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Backpacking the Maroon Bells: A Shoulder Season Weekend

We shuffle off the bus and melt into a crowd of tourists, all headed for the perfectly framed view of the Maroon Bells surrounded by bright yellows and greens. Just a minute from the parking lot and we’re already sold on our three-day adventure. More commonly a four-day trip, the Four Pass Loop is one of the most popular – and most photographed – backpacking routes in the United States. The 28-mile trek takes hikers over four mountain passes, ascends and descends over 7,800 feet, and

SarahLynne

SarahLynne

Exped Synmat UL Sleeping Pad Review

A lightweight, inflatable 3 season sleeping pad from Exped, the Synmat UL features synthetic insulation that takes the r-value up to 3.3, with Exped subsequently rating the pad warm down to around 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The Synmat UL is available in 4 sizes: small, medium, and the medium wide and long wide – the later 2 offering a width of just over 25 inches, compared to the standard 20 inch width of the small, the medium, and most other sleeping pads on the market. The sleeping pad

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Backpacker's Pantry Pad Thai with Chicken Review

Pad Thai with Chicken from Backpacker’s Pantry takes their most popular dinner – the vegetarian Pad Thai – and adds chicken with a “meal kit” including a lime packet and Sriracha powder, so you can customize the meal to your personal tastes. Right off the bat, it stands out that the meal packs a punch in the calorie department (for a pre-made backpacking meal at least), at 840 calories total. As I’m personally a fan of a meatatarian meal for dinner when I’m on the trail (after all, br

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Window Insulation Film / Polycro Groundsheets

Window insulation film, often referred to as polycro in the backpacking community is a thin, clear plastic heat shrink sheeting designed to insulate the windows in your house to save on energy costs – but this material also works very well as an ultralight backpacking groundsheet to help protect your tent floor or for use when cowboy camping or under a tarp. As window insulation film is available for a wide range of window sizes, you’re sure to be able to find something to fit your ba

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Mountain House Turkey Dinner Casserole Review

As one of the newest meals they've released, Turkey Dinner Casserole is a meal that's not so traditional when it comes to the Mountain House dinner lineup, but is one that's high on tradition on every other level. The new Turkey Dinner Casserole meal from Mountain House offers up a homestyle freeze-dried backpacking meal that’s ready to eat in just 9 minutes with just a mug-full level of 1.25 cups of water. I’m a fan of mixing in freeze dried meals with other backpacking dinners – but

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Tarptent Interiors: Mesh and Solid Fabric Options

Tarptent offers a wide array of 1-4 person shelters that all offer a nice blend of weight and functionality, and once you’ve decided upon the best model to suit your needs one additional factor will need to be considered if you’re going with one of their double wall models (now most of their lineup) – as these models are offered with your choice of interior tent type. Mesh, solid, or partial solid interiors may be available depending on the specific model and the conditions that particular tent

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Review: Good To-Go Chicken Gumbo Backpacking Meal

Meals from Good To-Go have always been intriguing from my point of view with their focus on delivering backcountry meals utilizing great, real ingredients – their newest meal, chicken gumbo stays true to this philosophy. I’ve always liked their meals as well, but haven’t relied on them too much for my backcountry dinners as all the original meals were vegetarian. Recently however, Maine-based Good To-Go has broken that mold and I had a chance to try one of their new meals with meat – dubbed “car

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Toaks 550ml Titanium Pot Review

When it comes to backpacking cookware, most of us can keep things simple with a pot combined with a mug of choice. Especially when solo backpacking however, using the same vessel for both purposes is one option to save weight, save pack space, and is a great way to keep the camp kitchen even simpler. The Toaks 550 is about the smallest option you can go with that will still perform well across the board as an all in one solution. The Toaks 550ml Pot is a lightweight titanium mug/pot w

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Herbal Armor Natural Insect Repellent Review

Herbal Armor by All Terrain is a natural insect and mosquito repellent that has been my go to insect repellent choice for the last several years. Over time as I’ve moved from DEET to picaridin to various natural repellents, I’ve had a chance to try many products on the market – and have had the unfortunate experience of being quite disappointed in the efficacy of many natural solutions. Many smell nice, but might as well have been left at home. Returning from backpacking trips with more than a b

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

REI Co-op Flash 45 Backpack Review

The REI Co-op Flash 45 is a backpacking pack designed for the weekend warrior that has a great set of features at an appealing $149 price point, and that can from time to time be combined with REI discounts to get the price even lower. The top-loading REI Flash 45 features a large main compartment that closes with a drawstring, a hydration compartment and opening, two side water bottle pockets, hipbelt pockets, an exterior mesh pocket, and a zippered lid compartment. Women's Flash 45

Jen

Jen

Bear Country Backpacking: Tips for the Trail and in Camp

Whether it’s a trip along a National Scenic Trail or a quick weekend backpacking excursion into an obscure wilderness area – when the mountains are calling, our trips to many backpacking and hiking destinations will also take us into bear country. When hiking and camping in these areas an extra set of considerations will be added to our pre-trip planning process and a few extra gear items will need to be added to our gear list to approach bear country backpacking in the proper manner.

