Okefenokee Swamp Canoe Trip

The Okefenokee Swamp has been on John’s “to visit” list for quite some time now, so as a birthday trip, we decided to go down there and do a little canoe camping. The Okefenokee Swamp is in Southern Georgia, almost on the border of Florida.

(March 27th) We enjoyed a night camping not far from the swamp at a place called Trader’s Hill, which let us set up a tent for just $10. We spent the night underneath gigantic live oaks, dripping in sweat, as there was somewhat of a heat wave going through (or maybe it’s normal for it to be in the upper-80’s low 90’s?).

(March 28th) We had been told to show up to rent our canoe by 10AM. The park rents canoes by the day, and we also reserved a camping spot for that night on a little island called Floyd’s Island out in the middle of the swamp.

We got to the visitor’s center at Stephen C Foster State Park in the western portion of the swamp, and asked for our canoe. The lady at the desk pointed us to a row of canoes parked next to a canal leading out into the swamp and told us ours was number 26, and pointed us towards a shed that would contain paddles and life jackets. I stood there waiting for any more information, but when she failed to provide any, we wandered out to find our canoe.

When I thought of a few questions, like “are there toilets anywhere on the swamp?” and “do you have a map we can buy?” I went back in and posed them. Yes, there were toilets, and if you want to spend $15 on a basically useless map, you’re more than welcome to.

We loaded our canoe and headed out. I immediately felt uneasy in the water aboard our wobbly boat. I hadn’t been in a canoe in well over a year, and I felt very out of place. My anxiety slowly subsided, but not before we saw our first alligator hanging out on the side of the canoe path.

It was hot, and we lathered ourselves in sunscreen, and covered ourselves head to toe in lightweight clothing including a wide brimmed hat and white gloves in an effort not to get sun burnt or eaten alive by bugs. The bugs were not actually that bad. There were millions of dragonflies buzzing around, but since they feast on other insects, we were delighted to have their company.

We started counting the number of alligators that we saw, and I slowly became more accustomed to seeing them lounging on the side of the canoe path, sunbathing. That was until I noticed that a very large alligator was swimming directly at our boat. I panicked, and shouted at John, “what do we do, do you see that alligator!?!?” He had no solution, and we both stopped paddling, but not before the alligator was only a few feet in front of our boat. I tensed up, expecting the worst, but the alligator disappeared under the water, and presumably swam underneath our boat. The water in this swamp is practically black, as it is full of tannins, so the minute the alligator went beneath the surface of the water, we could no longer see it. We paddled vigorously away.

Knowing that the general reaction of alligators was to slowly try to avoid us, I felt a little bit more at ease. The canals that we were paddling in started to narrow into a tight path. It took a bit more effort to keep the canoe from hitting the cypress trees which lined the side of the canoe path (there is very little land in this swamp – the cypress trees grow directly out of the water).

We stopped for lunch at a small wooden landing with a toilet, and while we were preparing our lunch, a few other canoes and kayaks showed up. We shared the platform, and chatted with the group of young folks from Atlanta who were also trying to eat lunch aboard this small platform. They told us that we weren’t supposed to drink the swamp water – something that we didn’t actually realize up until this point (why hadn’t the helpful lady at the visitor’s center told us this?), and since they were heading out of the swamp and we were heading in, they shared about 5 liters of water with us.

Nearby, a little alligator was hanging out looking for handouts. We also spotted a small copperhead snake curled up near the platform.

After lunch, we kept canoeing for what felt like forever, and my arms felt like they were going to fall off. The trail was very narrow, and we had to work hard to keep from hitting various trees or branches. The path was often only maybe 5 or 6 feet wide, which is really not very wide when there are alligators lurking on either side. Our total alligator count for the day was 20. We also saw two turtles, along with the copperhead snake we saw at lunch-time.

Finally, we got to our island, the first piece of land we had seen since we left the visitor’s center. We spent some time wandering around the Island, admiring an old cabin that had been built there long ago, and picking a spot to set up camp. We got to camp quite early all things considered, maybe between 3 and 4pm, but my arms were so tired, I wouldn’t have been able to canoe more if I had wanted to. This is what it must be like to be a beginner. I always thought folks who went backpacking and setup camp that early were wasting some of the best hiking hours of the day. But I can hike more hours than I would want to be awake for, and that is absolutely not the case with canoeing.

We contemplated which way we would canoe back the next day -whether we would go back the way we came, or try to portage the canoe (carry it) to the other side of the little island in order to canoe onward and create a loop. John took out the descriptions of the canoe trails, and read them out loud to me. The loop would be slightly longer, but it would provide us with new terrain to cover. Based on that, we decided to go ahead and carry our canoe over to the other side so that we would be set up for the morning.

After dinner, we got comfortable inside our tent, and as the sun set, we noticed that lightning bugs were lighting up around us. Lightning bugs in March!!!

(March 29th) We woke up with the rising sun, and immediately noticed a swarm of mosquitos had found our tent. Luckily, our tent has bug netting, so we just watched them eagerly trying to find ways to get through the bug netting. Where all these mosquitoes came from was beyond us; they certainly were not out the night before. We decided to sleep in a little in hopes that they would eventually lose interest as the sun hit our tent, but eventually I had to get up and pee, so I braved the blood-thirsty swarm and ventured outside. I wandered away from the tent and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of mosquitoes away from the tent. Based on that, we decided to pack up and get moving.

We got into our canoe and headed out.

