Corcovado National Park

We checked and double checked the bus schedules and ferry schedules ahead of our departure from Finca Bellavista, the tree-house community where we had been volunteering for the past two weeks.

With two buses, a ferry, and a non-responsive airbnb host, I had my doubts that we would actually make it to Drake Bay, on the Osa Peninsula, a popular launching spot for day trips to Corcovado. On top of all that, the two years of Spanish I took in high school has not been as helpful as I had hoped with communication. At least I have finally mastered using the phrase “no entiendo” (“I don’t understand”).

The buses work fairly well in Costa Rica, and they’re very cheap… about $1 got us to Palmar Norte and another 50 cents got us to Sierpe. People are nice, and helpful, and even with my broken Spanish, I could ask where to go, and how much it costs, etc. So somehow, against all odds, we managed to make it to the ferry terminal at Sierpe. Each step of the way, more and more white people (“gringos”) appeared. We were obviously headed into a tourist trap – but happily so, because sometimes touristy areas are touristy for good reason.

At the ferry terminal, which was really just a restaurant next to a wooden dock, a bunch of Costa Rican’s started bugging us, seemingly asking for our hotel reservation. I thought these guys were just trying to sell us something, but after a few minutes of miscommunication, we figured out that they actually decide who goes in what boat based on that information. Eventually we made our way onto a small boat with a dozen or more other people.

The boat ride takes an hour, and what I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that they drive this thing like a speed boat (it probably IS a speed boat), sometimes doing amazing maneuvers to avoid the waves once the boat makes its way out of the estuary into oceanic waters. At one point the boat driver was racing a breaking wave all the way to a gigantic rock at full speed. I held my breath as I knew if the wave hit us, the whole boat would surely tip over. The driver acted like this was an every day occurrence as he chatted with his amigo onboard, and stared at his cell phone every few minutes – looking up once in a while to swerve this way or that.

We then landed at Drake’s Bay, and without a dock, we all took our shoes off and got off the back of the boat directly into the water. We slowly made our way up the beach, and someone again asked us for our hotel reservation. This time, I didn’t resist, and showed him the name of the place. “You’re with me!” Our Airbnb host said with a smile. This was the same guy who didn’t answer any of our messages for the past 4 days. How on earth did he know we were showing up on this ferry?

He drove us about a minute and a half up the road, and checked us in. It turns out this Airbnb was actually a hotel with many rooms, a shared bathroom and a shared kitchen. The owner probably just met every single ferry – just a quick drive down the road.

We spent the afternoon figuring out where our day tour was the next morning, and trying hopelessly to avoid drowning in sweat. It felt about 5 degrees hotter, maybe more, than where we’ve been staying the past two week. Our hotel room had a fan that despite spinning in a normal fan-like fashion, did not seem to produce any air.

The next morning, we got up just before 5AM to make it to our 5:30AM breakfast, included in our tour.

We made it to our tour operator, and we were the only ones there. We were surprised. Our host offered us pancakes, fresh fruit and coffee, and then explained to us that he had to put us on a tour with a different tour operator, because of the permits, and yadi yada, and we just needed to walk a few minutes down the beach.

Based on his poor directions, we found our group, which seemed to consist of dozens of tourists, and we paid the remaining balance for the tour ($95 per person) in cash, as requested.

From there, we boarded another boat, which would take us another hour around the Osa Peninsula, right into the heart of Corcovado National Park, near Sirena Ranger Station. The boat ride was similar to the one we took before – a speed boat, bouncing around on the waves as we occasionally got splashed with salt water. Every time the boat hit a wave and crashed back down into the water, I felt my spine compress slightly. I don’t know how these tour guides do this every day.

Then we landed, along with about a half dozen or more other boats, all full of tourists visiting the park for a guided hike (you’re not allowed to visit without a guide). I wondered if we would actually see anything with this many people traipsing through the jungle together – probably more than a hundred people, divided up into groups of 10 or so, each with a guide chatting away in at least two languages. Once we got our hiking boots on, the hike began.

We didn’t walk 5 feet before our guide pointed out a three-toed sloth up in a tree. He took out his industrial sized scope, and let everybody take a look. I decided at that point that if I saw nothing else on today’s hike, I could go home happy. But, we were only 5 minutes into the tour…

At that point I noticed a really loud, and horrible noise coming from deep in the jungle. I couldn’t imagine what it could possibly be except for maybe jaguars fighting for territory. It sounded like loud and persistent growling or roaring…

“Howler monkeys.” The guide said, in a bored tone of voice, and wandered down the trail. (You should definitely go to youtube and find a few clips of howler monkeys making noise).

The tour guides tried their best to spread out, but we continuously ran into other groups as we walked up and down the well groomed trails. I should have realized that with this many tourists visiting on a daily basis, all of the park’s wildlife would be accustomed to people. It really didn’t matter that there were 100 or more people, the hike quickly turned into a safari.

We saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys. They swung through the trees and jumped from tree to tree without fear, sometimes hanging from their tail. Although perhaps a close relative of ours, I felt as though we had definitely made a big evolutionary mistake by losing our tail.

