Mt Tamalpais from Public Transit

This post is from 2014 and I never published it.  Someone asked about Public Transit backpacking in the Bay Area so I thought I would finally publish it.  Here it is. This trip would be incredibly easy to travel with the map at this link to Marin Mountain Bike Map. Another good map to have is one of Point Reyes National Seashore as it can easily be added on if you have more time. DISCLAIMER: Always check for trail closures.  While publishing this BLOG I found that there were a few trails that I mention that are currently closed.   Maps are essential for dealing with closures on the fly.

Away we go!

A long time ago, on a BART car far far away…

I was not in the mood for hanging around the apartment twiddling my thumbs waiting for my lovely Dormouse to return from her trip visiting family, so I decided to walk out my front door and go for a little 3-day backpacking trip to one of the Bay Area’s most prominent mountains, Mt. Tamalpais.

Mount Tamalpais and Alcatraz across the San Francisco Bay not  far walking

Mount Tamalpais and Alcatraz across the San Francisco Bay

Located in Marin County, Mt. Tamalpais is surrounded by a plethora of public wild lands.  The Marin Headlands, Mt Tamalpais State Park, Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Mt. Tamalpais Watershed all are within less than one day’s walk of the summit.   Mt. Tam as it is known to Bay Area locals, is within view of much of San Francisco and is a fixture of the skyline.  Many people look at the the mountain and think it is far across the bay and requires a painful drive through traffic on the Golden Gate via 19th Ave if you are on the Peninsula or something far worse if you are in the East Bay.  If you live in these areas there is a solution! Make your trip to the mountain a part of your hike.  It is kind of funny how easy it is to get to by transit then walk on foot.  On this and other trips I have made to Mt Tam, I have utilized BART to get to the Embarcadero or Montgomery St stop and then walked from there.

I started the day with another Town Start (the opposite of an alpine start, at 11:30AM) even later than our trip to Henry Coe.  I really had to rush because I knew I had 22 miles to cover to get to Pantoll Ranger Station, where I planned to camp the night (because it is one of the few legal places to camp).  Pantoll is nice because it doesn’t require any reservations and is a purely walk-up campground.

STEP 1: Scenic City Walk to Golden Gate Bridge from Emarcadero or Montgomery St BART Stop (Unlimited Options: Red Inland Option through North Beach, Black Emarcadero Option)

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I made my way to BART and got off at the Montgomery St BART station.  I decided to head down Montgomery St to Columbus St because I could get some much needed shade during the rare 80F “heat wave” that we were experiencing in SF that weekend.  I enjoyed my choice because I got to walk past the Pan America Pyramid and through North Beach, skirting Chinatown.  It is easy to see the walk along Embarcadero as welcoming with its wide sidewalks and views of the waterfront, but this way is enjoyable for people-watching and seeing the interesting neighborhoods.

After reaching the end of Columbus I made my way to the In-N-Out on Jefferson St.  I ordered a milkshake so I didn’t have to wait for the delicious made to order burger and so I could walk and consume calories most easily.  I had that shake polished off before going over the hill to Fort Mason.  Now that’s efficiency!  From Fort Mason I past through Marina Green and Crissy Field.  At Crissy Field I saw many wild flowers in bloom.  If you are going through this area make sure you stay closest to the water, as it is much more scenic.  I’ve been doing this wrong for years.

Wildflowers at Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge

Wildflowers at Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge

From Crissy Field the signs were easy to follow to the Golden Gate Bridge.

STEP 2: Walk through Marin Headlands (Options Unlimited) No water after water fountain immediately after Golden Gate Bridge

