Saturday, November 28, 2009

2009 - Boys Only Campout in the Wichitas - Day 1

Every year for the past 7 years, my sons and I, my brother-in-law and his sons, my father-in-law and other brother-in-law have taken a trip to the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge (WMWR) near Lawton, Oklahoma. On these trips, we generally spend 2 days hiking, bouldering and rock climbing. This year, for the first time, it was just my oldest son (12), myself, my brother-in-law and his son (11). So, this time we felt we'd be a little adventurous. We got more than we bargained for!

For those who have never been to the WMWR, it is an extremely rugged piece of property near Fort Sill outside of Lawton, Oklahoma. The mountains are small compared to most ranges in the Rockies and even the Applachians, but there are few maintained trails and the terrain is generally covered with very large chunks of granite strewn about. You must keep a watchful eye on the trail at your feet to avoid twisting an ankle or stumbling and doing a face plant into the 10 grit sandpaper-like rocks.

This year started off like others, leaving early out of the Dallas / Fort Worth area around 6:00 AM and driving Northwest through Wichita Falls, TX and then North towards Lawton, OK. We arrived at the WMWR around 10:30 AM. We had several options for our first day. We originally thought about top-roping The Atomic Knee Drop just below the top of 2,464 foot Mt. Scott. We had all done this a few years prior. It is fairly easy to set up a top rope and has a 5.6 difficulty rating, so for our sons and myself, it is a challenging, but not extremely difficult. There is an added difficulty climbing on Mt. Scott as the winds generally howl as you are probably 1,000 feet above the surrounding land. Just beyond Mt. Scott is a large wind farm, harnessing these forces of nature.

On this day, we called an audible and decided to make an assault on Elk Mountain via the 5.6 Great Expectations route on the Elk Slab, but first, we made a brief stop at the Doris Campground and set up camp. Next, we made the short drive over to the Sunset day use area parking lot. Prior to setting out on our hike, we had some lunch, filled our backpacks with water and trail snacks and prepared to leave. By this time it was about 11:45AM. Due to the excitement and anticipation, we weren't even thinking about this possibly being a bit late to start the hike.

From the parking lot, we headed west about 1/2 mile toward the Charons Gardens Wilderness Area to a dry wash and then head due south about another 1/2 mile into the Valley of the Boulders. This boulder field is littered with granite behemoths the size of small homes. Below is a picture taken a few years ago with us standing under some of the boulders in the boulder field.

You must boulder-hop probably another 1/2 mile through the Valley of the Boulders. The Valley of the Boulders is bordered to the east by Elk Mountain and to the west by Charons Garden. While in the boulder field, you will see one of the many iconic rock formations in the Refuge, the Apple and the Pear shown here.

Just beyond the Valley of the Boulders, the trail divides into three directions east, south and west. West takes you into Charons Gardens and towards Crab Eyes, a distinctive rock formation that we plan to visit on our second day. South takes you towards Indiahoma and the Treasure Lake Job Corps Center. East takes you around the south side of Elk Mountain and into Fawn Creek, which is our chosen path for today.

After about a 1/2 mile of attempting to follow the vague resemblance of a trail, we bushwhacked up to the base of Elk Slab to start our climb. A short scramble up a drainage puts you on a small ledge where my brother-in-law began setting up the ropes for a multi-pitch lead climb. My brother-in-law is an experienced climber and has spent around 25 years climbing in the Wichitas. He led me and my other brother-in-law on our first climbs 10 years ago on this very route. Prior to that climb, I had never attempted to climb even a rock wall in a gym. Since then, I've climbed pretty much every year in the Wichitas. I've also climbed in several rock gyms, but still consider myself a novice climber.

It took a little longer than expected getting to the base of the slab and getting set up. We did not have everything ready to climb until around 2:30 PM. Being on Standard Time, we were expecting it to get dark around 5:30 PM, but felt we could complete the route in about 3 hours. We were fully expecting to hike down the east side of Elk Mountain in the dark, but were prepared with our head lamps.

One critical detail we were forgetting was that we had 4 people on the climb and only 2 ropes. This meant that we would need to shuttle ropes at each pitch. My brother-in-law would lead climb and set up protection with me belaying him from below. At each pitch, he would clip into some form of bomber protection and then begin top-roping each of us up. The second and third climbers would tail a rope that we would use to pull the top-rope down to the next climber. As the fouth and final climber, I would remove the protection and meet up with everyone that was clipped into the protection and we would start the proces over again through three pitches. This is a picture of my son heading up the first pitch. Note the rope he is tailing.

We were between our second and third pitch when the sun dipped below the horizon. As it did, we could see Crab Eyes off in the distance. With the sun below them, it gave the appearance of the eyes glowing. All four of us were huddled together, clipped into a bolt with a piece of webbing each holding us from sliding down about 300 feet of granite. Unable to dig into my backpack for our headlamps, we finished our climb with the assistance of a bright half-moon glow, one-by-one feeling our way up the rock.