We also saw some amazing birds, including the black throated trogon, which we found out was trying to distract us from the fact that he (yes, ‘he’) had a nest nearby. Apparently the male and the female black throated trogon share the responsibilities of nest guarding.

We also were practically walked on by a coati. These are very common animals in Costa Rica, and resemble a racoon with a long snout. The coatis at the tree house community were shy and we never saw more than a long tail darting away, but this coati could have cared less that there were 100 or more gigantic hairless monkeys in his way, snapping pictures of him on their iphones.

By 11AM I was starving. It had been more than 5 hours since breakfast. We walked up to the Sirena Ranger Station for a water and bathroom break, and I pulled out some cookies I had stashed in my backpack. Without them, I probably would have been tempted to try to climb a coconut tree in desperation, although they also had some overpriced snacks available at the ranger station.

The tour guide gathered us up again and said “let’s go find a tapir.” A month ago I didn’t know what a tapir was, but before we left the States for Costa Rica, I had read up on the wildlife of Costa Rica, and found out that one of the most amazing things you could possibly see there was a tapir. It’s sort of a weird combination of a pig, an elephant, and a hippo, but apparently they’re more closely related to a horse or a rhinoceros, and there are are only 800 of this particular species left. All other species are found either in Asia or South America. Really, our best bet for seeing a tapir in Costa Rica was going to Corcovado National Park on a guided hike, and now here we were.

Moments later, the tour guide was pointing out a tapir, who was trying hard to sleep in a muddy pit. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to think when you see one of the last of several hundred of an almost extinct animal, but I’ve had this experience before. When we were in New Zealand, we saw several Takahe, a large blue flightless bird, of which there are maybe 350 left. I think my thoughts go from grief to feeling like I want to wrap the creature in bubble wrap. I feel privileged for having the opportunity to see this animal before it’s gone, but at the same time, immensely guilty to find myself stomping around its habitat with hundreds of other curious and entitled humans.

We carry on and find a much less endangered caiman, which is like an alligator or a crocodile, but somehow neither one of these things.

By the time we got back on the boat, I was legitimately starving. Luckily, after a boat-ride to a nearby beach, we were served an amazing buffet of Costa Rican food. We heaped our plates full of beans, rice, chicken, salad and fruit and inhaled our food as if we hadn’t even in days. Stray dogs picked through the trash bag left on the sand next to the buffet, and I sat near to them on some driftwood and half an hour later, even John, who at this point had polished off four plates of food, felt quite content.

We got back into the boat for a quick ride back to Drake’s Bay, where we found a couple of beach chairs to lay in, and promptly fell asleep. Being a tourist is hard work.

Arriving in Costa Rica

During the last week in January, we took off to Costa Rica. We got a flight from Asheville to Ft Lauderdale, and then the next day took a flight to San Juan, Costa Rica.

Most of our time in Costa Rica will be spent volunteering at Finca Bellavista, an off the grid treehouse community in the middle of the south of Costa Rica.

We got off the plane and took a taxi to the bus station in San Jose. The taxi driver didn’t speak a ton of English, and so he used an app on his phone in order to communicate with us. Unfortunately, the program did not always translate his sentences very accurately. At one point he said “you’re going to bring blacks back home with you.” And he actually meant that we would be coming home tan. I had to laugh.

The bus station had a small place to buy food, and we pointed and used our limited Spanish to order some beans and rice with mystery meat. It tasted delicious.

The bus was air conditioned, and was supposed to have WiFi, but once we were on board, it was clear that the WiFi wasn’t working. Unfortunately, the plan had been to communicate with our friend, and volunteer coordinator, Eva, about our arrival time from the bus using the WiFi. What were we going to do now?

The bus ride was 6 hours long, and along the way, it stopped a few times at little roadside stations with food and bathrooms. I noticed that they also sold SIM cards, and I bought one hoping I could get my phone working. Once back on the bus, I struggled with the directions and tried dialing a few numbers, but my Spanish was not good enough to get the thing working.

At the next bus station, I noticed that there was another bus parked there too, and I ran up to it to see if that bus had WiFi, and it did. Crisis averted. I quickly let our host know that time we were planning on making it.

Eventually we made it to Piedras Blancas, where we got a ride to Finca Bellavista from Martin, a manager at the property. The drive up to the property from the main road requires four wheel drive, and climbs more than 1000ft over two miles on a rocky gravel road.

“I’m basically blind in one eye” Martin told us with a smile as the truck bounced up the road. John and I looked at each other and clenched the handles inside the vehicle. We arrived late, so we basically went to bed straight away.

In the morning, we saw our environment for the first time. A lovely community with a big kitchen and dinning area, and a communal hangout spot for yoga, lounging around and happy hour.

We had our first day off, so we spent the day exploring all the trails on the property. Only minutes into our hike, I almost stepped on a snake – it slithered right between my legs as I walked past, and I have no idea what kind it was since it moved so fast. I was thankful that I was wearing boots. We had been told to bring them for exactly that reason. We also visited a waterfall, and soaked our feet in the surprisingly warm river water.

Soon after, we also saw a poison dart frog. It was red with blue legs, but jumped away too quickly for me to get a picture.