The canoe trails are fairly well labeled, and so when I saw a sign post, we pulled up next to it and took a look at our (free) map. I glanced back at the sign only to notice out of the corner of my eye that a gigantic alligator was laying right under the sign, and had started to open its mouth at us. My heart nearly choked me as it leapt into my throat and I yelled, “Alligator!!” at John, throwing the map back into the canoe and grabbing my paddle. The alligator responded by hissing at us, kind of like a cat, but much more alligator-y.

I was much more vigilant after that encounter. We found a platform to take a break and eat some food. Luckily the day was much cooler than the day before, barely above 70F, which made the paddling a little more enjoyable. The next section of trail became very difficult and narrow. In fact it was so narrow that our canoe could barely make any of the turns because the canoe was too long, and the turns were too sharp. John kept yelling at me to paddle harder, or stop paddling or paddle backwards (he was in the back, controlling the direction of the vessel), however, we often would go crashing into the bushes, having to back out and try to maneuver around them. All the while, staying vigilant for alligators lurking around each turn.

There were also a ton of spiders with long spindly legs, and probably the size of the palm of my hand. Dozens of them would wind up in the canoe as we were weaving under trees and often ducking under low hanging branches. We didn’t feel as though we could take the time to constantly evict them from the canoe because we were too worried about drifting into some bushes or into an alligator at any given moment, so we just let them accumulate in the canoe. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there were probably over a hundred spiders catching a ride with us.

Each time we went crashing into the bushes because of a sharp turn in the trail, John would shout “you didn’t paddle hard enough!” or “when I say stop paddling, you actually have to paddle backwards!” I was getting frustrated with all the commanding and nitpicking about my paddling, so when we went plunging into a particularly thick set of branches, and we got totally tangled up in them, I asked “so what do you want me to do now?!”

“Just suffer with me…” John said in a defeated voice as he pushed through the bushes, wearing twigs, spanish moss, and a couple of random spiders in his hair. While we were stuck there, we decided to take a moment to laugh about it while picking a few dozen spiders up by their spindly legs and tossing them out of the canoe into the dense swamp.

Apparently I had not been listening to John when he was reading the description of this section of trail. This section had “difficult” bits of trail whereas yesterday’s path was only “moderate.” That’ll teach me not to zone off next time John’s reading me something. “I thought you knew this section was labeled difficult,” John suggested. I scowled. This was definitely not what I thought I had signed up for. In retrospect, the adventure was worth it, but in the moment I was pretty tired of being stuck in a canoe in the middle of a gigantic swamp full of alligators and spiders.

When the canoe path opened up again to one of the more main trails where even motorboats where allowed, I was quite pleased. There was a large island called Billy’s Island that we could take a break at, and it was full of tourists who were brought there on a motorboat, and looked so innocent and fresh.

Now we were only an easy mile or two away from the visitor’s center and our car.

I enjoyed the last bit of paddling through the wide channel with other boats passing by, and the odd alligator sunbathing many yards away from us.

When we got back to our car, I was grateful to be out of the swamp, but also grateful for the experience of having been deep in the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp for two days.

Georgia Loop (BMT/Duncan Ridge/AT)

Georgia Loop

I’ve failed miserably to write this post for several weeks now, but I did want to get it into a blog since I think it’s helpful to compare this loop to the Bartram/Appalachian Trail loop, which is almost the same distance (55-60miles). 

Although I thought both loops were fun, I do prefer the Bartram/AT loop because I feel like it has more points of interest (Cheoah Bald, Wayah Bald, Wesser Bald, and the Nanthalala River), as well as the possibility to have a burger in the middle (which I can’t actually vouch for since I’ve never made it there while they’ve actually been open). 

The Georgia Loop, however, connects the Appalachian Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail and the Duncan Ridge Trail, and is also roughly 55-60 miles long, but rather than have several large climbs, it has many more smaller climbs, and fewer points of interest (I would say that Long Creek Falls, Toccoa Bridge, and some of the small views near Woody Gap are probably the only highlights). This loop may be slightly easier to follow from a navigational point of view, but that’s debatable.

In any case, we started this hike on October 30th, and here is our experience:

Day 1:  12 miles

John was scrambling to finish some last minute work before the hike, so we got a somewhat late start.  The drive from Asheville was about 2.5 hours, and we parked on Highway 60 to start where the BMT crosses the road.  There was room for maybe 5 cars on the side of the road.  We could also have started further down the road at Woody Gap on the Appalachian Trail section of the loop.

The air was crisp, in the 50’s and very windy.  But the sun was out, and because of the recent hurricane, most of the leaves were off the trees.  Each time the wind stopped for a moment, I felt the sun penetrating through my clothing and I started to sweat.  But a few moments later, I would find myself on the shady side of the mountain, with 30+mph winds, and all the warmth left my body.  It was difficult to figure out what I should be wearing, so I settled on keeping my hat and gloves in a side pocket where I could grab them every few minutes.

Many trees had been knocked over by the recent storm, and we scrambled over and around them as we followed the Benton MacKaye Trail to where it intersected with the Dunkan Ridge Trail just 5 miles in.

We knew that the Duncan Ridge Trail would be challenging. We had a map which showed the profile of the trail, and the ups and downs looked practically vertical. I also knew that there is an infamous trail race here, which is considered one of the toughest 50K races in the Southeast. A friend of ours had done it several years in a row, and had managed to injure herself each time. So, I braced myself for some tough climbs, and treacherous descents.

