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Blogs

Firepot Spicy Pork Noodles Review

Ever since one of my favorite backpacking meals of all time – the Pad See You noodles from Backpacker’s Pantry was unfortunately discontinued, I’ve been a search for a simple, but good rice noodle dish with an accompanying meat protein. The Pad Thai from Mountain House is a recent meal that ends up being a close contender to my old time favorite, and the latest meal with this theme I’ve tested is the dehydrated Spicy Pork Noodles from Firepot, who makes pre-packaged, just add water dehydrated me

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Food

An Outlaws' Retreat: Hiking in Robbers Cave State Park

The forested slopes of southeastern Oklahoma’s ironically named Sans Bois Mountains provide the backdrop for much of the excitement in “True Grit,” a novel by Charles Portis and two major motion pictures (1969 and 2010). You wouldn’t know it though, for the mountain peaks shown in the films suggest places farther west. Indeed, the movies were filmed in Colorado and New Mexico, but pursuing outlaws in post-Civil War Indian Territory, as the main characters are portrayed as doing in “True Grit,” w

Susan Dragoo

Susan Dragoo in Trips

Firepot Chili con Carne with Rice Review

While many of us have settled on a routine of meals and old standby dinners in the backcountry – whether that’s commercial freeze dried meals or our own recipes on the trail, every once in a while it’s nice to mix it up. Recently when re-stocking the freeze dried meal inventory for some upcoming trips I noticed that REI was carrying a brand I hadn’t tried before – and I decided to test out the new Chili con Carne with Rice Meal made by Firepot in the United Kingdom. While trying new m

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Food

Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail: An Oceanside Wilderness

The Lost Coast Trail (LCT) in northern California may very well be the best beach hike in the United States. The name derives from the fact that it is the only part of the California coast that is not paralleled by a highway. I’m sure the romantic ring of that name only adds to its considerable popularity. It sounds like something from a teenage adventure novel. “The Hardy Boys and the Pirates of the Lost Coast” There is a northern section and a southern section. The southern stretch is muc

George Graybill

George Graybill in Trips

A Winter Refresher: Backpacking at Chief Joseph Pass

Although I did several trips on cross-country skis and snowshoes that involved camping out in the Northern Rockies in below freezing temperatures for multiple nights, the past few years my definition of “winter backpacking” has either included a US Forest Service rental cabin with a wood stove or a plane ticket to southern Arizona. I still find winter to be a beautiful time of year and I enjoy the heightened elements of the season that seem so magical, but I just hadn’t hadn’t been motivated to

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Ancient Wanderings: Hiking in the Ventana Wilderness

I collect hidden places of refuge in the wilderness. At least once a year I retreat to one of these havens to renew my spirit. These spots have a few things in common: They are off trail, deep in the wilderness, difficult to get to, and a delightful surprise when first discovered. And, when I am there, being alone feels exactly right. Deep within one of California’s coastal mountain ranges in the Ventana Wilderness, one such location is a sandstone cave at the base of a large rock outcroppi

George Graybill

George Graybill in Trips

Feathered Friends Down Booties Review

Few items provide as much comfort for the weight during frigid backpacking trips as dedicated down booties. Cold feet can quickly sap out any enjoyment of wonderful winter scenery and can easily discourage someone from ever attempting winter backpacking or cross-country ski touring. While down jackets can easily keep your core warm, having a full-body strategy for keeping in heat is crucial for winter trips where you’re spending a significant amount of time in camp. Down booties provide a soluti

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Gear

Hiking the Wailau Trail: Lost in a Hawaiian Jungle

I was muddied, bloodied, and soaked, but I had reached my goal. I was standing on the rim of Wailau Valley. Just beyond my toes, the land dropped away steeply to the valley floor 3,000 feet below. Waterfalls streamed down the cliffs that surrounded this lost world as it swept away before me to the north shore of Moloka’i. It was hard to believe that 50 years ago I had descended this cliff and then hacked my way through five miles of jungle to the ocean. I must have been crazy. I was definitely l

