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!

2019 and new adventures!

Admittedly, 2018 will go down as one of my favorite years.  I knew that hiking across New Zealand followed by an awesome summer job working in three national parks followed by a European adventure would be a hard act to follow.

In December, we got back to our house in Asheville and started applying for jobs.  Luckily, we were distracted from our situation by training for a race: John was training for the 40 mile Mount Mitchell Challenge and I was training for the 26 mile Black Mountain Marathon (same day, same course, John just had to run further- to the top of Mount Mitchell).  I was annoyed at the time that we had these races to train for because I was tired of running and sick of trying to train in the winter.  But looking back, it was good for us because we still had a goal to strive for, and we were also able to stay physically active.  This has always helped with anxiety and the winter blues which always ensue at the end of a long hike or adventure.

We applied for the Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers position thinking we had a good shot this year having worked for them over the summer.  Unfortunately, their hiring process took several months which did not help with the aforementioned anxiety.

Luckily, we still had connections in Asheville, and we started working again with Blue Ridge Hiking Company.  I also started applying for engineering jobs again, and John started applying for environmental jobs.  To cut a long story short, we were not offered the Leave No Trace position, but we both were offered jobs in our respective fields.  I decided to turn down a promising sales engineering job in favor of a part-time job working for Jennifer Pharr Davis (owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company) as her Director of Corporate Sales.  Who knows if that was the right decision, but I’m pretty happy with it.  The fancy title means that I’ll be helping her to book talks at businesses.  She’s an amazing speaker and author, and if you don’t know who she is, you should look her up – she shattered the gender gap in hiking by being the first female hiker to break the overall record on the Appalachian Trail.  Pretty impressive.  Knowing she hiked 46 or 47 miles per day for a month and a half has given me a lot of inspiration over the years.

Meanwhile, John accepted a job working part-time with some old colleagues as an Environmental Scientist.  With both of us working part time, we have been able to also start guiding again with Blue Ridge Hiking Company.  In fact I just guided the first backpacking trip of the season, and it reminded me how much I love guiding hikes.

Although we’re going to be hustling a lot this year, we do have the flexibility to do some personal hiking, and while the guiding season is still young, we thought we’d take advantage of some extra time by hiking the Bartram and Foothills Trails.

The Bartram Trail is about 115 miles long and runs through North Carolina and Georgia.  We’re going to hike it southbound (NC to GA).  The trail roughly follows the route that William Bartram, a botanist from the 18th century, took .  He must have covered many more miles, however, as he traveled for several years all over the southeast taking notes on the local flora and fauna. The Bartram Trail connects to the Foothills Trail, which is a 76-mile trail in South and North Carolina, and apparently has some amazing wildflowers in late March, which we hope to encounter.

As usual, I welcome you to join us on this roughly two-week adventure!  More blog posts to follow!

 

Denali backpacking fail

Denali is an interesting National Park because first of all it is HUGE (the size of Massachusetts), and it has practically no trails (roughly 30 miles of trails mostly around the visitor’s center and other campgrounds). So, if you want to go backpacking you have to, and are encouraged to walk off trail. To most of us who are from the lower 48, this is not what we’re used to. We’re used to being told to stick to trails, mostly for leave no trace principles (walk and camp on durable surfaces) to minimize our collective impact. But in a park the size of Massachusetts, with a fraction of the number of annual visitors of most of the smaller parks in the United States, this isn’t much of an issue.

There is one road in the park, and it is 92 miles long and mostly only accessible by bus. You are allowed to drive the first 15 miles in your private vehicle, but after that, only busses are allowed, and the road is narrow and unpaved.

After reading our new friends Justin and Patrice’s blog about their backpacking trip here in Denali (they are also working for Leave No Trace on a similar project, so they are visiting the same National Parks that we are this summer), we decided to show up to the permitting office without a plan. In their blog, Justin and Patrice mentioned that they had come up with several ideas for routes, but once they got to the permitting office, none of the zones they were looking at were available.