Strangely, though, the trail meandered gently through the forest.  I tried not to make any comments to jinx this lovely trail, but I looked up at the mountain that we were walking around and wondered why on earth this trail was called a “ridge trail” when clearly we were not on the ridge.  Soon, we couldn’t ignore the fact that the trail was simply not as advertised, and we started staring at the map perplexed.  We were going the right way.  There wasn’t another trail anywhere near here that we could have mixed it up with.  What gives?

We continued on, and enjoyed several more miles of pleasant, flat, and mostly well groomed trail. We got to a gap, which we quickly identified on the map, and were relieved to find that we were going to right way. Then, we noticed signage on either side of the gap fixed to a tree, which seemed to be in front of another, less well-worn trail. “Trail Closed” it said. We figured it out. The Duncan Ridge Trail had obviously been rerouted recently. No wonder.

Not far from the gap there was a perfect campsite, and we weighed the pros and cons of staying there, but couldn’t think of any, so we decided to keep hiking.

Suddenly, the trail acted more like the trail we had anticipated, and shot straight up a mountain. It started to get dark, and as we struggled along, I noticed that the miles were going by much more slowly now. In distance, the moon was rising. There was only really one place up ahead that apparently offered a spot to camp according to our data (we took the Duncan Ridge Trail page out of the Benton MacKaye Trail guide book). It was going to be at another gap, where there was a small road.

I heard rumbling in the distance, and saw the headlights of a car driving by down the ridge ahead of us.  “Oh, God” I thought to myself, “we’re going to be camped next to a road that people actually drive on?”.  I thought back to that perfect campsite we had left behind during daylight hours, several miles back.

We got to the road and found almost no good camping options.  We managed to create a crappy campsite that was somewhat tucked away from the road so we couldn’t be seen, and sat in the tent eating mashed potatoes and cookies.  A few more cars passed, and each time we turned off our headlamps so that they wouldn’t see our tent.  We didn’t want to be bothered.

As we unpacked our backpacks, and got into our sleeping bags, John found quite a large pinetree branch that somehow had made its way into our tent with us.  “Look!  A Christmas Tree!”  he proclaimed!

The temperature dropped, and we snuggled inside our sleeping bags listening to the rumble of a far-away highway.

Day 2: 18 miles

In the middle of the night, I rolled over in my sleep to find a better position and John suddenly jerked awake and screamed at the top of his lungs, which then caused me to scream back in response.

“AHHHHHHHH!” We both screamed.

“What the hell!?!” I yelled

“Oh…. I thought there was an animal.”  He answered.

“Yeah. There was. It was me, rolling over!” I said, my heart racing.  He was already asleep again.

When we woke up in the morning, I remembered the incident.  “Hey, do you remember screaming at me in the middle of the night?”  I asked.  John thought for a moment, and giggled “Yeah, sorry, I guess that one time a bear was sniffing at the tent taught me to scream at everything that moves.” I couldn’t argue since it seemed like a genuinely good reflex, but he had totally scared the crap out of me.

We got moving, and continued on the Duncan Ridge Trail. It was hard, and tiring. The leaf litter made it even harder, because not only were all the rocks and roots invisible under the pile of leaves, the leaves themselves were slippery and the steepness of the trail meant that I was constantly slipping on them. Somehow I pulled my big toe on an invisible rock, and it ached with every step.

It was Halloween, and I was excited when we crossed a road and entered Blood Mountain Wilderness, and soon after passed by Slaughter Mountain.  Ok, so although it seemed fitting that we were passing by these gruesome sounding landmarks on Halloween, I must mention that the reason these places have these names is to mark a bloody battle between the Cherokee and Creek Indians.

We heard the Appalachian Trail before we saw it. We could hear people shouting, laughing, screaming, and generally being obnoxiously loud, and before we knew it we were on the AT “superhighway,” as we call it. The leaf litter had already been crumbled and compacted, and the walking got easy, which was a relief, because at the rate that we were hiking the Duncan Ridge Trail, we probably never would have finished this loop in the time that we had.

The miles on the Appalachian Trail went by at almost double the speed.  I spent most of the afternoon doing mental math, trying to figure out how many miles we had left, and whether we were likely or not to run into our friends, Heather and Adam, who were hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail southbound. We were supposed to pick them up in two days from the terminus.  The mental math was not simple because we were using three different sources of data for mileage because the loop connects three different trails.

“Ok, so we plan to camp 8 miles from the end of our loop tomorrow, so that’s 20-something miles from the end of the Benton MacKaye for them, and they’re walking in the opposite direction, so when we intersect the BMT, that will be the point when they only have 11 miles left, and then we’re walking towards them, but what time will that be at?”

These discussions went on for hours.  What else is there to talk about?

We finally found a place to camp right before Woody Gap in a very windy saddle with plenty of camping.  The area was covered in trash, and we spent a few minutes picking all the trash up and putting it in ziplocked bags.

It was very windy, and this made us nervous because according to the forecast, the next night was supposed to be much colder – dip into the mid 20’s – and be at least three times more windy, with sustained winds around 40mph.  Now that’s windy!  We shivered thinking about it.

Day 3: 20 miles

In the morning, we walked down to Woody Gap, which is along highway 60, and was absolutely overrun.  Huge tents with Halloween lights were set up just uphill from the parking lot, and the parking lot, which was pretty big, was packed with vehicles.  I guess everyone had the idea of trying to go camping on Halloween.  We continued on, happy to be up and hiking before most of these other people woke up.