Once we were at the top of the climb, we still needed to navigate our way through another boulder field and then find the trail down to the parking lot in the dark. It took us around 1 hour of trial-and-error searching to get through the boulder field. Then, we walked around for another hour looking for the trail. At this point, we stopped and took a break. It was nearing 9:00 PM and we still had not found the trail. The temperature was beginning to drop and were expected to plummet into the upper 20's over night, so it was imperative we find the trail and get down. I pulled out my map and compass and determined that we needed to head due east to find a ridge which would then lead us to the trail. Within about 15-20 minutes, we found the trail and headed down.

As with most of the trails in the WMWR, this trail is not extremely worn or well marked. Navigating them in the daylight is sometimes a challenge, in the dark with headlamps adds a high degree of difficulty. Getting off trail multiplies that degree of difficulty by requiring bushwhacking through scrub oaks and briar bushes while avoiding large boulders that cannot be downclimbed or navigated around forcing you to backtrack occasionally. It took us an hour and a half to get down, emerging from our journey precisely at the parking lot where the truck was parked around 11:00 PM.

We were all extremely cold, hungry, thirsty and tired, but we were safe and glad to be down. We first headed to town to see if we could find some grub, but everything was closed, so we turned around and headed back to camp and crawled into our tents and bags until morning. My brother-in-law had to fight off the racoons who invaded our camp taking off with most of our breakfast including about a half pound of bacon and a half pound of ham. It would be eggs and toast for breakfast.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

RMNP Backcountry Trip - Day 4

Day 4... the final day started out early. Everyone was to be up by 6am so we could break camp, eat breakfast, touch the glacier and be heading down towards the Wild Basin Trailhead by 9am. Again, it was a chilly morning at 10,600 feet, but perfect for backcountry living. It was sad to think that this would be the last morning in the Rockies for a while. I have grown to have a great desire to live in this part of the world. I've only got to convince the family of it. Maybe some day, but for now, I will settle for my occasional trips to the region and savor them when I get 'em.

First things first though. We've got a bit of business to do. We've got a glacier that needs to be touched. We packed everything up and carried it down to the trail junction. One way leading out and one way leading us to Thunder Lake. We dropped our packs at the trail junction and headed over to Thunder Lake. There is a trail between the Ranger cabin and the lake which will take you around the backside of the lake and lead you to the moraine where the glacier sits. On the west side of the lake, I snapped this picture as the sun was coming up. It was a very tranquil morning.

We arrived at the moraine by around 7am. By now, the temperatures were warming up, so we shed a few layers and headed up the short scramble to the glacier. For a Texas boy, touching snow in August is almost unheard of and is quite a thrill. What a fitting end to a great trip. The boys had put in a lot of hard work, and this was a great payoff.

We stayed up on the moraine for about 30-45 minutes, allowing the boys to engage in a snowball fight with Darren. Due to our time crunch, we had to head down. We got back down to the trail junction to filter some water, don our packs and head down the trail towards the Wild Basin trailhead parking lot. As planned, we were on the trail by 9am.

We made great time coming down. We completed the 6+ miles and 2,000 feet of elevation loss in 2.5 hours. We pushed hard to make sure we had enough time to drive into Meeker Park for a quick shower before getting on our planes to head home. After our showers, we headed to Westminster to return our bear canisters to the REI (aka Mecca for us gear heads) and grab some grub at the Rock Bottom Brewery. Mmmmm, burgers and fries! As I typically do after a big trip like this, I way over eat, but man is it good.

Unfortunately, we had flights to catch. We returned our car, said our good byes and headed home. It was a great trip. Everyone got along great, the boys did a fantastic job and we saw some unbelievable scenery. When I'm in the backcountry like this, I always have the sense of accomplishment that I'm seeing things that very few people in this world will ever see. It is a personal struggle. On one side, I wish more people would take the time to do the work to get into the backcountry while on the other side, I feel selfish, wanting to hold on to these places for a few of us.

In summary, I would highly recommend the Wild Basin area. It can get a bit crowded on the weekends, especially near the Wild Basin trailhead, Copeland Falls and even up to Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. The crowds diminish greatly beyond Ouzel Falls. A few fishermen do push on to Ouzel Lake and Thunder Lake, but that's ok. I think when I come back to this area, I want to possibly do some more exploring beyond Pear Lake, possibly up to Mt. Copeland. Additionally, I'd like to make it up to Bluebird Lake and I'd also like to make it up to the Continental Divide, which is a stones throw from Pear Lake and Thunder Lake.

Friday, September 18, 2009

RMNP Backcountry Trip - Day 3

On day 3, I again woke up early, around 6am, as I tend to do in the backcountry. It was another wonderfully chilly morning, hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I had planned to take a solo 1.5 mile hike down the unimproved trail between the North St. Vrain campsite and the Pine Ridge campsite. I was scouting the trail condition for our exodus the following day. By taking this trail vs. the trail back by Ouzel Falls and Calypso Cascades, we would cut off around 1.5 miles and several hundred feet of elevation gain.

