall fit is indeed a benefit, there are no more cold spots in the hips and too much cold space in the chest. However and oddly, the medium is rated to fit up to 5’9” and at 5’8” the bag does seem just a bit short lengthwise and I do have to remember to get my feet all the way to the bottom of the bag to have an ideal amount of room in the hood. As such I would really say it’s a 5’8” bag, and unfortunately this is the longest women’s bag that is offered by Feathered Friends. While with a tent over my head the odd spill and condensation are the main water issues to worry about, the shell fabric DWR and water repellency does a good job at keeping your insulation dry and warm till morning.

Feathered Friends Logo, DWR, Pertex Endurance 10 Denier Shell, Zipper and Snag Guard.JPG

While there are a few nitpicks regarding the bag - and the price tag is something to think about - as a cold sleeper I’ve greatly enjoyed backpacking with the Petrel and find that the women’s specific cut helps increase sleeping comfort and eliminates the cold spots that I’ve previously experienced with other men’s or unisex bags. The bag is on the bulky side which should be considered if you’re low on pack space, but taking the time to get the bag into an appropriate stuff sack and a little work – or taking the right pack – can mitigate the issue. Also, if you’re 5’9” or taller, this bag may not be the right fit for you. In the end though I’ve been very happy with the bag and staying warm at night goes a long way towards being ready to start the next day!

The Petrel Nano retails or $430 is the Nano version and $510 for the UL seen here. Find both here at FeatheredFriends.com.

Mark

Unique among the seasons, winter wields the power to make many hiking destinations inaccessible. Roads are gated due to snow, mountain passes become snowbound and hazardous, and specific four-season gear is required in many regions for those venturing out in the winter months. Human-powered recreation is mostly left to snowshoers, skiers, snowboarders, and winter is also a good time to focus on cleaning gear, summer trip planning, fitness routines, racking up vacation time, and other hobbies. Getting away to a warmer locale for a few days or a week also doesn’t hurt if you’re able to accommodate the expense of time and money.

Cross Country Skiing in Lodgepole Pine Forest

Winter also has the singular ability to bring a feeling of wilderness and raw nature to places that feel mundane, even boring, in other seasons. Many of the bumpy and potholed forest roads flanked by endless lodgepole pines that are merely tolerated on drives to the trailhead in the summer become the proverbial “winter wonderland” with the addition of a few feet of snow. Putting on the cross-country skis and heading up one of these roads for a few miles to a scenic overlook that merited only a glance out the window before driving further a few months before becomes an expedition to a breathtaking picnic spot. A cabin that you could drive to in June is transformed into a rustic outpost where you can sit in quintessential tranquility and watch snow fall while a woodstove heats the tiny structure. 

Alturas Lake Idaho Frozen

Favorite trails suddenly take on an Arctic charm that highlights the rock and water features, especially when the water turns to ice. Animal tracks left in the snow can be examined with a clarity rarely provided in typical dirt patches on the trail. The play of light and reflections of the sun off the snow make for near-mystical conditions.

If you have the gear and experience to safely and comfortably do overnight trips in the winter months, the stargazing is incredible. The skies are can be exceedingly clear and the stars come out much earlier compared to the summer months. As long as you have the gear to stay comfortable in periods of inactivity in cold conditions, you can fit in some amazing stargazing between dinner and a reasonable bedtime. If you’re staying in a cabin or other structure, such as a lookout, you can head back inside to warm up, make some tea or hot chocolate, and head back out. The sky will be darker, the stars shining brighter, and you’ll be warmer. This back-and-forth can go on as long as your eyes stay open and the rewards always seem to be worth pushing through the sleepiness.

Backpacking Humburg Spires Wilderness Study Area Montana

If you’re lucky enough to live in a region with natural hot springs, visiting these in the winter can be a luxury almost impossible to describe. Sitting in jacuzzi-warm water, rich with minerals, and watching a frigid river run beneath snow-draped trees is a surefire way to put a smile on your face. The juxtaposition between the harsh and benevolent characteristics of nature are visibly, and physically, apparent.

Hot springs that would be crowded in the shoulder-season months due to their proximity roads and parking areas become much less visited. An easy stroll in the summer suddenly becomes a 1/4 mile epic in winter, requiring snowshoes and proper clothing to be comfortable in frigid temperatures until you’re able to immerse yourself in the water. As expected, however, the reward feels much richer and well-deserved.

Idaho Hot Springs Winter Hiking

For hikers who live in a region absent of the geothermal phenomenons that are required for hot springs but with sustained subfreezing temperatures, winter often presents the opportunity to see frozen waterfalls. Visiting a gushing waterfall in May and then returning in January to see it frozen from top to bottom provides a sublime comparison. In regions with dense ridgetop deciduous forests, such as many Eastern forests, the views in winter are much grander than in summer. Trails that have the “green tunnel” effect suddenly become much more open and the shadows and shapes created by the bare tree limbs become a spectacle in and of themselves.

Winter Alpenglow While Hiking in Montana

Certain “life list” destinations are at their most hospitable and enjoyable in the winter months. Big Bend National Park, Everglades National Park and Dry Tortugas National Park come to mind in this regards. Backpacking on Cumberland Island National Seashore in December is a particular treat – the crowds are low, the weather is mild, and the citrus trees are ripe. There’s something beautiful about getting to a campsite, setting down the pack, and picking an orange or grapefruit to enjoy with your oatmeal the next morning. 

While the coming of spring is an occasion for celebration, especially for those of us who reside in the northerly latitudes, winter has its merits. It offers a chance for skills to be honed, inimitable adventures to be had – such as moonlit cross-country skiing, familiar places to be experienced in a different atmosphere. If you weren’t able to appreciate the opportunities for solitude this past season, you’ll have a summer full of hiking to look forward to and plenty of time to plan for when the snow flies again.

For a detailed article on the "how to" of experiencing the outdoors in winter with many tips along the way, check out this Issue 26 article courtesy of @PaulMags.

Aaron

Winter Giveaway

Note: This Giveaway Ended 3/15/17.

For our winter giveaway (and just in time!), we're giving away a new Helinox Chair Zero and the choice of any shirt or hat from the TrailGroove Store! This new camp comfort seating solution from Helinox is a comfortable chair that's both packable and light enough for those backpacking and hiking excursions where some extra comfort might be on your list of priorities - for more info on the Chair Zero, take a look here at REI and read our recent review

Just make sure you're subscribed to TrailGroove and then like this blog post to let us know you'd like to be included in the drawing. That's it! Be sure to check out a Premium Membership for more chances to win. Full details below.

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Our review Chair Zero

How to Enter

1) Like this blog entry in the lower right hand corner of this post. Simply login with your TrailGroove account and like this blog entry in the lower right hand corner of this post to let us know you'd like to be entered to win. New to TrailGroove? Click here to sign up for a new account - make sure to select the subscribe option on the sign up screen as well - it will help with step 2. The button you then need to click to like this post will look like the one below, albeit a bit smaller:

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2) Subscribe to TrailGroove. Odds are you might already be subscribed, but you can subscribe below or verify by typing in your email if needed. (Hint: Receive an email from us about this giveaway? If so, you're subscribed!) Note that you won't be subscribed twice, so it doesn't hurt to check - make sure you're subscribed with the same email you used here for your TrailGroove account:
 

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3) Premium TrailGroove Member? You've been automatically entered into this giveaway - like this blog post for an additional entry and chance to win! You can sign up for a Premium Membership anytime before 3/15 to take advantage of this benefit.

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We'll randomly draw from all entries on Wednesday 3/15 at 7 p.m. Mountain Time and will contact the winner here via a private message - Good luck!

Mark

Prior to becoming what could politely be described as a fanatical backpacker, I might have questioned the wisdom of spending as much on a sleeping bag as I would on a new full-sized mattress. But when your main hobby involves hiking around with everything on your back that you need to be safe and comfortable for days a time, your perspective on such purchases tends to shift. This shift in perspective directly influenced my decision to purchase a Marmot Plasma 30 degree down sleeping bag in spring of 2012. 

Marmot Plasma 30 Degree Sleeping Bag Review.JPG

The bag had a retail price of just over $400 dollars at the time which was slightly more than the monthly rent at my third floor, walk-up studio apartment in a Southeastern college town. I suppose I could look back on my purchase as an investment, since the price of down has skyrocketed and the bag now retails at almost $600. It was a bit hard to justify the purchase to myself, but between my obsessive devotion to backpacking and a modest but well-timed tax return, I made it happen. And five years later, I have no doubt that I made the right decision.

The first thing that struck me about the Plasma, and that still amazes me, is the lightness and quality of construction. At just 1 lb. and 7 ounces, it was a full pound lighter than my Marmot Pinnacle 15 degree bag and a more versatile piece of equipment for backpacking in the Southeast. The details, from the stitching to the Insotect Flow vertical baffles to the built-in pillow, were well-engineered and left nothing to be desired in terms of function or aesthetics. The quality of the down, which in the 2012 model was 900 fill (more recent models have featured 875 fill down with Down Defender water-resistant treatment), is nothing short of remarkable and allows for the impressive packability, minimal weight, and required warmth of a premium three-season sleeping bag.

Marmot Plasma 30 Down Sleeping Bag Packed, Fill Power, DWR, and Hood.JPG

I’ve spent approximately 100 nights in the Plasma and have been comfortable everywhere from creekside campsites in the southern Appalachians to mountain meadows in the Rockies. I most often pair the Plasma with a NeoAir 3/4 length pad in milder temperatures and opt for a NeoAir All-Season in colder temperatures. This combination has allowed me to be comfortable in the upper 20s to the mid 40s. Adding down booties and a down jacket has allowed me to use the bag as part of a sleep system into the low 20s, but analyzing the effectiveness of that type of mixing-and-matching is perhaps a bit beyond the scope of this congenial and non-scientific review. Although marketed as a 30-degree bag, the European Norm lower limit rating (the temperature at which the average man will sleep comfortably) is 33.6 degrees. However, with wool socks and a lightweight wool baselayer I've put dozens of nights in this bag at temperatures at or just below freezing (typically on a NeoAir All-Season pad, with a 4.9 R value) and haven't ever been uncomfortable.

The compressibility and durability of this bag are, in my opinion, two of its most stand-out features. When packed in a compression sack, like the Sea to Summit eVent dry bag, it takes up about as much space as a two-liter bottle and weighs less than half as much. After five years of packing it, unpacking it, and laying it down in shelters ranging from tents to tarps to bivys to Appalachian Trail shelters to abandoned US Forest Service lookouts, this bag shows hardly any signs or age or significant depreciation in loft. It still looks as inviting illuminated by headlamp when unzipping the tent after a long day now as it did when I put my first night in it.

Plasma 30 Sleeping Bag Packed Size in Compression Sack.JPG

While I’ve tried to “baby” this bag as much as possible, always making sure I wear baselayers in it to prevent transfer of body oils and dirt to the inner fabric, it has had some rough nights. Windblown snow or rain creeping under the tarp, slipping off the sleeping pad during a deep sleep and waking up off the ground cloth and in the dirt, and the surprise of seeing it blown into a fallen spruce tree from where I had carefully hung it to air out. The fabric shed windblown rain and snow as good as most entry-level rain jackets I’ve seen, and pretty much renders tent condensation a non-issue which hasn’t always been the case with my sleeping bags. The Pertex Quantum shell fabric has yet to show a tear or worn spot and the black outer shell helps a lot with drying it out in the morning when the inevitable dampness in humid conditions manifests itself.

Review - Marmot Plasma 30 Backpacking Under Tarp.JPG

For those accustomed to mummy bags, this bag has a regular-to-slimmer fit. It certainly isn’t as restrictive as some bags I’ve been in, but it also isn’t designed for practicing yoga poses in either. I tend to toss and turn a bit when sleeping and this bag has never seemed to hinder my nocturnal adjustments. For average users, this bag is cut in such a way that thermal efficiency is maximized without requiring a shoehorn to enter or exit the bag. The regular size fits users up to 6 feet tall and the long size fits persons up to 6’6” tall. The shoulder circumference of the regular is 60”, hip circumference is 58”, and the footbox circumference is 43”. As noted above, I’ve found these dimensions to be more than adequate for the average user. 

Zippers on sleeping bags tend to be best when you don’t notice them, as otherwise great bags can be ruined by dysfunctional zippers, and this “excellence by lack of distinction” is the case with the Marmot Plasma 30. It zips up and down quickly, rarely snags, and is of a slender and lightweight design that fits in with the overall vibe of the bag itself. A full-length draft tube follows the zipper and prevents any wind or chills from sneaking through. The two way zipper allows for venting, which allows for great thermal management and the ability to remain comfortable in a variety of temperatures. I tend to start most nights off with it slightly vented at the bottom, and then increase or decrease the opening as my comfort dictated. The zipper pull is actually pretty nifty looking and easy to grasp, which I suppose should be expected given the cost of the bag. 

