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  1. 2 points
    It’s almost as if the Pacific Ocean is a magnet, pulling me west each time I venture out to explore. While I take full advantage of the natural wonders offered by my home region in the central U.S., if I am traveling very far to hike, it is usually somewhere west of Oklahoma. As a result, I have hiked very little in the eastern United States, though I’ve managed to walk short sections of the Appalachian Trail on trips to Vermont and Maryland. Not much to brag about. Recently, I was in Virginia on business with my husband, Bill, and found myself with a free day, presenting an opportunity to experience a slice of the hiking in the East. We were stationed only a 30-minute drive from the southern boundary of Shenandoah National Park (SNP), so it was a natural choice. The 200,000-acre park is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia, stretching 105 miles from north to south. One main road, Skyline Drive, runs the distance of the long, narrow park and most hiking trailheads are accessed right off that main road. With more than 500 miles of hiking trails at SNP, there’s plenty to choose from. But how to choose? Since I was coming from the south and wanted to maximize my time hiking rather than driving, I picked a trail in the Loft Mountain area, about 20 miles north of the park entrance. And who doesn’t like waterfalls? SNP is full of waterfalls and I selected a couple of trails that appeared to have nice cascades, connecting them in a loop with a section of the Appalachian Trail, which runs all the way through Shenandoah. My total walking distance would be about eight miles, a nice length for a leisurely day hike. Arriving in Shenandoah early in the morning on a cloudy October day, I pulled into a nearly empty Jones Run Trailhead, pleased to be getting ahead of the weekend crowds. There was only one other vehicle there and I let its owner get on the trail ahead of me. I was alone, since Bill was working, and I preferred some solitude on the trail. The leaf-strewn path lined with ferns took me down, down, down into the hollow toward Jones Run Falls, a 42-foot cascade. I knew what the long descent meant – what goes down must come up. But for the moment I enjoyed the easy walking. Raindrops began to pepper the forest canopy and I thought how silly I was to have forgotten a rain jacket. In spite of what the calendar said about the season, there was little color change in the oaks and hickories, and what little existed was muted by the overcast skies. The temperature was pleasant, though, and the rain had stopped. I was enjoying myself thoroughly, nearly scampering along on the rocky trail. “I got my picture of a bear,” said a hiker, approaching from the opposite direction. The gray-ponytailed man in a ball cap stopped to explain he had just seen a bear on the trail and was able to capture a photo of it. He said he’d had to wait a while before proceeding, watching the bear cross the creek and eventually clamber up the hillside. I thanked him and continued, a little more watchful in case I too might get such a photo op. Soon I came to Jones Run Falls, but it was only a trickle, as the area had been experiencing drought. The 42-foot cascade was a 42-foot dribble, but I imagined it would have been quite spectacular with water. Continuing, I crossed the creek and began to ascend, now on the path toward Doyles River Falls. There are two falls along the Doyles River Trail, the upper and lower. Like Jones Run, there was only a trickle of water flowing across them. As I approached the lower falls, my solitude ended. Crowds of hikers, young and old, human and canine, were coming down the hillside as I climbed up, up, and up. If they were looking for spectacular waterfalls, however, they were out of luck. Soon I came to a spring surrounded by a wall of mossy stones. A sign there pointed to Doyles River Cabin. Curious, I followed the spur trail to find a woman and two young girls sitting on the front porch of a rustic house. “I didn’t mean to intrude,” I said. “I saw the sign and wondered what was up here.” “No worries,” said the woman. “You’re not the first hiker we’ve seen today.” “I accidentally locked us out,” said one of the girls. “My daddy’s gone to get the ranger so we can get back in.” Probably more information than the mother would have liked her daughter to share with a total stranger, but then I also probably looked (and am) pretty harmless. I wished them luck and turned back, continuing my climb. It was a relief when