So, going back a step- the park is split up into these zones, and the way the permitting system works here is that you pick a zone to camp in, and there are a certain number of permits they give out to each zone per night.

We decided to show up with no plan, and let the availability dictate where we go. That turned out to be a good choice since a surprising number of zones were full, and pretty much all the ones we had our eye on were in fact full.

We looked at one or two zones that were available, and talked to a ranger about possible travel within these zones, and decided on zone 18. We would have to travel through another zone to get to our zone, but it looked feasible.

We had three days off, and for most people the highlight of their trip to Denali is taking one of the park busses down the road and back. So we decided we would take the bus almost to the end of the road and then turn around and get to our designated spot. So we went off and got a bus ticket on the earliest camper bus (6:55am, $40pp).

Back at home we filled our bear canister to brim and then brought sandwiches and extra bars, too for the first day out. John is always complaining that we don’t carry enough food, so we’re trying to get better about that.

In the morning we caught the bus and settled in, knowing we would be on the bus for 5 or 6 hours to get to Wonder Lake, which isn’t even the last stop. Our bus driver was knowledgeable, telling us about wildlife and history. She was also a careful driver, going around turns at a slow pace. I was grateful.

One hour into the drive we realized that we forgot our trekking poles. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but in our case, we use our trekking poles to set up our tent. We otherwise have no other tent poles.

“We can find some sticks..?” I suggested nervously.

We stared out of the bus window watching the unforested expanse of tundra float by, and collectively wondered where on earth we were going to find a pair of sticks.

The bus took a break every 1-1.5 hours, and we could get on and off the bus to go to the restroom and take a few pictures.

The first wildlife we saw was two caribou far up on a hill and I was glad I had bought $10 binoculars off of Amazon in preparation for coming to Alaska.

Soon we saw more caribou a bit closer and before I knew it, we lost track of how many caribou we saw.

Then, down a valley we saw a mama bear and her yearling, and the bus stopped so we could watch them for a while. These grizzlies were big, but not as big as I was expecting. It turns out that grizzlies in interior Alaska are not as big as the coastal ones, which feed off salmon. These ones were only slightly bigger than black bears.

Further along, we saw another single bear foraging for berries.

Then, as with the caribou, we lost track of how many grizzlies we saw.

We passed the Eilson Visitor’s center, which is where we were going to start our backpacking trip, but we wanted to go a little further along the road first.

On the way to Wonder Lake, three grizzlies were walking in the middle of the road in front of us. I could barely believe how much wildlife this park had. It was a mama bear and two cubs, but the cubs were probably a number of years old because they were practically the same size as their mother.

We knew that the weather forecast looked grim. In fact, we knew that it was supposed to rain more in the next day than it had rained the whole time we had been in Alaska so far, but we were not going to let that deter us since this was our one period of three days off in a row. We have one other two day off stretch, otherwise all our days off here are single days off. So we HAD to go backpacking regardless of the weather.

We were pleasantly surprised that it was not raining on the bus drive. We even got nice views before the clouds started rolling in.

Finally, the bus dropped us off at Wonder Lake, and it was already after 1pm. We decided not to stick around at Wonder Lake, since the clouds were descending quickly, and we weren’t going to see Denali (the tallest mountain in North America).

But, the campground there was forested, and I found an area where someone had cut back vegetation from the side of the road and managed to find two sticks that would have to do as trekking poles.

We caught a bus going back in the other direction. This bus was crowded and was being driven by a Latin American gentleman who was a crazy driver. The road is definitely a bit scary in some sections. It gets very steep and there is only one lane with no guard rails. Incoming busses have to yield to outgoing buses.

Our crazy bus driver screeched up to another bus on a cliff and the other bus yielded. Then, we had to pass this other bus on the cliff edge with no room for error. We passed within fractions of an inch- the bus driver stopping and inching forward while everyone on the bus held their breath. As we finally pulled past the other bus, the driver turned on his microphone and said the one and only thing he said the whole ride: “I love my job.”

Everyone breathed out and giggled somewhat hysterically.