A few miles later, we ran into a group of Trail Maintainers and chatted with them for a while, and found out that apparently the Duncan Ridge Trail was built as an emergency reroute for the Appalachian Trail because the Blue Ridge Parkway was supposed to extend into GA at one point. But, apparently that idea got abandoned. I was also impressed to see that one of the trail maintainers was hiking with a prosthetic leg. I told her that I was impressed, and she shrugged and said that technology was really good these days. I’m so glad that’s true.

After lunch, we were surprised to run into another set of trail maintainers, who had unfortunately gotten the blade of their chainsaw stuck in a tree.  They asked us to take pictures of any other blow-downs further down the trail and report them to an email address when we got home so that they could take care of them.  It’s amazing how quickly these trail crews clear these trails after a hurricane.  I was impressed.

We soon got to the junction of the BMT and the AT, for the final leg of our loop.  At the intersection, there is a lovely waterfall called Long Creek Falls just a tenth of a mile off the trail.  As we left the Appalachian Trail, I felt a sense of relief that we wouldn’t be bumping into so many other people from now on.    The BMT meandered along a stream through rhododendron thickets before climbing a ridge, where we would eventually have to find a place to park ourselves for the cold and windy night that we had been dreading.

We found a spot, well before dark, and worked to secure our tent in such a way that it wouldn’t blow away.  We put rocks on top of all our stakes, and piled leaves around our tent to insulate it better.  We crawled into our sleeping bags, and watched the sun set by peeking out through one of the tent doors every few minutes while devouring everything and anything that looked appealing in our food bags, knowing that the extra calories would keep us warm, and we only had 7 or 8 miles left to hike in the morning.

Day 4: 7.5 miles

We were both pleasantly surprised in the morning when the sun rose and we hadn’t frozen our butts off overnight.  In fact, I hadn’t even put on my poofy jacket in the middle of the night, like I had anticipated.  Even though it was clearly well below freezing, I think there are a number of reasons why we weren’t colder than we were.  First, we weren’t completely exhausted, and hungry.  I think this makes a huge difference.  Those extra calories kept us warm.  Also, although we were on a ridge (basically at the top of a mountain with trees), this was warmer than at a gap where it would have been more windy, and definitely warmer than by a water source.  There was very little humidity, and so our down sleeping bags performed at their peak.  Also, although it was windy, I think our little leaf barriers also kept us somewhat insulated.

At this point we decided that Heather and Adam must have passed us before we started the BMT section, and therefore they must be on the early side for finishing their hike – we wouldn’t pass them after all, despite all the mental math.

I wore all my clothes for the first few miles, and the ground was frozen in spots.  The trail went down to the famous Toccoa River Swinging Bridge, and finally spit us out at Highway 60 where our car was waiting for us.

We drove to pick up Heather and Adam, and indeed, they had finished hours earlier, and were waiting for us at the Amicalola Visitor’s Center.

Thanks for following along!

Appalachian Trail/ Bartram Loop (58 miles)

Last year, when we hiked the Bartram Trail, our friend Donner and another fellow, Savage, joined us for the first two days.  They had found a 55-60 mile loop that the Bartram made with the AT, and they could just about squeeze that into a long weekend in order to join us for a short section of our hike.  You can read about our thru-hike of the Bartram Trail here. Also, consider comparing this loop to the Georgia Loop, which is almost exactly the same length.

Since then, I suggested this loop to my friend Jordan, and with COVID-19, hiking a loop is much more appealing since you don’t have to worry about getting a shuttle.  Since Jordan wanted to hike a bit slower, we decided that we would join him for part of his hike by starting after him and then catching up to him.

Day 1: 6 miles

In order to make the hike even more interesting, I decided to run a half marathon the day that we started.  I also got a message from Jordan that his Achilles heel was sore, and he wasn’t sure if he would continue the hike or not.  I told him to try to send us a message either way.

We bought some pizza on our way to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), and figured out how to park there overnight before hitting the trail at about 5pm.

The hike starts with a 3,000ft climb up to Cheoah Bald along the Appalachian Trail, and my legs were somewhat tired from the half marathon I finished only a few hours earlier.  Luckily, we only needed to hike about 6 miles, and hiking muscles are somehow completely different from running muscles.

Although we are certainly experiencing fall weather, the climb up Cheoah Bald was humid, and tiring, and we found ourselves completely sweaty by the time we reached higher elevations, and the sun started setting.  We found the perfect camping spot just as darkness fell, and set up camp.

I couldn’t believe how wet my shirt and shorts were.  Instead of being smart and changing my clothes, I thought I’d try to get the clothes I was wearing dry by keeping them on.  I got cold quickly and crawled into my down sleeping bag.  If you know anything about down, you probably know that it performs really poorly when wet.  Somehow, John and I were not very tired, and we stayed up for an hour or so giggling about this, that, and the other.  The humidity inside the sleeping bag felt like a sauna, but luckily it wasn’t that cold at night, and everything did eventually dry out.

Day 2: 22 miles

We got up at dawn and climbed the last little bit to the top of Cheoah Bald.  Although it was nice and cool, there was almost no view with the morning haze. 

The Bartram starts near the top of Cheoah Bald, and we found the familiar yellow blazes and started following them away from the Appalachian Trail. 