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After crossing the bridge I picked up water from the water fountain at the overlook parking lot.  This was my last water source until Redwood Creek just short of 11 miles from there.  After downing some water and filling my bottles to the brim I walked down the the catwalk underneath the bridge to the Coastal Trail.   Now I was in the Marin Headlands (map).  The Coastal Trail switchbacks up until you reach a junction with the SCA Trail.  From there I took the straightest path to Pantoll passing by Morning Glory Trail (a great trail to Sausalito giving you a bail option on the way back), to Alta Trail, Bobcat, Marincello into Tennessee Valley.  I’m unsure if Tennessee Valley has drinking water, but you probably could find a spigot if you ask nicely at the horse stables there.  This would make the stretch of 11 miles much more tolerable. Hiking out of Tennessee Valley on the Miwok Trail is quite busy with mountain bikers.  I really don’t like this part of the area, but it is Marin County, where Mountain biking started, so I put up with it.  As it approached 6:30pm, close to Route 1, I came out of a grove of coast live oaks into some scrub and to my surprise I saw the stubby tail of a bobcat before it bolted.  This was only the second bobcat I’d seen while hiking hundreds of miles in the Bay Area.  I was elated.  Here I was a few miles from home seeing cool wildlife.  I walked up to where the cat was and found that I had literally scarred the crap out of it.  I’m guessing this is much more common then I had previously thought when watching this video.

Bobcat in Marin Headlands

Much less interesting than a picture of a Bobcat. At least you can see it’s fresh.

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After crossing Route 1 I was in Mt Tamalpais State Park.  I would continue on Miwok Trail climbing up to Pantoll Ranger Station.  After crossing Muir Woods road I went up a combination of Deer Park Fire Road and the Dipsea Trail.  After going up Dipsea, I went over to Stapleveldt Trail to dip down into the upper part of Muir Woods then up to Pantoll (walking through Muir Woods main entrance/redwood grove on the way back helps avoid the crowds if you leave early).  The other longer way on TCC Trail has less elevation loss and gain if you are feeling tired at the end of the day.  I made it to Pantoll at 7:00pm and was pleased to sit down and relax.  I paid for a spot in the hike/bike-in site ($5/person 2014) and was surprised to see another tent there. In the past Dormouse and I have been the only ones at that site.  I set up my tent and hunkered down in the tent away from the wind and ate some cold rehydrated chili.  I was satisfied with the spicy, delicious, and quickly prepared meal.  I spent the rest of the night hanging out with my campsite mates.

Step 3: Mount Tam Walk from Stinson

I woke up around 6:15am.  I got my gear together, ate a granola bar and walked down Steep Ravine Trail.  I found the trail nice with plentiful vegetation, including wonderful California bay trees which provided shade.   A nice change from the long shade-less stretches of the Headlands.

Columbine in Steep Ravine

Columbines were all along the route. Pretty good for low light and using my trekking pole as a monopod (Ultrapod)

Stinson Beach time to go up Mt Tam

Stinson Beach time to go up Mt Tam

From Stinson Beach I climbed up Matt Davis Trail (at end of the street with the fire house on the corner.)  It’s a reasonably steep climb up the trail to the Coastal Trail which takes you out of the Douglas Fir/ Oak forest of Matt Davis to coastal grassland.

Hiking on Coastal Trail for the north approach to Mt Tam

Hiking on Coastal Trail for the northern approach to Mt Tam

At Camp Fire Road I took a turn north to cross the road so I could make my way to Cataract Falls.  Having such a dry couple of years, the falls were unfortunately a dud.  But in the wet season the falls are a great site.

Instead of turning back like many do when they reach the falls, I headed east on High Marsh Trail.  High Marsh Trail is great because it crosses a bunch of headwaters for streams going into Alpine Lake.  My enjoyment was multiplied by not seeing one person for several hours until I got on International Trail to Eastcrest Blvd and the Peak.  The north side of Mt Tam is really secluded if you like getting away from the crowds.

View from Mt Tamalpais

View from Mt Tamalpais

Heading down from the top I went down Fern Creek Trail to towards Throckmorton Fire Station.  A brief road walk on Panoramic Highway got me to Panoramic Trail which is just a path next to the road.  From there I could take the Ocean View and Lost Trail back down into Muir Woods.  While in Muir Woods I decided to go up Fern Creek Trail (yes the same creek, different trail.)  I was very surprised by how scenic and tranquil it was (and I was there on a free weekend!).  Definitely, make the extra effort to go up it if you have the time.  All my pictures really do not capture the scene, unfortunately.  Racing through the crowds I made my way to Muir Woods Road to catch the Miwok Trail back out to the Headlands.  I actually misread the map thinking that there was no coastal escape from Mt Tamalpais State Park to the Headlands (this can be done by taking Redwood Creek Trail to Muir Beach and road walking to Green Gulch Trail).