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

3 Season Backpacking Clothing List and Strategy

A clothing system for backpacking needs to be as lightweight as possible while still performing a variety of critical tasks in an ever-changing and varied wilderness environment. A clothing system must be comfortable, will act as our first line of defense to keep us warm, and should protect us from the sun, precipitation, biting insects, and bumps and scrapes on the trail to name a few concerns. While each of these tasks are easily obtainable with dedicated and specialized items of clothing, whe

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Desert Gold: Backpacking in the Superstition Wilderness

Long before I’d ever shouldered a backpack for a hike into a wilderness area, I found myself intrigued by Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. As the purported location of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, I was first exposed to the Superstitions in books about lost treasures and historical mysteries I checked out from my middle-school library. An episode of “In Search of . . .” with Leonard Nimoy that featured the legend and aired as a re-run on the History Channel further deepened my fascination. Hi

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington

Tips for Hiking in Mosquito and Tick Season

Every hiking season offers up its own set of challenges, and when it comes to the seasons of spring and summer the presence of flying and biting insects and other related concerns will need to be addressed in many locales. Dealing with insects such as mosquitoes, black flies, and ants along with other concerns like ticks to name a few is a top priority for any warmer weather outdoor excursion. These pests can be anything from just that – a simple pest, or they can even ruin a trip in short order

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Digital Backpacking Scales: Pack Faster and Lighter

Of all the backpacking related gear I utilize, a digital scale has to be one of the most overlooked and underrated items – a scale is something I use in a variety of ways when preparing for any backpacking trip. While a scale isn’t an item actually on our gear list or something we’ll be taking on a trip, a scale is a tool that helps to get us out there faster and lighter – by aiding with packing speed and convenience as well as helping to keep weights down before we grab our pack and head for th

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Hiking Shoes and Footwear: Best Choices by Season

Both a prerequisite for the enjoyment of any dayhike and critical for the success of any extended backpacking trip, our choice of a hiking shoe or boot is one of the most important gear related choices to make and dial in prior to any outdoor excursion. Not only does the best hiking boot or shoe depend on fit and our own individual preference, but the best options will also vary widely by season – although many options can also be workable across more than one season, or even with a few caveats

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Backpacking Tent Stakes: A Selection Guide

If you’re not thinking about your tent stakes on your next backpacking trip, it’s probably a good sign that you’ve chosen the right ones. If your stakes aren’t a good match for the ground and conditions at hand however, you could be in for a difficult shelter setup process and perhaps even for a long night. With a myriad of lightweight tent stakes on the market to choose from, there’s likely a specific tent stake for every condition you’ll encounter, as well as others that will perform well acro

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Dyneema Composite Fabric / Cuben Fiber and Backpacking

Dyneema Composite Fabric, often shortened to DCF and previously referred to as Cuben Fiber, is a fabric made from Dyneema fibers that are embedded in a polyester film to form a single material or fabric. Due to the high strength to weight ratio of the Dyneema fibers and its low stretch combined with inherit waterproofness, DCF and Cuben Fiber has proven to be a popular option for lightweight and ultralight backpacking gear over the past several years, and usage continues to grow in popularity fo

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

ZPacks Triplex Review: Ultralight 3 Person Tent

The Zpacks Triplex Tent is a Dyneema Composite Fabric / Cuben Fiber tent that’s marketed as a 3 person shelter solution with a 90x60” floorplan and a generous 48” peak height – it’s essentially a larger version of the Zpacks Duplex, which is designed as 2 person tent with a smaller 45” wide floor. Featured in this review however, the only slightly heavier 24 ounce Zpacks Triplex requires a minimum of 8 stakes, and additional tieouts can be used at the head and foot ends for more wind stability a

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

The Newly Proposed 8th Leave No Trace Principle

Last fall, TrailGroove contributor Mark Wetherington and a group of other concerned hikers created a website to address the concern that social media exposure can potentially have on our wild places, and over the course of the past few months the proposed 8th Leave No Trace principle has generated some excellent discussion in the outdoor community and recently over at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics as well. Mark has taken an admirable initiative on the subject, and be sure the chec