Prior to setting off on my hike, I filtered a liter of water, but made the mistake of not eating anything nor did I pack a snack. I looked at the map and thought to myself "I can do 3 miles in a little over an hour, I'm ok, I'll be ok." How many times have we gotten over-confident and had it come back to bite us in the backside. Well, it did this morning. The hike down wasn't too bad. I dropped down about 400 feet. However, the hike back up those same 400 feet with no gas in the tank was brutal. At 9,000 feet, your energy gets zapped pretty easily. While it only took me about 15 minutes to get down, I struggled to make it back up in 45 minutes. As soon as I crawled into camp, I shoveled a Clif bar down and laid down in the tent. Lesson learned!

Everyone else was awake by around 8am. Our plan for the remainder of the day was to pack everything up and leave it at the campsite. I was going to don my pack with only enough supplies for a short 6 mile round trip day hike up to Ouzel Lake, gaining and losing 1000 vertical feet.

We set out around 10am for Ouzel Lake from our North St. Vrain campsite with lunch supplies and our water filters. Along the trail up to Ouzel Lake, there was more evidence of the large Ouzel Fire from 1978. The late morning sun was heating up and baking us. The temperatures had risen from the low 40's to near 90 degrees by lunch time. As we neared Ouzel Lake, we spotted a yellow-bellied marmot on a rock near the trail split for Ouzel Lake and Bluebird Lake. We stayed to the left and headed down to the lake. We arrived at the lake around 11:30.

Ouzel Lake is a sizable alpine lake, and apparently chock full of fish. There were two fishermen floating around in their inner-tubes. As if scripted for the tourists, both men hooked some greenback cutthroats as we walked up. Unlike most of the lakes we had visited so far, there are not many areas to sit near Ouzel Lake. There is one small outcrop of rocks that make a great picnic spot and that's about it. There were another couple there in addition to the two fishermen, so we found us a small section of the rock where we could all sit and enjoy our lunch. On the menu for today's lunch special, tuna or chicken in a tortilla with Chick-Fil-A Jalapeno Salsa. Or, you can enjoy some summer sausage and pepper jack cheese.

After lunch, we made the hike back down to our campsite. At camp, we loaded our packs and headed northwest to Thunder Lake. From North St. Vrain, it is roughly 2 miles with an elevation gain of 1000 feet to Thunder Lake. This is a fairly steady gain with only a couple of really steep spots. However, being day 3 and having already done a 6 mile hike earlier in the day, it was a killer for everyone. We left North St. Vrain around 2pm and didn't arrive at Thunder Lake until nearly 6pm. But like most places that I've visited in RMNP, it is worth the effort.

There are roughly 4-5 campsites, including a large group campsite, at Thunder Lake. All are smashing good campsites. The first site is closest to the privy (see pic of the Privy below... nice eh?), which can be both good and bad. Arriving a bit late, we were designated the last campsite, farthest from the privy and the lake. We set up camp and started cooking dinner. Tonight's dinner was an experiment, Terriyaki Chicken, a recipe from Scoutmaster Jerry.

While dinner was cooking, someone must have rang the dinner bell for the mosquitos. Darren says he attracts them, so we'll blame him. Dinner cooked in about 15 minutes, now it was time to try out the new recipe. Here is another lesson learned. Always try out your recipes at home before trying them on the trail. I may have done something wrong, who knows, but it wasn't too good. It was downright awful. That was the sentiment even after 22 miles and 3 days of hiking. Sorry guys! Fortunately, we had one more package of Natural High Cinnamon Apple Crisp which saved the evening.

Darren hurried through his dinner and immediately jumped in his tent to get away from the mosquitos. Amazingly, they disappeared shortly after he left. Maybe he does attract them. We cleaned up camp and wanted to take a walk down to the lake to take a peek. We got Darren back out of the tent, and the mosquitos came back. Incredible!

Darren and Jamie went down to the lake first, while Brandon and I hung out around camp for a bit. Brandon and I ventured down that way later and were in awe when we arrived at the lake. This has to be one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Thunder Lake is nestled between a meadow on the east side and 12,400 foot Tanima Peak on the west. Below is a fabulous panoramic of the lake. On the east side, in the middle of the meadow is a small backcountry ranger cabin. What a great gig that would be. Just behind the lake, on a moraine below Tanima Peak was a small glacier. We all decided that we could probably make it up and "touch the glacier" in the morning prior to descending to civilization. We asked one of the other groups in camp and they said, "most definitely do-able and worth it!" So, that was the plan for the morning.

Monday, September 14, 2009

RMNP Backcountry Trip - Day 2

On day 2, we awoke to a brisk morning of around 40 degrees fahrenheit. I woke up around 6:00am and went down to Pear Lake to take a look around. The sunrise reflected against the mountains surrounding the West side of the lake. As with most scenes in the backcountry, pictures don't capture the full feeling you have when you see something awe inspiring. This was one such futile attempt.

My son finally got out of the tent around 7:00am and joined me down by the lake. It was pretty cool until the sun came up fully around 7:30am. Brandon decided to attempt to build a boat out of the deadwood along the shore. He didn't get very far. He and I did some exploring around the camp waiting on our two Canadian partners to arise from their den.