Mountain Lion Kill

As a result of this mistake, I got to see fresh Mountain lion kill where I was less than 24 hours ago!

As a result of this mistake, I got to see fresh Mountain lion kill where I was less than 24 hours ago!  I nervously walked away from the kill thinking at least the cat probably isn’t hungry anymore.  After that scare I made a bee-line for the coast to hike a different trail from the way in and enjoyed the clear views.

In the morning after another windy night, I went into the Tennessee Valley to get some much needed freshwater.  From there I continued down the Coastal Trail past old army batteries through Rodeo Beach on my way back to the Golden Gate.

Along the way I passed a sign for Slacker Ridge a trail so small it is barely noticeable on the map.

Slacker Ridge: I'm surprised no one has mentioned it to me

Slacker Ridge: I’m surprised no one has mentioned it to me

After Slacker Ridge, the Golden Gate and BART were my destination.  I crossed the bridge, taking time to look out for sea life in the cold waters below.  I spotted a few sea lions here and there.  In the past we have seen porpoises and diving pelicans.  Walking down the Embarcadero was an excellent conclusion to my trip through the Marin Wilderness.

Other Extension Options:

Marin Municipal Water District Land  has tons of trails that can link Mt Tam to Point Reyes

Point Reyes is huge and you don’t have to use your imagination to hike here.

Other transit Options:

Marin Stagecoach from Tam Junction to Stinson Beach (Base of

Golden Gate Transit can significantly reduce your San Francisco Hiking

The Historic F Line can drop you off at Fisherman’s Wharf from Embarcadero BART

The Ferry to Sausalito can drop you off at BART after a walk down Morning Sun Trail into town

Do you have any Bay Area backpacking trips using public transit?  Let me know in the comments.

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Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome

We’ve started our new gig collecting data for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics beginning with a month in Yosemite. What can I say? It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. We are definitely some of the luckiest Research Assistants on the planet!

On our first day off we decided to head up the four mile trail, which, just to keep you on your toes, is actually closer to 5 miles in length. This trail leads you up several thousand feet out of Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point where arguably the best views of the valley are to be had. Along the way there are amazing views of Yosemite Falls and the granite faces that tower over the valley floor.

We also noticed many spring flowers blooming along the way. June is still very much spring at these higher elevations.

The climb was slow and steady, and we certainly didn’t have the trail all to ourselves. There were quite a few people hauling themselves thousands of feet up to this scenic point. Not that you have to hike; there’s a perfectly good road going to the top if you happen to have brought a vehicle with you. So once we hit Glacier Point, we joined the crowds of people near the parking lot taking pictures. We stopped in at the visitor’s center to purchase an ice cream cone and take a rest.

From there we decided to take the short trail to hit Sentinel Dome just a mile or two further up. From there the valley looked minuscule.

Soon we headed back down the way we came and intersected a ranger talk which included a lot of information about the history of Yosemite, which I found quite interesting. I learned that art played an important part in preserving Yosemite before photograph was available and convenient.

By the time we headed back down, my legs were pretty tired. As we descended back down into the valley, the temperature steadily increased and the mosquitoes welcomed us back to lower elevations.

The wildlife here is stupidly tame (there has been no hunting here for a very long time, and many animals now associate humans with food scraps). A squirrel peered over a rock to take a look at John.

We got back to our campsite by early evening, which is when the valley fills up with smoke from the multitude of campsites. Campfires are regulated, but you are allowed to have one from 5-10pm, so during those hours, the air quality deteriorates rapidly. By morning, the dust settles, the smoke drifts off and the large granite faces that tower over the valley floor are crisp and clear once again.

Te Araroa Trail: Final Thoughts

Oh gosh, where do I begin?

I guess I should probably start by saying that this blog post is going to be my opinion and my opinion only.  I totally respect that other people have different opinions and experiences – but I’d really like to share my feelings and thoughts about this trail hopefully without too much harsh judgment from others.  This trail is still very young, so it’s possible that some of what I say today (2018) will likely change over the next decade or two.