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

10 Best Freeze Dried and Dehydrated Backpacking Meals

Let’s be honest; not every backpacking trip provides the time for us to prepare a nightly gourmet meal, and not all of us are ready to embrace, or perhaps we have yet to have a discussion with, our inner hidden chef. While I like to create backpacking meals from scratch at times and when I can, if you’re like me, after a long day on the trail I simply often find myself wanting a sufficient amount of calories that taste great, and I want that meal as quickly and as easily as possible with minimal

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Backpacking Tent Guide: Choices and Best Applications

Of all the things we carry while backpacking, a tent or our backpacking shelter of choice is among the most important for a safe and enjoyable wilderness excursion. A shelter provides refuge from rain and snow, cuts down on wind exposure, and often will protect us from biting insects as well. While other shelter options are popular from hammocks to tarps to bivy sacks, the traditional backpacking tent, or perhaps some not so traditional modern offerings, remain the most popular shelter option wi

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Alcohol and Canister Stove Weight Comparisons

When it comes to backpacking stoves a key consideration is of course weight, and more importantly the weight of a system including fuel for the duration of your trip. Not only is initial weight important, but also the average weight you’ll carry each day. For 3 season, lightweight backpacking use alcohol stoves and upright canister stoves are the most used options for weight conscious backpackers, and while both are very different in application, many similarities can be found to exist in the we

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

  • Blog Entries

    • Grace Bowie
      By Grace Bowie in TrailGroove Blog 1
      My childhood best friend moved to Akron, Ohio right after she graduated high school to attend the University of Akron. Being from Virginia and having lived there all my life, I had never really heard of the city aside from its connection to Lebron James (but even about this my knowledge was severely limited due to my lack of interest in basketball). That was seven years ago, and I realized recently that I still had yet to visit despite her open invitation. Feeling guilty and quite aware of how long 7 years is, I reached out and we worked it out so I would stay with her over Labor Day weekend. Now was the time to figure out what there was to do in Akron!

      As I said before, 7 years is a long time. Long enough for me to also graduate high school, and college, and develop a love for hiking and the outdoors that would take me on road trips all over the country. From Zion to Acadia, from Shenandoah to Bryce Canyon, I loved seeing all sorts of landscapes, beautiful views, and making a dent in my National Parks bucket list. And as luck would have it, as I glanced over the list of parks I had yet to see, I noticed – Ohio! After a quick search, I dove into researching the new-to-me world of Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP), which – as luck would have it – is located right in Akron’s backyard. Why hadn’t I heard of this park before? Perhaps because Ohio isn’t the first state that comes to mind when you think of National Parks or wilderness hiking destinations. Maybe because there’s no colossal red rock arches, or canyons that are a mile deep, or bison roaming on grass plains. Undeterred, I was excited to find the beauty in this park and immerse myself in a new space full of its own natural wonder.
      Our first hike was the Ledges Trail. This 1.8 mile loop trail winds through sandstone cliffs and features one of the most scenic overlooks in the park. Not too difficult, it was a great first foray in this new place, with lots of little crevices and slot canyon-esque areas to squeeze into and poke around in. A few ups and downs along the way, but mostly a flat journey that was filled with massive slabs of rock and lush greenery. Perhaps most impressive was the complete immersion in nature I experienced. No sounds of highways or motorists, I felt like I had been transported to a completely new place. It certainly was not the image I picture when I think of Ohio. Be sure to bring bug spray though if you’re thinking of visiting from late spring to early fall –mosquitoes abound.

      The next morning we enjoyed a stroll on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. Almost entirely flat, the trail was packed with runners, bikers, and walkers by 10 AM when we set out. Passing through Beaver Marsh and seeing all sorts of wildlife like great blue herons, snakes, and other little creatures was a delight. The locks which would raise and lower boats were an incredible piece of history that sparked daydreams of the early travelers of the canal. But the best part? The signature midwestern kindness. Every person greeted us with a chipper “good morning!” and a smile.
      That afternoon, I ventured solo to the Boston Mill Visitor Center to pick up a map and talk with the rangers. When I arrived, the parking lot was full to the brim. After hearing horror stories of closures and hours-long waits for trails in parks out west, I realized that the problem seemed to be ubiquitous across most National Parks, even the ones I hadn’t heard of until recently. I was finally able to snag a parking spot and talk to a ranger. He informed me that while the holiday weekend likely exacerbated the problem, this crowd level had been the norm for them in recent months. He estimated that their visitor numbers quadruple from the weekdays to the weekend. I believed him – as I sat in a line of cars later waiting to park at the Brandywine Falls trailhead, I couldn’t believe the crowds. I later found out from another park ranger that CVNP was the 7th most visited National Park in 2020, beating out big names like Acadia and Joshua Tree. I credit these numbers to the weekend (and weekday!) local visitors. The proximity of the park to major cities like Akron and Cleveland, even Pittsburgh, make it an easy weekend getaway to a totally green space.