We descended and descended some more, and along the way we followed a lovely stream with lots of waterfalls.  I remembered from our previous hike that this section involved quite a few stream crossings, so when I came across one, I just barged right through it, not bothering to try to rock hop.  But, the water was much lower than it had been the following spring, and in fact the rest of the stream crossings were easy rock hops, so in fact I got my feet wet for no reason.

At some point I turned on my phone to see if Jordan had left us a message.  Unfortunately, he had decided to quit because the pain in his heels was not getting better, and he managed to get a ride back to the NOC.  That meant that we no longer had a predetermined destination for the day (we were supposed to meet up with Jordan at a predetermined camping spot).
Not many people hike on the Bartram Trail, and one consequence is that the spider webs across the trail are plentiful.  We took turns walking through them, but John spent more time in the lead, because even if I walk ahead, he still gets spider webs in his face because he’s a foot taller than I am.

When we got to the spot where we were originally supposed to meet Jordan, it was only about 4:30PM, and so we decided to carry on, despite the fact that we knew we’d be sacrificing a burger at the Lake’s End Cafe and Grill, because we would be walking past well before they opened the next day.  I told myself we’d get a burger at the end of the trip instead.

Because of our experience hiking the Batram last year, and finding the concrete ford just below the Nantahala Dam was completely uncrossable, we decided to take a slightly different route through that area, which put us on the other side of the river.  We wound up walking up to the ford just to take a look at it, and we were shocked to see that it was completely dry.  Last time it was under 3 feet of water!  I couldn’t believe it, because just 2 days ago, hurricane Sally dumped a couple of inches of rain in this area.  We must have been at this ford right when they were releasing water from the dam last time.

Same ford, in 2019

We camped slightly uphill from the dam.

Day 3: 20 miles

First thing in the morning we were able to hike a very small section (like 2 miles) of the Bartram that we were unable to hike last time because of the ford issue, and it was actually a really nice section with views of the lake with fog on top of it.

We then popped out on the road and passed by the restaurant 3 hours before they opened, and just carried on along the road to where the trail disappears into the woods again, headed straight up towards Wayah Bald.  The climb up Wayah Bald is very demoralizing.  The trail is very steep in sections, there were a number of blowdowns, and my legs were very tired.

When we finally intersected the Appalachian Trail, I was very excited to join the well maintained superhighway of a trail.  For a few miles, the AT and the Bartram share a footpath past Wayah Bald.  We got to Wayah Bald, and spent some time admiring the view.  Lots of other people were up there, having driven most of the way up.  This whole area experienced a fire a few years ago, and we walked through dead trees for a while.

At the point where the Bartram and AT parted ways, we caught up to a gentleman carrying a strange long pole and we got chatting.  Apparently he was helping with a project to collect American Chestnut seeds so as to preserve as much of the genetic diversity as possible.  There aren’t many American Chestnuts left at this point.  He was also from Asheville, so we talked for a bit about the state of Asheville and the effects of COVID-19.

We parted ways, and eventually found a water source where there was supposed to be some camping, but there were already 4 people there, and so we collected some water and stated our intentions of carrying on.  Two of the other people said they were also going to try to hike further, but there was a huge climb coming up that we should be aware of.  As we left, I checked my map to find that the “huge climb” was actually less than 1,000ft.  I guess everything is relative.

We found a nice little spot almost at the top of the “huge climb” and set up camp.  As we were eating dinner, the two other hikers passed us, huffing and puffing and absolutely drenched in sweat.  Meanwhile, John and I were huddled together for warmth with all of our layers on.

“I can’t imagine sweating that much in this weather!”  John whispered to me once they were out of earshot.  It was probably in the low 50’s, and we knew it would probably dip below 40 at night.  Luckily neither one of us were sweaty, so we were able to climb into our sleeping bags and warm up quickly.

Day 4: 7 miles

In the morning it was chilly, and we put on all our layers and climbed up the remaining bit of mountain to reach the fire tower on top of Wesser Bald.  We climbed the tower to get a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains with patches of fog in the valleys.

We hiked on towards the NOC, and the trail was a bit rough for the Appalachian Trail – it probably needed some more work since the fires in 2016, and this section is quite rocky, and also remote, so trail work is hard.

We had a long downhill into the valley, and my mind was fixated on one thing: a burger.  I had no idea if the NOC restaurant would be open, or if they served burgers, but I was hopeful.  Once we popped out of the woods, the restaurant was right on the other side of the road, and I ran up to it.  It looked closed.  I sighed, and looked at the menu, which was posted on the outside of the restaurant.  They did sell burgers!  But they didn’t open until 11AM.  I looked at my watch, 10:55AM.

“They’re just about to open!”  I shouted over to John.
We waited patiently for a few minutes until they opened the doors.  We got a nice seat outside and devoured our burgers.  It was pure joy with a side of fries, and a great end to our hike.

Tahoe Rim Trail Final Thoughts

The Tahoe Rim Trail was terrific.  At 175 miles long, it is short enough that folks could do this hike while holding down a full-time job (still trying to get one of those), and still long enough to get into thru-hiking/adventure mode.  You may think that 175 miles around a lake would get sort of same-ish, but the trail was surprisingly diverse.


In order to navigate the Tahoe Rim Trail, we decided to use the Nat Geo Map, which for about $15 offers a booklet of all the maps you need for the trail.  We were by far in the minority with our paper map set-up, with most people opting to use their smart phones and the Guthook App.  Call me old-school (millennial going on boomer?), but I prefer not to rely on an electronic device that can run out of batteries or get dropped in a river.