Let me start by describing the Te Araroa Trail (TA).  The TA is a conglomeration of trails, roads, beach walks, and quite a few “hazard zones,” where the trail simply ends at a river, estuary, or lake and you are expected to figure out how to get yourself to the other side where the trail continues.  This can make for some frustrating experiences.

The South Island is more remote, and more of a wilderness experience and the North Island is much more urban with a lot more road walking.  However, compared to the few long-distance trails I have hiked in the United States (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Benton MacKaye Trail), there is still quite a bit of road walking on the South Island (I’ve gotten laughed at for saying this).

The mountains, especially in the South Island, are extremely rugged and surprisingly wet and or muddy.  New Zealand trails tend not to be maintained. I heard one DOC (Department of Conservation – the organization that maintains the trails and huts) employee say that an average track is maintained once every 10 years (this does not go for popular day hikes or Great Walks).  Many tracks are not maintained at all. In fact, many tracks don’t really exist in the American sense of the word “trail.” Another DOC employee told us that they often just put in trail markers (or reassurance markers, as he called them), and then let some sort of track form from people walking the route and trampling the plants along the way.  This goes against the Leave No Trace Principle “camp and walk on durable surfaces,” which simply does not seem to apply to most of New Zealand tramping, although they do reference the principles often. For the unforgiving terrain, however, you’re spectacularly rewarded with stunning views which seem to be never-ending (again, I’m speaking mostly about the South Island).

In fact, there are several standards of tramping trails in New Zealand:  “tramping route” “tramping track”, and “easy tramping track.”. We determined that “easy tramping track” was equivalent to the American use of the word “trail.”  “Tramping Track” was a much more rugged, hardly maintained trail, and “tramping route” meant no trail, but marked.

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An encouraging marker

Because tracks are often not planned or maintained, the routes often go straight up and down mountains rather than switch-backing (or zig-zagging as they would say in New Zealand).  This makes for extremely steep trails – trails where you risk falling even going uphill! I don’t think I can adequately describe how steep and rugged some of these “trails” are. Meanwhile, New Zealand trampers drag their heavy backpacks through this terrain with remarkable ease (ultralight backpacking gear is hard to find in New Zealand).

Richmond Ranges

Also Richmond Ranges

Distances are often inaccurate or not even available.  I’ve heard hikers report that each section of the trail had an extra km compared to the trail notes.  Most of the time, trails are marked in terms of time rather than distance, so you’ll see signs saying “2 hours” instead of “6km”.   I found this quite helpful since the trail varied so much in difficulty.

Distance doesn’t always matter

Besides rugged, these trails are WET!  I can count on a single hand the number of days my feet were dry for an entire day on the South Island.  This was due to streams, rivers, marshes, wet grass and mud. I’m not sure why even in the driest areas, where there were no trees, and farmers were irrigating the grass, the ground under our feet would always find a way to provide us with squishy marshes, mud, or dozens of streams to walk through.  Many times the trail actually was a stream or river, and hikers are meant to follow these natural landmarks like trails.

Some mud in the Tararuas

Bastien and Tabea fording a river

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The Deception River is a good example of the trail using a stream for several hours.

Despite the rugged nature of the trail, the lack of trail maintenance, and its general sogginess, the trail was always easy to follow and well marked.  I almost never looked at my compass. All trails in New Zealand are marked with orange arrows or orange poles, and unless it is very foggy, it is usually just a game of finding the next orange marker.  The only navigational issues we had were when there were several trails or roads to choose from, and it was not obvious which path was supposed to be the Te Araroa Trail. In this respect, the trail is much less well marked than, say, the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail, which have dedicated markers so you don’t wind up on a side trail.

Orange trail marker

John and Jeremy in the Richmond Ranges.  Orange trail markers are often poles.

Where the trail is less rugged and also not on a road, it often times goes through farmland, and we often walked through fields of cows or sheep.  I grew very fond of sheep, who often would trot away from us in large numbers, but I became a bit more wary of cows. Cows are curious by nature and often don’t budge when they are in your way.  There are times when you will be in a field of cows, some of which are massive bulls, with no clear escape route if one decided to charge. Sheep and cows wind up in some of the most remote areas of New Zealand, and I was often surprised to see fencing, a stile, livestock poop or bones deep into mountain ranges.  We also saw quite a few dead animals, something that is just part of farm life, I suppose.