I reached the top after the long ascent, and there I found the trail marker for the Appalachian Trail (AT), indicating a 3.4-mile walk back to Jones Run, my starting point. The AT was narrower than the trail I’d just been on, appearing less trafficked at this point. Right away, I saw bear spoor on the trail, and only seconds later another such deposit, renewing my alertness. I started walking more quickly and making a bit of noise, becoming nervous about a bear encounter. Soon I began to meet other hikers on the trail and relaxed a bit. Then, lo and behold, I came across the first hiker I’d met, the guy who took the bear picture. I told him I hadn’t seen the bear and he asked about my camera, a lightweight mirrorless I was carrying around my neck. He was carrying his big DSLR with its huge lens in a waist pack. Good for pictures, heavy for hiking. Bidding him adieu, I soon reached my car, well satisfied with the hike but hungry. I drove a little farther into the park to the Loft Mountain Wayside and grabbed a late lunch, then began my return trip. As I drove south, the sun broke through the clouds, lighting up the red leaves of the maples along the roadside, so much so that I was compelled to stop at a turn-out and admire the view. The wind freshened, and as I left, autumn leaves skittered across the road and onto my windshield. Fall, it seemed, had just decided to arrive. Information: Shenandoah National Park lies along the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. Almost 40% of the land is designated as wilderness and protected as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The highest peak is Hawksbill Mountain at 4,051 feet. Best Time to Go: As with most of the southeastern deciduous forest, spring and fall are generally the best times to go, avoiding humid summers and often snowy winters in the mountains. Getting There: Shenandoah National Park is located about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C. The park has four entrance stations along its 105-mile length. The Jones Run Falls trailhead is located at mile 84.1 in the south district of the park. Maps and Books: A map for the Jones Run Falls/Doyles River Falls loop is located here. Note, however, I connected the two trails with the Appalachian Trail rather than with Browns Gap Road. National Geographic also offers their Trails Illustrated Shenandoah National Park Map. Several guidebooks are available on Amazon, including a Falcon Guide to Hiking Shenandoah National Park.
  2. 2 points
    The Rocky Mountains provide hikers with countless opportunities to immerse themselves in backcountry areas filled with quintessential landforms. Majestic mountain peaks, sublime subalpine lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, and wildflower-filled meadows come immediately to mind. Rolling high-altitude plateaus, cascading mountain streams, and fragrant forests of dense conifers are also key contributors to this enchanting landscape. Somewhat surprisingly, there are even some natural arches scattered across the Mountain West, mixed in amongst the gendarmes, sawtoothed ridgelines, and other rock formations. Despite the abundance of grandeur in many regards, there is one piece of natural phenomena that the Rockies lack – the stunning display of fall color that deciduous forests come alive with each autumn. The mosaic of reds, oranges and yellows, presented in a stunning variety of tones – from brilliant to muted – is one of the most captivating sights in the mountains of the eastern United States. From New England to the Great Smoky Mountains, the trillions of leaves clinging to well over 100 species of trees form an enchanting tapestry of color. An almost kaleidoscopic canopy hangs above trails that traverse an already wonderful landscape for hiking. While the West lacks the type of forest that bestows hikers with the unique experience of hiking during peak fall foliage in New England or the southern Appalachians, it isn’t entirely monochromatic during the fall months. Aspens turn a rich yellow before dropping their leaves and many shrubs turn vivid reds as the nights get colder and the days grow shorter. However, in the high country of the Northern Rockies and the North Cascades hikers can witness a spectacle that – while lacking in the breadth of Eastern foliage displays – is mesmerizing enough to plan a backpacking trip around. Larch trees, also known as tamarack and containing several subspecies, look similar to spruce and other conifers, but every autumn their needles turn gold and drop to the