George Graybill

George Graybill in Trips

Subalpine Splendor: Hiking in the Bitterroot Mountains

With so many places to explore in Montana, it might seem a bit strange to visit the same place for a second time – much less a third time. But one lake in particular has drawn me back to it three times over the last few years. My first visit to this lake was coincidentally my first summer in Montana. My eagerness for mountain scenery led me to visiting it so early (late May) that even though it had been a mild winter, the lake was still frozen over and although the scenery was magical I wasn’t a

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Petzl IKO CORE Rechargeable Headlamp Review

For whatever reason, headlamps have not been an item I’ve paid particular attention to during a decade of backpacking. I’m on my third or fourth headlamp, but whenever I’ve needed to replace one (lost, intermittent failure issues, decided to make it a spare to keep in the car, etc.) I’ve simply purchased whatever was most similar to the previous one. Bells and whistles were never that intriguing to me when it came to headlamps (although one of mine did have a whistle built into the plastic on th

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Gear

Exploring an Ecosystem: Hiking a Greater Yellowstone Loop

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 Yellowston

Kevin DeVries

Kevin DeVries in Trips

From Mexico to Canada: Thru-Hiking the Route In Between

Hikers love maps. Maps are more than just navigational aids – they’re permission to let our imaginations run free. Maps inspire childlike wonder. We dream about what’s around the bend. I’ve spent years staring at a map of long-distance hiking trails in the United States. The Arizona Trail runs north-south through its home state, as does the Idaho Centennial Trail. Between the two, there’s a gap where no established trail exists. The gap is not for lack of scenic beauty, however. The state o

Kevin DeVries

Kevin DeVries in Trips

Backpacking Pillow Selection Guide and Overview

A good night of sleep is always important – but with the physical activity that goes along with backpacking, it becomes even more important on the trail. Getting a good rest after a long hiking day will only help things the next day – whether it’s the physical challenge of a high mileage day, or even a day that tests other things like your sharpness with navigational ability. Not to mention just our general mental outlook – being tired makes everything harder. With our at home pillow system (at

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

7 Ways to Make Freeze Dried Backpacking Meals Better

Even the best freeze dried backpacking meals that are out there tend to have some common drawbacks. The most common issue with ready to eat commercial meals is their lack of calories – with meals commonly containing calorie counts in the 400-500 range (or sometimes, even worse at 200-300 calories). Typically these meals will claim to feed 2 – when in fact they're pretty light on calories even for one person after a long hiking day, leaving us to dig through our food bag for anything we can find

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Technique

Solitude in the Sapphire Mountains of Montana

I’ve always placed a premium on solitude when planning my outdoor activities and, with some planning and luck, have never found it to be particularly difficult to obtain. However, with trails across the country being more crowded than ever this past summer, it’s taken a bit more effort even in sparsely populated western Montana to have that lake, peak, or meadow all to yourself. Fortunately, with a bit of flexibility and research I was able to turn a short-notice opportunity for an overnight tri

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

John Muir Trail Tips and Hiking Guide

Some years ago I was eating breakfast with my wife, Lyn, at the Vermillion Valley Resort when a group of unusual looking people sat down at an adjacent table. They were wiry and weather beaten and gave off a raised-by-wolves vibe. They proceeded to eat enormous platters of food, which they washed down with beer. They turned out to be thru hikers from the nearby John Muir Trail (JMT). After they told us a little about their trip, I said to my wife, “I want to do that! – or, at least, I want to lo

George Graybill

George Graybill in Trips

October Alpine: Fall Backpacking in Montana

Among its many inimitable charms, prime backpacking season in the Northern Rockies is also unfortunately defined by a cruel brevity. Try to hike too early in the season and you wind up postholing through leftover snow, anxiously evaluating raging creeks for the safest place to cross, and camping near lakes still thawing out from winter – adventuresome, but not exactly ideal. A few weeks later and things are more amenable to backpacking, but bugs (especially the biting kind) become so numerous th

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Backpacking and Tenkara: Ultralight Fishing on the Trail

When I became intrigued by the trout swimming in mountain lakes in the Northern Rockies, I realized the tenkara rod gathering dust in my gear room would be a great way to test the waters before outfitting myself with a full fly rod and reel set up. Tenkara is a Japanese method of fly fishing that focuses on simplicity and forgoes a reel in favor of a longer rod length, fixed amount of line, and uses as few fly patterns as possible. Presentation, mindful casting, and technique are emphasized more