Around 9:00am, everyone was awake and we had an oatmeal breakfast with coffee to help warm everyone up. We packed everything up and were ready to head out by about 10:00am. We took one last group pic near our campsite and headed off.

Day 2's plan was to hike from Pear Lake back down to the Allenspark Trail junction, then head towards Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls to our campsite at North St. Vrain. We would log around 7 miles and drop down about 1,500 vertical feet.

Around noon, we stopped at Finch Lake for lunch, in hopes of lightening our food stash. As you can see by the bear canister below, we had barely made a dent in our rations, and we have two of these. We pulled together some Mango Chipotle Salmon and Pepper Jack cheese on tortillas as well as some Hickory Smoked Tuna on tortillas. Eating good for day 2.

We made our way down the trail. Along the way, and for the next couple of days, we would see remnants of the damage caused by a giant fire in 1978. The fire was started by a lightning strike and burned over 1,000 acres near Ouzel Lake towards the town of Allenspark. You can see in this picture the large swath that was taken out of the hills. There is a lot of new growth coming in, but it will take quite a while before this damage is no longer evident.

At the junction of the Wild Basin trail, we stopped for a rest at Calypso Cascades. We took this opportunity to cool our feet which were being hammered by the amount of downhill we did. I would highly recommend making the short dayhike up to Calypso Cascades anytime you are in the area. This was a fantastic spot, and again, the pictures will never do it justice, so I'll just include a great pic of my son and I.

If you make the trip up to Calypso Cascades, you might as well push on another 1 mile to Ouzel Falls. These are terrific, short day trips from the Wild Basin trailhead. I hear it is recommended to check with the Backcountry Office during the spring runoff on Ouzel Falls, as they can get quite intense and may be a bit dicey to access. This was a pretty dry time, so the falls weren't running that heavy, but in the spring, they say you might not even be able to stand where I took this picture from and the falls will engulf the entire frame shown in this picture.

We finally arrived at the North St. Vrain campsite around 6:00pm. This is a fantastic campsite with some really great choices for tent pads. If you've got children, there's a ton of area to roam around the campsite and it is fairly accessible for a backcountry campsite. I believe it is only 3.5 miles from the Wild Basin trailhead. There is plenty of accessible water, as you are right on the North St. Vrain creek. There's even a privy! If you've never seen a privy, picture a toilet in the woods. Most of the time, they are surrounded by 3 1/2 walls, but in the case of the North St. Vrain privy, it's au natural!

Anyway, we settled into our campsite and cooked another delicious dinner. This time we prepared some Knorr Rice and Vegetables with Tyson Packaged Chicken. We also made some Richmoor Natural High, dehydrated Cinnamon Apple Crisp to reward the boys for a hard days work. Mmmmm, tasty! FireMan (in the picture below) stood watch over dinner for us.

After dinner, we played a fun game of cards. Jamie and Darren taught us a new game called President. I believe Darren finished as President, Brandon was Vice President, Jamie was Secretary, and I was the Janitor! It was a great evening... looking forward to another great day.

Friday, September 4, 2009

RMNP Backcountry Trip - Day 1

Day 1 of this 4 day trip started at the Wild Basin Trailhead in the Southeastern section of RMNP, near the towns of Meeker Park and Allenspark. The plan was to hike past Finch Lake to Pear Lake where we would camp for the night.

The crew on this trip consisted of myself, my son Brandon (12, aka Fire Man), a good friend of mine Darren and his son Jamie (11). All of us except Brandon were seasoned backpackers. Darren and Jamie have done numerous trips including treks in New Zealand and Australia. This would be Brandon's first foray into the backcountry, just as his mother did the week before in the Smokies. He was definitely excited as was I.

We ate lunch near the truck in the Wild Basin Trailhead parking lot, where we took the above picture. Lunch was a Subway sandwich, chips and a drink. After loading up on protein and carbs, we shouldered our backpacks and headed out at around 12:30pm.

We made the short .2 mile walk from the Wild Basin Trailhead parking lot to the Finch Lake Trailhead. This would save us about .5 miles and a couple hundred feet of elevation gain. From the Finch Lake Trailhead, it is approximately 6.5 miles to Pear Lake with an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet. A good chunk of that elevation gain is in the beginning and ending sections. Most of the middle is a moderate incline, with some spectacular views.

On the Finch Lake trail up, we would see Long's Peak most of the trip. Below are a couple of the many good shots we got of the RMNP iconic peak. Additionally, the second shot is in the clearing created by the 1978 Ouzel Fire that burned about 1,000 acres in the park.

About 4.5 miles in, we passed Finch Lake. It was a nice spot to stop and take a rest. Below is a shot of Brandon standing near the water. At this point, the afternoon clouds were rolling in and the temperatures dropped about 10-15 degrees from when we left the trailhead. At Finch Lake, you are at about 9800 feet, nearing our top out elevation of near 10,600 feet at Pear Lake. We grabbed some energy bars and continued on towards our first nights camp.

