Tahoe Rim Trail: Tahoe City to Echo Chalet

TRT Day 4: 23 miles

I heard Donner get up to go pee around 5AM, and John was tossing and turning.  I hadn’t slept well because of the bed – soft and the covers got totally messed up.

We managed to leave the hotel just after 6AM, and although I was tired, I was thankful that we were getting an early start because I knew we had a lot of climbing to do and I wanted to get as much of it done as possible before it got hot.

I also wanted to carry as little water as possible, so I decided to chug two liters of water before leaving the hotel and only carry 1 liter for the next 4 or 5 miles uphill.

The trail was nice and cool, and because of all the water I drank, I had to pee every 10 minutes.  That got old really quickly when I realized that there were quite an abundance of mosquitos around.  I remember these mosquitoes from the PCT.  They were most similar to the Oregon variety, which could land on you regardless of how quickly you were trying to run through them.

Luckily the mosquitos were not a constant.  They were only really present in spots where we were going through a meadow, in the forest or near a stream.  This side of Tahoe is definitely much more wet than the other side.  Water sources are plentiful.

Early on we passed an active logging site, and repeatedly heard chain saws followed by trees falling and crashing onto the forest floor nearby as loggers cut them down.  Although we weren’t close enough for it to be dangerous, we jumped every time a tree fell.

Donner made the mistake of showing an interest in lichens, when the topic somehow came up, and John spent the next hour or two regaling us with every detail on lichens he could possibly remember – which, given that he has a book on the topic, and the brain of a sponge, was a lot.

I decided to steer the topic away from lichens and onto quantum mechanics.  Donner was a physics major, so between us we tried to remember details of our physics and chemistry courses.

There were tons of hikers – both day hikers and backpackers.  We intersected the Pacific Crest Trail, and that brought a few PCT hikers into the mix too.  We were constantly pulling our buffs over our faces as we jumped off the trail to let folks pass.  I’ve been really impressed with how many hikers have pulled out masks to pass us.

At lunch we cracked open a gigantic jar of Nutella, and also made tuna wraps.  Once we finished, John and I packed up and John was standing there with his pack on ready to go 20 minutes after we sat down to eat.

“God, you guys really just like to hike, don’t you?!”  Donner said.

It’s at that point that we realized that we had been such in thru-hiker mode that we hadn’t really taken a really long break just to sit and admire a view or take an extra long lunch just to relax in nature.  Our style has always been to just keep walking.  It’s not that we don’t admire views, but usually not for more than 5 minutes or so.  Donner was more used to taking half hour or hour long breaks to enjoy the scenery.

Since we got such an early start, we got done with quite a few miles early on in the day.  We realized that there was no point in rushing or completing more miles than we needed to, since that would just mean that we finish the hike before we had planned.  We made plans to attempt to slow down a bit and take more breaks during the next section

We decided to camp at Richardson Lake, a popular camp spot – there are dozens of other people here, but really pretty.  The lake was very warm, and I soaked my feet.  I would have gotten in if it wasn’t so breezy and getting a bit chilly as evening descended.

 

We decided to take a little stroll around the lake to check out a Sierra Club hut that was listed on the map.  It turned out to be quite a quirky little hut, built in 1955, and obviously designed for use during the winter, when snow would pile up to the second level, so the leave a door unlocked at the top of the hut, which gained us entrance.  The inside was warm and there was a register, which I signed, which had many recent hiker’s signatures in it as well.  Outside the hut was a double decker outhouse, which we did not investigate as thoroughly.

Tomorrow we will be entering the Desolation Wilderness, which is probably the most scenic stretch of this trail.  We are all very excited, and anticipate enjoying some breaks near lakes along the way.

TRT Day 5: 21 miles

We woke up in the morning refreshed from an only slightly interrupted sleep. An animal repeatedly hissed for an hour in the middle of the night. Maybe a fox?  Who knows.