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Technique

Altra Lone Peak 4 Mesh Mid Hiking Boot Review

For the last several years, I’ve primarily backpacked in low-top trail runners with Brooks Cascadias and Altra Lone Peaks being the ones most often on my feet. I’ve used both waterproof and non-waterproof models and, after much experimentation, have pretty much decided that in three-season conditions non-waterproof works best for me in the terrain and conditions most common on my backpacking trips. While trail runners have been preferable to me for a variety of reasons – breathability and comfor

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Gear

Lakes, Peaks, & Bugs: Hiking the Beaverhead Mountains

Although lacking wilderness status or the “brand name” recognition of Glacier National Park, the Beaverhead Mountains in western Montana are a remarkably scenic landscape with few crowds and plenty of lakes with trout in them. In other words, they contain all the prerequisites for a great backpacking trip. The Beaverhead Mountains, which are at the southern end of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, are also notorious for having millions of voracious mosquitoes which makes early season trips here a f

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Hollow Fiber Backpacking Water Filter Care & Maintenance

While many methods for backcountry water treatment exist, hollow fiber filters are quite popular due to their ease of use, effectiveness, reasonable cost, and longevity. While a hollow fiber filter is quite simple – with the filter itself having no moving parts and working through a multitude of hollow tubes (each hollow tube then having a multitude of microscopic pores, which actually filter the water) the filter element will still need to be maintained and some basic precautions should be exer

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Altra Lone Peak Youth Kid's Shoe Review

When it comes to backpacking with a kid, many challenges will need to be addressed. While most of these challenges come in the form of intangibles such as proper trip planning for their particular age, motivation on the trail, and figuring out the best way to answer “how much farther” type questions, when it comes to hiking gear for kids, good shoes (as with adults) are critical. Unfortunately, decent footwear that is durable, lightweight, and comfortable for actual hiking distances i

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad Review

I think we can all agree that getting a good night’s sleep is essential to enjoying a backpack trip. But it is also a challenge. If you are accustomed to sleeping on a bed, as most of us are, then the transition from mattress to ground is a hard one. We need something to cushion that transition and thus some sort of sleeping pad is a part of nearly every hiker’s kit. Inflatable sleeping pads best mimic the mattress sleeping experience. But they have their drawbacks: they are fairly heavy (often

HappyHour

HappyHour in Gear

  • Blog Entries

    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0
      Ever since one of my favorite backpacking meals of all time – the Pad See You noodles from Backpacker’s Pantry was unfortunately discontinued, I’ve been a search for a simple, but good rice noodle dish with an accompanying meat protein. The Pad Thai from Mountain House is a recent meal that ends up being a close contender to my old time favorite, and the latest meal with this theme I’ve tested is the dehydrated Spicy Pork Noodles from Firepot, who makes pre-packaged, just add water dehydrated meals in the United Kingdom.

      This meal is based on rice noodles, ground pork, and various vegetables and spices including everything from honey to fish sauce. The meal is not freeze dried – but rather dehydrated, and I assume in order to assist with this process, everything in the bag other than the noodles is of a very finely chopped type consistency. This being the second meal from Firepot that I’ve tried, I was already accustomed to their easy fill process – fold the bag to create a crease at the fill line mentioned in the instructions (the scale is printed on the side of the bag), and then just fill to that line which makes things easy. The meal takes 1.75 cups of boiling water and 15 minutes of rehydration time. The bags are harder to open than most other meals I’ve tried – doable by hand but it may help to have a small pair of scissors or a Swiss Army knife on hand to assist.

      After rehydration, the consistency of the meal was perfect, with everything having rehydrated adequately and without any resulting soupiness. Taste wise and as you’d expect from the name of the meal, the spice is definitely there and may even be too high for some palates. However, beyond that I just wasn’t getting a much flavor as I’d hope for at the end of the day. For me adding some Yellowbird Ghost Pepper Sauce solved the issue quickly – although I wouldn’t say the meal necessarily needed the additional heat. Other ways to help would include some extra seasoning such as black pepper, garlic powder, sriracha, or so long as you’re good with adding even more sodium, additional soy sauce from a packet. The ingredients already in the meal are good however, and 770 calories in a compact package is great. So I believe the meal is good – it could use just a little something.