Brandon was doing a fabulous job on his first time to carry 18 pounds on his back. However, we started having some issues with his pack. He had grown so much in the past two years that he had outgrown his pack and it was causing some extreme discomfort on his shoulders near his neck. In hindsight, I should have been a bit more persistent with him on testing it out at home with the full weight. We fought through it and made some adjustments which helped, but he was pretty uncomfortable most of the trip with his pack on.

We arrived at the Pear Lake campsite around 6:00pm, set up camp and started preparing dinner. The temperature had dropped from 75 or so at the trailhead to near 50 degrees at Pear Lake. The Pear Lake campsite is a great site offering a couple of primo tent sites and a terrific dining area that is shielded from the wind by a large boulder. There is a nice flat rock which makes an excellent cooking surface and dining area.

Dinner for tonight was a fantastic Zatarain's Ready-to-eat Jambalaya and Sausage kicked up a few notches with a little Tabasco sauce from Chick-Fil-A. Just the right amount of protein, carbs and spice to keep us warm for the night. The temperatures would drop down to 37 overnight. Perfect backcountry sleeping temperatures.

Above is a great panoramic image of Pear Lake. The campsites are situated behind a strand of trees adjacent to the lake. Behind the lake is Mt. Copeland which provides a dramatic backdrop to the lake and has some great color including pinks, oranges, whites, grey and yellow, particularly at sunrise. I am told that it is possible to get up on top of Mt. Copeland and see all the way to Grand Lake. I'm sure that would be a spectacular view.

If you continue past Pear Lake, I am also told there are some cross-country sites as well as some additional lakes which are chock full of the Greenback Cutthroats which are being rejuvenated in this area.

Overall, the first day was a success and everyone had a tremendous time. Dinner was a hit! As always, thank you Zatarain's.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summary of Smokies Trip

My wife and I went into this trip not knowing what to expect of the Smoky Mountains. I had never been to the Smokies, nor any other mountains east of Arkansas and Missouri. I was assuming it would be somewhat like the Ozarks and Ouachitas, only bigger. If I'm in the mountains, I want to see the mountains. In the Smokies, you get the feeling of being in the mountains due to the steep ups and downs, but you don't get the great mountain views like in the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, which was extremely disappointing.

Compared to the trails I've done out west, the trail conditions in the Smokies was poor. I don't believe there's anything that the fine Great Smoky Mountains NP staff and volunteers could do about, it is simply the environment. Being very similar to a rainforest, everything is moss covered and slick, making it difficult to walk on. There was an over-abundance of tree roots and rocks covering the trail, which forces you to continually look down and not out at the scenery. Even when you would stop to look around, the amount of undergrowth was so thick, you couldn't see beyond 10 feet off the trail.

We had hoped to see a bear and after hearing the stories of the bear population in the Smokies, we felt our chances were pretty good. We didn't see a single bear and saw signs of only one bear after 17 miles of hiking.

I saw an article a few months back that asked "are we loving our National Parks to death?" I think the Smokies is a prime example of that. 9 million visitors a year is A LOT of people. If you want solitude, the Smokies is definitely not the place for you. My prior backcountry experiences had been in the Escalante region of Northern Arizona/Southern Utah, the Grand Tetons and the Rocky Mountains. On those trips, we could probably count on 2 hands the number of people we saw in 4 or 5 days. In the Smokies, we saw probably twice that number each day in camp. I go into the backcountry to get away and enjoy the time with the environment. Not that I dislike my fellow backpackers, but it's nice to have your own plot of land for a few days and feel like you are seeing a place that very few people will see in their lifetime.

I don't want to discourage people from visiting the Smokies, but for me, it was a big disappointment. The scenery is gorgeous, but after a few hours of hiking, I felt like it all was the same... a long walk in the woods. The Big Creek Trail was great, but beyond that, I could have dayhiked and been happy. I know it is a big park and there is more to see, but I might look at it as a good place to bring the family and enjoy the front country experience. I want to try out the Cade's Cove side of the park and see what it's like, maybe even Mt. Le Conte, but for my money, I'll spend my backcountry time out west.

Finally, I can't tell you how much fun I had backpacking with my wife. I was really glad she went and despite some of the issues we had with the experience and environment, she still came out of it saying "when we do this again" not "if we do this again...". I think we may look to do a trip to Yosemite, Sequoia/King's Canyon and / or Redwoods in California. If you've never backpacked with your spouse, I would highly recommend it. One recommendation would be to reward yourselves at the end of the trip with a stay in a nice hotel / spa.

My next posts will be about my backcountry experience in Rocky Mountain National Park with my eldest son.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Smoky Mountains Trip - Day 3 - Walnut Bottoms to Mt. Sterling

On Day 2, we hiked from the Big Creek Campground to Campsite 37, Walnut Bottoms. It was a great, 5.2 mile hike along Big Creek via the Big Creek Trail.

Today's adventure was going to take us from Walnut Bottoms 5.4 miles and up 3,000 vertical feet to Mt. Sterling. The day started with a great oatmeal breakfast at around 7:30am. We broke camp around 9:00am and were on the trail again by 9:30am.