Draft Tube and Zipper on the Marmot Plasma 30 Sleeping Bag.JPG

While the zipper is a notable feature precisely because it doesn’t make itself noteworthy, the outstanding design of the hood and draft collar requires specific and unequivocal praise. The ability to dial in just how much closure you would like is unbeatable. When needed, the draft collar and hood can be cinched down to allow for maximum heat retention; thanks to the brilliant design virtually no comfort is lost when this is done and claustrophobia can be kept to a minimum.

There are few pieces of gear that I can recommend as strongly as the Marmot Plasma 30 degree sleeping bag. It truly is an item where you get what you pay for (and unfortunately, as down prices trend upwards, it seems like paying more is to be expected) and what you get is a truly exceptional sleeping bag that will outlast most of the items in your backpacking kit. 

The Marmot Plasma 30 sleeping bag retails for $600, but you can often find it on sale Here at Backcountry (35% off at the time of the writing!), over at REI  (also on sale), and at Amazon.com. For something a little warmer, check out the Plasma 15.

Aaron

Helinox Chair Zero Review

After an introduction to lightweight backpacking chairs a few years ago, my philosophy on this admittedly somewhat superfluous (but many times well worth the weight) camp comfort item has generally remained unchanged; on longer trips where I’m moving daily and pack weight is of more concern the chair stays behind and any rock or log will do. For the amount of time that you’re actually in camp – and not inside your tent – carrying the weight is simply not worth it. But mental and physical comfort levels on when the extra comfort is worth the weight of course, will vary.

Helinox Chair Zero Review.JPG

But on shorter less ambitious trips, winter trips with extra time in camp and long nights, or those trips where I’ll be setting up camp for more than just one night in the same place, I’ve found various chairs like the Monarch Chair from Alite Designs (review) and more recently the Helinox Ground Chair (review) to be add a substantial amount of comfort to the backcountry camping experience. But even on these trips, the weight of these chairs is still cause for pause when getting your pack ready the night before. The Helinox Chair Zero is a recent release from Helinox that focuses on reducing that weight concern further, along with increasing comfort and packability.

Helinox Chair Zero Frame, Packed Size , Assembly, and Attachment Points.JPG

Like the Helinox Ground Chair, the Chair Zero has 4 legs for stability, but unlike the appropriately named Ground Chair the Chair Zero is designed for a higher, more upright sitting position (closer to a real chair) and through the use of a lighter weight, Dyneema gridstop fabric has managed to achieve a lighter weight all at the same time. Helinox specs the chair at 490 grams (17.3 ounces) without the stuff sack although many merchants list the chair as lighter. On my scale I measured 17.2 ounces for the chair (4.4 for the fabric and 12.8 for the poles) and add another .7 ounces if you want to bring along the stuff sack. (The stuff sack features one handed cord lock operation and even glow in the dark hardware) The shock-corded DAC aluminum pole frame of the chair assembles quickly, with the fabric seat attaching via pockets in 4 places (color coded - silver sides up) with a slight amount of effort, while all breaking down into a compact unit to easily fit in a backpack. The chair easily fits in a random available spot towards the top of my ULA Circuit’s main compartment. The chair will support up to 265 pounds – quite impressive for something collapsible and weighing in around just a pound.

Sitting in the Chair Zero from Helinox in Sandy Soft Ground.JPG

I did find that there are pros and cons to the upright design of the chair and the support system that’s used compared to the Ground Chair that I’ve been using for the past couple years. With the higher sitting height (the seat is 11 inches off the ground), the new Chair Zero is much, much easier to get in and out of, so if the hiking miles have been taking a toll on your knees it would be an excellent choice, and even either way it takes less of a “technique” to use with the bonus sitting height. I do find the sitting position a bit less comfortable however – once you are there – it’s more of an upright place to sit compared to more of a lounger like the Ground Chair. Additionally the small surface area on the feet of the Zero, combined with the fact that most of the weight seems to be balanced on the back two feet, makes this chair more prone to sink in soft ground. Rocky and firm ground and / or lighter weight users might be ideal, but an available accessory, the Helinox Ground Sheet for the Zero can be used with a weight penalty. It should be noted that the lighter fabric seat of the Zero could, if you somehow ended up with both chairs, be used with the Ground Chair's support structure to save 3.3 ounces off the normal 21.75 ounce weight of the Helinox Ground Chair .

Helinox Chair Zero.JPG

With the pros and cons that are involved, it all obviously comes down to personal preference and without a doubt, where the Chair Zero excels most is in the all-important weight and packability departments – perhaps the most important part considering we are talking about taking a chair with us while hiking and backpacking, after all. In the end, the Zero turns out to be a very pack-friendly chair that will only add about a pound to your hikes, or to those backpacking trips where you think the extra ~pound is worth a comfortable place to sit at the end of the day.

The Helinox Chair Zero retails for $120, but you can often find it for a deal here at REI, at Backcountry.com, and over on Amazon.com.

 

Mark

MSR Titan Kettle Review

Some of the best things in life are the simplest. For backpackers, there is a pleasure in sipping hot coffee, tea or cocoa from a sleeping bag that borders on the divine. And behind such a simple pleasure is a simple piece of a gear: a kettle, pot or some other means of warming water.

MSR Titan Tea Kettle Review.jpg

I upgraded from a lidless, stainless steel pot leftover from my brief time in Boy Scouts to the MSR Titan Kettle fairly early in my backpacking days and it has proven to be one of the best gear-related investments I made. As a college student it was a bit indulgent to spend $50 at the time (although I was further aided by a 20% off coupon at a local gear shop) on a lighter version of an item I already had, but the purchase is one I never regretted. 

Looking back, it was also perhaps the catalyst for many other gear investments (strategically timed during post-season sales) as I realized what a difference lightweight, quality gear makes in a hobby like backpacking. Although the MSR Titan Tea Kettle now retails at $59.95 (apparently I should have invested in titanium when I was in college) it still weighs just over 4 ounces, has a .85 liter capacity,  and is a piece of gear I’d recommend to any backpacker looking to build up their cooking kit.

MSR Titan in the Snow with Nalgene in Winter.jpg

After almost ten years of using this kettle, it has developed a nice coat of character (about as close to patina as titanium can get) but has lost absolutely nothing in regards to function. The handles on the pot still swivel perfectly and the handle for the lid works just as it did when new. The thoughtful design features, such as the slot for the coated lid handle to remain upright so it can be easily removed to check on the contents and the tight-fitting lid and perfectly engineered spout, make this a piece of gear that is hard to imagine improving and the size (0.85 liters) is just right for one person.

MSR Titan Silicone Insulated Lid and Pour Spout.jpg

I’ve cooked hundreds of meals in this kettle, from pasta to curry to rice dishes, and although I’ve had to pay careful attention when trying certain backcountry culinary innovations I have never had any issues with food sticking or burning (aside from issues resulting as a result of my own negligence). Adding a bit of extra water helps reduce any issues of burning or sticking, as does being conscious of how hot the stove is burning. I’ve used this kettle primarily with a canister stove (Primus Micron, an MSR Pocket Rocket, or similar) but also with a liquid fuel stove during winter trips. When using a canister stove, a small fuel canister can easily be stored inside which saves spaces in your pack.  Its squat design seems to allow for a fair degree of stability on any stove, especially when compared to taller pots that I’ve seen my backcountry companions use. In my years of experience I’ve only managed to knock it over twice and both times were completely my fault.

Fuel Canister Inside MSR Titan Pot.jpg

While my recommendation for this product is unequivocally enthusiastic, there are a few common sense items worth pointing out that for the most part will apply to all similar pots. One is that the handles for the pot do tend to get very hot when cooking, especially if wind is whipping the flame around. I keep a small piece of a bandana around to use to protect my fingers when picking up the handles (I just fold it a few times and use it as a barrier) and this also double as a napkin. 

A second comment is that there is minimal insulation provided to the contents by the titanium. Water boils quickly and food can be prepared rapidly (such as pasta, which tends to beat the “suggested cooking time” by a few minutes), but in cooler temperatures the meal in the kettle loses its warmth without much delay – especially noticeable if the temperature is below freezing. Generally this hasn’t been a problem for me, as I inhale my food as soon as it’s at a marginally safe temperature – wise to do so, but if you’re the type that likes to eat a few bites, then stare at the clouds for a minute, then eat a few bites, then read a page or two of a book, you might be wishing you had a microwave with you to warm up the last half of the meal in colder weather. Keeping the lid on and wrapping the kettle and remaining food up in a scarf or piece of clothing can help retain the warmth but I’ve rarely had to use this tactic. 

Cooking in the MSR Titanium Kettle.jpg

Lastly, there is no nonstick coating on this kettle, which is nice because it means you don’t have to worry about your fork scraping a coating off, but it does mean that if you burn some food in the bottom it will take some soaking, scraping, and scrubbing (best done at home) to remove it.

I tend to be fairly loyal to my backpacking gear and this is one item that has my unabashed devotion. The functionality, the durability, the purpose – any item that helps get food in my stomach automatically earns my affection – there are really no major flaws or drawbacks that I’ve noticed in almost a decade of use. This is one piece of gear that I feel like I’ve bonded with more than others, given the food and beverage related memories I’ve created with it. If I ever do end up replacing it, most likely with another MSR Titan Kettle, this one will be going up on the mantle to remind of the meals I’ve enjoyed in Montana’s mountains, Appalachian forests, and Atlantic beaches over the years.

The MSR Titan Kettle retails for $60. Find it here at REI, at Backcountry.com, and on Amazon.com.

Aaron

While the potential exists to makes one's backcountry cooking setup nearly as complex as the average home kitchen, albeit hopefully a bit more miniaturized and lighter, in most cases the average lightweight backpacker only needs to boil water for freeze-dried dinners, freezer bag style cooking, to heat and hydrate a basic meal within the pot, or to heat water for things like coffee and tea. For these backpackers – like myself - the Evernew Ultralight Titanium Series have been a fairly popular option on the trail and have been my go-to choice for many trips over nearly the past decade.

Evernew 1.3 and .9 Liter Ultralight Titanium Pots Review.JPG

These 2 pots are from the Evernew's "All Purpose" lineup, which also includes a 600ml version (ECA251) not tested here. With a listed weight of just 4.6 ounces and 4.1 ounces for the 1300ml (model ECA 253 – measured weight: 4.9 ounces) and the smaller 900ml (model ECA252  - measured weight: 3.85 ounces) options at my disposal, respectively, these Evernew pots are really quite tough despite being so light. I've downright abused the 1.3 liter, including dry baking (not suggested), cooking in campfires, melting lots of snow for a group, and it’s even suffered a few impacts in the outside pocket of my pack from dropping it off ledges while traversing class 3 terrain.

Melting Snow - Evernew 1.3 with MSR WindPro 2.JPG

These pots are more short and squat than tall and thin, and as such catch more heat, heating faster and saving a bit of fuel and are more stable on top of a stove. On the downside, the shape doesn't really lend itself to an effective or satisfying combo for an all in one pot / mug solution (Such as something like the Snow Peak 700), although it would work if you're not too particular. The lids fit securely, and don’t seem to require constant re-bending of the pot every time you unpack it in an attempt to get things to line up like some other solutions I’ve used. At times I’ve used a large rubber band with a loop to loop to connection on the lid handle – this allows one to then wrap the rubber band all the way around the pot and lid for even more security in the pack (for example when trying to store too many things inside), but these days I don’t bother and the storing the pot in the outside mesh pocket of my ULA Circuit also helps to keep everything in place.

Backpacking Pizza , Melting Snow, Meal in the Pot and Cooking with Wood Fire with Evernew 1.3 Ultralight Titanium.JPG

The Evernew Ultralight Series is a great choice for a variety of average lightweight backpacking conditions and applications - although the pizza in the upper left was baked in the 1.3 liter proving it possible, the thin walls may not be best for more in-depth and advanced cooking techniques.

The handles (which fold for packing) along with the handle on the lid both feature heat insulating silicone material so you can take care of cooking without having to find that bandanna to use as a pot holder. A small pour spout is integrated to minimize spills and to ease water transfer, and measurement graduations can be found on the sides. Evernew also offers the non-stick versions of these as well, but in my experience it's not needed, adds a little weight, and the coating requires care both in your choice of utensils and in your cooking technique to keep from scratching it. 

Evernew Pot Measurements.JPG

3 sizes are offered - a .6 liter, a .9 liter, and the largest 1.3 liter version. The .9 liter has been a perfect size for me for either solo cooking in the pot or for two when heating water and rehydrating freeze-dried or freezer bag style meals is all that's required. I will step up to the larger 1.3 liter version when cooking in the pot for two, baking experiments, or when melting snow for water in the winter. I've used these with alcohol stoves and mostly in that case with a Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri, but most recently I’m usually using them with a canister stove and usually the Soto WindMaster. With this stove, I’m also able to fit a small MSR 110 gram fuel canister in either size, and I’m able to fit a larger 220 gram Snow Peak fuel canister in the 1.3 liter upside down while still being able to close the lid.