We got back to the Eilson Visitor center and headed out. There was a short trail down to the river that we had to walk along to begin our journey.

We reached the valley and started walking along the gravel bar up the river valley. It started to rain. At first it was only a drizzle, but then the drizzle turned into a heavy drizzle.

We put on all our rain gear, and continued onward. The clouds kept coming further and further down into the valley until our visibility was next to nothing. We really couldn’t see landmarks in order to navigate, so we simply kept going along this gravel bar.

We were surprised when a group of 3 or 4 other people were walking towards us, and they told us they had just seen a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs, and decided to reroute in order to avoid them.

At this stage, the road was up above on our right, and we eventually would need to veer left up a stream called Glacier Creek. But before we even got there, we would need to cross the Thorofare River. This river is extremely braided.

So, we decided to cut across a bit early to avoid the bears.

We saw some caribou in the mist, and shouted out “Hey Bear!!” We shouted out over and over again so as not to have a surprise encounter.

We started fording sections of the river, without really knowing where we were at this stage. We were in a huge flat area with poor visibility. we looked at the map every 20 minutes, but it didn’t help much.

In amongst the braids of the river, there was quick sand, and each time my foot started sinking into it, I panicked. At one point I sank in past my knee and shouted out in horror. I was not having fun. We were lost in the middle of a huge river surrounded by willows, mist and rain, and soaking wet, and the temperature was in the mid 40’s. If you’re reading this and have any experience with wilderness medicine, you’re probably thinking “woah, that’s hypothermia weather!” My thoughts exactly.

We considered quitting right then and there, but decided we would persevere. We probably wouldn’t be able to get a bus back at this point any way.

We decided we made the turn too early, and headed back slightly.

(The chilling remains of a grizzly bear)

More quicksand, more river crossings, more rain. But finally, we saw the edge of the glacial deposits from the huge Muldrow Glacier, and we knew that this was our landmark to turn up the Glacier Creek.

We started heading up Glacier Creek. This was finally enjoyable. The going was easy enough (we have plenty of experience following a creek from our time in New Zealand.)

Didn’t eat a thing from the bear canister. The rain and cold made us loose our appetite, and we weren’t about to unpack our backpacks to get food we weren’t hungry for.

We stayed to the right hand side of the creek so that we wouldn’t accidentally take a wrong turn, and we knew at some point we would need to cross it to get to a place to camp.

Eventually, we saw a place we could camp on the other side of the creek and decided to ford in order to get over to it.

We linked arms and crossed at a spot where the creek was widest. Still, it was up to my lower thigh and moving very quickly. Plus the water was completely grey so you really couldn’t see into it at all to tell how deep it was or where any rocks were.

I set up the tent with our sticks, but in order to make sure I didn’t break the sticks in the process, I didn’t tighten the tent much. It flapped in the wind, but that would have to do.

We had to eat any food that didn’t fit in the bear canister and store the canister 100 yards away. We walked down the bank of the creek in order to get this done, and along the way we noticed some bear scat. It looked fairly fresh. Eating just felt like a chore. We ate some bars and some nuts until we could fit everything in the canister and close it. Then we found a rock to stash the canister behind, and wandered back to our tent.

We piled layers of dripping wet clothing in either the vestibules of the tent or the far corner where my sleeping bag wouldn’t be on top of them.

We had thought ahead and brought more clothing than normal so that we would have dry clothing to change into. We did this and climbed into our sleeping bags.

We laid there listening to the rain on the nylon tent, and John said “Next time we have time off, we’ll get beautiful weather.” Then he knocked on the stick holding up our tent.

We kept warm over night, mostly thanks to the fact that we had synthetic sleeping bags. I was so thankful that we didn’t bring our down ones. Still, we slept horribly. The tent flapping in the wind would hit us repeatedly on the head, and in the early hours of the morning, the tent actually collapsed on me as the tent stake holding my side of the tent up ripped out from the ground.

We considered getting up then, as it was already light out, but I felt like I had just pulled an all nighter, and all I could think about was sleep. But, I soon realized that with the tent barely standing, more sleep was probably not going to happen.