Dairy farming is probably the biggest industry in New Zealand (if it’s not tourism)

One of about a million stiles for getting over fencing

Lots of cows

Lots of sheep

Besides farm animals, your favorite animals will become New Zealand’s birds.  Because New Zealand originally did not have any mammalian predators, birds flowed into every evolutionary niche, and many lost the ability to fly, such as the kiwi, weka, kakapo, and takahe to name a few.  Many birds have little fear, and you will find that birds such as fantails and robins will follow you around, in the hopes that you’ll stir up some bugs along the way. Wekas, which look somewhat like chickens, will try to steal any and all your gear.  New Zealand also has no snakes, and only one poisonous spider, which you’ll probably never meet. In other words, you have very little to fear in the mountains… except for the weather.

South Island Robbin

Fantail

A nosy Weka

The weather in New Zealand can rule your life because you often have to ford rivers that become dangerous after heavy rain, and hiking on exposed and rugged ridges can be dangerous in poor weather.  We were lucky with the weather for the first half of our trip, after which we started having to play tetris with good weather days. We did have to spend an entire day in a hut waiting out poor weather in the Richmond Ranges, where the trail is particularly rugged and exposed, and we tried to wait for good weather to cover the Tararuas, the Whanganui River, and Tongariro Crossing, with mild success.  We had several cyclones hit New Zealand during our hike, and had to wait them out in towns, and then attempt to judge river crossings afterward. Some people skipped sections to avoid fording high rivers rather than wait for water levels to drop.

Bastien and Tabea fording a river

Because the trail is so young, it is definitely experiencing some growing pains.  The number of hikers on this trail seems to just about double every year, at least according to locals.  This has placed certain strains on the trail and local communities. Most hikers on the South Island spend their nights in the huts along the trail (you can buy a Hut Pass from the DOC), but the huts vary in size and often don’t have enough space for the number of hikers that show up during peak season.  Huts are often built in areas where it made sense to build a hut, but not necessarily in areas where it makes sense to camp. When the huts are full, people are being forced to camp in these areas anyway. This is especially a problem in the Richmond Ranges where the huts are small, most having about 6 bunks, and they are predominantly in exposed areas where you may need to hunker down and wait for bad weather to pass.  I read stories in the hut book of 16 people squeezed into one of these small huts, with people sleeping in every corner of the floor.

Mount Rintoul Hut, where we took a day to wait out bad weather

 

Speaking of places to camp, there are very few places to camp compared to on trails in the United States.  We originally figured we would simply camp and avoid the huts, but we quickly found that the terrain did not allow us to simply search for a camp spot within an hour or so of when we were ready to call it a day.  I’ve rarely had this problem in the USA, but our terrain is, for the most part, a whole lot less wet and a whole lot less rugged. Plus, the TA goes through many farms and other private estates where camping is not permitted.  This problem was exacerbated in 2017 by the fact that the Guthook App, which many hikers use on their phones as a GPS as well as a means of finding water sources and camp spots, deleted all camping locations listed on the app.  Most hikers guessed that this was because illegal camp spots were being entered into the app, and this was simply not acceptable to the DOC or the TA Trust (hikers are encouraged to donate to the TA Trust after their hike, I would also encourage hikers to donate to the DOC – you can donate to one of their conservation programs, you cannot donate directly to DOC).

There are places that you can camp in towns, called Holiday Parks, and many times we forked out $30-40NZ just to camp in town (they charge per person, not per tent) with showers costing an additional $2 and laundry another $6-8.  This was often the cheapest option for staying in town, the next cheapest being hostels where you would share a bunk room with 4-12 people. What surprised me the most was how packed some of the tourist towns were, and how hard it was to find accommodation on the fly.  It was so bad that sometimes we tried to reserve something in advance, forcing us to stick to a strict schedule to make it in time for our reservation.

After a bit of research, John and I decided to hike the TA northbound.  Our decision to go northbound was based on a few factors: first of all, we wanted to be home for Christmas.  Second, we didn’t want to be in a “bubble” of hikers. Third, we wanted to hike the more scenic, more wild portion of the trail first in case of injury, or other hike-ending situations.  I also later found out that Northland in spring is by far the muddiest season, whereas going northbound we would hit it in fall, which is much more pleasant. So, we started mid-January at Bluff.