      Overall, and while I’m much higher on Firepot’s Chili Con Carne Meal, I think their Spicy Pork Noodles Meal makes more of a good base to improve upon on your own if you’re up for it. If you like spicy Asian cuisine, the meal is workable in whatever way you want to take it from there, and I would suggest packing along a few extra additions to take this particular meal to the next level. This could include your favorite hot sauce or favorite seasonings that you might like to add to similar noodle dishes, and allows you to suit this meal to your own tastes.
      You can find the Firepot Spicy Pork Noodles Meal here at REI.
    • Susan Dragoo
      By Susan Dragoo in TrailGroove Blog 0
      The forested slopes of southeastern Oklahoma’s ironically named Sans Bois Mountains provide the backdrop for much of the excitement in “True Grit,” a novel by Charles Portis and two major motion pictures (1969 and 2010). You wouldn’t know it though, for the mountain peaks shown in the films suggest places farther west. Indeed, the movies were filmed in Colorado and New Mexico, but pursuing outlaws in post-Civil War Indian Territory, as the main characters are portrayed as doing in “True Grit,” was not just one of Hollywood’s fictional creations.

      Here in the foothills of the larger Ouachita Mountain range, deep forests and rugged terrain did indeed shelter folks on the wrong side of the law during and after the Civil War. During that conflict, deserters found refuge in these isolated backwoods. And for many years after the war, Indian Territory maintained a reputation for lawlessness. Legend has it that unsavory characters such as Jesse and Frank James, the Doolin Gang, and Henry and Belle Starr hid out in these parts, some even living in sandstone caves in the cliffs of the Fourche Maline River. Whether or not any of these notables ever used it as a hideout, the name “Robbers Cave” seemed apropos for the signature feature of this Oklahoma state park when it was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps along the banks of the Fourche Maline in the 1930s.
      As for the decidedly wooded mountain range named Sans Bois, which is French for "without wood,” a creek with very little timber and its source in these mountains is said to have given the range its name. The dense forest is dominated by short-leaf pine and post oak, hickory and cedar, with dogwood and redbud adding color to the landscape.

      All of this makes for excellent hiking, with challenging terrain and beautiful scenery, and the cave itself is a must-see, although not a cave in the true sense of the word. Robbers Cave is more a crevice created by the shifting of inclined layers of sedimentary rock. It is easily accessed from a parking lot on the northeast side of the park via a short but steep climb. Whether or not Belle Starr ever set foot in it, climbing up, sitting inside and peering out is a satisfying accomplishment. No less interesting are the rock formations below the cave, which create narrow passageways reminiscent of slot canyons. It’s a worthwhile place to spend some time.
      Three main paths – Rough Canyon Trail, Cattail Pond Loop, and Mountain Trail – dominate the Robbers Cave State Park trail system, and the ability to connect them with a multi-use trail and four backcountry camp sites makes it possible to put together an enjoyable backpacking experience.

      The Rough Canyon trailhead is adjacent to the cave parking lot, and what hiker could resist a trail called “Rough Canyon”? The first mile lives up to the “rough” appellation with lots of rocky uphill, briefly running along a stream before opening up, then flowing into a dense pine forest. The trail continues uphill then intersects with the Cattail Pond Loop, which incorporates a stream crossing and circles the eponymous body of water, passing a primitive campground before it turns toward lovely Lost Lake. Surrounded by maples and covered with lily pads, this is an intensely beautiful spot in the fall, and its rock dam and attendant stone structure are worth investigating. The trail continues with lots of rocky downhill, returning to the cave parking lot for a total of about four miles. These trails can be mixed and matched for various distances and, on the west, they connect with the park’s 4.8-mile Mountain Trail.

      On the park’s southern end, the Deep Ford Campground serves as the primary starting point for the Mountain Trail. This is really the park’s signature trail, tracing the western shores of Lakes Carlton and Wayne Wallace before connecting with the Rough Canyon Trail. Finding your way can be difficult in spots, however. As the trail climbs above Lake Carlton, it is easy to veer off course, confusing the well-worn spur to the bluffs with the main trail. The bluffs must be explored, as the view is breathtaking, but remember that the main trail goes above the bluffs, not below. Other hiking and equestrian trail branches also create confusion along the way and the park maps are not all that helpful. But if you sort it out, you’ll come to the Rocky Top primitive campground on the northern edge of the Mountain trail, near the intersection with the Rough Canyon Trail.