As volunteers, we’re staying in a volunteer bunkhouse. It’s not fancy, but it’s not bad. We’ve got a toilet, a shower (cold water only), an area for drying clothes, and room with 6 bunks. There’s even a hammock, but the bugs are a little annoying on the deck.

We work 5 days a week, either morning or evening shift. Mornings involve helping prep breakfast, and then helping get trash and sheets out of any treehouses that are checking out that day. Evening shifts involve walking people who are checking in for the day out to their bunkhouse, and then helping with dinner. Sometimes there are no check-ins or check outs. Each shift is 7 hours long, but some of that time is spent eating, or just hanging out waiting for people to arrive or leave. It’s definitely not hard work.

Walking out to treehouses is fun, because some of them are quite a long hike out. The furthest one is maybe about a mile away, and the trail is quite steep and rocky, so it takes some effort to get out there. No vehicles are allowed. Guests have to think hard about what luggage to bring.

We can work extra hours on an approved project of our choice, and if you accumulate 6 extra hours, you can exchange that for a night in one of the treehouses (whichever ones are empty). We quickly figured out that one of the trails on the property desperately needed some work, and we immediately requested that project.

Breakfast and dinner are cooked for us by the “chicas”, and usually include rice, beans, fruits, and veggies, and sometimes meat or fish. They make some amazingly tasty things. I especially like fried plantains. We always have fresh fruit juice and amazingly good coffee. I don’t normally drink coffee, but maybe my habit will start here. My only complaint is that they really like to use cilantro here, and I absolutely hate cilantro.

Most tree houses are individually owned, and a few people are actually resident here full or part time. One of these people is Peter, an entomologist professor and National Geographic photographer, who on one of our first nights here, offered a night hike. We were quick to jump at the opportunity to join.

The hike was an amazing experience – Peter was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge, showing us toads, frogs, gigantic insects and even an adorable salamander.

During the hike, a large skinny black flying insect became attracted to our headlamps, and I jumped back in fright.

“Don’t worry,” said Peter, “It’s just a wasp.”

“JUST a wasp!?” I quipped.

“Yeah, just don’t let it sting you.” He replied.

“Don’t LET IT sting me!?” I was starting to panic slightly…

“Yeah, if it does, it really hurts.” He continued, calmly.

“I didn’t need to know that!” I yelled, running in the opposite direction.

“Yes, you do! It’s so painful, some people even faint. You need to know so you don’t let it sting you.”

I was already far from the group with my headlamp off at this point, completely terrified. What the hell was I doing here!? I don’t belong in the jungle where everything stings or could kill you.

We were told before we arrived that there were three dangerous snakes on the property, so in my little naive brain, I thought that meant that there were only three venomous snakes. I quickly learned that in fact there were three DEADLY snakes, and many more that are venomous, but you’ll actually live to tell the story if they bite you.

I’m just going to assume that everything is out to kill me, although that leaves me wandering through the jungle terrified all the time, since I’ve never seen such abundance of life. I don’t seem to be quite as terrified as some of the other volunteers, so I must be doing ok.

After a day or two of acclimating, I attempted to go for a run down the road to keep my running legs in shape. As I ran down the 1000ft descent down to the main road, I realized that it was getting hotter and hotter as I went. By the time I got to the main road, just 2 miles down, I was soaking wet with sweat. I attempted to run on the flat road for just half a mile, but I was simply too hot and dizzy. I had water with me, but it didn’t seem to help. I woggled back to the gravel road to hike back up, but I felt like crap. There was almost no shade, and the road just kept going up, and I was dying. I kept drinking water and stopping in any tiny bit of shade I could. If this wasn’t heat exhaustion, I don’t know what is. Luckily, half way up the road, it got a little more shady, and the breeze picked up just a little bit, and I started to feel slightly better. Sweat was literally dripping from the bottom of my shorts, and there wasn’t a single bit of me or my clothing that was dry.

When I got back to the bunkhouse, I jumped into the freezing cold shower and cooled off. Next time I need to try to get out first thing in the morning before the sun is so intense.

Finishing the PCT: Etna to Castella

I haven’t blogged in ages, but we’ve been busy guiding hikes in Asheville and I never blog about guided hikes (I’d hate to embarrass anyone).  We haven’t had many personal trips since this spring, so when we realized it had been 5 years since we hiked the PCT SOBO in 2014, we decided it was finally time to finish that hike.

We have had 100 miles left to hike since 2014 – a 100 mile section which was closed due to wildfires.  The last 100 miles left was the section from Etna to Castella in Northern California.

Before we started our hike, we met a trail angel and friend, Ken, who agreed to meet us at the terminus of this section, and drive us to the start.  He and his wife were also generous enough to let us stay the night in their house before the start of our hike.

Day 1: 18.7 miles

Despite being completely exhausted from two days of travel, we woke up fairly early due to jet lag.  Ken and Theresa made us a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit and and egg casserole before Ken gave us a ride to the trail head (with a stop along the way at a local bakery).