We were to backtrack about 1/10th of a mile to the Swallow Fork Trail and head up to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail where we would turn and head 1.4 miles up to the top of Mt. Sterling at 5,842 feet above sea level. We would camp at Campsite 38, Fire Tower. It is aptly named, because there is a 60 foot steel fire watch tower atop Mt. Sterling.

Departing from Walnut Bottoms, the trail immediately starts to climb a fairly steep incline. The trail is considerably narrower than the Big Creek Trail we did on Day 2. As on the previous day's hike, there is a creek running parallel to the trail, from which we drew water from about 3 times on the way up.

Whoever invented the water pump filter was a genious. I carry the Katadyn Hiker Pro. Sure, it adds a little extra weight (11 ounces), but it is far more practical than having to boil water or more appealing than having to taste iodine treated water. Plus, the water always comes out pure with no sediment. I've even pumped the brown water out of the Paria River in the Escalante area of Northern Arizona / Southern Utah and had it come out crystal clear.

However, after several stream crossings and about halfway up, you get above the headwaters of the creek and there are no water sources until about 750 feet below Mt. Sterling on the opposite side, which translates into about 1200 vertical feet up, 750 vertical feet down and around 3.5 miles. This was something that was unknown to me until we were told so leaving the Walnut Bottoms campsite. Fortunately, we were told then and we could fill up at the last water access and conserve. Even with that knowledge, we still ran out of water prior to arriving at Mt. Sterling.

Fortunately, we ran into some horse riders on the trail. I had found their riding crop and returned it to them. In exchange, they shared some of their ICE COLD water with us. As one of the riders said, it pays to "Pay it Forward". Shows you that there's definitely good Karma as well.

As I mentioned earlier, this Swallow Fork Trail was not only steeper and narrower than the Big Creek Trail, the trail was covered in either slick tree roots or slick, baseball sized rocks... And a ton of them. This made the trip up extremely difficult and much slower than I'd expected. Not something I would have wanted to take Linda up on her first backpacking trip. Additionally, as we approached the top of the trail, the brush grew thicker and covered most of the trail, forcing us to bushwhack about the last 1 mile. I am still surprised that neither of us came out of it with poison ivy or some such misery.

Once we topped out on the Swallow Fork Trail, we joined the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail which continued more of the same and in places worse. This also threw in the added twist of mud holes due to a soft soil, standing water and horse traffic. We slugged our way up the final 1.4 miles and 800 vertical feet to the top of Mt. Sterling. We were told that it would be worth it. I wouldn't go that far, but some of the views were pretty spectacular. The problem still remains, though, it is extremely difficult to see anything from anywhere in the Smokies due to the unbelievably thick brush.

To add insult to injury, the entire campsite was infested with flies. No matter where you were, you would be covered with 5 flies at all times. Fortunately, they were not biting flies, but they were a nuisance. And there's more, the tent pads were exposed, meaning out in the open. It was nice to finally see the sun, but there were thunderstorms brewing, and nothing worse than being totally exposed during a thunderstorm. Finally, to make matters worse, we would have to make the 750 vertical foot drop to the water source and make the 750 vertical foot gain back to the campsite with the water. After a few minutes of deliberation, we both decided this was not what we were expecting and chose to play it safe and head down.

One nice thing about the Fire Tower Campsite is that there are plenty of blackberries to eat. I'm sure the bears think so as well, but still no bears on this day either. Here I am with a handful of the juicy treats. Mmmm, good!

We set out at around 3:30pm and would take the Baxter Creek Trail down to the Big Creek Campground... a 4,000 vertical feet drop in 6.2 miles. This was our original plan for Day 4, we just chose to do it a day early. This trail was a tad bit wider than the Swallow Fork Trail and the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail, but not by much. However, it was covered in more tree roots and rocks, was extremely steep and slick. We would not find a water source until around mile 3, halfway down at a crossing of Baxter Creek.

I was impressed with Linda's resillience on this long hike, totalling 12 miles, a 3,000 foot vertical gain and 4,000 foot vertical loss. I had trouble keeping up with her at times on the way down. We arrived at the Big Creek Campground around 7:00pm, 10.5 hours after our hike began and we were exhausted and hungry. Not having any place to stay and this being a weekend we decided to not even try going to Gatlinburg, a typical Tourist Trap. I chose instead to head to Asheville, NC where we checked into the Crowne Plaza and splurged on a juicy Prime Steak Burger and a shower.

My next post will summarize this entire trip.

Smoky Mountains Trip - Day 2 - Big Creek Trail to Walnut Bottoms

On Day 1, we had arrived into Knoxville, driven to Gatlinburg, went to the top of Clingman's Dome, then camped at Big Creek Campground near Mt. Sterling, NC. On this day, we planned to hike the Big Creek Trail to our campsite.

We got up around 7am and made breakfast, consisting of some Maple and Brown Sugar oatmeal for Linda and Cinnamon oatmeal for me, with some instant hot Chai latte. You gotta love instant oatmeal and Chai, boil water and stir. We broke camp around 9am and we were on the trail by 9:30am.