      A multi-use trail connects with the Mountain and Rough Canyon trails, allowing creation of an overnight backpacking loop of about 11.5 miles in length. Robbers Cave is also perfect for day hiking, with abundant campgrounds and cabins built in the 1930s in National Park Service rustic style.
      In fact, the park is so full of intact historical structures that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After a vigorous hike, take a leisurely walk to explore such structures as the 1936 bathhouse on Lake Carlton, now serving as the park’s nature center. And, with its huge sandstone rock faces, Robbers Cave State Park is a popular destination for rock climbers.

      While you’re unlikely to find any outlaws hiding out there these days, hiking at Robbers Cave State Park, near Wilburton, Oklahoma, offers a taste of the backwoods that attracted those renegades 150 years ago and perhaps a glimpse into what life on the run might have looked like in those cliffs above the Fourche Maline.
      Information: There is no fee to access the park but a $10 per day parking fee is charged (annual parking passes are also available). Parking is, however, included in fees for cabin/lodge room rental or camping. The park offers ample camping, including 86 primitive tent campsites. Tent camping in backcountry campsites and campgrounds is $16 per night. Make reservations, obtain a parking pass and get complete park information here.
      Getting There: Robbers Cave State Park is located five miles north of Wilburton, Oklahoma on State Highway 2. Wilburton is about 160 miles from Oklahoma City, 130 miles from Tulsa, and 75 miles from Fort Smith, Arkansas.
      Best Time to Go: Spring and fall are the best times to go thanks to cooler temperatures and more color in the landscape (dogwood and redbud in spring and maples and other hardwoods in fall). Winter is also a very good time to go, as temperatures are usually mild. In the summer, while ticks and poison ivy can be annoying, the trails are generally well groomed and shady, so hiking then can be pleasant as well.
      Maps and Books: Oklahoma Hiking Trails by Kent Frates and Larry Floyd, and True Grit by Charles Portis. The Oklahoma Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer can help with getting to and from and exploring the area. The Ouachita Maps web site offers topo maps and detailed hiking directions. Also see the Robbers Cave Historical Walking Tour.
    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0
      While many of us have settled on a routine of meals and old standby dinners in the backcountry – whether that’s commercial freeze dried meals or our own recipes on the trail, every once in a while it’s nice to mix it up. Recently when re-stocking the freeze dried meal inventory for some upcoming trips I noticed that REI was carrying a brand I hadn’t tried before – and I decided to test out the new Chili con Carne with Rice Meal made by Firepot in the United Kingdom.

      While trying new meals from brands I’ve had experience with involves a familiarity with everything from preservation methods to packaging, this Firepot meal would be all new. To start, Firepot doesn’t freeze dry their meals, but they are rather dehydrated. While I’ve generally found that freeze dried food is far superior than dehydrated in just about every department from flavor to rehydration characteristics, Firepot states they have a unique dehydration process, and while they don’t elaborate on this I did find myself surprised at how well the meal turned out. This meal packs in 890 calories into a fairly compact package, and requires 2.25 cups of boiling water plus 15 minutes of rehydration time. The meals are good on the shelf for 3 years after the manufacture date. To start however the packaging is quite robust and it requires a fair amount of effort just to tear off the top. While possible by hand and a good workout, a small Swiss army knife or a small pair of scissors will help. Making things easier though are the fill lines that are printed on the side of the bag, so you don’t have to precisely measure water if you don’t want to.

      This heavy duty bag however, does retain a lot of heat and the meal was still steaming hot after the 15 minute rehydration time was up. I’d rate the meal highly taste and texture wise, however don’t expect any type of chili here. The meal is a rice dish – and the rice has excellent texture – along with kidney beans and ground beef, although I do wish the beef component was more noticeable. I’m not quite sure regarding Firepot’s unique dehydration process, but everything did rehydrate quite well and I’m sure the small size of all the ingredients helps here – everything is of a finely diced size. While the texture was great, the flavor here is good and quite good on its own. That said, the dish also offers a great base, and adding things like a little olive oil or cheese will add flavor, while adding calories and making this serviceable for 2 people.