At 9:30AM we arrived at Etna Summit, the road crossing where I quit 5 years ago after trying to make up the last miles of our southbound PCT thru-hike.  The last time we were here it was November and I was in severe pain from hip dysplasia (which I didn’t even know I had at the time) and it was freezing cold.  As we arrived to the exact spot where I had finally decided that the last 100 miles would have to wait another year, memories came flooding back.  I remembered the pain.  I remembered the exhaustion.  Mostly, though, I remembered the pain.  I had spent the last few hours crying – trying to justify the pain for the miles…for the end-goal, and it just wasn’t worth it.  Sometimes quitting is almost as hard as continuing on.

And now here we were again, 5 years and 3 surgeries later giddy with enthusiasm.  As we stepped into the forest the dry cool air assaulted my sinuses.  The forest looked so foreign compared to the lush green forest of Western North Carolina, but it felt so familiar – like we were home again.

I was nervous about being in good enough shape to finish this section in the amount of time we had allotted -5 days- which would mean an average of 20 miles a day.  Could I still do 20 miles a day?  When was the last time I did a 20 mile day?  I racked my brain and remembered that I hiked/ran the 30 mile Art Loeb trail in a day back in June.  I was probably only carrying a 5 lb pack though and that was two months ago.  Now my pack was 26 lbs – pretty light for a fully loaded pack, and so I still had my doubts.

We started walking and pretty soon I felt comfortable with our itinerary.  The PCT is easy.  I almost forgot how easy.  The ground is mostly soft, there are not too many rocks and roots, and although we had a steady climb ahead of us, it was just that – steady.

I blew my nose into my hanky and immediately got a nosebleed.  I’ve had so many nose bleeds on the PCT, it barely came as a surprise.  The dry air, the dust, the altitude…

The views were tremendous.  Large coniferous trees dotted the mountains which were rocky and ragged.  We took tons of pictures.

We also passed burnt trees – a sign of the 2014 fire that closed this section when we were thru hiking.

As the miles wore on, my giddy enthusiasm was replaced my a meditative state followed by the reality of tired legs and sore shoulders.

During the day we saw much more wildlife than I had expected.  We walked straight past a doe and her fawn.  We also saw very fresh bear scat right in the middle of the trail.  We were just remarking on how fresh we thought it must be when the bear in question appeared in front of us, scurrying up a hillside.  And then, not 10 minutes later, another bear crashed through the underbrush away from us.

We had expected to see absolutely nobody.  This is not the place to be in September if you’re a thru-hiker – neither northbound nor southbound, and even those who skipped the snow or flip flopped up to Washington probably wouldn’t be here now.  So we were surprised to pass 3 northbound hikers – a lady and then a couple.  We traded notes with each of them.

It was cold all day.  I never took off my long sleeved shirt, and I often times wore my rain jacket and my gloves as well.

When we stopped for lunch, we realized that our container for making food in had cracked.  We don’t carry a pot or a stove or fuel because we find it’s easier just to eat cold food, but we do make food like oatmeal or instant mashed potatoes in a hard sided plastic container which somehow had cracked severely.  We would have to improvise to make some of our meals.  Ziplock bags go a long way.

The clouds were beautiful as the sun started to set.  Chipmunks scurried away from us, and adorable yellow flowers dotted the hillside in shades reminiscent of sunset.  I grew sleepy quite early – probably from all the travel and jetlag.  I was surprised when we found a suitable campsite and we had managed to hike almost 19 miles.  The 100 mile goal now seems quite feasible.

Just as we crawled into our tent, it started to drizzle.  Maybe the clouds will keep it slightly warmer tonight, since other hikers told us that last night it was well into the 20’s and they were cold.  I haven’t been cold in months.

Just as I finish this entry a southbound hiker named “Hang-time” arrived at our campsite.  It’s almost dark out and we didn’t exit the tent to say hello (it’s also drizzling), but we exchanged a few pleasantries through the tent wall.  Maybe we’ll meet him for real tomorrow.

Day 2: 24.8 miles

It was chilly overnight, but with all my clothes on, I was warm.  We got up at sunrise and packed up.  Our friend was still asleep as we left camp, and we wondered if or when we would see him again.  We took our time hiking the first few miles of the day – taking in the early morning fog which had caused quite a lot of condensation in our tent, but was beautiful in the valleys below.

By midday we heard someone behind us and it was “Hang-time”.  I stepped aside to let him pass, but we quickly started chatting.  He was a young man from Bend, OR who had hiked and traveled all over the west coast and was going to finish his hike on Mount Whitney, hopefully by early October.  We traded information about the Sierras and the PCT.  Because I had let him pass, I had to keep up with his fast thru-hiker pace in order to carry on the conversation.  It was great to have someone to talk to, but at the same time I was starting to feel a sharp pain in my shin.  We stopped for lunch and Hang-time stopped too.  I tried to stretch out my calf muscle and rub my shin, but I could tell this was going to keep hurting.  We soon got hiking again, and again I found myself trying to keep up with Hang-time.  Eventually we stopped at a stream to collect water, and I realized that I was headed towards full blown shin-splints.  I told him I needed to slow down and since he was planning a 30-mile day, he forged on ahead.