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It’s fair to say that going southbound would guarantee a trail community to hike with.  Since we went northbound, didn’t meet many more than a dozen northbounders total during our hike, and for the first half of the South Island, we didn’t hike with anyone else.  It was a bit lonely without other hikers. Of course, we met many southbounders, but only in passing, and we had no shared experiences.

Within the first couple of weeks on trail, I couldn’t help but notice the demographics of people hiking the trail.  The vast majority of hikers were from Europe – but only the rich European countries were represented. There were also a fair number of Americans: from the USA or Canada.  There were a handful of Kiwis (New Zealanders), but surprisingly few. Most hikers were young, but of working age (20’s and 30’s). The fact that the vast majority of these hikers came from the richest countries in the world really left me feeling over-privileged and… guilty.  The feeling would stick with me the entire trail and would shape some of my judgments.

From the beginning, we decided we would not be doing a “purist” thru-hike of the entire trail (purist means hiking every mile from start to end).  I sort of thought we wouldn’t give up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island, however, and on day 1 we were already faced with a 30km road walk on Route 1 (the main highway running the length of both islands).  So, our hike started with this road walk from Bluff to Invercargill on the hottest day ever recorded there. It would take us another 400-500km before we gave up on the notion of a purist thru-hike of the South Island.

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Walking along Route 1.

It’s no surprise that purists are in the vast minority on this trail.  It’s just too bad that some of them are very vocal and judgmental, especially online.  But, I’m sure they also often feel judged by the non-purists for doing pointless road walks.  I’ve heard more than one purist hiker being jealous of non-purists because a non-purist hike seemed so much more enjoyable.  I also noticed that most of the jaded, more negative online reviews or summaries of the TA came from purists, and I don’t blame them.  I am a big fan of the phrase “hike your own hike,” which is a hiker saying that attempts to keep people from judging or passing judgment on other hikers.  If your plan is to do a purist hike, that’s fine, and if your plan is to hit the highlights only, that’s fine too. I think going into the hike, it helps to set your rules in advance, ask yourself what you want to get out of this adventure and be willing to be flexible.

Before we started skipping any parts of the TA, however, we started adding tracks which we didn’t want to miss even though they weren’t on the TA.  We wanted to treat this trip like our one chance to visit New Zealand just in case we never had a chance to come back. Our first added track was the Greenstone Track which connected us to the Routeburn Track (a Great Walk).  We carefully connected these to the TA before the Lake Wakatipu hazard zone near Queenstown, which most people hitchhike or shuttle around.

Routeburn Track

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Routeburn Track

The biggest reason why we gave up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island was because of my physical ailments.  I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct hip dysplasia, and I also have a frozen shoulder, and I have found that I have a lot of pain walking on easy (flat) terrain.  Thus, the first section we skipped was the cycle path from Lake Ohau to Lake Tekapo, a boring ~75km walk along a flat cycle path with nowhere to camp. Some people choose to expensively rent a bike for this section, but we heard horror stories of people having to walk their bikes because of strong crosswinds.

Instead of doing the cycle path, we decided to take a quick side trip to Mount Cook, which remains one of the highlights of our trip.  We day-hiked up to Mueller Hut and saw keas (alpine parrots) along the way.

A cheeky kea

A view of Mount Cook

The next hazard zone for us was the Rangitata River.  This is a large braided river, and it is not advisable to ford it, as it takes many hours.  In that amount of time, the river could easily rise from rain upstream, which you may be completely unaware of, before you can safely make it across.  Unfortunately, when we arrived at the south side of the river, there was no way for us to get out of there, and we had almost run out of food. This is THE middle of nowhere, and the small parking lot and gravel road here sees maybe one car a day, if that.  We weren’t about to be able to hitchhike out of there. As we approached the river, we met two southbounders who had just forded, and so we entered the river only knowing that it was possible to ford an hour earlier. It took us 3 hours to ford the river (it is about 5km across).  I stand behind the Te Araroa Trust in keeping this a hazard zone. If I had the choice, I would not have forded. It was stressful, obviously could be hazardous, and we almost definitely picked a poor route (and I wouldn’t know- just looking at a map- how to pick a better one).