ground. They’re somewhat of a contradiction: a deciduous conifer. When the sunlight hits these trees, which are the dominant species at certain elevations and in certain cirques, they emanate a glow that is almost iridescent. There are several different subspecies of larch, and going into the complexities of them is beyond the scope of this article, and the word “larch” throughout this piece refers to those found in Montana, Idaho, and destinations in Washington (such as the Pasayten Wilderness). Specifically, it is the alpine larch (larix lyalli) which is the focus of this piece. The sight of a golden conifer is magical enough on its own and would be worth hiking a few miles to see even if it was in the middle of a cornfield. That said, the context in which fall larch are set often increases the amount of awe to mystical levels. The subalpine and alpine country where the larch inhabit is both Spartan and spectacular. Rock, hardy conifers, and lakes tend to dominate the landscapes in these upper reaches of the Mountain West. Summer is short and the legacies of glaciers and dramatic geological forces are front and center. The summer months are understandably the most popular time to visit the high country, as the weather is about as benign and predictable as it gets in the mountains (which isn’t saying much). The days are long and allow a lot of miles to be covered while still providing plenty of time for a refreshing (or bone chilling) swim in a lake and lounging around camp. Or, for the ambitious, hiking up a peak near camp. Late fall in the high county comes with many rewards. The complete lack of biting insects is a major plus and the fishing in fall can be excellent. The larch trees, of course, are a bonus that can’t be understated. Lakes that would be crowded on a July weekend can become lonesome in late September and October. There are also some challenges in late fall as well. There is the potential for wet, heavy, early season snow which can be challenging to hike through or camp in. Earlier sunsets and clear skies allow for excellent stargazing, but the nights can come with a frigidity that lets you know winter is not far away. For hikers well-prepared for camping in shoulder season conditions, few things can be more memorable than a trip to the high country to see the larch. If you’re able to catch them at peak, with a dusting of snow on the ground and blue skies overhead, you will likely make a visit to see the larch a yearly pilgrimage. Information: Larch trees are common in most subalpine areas of Montana, Idaho, and Washington’s Cascade Mountains (you can find a map of past destinations that we've featured in TrailGroove Magazine at this link). They are typically found near treeline and usually begin turning in late September through the middle of October, although this can vary some from year to year depending on conditions. Consult guidebooks, ranger stations, and trip reports to get information about where the larch are at and how far along they are in turning when planning your visit.
  3. 1 point
    Sitting atop the summit of Mount Saint Helens, with views of over a hundred miles in every direction, a passage from a novel came to mind as I sipped a cup of coffee and gazed at distant peaks. Seemingly appropriate when applied to an exceptionally clear autumn day observed from atop a mountain, an experience that makes one feel full of life. It felt like the “most beautiful day in a thousand years. The October air was sweet and every faint breath a pleasure.” As Annie Proulx wrote in the book, Barkskins. My climbing partner Kerra and I had begun the hike up Mount Saint Helens at 5 a.m. sharp, leaving our camp under a starlit sky with an archetype of a crescent moon making its way toward the horizon. We had camped just below 4,800 feet in elevation and had approximately 3,500 feet of elevation to gain on our way to the 8,365 foot summit of one the Northwest’s most famous stratovolcanoes. Kerra and I had meet two years prior when we were both hiking the Loowit Trail, which loops around Mount Saint Helens and is one of the most dramatic hikes in terms of scenery-per-mile that I have had the pleasure of hiking. We kept in touch after that hike and had since ice climbed in Montana and backpacked along the Oregon Coast. When Kerra let me know she had a spot on a permit to climb Mount Saint Helens in early October I jumped at the chance to climb a mountain that I had already circumambulated the base of, which would be a hiking “first” for me. Although I do not consider myself a “peakbagger”, as I’m often most content simply ambling along in the woods and spending my time looking at up peaks from lakes while I flyfish, the opportunity to summit Mount Saint Helens had a distinct and irresistible appeal. Approximately the first half of our climb was by headlamp and we reached the snowline after less than an hour or ascending. The amount of snow on the mountain, which was fairly substantial for so early in the season, was fortunately more of an aid than a hindrance. As we climbed, the final dark hours of night transitioned into the ethereal predawn glow, and then into a beautiful and clear morning with brilliant blue skies. The colors of the sunrise were vivid and the sight of the sun rising near Mount Adams was absolutely breathtaking. Kerra, who had summited Mount Saint Helens three times previously, remarked several times on how helpful the hardpacked snow was. It allowed us to travel above the ashy and sandy slopes on the final summit push, which can make for frustratingly slow going in summer conditions. Additionally, the ash and sand are easily whipped up by the winds which usually blow across the summit, which can make hanging out atop the mountain a less than enjoyable experience. Fortunately for us, not only was the wind so light and infrequent as to be almost unnoticeable, but the ash and sand were covered up by snow. This allowed us to stretch out up top, make some warm drinks and breakfast, and enjoy the view for almost two hours before starting our descent. Given our early start and the permit limitations that keep the number of climbers to a steady, but not overwhelming, stream we ended up having the summit to ourselves for almost an hour. The summit view was made even sweeter by the fact that I could see Mount Adams, thirty miles away in a straightline distance but seemingly so close you could reach out and touch it, which I had also hiked a loop around. Several other mountains were visible that had trails around them – such as Mount Rainier and Mount Hood – which provided ample inspiration for future adventures in Washington and Oregon. Looking into the crater of the volcano, the surrounding mountains, and the intriguing waters of Spirit Lake (which are filled with floating dead trees that were blown into the lake by the May 1980 eruption) made the time fly by. We were still able to enjoy beautiful views on the way down, although the snow was starting to soften up and we encountered several groups of hikers headed up. While the mountains in Montana, the state where I reside and do most of my backpacking, has amazing mountain ranges which provide a lifetime of backpacking, you are almost always hiking in the mountains rather than around them. While this experience is incredible in its own way, a hike involving something like Mount Saint Helens is something different to experience. My take on this could be partially due to the novelty of the experience, hiking around mountains provides a sense of scale and majesty that is different from trips which venture into the heart of mountain ranges, even if you do climb a peak along the way. Information: A permit is required to climb Mount Saint Helens. Please the permit information page on the website of the Mount Saint Helens Institute for current regulations. Getting There: Travel on Forest Road 90 and near Cougar, WA turn north onto FR 83. Drive north on forest road 83 to forest road 81. Make a left onto forest road 81 and drive 1.6 miles and turn right onto FR 830. Follow this to the trailhead. Best Time to Go: Mount Saint Helens can be climbed year-round, although winter ascents require technical skills and equipment. Summer can be uncomfortably hot as the climb provides little shade and the rocks can radiate heat they absorb from the sun and windblown ash and dust can be irritating. The weather can be less reliable, but late fall can be a perfect time for a climb. Maps and Books: The Green Trails Map for the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument is an excellent resource, National Geographic offers their Trails Illustrated Mount St. Helens and Adams Map, and this guidebook provides detailed information about hiking in Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument.
  4. 1 point
    Hi all. I'm Chris and just wanted to say hey. I've been camping periodically throughout my whole life. I did however, just do my first 24 hour solo backpacking and camping trip down here in FL where I am for work temporarily. It was awesome, but is another story for another topic area. See you around!