I took a long break by the stream, but when I got up to start hiking again, I could only limp along.  I was mad at myself for not listening to my body earlier.  We hiked the next few miles slowly taking as many breaks as I needed, and eventually came upon a road.  At the road there were one or two cars parked there and a van.  A man jumped out of the van and asked us if we were thirsty.  I told him thanks, but we had plenty of water.  He then asked if we wanted a soda, and of course I couldn’t turn down a sugary drink.

He pulled out a couple of camp chairs and proceeded to ask us if we wanted ice cream sandwiches, bananas, pears, cookies or beer.  Our jaws practically fell to the ground.  Trail Magic!?  We haven’t experienced trail magic in years!  We chowed down on an ice cream sandwich followed by a banana.  I didn’t know it, but this was just the break I needed from my terrible shin splints.

The trail angel’s trail name was Buff and he had hiked many sections of the PCT.  We traded stories and enjoyed the magic until we were both cold and realized that we probably ought to get going to find a place to camp.  We bid Buff farewell and thanked him again for his generosity and hiked up from the road.

The trail was so easy and my shin felt better and better until I couldn’t feel the shin splint any more.  I did however feel a sharp pain on the bottom of my foot and stopped to take my shoe off.  My left foot was suffering slightly from what I think is trench foot – but I’m not sure.  Basically the skin on the bottom of my foot was folding because of wetness and the fold was creating a crack.  I decided to change my sock for a dry one.  It wasn’t like my feet were super wet, but the dirt from the PCT kind of cakes inside your socks and shoes because there is so much of it, and then makes your feet stay somewhat damp, I think from sweat.  We only had a couple more miles until we found a great camp spot among some trees just as the sun was setting.

It’s much warmer tonight, and we’re looking forward to sleep.

Day 3: 24.2 miles

I woke up suddenly to the sound of John screaming.  He told me he thought he heard a mountain lion making a bunch of noise including hissing.  I asked him how he knew it wasn’t a bobcat, and he said he wasn’t sure, but I could tell he was a bit paranoid as he peered out of the tent.

Once it got light enough, we packed up and got hiking.  We spent a good number of hours in the morning staring at the dusty trail trying to figure out whose footprints were on top ahead of us.  I could see Hang-Time’s footsteps, but I could also see a gigantic pair of Altra footsteps and I couldn’t tell if they were on top of Hang-Time’s Chaco sandles or not.  I found a really good specimen of the Altra footprint and tried to mark bottom and top of the footprint to size it against John’s foot.  It was definitely at least a size or two bigger.

“I bet they’re size 15,” said John.

We kept walking and as we walked up to a lovely water source surrounded by pitcher plants, I noticed an older gentleman resting nearby.

“Hello!”  John said.  “Do you have really big feet?”

“Yes, size 15.”  He replied.

I laughed.  “Size 15 Altras! I knew it.  We’ve been following your footprints.”  I told him.

We traded notes, and he was headed southbound and was planning to hike about 25 miles, so we figured we’d probably be seeing him again.  His trailname was “NTN” (short for “No Trail Name”), and he was from Alaska.  He had done lots of hiking over the years.

We collected our water and carried on.  It was much hotter out than it had been previous days, and we were so grateful to have umbrellas.  There was very little shade, and the sun was relentless.

Finally, we reached a road where there were many cars parked by the trailhead.  We passed a huge group of hikers who were part of a guided REI hike as well as a few other hikers.

The scenery was getting more interesting, and soon we passed a lake and got amazing views of Mount Shasta.

My legs were starting to hurt quite a lot as the miles wore on.  It was still quite early in the day when we were close to the 20-mile mark, but around that time I thought that my legs may not want to take me much further.  Of course a place to camp does not magically materialize whenever you want to call it quits for the day, and as I studied the map I realized that we were in a long stretch where there was not going to be much in the way of flat ground.  I grit my teeth and continued on.

We passed another northbounder and I asked him if there was any good camping up ahead, and he said we should definitely camp at Porcupine Lake.  He looked at his watch and said “it’s about an hour away.”

As he walked away I turned to John and made an angry face.  “He’s lying to us!  Porcupine Lake is at least 5 miles from here.  Jerk!”

I went from angry to determined and from determined to demoralized and from demoralized to severely in pain.  My legs hurt and my feet hurt even more.  I leaned heavily on my trekking poles and tried to admire the gorgeous views of Mt Shasta.

Eventually, less than a mile from Porcupine Lake, a small flat area emerged downhill from the trail, and we found a suitable place to pitch our tent.

I was so glad to take my shoes off and admire the rising moon.  We had such a peaceful view.  A half hour or so later, I heard the sound of footsteps and trekking poles approaching, and realized that NTN had made it this far too.  He was also weary and looking for a place to camp, so we invited him to tent nearby since there was just enough flat ground.

Day 4: 17.8 miles

As usual in the morning we woke up before sunrise.  Looking out of the tent door we could tell we were in an amazing spot to watch the sun rise, so we secured the door open and spent a lazy half hour or so watching the sky change color.  When eventually the first rays of sun hit our tent, we decided it was time to pack up.  Our friend NTN also got a slow start as we all decided we’d probably take a slightly shorter day.