The trail was noticeably moist compared to the dry Carson Range on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. At points it seemed like someone had been spraying the trail with water and other times it was even slightly overgrown with vegetation around dry creek beds (on the dryer side, there was much less vegetation).

Today was the day that John and I have been looking forward to since booking this trip. We entered the Desolation Wilderness, one of our many favorite spots from our Pacific Crest Trail hike. A few steps past the Wilderness boundary sign John said, “We really are in the Desolation Wilderness look at all the granite rocks!”

Slowly the damp trail became more rocky. We came upon the first lake of the day and took a long break to swim.  I was nervous to get into the cold water, but John and Donner convinced me to jump in from a rock.  It was nice to go for a swim.  Four years ago when we were here it was too cold to even think about swimming here.

We continued onto Dicks Pass which presented us with an absolutely gorgeous view. We could see the chain of lakes we passed as well as many others that were out of view.

Dick’s Pass

Moments after we arrived, another a hiker arrived and gasped at the scenery. It was wonderful to watch her reaction.  We spoke with her for a bit, and found out that her name was Rose. We also found out she hiked from the Washington/Oregon Border along the PCT and was finishing her section tomorrow.  As we walked away we noticed that there would be an even better view a few steps further along and John said, “It will be great to see her reaction over there.” Predictably, Rose gasped again.

Rose

Rose had wanted to hike the whole PCT this year, but changes her plans when COVID hit.

“I hope you get to hike it in 2021,” I suggested

“If there IS a 2021….”. She retorted.

There was a small patch of snow at the top and Donner attempted a snow angel and threw a couple of snowballs at us. 

As we descended my hip started to hurt and we slowed down.  Donner and John both offered to carry some of my weight, and I took them up on their offer since John always accuses me of being too stubborn.  I was pretty upset that my hips were not cooperating, and I silently wondered if my thru-hiking days weren’t over.

The temperature seemed really warm with all the granite reflecting the sun back at us. When we got to Susie Lake we decided it was worth taking another swim.

Donner: “Did I miss a spot?”

We debated spending the night there but it was still early so we moved onto Aloha Lake, where we found a perfect spot with a spectacular view.

Can you tell which way the wind blows?

As we watched the sun set and the moon rise, we noticed that little tufts of pink clouds passed by.

“Hmmm, clouds”  John commented.  I knew what he was thinking.  We hadn’t seen clouds in almost a week.  Out here clouds usually mean weather.

TRT Day 6: 17 miles

We took our time packing up in the morning – no need to rush since we had only 6 or so miles to Echo Chalet, where there is a small store where we planned to resupply, and we knew they didn’t open until 10AM.  The clouds were strangely gone after a quiet night, and we had a perfectly blue sky.

We descended from Aloha Lake to Echo Lake through huge boulder fields.  The trail was mostly pointed rocks, which was slightly hard on the feet.  It was in one of these rocky areas that we heard some little squeaks, and found that they were coming from a pika!  Pikas are only the cutest alpine rodent.  They’re actually closely related to rabbits, I believe, but they look kind of like big fat fluffy mice with big ears.  I attempted to take its picture, but it was in a hurry to get somewhere with the tuft of grass in its mouth.

Pika

I’m assuming that this area is normally quite crowded, but today being a Friday, it seemed especially busy.  We passed group after group after group of hikers walking up from Echo Lake.

I remembered this section quite vividly from the PCT.  Once you exit the wilderness, Echo Lake has quite a few cute little houses and huts along it, with no access besides either the trail or the lake.

When we made it to Echo Chalet, we immediately bought a half gallon of ice cream to share along with chips and guacamole, soda, and potato salad. 

“Growing up, my dad used to microwave the whole tub of ice cream so he could eat it melted, and then put it back in the freezer so all we ever had was freezer burnt ice cream,” Donner griped.