220 Gram Canister and Soto WindMaster Stove in Evernew 1.3 Liter Titanium Pot.JPG

While the thin, scorch-possible walls of the Evernew pots might not be the best choice for the gourmet backcountry chefs among us or for your next morning huevos rancheros experiment on the trail, if you mostly need to heat and boil water, melt snow, or cook the occasional basic pasta meal or beans and rice in the pot like me (low heat and keep stirring!) the Evernew Ultralight series of pots are hard to beat. Throw in a long handled spoon (the Toaks is my current choice) and optionally some type of mug for coffee (my pick: the Snow Peak 450 – single wall) and you're set. Although the Evernew Ultralight Pots are a bit on the pricey side, they're also light, effective, and durable – always a great combination for the outdoors.

The Evernew Ultralight Pots can at times be hard to track down, but you can usually find them in all 3 sizes for around $50-$70 depending on size here at Amazon.com.

Barbara

Wolves, Red Dogs, Grizzlies, & Outlaws

A tiny “red dog” – a fuzzy, reddish bison calf – was all but glued to its mother’s side as she fought off a half dozen wolves near Yellowstone’s Slough Creek. The mother had strayed from the herd, and wolves were attacking from all sides in an attempt to separate her from her baby. The stiff-legged little calf wheeled and turned with its mother as best it could, but the outcome seemed inevitable.

Herd of Bison Near Trailhead in Yellowstone.JPG

The standoff was visible to the naked eye, about two hundred yards off Route 212 on the park’s northern perimeter – an area sometimes called “North America’s Serengeti.” Two or three wolf-watchers had set up spotting telescopes at the turn-off to Slough Creek, and they invited my husband, John, and me to take a look. The scene was even more dramatic through a telescope. The calf would surely be killed and consumed, and probably soon by the look of things.

It turned out that the story’s outcome was anything but simple. And, in the end, the fate of the young bison was just one piece of a web of complex wildlife relationships that we encountered that day.

John and I are seasonal volunteers in Yellowstone, and we had decided to spend an October morning hiking a roughly five mile loop starting and ending at Slough Creek Campground. The small campground is located two miles down an unpaved road from Route 212, 25.8 miles east of Mammoth Hot Springs.

The wolves that surrounded the bison mother and baby belonged to the Junction Buttes, a pack that formed in the past few years and now claims this area as part of its territory. Wolves follow their prey; in Yellowstone, this most often means elk, but there can also be other targets such as bison calves, or even adult bison for certain packs.

Bighorn Sheep in Yellowston.JPG

Young wolves practice the skills they will need to successfully hunt. I recently watched four Junction Butte pups on a hill above Slough Creek, playing with elk antlers by tossing them in the air, tugging, and fighting over them. It was play all right, but it served as important skill-building and social bonding for these up-and-coming apex predators.

In addition to wolves and bison, the Slough Creek area is known for grizzly bears. Hikers in Yellowstone should check in advance for any recent warnings about grizzly activity or trail closures. It’s important to never hike alone, make a lot of noise, and have bear spray readily available and know how to use it.

Arriving at the Slough Creek Campground, John and I walked to the second creek-side campsite, and began the loop hike by sloshing across the creek – which varies seasonally from ankle to shin deep. Picking up easy-to-spot Buffalo Fork Trail on the far side of the crossing, we passed through a classic alpine meadow, then ascended several hundred feet on the rocky, narrow path.

Slough Creek Trail.JPG

We were both hyper-alert due to the possibility of grizzlies, particularly because it was autumn and Yellowstone’s bears are ravenously hungry as they pack on weight for hibernation.

Biologists believe that the park’s grizzlies have learned to follow wolves and attempt, often successfully, to feed at their kills. A bear at a carcass is frequently not the animal that made the kill, but rather an opportunistic scavenger. On the day that I watched the four Junction Butte pups at play, I was told that I had just missed a large grizzly that appeared about a hundred yards from the wolf pack. Perhaps the bear was following the pack, or was at least keeping track of its location.

As John and I hiked, we spotted bison, and here and there, mature, solo males that spend much of the year away from the herd. A nineteenth century writer called these cantankerous bulls “outlaws,” and gave some safety advice that’s still accurate today. Bison have difficulty seeing straight ahead, so stand to the side to make sure that the animal sees you. Keep your distance (the park requires a minimum of 25 yards), and be prepared to make detours. And remember, a raised, rigid tail signals that its owner is agitated.

At 1.7 miles from the campground, an open view to the right (east) encompasses an expanse of grassy hillside descending to a very large meadow marked by a distinctive rock “island” and Slough Creek’s meandering channels. On the far side of the meadow is a patrol cabin and the clearly visible Slough Creek Trail, which is an old wagon road. Braided routes lead down to the meadow and trail, but ankle to knee-deep or higher creek crossings are required depending on the season. Be sure to stay on an established boot or game trail to avoid doing damage to the habitat.

Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness - Hiking Yellowstone.JPG

While descending the hillside and crossing the meadow, we gave several outlaw bison a wide berth and also kept our distance from a fresh-looking bone pile. Wildlife experts stress the importance of staying far away from any carcass or fresh bone pile to avoid having a dangerous encounter with a grizzly or disrupting the activities of wolves and other creatures.

It was easy to see why ungulates congregate in these lush grasslands, why their predators follow them here, and why other animal species thrive in this environment. I spotted a beaver lodge close to Slough Creek Trail, and began to understand that beavers must have played a major part in producing the wildlife-rich setting. On the bank of what appeared to be a beaver-created pool, a family of otters had left evidence of their approval of the setting. They had worn a deep, slippery slide in the mud; it was a good eight feet long and dropped straight into the pool of standing water.

Bald Eagle Fishing in Yellowston.JPG

Reaching Slough Creek Trail, a left (north) turn leads away from Slough Creek Campground, past the patrol cabin toward Silver Tip Ranch, a private lodge just north of the national park boundary. The lodge is permitted to transport supplies and visitors on the trail using horses and wagons.

To complete our loop and return to the campground, we turned right (south), and hiked through rocky, forested terrain to reach the trailhead and large wooden sign where you would normally begin a walk on the Slough Creek Trail. The distance from the patrol cabin to this trailhead is 1.8 miles.

Yellowstone Buffalo.JPG

From the Slough Creek Trailhead, John and I walked the remaining half mile to the campground and our vehicle. As we drove back to Route 212, the drama of the little red dog and its mother was on my mind, and we stopped at the highway turnoff to see if we could learn what happened. One of the morning’s “wolfers” was there, and she filled us in.

The news was startling. When last seen, the bison calf was still alive. After John and I left that morning, the wolves continued their coordinated –and seemingly unstoppable – attack for a time. Then, for unknown reasons, they backed off and vanished from the scene.

Maybe these wolves were young pack members practicing the hunt, learning how to “test” vulnerable prey and other skills. Or it could be that they tired of the standoff and the threat of injury by the mother. Perhaps these intelligent predators determined that the youngster could most likely be killed later. During Yellowstone’s harsh winter months, wolves grow hungrier, and many of their prey gradually weaken and are less able to fight off predators.

This calf was the youngest I’d ever seen at this time of year, born dangerously close to the arrival of harsh weather. Most calves arrive at the end of April or during May, a time that offers the best chance for their survival and for the survival of the herd itself. I assume that the red dog’s late birth was a simple accident of nature. I asked a naturalist friend what chance it had of surviving the winter – “Hardly any,” he answered. On the other hand, the little guy had already defied the odds and made it through the day.

Yellowstone National Park - Hiking Past Pond.JPG

Information: There are no peaks to bag or brag-worthy river fords on this route. But what could be better than a beautiful, reasonably short Yellowstone loop hike with the possibility of spotting a variety of wildlife? No crowds. No hard-to-get-to trailhead. And, with enough caution, this would make a great family adventure with kids who are experienced hikers. Bring bear spray, separate shoes for water crossings if you don’t want to hike in wet boots, and a good map and compass. Basic route finding skills are helpful. You can also hike the loop in reverse from the direction that I describe, but this could make route-finding in the loop’s middle section more difficult. Instead of the loop hike, you have the option of an easy in-and-out walk of any distance (with no water crossings) by starting at the Slough Creek Trailhead described above. Check the Yellowstone National Park website for complete information concerning roads, campgrounds, wildlife, and park alerts.

Best Time to Go & Getting There: Slough Creek Campground is located two miles down an unpaved road from Route 212, 25.8 miles east of Mammoth Hot Springs.The two mile-road from the Route 212 turnoff to the loop trail is open from late spring until early November. During this roughly five-month period, the loop can be completed unless the water level is high. Fall is probably the best choice because the stream crossings offer lower water levels, but again, be extra alert for grizzlies. If you’re interested in camping, Slough Creek Campground is open for camping from mid-June until early October on a first come-first served basis. The campground was threatened but not destroyed by fire in 2016.

Maps and Books: Yellowstone National Park, Trails Illustrated Map. The Hiking in Yellowstone and Best Easy Day Hikes in Yellowstone Falcon Guides are also available.

MattS

In the summer of 2009 I was sitting in a hotel room in Hirosaki, a small city in the far north of Japan’s main island of Honshu, eagerly anticipating my upcoming hike. It was to be the second big hike I’d ever gone on in Japan, and I was determined that unlike my first journey into this country’s wilderness, this one would be perfect. Unfortunately for me, though, neither of the two friends I was traveling with seemed particularly enthusiastic about hitting the trails, and we had yet to make the final decision as to whether or not we’d even be going out to the mountain.

Mt. Iwakie - Hiking Through Forest.JPG

The reason we had yet to decide was because, as I had recently discovered, I’m not always the best at planning a trip. This is also where my two as-yet-unconvinced hiking partners come in, because this hike was in fact only one small part of a larger trip I was on with my friends Dan and Brian. Dan was visiting Japan for a few weeks on vacation, and Brian and I were showing him around. Since I lived in the north of Japan and Brian lived in Tokyo, we’d agreed to split the planning of this trip between us into northern and southern portions.

For the southern leg of our trip, Brian had created a detailed spreadsheet of activities, including concerts, restaurants, shops, attractions, events to see, plans about reservations and tickets, and even scheduled down time. Along with that, he demonstrated a willingness to be flexible with regards to Dan’s interests and abilities. I, on the other hand, had little more than a bulleted checklist scribbled on a piece of paper.

Despite that, though, and in the face of numerous other difficulties involving transportation during one of Japan’s biggest and most travel-intensive holidays, we had arrived here in Hirosaki, near the base of Mt. Iwaki, and it seemed like the perfect place to go hiking if you needed to keep a flexible schedule. There’s a toll road that goes most of the way up the mountain, with buses that run along it every so often, and also a cable car from the parking lot at the end of the road that takes customers to within half an hour of reaching the peak.

In other words, if the object of the trip was to quickly get to the summit, enjoy the view, and get back to town, that could easily be accomplished. On the other hand, for someone more interested in an authentic hiking experience, there is also an old path starting at a Japanese shrine where you can trek up the mountain from its base. According to the internet, the estimated time from the start of this trail to the summit was about four hours.

Armed with these facts, I made my case for climbing the mountain to my two friends who were, it seemed to me, leaning towards just getting out of this place already. I argued that we could spend the full four hours climbing up from the base, then take the cable car down the other side and catch a bus back into Hirosaki. This would both save us some time and give us the chance to see all that the mountain had to offer. I would have liked to take the trail both ways myself, seasoned hiker with one whole mountain’s worth of experience that I was, but I knew my friends probably wouldn’t go for it.

Somehow I managed to convince them that this would be a good idea, and then it was merely a matter of coordinating how we would get to and from the mountain, which was about an hour outside the city. I found out when the last cable car ride would be, and we based the time we would need to arrive by off of that. Remembering the rain and mud from my last hike, I was also quite sure to check the weather repeatedly, but the forecast was for a nice, sunny day. It looked like everything was good to go.

Looks, however, can be deceiving, and by the time this hike was over I’d be wondering whether I should ever be allowed to plan anything ever again. To begin with, we were not well prepared. Nobody had hiking gear of any kind except for Brian, who’d thought to bring along a backpack that we used to store a few bottles of water. Also, there was the issue of finding the trail that we hadn’t considered. Since there’s a perfectly accessible parking lot and cable car on the other side of the mountain, not many people walk the path from the shrine anymore, leaving it a thin, overgrown thing that was a real challenge to locate at times, especially at the beginning.

Iwaki Shrine in Japan.JPG

Fortunately, we could ask for directions at the shrine, and as we started on our way we discovered an old signpost that told us how far we had to go in both distance and time. Once again the time estimate was about four hours, and we wasted no time beginning our ascent. Or at least, we soon began fighting our way through the woods. The first part of the trail was so thick with vegetation that it was difficult to go forward. Also, a lot of the greenery had grown up over the top of the path, making it nearly impossible to stand up straight. So we all hunched forward, stumbling along a thin path through the woods with what we all hoped was the trail turning to mud at our feet.