We hiked up to Porcupine Lake, which wasn’t far from where we camped, and admired the reflection of the mountains in the water.

The trail then reached a series of road crossings, and at the first one John joked about wanting more trail magic.  NTN who caught up to us while we were snacking told us he hadn’t experience much trail magic so far this hike.  We had just told him about Buff and the trail magic we got the other day when we got to another road crossing and saw Buff’s van parked.  We ran up to it full of excitement.   On the menu was fried egg sandwiches, quesadillas, soda, beer and popsicles.   We sat down and basically had one of everything.  As we sat there savoring the magic, several other southbound hikers showed up.  We got talking with a couple named Beardo and Sweatpea who had hiked all over the place and had loads of stories from other trails.  A group of three guys also rolled up and we all hung out for way too long.  We were probably there for three hours before we finally made a move.

We managed to miss hiking during a good part of the heat of the day, but it was still very hot, and very exposed.  I was glad to have my umbrella, but I could feel the sun still roasting my legs.  I put some sunscreen on.   We had great views of Mt Shasta.

John wasn’t feeling great and kept needing to sit in the shade.  His stomach was cramping up and eventually he also started feeling nauseous.  After pepto didn’t help, I suggested he drink some water with electrolytes, and that seemed to help slightly.  Finally though, he ran off trail and dug a hole, and it turned out that that’s what was really needed.  He probably was constipated from being dehydrated.

Eventually we hiked over a hill and were surprised to see the Castle Craggs right there in front of us.   I kept taking pictures as they got closer and closer.  The trail became a bit overgrown with bushes, but it was only a minor inconvenience.  We were glad when the sun got lower in the sky so we occasionally got some shade.

Eventually, we came across the campsite that we planned on staying at, and the group of three other southbound hikers were also camped there.  Luckily there was plenty of space for all of us, and we chatted briefly over dinner.  Just as we were falling asleep, a bunch of other hikers showed up, made a racket and blinded us with their headlamps.  Once they were finally settled in, everyone fell asleep.

Day 5:  roughly 13 miles.

Our last day on the PCT was beautiful.  We had a ton of downhill to do, and I wanted to get the miles over with fast before it got too hot.  My legs went fast, and we managed to walk about 3 miles per hour until we caught up with NTN.  I was happy when the exposed trail finally led us into the forest.

We figured we would probably be giving NTN a ride into Shasta since we knew he was looking for one, so we slowed down a bit for the last few miles of our hike.

Soon we entered Castle Crags State Park, and the trails got better and somehow even easier, if that’s possible.  Just a mile or two from the very end of our hike, there was a detour – due to timber thinning.  We followed the well marked signs, and this slight detour probably added a mile or so, but I was happy that someone had a well planned detour for PCT hikers.

Once we were back on the PCT, we came across a register left on the trail right near the road.  I was surprised to see it there, and there was a small amount of what looked like bear poop on it, but I signed out nonetheless “Dormouse and Dirt Stew – DONE!”

We got into our car, which was cleverly parked at the end of our hike, and drove NTN down the road 15 minutes or so to the town of Shasta where NTN was kind enough to treat us to lunch.  A warm meal was just what we wanted in order to celebrate the end of a journey which took us 5 years to complete!

Top 10 Most Challenging Hikes in America

In today’s world of Instagram fame and drone photoshoots, epic pictures and videos show up every single day from the tops of ragged mountains nationwide luring us to accept the challenge and venture outside for a hike.  A truly epic hike is full of challenges and obstacles and a dedicated hiker must persevere to complete it.

So, you may ask, what are the most challenging, the most epic hikes in America today?

Here’s our top 10 list of most challenging hikes:

 

1. Record Breaking Hike.

Go to https://fastestknowntime.com/ and search for a trail near you and find out what the fastest known time on that trail currently is, and go out and try to break it.  For example, the beautiful 115 mile Bartram Trail in North Carolina has been completed in 1 day, 7 hours, and 55 minutes.  Can you beat that?

 

2. Longest Loop Hike.

Take out a map of the largest park or public land near you, and map out the longest loop in the park and try to complete it in one shot.  For example, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I bet you could easily map out a loop that would be well over 100 miles long.

 

3. Connector Hike.

Find two parks that are not connected by any trail, and walk between them.  For example, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (also know as just Big Sur) is nowhere near Kings Canyon National Park in California, so I bet it would be pretty challenging to walk on highways for nearly 200 miles to connect them.

 

4. Hurricane Hike.

The higher the category, the bigger the challenge.  Wait until there’s a massive hurricane about to hit your favorite park, and battle it out against nature to see who wins.  I’m sure you’ll have epic stories to share if you make it home.  If you’re not in the hurricane-prone Southeast, then another national-emergency type weather event will work as a substitute.  Tornadoes, 120 degree heat waves, or winter blizzards with massive amounts of snow are all acceptable.

 

5. Never Ending Shortest Loop Hike.

Find the shortest loop in your local park and do it over and over again until you physically cannot do it anymore.  The epitome of this sort of challenge is the Big Backyard Ultra in TN (see: https://ultrasignup.com/register.aspx?did=53391) where runners complete a 4 mile loop once an hour until there is only one runner left.  Last year the winner ran 283 miles.