The Rangitata River

The next hazard zone, the Rakaia River, is only 70km further along, and after spending 7 hours successfully hitchhiking out from the northern end of the Rangitata (which sees maybe 1 car an hour), I wasn’t about to go through that again with another, much more dangerous river for only 2 days worth of hiking.  I didn’t want to skip this section, but we did for logistical reasons.

Hitchhiking in New Zealand works well, but only where there are people.  The population of New Zealand is less than 5 million, and most of them live in the North Island, so there are some parts of the South Island where you may be waiting a long time.  On the South Island, most of the people who picked us up were tourists, whereas, on the North Island, we met many more locals.

We hiked most of the rest of the South Island, only skipping a few small road-walks here or there when convenient.

Queen Charlotte Track near the northern end of the South Island

After we gave up on our purist hike, each time other hikers or locals asked us if we were hiking the whole TA we would say “that’s the plan, except for the roads.”  The reactions of locals really surprised me:

“Life is too short to walk on roads.”

“You didn’t travel all the way to New Zealand to walk on a road!”

“There are so many better things to do here than walk on our crappy roads.”

“Don’t let people tell you that you aren’t walking the whole thing if you’re skipping roads.”

“The people that walk the roads are people that just want to be able to tick a box.”

It seemed that Kiwis were far less goal-oriented than the average American.  After giving it some further thought, what struck me about the idea of a purist hike of the TA is that the only box you can tick is that you’ve hiked the whole TA.  You can’t claim to have continuous footsteps for the length of New Zealand, in fact, you can’t even claim to have walked the length of New Zealand because of the hazard zones.  You would need to walk many, many days of extra roads in order to be able to get around the lakes and rivers that are labeled as hazard zones (Note: we did meet someone doing this.)

Road walking on the hottest day ever recorded in Invercargill

Road walking with Martin on the North Island

A very scenic gravel road walk in Northland

Kiwis, along with their nonchalant attitude, are complete badasses.  The average New Zealand tramper is like a cat: they have nine lives, and always land on their feet.  I think this has something to do with the terrain in New Zealand. If you grow up walking in these mountains, you can’t help but become used to them.  Once I finished the South Island, it didn’t surprise me that the first person to climb Mount Everest was a Kiwi, despite the tiny population of New Zealand.

Kiwis are also some of the kindest people I’ve encountered.  It is not uncommon for someone to come up to you in a grocery store or on the street and strike up a conversation about your trip and welcome you to New Zealand.  They’re always helpful and unusually kind. Kiwis will restore your faith in humanity. Only one thing: They’re crazy drivers. But you could also blame the crazy roads.

A funny sign I found on the inter-island ferry.  The same can be said for NZ trails.

Even though the locals are kind and generous, I think that local trampers use TA hikers as scapegoats for all sorts of problems, some of which are somewhat warranted: overcrowded huts, freeloading, littering, etc.  As I mentioned before, most TA hikers are not Kiwis, so I think locals see parts of their backcountry as being taken over by unprepared tourists

North Island:

Due to the fact that the South Island, in general, offers more tantalizing hiking opportunities, many hikers opt to hike the South Island only.  I don’t think this is an unreasonable move because most of the South Island is fantastic. But, if I had limited time, I think I would probably skip small pieces of the South Island (road walks, and the cycle path), and still hit some of the highlights of the North Island.  Although I did not hike much of the North Island, I do think I hit many of the highlights, so maybe it’s appropriate for me to list what I think are the highlights (also, when I spoke to other thru-hikers, they mostly only spoke fondly about these sections).

Highlights of the North Island:

The Tararuas:  This is the one very rugged mountainous section of the North Island.  Many Southbounders told me this was their favorite section of the North Island

Moss in the Tararuas

Amazing views in the Tararuas

More views in the Tararuas

More moss in the Tararuas

The Whanganui River: This is a section of the trail which should be canoed rather than hiked.  The canoe trip is a “Great Journey” (like a Great Walk, but rather a canoe trip), and I recommend doing the typical 5-day canoe trip advertised by all the canoe rental companies.  This is actually not the exact section of the river that the TA follows on the Whanganui, but if you’re not married to the TA, then this is the best section to do. The TA continues south through part of the river that just goes through boring farmland and is affected by tidal flow, meaning you may have to paddle hard or take a break when the tide is against you.  If you’re short on time, the 3-day trip (Whakahoro to Pipiriki) is the best part of the 5-day trip.