At first I wasn’t sure why there was any mud involved at all, since the forecast had been so promising, but we soon found that the path involved crossing over a small stream before starting up the mountain in earnest. We also discovered another error in planning on my part, because though I had checked the weather, I hadn’t paid attention to the temperature. Yes, it was the middle of summer, and I knew it would be fairly hot, but Aomori is located pretty far up north and the weather had been mild for the past few days. How bad could it be?

As it turns out, it could be very bad indeed. It got so bad, in fact, that within half an hour of starting up the trail I was already drenched in sweat. I felt miserably hot, my clothes had been reduced to a soggy, clinging mess, and I was stumbling along through the mud unable to even stand up straight. Besides all that, I had only the most vague assurance that the path we were following was actually the correct way up the mountain. All I could count on was that the plants were so thick everywhere else that this seemed like the only viable option. When we got to an area where things finally cleared up a bit and everyone could stretch out and rehydrate, thanks to Brian and his carrying that water, we were nearly on the point of turning around and putting an end to this once and for all.

Two things stopped us. First was the thought of having to walk all the way back through the area we’d just gotten out of. Second was the signpost that we discovered collapsed nearby. Like the first post, this one included an estimate of how much further we would have to go in order to reach the summit, and despite our having only been on the trail for half an hour, it clearly said we were now only three hours from the top. This was extremely encouraging, since it meant we were moving about twice as fast as the estimates had indicated that we would.

Still feeling pretty miserable, but emboldened and not wanting to retread the terrible section of trail we’d just staggered through, we continued on our way. Every now and then we’d pass another fallen signpost, and joke about the strength of our long foreign legs. After all, we were practically flying up the mountain, and the path itself seemed to reflect our newfound sense of confidence. Vegetation became sparse and less intrusive. Once or twice, we could actually look back out over the trail we’d covered and get a sense of how far we’d come. This was turning into quite a pleasant hike.

After we’d been on the trail for about two hours, though, we began to get tired. A nonstop uphill climb does take its toll after a while, and some parts of the trail were very steep. Still, we reasoned that by now we must be closing in on the summit, and since we’d caught sight of a couple of hikers coming down the trail in the opposite direction, we decided to wait and ask if we were anywhere close to the summit.

Side of Iwaki.JPG

One of the two hikers looked at us like we were crazy and said we were a good two hours or so from the top, while the other jokingly answered that yes, we could just go straight for another five minutes and take a left. Confused by this advice, we decided to simply continue on, hoping for the best but aware that we may in fact still have a long way to go. What we were close to, it turned out, was the mountain hut, which in this case was just a small, unmanned rest house. There we looked over the maps and signposts on display and, much to our chagrin, found that we had only traveled a little more than half the distance to the summit. So much for those long foreigner legs of ours. Apparently we were in for a four-hour climb after all.

This was of course dispiriting, but I didn’t let myself feel too down about it. If it hadn’t been for that earlier mistake, we might never have made it this far. And now that we were this far, things only seemed to be improving. The increase in elevation had tempered the heat, the trail was now clearly marked and well-traveled, and we’d reached a natural water source where we could rest and replenish our supplies before moving on. It was as if the higher up the mountain we got, the better everything else was getting too.

This even seemed to include the scenery. Up until now, we’d mostly been looking at small shrubs and tree roots while watching out for overhead branches and focusing on the trail. Now we’d reached the point where the trees had mostly stopped growing, so when we looked around we could see lots of deep green grasses, rich mineral hues in the rock faces, and an expanse of forested areas and farms below.

Ascending While Hiking in Japan's Mount Iwaki.JPG

There were also long, thin clearings with houses and shops clustered around the barely-visible lines of roads beneath us, faint signs of modern life in an otherwise green landscape. Before long, clouds began blowing past us on the mountain as well, many of them below us now, obscuring the path we’d been climbing and covering our surroundings with a bright sheen. It made it feel as if we were walking along at the top of a world untouched, still wet and fresh and new.

Then, as we got to within half an hour of the summit, just before our path merged with the one leading up from the cable car, there was a brief flattening of the mountainside, revealing a peaceful pool of water surrounded by green grass and wreathed in mist. There was a kind of serenity to the place, emphasized by the feel of the now-cool mountain air on my skin, the fresh alpine scent, and the pervading sense of natural isolation. It was a stirring sight, one that would almost have made all the trouble we’d had at the beginning of the climb worth it in and of itself.

Close to Mt. Iwaki Summit.JPG

All three of us took our time admiring this sudden transformation of the landscape, until finally we had to move on. Then the path led us to a change just as abrupt as when that pool had come into view as soon as we’d gotten over the next rise. We’d reached the final section of the hike, where the path grew crowded with people who’d taken the easy option and the entire area grew rocky. Despite the sudden presence of these crowds, though, by the time we reached the summit, it felt magical. There was something almost visceral to the feeling that I was now standing on a giant piece of rock thrust up above the clouds, surrounded by both friends and strangers alike.

After four hours of almost constant climbing I was thoroughly exhausted, but also immensely satisfied. The scenery had been amazing, and the act of actually climbing the whole way made me feel both accomplished and like I’d had a much deeper experience with the mountain. The hike itself had almost perfectly mirrored my feelings about it, starting out difficult and conflicted, and constantly improving as we went along until finally culminating in triumph. Still, I was glad that we planned on taking the bus back into town.

Hiking Mount Iwaki in Japan.JPG

My friends seemed to have had a similar reaction to my own. There had been a number of moments when we had seriously questioned hiking the mountain at all, not to mention tackling it the way we had, but everyone was happy we’d decided to do this in the end. So, feeling both tired and proud, we all climbed into one of the last cable cars and descended to the parking lot nearby where we planned to catch a bus. And that’s when we discovered that the last bus had, in fact, left hours ago.

This is not the kind of problem one expects to encounter at the end of a hike, nor is it an entirely welcome one to deal with when you’re exhausted. Since we’d gotten off the lift so late, we were now pretty much the only people left on the mountain. The sun would be setting soon, and even if we did manage to get a ride down to the edge of the toll road, we were still at least 45 minutes outside Hirosaki, where our hotel was. To top it all off, after all our efforts to cool down when we were at the base of the mountain, here at the summit it was quite chilly. Once again, I’d failed to plan appropriately, and we were all essentially stranded.

Fortunately, I had made sure to get the number of the local taxi company the previous day, and I had a working cell phone signal, so I was able to call and have them send a car. It was to be the most expensive cab ride of my life. But even with everything that went wrong, still more had ended up going right. Somehow, we’d all managed to have a great time out on this crazy hike, and that made me feel like maybe it would be worth planning more trips like it in the future.

Information: Mt Iwaki (岩木山) stands as the highest peak in Aomori prefecture with an elevation of 1,625 meters (5,331 feet). It is also sometimes referred to as “Tsugaru Fuji” because of its conical shape and its location in the Tsugaru region of Aomori. An inactive volcano, its last eruption was on March 23, 1863. No permits are required to hike it, and the toll road leading to a chair lift on one side of the mountain makes it a relatively accessible climb if you’re in the area. (in Japanese) The website can be browsed for the timetable of the bus that runs to the Mt. Iwaki Shrine and Dake Onsen. It also includes the relevant times for the Skyline Shuttle bus in blue. The table on the left with pink headers includes times going to the mountain while the table on the right with blue headers has the times heading back to Hirosaki station. Times listed in red do not run on weekends or holidays.

Best Time to Go: Mt. Iwaki is most safely ascended between early June and late October. During the winter there is an avalanche risk near the summit, and there can be quite a lot of snow on the mountain until after the rainy season. My recommendation would be to climb it in late June or early July as that will also be your best chance at seeing a unique variety of primrose (known as the Michinoku- or Iwaki-Kozakura) near the 9th station (located at the top of the chairlift).

Getting There: For the shuttle to the chairlift, catch a bus going to Karekidai (枯木平) from stop number 6 outside Hirosaki station. Get off at Dake Onsen (岳温泉) and transfer to the Skyline Shuttle Bus (スカイラインシャトルバス) heading for the 8th station (八合目). The chairlift will then take you to the 9th station where you can easily hike to the summit. Note that the Skyline Shuttle Bus is not in operation from mid-November to mid-May. For the full hike, take the same bus from Hirosaki station but get off at the stop for the Mt. Iwaki Shrine (Iwakisanjinjamae [岩木山神社前]) instead.

Maps: A map from the official website can be found here.

Books: While there aren’t any books specifically about Mt. Iwaki, it is one of the 100 famous mountains of Japan, which were originally chosen by the author Kyuya Fukada in his book of the same name, a translation of which is now finally available in English here on Amazon.

Aaron

Note: This giveaway ended 10/31/16.

For fall, we're giving away a new BearVault BV450 food canister filled with a $50 Gift Certificate to REI and a choice of shirt or hat from the TrailGroove Store!

Check out our full BV450 review in Issue 30 for more info on the BearVault, and just make sure you're subscribed to TrailGroove and then like this blog post to let us know you'd like to be included in the drawing. Full details below.

BearVault BV450 Food Container.JPG

Photo credit Mark Wetherington

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Aaron

For years and usually while driving to go hike or visit some other place, a small mountain range in southern Wyoming had always caught my eye from a remote stretch of highway in south-central Wyoming – a range that sharply rises up above the dry sagebrush plains in a place nearly without a name. The consistently jaw-dropping views of these obscure peaks from north of the range and a unique row of limestone fins on the south side of the range led to further research, and I eventually learned that these were the Ferris Mountains, and not only that – it was a designated wilderness study area. As time went on, the more the Ferris Mountains Wilderness Study Area became a priority on my list of places to hike. Maps were consulted and even a route planned – but with a shuttle needed this hike was put on hold.

Ridge in the Ferris Mountains.JPG

Early in the summer of 2016 however, I found myself on the crest of the Ferris Mountains looking down upon the plains from which I’d previously looked up. As the result of an invite from TrailGroove contributor Paul Magnanti, who had also as I learned separately found the Ferris Mountains intriguing, Paul, TrailGroove contributor Mike Henrick, Mark, and myself now found ourselves consulting maps on a warm and windy Wyoming day. A shuttle had been completed, and with a vehicle waiting some 20 miles away or so we climbed from the plains and into the Ferris Mountains.

Ferris Mountains Fire - Burn Area and Wildflowers.JPG

Signs of spring were on display despite a dryness in the land and air that signaled the arrival of summer, and as we climbed and hiked deeper into this wilderness study area the Ferris Mountains began to reveal what they had in store for us. Consistent route finding would be in order, as trails were not to be found, and a rotation of deadfall and talus seemed to repeat itself at intervals, through burn areas and with flat ground underfoot a rarity.

Mark Takes in the View.JPG

After hiking through the day at a slow but steady pace, passing the site of a both tragic and miraculous 1957 plane crash, and having found just a few remaining patches of snow to serve as a water source we then descended as evening approached – giving up some of the elevation we’d spent the day in gaining – in search of a campsite and water. Luckily, a small seep was found higher in the drainage than expected, saving a longer hike back up the next morning, and a quick camp was made in a quiet forest – the sound of wind through the trees lulling me to sleep, the brightness of the moon waking me from my slumber at intervals.

Backpacking in the Ferris Mountains Wilderness Study Area.JPG

The next day saw more off-trail travel, including a summit of the obscure Ferris Peak which offered views all the way back to the Wind River Range and closer to home, and then a descent to a pass past one of the ranges trademark limestone fins, where more gentle terrain, water, and open meadows were found.

View after Summit of Ferris Peak Wyoming.JPG

With feet seemingly finally flat on the ground for the first time in over 24 hours, we picked up the pace, began a long slow descent, and by late afternoon completed the hike and as far as overnighters are concerned, quite a hike at that.

Limestone Fins - Ferris Mountains Wilderness Study Area.JPG

Though the Ferris Mountains Wilderness Study Area may not hold the miles or on-paper allure that many other destinations might offer, the remote nature of the range was a surprise. While the occasional trace that someone had indeed been there before you could at times be seen – an abandoned mine, a reclaimed 4 wheel drive road…a spent shell casing or a fire ring – the antiquated nature of those traces led one to feel almost as if you were hiking back in time without a footprint to be found other than your own. Stark, remote, and rugged – the Ferris Mountains in this case offered an experience that can only be found by finding that obscure destination of your own and letting your maps and the lay of the land be your guide at each turn.

Spring Hiking in the Ferris Mountains WSA.JPG

Information: The area is remote and rugged, take good maps and good shoes. Water is hard to come by on the ridgetops and may involve significant elevation loss and gain to find it in drainages. No permits are required and the WSA is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.There are no established trails but you may find an old jeep road or two at lower elevations. More information can be found on the BLM webpage.