Because both the map and the App show the trail as “starting” in Tahoe City and going clockwise, I’d say at least 75% of hikers decided the simplest way to go about things was to start in Tahoe City and go clockwise.  LAZY HIKERS!

In my opinion, this makes absolutely no sense.  Tahoe City offers the best resupply option on the entire trail – you literally walk right through the city, and there is more than one full sized grocery store to choose from.  To start here means to give up this spot as a resupply point.


Starting Point?

Given that the trail is a loop, there are actually quite a few places you could start from.  Some popular start points include: Tahoe City, Echo Lake, Kingsbury North/South, Spooner Summit, and Mount Rose Summit.

Given that we were flying in from Reno, it made sense to try to start close to Reno… so we chose to spent the night before the hike in Carson City and start our hike from Spooner Summit Trailhead – a short Uber ride away.  If you have a car, there is parking at Spooner Summit Trailhead, and if you prefer to use Uber, phone service there is somewhat patchy: ATT worked for Donner, but Verizon didn’t work right at the trailhead, but did work a couple minutes walk down the road.  Hitchhiking would also be a possibility here (we didn’t try because of COVID).

The benefit to starting at Spooner Summit was that:

  1. You start in the middle of a dry section, so you break that section up without relying on water caches staying available.  When we hiked, the Marlette Campground water pump was working just fine.
  2. Starting at Spooner allows you to hike 1/3 of the trail before you hit Tahoe City, and another 1/3 of the trail before you hit Echo Chalet.  Both of these resupply points are directly on the trail.  That means you hit a resupply point roughly every 60 miles.

Clockwise or Counter Clockwise?

Although 90% of hikers were going clockwise, I found that most people hadn’t really given much thought to which way they hiked, they just followed the guide book or phone App.

Going clockwise, you will be on the cooler north slope as you climb the mountains in NV (which is probably warmer/dryer than the CA side).  But you can also shade yourself more effectively with an umbrella.

Going counter clockwise, as you leaving Tahoe City, there is a water source 4 miles in.  You therefore only have to carry about 1L of water leaving Tahoe City.  Compare that to the 12 mile dry section going clockwise out of Tahoe City.  Personally, I’d much prefer to do that downhill, and while my pack is empty.  If you’re like most people, and going clockwise, you’d be carrying a full resupply and several liters of water going up that climb.

Another benefit to going counter clockwise was having mountain bikers approach us from the front when going up the popular “Flume Trail” section of the trail. We had hundreds of bikers pass us in that section. It’s worth noting that this section of trail is closed to bikers on even days of the month.  It may be worth timing your hike so that you don’t coincide with the Flume Trail on an odd day.

I leave it up to you to decide which way you go, but I personally think counter clockwise has the slight advantage.


There are black bears along the Tahoe Rim Trail.  Although they are not required, bear canisters are a good idea.  We decided to hang our food every night from a tree, but proper technique is critical.


We hiked the TRT from August 2nd through August 10th, and we encountered some but not many mosquitoes.  Our timing seemed to be perfect because we still got abundant wildflowers.  Earlier would definitely mean more mosquitoes.  Later, and you may encounter wildfires.  The winter’s snow pack of course determines whether the mosquito season is earlier or later.

Permits and Resources?

You do need one or two permits in order to hike this trail.  First of all, you need a permit in order to camp in the Desolation Wilderness.  A Tahoe Rim Trail Thru-hiker permit can be acquired by calling the permit office directly and requesting that specific permit.  As of August 2020, doing so will allow you to bypass the Desolation Wilderness Quota System. You will also need a campfire permit if you intend on using a stove.


More information:

For more information about the Tahoe Rim Trail, visit the Tahoe Rim Trail Association website.

Favorite Sections?

Although the whole trail was beautiful (in my humble opinion), I feel like we had three or four favorite sections.

  1. Marlette Lake, Rose Mountain and Relay Peak area (north portion of the trail).  The views were fantastic.
  2. Desolation Wilderness, which I believe is everyone’s favorite section.  Gorgeous lakes to swim in, and big majestic granite rocks.
  3. Meiss Country (Southern portion of the trail) which had beautiful lakes, buttes, and wildflowers.
  4. Slightly further East from Meiss Country, we were able to climb Freel Peak, which is just a short 1 mile detour to the tallest point in the Tahoe Basin.  Climbing Freel Peak for sunrise was definitely a “high point” for me (pun intended).


If the Tahoe Rim Trail isn’t on your list, it’s worth considering. It’s a very scenic and easy to navigate.  It’s an particularly obvious choice during a pandemic because it is a loop, and so no shuttle is required.  You also walk through resupply points, so you don’t actually need to leave the trail in order to get supplies and complete the hike.

Happy Trails!




Tahoe Rim Trail: Echo Chalet to Spooner Lake

TRT Day 7: 20 miles

We got woken up around 10pm when a large group of people showed by at the lake.  Flashlights kept penetrating our tent, and I kept hearing someone shout “there are tents RIGHT there!”  We had to listen to them for probably an hour as they set up camp, made dinner and talked loudly.

We all woke up in the morning very grumpy, and being the considerate human beings that we are, we didn’t make a racket while we packed up, and left fairly quickly.  We did notice, however that an empty bottle of wine was sitting next to one of our neighbor’s tents, and their “bear bag” was hanging about 4 feet off the groud, leaning on the trunk of a tree.   I would call that a bear piñata.