This was to be Linda's first backpacking / backcountry experience. I was a bit anxious, hoping she would enjoy it fully and become as hooked on it as I have. She definitely has the love of the outdoors, but had never shouldered a 25-pound pack and carried all of the items you need to spend 2-3 days away from the frontcountry. Additionally, we were a bit anxious about the massive bear population. While we were hoping to see a bear in the wild, we wanted to see it on our terms, across the creek or 100 yards away in the trees.

The Big Creek Trail departs from the Big Creek Campground and follows Big Creek for 5.2 miles to Campsite 37, Walnut Bottoms, gaining 1,000 vertical feet. The trail is nice and wide, wide enough to drive an ATV up. There are numerous places to get into the water, most notably is Midnight Hole, about 1.5 miles up. This is a gorgeous spot to stop for a snack and, if you feel up to it, go for a dip. They said that at times when the creek is up, Midnight Hole can be 30 feet deep. This was one of the few places we saw fish in the water. There were tons of trout swimming around the deep, cool water.

About .5 miles up the trail from there is Mouse Creek Falls. You can't get over to the falls, but it's a great place to stop and take a pic, like this one.

Shortly beyond Mouse Creek Fallse, you will cross a bridge over the creek. Just beyond the bridge, we found a nice area with access to the creek and stopped for lunch, consisting of Tyson chicken in a pouch with Chick-Fil-A Jalapeno salsa in a tortilla. We kicked the shoes off and waded around in the water a bit to cool off. This was about 3.5 miles in and it was at this point that Linda was getting pretty tired and homesick. After a good lunch, the food kicked in, she was much better and was ready to get to the campsite.

We didn't see one bear the entire 5.2 miles coming up to our campsite. We arrived at our campsite around 3:00pm where we found the sign below attached to a tree. We began to think, surely we'll see a bear here.

Again, having never been in the backcountry in the Smokies, I was unsure of what to expect. In the Grand Tetons backcountry, we saw maybe 10-12 people in 5 days. In the Smokies, it's a whole different story. Our campsite was shared with 10-15 people. There were roughly 5-6 different areas within Campsite 37, Walnut Bottoms. Each with their own fire ring and shared bear bag cable systems. I guess with nearly 9 million visitors a year, they have to accomodate everyone as best they can and minimize the impact to the environment. It turned out to be alright. We had a nice family with their two children, a pair of seasoned hikers, and a fun group of Germans all camping near us. We grabbed a nice spot near the creek and set up camp, including hanging the hammock right next to the water.

Learning from our previous night in the frontcountry, starting a fire in the Smokies is darn near impossible and you must start early. The moisture in the air is so heavy that even getting paper to burn is an arduous task. We gathered some small pine straw, twigs and whatever else we could find that looked like it might burn, but it is all wet. We tried my magnesium fire starter. While it would spark, nothing would catch. We tried lighting the Smoky Mountain newspaper we had picked up from the visitor center earlier with a lighter, but the paper wouldn't ignite. I had failed to bring some good fire starting material. What we did find was that Purell hand sanitizer is like 60% alcohol. Linda came up with the idea of soaking a square of toilet paper with the hand sanitizer and lighting it under the tinder. It worked like a charm. The tinder lit up hot. The problem from then on became finding anything larger than the small tinder that would burn. We tried to get small sticks about the size of my little finger to burn, but no luck. It was only after about 1 hour of feeding the fire with tinder and allowing the small sticks to sit next to the fire to dry out that they would burn. It became a game to keep the fire burning while drying out additional firewood.

At the same time we were playing the fire game, we cooked dinner. Our dinner tonight consisted of a Mountain House Beef Stew. It was terrific. When we had tried it at home, Linda was a bit skeptical about eating it, and wouldn't eat the rehydrated beef chunks. I told her, it will taste much better in the backcountry. Well, there was nothing left in her bowl this time. She told me, "you're right, everything tastes much better here!"

We walked around after dinner hoping to get a glimpse of the elusive Smoky Mountain black bear. No such luck tonight, but we've got 5.4 miles tomorrow, surely we'll see one along the trail tomorrow.

We turned in around 9:30pm. I think we both got a much better nights rest this night. It's amazing how a nice little hike with a heavy pack will make you sleep better at night.

For Day 3, we planned to hike 5.4 miles and 3,000 vertical feet up from Walnut Bottoms to the top of Mt. Sterling via the Swallow Fork trail and camp at Campsite 38 near the fire tower atop Mt. Sterling.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Smoky Mountains Trip - Day 1 - Clingman's Dome and Big Creek Campground

Well, my wife and I just got back from our Smoky Mountains trip. It was a great trip and we had a fantastic time. This was our first experience with the famed Smokies, and neither of us knew what to expect. We were blown away with the amount of flora in the park. Every where you looked, everything was green. How the Smokies got their name was evident on this day as the smoky haze encompassed all of the surrounding hills on our drive in from Knoxville.