      Brandywine Falls seemed to be one of the park’s crown jewels. With a packed viewing balcony just a quick staircase from the parking lot, visitors eagerly shot photos of the gushing water and the mossy sandstone backdrop. I diverted away from the crowd, preferring to take the less populated Brandywine Gorge Trail. Following the edge of the gorge and passing by an adorably quaint bed and breakfast, the 1.5 mile loop trail descends to the creek and provides more intimate views of the many layers of rock that formed the gorge. You’ll lose and gain a bit of elevation around the loop, but the trail provides plenty of stunning vantage points to stop and catch your breath while you take in the surroundings. The flourishing vegetation of the late summer was fun and enveloping, but I would be eager to visit again in the fall to see this same place with the leaves changing colors.
      After hiking a few more trails and seeing some landmarks (including a visit to the house from A Christmas Story in a suburb just outside Cleveland!) I hit the road and headed back home to Washington, D.C., finding myself dumbstruck by the fact that I was a bit sad to be leaving Ohio. The park I’d never heard of! I couldn’t believe it. But the winding, easy trails surrounded by history, the cooler temperatures of late summer in Ohio, the ability to so quickly escape from the city and immerse oneself in a forest – it was magical.

      Maybe it doesn’t make your bucket list when stacked up against some of the marvels out west, but Cuyahoga Valley National Park should not be counted out. This park brings people to the outdoors, regardless of their physical ability. It immerses them in history, in greenery, and in a space that they can call their own. It may not be the subject of oil paintings or John Muir quotes, but in its own beautiful way, it is a place of quiet, unassuming inspiration. I certainly hope I find my way back.
      Information: Entrance to Cuyahoga Valley National Park is free! You can support the park by donating to the park’s friends group, the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. CVNP no longer allows camping within the park, but there are state parks and campgrounds within driving distance. Learn more here at the NPS website. Portions of the Buckeye Trail also pass through the park.
      Getting There: Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a thirty-minute drive from both Cleveland and Akron, OH. CVNP is also easily reached by car from Cleveland, OH and Pittsburgh, PA in about two hours driving time. If flying, arrive at either Cleveland Hopkins International Airport or Akron-Canton Regional Airport, both of which offer car rentals.
      Best Time to Go: Summer is a great time to visit for hiking, as the trails are shaded by trees and the scenic railroad is operating. If you’re looking for fall colors, visit in September and October while the leaves are changing. Winters in Ohio can be biting due to lake-effect snow from Lake Erie, but opportunities for skiing and snow tubing can make it worth the freezing temps!
      Maps and Books: The National Park Service offers detailed information and maps about the park and its trails at their website. The Conservancy for Cuyahoga National Park sells numerous books and maps as well, including a Cuyahoga Valley National Park Handbook. The Trail Guide to Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers easy-to-use maps and trail descriptions written by park volunteers.
    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0
      Whether you are venturing out on a day hike with inclement weather in the forecast, or heading out on a multi-day backpacking trip, when you’re doing so with a canine companion taking the appropriate gear not only for yourself, but also for your dog is critical. A dog jacket is one such item that I put to constant use on the trail – nearly every backpacking trip into the mountains – in addition to other dog-specific gear like dog packs and sleeping bags. While there are many dog jackets that will keep a dog warm, there aren’t many that will also keep a dog (relatively) dry if wet weather rolls through during the hiking day.

      Weighing 9 ounces in a size large, the Ruffwear Cloud Chaser Dog Jacket is one solution that performs well for all around backpacking and hiking usage. This jacket is sleeved in the front for additional warmth, and features a stretchy bottom with a waterproof / breathable top section. Both the top and the bottom have a water repellent DWR coating. Reflective trim and a light loop on top complete the exterior of the jacket. The interior is lined with a very light fleece. Getting the jacket on and off is pretty easy with a little cooperation from your dog – get the front sleeves on and then zip the jacket on. Folding the zipper back locks operation so it will not unzip itself while on the trail, and there is both an inside zipper guard and outer zipper cover that serve to keep the zipper from snagging fur and also to block the weather. Rearward, there’s enough room for calls of nature without the jacket getting in the way.