“That sounds awful!”  I replied

“And then my mother would dig all the good bits out of the ice cream, like if we got chocolate chip cookie dough, there was never any bits of cookie dough left.  That was pretty much the extent of my horrible childhood.  Maybe I’ll write a book about it.”  He said, shoving spoonfuls of ice cream into his mouth.

Donner noticed that Rose was in the parking lot, having met her family who were there to pick her up.  He came back with a bag of cherries that she gave us.  So sweet!!  We went over to say goodbye and gave her our website to look us up when she got home.

It took us another hour or two to buy and sort through all the food we needed for the rest of the trail, which should take us about three and a half days.  The store was two or three times more expensive than a normal grocery store and with limited selection, so we wanted to choose our food wisely.  We managed to buy a few things that we could split between the three of us, plus a ton of Ramen noodles.

Echo Chalet

When we started hiking again, it was brutally hot.

“East Coast heat melts you, and West Coast heat bakes you”  Donner remarked.  It’s true – I felt baked, and my legs were cracking because of the dry heat.  In fact, right at the front of my ankles, my skin is so cracked that it is bleeding.

We got to a cold stream where we collected water and I took my shirt off and dunked it in the cold water and put it back on again.  That felt divine.

“What’s for dinner?”  I asked Donner

“I’m pretty sure all my meals involve Ramen somehow”  he replied.

“I think we’re going to have instant stuffing mix and hot dogs”  John said.

“Oh, then I’ll have Ramen with hot dogs!”  Donner said with excitement.

We noticed that clouds were beginning to form, and quite quickly.  These were not cute little clouds like last night, these were very obviously thunder heads.

Soon enough we are shaken with a sudden “KABOOOM!!”  A thunderstorm was upon us.  I started hiking faster, since we were headed up a hill, and we scurried over the top of it.  The rain soon started, and we made sure everything in our packs was in something waterproof.  I was glad I brought my rain jacket and rain pants, because the temperature dropped quite quickly.  Luckily my shirt was almost dry.

Now instead of holding our umbrellas up for sun, we had them open for the rain.  It didn’t rain hard, but it rained enough to bring life to the hillsides, and as we continued we passed many meadows and drainages absolutely packed with wildflowers.  Views of nearby mountains were incredible.

The rain subsided, and the flowers and views continued to take our breath away.  We could hardly stop taking pictures.

Eventually we got to the lake where we wanted to spend the night, called Showers Lake.  Funny that we came through on a day with showers…

We ate dinner by the lake, and enjoyed the last lake that we will have along this trail.

Tahoe Rim Trail: Spooner Lake to Tahoe City

TRT Day 0

Well, here we are!!  We’re currently in Carson City, NV, the day before we begin the Tahoe Rim Trail.  We’ve thought about this trip for many weeks now, not only because we were raising money for Big City Mountaineers, but also because of our fear of COVID-19.

By the way, we reached our goal of raising $5000 for Big City Mountaineers!  This will effectively breakdown some barriers in order to get kids into nature.  The $5000 will outfit an entire week-long expedition of kids from dis-invested communities who would otherwise not have the means to go backpacking.  Thank you so much to everyone who donated, we had at least 85 people who contributed to this effort!

We’re doing this trip with an Appalachian Trail friend of ours, whose trail name is Donner.  We drove to his house in Nashville so that we could all be on the same flights to Reno. 

We’ve spent the entire day traveling, wearing KN-95 masks.  The flights were somewhat terrifying because people just can’t seem to understand how to wear masks correctly, and Donner and I witnessed a girl in the row next to ours wipe her exposed nose with her fingers.  She then looked at her dirty fingers like she wasn’t quite sure what to do with them next.  Donner and I looked at each other wide eyed and I whispered, “get me out of here!!!”  We were so grateful to have bought KN-95 masks (the Chinese equivalent to N-95 masks).

Southwest is currently keeping middle seats empty unless you’re in a group traveling together, so even when the flight was completely full (which our second flight was), there was still a feeling of space on the plane.  I did find it funny that although you apparently have to wear your face mask for the entire flight, they also hand out water and snacks.  We all decided not to eat or drink on the airplane, so I stuffed the packet of pretzels in my bag for later.