  5. 1 point
    With backpacks loaded and my friend Drew in the passenger seat, both of us eager to head to subalpine lakes with hungry trout, I turned the keys in the ignition and proceeded to break one of my cardinal rules of backpacking: don’t start in a trip in the middle of a holiday weekend. As advantageous as having an extra day off work to extend a backpacking trip is, if you’re spending that time on a crowded trail only to end up at an area where all the best campsites are taken the “victory” is at best bittersweet. I usually take precautions to avoid that outcome – picking remote destinations, getting a head start and being deep in the backcountry by the time the weekend rolls around, or going to a national park where the backcountry campsites are crowd-controlled by permits. Neither of those were options for this particular trip, we rolled the dice, rolled out of the driveway, and hoped for the best. One of the perks of living in a small city on the edge of a 1.3 million acre wilderness area is that if you arrive at a trailhead that is a bit too crowded for your tastes, you can simply drive a bit further to another one without delaying your hike too much. Our plan was to head first to the most appealing trailhead for the type of trip we desired – a trip featuring lots of fishing and not much more hiking than necessary. If our first preference had a packed parking lot, we would just drive a half-hour to the next trailhead, potentially repeating this process a time or two until we found our spot. One of the great luxuries of the Rocky Mountain West. Making this plethora of option sweeter was the fact that, unlike our trip to Yellowstone the previous week, no permits were required. It was simply a “choose your own adventure” situation with no park entry fees to be paid, campsites to be chosen, or miles to be covered regardless of weather conditions or energy levels. Although there are virtually endless options for backpacking within a few hour drive, I often find myself returning to the same lakes year after year, and sometimes within the same season. Sometimes this is to introduce others to the beauty of a place that I’ve grown fond of, or to be able to plan a trip for a novice backpack where I will more or less know what we will be getting into, or out of the sheer convenience of its location and the time involved in reaching the main attraction. Certain places tend to shine in certain seasons as well. While the lakes we hoped to visit were wonderful in summer, they are truly spectacular in late autumn when the needles of the larch trees turn gold before falling to the ground. When we arrived at the trailhead on Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend and saw only two other cars, we celebrated our good fortune and contemplated going back to town to purchase a few lottery tickets. The trailhead, less than an hour outside of town and with almost half the driving on a gravel road, is usually one of the more popular destinations for quick trips or family backpacking excursions. The canyon it provides access to is almost too good to be true. Hosting several lakes (four with good fishing), a beautiful stream, a lofty peak with several minor summits on adjacent ridges, and enchanting larch forests in late September, the canyon can reasonably be viewed as a microcosm of much of the high country of the Bitterroot Mountains. A moderate three-mile trail leads to the first lake and the others are reached by bootpaths that are more intriguing than intimidating. Our destination was the third and highest lake in the trio (the other two lakes are separated from the primary chain of lakes) which arguably has the best fishing and the most spectacular scenery. We allocated plenty of time to get there, as the lower two lakes are fun places to wet a line and get some practice catching the small cutthroats before heading up to the larger fish at the upper lake. In no rush, we plodded along the pleasantly graded trail, occasionally pausing to eat a few of the ripe and brilliant red thimbleberries. Just shy of the halfway point to the first lake, we met a backpacker headed out. Our odds of having the upper lake to ourselves, which were already looking pretty good, had just doubled. Energized by our good fortune, we kept up our pace and soon arrived at a quintessential subalpine lake on what can only be described as a perfect summer day in the mountains. Temperatures in the mid 70s, light breeze, and no clouds in the stunningly blue sky. The icing on the cake was seeing trout rising on the glassy water, well within casting distance, and no one else in sight. Easing our way along the talus slope on the northern shore of the lake, we stopped often to take advantage of the plentiful room for a backcast. After getting a good warm up of our casting arms and hook removing fingers, we took a lunch break before starting up the faint path to the upper lakes. Adequately but not obnoxiously marked by cairns, the path gained elevation quickly over granite slabs after exiting the patch of forest that clung to the inlet stream. Combined breaks for catching our breath and admiring the scenery slowed our progress, but we reached the middle lake without being too far behind on our non-existent schedule. Relying on the notion that if a lake has fish, and there is daylight, then there is time