      I like the nutrition profile of this meal as well as the ingredients, and after a long day of hiking, the 49 grams of protein in the meal along with carbs for some more immediate energy is helpful. The fat content is lower, but this can be managed on your own with a bottle of olive oil – one of my favorite techniques for adding flavor and calories to commercial backpacking meals. One drawback however is that the meal, at $13.50, is expensive – this will likely be an “if I catch it on sale” or can get it with a discount type of item (REI offers a bulk discount on backpacking meals). Overall, the Chili con Carne with Rice Meal from Firepot is quite good, and considering that plus the fact that it packs nearly 900 calories into a compact form factor, it will most likely be a meal I’ll be working into my backcountry meal plan in the future.
      The Firepot Chili con Carne Meal retails for $13.50. Find it here at REI.
    • Mark Wetherington
      By Mark Wetherington in TrailGroove Blog 3
      I’ve always placed a premium on solitude when planning my outdoor activities and, with some planning and luck, have never found it to be particularly difficult to obtain. However, with trails across the country being more crowded than ever this past summer, it’s taken a bit more effort even in sparsely populated western Montana to have that lake, peak, or meadow all to yourself. Fortunately, with a bit of flexibility and research I was able to turn a short-notice opportunity for an overnight trip during a perfect summer weekend into a well-balanced outing that left the crowds behind.

      As an avid reader of guidebooks and map nerd, I have both a paper list and a mental list of trips that fit into various categories. Cross-country multi-day trips, easy weekend loops, out-and-back overnights, weeklong “life list” treks, and everything in between. I typically plan my trips weeks in advance, but I’ve also learned to become adaptable when a weather window opens up or a friend has a gap in their schedule and wants to go backpacking at the last minute. Because of this pre-planning, when my girlfriend, Andrea, let me know on a Friday that her work schedule had shifted and she’d be able to join me on an overnight trip the following day I was able to quickly put together an itinerary.
      Wishing to maximize our time on the trail, minimize our contact with crowds, and not physically push ourselves too much due to recent injuries that we were still recovering from, we drove an hour to a trailhead in the Sapphire Mountains. I usually get a bit flustered when I pull into a parking lot that is near capacity, which was what happened when we arrived around noon at the trailhead. We pulled into one of the last available spaces and shouldered our packs as two other vehicles pulled in only to have to turn around and park at pull-offs further down the road. It was no surprise at all that the trailhead for a 2.5 mile hike to a subalpine lake with only 500 feet of elevation gain was crowded. Summer is short in Montana and hikes that provide such easy access to such stunning scenery are not exactly rare, but they’re also not terribly common either.

      However, unlike the other hikers and backpackers on the trail the lake was not our final destination. Instead, we would stop there for lunch, fish for the native Arctic grayling that inhabited the lake, summit a nearby peak, then continue on to a meadow just over a mile away that a guidebook description described as “a very scenic and photogenic location where solitude is virtually guaranteed.”
      As expected, the lake was crowded with anglers, families taking children on an easy backpacking trip, and other hikers and campers. There was fortunately plenty of room to spread out for our stay and Andrea spotted a perfect rocky nook on the far shore for us to have lunch and fish from. After enjoying a pleasant lunch and catching a few small grayling, we stashed our gear and made the steep ascent up the mountainside to a ridge that led to two separate highpoints. From the first highpoint, we had a spectacular view down to the meadow where we would spend the night. We also had a spectacular view west to the snow capped Bitterroot Mountains. Not only did the view excite us for our next destination, but it also helped us plan ahead as the small pond that we were considering for a water source appeared to be totally dried up or so muddy as to be unappealing.