We decided for the sake of logistics to spend one night in Carson City before hitting the trail early in the morning.  We arrived basically famished, and the first thing we did after dropping our bags at the hotel was order Chinese take-out.   We brought the food back into the hotel room and for a good 15 minutes we acted like we had been hiking for weeks.  There was a long period of silence while we stuffed our faces.

As we packed our backpacks, and I realized that I forgot my p-style (the device I use to pee standing up), and Donner suggested I try cutting a small plastic water bottle in half as a substitute.  I found one to attempt to engineer into the right shape, and then practiced in the bathroom, and found that the new set up may actually work.  Gross or genius – you decide, but it will allow me to pee in a gatorade bottle inside my tent at night.  Yay!

Hotel room gear explosion

Now jet lag has started to set in, and although it’s only about 8PM, it feels like midnight.  I have a feeling we’ll have no trouble getting an early start tomorrow to get a full day’s hike in.

TRT Day 1:  22 miles

I woke up sometime between 5 and 6AM, and John and Donner were still asleep, so I stared at the ceiling for a little bit until the alarm went off.  I must have slept well.

We packed up, and used Uber to get a ride to the trailhead.  Our Uber driver was chatty and proclaimed that he had only started wearing a mask a couple of weeks ago when it became a mandate, because the mask was not letting him get enough oxygen because he was an asthmatic.  Then he started complaining about COVID-19 and how it’s really only a bad flu and our government should have just let it run its course instead of letting it drag on.  John and I rolled our eyes at each other and tried to change the topic.  Once again I was so grateful that we had bought KN-95 masks.

Once at the trailhead at Spooner Lake Summit, I was thrilled to be in the wide open forests of the dry mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe.  We climbed and climbed, but the trail was easy.  As usual, the trails out West are so nice because of the lack of tree roots and water erosion.

Donner stepped only a couple of feet off trail to pee and suddenly there was someone coming in the opposite direction.  Bad luck, I thought.  But moments later we passed another set of people, and then another.  I realized that this was not going to be one of those remote feeling hiking experiences.

We climbed up a few thousand feet, and started getting lovely views of Lake Tahoe.  The sun started beating down on us, and we all whipped out our umbrellas.  The trees were all pine and fir trees spaced wide apart with lots of sandy ground between them.

The air was very dry.  I could feel sweat evaporating from my lower back, and my tongue felt dry since my mouth was hanging open, panting from the lack of oxygen at this high elevation.  We climbed to over 8,000ft, and my lungs could feel it.  I haven’t been at this elevation in a while.

Cute little wildflowers dotted the side of the trail and John, who had brought his Sierra Nevada field guide book stopped intermittently to identify plants.

Ten miles into our day we reached Marlette Campground, which had a water pump that we had spent quite a bit of effort trying to figure out if it would be functional or not.  Donner had even called the Tahoe Rim Trail Association (and got a reply in the form of a voice mail!).  The pump worked, and we sat there and ate lunch, while downing at least a liter of water each in order to try to stay on top of our hydration.  The next water source wouldn’t be for another 12 miles or so.

Eventually the trail became a popular mountain biking trail, and we had to jump out of the way of dozens of mountain bikers.  Maybe 50-100 mountain bikers, I kid you not.  It definitely got old and certainly slowed our progress.  On top of that the wind picked up quite a bit, and blew more dust in our faces, while making it slightly challenging to hold up our umbrellas.  But, we were making good time, and before we knew it we were already at the next water source.  Two young men were collecting water in what looked like a dribble coming out of some rocks. 

“This is Ophir Creek!?”  Donner said looking wide eyed at our water source.

“Welcome to west coast water sources!!”  I said. It actually turned out to be the headwaters of Incline Creek, but we managed to collect plenty of water from it.