 

6. 72 hour Challenge.

Just try hiking for 72 hours straight without sleep.  I bet that would be hard.

 

7. Starvation Hike.

Bring no food.  For this challenge to be really effective, it should probably be done on a long hike or better yet, a backpacking trip so you can really feel what it’s like to be starving.  Obviously there’s no challenge in going out on a 3 mile hike with no food.  Even better, combine this challenge with any of the above challenges for a really epic hike.

 

8. Mother Nature Calls.

Start your hike before going to the bathroom, and hold it until you’re done with the hike.  Best if you have to go #2 as well as #1.

 

9. Minimalist Hike.

Pick a hike, and do it with nothing.  I don’t mean without “gear”, I mean without anything.  Don’t bring shoes, don’t bring clothes, and certainly don’t bring your glasses.  If it’s not an epic hike for you, it probably will be for someone else.

 

10. Princess Hike.

Pick your least out-doorsy, most annoying friend or acquaintance and invite them on a grueling preferably multi-day hike and listen to them complain the whole time.  Make sure you don’t have anything with you to make the situation better, especially a first aid kit, extra layers, or alcohol.

 

Note: The author of this blog has not completed most (if any) of the above most challenging hikes.

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Foothills Trail: to Table Rock

Foothills Trail

Day 9: 12.6 miles

After we slept in and finished our town chores, we easily got a ride back to the trail with someone who either worked at or owned a golf course we passed. He originally was only going to take us part of the way to the trailhead, but once he realized how nice we were, he decided to drive us all the way there. That’s just how nice people are.

It was warm out, and there were these annoying little flies that kept on landing all over us. I tried to keep my mouth closed, but they found my eyes just as intriguing.

The trail took us just down the road from Whitewater Falls, an amazing waterfall that John has never seen before. I had the pleasure of seeing it with my mother a year and a half ago. This is definitely one of the best waterfalls I’ve seen.

At the viewing platform we noticed that there was a Carolina Hemlock growing next to an Eastern Hemlock. You don’t see Carolina Hemlocks very often, but it was unmistakable.

The Foothills Trail continued past the end of the staircase down to the falls, and we scurried down a long set of stairs that led us to a bridge crossing the river.

The trail climbed up and down, and I soon noticed that the air was becoming thick with smoke. Luckily, we knew what it was. John had looked up the map for Table Rock, and found information about a controlled burn at Table Rock, which was supposed to be happening today. It was making the air thick, and it was even obscuring the sun. I hate walking through smoke (something we did quite a bit of on the PCT), because I know how bad it is for your lungs.

Then, along the trail I spotted our first dwarf crested iris (I’m told these days they prefer to be called small crested iris). Such an amazingly colorful wildflower: mostly purple with a hint of yellow. Spring is finally here.

Besides the wildflowers, the temperature definitely feels like spring. I was too warm in a tank top and shorts as we climbed uphill past another river with a big bridge, the Thompson River.

Soon, though, we found a nice quiet place to pitch our tent by a babbling brook, and the temperature dropped, as did the smell of smoke.

Day 10: 19 miles

It was super warm last night. We wound up opening both of the doors to the tent, and in the middle of the night, I pulled my socks off because my feet felt like they were on fire. It’s strange to think that just a week ago we were waking up to ice on our tent.

Sometime mid morning I saw a cluster of white flowers out of the corner of my eye and stopped. I had just found the entire reason why we were on this trail right now (in late March). Oconee bells!! We were told by our friend Judy that she saw them here this time of year, and it was totally worth timing a hike based on it. Just to clarify: these aren’t flowers that you’ll just happen upon by accident. They’re very rare, and they’re ephemeral, so they’re only out for a couple of weeks each year. We were nervous that we somehow hadn’t timed our trip quite right.

We sat down and started taking pictures.

Steps later there were more. And more. In fact, for the next dozen miles we were surrounded by hillsides of Oconee bells. They lined the trail around each stream that we crossed. We took loads of pictures.

Besides Oconee bells, we were other wildflowers as well including foamflower, violets, dwarf crested irises, and wild ginger.

“I can’t believe we haven’t seen anyone all day.” I remarked.

“Well, it’s a Monday, and I’m pretty sure we’re in the middle of nowhere.” John replied.

We crossed over the Toxaway River on an impressive suspension bridge. We ascended a hill and got views of Lake Jocassee, which we’ve been walking around.

In the middle of the afternoon it started to rain. This is the first day of rain that we have gotten our entire trip. I can’t believe how lucky we’ve been given that this last year has been the wettest of recent history.

It was warm enough that a rain coat wasn’t necessary, but we pulled out our umbrellas.

As if on queue, we were reminded off why we enjoyed hiking in the rain when a red salamander appeared in the middle of the trail.

Moments later, a newt appeared. They’re so cute.

The trail was mostly easy going – often wide logging roads. Before we knew it we had almost hiked 20 miles, and we decided to end early so that we’d have some hiking left to do tomorrow before the last campsite of the Foothills Trail. We determined that we’ll finish the day after tomorrow by climbing Table Rock. Somehow the trail doesn’t go to the top of Table Rock, but it seems dumb to come all this way and not climb it. More bonus miles!