Getting There: The Ferris Mountains are located in south-central Wyoming. From Rawlins, Wyoming drive north on Highway 789 / 287 to Muddy Gap. The range runs 20 miles east to west; consult BLM maps and a detailed atlas to invent your own route and “trailhead” options that avoid private land. Many roads in the area will require high clearance, 4 wheel drive suggested, and may become impassable when wet.

Best Time to Go: Late spring, early summer, and early fall would be ideal times to visit the area without excessive snow, cold, or heat.

Maps: For hiking, we all printed out USGS topographic maps, and Google Maps before the trip / the Delorme Wyoming Atlas before and during the driving process was a crucial resource for finding access points successfully.

Aaron

Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Initial Review

Hiking and running in the various models of the Lone Peak trail running shoe from Altra for the past few years and across several different versions I’ve become well acquainted with the nuances of each model, and after a short but rugged trip to the Ferris Mountains of Wyoming early this past summer I did find one thing on the 2.5 model I’d like more of: support. On that trip while consistently side-hilling with a pack my foot slid around side to side more than I’d like, and even resulted in a blister or two on my usually blister-less feet. For more info on the 2.5, which was a great shoe overall, check out my full review here.

Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Review.JPG

The new Lone Peak 3.0 offered some promise here with similar comfort (said by Altra to be the same last as the 2.5), an equally (moderately) cushioned zero-drop platform with a 25mm stack height, and with a more reinforced and contiguous upper design and redesigned outsole. Considering the shoe is said to utilize the same last as the 2.5 that I know worked well enough, but with promised improvements, I recently gave the new 3.0 a go on a multi-day backpacking trip in the Wind River Range on and off trail, through dry weather as well as in rain and snow, and have been using them on runs and hikes before and since.

Lone Peak 3.0 - Backpacking in Mud.JPG

Comfort has always been a strong point with the Lone Peaks and the new 3.0 does not disappoint – I had no issues staying in the same size as the 2.5 and previous models and the feel is equally comfortable to me, while offering more security for the foot at the same time. As such, I’ve found that any hotspots that may have previously begun to develop on rough terrain with the 2.5 model are now indeed greatly reduced, but not eliminated and my Leukotape did need be used – just a bit – on the outside of my big toes before our 70-ish miles were up on that recent excursion in the Winds. Utilizing the entire lacing system closer to the ankle, which are not laced by default helps greatly to secure the foot as well in my case.

Lone Peak 3.0 Heel Cup and Gaiter Trap.JPG

With less mesh, and heavier mesh where it is utilized the new 3.0 does run warmer than previous models, not a necessarily unwelcome trait considering current shoulder season weather and a lesser amount of dirt and dust seems to work its way into the shoe as well. However, next summer this could without a doubt be a drawback on those warmer days. As a nice bonus, I haven’t noticed significantly longer dry times when they do get wet. Traction has been adequate to good across all types of terrain from easy flat trails to off-trail slopes and throughout dry and wet to snowy conditions.

Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Outsole - Hiking in Snow.JPG

Rock protection and cushioning underfoot is excellent and even with a multi-day pack on rough terrain, while the upper offers decent protection from sticks and stones although more protection could be offered specifically for the big toe. Durability wise, so far so good. For gaiter users the Altra Gaiter Trap remains and a dedicated gaiter ring has been added for use with the Altra Trail Gaiter or your solution of choice. The “trail rudder” that’s been gradually reduced in size with successive Lone Peak models is now gone. With the 3.0 you’ll also gain some options for varying trail conditions with a waterproof Polartec Neoshell version offered both in a low height and in a mid-height boot version as well. 

Lone Peak 3.0 Trail Running Shoe Outsole.JPG

My main issue with the new Lone Peak 3.0 are the insoles, which oddly shift out of place on easy hikes, and completely slide out of place laterally or uncomfortably bunch up towards the toes on downhills when the terrain becomes more sloped and especially when the shoes get wet. This is not an issue I’ve experienced with any other shoe – upon contacting Altra they suggested securing the insoles in place with glue – not my first choice. In the meantime, I’ve started using my old 2.5 insoles in the new 3.0, which seem to greatly reduce the problem. The old insoles have seen better days though, and while I rely on my shoe for cushioning and not my insoles, perhaps Sil-Net or something similar is in my future – aftermarket insoles might offer a solution here, also. An odd situation that's not uncommon to be noted in online reviews for the 3.0 – some solution is needed as the shoes / insoles are not ideal for sloping terrain by default and especially not so when they’re wet.

Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Insole Sliding.JPG

Overall the shoe is a great update whether running, hiking, or backpacking, and seems to offer a most noticeable improvement on sloping terrain in regards to the upper, but not in regards to the surprising insole issue, although experiences may vary. The Lone Peak 3.0 retails for $120. I picked mine up here at Amazon, and you can take a look here at REI and Backcountry.com as well.

Mark

There’s something puzzling but incredibly satisfying about arriving at an empty trailhead on a sunny Saturday morning during Labor Day weekend. While some national parks are setting records for visitation and crowded campgrounds and packed trails are the norm, I had an entire canyon in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Montana to myself for 24 hours. Ten miles of well-maintained trail passed through lovely coniferous forest and beside a delightful waterfall to reach four subalpine lakes. This was definitely not a dull landscape or a journey which lacked a worthy destination. But for whatever reason, it was not a trail chosen by other backpackers despite its easy access and prominence in guidebooks.

Swimming Boulder Creek Selway Bitterroot Wilderness.JPG

From the perplexingly lonely Boulder Creek Trailhead, it was an easy four mile jaunt to Boulder Creek Falls. I tried and failed to work up the nerve to take a dip in the tantalizing but frigid emerald pool at its base. Instead I merely took off my boots, soaked my feet, read a bit of from a book of William Faulkner short stories, rehydrated, and replaced spent calories. The smoke which had hung in the valley for the past few days had dissipated significantly and I indulged in the sublime pleasure of bathing in the sun and watching clouds drift overhead while my feet rested in the refreshing waters of a mountain stream. Forcing myself not to linger, I topped off my water bottles and continued up the canyon.

Hiking in Boulder Canyon Montana.JPG

After Boulder Creek Falls, the trail never ceased to accommodate me with its moderate grade and its kindly offering of ripe thimbleberries along several sections. As the trail progressed up the canyon it occasionally exited the shady spruce-fir forest and passed through several clearings, each offering a different perspective on the landscape and showcasing the transition of summer into fall. The verdancy of summer was evident in certain deep green pockets of vegetation, some clinging to distant mountainsides and some flourishing trailside. Aspen and some shrubs were assuming muted colors or hinting at the brilliant yellows and reds that would be their last hurrah before fading into winter.

It was in one of these clearings that I had the incredible luck to see a wolf who was also exploring the trail. When I noticed something moving as I neared the clearing, I paused at the edge of the forest and watched as the animal climbed off the small trailside rock and onto the vegetation shrouded trail. She (given her size, it was likely a female and probably a pup born earlier in the year) came within 20 feet of me before recognizing my presence, pausing for a second, then bounding away. While the picture I took more closely resembles Bigfoot’s thumbprint than White Fang, this was certainly a case where a picture is worth a thousand words.

Grey Wolf seen while Backpacking Montana Wilderness.JPG

Exhilarated by the close encounter of the canine kind, I continued on the trail – pausing a few times for quick sips of water and to check the map – and didn’t pause again until reaching a small tarn about two miles away from my intended final destination. The shrubs above the lake were turning a warm orange and surrounding stubborn pockets of greenery. Along with the crisp air obtained after almost 3,000 feet of climbing over the previous 9 miles, this setting proclaimed the impending arrival of autumn more strongly than the flora and atmosphere lower in the canyon.

Leaving the tarn, I passed the largest of the lakes on this trip, Boulder Lake, and was greeted – or perhaps warned – by a marmot before beginning a positively brutal ascent to the final two lakes in the Boulder Canyon cirque. Boulder Lake was absolutely stunning and the essence of Rocky Mountain high country scenery. While its expansive and deep waters ringed by forest and hemmed in by granite cliffs and peaks speckled with snow made for an enticing place to spend the night, it seemed a bit overwhelming for a solo backpacker. Akin to sleeping by yourself in a five-bedroom house, perhaps. So I politely passed by the multiple campsites and followed a faint trail for just under a mile, gaining 700 more feet of elevation, before arriving at Lake Crystal, the penultimate lake on my itinerary. Somehow managing to simultaneously admire its scenery and maintain forward momentum, I continued to the last lake where I intended to set up camp. A few hundred feet later I reached the waters of Lake Turbid and set down my backpack.

Hiking to Boulder Lake Montana.JPG

I’d made better time than I’d anticipated, so I took a leisurely stroll up a knoll on the distant side of the lake as a cool-down hike before unpacking and setting up camp. From the knoll I had an excellent vantage point of Lake Turbid and could see Lake Crystal shimmering through the trees, as well as Dollar Lake further below. The serrated skyline of Boulder Canyon’s north rim dominated much of the view and scattered peaks and highpoints near and far offered an almost infinite choice of places to settle my gaze.

After the tent was pitched, water purified, and bear bag line hung I stretched out and let my body rest while I occupied my mind. Picking up where I had left on my lunch break, the short story The Bear by William Faulkner transported me from the mountains of Montana to the backwoods of Mississippi. Once I reached a good stopping point, I set the book down and took advantage of the friendly terrain to circumnavigate the lake. While I don’t always walk around the shore of every lake I camp at, it’s a habit I’ve been trying to establish when the size of the lake and the light of day permit it. I read a bit more upon my return to camp and found myself so entranced in the narrative that I was surprised to realize how suddenly twilight and hunger crept up on me. Stars began to dot the sky their distant luminescence just as I was finishing my hastily prepared dinner. I enjoyed some stargazing and a warm cup of tea before heading to bed around 10 p.m., my breath barely visible in the light of the headlamp as I zipped myself into the sleeping bag.

Backpacking the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness - Boulder Canyon Montana.JPG

Morning was cloudy and rich with the crisp air of fall.  The water in my bottle was frigid when I groggily took a sip in the morning and the tent poles were cold as dismantled them and wrapped them up in the rainfly. Leaving Lake Turbid at 9 a.m, the clouds continued their mission of keeping the sun hidden and the winds were picking up. Despite the somewhat ominous weather, I decided to take a detour around the talus slop of Lake Crystal to get a different perspective on the landscape on my return. The view from this detour, combined with the saturated lighting of the cloudy morning, made it seem like it was a new lake altogether. Once the detour was complete and I was back on its eastern shore, I followed the same route out as I had in.

Along the Trail - Boulder Creek Montana.JPG

My exit was delayed only by diligent thimbleberry picking and conversation with some horseback riders. As is my habit, I started thinking about my next trip before finishing the one I was currently enjoying. Not exactly the best way to find presence and walking meditation, but it’s something I’m slowly but surely working to improve on. Hiking back toward the trailhead, I casually scanned the high slopes of the southern rim of Boulder Creek Canyon, looking for a way up to Lake of the Rocks, which is noted as being “almost inaccessible waters [that] surely must rank among the Bitterroots’ least visited” according the guidebook Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I imagine that if and when I make it up to that alpine highlight, holiday weekend or not, solitude will be the rule rather than the exception.


Getting There: Heading south from the small town of Darby, MT on US-93, turn right (west) onto MT-473 (West Fork Road). Take this road for approximately 12 miles and turn right (a sign marks the turn) onto the good gravel road leading to Sam Billings Memorial Campground in about a mile. The road dead-ends at the trailhead parking lot just beyond the campground.

Best Time to Go: In most years this hike is ideal from mid-June to mid-October. There are no major creek crossings, so doing this hike early in the year is possible even if Boulder Creek itself is roaring with snow melt. Fall is a nice time of year, with aspens and larch showing off their colors. As winter comes in, severe weather becomes an issue.

Maps: Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (South Half), Bitterroot National Forest.

Books: Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness by Scott Steinberg.

JimR

Thru-Hiking: The Junior Version

Recent books and movies have inspired countless hikers and potential hikers to dream about thru-hiking one of the “big three” of America’s long trails: The Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail. However, most people that attempt the feat drop off the trail before completion. A six-month commitment to a hike can become just too difficult. Countless others don’t even try; it’s just too much time away from family and the lives they’ve built. Completing all three trails, the “Triple Crown of Hiking,” is beyond even contemplating.

John Muir Trail Thru-hike.JPG

Other options exist though. There are long trails that, while still providing life changing experiences, can be completed in weeks rather than months. In fact, there’s even a “Triple Crown” that can not only be contemplated, it can be accomplished. That’s right, there’s a junior version of hiking’s “Triple Crown.”

Mine began as a bucket list hike. As a guy in his 50’s with titanium in one foot, I didn’t even entertain the thought of the AT, PCT, or CDT. I was looking for a significant adventure though and settled on trying the Colorado Trail. The 486 mile CT shares nearly half of its distance with the Continental Divide Trail and travels through some of the most beautiful scenery of the Rockies. It was a tremendous, month-long experience; everything I had hoped for.