      While this jacket doesn’t exactly feature warmth appropriate for the arctic, and doesn’t offer rain protection for something like an all-day downpour, the jacket is most appropriate to take the edge off the cold, block some wind, and to assist in keeping the dog somewhat dry. Since this isn’t full coverage like rain gear we might wear, your dog will still get wet in the rain and the bottom of the jacket is not waterproof. However, even if they do get wet, this fully synthetic jacket will help to keep them warmer. The jacket is also great for chilly nights in the tent. The jacket is offered in 6 sizes, sized by measuring around your dog’s chest behind the front legs. Sizing wise, my dogs have measured to fit the medium, but after trying that size I found it worked but was just a bit too tight. I like to size up in the Cloud Chaser, especially for backpacking purposes where your dog will wear the jacket when they sleep at night. If the jacket is too tight, not only will your dog be uncomfortable, but it will compress their fur and they will be less warm as a result.

      Overall…and currently going on 15 years of use all on the same jacket, I’ve found the Cloud Chaser to work very well for hiking and backpacking with dogs – it offers just enough warmth for 3-season chilly mountain backpacking trips, and is perfect to have on hand if inclement weather rolls in where you need to have some type of protection for your dog. At night, your dog needs to stay warm and get a good night of sleep just as much as you do. The Cloud Chaser helps in all these respects, packs fairly small, and while I wish it was a bit lighter to carry around, it’s well worth the tradeoff for me. While I’ve found the Cloud Chaser to work great for all-around usage, Ruffwear offers a few choices in the dog jacket market, one of which will likely be a good fit for the conditions you and your dog are likely to encounter. These include the insulated Powder Hound and the fleece-only Climate Changer Jackets.
      The Ruffwear Cloud Chaser Dog Jacket retails for about $80. You can find it here at Amazon and at Backcountry.com.
    • Kevin DeVries
      By Kevin DeVries in TrailGroove Blog 4
      The United States tends to protect its public lands in piecemeal fashion. Congress designates a single landform – a mountain range, coastline, or canyon – as a National Park or Wilderness area, but leaves the surrounding land open to settlement and industry. As a result, an ocean of development – towns, roads, mining claims, and logging operations – surrounds a few islands of protected space. Only a few ecosystems are protected in their entirety.
      One such ecosystem is the Greater Yellowstone, which encompasses most of northwest Wyoming along with parts of Idaho and Montana. Yellowstone National Park naturally serves as the ecosystem’s centerpiece, and a dozen Wilderness or Wilderness Study Areas flank the park on all sides. Moreover, even the land that has no formal designation remains largely wild, owing mostly to the ruggedness of the terrain.

      And what rugged terrain it is! While the park itself is not especially mountainous, it is ringed by a nearly-continuous series of outstanding mountain ranges. Some of them are well-known, like the Teton or Beartooth Ranges. Others are more obscure – the Wyomings or Gros Ventres come to mind. In 2020, I set out on a self-supported hike around the perimeter of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. To avoid having to resupply in towns on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent several days driving to various trailheads and placing bear-proof food drops – in compliance with forest regulations – along the route. I opted to hike in an 800-mile loop, beginning and ending the journey at my car to eliminate the need for public transit. I anticipated staying completely off the grid for the 2-month duration, walking in a circle.
      The journey began on July 1st near the town of West Yellowstone, MT. I spent the first few days at lower elevations, battling swollen creeks and ruthless mosquitoes. I soon climbed into the Tetons though, walking right on the crest of the range for many miles. There’s something particularly magical about walking through an alpine landscape right as the snow is melting off. I felt as though I were somehow “getting away” with something – finding my way through snowy mountains that weren’t quite prepared for my presence yet. While I would glimpse the Grand Teton at least once daily for the majority of the loop, it would never be more up-close than it was along the Teton Crest Trail.

      Leaving the Tetons behind, I ventured into a pair of more obscure mountain ranges – the Snake River and Wyoming Ranges. These ranges, while not quite as ostentatious as the Tetons, still contained plenty of magic – wildflowers in the height of midsummer bloom, ridgelines splashed with two-tone gray and orange coloration, and marvelous views of the Salt River, Teton, Gros Ventre, and Wind River Ranges. Despite a lack of official designation in the Wyoming Range, it felt like one of the most wild places of the hike. The magic continued in the beautiful but little-known Gros Ventre Range. The Gros Ventres were heavily glaciated in the upper elevations, creating “shelves” just below the main ridgeline that were a joy to cruise along. The lakes sparkled with a dazzling blue and wildflowers continued to show off their seasonal beauty.