We hiked though a pretty meadow called Big Meadow, and lots of day hikers were out.  That’s what happens on a Saturday close to a road.

Once we crossed the road, and started climbing again, we lost most of the day hikers.  Donner wasn’t feeling great, so we took a long break and I offered him some electrolytes.  We were probably all dehydrated, and the lack of sleep didn’t help.

We had a long and steady uphill, which seemed to go on forever.  I felt completley sleep deprived.  Half way up I started closing my eyes for several steps at a time until I realized that was probably dangerous, and I was on the verge of falling asleep while walking.

We wanted to camp as close to Freel Peak as possible to make a side trip tomorrow morning to reach the top, since it is the tallest peak in the Tahoe Basin.

Luckily, right at the intersection of the Freel Peak trail, we were able to find a couple of small spots to camp. 

We all made ramen for dinner and Donner complimented it with an uncooked, day-old hot dog.  Our diets are pretty disgusting, I’ll have to admit.

This will be the highest elevation we’re camping at – around 9,700ft roughly.  It’s a bit breezy, but hopefully we’ll sleep OK.  The sunset was gorgeous, but I was so tired I just wanted to fall asleep.

TRT Day 8:  22 miles

Our alarms were set for 5AM so we could climb Freel Peak (10,881ft) for sunrise.  Our intention was to get going by about 5:10AM, leaving our camp set up at the bottom, and hike up the one mile trail to the summit.  Unfortunately, that was slightly ambitious, and we didn’t get going till about 5:25AM.  Sunrise is right about 6AM these days, so we still had more than half an hour to get to the top.

We headed out with our headlamps shining the way.  The summit was nearly a thousand feet up, and having not had breakfast, and being at around 10,000ft already, I quickly lost all steam.  I pushed myself to continue as quickly as possible, against the will of my aching legs, and wheezing lungs.  The trail was much steeper than almost any part of either the Tahoe Rim Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, with many steps and steep sections of deep sand that allowed each step to slide half way back down again.   I let John and Donner pass me so that they could maybe make it to the top for sunrise, since I could tell I was unlikely to make it at my pace.

I made the mistake of blowing my nose, and even though it was still dark, I could tell I had just created a massive nose bleed.  I kept wiping my nose on my bandana as I huffed and puffed up the mountain.

I saw John waiting for me close to the summit, and he shouted words of encouragement.  Donner was already at the top and also shouted that sunrise was moments away.  I pushed harder, but I could tell by my wheezing breath that I was having an asthma attack.  Normally I would stop, but I didn’t and pushed to the top seconds before the sun crested over the ridge.  I gasped for air, and John tried to get me to breath deeply, but until I calmed down, it was almost pointless.

When I had my wits about me again, I admired where we were: on top of the world with the most beautiful lighting.  It was windy and my bandana looked like I had killed a small animal on the way up, but at least my nose bleed had mostly stopped.

We spent about 20 minutes watching the sunlight touch distant mountains, and the mountain we were on was casting a giant shadow down the valley.  Although the climb had been the hardest part of this trail so far, the reward was also the greatest.

Eventually, we climbed down, and once back at the gap, we packed up camp and hiked on.  We descended to Star Lake where we met the first other counter clockwise TRT hiker, named Amethyst.  She was on day 17 and taking it very slow.  We chatted for a while, and while we were chatting, a group of runners stopped to collect water.  One of them was in the middle of trying to run the entire trail in 4 days.  So on one side of us was someone completing the trail in double the number of das we were, and on the another was someone who was completing it in half.  Funny.

I decided to have Ramen for breakfast since I thought I probably needed the salt.

We continued to descend, and the day grew very warm.  We stopped by streams and got our shirts wet, and John decided the Ramen was a good idea, and soaked some for himself.  Donner quickly followed suit.

We eventually got to the last water source for the next 17 miles, and decided to take a very very long break.  It was unbearably hot.  The stream was at the bottom of the downhill and we didn’t want to start climbing again until it cooled off.  We sat by the creek and drank water, slapping the occasional mosquito.  Along came several other hikers – one of which was a clockwise hiker named Song and Dance, and another was a counter clockwise hiker named Dog Man, along with his dog.  Another counter clockwise hiker!!!  The second one today, and only the second one of the whole trip.

We all decided to all have more Ramen and call it dinner.

At 5PM, we finally moved on.  I was full of energy, having eaten quite a lot of food at our breaks (mostly Ramen).  We headed uphill and hiked at quite a decent pace until we found a place to camp, only 10 or so miles out from Spooner Summit where we started this whole thing.

Dirty hiker feet (with dirty girl gaiters!)

Day 9: 10 miles

I woke up excited to get to town.  Mostly for a shower, but also for some food that wasn’t Ramen.

We only had 10 miles to hike, and we got going quite quickly.  The trail climbed up to some magnificent views of Lake Tahoe and right at the top of the hill there was a wooden bench that trail maintainers either built or carried up to this spot.  Not many benches have a view this good!

Not far from the bench we saw Dog Man with his dog “Fox” (Fox was the dog’s trail name, his real name was Pepper).  I asked if I could get a picture of him, and he posed proudly with his dog on his shoulders.

Before we knew it, we got down to Spooner Summit Trail head where we started just 8 days and a few hours ago.  175 miles done, and another amazing thru-hike ticked off the list!