After that trail, I was hooked on thru-hiking, just not the kind that requires six months at a time. In the last year I also completed both the iconic John Muir Trail, and the trail many consider to be the inspiration for the AT, the Long Trail. For those with weeks, not months, available to hike; I recommend them highly. But which trail is the best? It all depends on what you are looking for.

The Long Trail is 273 miles of classic eastern mountains. Much of the time is spent meandering through oaks and maples. Because the trail runs the very spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains, there are a surprising number of big views. Besides the bare peaks of Camel's Hump and Mt. Mansfield, several other mountains crossed are ski resorts in the winter. The cleared ski slopes reveal more scenery than typically found on other eastern mountains. Quite often the views also include a beautiful small town nestled down in a valley. One such spot is Stratton Mountain. It was there that Benton McKaye conceived of the idea of the Appalachian Trail.

Backpacking Vermont's Long Trail.JPG

The southern 100 miles or so of the trail are perfect if you are looking for an AT type experience. In fact, for that stretch the trail is shared with the AT. There are numerous shelters, plenty of company and nearby resupply. Once north of the split, the trail is significantly more challenging. The crowds disappear and the hiking gets much more rugged. There were many spots where I found myself climbing ladders or metal rungs drilled into rock walls. There were other spots where I wished there were ladders. More than once I looked at the trail in front of me and exclaimed, “You have got to be kidding me!” Oh, and the famous “Vermud” is a real thing. If you’re looking for a new level of challenge, the Long Trail is for you.

The Colorado Trail is quintessential big mountain hiking. Rather than follow one chain of mountains, the CT crosses eight named mountain ranges, each with its own look. The hike varies between open coniferous forests, aspen groves, high mesas, and rugged alpine passes with views of mountaintops that seem to extend forever. In some drier areas, there are even cacti. While the trail averages 10,000 feet in elevation, the object of the trail is not to climb the peaks, but travel around them. Peak bagging is possible through side trips, but not on the CT itself.

Colorado Trail Thruhike.JPG

Initial construction was completed in 1987, making it by far the newest trail. Beyond self-issued permits at some of the wilderness areas, no paperwork is required to hike the CT.

Winding from just south of Denver, Colorado to Durango in the southwest portion of the state, the CT is mostly single track without significant mileage on Forest Service roads. There is one (6 mile) section of road walking. Besides multiple mountain ranges the trail winds through six wilderness areas and some of the most beautiful scenery in the Rocky Mountains. The CT shares approximately 235 Miles with the Continental Divide Trail.

Durango - Silverton Railroad Train - Colorado Trail.JPG

The trail itself is very well constructed and appears to be well maintained. A tent is a necessity as support structures such as shelters are noticeably absent. In my mind a hammock is not really an option due to the trail spending extended stretches above tree line. Altitude is a significant consideration on the trail. With the average elevation over 10,000 feet, snow can remain well into the summer months. Thunderstorms at that height are a real danger.

Hikers on the CT need to be self-sufficient. In the more remote sections there are few other hikers and convenient resupplies can be far apart. I typically hiked 70-100+ miles between town stops.

Wildlife is prevalent on the trail and I saw quite a bit, from hummingbirds, chipmunks, and pika up to big mammals including deer, moose, bighorn sheep, and elk. Marmots were very numerous at higher elevations. There are also black bear near the trail, though I did not see any.

The John Muir Trail should be on every hiker’s bucket list. It is 210 miles of spectacular. The JMT shares 170 miles with the Pacific Crest Trail and by most accounts is the most scenic section of the PCT. Running from Yosemite National Park to Kings Canyon National Park, the trail travels through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. Known for their beauty, the Sierra were called “The Range of Light” by John Muir.

John Muir Trail Backpacking.JPG

Beyond jaw dropping views of places like Half Dome, Cathedral Peak, Evolution Valley, and the high passes, the JMT is about water. There are beautiful alpine lakes and countless clear streams. Even hiking during the 2015 drought, enough melting snow was left to fill the spectacular rapids and waterfalls that travel down the mountains’ steep slopes. Much of the trail appeared very dry, but water was never an issue. There is only one mountaintop view, but it’s a doozy. At 14,505 feet, the summit of Mt. Whitney is the official endpoint of the JMT. On a clear day, the view goes on seemingly forever.

Potential wildlife sightings on and near the trail were second to none as well. A good portion of the hike is within National Parks after all. All the wildlife normally thought of in a mountain wilderness lives near the JMT. Deer were thick through the lower elevations and seemingly oblivious to hikers. What really stood out during my hike was the close encounters with predators. I happened upon coyote and even a bobcat while on the trip. The multiple sightings of bear left no doubt as to why food canisters are required.

Backpacking Near Donahue Pass on the John Muir Trail.JPG

Resupplies get tougher as you travel from north to south. The last relatively convenient resupply option is at Muir Trail Ranch, 110 miles into your 220-mile hike. (Yes, I know the trail is 210 miles, but you still have to get off Mt. Whitney.) Cramming enough food into your bear canister to take you the rest of the way can be a challenge, to say the least.

Like the CT, the JMT has high elevations and big climbs, but both are well constructed with switchbacks when needed. Again, like the CT, you’ll need to rely on your own shelter.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with the JMT is getting a permit. If you want to start at Happy Isles in Yosemite, plan on faxing in an application 24 weeks before your planned start date. By the end of the day, you will find out if you secured a permit. You probably did not. Per the National Park Service website, over 97% of all applications are denied. Prepare to repeat the process the next day with a new starting date and start location options. One hiker I met on the trail had been denied 22 times before she received a permit to start at Happy Isles Trailhead.

Now I fully understand the National Park Service’s position. They have a duty to protect the wilderness from overuse and want to provide a true wilderness experience for those that do receive a permit. I certainly did not want to hike the JMT like I was in a conga line or a parade. Based on my experience, allowing 45 people daily to travel over the JMT’s first pass seemed like a reasonable number. While I saw others at times, it was not constant and I was always able to find a good spot to camp. None of that makes getting the permit any easier, however. You’ll need to plan ahead, yet be very flexible.

In my case, after being turned down a few times, I changed my plan. I was able to secure a permit starting from Tuolumne Meadows, 20 miles down the trail. However, I also arrived at the park a couple days early and day hiked the section I would have otherwise missed. Yes 20 miles is a long day hike, but using park bus service and walking it backwards, it was doable. Was it perfect? No, but it was the only option to walk the entire trail within my timeframe.

Hiking the JMT in the Fall.JPG

So, if the logistics of a 2,000 mile hike are impossible for you in the near future, don’t fret. There are viable options to still be a thru-hiker. Pick whichever one of the shorter options of America’s three foremost cross-country trails that sounds best to you. Perhaps you’ll get the bug and eventually hike the Triple Crown; just the junior version.


Information: No permits are required to hike the Long Trail though some camp areas and shelters have a $5/night fee. More information is available at the Green Mountain Club.

Other than free, self-issued permits at some wilderness areas, no permits are required to hike the Colorado Trail. More information is available at the Colorado Trail Foundation.

A permit is required to hike the John Muir Trail. The cost is $5 for the permit, plus $5 for each person in the group. In addition, a bear canister is required on much of the trail. For those starting from the northern (Yosemite National Park) terminus, information on permits and the trail is available on the Yosemite National Park page.

Best Time to Go: The hiking season for both the CT and JMT is generally July through September. Early season hikers enjoy more wildflowers, stream flows and mosquitoes. At the highest elevations, snow can last well into the summer, and return again early in the fall.

Parts of the Long Trail do not open until Memorial Day Weekend. The “mud season” returns by late October. September would be my choice as the trails tend to be at their driest, bugs mostly gone and the AT thru-hiker wave has passed. Early-mid October brings the added draw of tremendous fall color.

Getting There: The Colorado Trail Eastern/Northern terminus is located at 11300 Waterton Road, Littleton, CO 80125. From Denver, take I-25 South to C-470 West to CO Hwy 121 South. After 4.5 miles turn left onto Waterton Rd.

Most hikers attempt to start the John Muir Trail at the Happy Isles Trailhead located at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley inside Yosemite National Park. There are numerous options for both driving and public transportation to and throughout the park.

The southern terminus of the Long Trail is located on the Appalachian Trail at the Vermont/Massachusetts border. The trail can be accessed via the AT by hiking north from the crossing of Mass Rt 2 between Williamstown and North Adams, MA. Another option is the hike the Pine Cobble Trail from Pine Cobble Rd in Williamstown to the AT just south of the Vermont state line.

Maps: There are highly useful Guthook phone apps for all three trails. The Green Mountain Club produces a map of the LT. The Colorado Trail Foundation produces a map and a databook for the CT and many Trails Illustrated Maps cover the route. For the JMT I used the John Muir Trail Pocket Atlas by Blackwoods Press. The JMT Map Set from Tom Harrison Maps is another option.

Books: The Colorado Trail Guidebook by the Colorado Trail Foundation. Long Trail Guide by the Green Mountain Club. John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail by Elizabeth Wenk. Backpacking’s Triple Crown: The Junior Version by the author Jim Rahtz.

MattS

The trail before me had become a treacherous, muddy mess. My backpack felt like a sodden weight pulling me down, and my shoes squished and oozed water with every step. I was looking down at what would have been a sharp descent, now transformed into a muddy slide. As I debated between simply sitting down on the trail and letting gravity carry me along or staggering forward and attempting to remain upright, I thought again about how I had let this happen.

Hiking Mt. Kumotori, Japan.JPG

The answer involved a series of bad decisions and bravado that all began with a hat. It had been the parting gift of a friend of mine when I left my home in Connecticut to teach English in Japan, and was of a rugged, outdoorsy quality, tan in color, with a mid-size brim. Its involvement in my current predicament began with a humble interaction at Japan’s Narita airport. At the time, I was absorbed in the process of following a series of guides to the hotel bus when another soon-to-be-teacher spoke up from behind me. I didn’t quite catch what he said, though, because I was in that unique state of exhaustion only a sleepless 14-hour plane trip can bring on. I asked him to repeat himself, and he obliged.

“I said I like your hat.”
“Thanks,” I replied, “I got it from a friend.”
“Oh?” he said, “Are you into hiking, then?”
“Yes,” I answered, though I hadn’t been anywhere near a hiking trail in the last eight years. I suppose I was trying to live up to my hat’s outdoorsy image. I then followed up this half-truth with an ambiguous statement. “I used to go on hikes all the time with my family.”
“That’s great!” was his trusting response. “You must be excited to get out and do some hiking now that you’re here. There are mountains all over the place.”
“Yeah,” I said, caught up in the spirit of the conversation, “I’m going to look up some good local trails after I get settled in.”

Then the bus showed up, silencing us both, and everything dissolved once more into a whirlwind of activity. But that conversation stuck with me. I really had enjoyed hiking when I was younger, and Japan seemed like the perfect place to get back into it. There was an abundance of trails, it would give me something fun to do with my free time, and actually going on some hikes would help me feel less like a liar.

The idea took hold. When I introduced myself to schoolchildren in the city of Hachinohe, where I taught, the three hobbies I always brought up were reading, listening to music, and hiking. When I and my fellow teachers were at welcome parties, I would ask my new coworkers if they knew any good hiking trails, or had any interest in the activity. Their answers to the first question tended to be vague, and I never did find someone who answered affirmatively to the latter. Still, I got the idea there were lots of places nearby where I could go out and practice my newly christened hobby.

And yet it was months before I ever acted on this idea. I had arrived in early August, when even the highest peaks in Japan are fairly accessible, but I just couldn’t seem to get myself out the door. Before I knew it, it was winter, and I was telling myself that by the time spring rolled around I’d be ready to hit the trails for sure. I spent my time researching various mountains and finally made my choice: Mt. Kumotori. This was to be my inaugural hike in Japan, and it sounded perfect.

View of Okutama While Climbing Kumotori.JPG

The website I’d been using to get the bulk of my information had given the course a difficulty of 2 out of 5, which was just what I was looking for. The mountain was near Tokyo, making it easily accessible, and its elevation wasn’t too high, meaning I could climb it early in the season without worrying about snow. It was even one of the “100 Famous Mountains” of Japan. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but it sounded impressive.

Satisfied with my decision, I moved on to choosing my equipment. This trip was to be a two-day excursion, though since I was planning on spending the night in a rest hut, I wouldn’t need to bring a sleeping bag or tent. I would only take the bare minimum: a change of clothes, some water, a few energy bars, a backpack just big enough to hold everything, and what I was now calling my “hiking hat”. Given the benefit of hindsight, I made at least three major mistakes here. First, I didn’t bring any rain gear. Second, I didn’t bother investing in a good pair of hiking boots. And finally, my choice of backpack was a raggedy old leftover from college.