We hiked a bit further and found a somewhat sheltered spot tucked away between some rocks and some trees and called it home for the night.

TRT Day 2: 24 miles

I heard John unzip the tent, and I looked at my watch, 5:50AM.  I felt fairly well rested.  Donner emerged from his tent and told us that his thermometer read just under 40 degrees.  What a perfect temperature for sleeping in.  We were hiking by 6:30AM.

We soon hit a road leading to a campground just slightly off trail where we stoped to use the toilets and dumpsters.  They also had running water, so we filled up our bottles.  The chipmunks in the campground were fearless, and one almost stuck up behind me to grab my breakfast.

The trail then climbed up to the tallest point on the trail, 10,398ft up at Relay Peak.  On the way up there was a little waterfall with many beautiful flowers on either side of it (such as monkey flowers and lupine).  The trail was very exposed, and we were so happy to have our umbrellas to keep us from getting sunburnt.  As we climbed over 9000ft, I started to really feel the effects of the altitude.  My stomach was a bit queasy, my head slightly achey and my lungs gasping for air.

The scenery, though was so breathtaking, that I easily stopped every few hundred feet to take a picture.  That made the climb much easier.

When we got to the top of Relay Peak, it felt like we were on top of the world with 360 degree views.  I hardly knew which direction to point my camera.

Then, we started the long descent to the next water source, which was a lake that was about quarter mile off trail.  Along the way we crossed from Nevada into California.  Once we got to the lake, we sat there and collected and drank water for quite some time since we knew that the next section would be over 17 miles with no water sources.  I decided to wade into the water a bit to get my feet wet and wash my dirty legs.  The water was frigid.  Across the lake we saw a deer munching on some grass, occasionally glancing up at us.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if a cougar took that deer down in front of our eyes” Donner asked.

“Maybe the deer is waiting to see a cougar take us down.” I answered.

We realized that it was already 2:30PM and we were barely half way done with the miles we had planned for the day, so we made a move, and I tried to pick up the pace a bit.  We had a lot more downhill to go, which made it easier to go quickly, but also harder on the joints.  Soon my hip started to hurt followed by my shoulder, my ankles and my feet.

Around 6PM we stopped to make dinner and let it soak.  None of us brought a stove, so all the food we are carrying needs to cold soak.  On the menu for John and I was couscous, which takes about 20 minutes to rehydrate in cold water, and Donner had instant mashed potatoes, which are still pretty instant with cold water.  By 6:30, we sat down again and ate our dinner.  Around this time I got a bloody nose.  It’s something that happens often when I hiked in such a dry climate, especially at high altitude.  A few mosquitoes started pestering us, which helped in finishing dinner rather rapidly before picking up and continuing with a few more miles.  Not 20 minutes later, John also got a bloody nose.  Somehow Donner was spared (so far at least).

We hiked a few more miles and crossed a road.  Hoping to find some camping a ways from the loud road, we continued on.  The last mile or so of a long day always feels even longer… I hurt quite a bit at this point.   I’m definitely not in thru-hiker shape.  It didn’t help that we were carrying quite a bit of water still.

We finally found a spot slightly off the trail along and ATV route.  We set up the tents quickly and dived into them to avoid the mosquitoes.  They’re not terrible, but they’re not fun to have buzzing around your head outside the tent either.

Tomorrow we’ll wake up early and try to hike the 18 miles into Tahoe City fairly quickly so that we can resupply and still hike out of town to camp.  The hotel prices in Tahoe City are outrageous, so we’re going to skip trying to stay the night there even though it would be really nice.

As I’m writing this, darkness has set, and the moon is rising, mostly full.  I hope it doesn’t keep us up.

TRT Day 3: 18 miles

At 5:45AM I heard Donner’s voice: “GOOD MORNING!!  Town day!”

We all scurried around packing up more quickly than normal, and started hiking just after 6AM.  We had 18 miles to get into town, and I knew some of them were going to hurt, because my hip was still sore from yesterday’s effort.  As we hiked, we passed an active logging site which was making a racket chopping up trees.