Our plan was to arrive Wednesday around noon and drive to the Gatlinburg entrance. My first observation was that there was no fee to enter the park. I have been to a few other parks, including Zion and RMNP which charge a fee for driving into the park. We entered through the Gatlinburg entrance and stopped into the Sugarland's visitor center to grab a topo map and some directions and recommendations. After a brief look around the visitor center, we headed over to Newfound Gap and Clingman's Dome road to head to the summit of Clingman's Dome.

I had read about the black bear population in the park and had heard the statistics of 2 bears for every square mile, but I was skeptical that we would see a bear. However, right around the corner from the visitor center, my wife spotted a nice sized bear, probably 100 yards from the main road. We couldn't stop due to traffic behind us, so we unfortunately have no pictures of the bear. But, this is the Smokies, home of 1500 bears, surely we'll see more.

We continued the drive up to Clignman's Dome, a 7 mile drive up the windy Clingman's Dome Road to a fairly large parking lot. If you come to the Smokies, I would recommend the drive up to Clingman's Dome. It's one of the Smokies famed features and if you are a hiking / backpacking fan, you have probably dreamed of doing a section-hike or a thru-hike of the Appalachian Tral (AT) and Clingman's Dome is the highest point on the AT at 6,643 feet above sea level. From the end of the parking lot, there is a .5 mile paved trail leading up to the summit. On the way up, I had to grab a shot of me standing next to the AT trail sign.

There were spectacular views from the parking lot and as we walked up to the top. Though, once we arrived at the top, the Smokies famed smoke and clouds rolled in and we couldn't see beyond 100 feet. We climbed to the top of the observation tower hoping the skies would clear, but no such luck.

We left Clingman's Dome and headed over to the Big Creek Campground near Mt. Sterling, NC where we would camp for the first night. They don't take reservations, it is a first-come / first-served policy only, and we hoped that coming mid-week we would have no problems getting a site for 1 night. We lucked out! We grabbed the last campsite, 15 minutes prior to another couple arriving behind us. It was a great start to the trip.

Big Creek Campground is an extremely nice spot. The facilities are clean and the scenery is gorgeous. It's not much on solitude, but as we found out, solitude is hard to come by in the Smokies. Here, you are within 100 yards of Big Creek (hence the name of the Campground), so you get the peaceful, calming sound of the rolling creek 24/7. It makes for a romantic dinner and pleasant nights sleep, unless you're nervous about bears and you awake from every twig snap, frog belch and cricket chirp as I did.

Dinner for tonight was a Zatarain's Red Beans and Rice with a dash of Tabasco sauce coupled with a nice Shiraz. I also got to break in my new GSI Pinnacle Dualist cookset and my Snow Peak Giga Power stove. Both of these got two big thumbs up from my wife and I on this. The weight, size, price, usability, and performance were fantastic.

After dinner, we spent some time down by the creek and plotting our next days adventure. Here are a few pictures to give you an idea of the ideal surroundings. What a beautiful place.

If you are not ready for the backcountry experience, I would highly recommend spending a few days in Big Creek Campground. There are many day hikes that can be had from here. It also makes a great starting point for many point-to-point or loop hikes like the one we did.

My next post will cover the first day's hike, leaving Big Creek Campground and hiking 5.2 miles up to Campsite 37 - Walnut Bottoms.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Meal Planning

Part of my preparation for two upcoming backcountry trips includes planning the meals. Both are three night trips, so dinner is where my main focus is. This will be the third time I've had to think about backcountry meal planning but the first time I've put this much thought into it.

My first foray into backcountry meal planning was on my trip to the Escalante region of Northern Arizona/Southern Utah. My meal plan consisted of beef jerky, trail mix, tuna and tortillas. While it kept me alive, the food wasn't that much fun. We also had a break half-way through the trip where we could go into town and chow down on some Pizza Hut pizza.

My second trip, we were going to be nowhere near civilization for 5 days in the backcountry of the Grand Tetons. My buddy and I put a little more thought into it, but still kept it pretty simple with a handful of MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat) and a lot of tuna and tortillas.

This go around, I'm planning for trips to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. I'm still planning on keeping breakfasts pretty simple, I might expand into Cinnamon Oatmeal and Raisins. I'm finding that the dinners will be mainly things you can make with Chicken and Rice.

Some of the constraints I've got to work with for the Rocky Mountains trip is that 3 1/2 days for two people must fit all inside a Bear Vault BV500 bear container. This is a new requirement in the RMNP backcountry as of this year. We had the same constraint in the Grand Tetons, but my buddy and I were both carrying a canister. This go around, I will be carrying the only canister for my son and me.

For my Smokies trip, I will be splitting the food between my wife and I and won't have to carry a bear canister. That should help a great deal and allow for a bit more flexibility.

So, for now, it looks like breakfast bars and Chai for breakfasts. Tuna and/or chicken packages with some seasonings wrapped in a tortilla or PB&J wrapped in a tortilla for lunches. And Chicken and Rice (mexican style, terriyaki style, veggie style, and cajun style) for dinners. A little red wine with dinner and maybe some apple crisp for dinner.

I'll let you know how it goes.