      The route briefly joined Continental Divide Trail as it entered the vast, wild, and obscure Absaroka Range. The Absarokas are home to incredible above-treeline tablelands, crumbling volcanic cliffs, jagged peaks, and scores of grizzly bears. On July 21, while following an elk trail near the edge of some cliffs, I turned a corner and met one of those grizzlies, trapped between me and the precipice. Though I was carrying bear spray and had practice deploying it quickly, the attack came far too quick to use it. He made contact, spinning me around, and charged again. This second charge knocked me to the ground. Recognizing the attack as the defensive reaction of a cornered animal, I played dead, protecting my head and neck with one hand and grabbing my bear spray with the other. But almost as soon as I hit the ground, the bear bolted. Looking at my watch as I lay on the ground, I resolved to stay still for a full 10 minutes – the bear had fled, but I wasn’t sure how far.
      Once my 10 minutes were up, I field-dressed my wounds (a series of deep gashes in my shoulder and chest), and mulled my options. The injuries weren't severe enough to warrant activating my personal locator beacon. However, I couldn't just continue 40 miles along my route to the next outpost of civilization – I needed urgent medical attention. In the end, I hiked out the shortest side trail I could find and caught a ride to the hospital. The hospital staff cleaned and stitched up my wounds – nearly 40 sutures in all – and sent me on my way. I spent a couple weeks off the trail, waiting for my injuries to heal up. I was very grateful to be alive.

      By early August, I felt well enough to continue the hike – with just enough time to complete it before winter arrived. The second half of the loop would be more relaxed than the first – I still couldn’t lift my arm above the shoulder, making scrambling impossible – and I stayed mostly on trails. Still, the Greater Yellowstone Loop didn’t disappoint. I made my way through the northern Absarokas, meandered down the seemingly-bottomless Clark Fork Canyon, and climbed into the Beartooth Mountains. The Beartooths were perhaps the most scenic range of the hike – and that’s saying a lot. Hundreds of lakes dotted the Beartooth Plateau. The area is a wanderer’s paradise – there aren’t many trails, but above treeline, they’re not needed. I walked past dozens of beautiful lakes, many of them unnamed.

      All too quickly, the Beartooths faded away, dropping me into the northern part of Yellowstone National Park. Thick smoke from a West Coast fire complex obscured the area, imparting an eerie orange tinge to the entire viewshed. It wasn’t all bad though – I followed a well-defined, NPS-grade trail for the first time in ages, enjoying a few days of easy travel. As I began the penultimate section of the hike, the Gallatin Range, I left the park, continuing on good trail along the crest of the range. The Gallatins were probably the most “fun” section of the hike – a combination of pleasant walking and pleasant temperatures made for glorious days despite the smoky views.

      For the past few weeks, I had been racing the changing seasons, and that became very apparent in the final range, the jagged Madisons. The fairly stable weather of the past two months began to break down, with a fresh batch of thunderstorms arriving each day. Due to the exposed nature of my planned route through the area, I was forced onto a couple of lower, safer alternatives. On one occasion, while following a trail through a forested basin, I glanced up at Lone Mountain – where my intended route would have led – just in time to see two lightning bolts crash down onto it. I was glad to be down here, rather than up there. As I walked into West Yellowstone on the last day of August, completing the loop, the first snow of the season began to fall in large flakes.
      I spent two months walking in a circle. And yet, in going nowhere, I saw so much. The underlying unity of the entire ecosystem was apparent. Nearly every day, I caught a glimpse of either the Grand Teton or Electric Peak, two prominent area landmarks. The jaggedness of the Tetons, the wildness of the Absarokas, and the splendor of the Beartooths weren’t just points of beauty in a sea of unknown; rather, they were connected by footsteps. I suppose that time spent walking in circles is time well-spent.