We had one water source for the day, and that was at Watson Lake, and we got there in short order.  I was somehow still carrying too much from our 17 mile dry stretch, so I only collected half a liter.

We passed a sign saying 14 miles until Tahoe City.  I did some mental math on how long that would take us.  Five minutes later we passed another sign saying 12 miles until Tahoe City. 

I turned to John, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the next 12 miles go as fast as those two went!”

Not 20 minutes later, another sign:  13 miles to Tahoe City.  Huh?  The signage in this area was obviously not to be trusted.  Another mile went by, and we got another sign: 12 miles to Tahoe City.  Ha.  I figured I should stop caring about how many miles it actually was and just hike.

We were at lower elevation than we had been for quite some time, and the heat we experienced really made us appreciate the altitude of the previous section.

A few bikers and a few hikers passed us, but honestly, the most remarkable part of this section was just how hot it felt.  I felt sweat dripping from my back and quickly evaporating.  At least our sweat was working, but we were probably quickly getting dehydrated.

Finally, we made the final descent into town, and I hobbled down the road to the grocery store, my hip aching.  We sat outside the store charging our devices and trying to decide whether or not we were going to spend the night in town.  There were a couple of outlets next to the store, and we bought some soda and sat there while our phones charged, and we took turns buying our resupply food.

Finally, we made the decision to spend the night in a hotel that had a hiker discount, so wasn’t as ridiculously expensive as everything else in town.

So, as I write this, we are comfortably installed in a room with two beds, contemplating where we will pig out for dinner.  A burger sounds good to me.   I’m not sure if I’ll have the opportunity to update the blog until we finish the trail, but we’re now about a third done with it.  We’re looking forward to the Desolation Wilderness, which is supposed to be the most beautiful section.  That should be coming up in a couple of days.

Now, time for a shower and a greasy meal!!

Tahoe Rim Trail: Fundraising and preparations

This year has been crazy for pretty much every single person on the planet.  Like many other Americans, John and I have been struggling with unemployment and cabin fever since March, but as the summer has wore on, some work has been coming in the door, and we have also become slightly more ambitious with hiking goals.

So, when a fellow thru-hiker and friend, Rob (trail name Donner) asked us if we would be interested in hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail with him in August, we knew we had to seriously consider it. The Tahoe Rim Trail is 165 miles long and does a loop around Lake Tahoe in California.

The idea of getting on an airplane fills me with dread, but once in California, this particular trail seems like a reasonably good idea because we could do the whole thing without hitchhiking or shuttling vehicles.  Because this trail is a loop, and goes right through (or very close to) two towns in order to resupply, it seemed like a fairly safe option given the current global pandemic.

Rob also pitched the idea of doing this hike as a fundraiser. Hiking for me has always been a selfish endeavor, and given everything that has happened, from the pandemic to the death of George Floyd and the massive protests worldwide, we felt like running away into the woods was not exactly a productive response.

The three of us have benefitted tremendously from our experiences in the outdoors and we decided to fundraise for an organization that would allow us to give those experiences to others.

The non-profit that we are fundraising for is called Big City Mountaineers, and it gets kids who would otherwise not afford to have outdoor experiences on week-long backpacking trips. These are kids that need this kind of experience the most: 85% of the kids that Big City Mountaineers take out are under the poverty line, and 15% have experienced homelessness.  Going on a backpacking trip will be a confidence boosting experience.

These expeditions will translate into life-long benefits for these children and teens! Selfishly, I also hope this creates new advocates for protecting our wilderness refuges.

We are trying to raise a lot of money, $5000 to be exact, enough to fund one whole Big City Mountaineers expedition. We have already exceeded $3,000, but we really need help to raise the rest.  Please visit the link today to learn more about the fundraising effort, this worthy organization, and our trip! Click here to donate and learn more! Even small donations are very helpful.