We had to take off our warm clothes and put on our soaking wet clothing. It was probably in the high 30’s or low 40’s and I was not looking forward to crossing Glacier Creek first thing.

We packed up and started looking at the stream. It was clear that it was higher than it was the previous day. We got to a spot where I thought the stream was the widest, and let John try to cross first. He got most of the way across before the creek got to its deepest spot, and I saw him struggle to reach the bank of the river, as the water rushed up to his crotch and the rocks slid beneath his feet. He looked at me from across the stream and shook his head signaling that that was NOT a good spot to cross.

We walked down the creek checking the depth over and over again, and each time, it was too deep.

I kept walking down, and turned around to see John trying again, and to my horror I saw him fall in, and grab on to some rocks to get back up again. He was OK, but my adrenaline was starting to pump fiercely now. Maybe the water was still rising? Maybe I was stuck on this side of the creek, and John was stuck on the other side. We couldn’t even really communicate over the sound of the gushing water. I pointed upstream hoping to suggest that we try looking for a spot upstream instead of down. He nodded and we headed back.

There was nothing, and at some point my path was obstructed by a huge cliff on my side of the creek. John continued up his side of the creek in case I could climb over this hill to the other side and find a spot. I waited. Fifteen minutes later, he came back and shook his head. We would need to go further downstream instead. We went downstream further than we had before, and the creek did widen slightly to a point where John managed to cross back over. He got back to my side of the stream and I ran up to him to hug him. He told me his legs were really cold. It was good to be able to talk. We were both very nervous, wondering if we were stuck here, or what.

We continued down stream, as that seemed to be our only option besides setting up the tent again. Finally we found another spot worth trying, and we got in together. I held on to John’s arm, and John led the way, knowing that if it got too deep, we’d turn around together. It got up to John’s thigh, which was my waist, and I was no longer able to keep my footing. “It’s OK, I’ve got you!” He shouted as he dragged me to shore. There was no way I could have crossed that stream alone.

We celebrated, and I let out a few whimpers as my legs and feet were completely numb. My legs hurt, and my feet felt like giant blocks of ice. I couldn’t tell where they started or ended, and I stumbled over rocks trying to keep moving to warm up.

I knew we still had the Thorofare to cross, and that was huge.

As we walked along the creek, our legs warmed up, and we continuously shouted “Hey Bear.” While trying to keep an eye on our surroundings.

“Shit, there’s a bear” John said.

“Where? How close?” I couldn’t see it.

It was about 100 yards away, and once John pointed it out, I could see it’s blond body against the willows. Luckily I t hadn’t spotted us yet, but still we were too close.

We kept moving swiftly, but not silently so we wouldn’t have a surprise encounter. The bear was uphill from us and we were caught between the bear and the creek. We couldn’t give it any more space. Finally we moved past it without incident. Luckily it was happily chomping on berries.

We made it to the confluence of Glacier Creek and the Thorofare, and we started crossing the braids of the river.

There was so much more water this time around, it felt like we had infinite braids of this river to cross, and sometimes they were huge.

It was hard to tell how deep anything was, because again, it was all murky.

Each time we crossed several sections, we had to jump around to regain feeling in our feet.

We finally got to the widest and deepest section of the river, and although it was impossible to tell how deep the river was, we just picked the widest spot and then went for it together. We moved quickly because we knew our legs would quickly get numb, and we reached a shallow sandbar and took very little time to reassess before heading back down into deeper waters. John shouted out to me where the water was reaching on his body: “knee!” “Thigh!” “I’ve got you!” We got to a fairly deep spot, and John dragged me to the shore as the rocks beneath my feet were dragging me downstream. I grunted fiercely trying to move my legs against the current while at the same time barely realizing that my lower body had practically no feeling left.

As I got to the shore and jumped around a bunch to try to regain any feeling in my legs, we celebrated.

“I’m pretty sure that was it! That was the last hard part!”