to fish, we put the lines back on our Tenkara rods (an excellent rig for backpacking) and tossed some flies on the water. Finding ourselves just as successful as we were on the lower lake, we enjoyed an hour or so of relaxed angling bliss before shouldering our packs and heading to the uppermost lake. The push to the final lake went much quicker than from the lower to the middle lake and we arrived at the unoccupied and awe-inspiring body of water just as the sun reached its highest point in the sky. Rising and sizable trout tempted us on our way to scope out campsites and, as expected, we were unable to resist. A crisp and refreshing swim washed off the sweat from the hike and refreshed us for the minor camp chores and a long afternoon and evening of fishing and soaking up the subalpine splendor. Taking time to scope out the best campsite, we set up our tents on a small rise with a commanding view of the lake and near a small granite peninsula that was a perfect spot to cast from. With camp set up and hours of daylight ahead, we waded into the cold but tolerable waters to fish a drop-off where the water deepened quickly and a cold inlet stream pushed oxygenated water, and whatever bugs it had picked up, to the center of the lake where larger trout swam. This was Drew’s first experience with camping and fly fishing at a mountain lake – each activity being outstanding on its own, and when combined, far exceeding the sum of its parts – and few things could have gone better. No mosquitoes, ideal weather, eager trout, no crowds, and no rush to hike out the next day. Late in the evening, our hunger became more of a priority than catching fish, so we traded our rods for stoves and cooked up dinner as twilight settled over the mountains. The stars eventually became as enrapturing as the fishing had been and we stared upwards until we had no choice but to either involuntarily fall asleep under them or head to our tents. We reluctantly but prudently chose the second option. Awakening to a mild morning, we once again marveled at our good fortune. An almost empty parking lot, uncrowded trails and campsites, blue skies overhead – a perfect holiday weekend trip. Making the most of it, we took our time packing up and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and more fishing before beginning our descent. Just as we were leaving the lake, three hikers descended from the larch-filled basin above the lake. Our paths crossed again while we fished the lowest lake. Their dayhike was a long but rewarding route that I was familiar with – it passes four lakes, summits a peak, and features a three-quarter mile ridge walk on stable talus. On our way out, we passed nearly a dozen hikers headed in to enjoy a nice forest walk on Labor Day and arrived at a trailhead with four times as many cars as when we had left. In the decade I’ve been backpacking, I’ve had some memorable Labor Day trips: a half-foot of snow falling overnight in the Beaverhead Mountains in Montana, starlit soaks in lonesome hot springs in Idaho, a smoky traverse of North Cascades National Park, and a cozy campsite in the Beaver Creek Wilderness of Kentucky. The subtle perfection of this trip makes it a worthy addition to that list and a type of outing that I’ll be trying to repeat in early September for years to come. Information: Trailhead access in the Bitterroot Mountains and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is often best suited for higher clearance vehicles and for those who have a sense of adventure, but more accessible trailheads can be found. The area offers an array of outdoor exploration opportunities – from backpacking to fishing to hot springs; see this Issue 41 article for more on the area. Best Time to Go: The Bitterroot Mountains are typical for the Rockies in that prime backpacking season can be found from approximately mid-June to September, snow pack and early fall snow permitting. At other times of the year, winter conditions can be anticipated. Getting There: The Bitterroot Mountains and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness can be explored via Highway 93 (east) and Highway 12 (north) and from the cities of Darby, Hamilton, Missoula, and Stevensville. Maps and Books: The Forest Service publishes their Bitterroot National Forest North Half and South Half Maps, and Cairn Cartographics also has this option available. For a guidebook, see Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness by Scott Steinberg.
  6. 1 point
    I do find it more natural to take shorter steps at a quicker pace on steeper inclines. My main interest is energy conservation. Wondering which uses less energy, short faster steps or longer slower steps on 15% to 25% inclines. Or maybe it is a toss up. The amount of energy expenditure being about the same? BTW, I am a 75 year old day hiker who on occasion hikes 7-9 miles round trip with elevation gain/loss of 2,000-3,000 feet. At home I walk 3-4 times a week at a park to stay reasonably fit. The trail route I take covers 4 short 150 yard inclines which average about 10% to 15% with short sections of 20%-25%. The inclines are unmaintained rough and rocky trails. The area between the climbs/descends is mostly level and varies from 100-300 yards. Total distance is about 4 miles, a total elevation gain/loss of 700 feet on mostly rough rocky trails.