We will be posting updates on our trip on this blog, so feel free to follow along.   In preparation for our trip, we’ve purchased KN-95 masks (to make the plane flight less risky) and this weekend the three of us will be going on a shakedown backpacking trip locally to make sure we have everything we need, and to discuss logistics.

Please donate and support our cause! Thank you 🙂

Taking on the Pisgah 400 Hiking Challenge to Stay Sane During COVID-19

This piece originally appeared on Gossamer Gear’s blog, Light Feet

In mid-March, my husband John and I attended our annual guide training for Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Typically, we spend spring through fall guiding hikes and backpacking trips across western North Carolina. At this point, there was chatter of COVID-19 amongst the guides, but none of us quite knew the extent of what would face us next. We didn’t know this training would be the last time any of us would do anything guide-related for months.

The stay at home order came shortly thereafter, and before we knew it, everything on our calendar got deleted or postponed. We filed for unemployment, and struggled with what to do next.

With nothing else to do, people began flocking to trails. Some of the most popular hikes were seeing more visitors than on holiday weekends in the summer. Soon enough, national and state parks started closing, trailheads in the forest started closing, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued a statement urging thru-hikers to call it quits on their hikes. Even our local trail clubs issued statements urging people to stay off trails. I can’t tell you how torn we were during this period of time.

We decided to go for a day hike in a very remote area of Pisgah National Forest that was still open. We went on a rainy mid-week day to check out some spring ephemerals, and as we hiked, we talked about how we could stay sane during this period. We also didn’t see a single other person during our trek.

If we didn’t hike, we knew we would go crazy. We needed a COVID-19 friendly project to keep us motivated, and in the quiet of the surrounding forest, it didn’t take us long to figure one out. It would be the Pisgah 400 challenge.

The Pisgah 400 challenge involves hiking all of the trails in the Pisgah Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. Most of the forest was actually still open during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, though many didn’t realize this because the most well-known trails were closed. We had hiked all of those trails many times anyway, so we didn’t need to cover them again in order to complete this challenge. The challenge is called Pisgah 400 because there are roughly 400 miles of trail to cover, although many of them you have to hike “out and back,” so you wind up doing a lot of them twice.

In order to reduce our impact, we mostly went hiking on rainy days mid-week. We rarely saw anyone, and when we did, we would do our best to scramble at least sex feet out of the way, and pull a buff over our faces. We also never stopped anywhere along the way for food or gas to minimize carrying any germs outside of our immediate neighborhood in Asheville. We also became much more diligent about safety since we knew that the rescue teams were stretched thin at this point. We always told someone our plans, and checked back in with them when we returned. We carried extra gear and food, so we could survive for longer if one of us got injured, and we could more easily self-rescue.

The challenge was genius for keeping us sane during coronavirus. The Forest Service never closed most of the trails we needed to cover, and as time went on and North Carolina started opening back up, most of the roads and trailheads in Pisgah opened, as well.

At the time of this writing, we are dangerously close to finishing our goal. When we do, we will be the 34th and 35th people to claim to have hiked all of these trails. Originally, I thought a good timeline would be to try to finish by the end of the year, but at this rate, we will likely finish before the end of the summer. That is, if we can finally tackle my arch enemy of trails right now, which is South Mills River Trail.

This trail crosses South Mills River dozens of times, and, of course, we chose a rainy day to attempt it. You would think we would have enough experience fording rivers at this point to realize it was a bad idea to attempt this trail during a downpour, but in our defense, we didn’t realize quite how much it was going to rain (the weatherman should really lose his job). We had to turn around halfway through this 12-mile trail at a point where the river was simply too fast and too deep to cross. It was the safest thing to do, and I would make that same decision a hundred times over. No hike is worth the risk of getting swept away in a river.

I hope that someday things will go back to normal, but in the meantime, covering remote, unpopular trails seems to be a pretty rewarding way of staying sane during COVID-19. I highly recommend it.

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 eaten 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.