We were going to make it, and mostly thanks to the fact that John was 6ft 4 and strong. I wasn’t complaining. I wondered how anyone else managed this route, and guessed that they probably did it in much different circumstances.

We crossed many more small sections of the river – the smaller braids and soon reached the edge of the hill on which the road was and followed the last braid down towards the visitor center.

It took a while, but eventually we could make out the visitors center in the distance. As we walked along the edge of the river we remarked on how most of this seemed to be just gravel bar the day before. Was there even water here? We couldn’t remember, but we certainly didn’t remember this quantity of water.

We found the cairn that marked the beginning of the trail back up to the visitors center and rejoiced.

We just had to climb up this trail – a trail that we knew could not possibly offer any sort of treachery. As we climbed up, I doted upon this trail. I liked trails. There was a sort of comfort that hiking mindlessly along a trail provided. Maybe I’m not tough enough to be an off-trail hiker. Maybe I’m just cut out for on-trail hiking.

Now that we were headed uphill, my body suddenly realized that I was hungry and dehydrated. I promised myself that I would drink and eat once we got to the visitor center. I also fantasized about changing into dry clothing.

I dragged myself into the dry refuge of the visitors center and unloaded my backpack with a sigh. I took my bag of dry clothing and tried to change in the handicapped stall in the women’s bathroom. I immediately made a mess on the immaculately clean bathroom floor. My shoes, socks and pants were all full of sand and pebbles, glacial deposits that were churning through the rivers that we had spent the better part of a day crossing.

Once back in the lobby, John told me we could catch a bus in 10 minutes. I quickly gathered my belongings and we ran over to the bus dispatcher to ask him which bus we were on. He told us to wait by the busses and he’d be right out.

Unfortunately, it was still raining, and still in the low 40’s and now I was wearing dry clothing and not very many layers. I jumped from one foot to the other impatiently as we stood outside waiting for further instruction.

Finally, we were allowed to get on a bus, but not before I was shivering pathetically. The bus was practically full, and we had to sit in different rows. No less than three people offered me clothing, and I stubbornly said no until one older gentleman simply put his jacket on top of me. I was irrational, tired and angry that we were made to wait in the cold out in the rain.

The bus ride back was long and tiring. I was so tired that I think I actually fell asleep as the boring bus driver told long stories about how she moved to Alaska. We did see several more grizzly bears along with several herds of caribou, but I was quite a bit less interested compared to the journey out. All I could think about was a hot shower followed by a hot meal and a warm bed.

Finally after a 4 hour bus ride back, we were dropped off where we parked our car. I cranked up the heat in the car and let John drive us the rest of the way back to Denali Education Center, where we are staying.

I stood in the shower letting the hot water ease the muscles in my neck and shoulder which at this point were all tight and knotted, and was so thankful not to be stuck out in the wilderness another night.

Once back, we tried to think about why this trip went so wrong. We realized that one of the main reasons we wound up in this predicament was because we didn’t make a plan ahead of time based on the weather, mostly because of the permitting system. We simply went on the recommendation of a ranger, who had probably done this route in good weather. The fact that we were somewhat comfortable fording rivers meant that we didn’t turn around on day one when we probably should have. In retrospect, and looking at the map, this was a pretty dumb place to be in the continuous rain that we had.

(If you can tell from this map, we started at the visitors center along the road and camped near green point in the bottom left hand side of the map. We probably went about 6-8 miles each way through what looks like a mess of rivers on the map).

Yosemite: Half Dome, Clouds Rest and Echo Valley

Another post from our June 2018 trip in Yosemite!

After many attempts, we finally secured a permit to climb half-dome and camp nearby.

We climbed out of the valley after work up the popular and ever overcrowded Mist Trail, which offers views of Vernal Falls and further up, Nevada Falls.

We set up camp right past Half Dome (the permit we got was called the walk through permit), so we would need to backtrack in the morning, but I was fine with that, as it was only an extra mile or so. I was just happy we weren’t camping at Little Yosemite Valley, which is a complete zoo, and definitely the most popular backcountry camping site in Yosemite.