At the time, though, it never occurred to me to worry about such things, not even the possibility of rain. It was only as I hopped on the bullet train down to Tokyo that I even bothered to check the weather. Apparently, it had rained there every day for the past six days, would be cloudy on my first day, and might rain on the second. But, I figured I’d be off the mountain before things got bad on day two, and counted myself lucky. I couldn’t wait to get out there and experience the wonders of Japan’s mountainous landscape.

First, though, I had to find the trail, which did not start at Mt. Kumotori. It began at Mitsumine shrine, and I had a number of other peaks to traverse before I could start on Mt. Kumotori itself. As my print-out from the hiking website eloquently explained, “you’ll be on the ridge all day.” Of course, I didn’t really know what exactly that would entail. I imagined I’d be on a high plateau most of the time, maybe with some small hills to walk over. Sure, the distance may be great, and each peak might be hard if begun from ground level, but it shouldn’t be that bad staying on the ridge, right? After all, the difficulty was only a 2 out of 5.

Mitsumine Shrine Japan - Hiking Trail Starting.JPG

The problem with that rating was that for someone on his first hike in Japan, it would prove to be a colossal understatement. I got my first sense of this almost immediately, when the trail began to slope up away from the shrine. And then it kept going up. Then it went up some more. I soon found myself winded, and could barely believe that the long series of switchbacks I was working my way over could ever be considered easy. Still, I was able to encourage myself by looking back at how far I’d come, and telling myself that once I was up on the ridge things would get easier.

There was also the mud to contend with. Six days of rain meant that the trail was soaked, and the steep inclines were all slick and dangerous. On more than one occasion I had to use my hands to pull myself up different sections of the path, and already I was wishing for some hiking boots. When I finally reached the first peak, Mt. Kirimogamine, I felt totally spent.

Hiking Path to Mt Kirimogamine Japan.JPG

My legs were stiff and sore despite the short time I’d been moving, my precious hat had seemingly welded itself to my head thanks to prodigious amounts of sweat, and I was gasping for each breath. Haunted by the need to keep up a good pace, though, I only allowed myself a five-minute break, so while I was feeling better when I set out again, by no means was I in good shape. Still, I wasn’t worried. After all, now I was unquestionably on the ridgeline, and that was supposed to mean easy climbing.

Mt. Kirimogamine Bench Along Trail.JPG

My optimism, however, would prove to be short-lived. After what felt like a much too brief descent, the path again angled upwards. This second climb was steeper than the first, though thankfully not as muddy. It was also during this ascent that I finally realized walking along the ridgeline would not be an easy task. It was instead a constant struggle of up and down. My being on it for the entire first day meant I was doomed to go through these cycles of intensely tiring climbs over and over again before even getting to the one mountain I had set out to climb. Was this really just a 2 out of 5? A 2 out of 5?!

That difficulty rating became my curse as I went along, and my anger helped give me the energy to keep climbing. I went up and over the rocky slope, and then up and over a few more before finally reaching another landmark listed in my directions. It was the Mt. Shiraiwa hut, which the website placed approximately 90 minutes from where I intended to spend the night. Sitting inside was an old man who looked for all the world like he lived out here, and he was happy to brew me a cup of coffee and chat while I recovered from my exertions.

He remarked that I didn’t look ready for the rain, and, right on cue, I could hear the sound of the first sporadic drops beginning to fall outside. I briefly considered just staying here for the night, but ultimately chose to press on given how close I was to my destination. Even if the website’s difficulty scale was a far cry from my own, at least its time estimates could be trusted.

Thankfully, the rain proved to be intermittent and the path itself grew considerably easier. I felt like I’d hit my stride, and for a long time I traveled over mostly level ground. At some point this began to worry me, because I knew by now it would mean a bigger climb later. As it turned out, though, things wouldn’t actually get challenging again for quite some time.

The difficulty, when it did arrive, was also of my own choosing. As I began to finally make some progress on Mt. Kumotori itself, I came to a fork in the path. Each branch was marked with a sign and both led to my destination. The problem was the name of each path. One was relatively straight and steep, and it was marked “Man’s Path,” while the other was more roundabout, with a more gentle climb. It was of course marked “Woman’s Path.” Faced with the decision of which way to go, I let my pride get the better of me. I started up the “Man’s Path.”

I should have known better. All day I had been bemoaning how difficult this hike was, wishing for an easier way. I had been tired since first climbing up from Mitsumine shrine hours ago. And just because one path had been arbitrarily associated with men and another with women, I was hardly obligated to take the one that matched my sex. Even knowing that, though, I could not ignore the challenge of the “Man’s Path.” I railed against my decision to make things harder on myself every step of the way, but I stuck with it until, panting and exhausted, I reached the rest hut.

Kumotori Hiking Trail.JPG

I had never spent the night out in a hut before, leaving me no idea what to expect. The hiking website had described it as “luxurious,” though what that boiled down to was paying $50 for the privilege of sleeping in a futon on the floor next to ten other people. At least there was a roof over our heads, a good source of water, and the possibility of rest. I munched on my energy bars for dinner and went to bed early in the hopes that I could rise with the sun the next morning.

Only, there was no sun the next morning, just shrouds of mist and clouds. Nevertheless, I set out early, and found the hut had been well placed just before the climb grew truly difficult. It was no easy task to wake up first thing in the morning and start climbing a mountain, especially when I was still tired and sore from the previous day, but I wanted to get as far as possible before what now seemed like an inevitable rainfall.

It helped that I had some company on this initial ascent. An older Japanese couple had left the rest hut at about the same time as me, and we started climbing together. They asked where I had started from and seemed impressed when I told them Mitsumine shrine. I found that encouraging, and they then went on to point out how foreigners were now climbing mountains all over Japan. They wished more Japanese people would get out on the trails, but explained that nobody who isn’t retired has the time.

After climbing together for a while, though, I ended up needing less breaks than them, and they encouraged me to go on. The last thing they told me was that there should be a great view out to the Japanese Alps from the summit, though the weather today might block the view. So, after one last push, I reached the top of Mt. Kumotori, and sure enough, the cloud cover was so thick that nothing was visible. This had been my experience pretty much all along, with clouds obscuring any but the most immediate beauty, and I was thoroughly sick of the uniform grayness.

It felt strange to reach the top of the mountain that had been my big goal so early on the second day. Together with the useless view it felt doubly anticlimactic, but I still took a minute to let myself feel accomplished. I had successfully completed my first hike in Japan, and now all I had to do was get down. Or at least, that’s how I looked at it, but getting down soon proved to be just as much trouble as going up. To begin with, I wasn’t sure which way to go.

Mt Kumotori Forest View.JPG

My directions claimed I would find an emergency rest hut, and that there were two ways down from there. One involved a long walk on a forest road while the other was presumably a more direct route down Mt. Nanatsuishi. I tried to take the longer and hopefully easier route, but in truth I’m still not sure which path I ended up on. I did find the emergency hut, but either through a trick of the fog or a misunderstanding I only saw one way to go. Whichever way it was, I soon learned that my efforts were far from over.

The rain began falling in earnest while I was still on an easy downhill section. At first I hoped for a repeat of yesterday: a few intermittent showers with no real harm done. I could not have been more wrong.  The rain was constant. The rain was hard. And the rain was miserable. I made my way along the trail, becoming first damp, then wet, then soaked. The path turned into mud beneath my feet, and then began to grow unstable.

It felt discomforting to work my way along a ridge and feel it slipping away beneath my weight. It was also disturbing to discover that I wasn’t done with the ridgeline just yet. I had several more peaks left to traverse, and though this was an easier task than on the previous day, the rain had a way of making everything harder. Perhaps my worst moment came as the trail turned into a single narrow ledge. I wasn't even sure what was holding it up, because it seemed to jut out from the edge of the slope as though pinched from the side of the mountain.

The rain had weakened this precarious passage so much that it was beginning to collapse. I started to run as I made my way along it, and when I felt it giving way beneath my feet, I finally jumped over to another section of the trail. When I looked back, I doubted whether anyone would be able to follow in my footsteps. This brief moment of terror had me on edge, and it was with a constant sense of dread that I continued on my way.

Eventually, my direction shifted so I was mostly headed downhill. By this point, though, the path had essentially turned into a muddy chute. Since the bottom of the trail was so well trodden, over time it had formed into a half-pipe, with large embankments rising up on either side. Down in the center of this “pipe”, the trail consisted of a mix of water and mud that resembled nothing so much as a sluiceway. It was slippery and treacherous. Once or twice fell straight into the muck, but always managed to right myself and continue on. 

Trail to Okutama from Summit of Mt. Kumotori.JPG

At one point I ran into a fellow hiker heading in the other direction. I warned him that the trail up ahead was bad. Considering my state at the time, dripping wet and covered in mud, I thought my warning would be fairly convincing, but he merely thanked me and headed on just the same. All this time it was still raining, though by now it hardly mattered. I certainly couldn’t get any wetter, and even that change of clothes in my bag was probably sopping wet by now.

Finally, I reached the last muddy slope. At this point, I decided I might as well just sit down and slide myself to the bottom. Exhausted, and covered in mud, it would be another hour of squishing along on foot before I reached the train station and the official end of my hike. I was overjoyed when I arrived, and by now the sun was out and the sky a clear blue. It felt like the perfect day for a hike. Laughing to myself, I lifted a hand to my hat, which was rumpled and wet but still served to shield my face from the sun, and got on the train back to Tokyo.


Information: With an elevation of 2,017 meters (6,6017 feet), Mt. Kumotori, or Kumotoriyama (雲取山), is the tallest mountain in the Tokyo area. It stands as the boundary point between Tokyo, Saitama, and Yamanashi Prefectures on Japan’s main island of Honshu, and is a part of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. No permits are required for this hike, though it is generally recommended that you be bear aware, since black bears do inhabit the park. 

Additional resources (in Japanese): 

1. Kumotori Mountain Hut (雲取山荘) website (includes a lot of helpful information if you can read Japanese, including bus times and weather conditions as well as access to reservations.) 

2. Seibu Railway timetable from Ikebukuro towards Seibu-Chichibu (Click the top link for weekdays and the bottom link for weekends/holidays. I recommend one of the express trains listed in red, since even one of those will take about an hour and twenty minutes to arrive.) 

3. Seibu bus website with timetables (click on the M at the bottom right of the page to access timetables in Japanese to and from Mitsumine shrine. The two timetables on the top are going to the shrine. The two timetables on the bottom are going back to the station. In both cases, the times in red are the ones to pay attention to, so currently the first bus to the shrine leaves at 9:10 and arrives at 10:25. The next bus to the shrine leaves at 10:10, then 12:15, etc.) 

4. Mitsumine Shrine official website with bus information (click the image for another timetable. Though currently the return bus times listed are inaccurate on the form, changes are listed on the website itself.) 

5. Official JR page for Okutama station (click the button marked 平日 on the left for a weekday timetable or 土曜•休日 on the right for a weekend/holiday one. All trains go towards Tokyo Station, and some go direct, but most will stop at Ome Station, where you can transfer to a train going towards Tachikawa Station. Also, some trains leaving Okutama will go directly to Tachikawa Station. Either way, from Tachikawa station, you can transfer to the Chuo line and easily get around the city.) 

Best Time to Go: While the Kumotori Mountain Hut is open year-round, and the consensus on a good hiking time seems to run from mid-April to late-December, my recommendation would be to go in the early fall, September, or October. Note that early-May and mid-August are peak travel times for Japanese hikers due to holidays, and the huts are likely to be very crowded during those time frames.

Getting There: From Ikebukuro station (池袋駅) in Tokyo, ride the Seibu Railway line (西武鉄道) to Seibu-Chichibu station (西武秩父駅). From there, take a bus to Mitsumine Shrine (三峰神社). The trail starts from the parking lot, branching off to the right as you climb the stairs. To get back to Tokyo after the hike, simply take a train from Okutama station directly back into the city.

Maps: Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park.

Books: Climbing a few of Japan's 100 Famous Mountains - Volume 5: Mt. Kumotori, by Daniel H. Wieczorek and Kazuya Numazawa.

Aaron

Note: This giveaway ended 7/12/16.

For summer, we're giving away a new ZPacks 4-in-1 MultiPack filled with a $50 Gift Certificate to REI and a choice of shirt or hat from the TrailGroove Store!

If you're not familiar with this versatile storage solution from ZPacks check out our Multi-Pack Review from back in Issue 17 for all the details - I personally use one as a ~3 ounce solution to keep my camera easily accessible (in chest pack mode) on every hike. Just make sure you're subscribed to TrailGroove and then like this blog post to let us know you'd like to be included in the drawing. Full details below.

ZPacks Multipack in Pack Lid Mode.JPG

Above: Our review setup in pack lid mode strapped to a ULA Circuit backpack. The ZPacks Multi-Pack can also be used as a chest pack, waist pack, or satchel.