We sat by some smelly toilets that weren’t open due to COVID and assessed the situation.  We definitely smelled objectionable, and we needed a ride into Carson City.  We contemplated changing into other clothes, but all in all we didn’t have many other clothes to change into.  I found a small bottle of tea tree oil in my pack, which carries a strong smell, and Donner got very excited and started spreading it around himself like perfume.  That seemed to be a good way of masking our scent. 

We considered trying to hitchhike, but decided that trying to get an Uber was probably a safer bet, and so 15 minutes later we were in a car with a teacher who was lamenting about having to return to school with a bunch of kids.   He was a Physical Education teacher, and had no idea how he was supposed to conduct such a class safely.  I certainly can understand that parents, especially those who work full time, need to get their kids out of the house.  But teachers, especially in high risk groups are having to put themselves in quite a hazardous position.  I certainly didn’t have the answers.

We got dropped off in town, and wandered into a nearby McDonalds and got ice cream.  It was nice to eat something cold in the heat of the day.  As we savored our first taste of civilization, I went about calling hotels to find the cheapest one in Carson City.  Trust me, hikers don’t need anything fancy.  When you’ve been calling any flat spot in the dirt home each night, anything with running water feels like a luxury.

Soon we checked into this crummy hotel I found and started getting excited for taking showers.  I washed layer after layer of dirt off of my body.  When I got out of the shower, Donner pointed out that there were was buck shot embedded in the wall next to our bed.

We then climbed into the grubby hotel pool, which was roughly the size of a large hot tub, situated right next to a dumpster.  We watched the occasional piece of trash blow out of the dumpster and float towards the pool.  Beyond the dumpster, a barbed-wire fence caught the remaining flying garbage.

“I’m not sure we actually needed to shower first”  I said, admiring the peeling paint, and dirt floating in the pool. 

Somebody had made the effort to spray-paint the fence around the pool with black paint, but in the process, they had spray-painted a tree and part of the dumpster as well.  I guessed this was probably the response to a bad online review.

Once we were completely pruney, we headed back inside, and dealt with our laundry, food and packing for the next couple of days.  Our plan is to check out Donner Summit and attempt to climb Donner Peak.  Donner got his trail name out East on the Appalachian Trail, and had never made the pilgrimage to the area where the Donner Party famously resorted to cannibalism while getting stranded during a particularly brutal winter storm.

We heard a rattling sound outside in the parking lot.

“Do you think that’s a broken down car, or just an empty can rolling down the parking lot?” John asked.

Donner cracked open the door.  “It’s a can rolling down the parking lot.”  He answered.

Days 10-11 (PCT Side Trips)

I slept like a baby and woke up the next morning ready for the next adventure.

Looking at the map, Donner Peak does not have a trail to the summit, but the Mount Judah trail, which creates a short loop with the Pacific Crest Trail comes quite close, so we figured we would just hike off-trail to the summit.

We met up with Jenna, who works for Big City Mountaineers, the organization we raised money for as part of this hike.  She wanted to take some video footage of us, since she lived nearby so that they could help promote similar fundraising events to what we did.  We were glad to help.

We didn’t tell her in advance that we’d be scrambling to the top of Donner Peak, not knowing if there was a social-trail to the summit, but we figured that if she worked in the outdoor industry, she’d probably be up for it.

We met Jenna at the trail head.  She was young, and the type of California girl who says things like “rad” and “stoked” a lot.  We chatted about the outdoor industry and the work that she was doing with Big City Mountaineers.

Once we got close to Donner Peak, the scramble up was well worn, and quite fun.  Nothing like bushwhacking to summits on the East Coast.  From the top, we got views of Donner Lake along with nearby ski resorts.

We decided the next course of action would be going for a swim in Donner Lake.  The water was not too cold, but the breeze was chilly, and we didn’t stay in too long.

Once we parted ways with Jenna, we headed north on the Pacific Crest Trail from Interstate 80, so as to camp for the night.  We were aiming for a Sierra Club hut, which was only about 3 miles in.

Along the way we met a couple who also looked like they were planning to camp out.  I asked them what their plan was, and they told us that they were going to camp out to watch the Meteor Shower.  We hadn’t realized that there even was a Meteor shower, so it was serendipitous that I even asked.

We made plans to wake up in the middle of the night to view the show.

When we got to the hut there was a single man who was camped in the loft of the hut and we decided to camp out.  The hut was quite nice, somewhat similar to the hut we saw at Richardson Lake, but maybe even nicer.

The night was cold, and at 1AM I woke up to pee, and decided to wake up John and Donner.  We dragged our sleeping bags out and laid down on some rocks with a clear view of the sky.  We spent about an hour staring at the sky watching shooting stars whiz by every minute or so.

In the morning, we headed back to I-80, and the gentleman who had stayed in the hut asked us if we could give him a ride to Truckee.  We agreed based on the fact that he had a mask, and we could roll the windows down for the short drive into town.

Before we headed back to the airpot, we made one final stop at In N’ Out Burger, our favorite fast-food joint on the West Coast.  We don’t have anything like it back home, and soon we will have no excuses for eating fast-food.

Just to solidify our Ramen obsession on this trip, we decided to eat a Ramen dinner in the airport between flights.

Do you think Top Ramen will sponsor our next thru-hike?

I’m finishing up this blog on the flight home, but I’m planning to write another blog soon about my final thoughts on the Tahoe Rim Trail with some advice, some thoughts on starting/ending points and direction.  Stay tuned!