I was still surprised by how many people were camping near where we were set up, and even more surprised by how many people were leaving their bear canisters just a few feet from their tent (I believe the rule is you’re supposed to store them 100ft away).

I imagined that in the morning all these people would get up early to climb Half Dome, and we would be in a line of people waiting to climb the cables.

So, I was pleasantly surprised when we woke up and everyone else was still soundly asleep as we broke down camp and headed for the famous peak.

The climb to the base of the cables wasn’t bad, but did take some energy out of us. At the cables, there was only one or two people on their way down, and nobody going up.

We found some discarded gloves and made our way. This is the second time I’ve climbed the cables, and somehow I completely forgot how scary it is. No wonder people die here. It’s very steep, and the wooden boards for stepping on are placed several steps apart, so you really have to trust the cables you’re hanging onto as you pull yourself up to the next step.

I was surprised by how uncomfortable John was feeling. Usually he’s the one to boldly scramble over things that make me quite uncomfortable, but this time, as I looked down at him, he grimaced and repeated “this is so stupid” over and over.

After 400ft of adrenaline filled climbing up the final ascent, we reached the summit and were surprised to see only two other couples. We snapped some quick pictures but decided not to linger so as to be able to follow the other people back down the cables.

There’s something reassuring about looking down and seeing another human being rather than a sheer drop. We encouraged each other down, and one of the couples took a celebratory picture as we congratulated each other on making it safely back down. They took our phone number and promised to share the picture with us when they got signal.

We then pushed onwards towards Clouds Rest. What I failed to take into consideration when planning this loop was how much climbing we would have to do to get to the top of Clouds Rest after having done Half Dome. We dragged ourselves slowly to the top.

The climb was well worth it— more worth it than half dome, we both agreed. We had a great view of where we had just come from and beyond. Many day hikers were milling around, having hiked from Tioga Pass. A marmot was also milling around looking for opportunities to share a meal.

We continued on to find a place to camp near Sunrise lake. We found a spot a mile or two before the official camping area along the John Muir Trail.

When I went off to go find a place to go to the bathroom, I found a mylar balloon wedged next to a tree. Sigh. Balloons wind up in really remote places when people let them go in civilization!

The next morning we got going and quickly hit Sunrise Lake. As we got closer, we got completely attacked by mosquitos. I don’t mean that there were a few buzzing around our head – I mean that there were clouds of them so thick you had to close your mouth and squint to try to run through them. I tried in the quickest manor to rip my headnet out from my backpack, but in the 5 seconds it took me to put my pack down and open it, I could see about 10 mosquitos sucking blood out of one of my arms.

We literally ran through the meadow to higher ground, and the mosquitos persisted for quite some time, but we finally managed to escape them. Somehow their bites were not bad- they weren’t even itchy.

We were trying to do a loop but at the same time, avoid the JMT as much as possible because we had plans of hiking from Tuolumne Meadows to the Valley on the JMT as a day-hike on another day off.

So we followed some trails to Merced Canyon, which was beautiful and desolate of people. Compared to how crowded Half Dome, Clouds Rest and the JMT were, these trails offered a ton of solitude.

In Echo Valley, there had been a fire somewhat recently, and the sun beat down on us through a lack of canopy. The wildflowers were thick and beautiful and the river was beautiful too.

We decided to make a push to get back to the Yosemite Valley rather than trying to stay in Little Yosemite Valley campsite.

When we reached Little Yosemite Valley, I was glad we made that choice because of how crowded it was. It was a tent city – with people acting like they could be as loud and obnoxious as they wanted while their neighbors were only a few feet away.

We hurried past and took the JMT for the last little leg back into the Valley (the other option besides the Mist Trail). This was significantly less crowded than the Mist Trail, yet had some great views of Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls.

We got back to the Valley go find that our bikes, which we had left chained to a bike rack, were missing! We speculated that they were returned to the bike rental company because typically people are only allowed to rent bikes for a day (we were renting them for a month).

We took the bus back to our campground and were thankful that we came back early so as to sort out the bike problem before our work shift the next day.