The rain subsided just as we started setting up camp. I was glad to put on some dry clothes and crawl into the tent.

Day 11: 17 miles

We knew we didn’t have too many miles to do today, so we attempted to sleep in. The attempt was laughable.

Everything was still wet from yesterday’s rain, but the sun was shinning, and droplets on branches and leaves glittered, We were in the middle of the section of trail that crosses back and forth over Laurel Creek, and for a while it felt like we were in a jungle. The rhododendrons looked so green in the morning sun, and we were constantly by gushing water.

I was admiring our surroundings when I went sliding of the edge of a small bridge made of wood right into the stream.

“Oh my god, are you OK!?” John called down to me as I scrambled to get out of the water.

I was surprisingly ok. I had banged up a knee, but otherwise I was just a little shaken up. It had been a small bridge, just three wooden beams nailed together, and slippery as all hell from being wet.

I put a bandaid on my bleeding knee and carried on.

The trail has been very nice about providing bridges for each water crossing. We came across one bridge, however, that had gotten completely destroyed by a downed tree. We scrambled over the ruins.

The trail has also been almost annoyingly good at providing little wooden steps each time the trail was remotely steep. At first I thought I liked them, but now that I had fallen because of slippery wood, I was much less keen. In some places these wooden steps are totally unnecessary anyways.

We ran into another hiker, and after we leap frogged a couple of times, we started hiking with him. His name was Will and he was a veterinarian from Jackson City. He had cleverly parked his truck half way along the Foothills Trail so he could do an out and back of each half and resupply in the middle using his own vehicle.

We got to Sassafras Mountain, the tallest mountain in South Carolina, but they had closed the top to repair or replace the observation tower. We put our tootsies on every rock that looked like it could be the natural top of the mountain. We wouldn’t have been able to see anything from the top of the observation tower anyway since we were fogged in.

After we had hiked a few more miles, we realized we had lost track of where we were on the map. The landmarks on our guide seemed very nondescript “boulder field” “creek, wooden stairs”, “good campsite.” We passed many creeks, loads of sets of wooden stairs, and many campsites some of which were better than others. We had no idea where we were.

We decided we’d just keep hiking until we got to the most obvious landmark – the trail junction to Pinnacle Trail. Luckily for us, when we did finally arrive at this unmistakable landmark, there was camping. We’re right where we want to be for tomorrow’s short hike to the top of Table Rock.

Day 12: Maybe 10 miles?

It was cold over night, and when we got packed up, we realized it was windy out too. We bundled up and started climbing Pinnacle Mountain. We were no longer on the official Foothills Trail.

As I mentioned before, we had figured out that the Foothills Trail ended at the Table Rock parking lot and not at the top of Table Rock (in other words, the trail did not climb Table Rock), so we figured we’d add a few bonus miles and climb the thing while we were in the neighborhood.

The easiest way, seemingly, was to take the trail that went up to Pinnacle Mountain first, and then carry on to Table Rock Trail.

It warmed up quickly, and soon we were on our way up Table Rock. It was a steep trail with lots of rocks, and obviously well used.

Once we got close to the summit, there were views of the surrounding landscape which seemed so flat in comparison to where we had come from. Down below we could see a lake and some little hills, and that was about it.

We were definitely the first people to reach the top of Table Rock that day, as there was nobody else around. As we descended, however, we started seeing other hikers making their way up from the parking lot.

As we got close to the parking lot, there were some nice waterfalls along the trail.

We reached the Nature Center, which was closed, and then the parking lot, which was practically deserted. There were a few cars there, but nobody came or left as we stopped to use the restrooms.

We decided we probably would need to walk to a bigger road. We found a bus driver sitting at a picnic bench reading a book, and we asked him the way out. He pointed down a road and told us it was about a mile to the intersection.

We headed that way, and nobody passed us going in the direction we were. We got to the intersection, but still no traffic. We kept walking. We walked all the way to Route 11 before we decided it was worth trying to hitchhike.

After some time, a pickup truck stopped and picked us up. it was a nice couple who were into hiking. We shared stories of local and far off trails, and they kindly drove us all the way to Route 25 so that we could get a direct ride to Asheville from there. That was super helpful.

I thought it was going to be tricky to get a ride on 25 with traffic going by so fast, but it didn’t take too long for a car to pull over and offer us a ride all the way to Asheville. I couldn’t believe our luck. We were about an hour away still, so we got talking to our new friend who was a parole officer for sex offenders. Interesting job.

As we got to Asheville, he told us that he was going to head to 12 Bones (our favorite bbq place), and we told him we’d love to go there too. After we were completely full of ribs and cornbread, he kindly dropped us off just down the road from our house. It was perfect.

We walked down our street and up to our house. Once inside, it was like we had never left. We turned the heat on, took a shower, made a pile of laundry and made a shopping list. It was weird to be back, yet not weird at all. We just finished 220 miles in 11 and a half days and all we had to show for it were some scrapes and bruises and a pile of dirty laundry. I think tomorrow we’ll go to the climbing gym.