      From the northern end of the ridge, we walked through beautiful whitebark pine forest to the southern highpoint, which had a great view of the lake. After admiring the vista, we descended to the lake, took a quick swim to wash off the sweat from our effort, and loaded up our packs with water to take to our dry camp. Once we left the lake, we didn’t see any other hikers until we returned to the trail to the lake the following day. Our journey to the meadow was not overly arduous – we took a maintained trail for a half-mile to a saddle where an elk path led down a hillside and through a forested area to the meadow. I regretted the water weight I was carrying when we crossed a small but lively stream in the forest, but better to have been safe than sorry. And on the bright side, at least one camp chore was out of the way for the evening.
      The meadow was even more incredible than it had looked from above. Stark cliffs with talus slopes ringed it in and the grassy expanse before us was huge. We picked a spot near the treeline to set up camp and then stretched out a hammock to enjoy a pre-dinner snack, take in the view, and scan for wildlife. There were lots of elk signs in the meadow and nearby, but we didn’t see any of the enchanting ungulates during our stay. We did see lots of mosquitoes, but fortunately the net over the hammock kept them from being more than a minor nuisance.

      The view of the night sky from the meadow was nothing short of phenomenal and the soft glow of sunrise on the cliffs was one of the most beautiful mornings I had all summer. After a relaxing breakfast, we packed up and headed back to the trailhead. Although we didn’t have everything to ourselves on this trip, which can often be the case in Montana and tends to have a spoiling effect when you have to share the landscape with others, we certainly had it where it counted. And when visiting a lake, peaks, and a meadow and to have solitude at two out of three when the parking lot was full is definitely not something to complain about.
      Information: The Sapphire Mountains are in western Montana and, aside from a few popular destinations, typically see far fewer crowds – especially hikers and backpackers – than the nearby Bitterroot Mountains. The Lolo, Bitterroot, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests all have jurisdictions over different parts of the range. Using the maps for these forests, or online software like Caltopo, is the best way to plan a trip in this range.
      In the northern part, the rugged Welcome Creek Wilderness provides early season hiking opportunities and blue ribbon trout fishing in Rock Creek. The southern tip of the range fades into the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. In the middle are plenty of trails and roads to keep outdoor enthusiasts busy for a lifetime of summers, but relatively little information is available about specific trails or routes (likely factoring into the low number of visitors). Due to a lack of wilderness designation, the area sees more OHV and mountain bike use than other nearby areas which helps keep trails in decent condition, but of course things vary greatly from year to year. A few trails in the Sapphire Mountains are described in 100 Classic Hikes: Montana by Douglas Lorain, Best Hikes Near Missoula by Josh Mahan, and Hiking Montana by Bill Schneider.
    • Mark Wetherington
      By Mark Wetherington in TrailGroove Blog 1
      Although I did several trips on cross-country skis and snowshoes that involved camping out in the Northern Rockies in below freezing temperatures for multiple nights, the past few years my definition of “winter backpacking” has either included a US Forest Service rental cabin with a wood stove or a plane ticket to southern Arizona. I still find winter to be a beautiful time of year and I enjoy the heightened elements of the season that seem so magical, but I just hadn’t hadn’t been motivated to do a true winter backpacking trip for quite some time. After several blissful day trips cross-country skiing near the Idaho border at Chief Joseph Pass the allure of an overnight trip in winter came back to me.

      I’d wanted to ease back into winter camping and the groomed winter trails at Chief Joseph Pass in the Bitterroot National Forest were an ideal destination. There would be no need to break trail solo, which is an arduous task on skis with a full pack. During the day trips to cross-country ski (with one wonderful “night trip” to cross-country ski under the full moon), I scouted out a nice spot on the edge of a meadow in a nook sheltered from the wind by the lodgepole pine forest but still allowing for a great view of the meadow and the sky above.
      Even better, my campsite had a small spring nearby that wasn’t yet covered by the two feet of snow that had fallen by early December. Melting snow for water is one of the most tedious and time-consuming tasks of winter backpacking – and winter backpacking is an activity filled with such tasks – and to be able to avoid that by having the spring nearby amped up my enthusiasm. I watched the forecast for the perfect balance of clear skies but not too frigid temperatures (I’m not equipped to backpack below 0 degrees Fahrenheit and I prefer not to backpack if it’s below 10 degrees for the overnight low) and found a timeframe that worked well for me.