      Information: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a vast tract of mostly-protected land, with Yellowstone National Park at its center. Many of its mountain ranges rank among the true classics of North American backpacking. Backpackers new to the area may be drawn to the Teton Crest Trail, Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, or trips in the Wind River Range. Backcountry Permits are required in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
      At least two people walked a Greater Yellowstone Loop prior to 2020. Phillip Knight, a Bozeman local, wrote a book about his 600-mile loop circa 1990. In 2018, my friend Pepperflake hiked a 1,000-mile route, which I used as a starting point for my own 800-mile variant.
      Best Time to Go: The backpacking window in the Greater Yellowstone is rather limited – high alpine terrain generally doesn’t melt out until July, and snow often begins falling again by mid-September. July and August are prime months.
      Getting There: Cody WY, Jackson, WY, and Bozeman MT are useful regional transit hubs, served by airlines and bus lines. In addition, bus lines serve both Big Sky MT and Hoback Junction WY – smaller towns that offer easy access to high alpine terrain.
      Maps and Resources: Beartooth Publishing produces high-quality maps for most of the Greater Yellowstone’s major mountain ranges. Notable books include Thomas Turiano’s Select Peaks of the Greater Yellowstone (out of print).
      About the Author: Kevin “LarryBoy” DeVries is an avid hiker based in Salt Lake City who enjoys everything from weekend trips to thru-hikes on America’s long trails. Most recently Kevin has hiked the Florida Trail, the Route in Between, and in the summer of 2020, Kevin hiked 800 miles on the Greater Yellowstone Loop as detailed in this article, a route encircling Yellowstone National Park and traveling through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem through Wyoming and Montana. Kevin has also hiked from Mexico to Canada on the Route in Between.
    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0
      The EXOspikes Traction System is a product from Kahtoola designed to enhance traction in wintry terrain, and is suited both for hiking and trail running. Sharing some similarities with the popular Kahtoola MICROSpikes, the product is available in multiple sizes, each fitting a range of footwear sizes. A stretchy elastomer harness fits over your footwear, and underneath you’ll find a grid of trekking pole-like metal carbide tips on the forefoot and heel – 12 on each foot to be exact. My size XL pair weighed 8.2 ounces.

      I ordered the XL size as someone who usually wears a size 12.5 men’s trail runner or maybe a 13 boot. And I’m certainly glad I didn’t size down – the Kahtoola EXOspikes are pretty tough to get over my lightweight, mid-height boots (a couple times I have felt like I was going to rip the harness trying to get them over the heel), but are secure once on. If you wear a bulkier or winter boot in a men’s size 13 or above you might just be out of luck, as XL is the largest size offered. Without a doubt, while the EXOspikes will work on boots, the sizing guide is for trail runners.

      Traction-wise the EXOspikes offer just about what you might expect. These are not aggressive spikes like the MICROSpikes and definitely are no Kahtoola K10s, so I found myself less connected to the surface beneath my feet than with those alternative and more aggressive products. But for me, the EXOspikes are a very nice to have item for non-steep mixed terrain and especially where there might be a little front country and backcountry mixed in together on your hike. Where I found the EXOspikes to perform best was in cold conditions where the snow / and or ice is firm and packed, and while the product does serve to add something of a lugged grip to the bottom of your shoe, traction is only slightly improved in loose snow, as there’s just not much bite.
      Once conditions warm up and get slushy, the EXOs are not as effective. On ice, the spikes do add traction, but it feels more like added traction – kind of like having sandpaper on your feet, rather than a connection to the surface as with MICROSpikes, and I still very much appreciate trekking poles in addition to the EXOs. Additionally as you might expect from looking at the design, there isn’t much mid-foot traction.

      Underfoot, the EXOspikes are very comfortable and even in trail runners, you can't really tell anything extra is on the bottom of your shoes. While I didn't notice this with boots, when wearing a trail running shoe there is enough compression in the toe area to cause some minor annoyance. Additionally when trail running on cambered trails, the EXOspikes did tend to drift out of place which isn't the most comfortable thing for your toes. You can quickly readjust, but the next time you hit a section of trail that's slanted side to side, it will happen again.
      One thing to note is that just like the way trekking poles (without rubber tips) will mar rock and leave holes alongside the trail, you will want to either take the EXOspikes off when the trail clears up or be careful not to walk on rock that’s free of ice and snow. Not only will this increase the life of your EXOspikes, but more importantly it will help preserve the trail. I was impressed when reading the instructions that Kahtoola included this warning, in bold.

      Overall the EXOspikes fill a niche for conditions where you would be taking your MICROSpikes off and putting them back on too often due to the terrain being mixed, and when you do opt for the EXOspikes they also have the side benefit of being about half the weight. Another larger, XXL size might be beneficial to the lineup for sizing. All said, I’m definitely keeping my MICROSpikes, but the EXOs are nice to have on hand for everything from wintry walks and runs in the neighborhood (or yes, even shoveling the driveway), to trail runs, or on day hikes where you might go from icy to snowy to dirt (or even pavement) and back again.
      A pair of Kahtoola EXOspikes retail for around $60. You can find them at Backcountry, at Amazon.com, and here at REI.
    • Eric
      By Eric in TrailGroove Blog 0
      I awoke in the comfort of the back of my vehicle as the Pacific Ocean’s peaceful waves gently moved across the nearby beach. I quickly drove away and soon found myself driving on a remote forest road. Fortunately I had checked road conditions and discovered that I needed to detour to avoid a landslide. The road was bumpy and had deep cracks. My vehicle has all-wheel drive, but not high clearance. With careful maneuvering I arrived at the Chetco Divide/Vulcan Peak Trailhead and the edge of Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness, 3800 feet above the ocean nearly twenty miles to the east. The trailhead was empty.