All in all this was a great trip with lots of rewarding views and challenging climbs!

Yosemite Valley North Rim East Bound Backpacking Trip

This trip took place when we were working in Yosemite Valley (June 2018).

As a part of our goal to hike every trail immediately surrounding Yosemite Valley during our month residency, we decided that the North Rim of the Valley was best attacked as one backpacking trip rather than having to hike in and out of the valley multiple times.

We told our friend Meredith, the Volunteer Ranger Camp Host about our plan of hitchhiking over to Old Big Oak Flats Trailhead after taking a 45 minute shuttle bus ride – all this after our morning shift at work, and she kindly volunteered to drive us all the way to the trailhead.  We are still eternally grateful for the ride.

Along the way we saw amazing views that we had been missing out on because of our lack of motorized transportation during our stay in the famous valley, including Bridle-veil Falls and the Great Central Valley.

Once we got to the trail we found ourselves in a recent burn area. The trail was lined with beautiful purple lupine flowers (which are nitrogen fixers) as a result.  Despite the lack of living trees, the area had plenty of streams for us to fill our bottles in.

We spent a number of hours trying to hike as far as possible into the evening and got to Ribbon Meadows where we were treated to a display of shooting star and white buttercup flowers and surprisingly few mosquitos.

After passing through the meadow we set up camp a few hundred feet off the trail up on a hill after passing a pretty large pile of bear scat/poop.  We went to sleep wearily.  John didn’t wear his earplugs so that he could hear the bear if it entered the area.

After waking up a to a loud cracking noise, John wandered around to see if a bear was nearby.  Finding no animal in sight, he went to check on the bear canister (for food storage) and found it undisturbed. Trying to find the tent in the dark, he spent the next 20 minutes stumbling around looking for it.

We woke up in the morning with no further incidents. When we got to the first water source of the day, we met Kenny and Andy who were from Maryland and on the same trip as us.

We went our separate ways and headed up to our first viewpoint of the Yosemite Valley, KP Peak which is actually on top of the famous rock face El Capitan.

On the top John couldn’t help but notice a sleeping bag barely hiding under a couple rocks.  He decided that because of the short length of the trip, his pack was empty enough to carry this cheap Coleman Brand sleeping bag for the rest of the trip.  After stuffing it in his Mariposa backpack, his pack was still not completely full.

On the way back to the trail from the view point we saw the guys from Maryland again.  They weren’t kidding when they said they were going on the same exact same trip as us.

Moving on we walked a little further to the next viewpoint: Eagle Peak.  Eagle peak had the best view we saw in the whole park! Again we saw Kenny and Andy and we decided that we would walk with them and chat along the way.

Further up the trail we went to the top of Yosemite Falls.  For those of you wishing to peer directly off a 2,500 foot cliff, there is a railing so you can do exactly that!  It certainly is an interesting way to look at the tallest waterfall in North America.

We continued down the trail towards Indian Canyon and soon found ourselves well off the trail. We were able to figure out where we were pretty easily using map and compass  because of the open landscape and traveled cross country to the trail further along.

Next we went to North Dome where we had an amazing view of Half Dome.

Afterwards we went up to the natural arch above the Dome which was also an incredible sight to see.  One of very few natural arches I’ve seen in my life.

Finally after 16 miles, we settled in at a campsite well off the trail near Snow Creek an area with a known “problem bear”. After we setup the tent we noticed a pile of bear scat within 15 feet of our tent.  We were really tired so went to sleep around 7pm and within an hour we heard something that sounded like artificial noises. I got up and looked around and noticed (since it was still light out) that there was a bear about 100 feet away from us.  I tried my best to scare it away by making a lot of noise and it wandered away slowly its legs bow legged.  It certainly wasn’t in a hurry to get away and looked like and old tired bear.  It look us a while to fall back asleep.

We woke up the next morning without incident and headed down Snow Creek Trail a long steep downhill.  By the time we got to the bottom we felt the extreme heat of the valley before heading off to work again.