      My pack was heavier for the winter overnight than it was for most of my two and three-night summer trips, but I knew I’d be comfortable and didn’t want to take any chances. Even though I would be camping only a mile and a half away from my car in a popular cross-country skiing area, winter is not a good time to try and cut weight by leaving behind gear that could immensely impact your enjoyment, not to mention your safety. My liquid fuel stove, 0 degree sleeping bag, and Black Diamond Firstlight Tent were the biggest contributors to my increased pack weight. Insulated pants, down booties, and my winter down jacket also added some weight that is usually absent on trips to cabins in winter or when sleeping in a tent in summer.
      I arrived at camp warmed up from the ski in and, as planned, not sweaty thanks to proper layering. This allowed me to accomplish all my camp chores – stamping out a tent spot, letting the snow settle, setting up the tent, hanging my food bag (more out of habit and caution against small critters than anything else), and enjoying a snack – before heading out for a late afternoon loop on the exquisitely groomed trails. Since sunset was not long after 5 p.m., it made sense to spend as much time moving as I could during the daylight hours and only return to camp to cook and sleep.

      I enjoyed a nice sunset on my evening ski and arrived back at camp with just enough light to set up most of my kitchen and start boiling water without having to use my headlamp. As my freeze-dried meal cooked in its bag (which was wrapped in a bandana and placed under my jacket to allow me to appreciate its warmth) I was able to watch the stars come out as I sat atop my foam sleeping pad that was conveniently placed against a fallen tree to create a perfect backrest with a great view across the meadow and above the trees to the dimming sky.
      By the time I was finished with dinner and making hot chocolate, the stars were filling up the sky. I saw one of the most lengthy and impressive shooting stars of my life and that moment made all the “hassles” of the trip worth it. What was even better was that it was only 6:30 p.m. or so when I saw this celestial highlight. I love stargazing, but tend to get sleepy early so it’s hard for me to stay up late enough in summer to get to enjoy this activity. All told, I probably saw ten shooting stars before I headed to bed shortly after 8 p.m.

      In my tent, I had a book of Jack London short stories and a thermos of tea to keep my company until I went to sleep a half-hour later. The sun wouldn’t rise until almost 8 a.m. the next morning, so I settled down for a long and restful night of sleep. I woke up a few times, but was always able to go back to sleep within a few minutes. By 9 a.m. I was eating breakfast and breaking camp as the sun lit the meadow and the snow caught the morning rays. A quick ski back to the parking lot, where I stowed my heavy pack and then met up with a friend for a few miles of cross-country skiing, ended my first foray in several years into winter camping.

      Overall, I would put this trip down as a success and it renewed my interest in doing more mild winter camping (at least “mild” by Northern Rockies standards). My skills weren’t as rusty as I thought and I think I packed smarter and not heavier in regards to insulating layers than I had on previous trips. The importance of tasty food and warm beverages was reinforced and the only thing I remember forgetting (a small brush to get snow out of the tent when it is inevitably tracked in) didn’t prove to be catastrophic. My tent poles did turn out to need new shock cord, but the conditions were so mild that it didn’t really matter and I was able to keep them connected. A good lesson to double-check seldom used gear that will certainly be heeded in the future. So, if you’re contemplating getting out this winter – go for it! It’s a wonderful time of year if you’re prepared and by starting small and planning well you can ensure a comfortable and safe trip.
      Information: Chief Joseph Pass is groomed for classic and skate skiing and has over 20 miles of trails. Grooming typically begins in December and runs through the end of March. There is no fee to use this area and a day-use warming hut is available. The hut can be rented for overnight use through recreation.gov.
      Getting There: Chief Joseph Pass Cross-Country Ski Area is located near the Idaho and Montana borders near the junction of Hwy. 93 and Hwy. 43.
      Best Time to Go: Chief Joseph Pass shines as a winter destination and that is arguably the best time to visit. While the Continental Divide Trail does pass through Chief Joseph Pass, there isn't much in the way of scenery near the pass as most of the trails are in dense coniferous forest. The CDT is much more scenic further north in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness or further south in the Beaverhead Mountains.
      Maps: The Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club provides a small brochure-style map that is more than sufficient for navigating the trails on skis or snowshoes. Junctions are also clearly signed. The area is an absolute maze of roads (both active and decommissioned) and while it is easy to navigate in winter, if visiting in the summer for mountain biking it can be more confusing as the winter trails signs are removed. The Montana Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer is useful both for getting to and planning general recreation in the area.



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