      The Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Oregon’s third largest, is one of the most remote areas in the state. It is a land of rugged ridges and canyons with the headwaters of National Scenic Rivers. This is an area that has experienced some of Oregon’s largest forest fires, but recently many trails have been restored including the route I planned to complete, an approximately fifty mile loop into the heart and depths of the wilderness.
      The trail started high on a ridge and it was difficult to discern whether the blue on the horizon was the sky or the ocean. The path was rocky and wide, possibly an old road. There were puffy clouds in the sky and the weather was nearly perfect. It was late May, the perfect window of time after the cold of winter had stopped, but before the shadeless ridges were unbearably hot in the summer sun.

      I arrived at a small mountain lake and gathered some water for the dry sections on the ridge ahead. There were many wildflowers along the trail and I wondered if some of them were the rare Kalmiopsis flowers that the wilderness is named after. There were nearly constant endless views of the canyons were all around.
      As the end of the day neared, the trail descended steeply to the beautiful Chetco River. Near the river there was a well-established campsite a small waterfall on Carter Creek. It was a dangerous scramble down to the river, where I cooked dinner and enjoyed the light coloring the canyon walls.

      The next morning, I forded the river, followed along it for some time, dodged poison oak as possible. Sometimes it was unavoidable and I simply plunged straight through the bushes that towered over my head. I hoped that I wouldn’t pay the consequences later. I passed a couple backpackers, heading the opposite direction, the first people I had seen since beginning the adventure. In fact I wouldn’t see anyone else until I had left the wilderness.
      The climb was steep and even in May, I could feel the heat. My goal of fastpacking returned to simply maintaining a hiking pace. Throughout the first day, I had been able to slowly run some sections of the trail with my lightweight fastpack on my back, but the 6000+ feet of elevation gain made my efforts seem slow. I embraced the struggle and was grateful to experience the scenery at a slower pace.

      After climbing out of the canyon, I was greeted again by the expansive views across the wilderness. The trail followed a narrow ridge and skirted around a large, rocky mountain. I could have finished the loop that evening, but there was a scenic lake several miles from the trailhead. Vulcan Lake was a deep green with a unique reddish-orange colored Vulcan Mountain as its background. I enjoyed a refreshing swim with several water salamanders, ate some food, and experienced the evening view from a cliff at the lake’s outlet.

      The next morning was a short journey back to the trailhead, partly on the only roadwalk needed to complete the loop. Soon I was back at the Pacific Ocean, and although I had the reminder of poison oak’s itchy misery bathing and inflaming my legs for now, the reminder of the sights, experiences, and ruggedness of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness was etched on my memory for years to come.

      Information: The Leach Memorial Loop is about fifty miles in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Southwest Oregon. Going counterwise from the Chetco Divide/Vulcan Peak Trailhead the loop uses the following trails: Chetco Divide Trail #1210, Kalmiopsis Rim Trail #1124, Emily Cabin Trail #1129, Bailey Cabin Trail #1131, Bailey Mountain Trail #1109, Upper Chetco Trail #1102, and Johnson Butte Trail #1110. There is a short side trail to Vulcan Lake and also a short road walk to connect the loop. No permits are required. The Siskiyou Mountain Club has current trail conditions on its website.
      Best Time to Go: May or September to avoid the heat of summer. The Chetco River ford may be challenging early in the year. Much of the route has less snow earlier and later in the year than in the Cascades.
      Getting There: from the west the loop can be accessed by the Chetco Divide/Vulcan Peak and Vulcan Lake Trailhead on forest roads from Brookings, Oregon. From the East, the loop can be accessed from the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead. The closest international airport is in Medford, Oregon. Check the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest for road conditions.
      Maps and Books: For maps check with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest or print your own from Caltopo, and consider using a GPS app. William Sullivan’s 100 Hikes/Travel Guide Oregon Coast & Coast Range describes portions of the route including Vulcan Lake, Upper Chetco River Trail, and the Chetco Divide Trail. The upcoming 2nd edition of Falcon Guides’ Hiking Southern Oregon: A Guide to the Area's Greatest Hikes, which is due to be released in June of 2022, will likely include hikes in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
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