How to Enter

1) Like this blog entry in the lower right hand corner of this post. Simply login with your TrailGroove account and like this blog entry in the lower right hand corner of this post to let us know you'd like to be entered to win. New to TrailGroove? Click here to sign up for a new account - make sure to select the subscribe option on the sign up screen as well - it will help with step 2. The button you then need to click to like this post will look like the one below, albeit a bit smaller:

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2) Subscribe to TrailGroove. Odds are you might already be subscribed, but you can subscribe below or verify by typing in your email if needed. (Hint: Receive an email from us about this giveaway? If so, you're subscribed!) Note that you won't be subscribed twice, so it doesn't hurt to check - make sure you're subscribed with the same email you used here for your TrailGroove account:
 

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3) Premium TrailGroove Member? You've been automatically entered into this giveaway - like this blog post for an additional entry and chance to win! Or sign up for a premium membership anytime before 7/12 to take advantage of this benefit.

4) Optional: This isn't required and doesn't even earn additional entries, but since you're here feel free to give us a like on Facebook and a follow on Twitter below - we'd appreciate it! (And it helps us keep you up to date with any future giveaways and TrailGroove news from time to time)

 


5) As always, if you're new to TrailGroove or perhaps just haven't dropped by in a while, feel free to stop by the forum to jump in the discussion or just to say hello.
 
We'll randomly draw from all entries on Tuesday 7/12 at 7 p.m. Mountain Time and will contact the winner here via a private message - Good luck!

Aaron

Altra Lone Peak 2.5 Review

After a quick first look and comparison to the previous model here, and with the updated Altra Lone Peak 3.0 on the horizon, I’ve now been doing everything outside from hiking to backpacking to running in the Lone Peak 2.5 trail running shoe for a nearly a year and wanted to share what I’ve experienced with this version of the popular Lone Peak trail running shoe from zero-drop shoe manufacturer Altra

Backpacking and Hiking in Altra Lone Peak Shoes.JPG

Although initially undecided on the fit of the 2.5 compared to the 2.0, I’ve grown to appreciate what I consider to be more of a sleek fit on the 2.5 and the shoes are very light and comfortable – comfortable enough that even after a challenging trip there is no immediate desire to rid myself of the shoe – loosen the laces and I’m fine for the drive home or in camp. They are of course zero-drop shoes, adding to comfort, at least for me (with really loose laces, they feel almost like an enclosed sandal). Sizing is on par with my previous Altra experiences. The shoes weigh 24.5 ounces for the pair (Men’s 12.5). With the amount of mesh that’s used in this shoe, breathability is excellent and helps in both of the above regards – the shoes dry quite quickly as well even in those less than ideal scenarios where your feet stay dry all day but you slip on that last stream crossing before setting up camp with no hiking time to dry out the shoe. The amount of mesh that’s used in this shoe might lead to some dirty feet at the end of the day, but we are backpacking after all and overall in most three season conditions the extra breathability leads to greater comfort. If debris entering the top of the shoe is a concern, the shoe will work will with gaiters including but not limited to Altra’s own offering by default with the built-in Velcro Gaiter Trap on the outside heel.

Mesh Ventilation.JPG

Traction has been fine for a trail runner with no issues to report. The 25mm stack height combined with built in rock protection has been sufficient to keep my feet comfy and protected with and without a pack and during on and off-trail scenarios while staying stable, but backpacking through the talus and sharp rocks will require careful and well-thought out foot placement to avoid the occasional “ouch-but-no-big-deal” moments; you can't just blaze through without regard in these shoes. The only terrain that has led to some sore feet at the end of the day is extensive side-hilling off-trail and with the weight of an overnight pack where you just can’t seem to tie the shoes tight enough to keep your foot from sliding – the upcoming 3.0 appears to secure the foot a little better in this regard. In any event, the shoes have remained workable and remain my choice for any backpacking and hiking trip that’s not a winter trip in snow and cold.

Altra Outsole Sole Wear.JPG

Durability has been fine – the entire upper has held up very well across a multitude of conditions with only slight wear from not paying attention while backpacking through sharp rocks. The outsole has worn nicely with the expected reduction in traction as it ages and the rest of the shoe is durable enough that I could wear the entire outsole down and still have a usable shoe. But with reduced traction and reduced cushioning as the miles add up, new shoes are preferred long before that happens. I’m on my second pair of the Lone Peak 2.5, and the increased cushioning of a new shoe compared to one with hundreds of miles is immediately evident and quite welcome with appreciative feet and knees as a result. Fresh lugs are also very handy on steeper terrain. The only real durability concerns have been a slight separation of the outsole from the midsole on one shoe only – the outsole has separated / torn from the midsole on the heel of one shoe. The “Trail Rudder” design – a slight extension of the outsole past the heel of the shoe – may have contributed to this happening; however the separation hasn’t progressed over many hikes and could likely even be repaired if desired. Small mesh abrasions and a single small mesh tear show more use and abuse. In all cases with the sole and mesh, the issues are aesthetic only and as a result haven’t been a bother.

Mesh Durability.JPG

Overall, the shoe is a new favorite and makes for an excellent backpacking and hiking shoe provided you’re used to or are willing to work towards a zero-drop platform, aren’t carrying too heavy of a pack, and are willing to watch where you’re putting your feet off-trail.

Altra Lone Peak 2.5 Review.JPG

The soon to be released Lone Peak 3.0 has been redesigned with a different upper and slightly different outsole design, and so far on paper appears to be more of a burly and more supportive / a little less breathable shoe. For hikers that prefer hiking in mids and / or waterproof / breathable footwear, the Lone Peak 3.0 will also be offered in a waterproof / breathable Polartec NeoShell version as well as a mid-height NeoShell offering. While I’m pretty sure my feet will see the 3.0 sometime later this summer, the 2.5 continues to perform admirably for now and I’ll be happily wearing out my second pair.

Heel, Trail Rudder, and Gaiter Trap.JPG

The Altra Lone Peak 2.5 can still be found and now often for a closeout deal Here at Amazon.com, at Backcountry.com, and over at REI. The Lone Peak 3.0 is due to be released July 2016 with NeoShell versions to follow. You can currently check out the new Lone Peak 3.0, the mid-height boot version, and the NeoShell version of both all on this page at CampSaver.

Mark

Earth Day was a perfect day, in regards to both weather and spirit, to embark on my first backpacking trip of the year. The destination, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, seemed particularly fitting as well as a bit daunting. Covering over 2.3 million acres, this area is one of the wildest places in the Lower 48. With the high country still covered in snow, I would limit my hiking on this trip to a mere five miles on the Lower Salmon River Trail and a short way up the Horse Creek Trail to a quaint campsite. 

Backpacking in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.JPG

While the Salmon River (also known as the River of No Return) is exceedingly popular with boaters, the hiking in this area remains somewhat underrated. The trails receive little coverage in guidebooks or magazines and online searches returned few trip reports from hikers or backpackers. However, the area came highly recommended by several local hikers and the promise of pleasant trail, a rushing river, and steep hillsides blanketed by arrow-leaf balsamroot was all the motivation I needed.

Heading south from Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, I crested Lost Trail Pass and descended into Idaho and the Salmon River watershed on a warm and sunny Friday. Decreasing my speed and rolling down the windows, I turned off the main highway onto a road that would wind approximately 45 miles along the North Fork Salmon River, with only the first 15 miles on pavement, to a dead-end trailhead at Corn Creek. The drive was absolutely breathtaking. Geology, hydrology, archaeology – intriguing examples of each were visible from the car window as I followed the river downstream. Stunning rock formations, churning whitewater, vivid pictographs, mining remnants and historic homesteads, all beckoned me to pull over rather than roll on by. I heeded to the innate exploratory urge in a few instances, but for the most part kept myself focused on the drive.

With the windows down and the Salmon River providing all the music I needed, I rolled through the landscape in a state of wheel-induced bliss that usually only comes to me on bicycle rides. I could count on both hands the number of vehicles I’d crossed paths with in the last hour and the road seemed to stretch on forever in its ideal width which took no more and no less space than needed to provide marginally safe passage for traffic.

A few miles from the trailhead, my ears were treated to the disheartening sound of an all-terrain tire going from 35 psi to 0 psi in a split second. This pneumatic phenomenon necessitated the installation of the spare tire and I can’t think of a more scenic location to perform such a simple mechanical task. Without considerable delay, I found myself back on the road and arriving at the trailhead in the earliest part of the afternoon. A few checks and double-checks of items in my pack and pockets were completed and then I shouldered the modest load and headed down the trail.

Salmon River Trail - FCRNR Wilderness.JPG

Only a few hundred feet from the trailhead, a sign noted the wilderness boundary. Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Iconic. Expansive. Enchanting. It was a bit surreal for me to be crossing over into this massive piece of preserved public land, as I’d been hearing about the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness since I’d started backpacking. Rugged, wild and beautiful – it was a place I’d hoped to maybe get in one good trip during my lifetime when I figured I’d be living in the Southeast for the rest of my life. But the world moves along, opportunities present themselves, and I now find myself living less than three hours away from trailheads in this wilderness. This would be my first trip here, but hopefully not my last.

I followed the well-graded path paralleling the Salmon River and stopped often to admire the fantastic displays of arrowleaf balsamroot on hillside near and far. The yellows of the flower on distant hillsides blended together and formed a beautiful cohesion of color that was striking. While gorgeous individually, these patches of arrowleaf balsamroot proved to be a spectacle much greater than the sum of their parts when beheld in such pleasing afternoon light. I maintained a steady pace and managed to avoid stumbling as my gaze shifted between the trail, the rushing river, and the colorful hillsides.

Trail Along the Salmon River Montana.JPG

I made it to a charming little campsite in good time, covering around six flat miles in 90 minutes or so. For a stop-and-smell-the-wildflowers (and take a few dozen pictures) type of hiker like me this was actually pretty efficient. I don’t expect a trail running company to sponsor me any time soon, but I felt pretty good about getting to camp so quickly. Rain was in the forecast, and the cloud cover was increasing, so I set up my tent as well as a small fly to use for cooking/relaxing if needed. The other tasks of filtering water, hanging a bear bag, and organizing gear were completed without any obstacles. Before I knew it I found myself stretched out on a sleeping pad leaned against a boulder reading Edgar Allan Poe short stories. 

After reading “The Cask of Amontillado”, eating some snacks, drinking a liter of water, and taking a brief nap, I decided to stretch my legs and venture further up Horse Creek. I checked the map and decided on wandering up the trail towards West Horse Point with absolutely no intention of arriving there. I just wanted to gain enough elevation to look around Horse Creek Canyon and get a feel of the lay of the land. I hiked up through incredible patches of arrowleaf balsamroot, with a few other wildflowers mixed in, for maybe a mile and half, gaining maybe 400 feet of elevation and the perspective I was seeking, before heading back to camp.

Hiking the Frank Church River of No Return -Wildflowers.JPG

I started cooking dinner an hour before sundown, ate, and went to bed perhaps an hour after sundown. Pasta and tuna, more reading, and a few sips of bourbon made for an enjoyable evening. The dull roar of Horse Creek, churning with snowmelt, provided a perfect soundtrack for slumber.

The sound of light rain on the tent awoke me shortly before dawn, but I fell back asleep to that delightful sound (at least it’s delightful when you know you don’t necessarily have to pack up camp in it) for another hour. By 6:30 a.m. the rain had stopped and I exited the tent to retrieve the food bag and make a cup or two of coffee. It was a crisp morning – not cold enough for a down jacket, but cold enough to make one really appreciate the warmth of coffee. I took my time packing up, partly to let the fly dry as much as possible from the brief pre-dawn deluge, but mostly just to enjoy a Saturday morning within earshot of the stream.

I’ve grown to appreciate out-and-back hikes and the return trip that morning was definitely one to appreciate. Clouds swirled above the tops of the hillsides and the grayness of the day served to saturate the greens and yellows of the vegetation. Walking upstream provided a different perspective on the river and, other than a few landmarks, it almost seemed as I was hiking a fresh piece of trail.

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.JPG

I arrived back at the trailhead before noon and reluctantly and cautiously began the drive back home. This trip was an all-too-brief sample of an almost incomprehensibly huge place. On my next trip to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, I’ll be bringing two spare tires and a whole lot more time.

Backpacking in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.JPG

Information: No permits are required for hiking or backpacking, although rules regarding group size and duration of stay do apply. For specific information, please visit the Salmon-Challis National Forest website.

Best Time to Go: Late March to mid-May is the best time of year to hike in this area, according to many local hikers. April is probably most ideal with its wildflower displays and mild temperatures.

Getting There: From North Fork, Idaho (US-93) follow the Salmon River Road for approximately 45 miles (first 15 or so paved, remaining miles on well-maintained gravel road) to the Corn Creek Campground and Boat Launch.

Maps: Forest Service Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (North half)

Books: Trails of the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness, by Margaret Fuller.