Canoeing the Whanganui.  Photo Credit: Martin Mařík

Canoeing the Whanganui. Photo Credit: Martin Mařík

 

The Tongariro Crossing:  This is also a Great Walk, and you can either do just the day hike (roughly 20km), or you can make it longer and do “Around the Mountain,” which many TA hikers recommended to us (huts here are first come first serve), or the “Northern Circuit”, which is logistically a bit more challenging because it is part of the Great Walk, and you must reserve the huts far in advance.

The Tongariro Crossing, a walk through volcanoes

Red Crater

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Mount Ngauruhoe

Northland:  Much of the trail north of Auckland seems worth doing.  There is still a fair amount of road walking, and some of this can be hitchhiked, but there are many stunning coastal walks, and forest sections which are worth your time. Also, there is 90-mile beach, which some hikers seem to hate (I think this is because they are Southbounders, and this is the first thing they hit).  There are also a fair amount of estuary crossings which can be frustrating because you have to pay close attention to tides or find ways around them. Still, it’s a stunning part of the country, and since kiwis (both the people and the birds!) actually live here, you’re likely to experience some of New Zealand’s famous hospitality.

Beach walking in Northland

Stunning coastal walks in Northland

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View near Whangerei Heads of Te Whara on Bream Head

Conclusion:

The TA is worth hiking, at least in parts.  In fact, I think some of the sections of this long distance trail will remain my favorite hiking experiences of all time.  But, the trail is still young and evolving. I don’t think that it will ever be like the long distance trails of the United States in terms of road-walking (or they would need to really reroute the trail drastically), but I think it has a lot of character the way it is.  Maybe they will start a permit system to manage the increase in numbers, or maybe they will suggest alternative routes so people can spread out somewhat. Who knows. I do know that a lot more people are going to go to New Zealand because of the TA, and so you’ll hear a lot more about the pros and cons of the trail from other hikers.  New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I hope that some people who come to hike the TA will also decide to take the time to see some of the sights that are just a quick side trip away.

Milford Sound, a side trip we took from Te Anau

Thanks for following, and I hope this final blog piece will be helpful to some of you contemplating this adventure.  I’m also happy to take any questions!

Northland on the Te Araroa

Northland

Day 1: Puhoi to Route 1: 27km

We had set up our tents the night before in the dark. In the morning we woke up to find ourselves next to some sort of horse farm. We packed up and in the process John managed to step on one of the tent stakes with his bare feet, ripping a hole in the bottom of his foot.

Soon we started walking. The day was not very eventful. We walked quite a bit through overgrown trail or on roads – mostly nice and easy going gravel roads, but occasionally some slightly more busy roads.

On trail, we kept going up a few hundred meters and back down again, and it felt like my legs had forgotten how to walk. Five days of volunteering on a small island and I was already out of shape?

We managed to walk 30km by about 3pm to arrive at a cafe. I took off my shoes to find that my feet had a bit of trench foot, and I decided to put on dry socks, which helped them recover quite quickly. Johns foot hurt from his little accident in the morning.

We tried to find a place to camp, and found that we missed the spot that we were aiming for by about 2km. We didn’t want to go back, and the folks at the cafe agreed to let us camp next to the picnic tables near their parking lot.

Unfortunately we are set up next to Route 1 which is loud with lots of trucks passing by, but we’re hoping that the traffic dies down overnight.

Day 2: Route 1 to Pakiri Beach, 26km

I woke up several times overnight when cars or trucks were particularly loud. At 4:45am a rooster started crowing, and I gave up on sleep and opted to call my mother.

We started walking just before dawn break shortly after 6am.

“Last night was romantic” said Martin sarcastically. I wish I could be as funny as Martin in a foreign language.

We headed up to Dome Summit. From there the track was quite difficult with lots of ups and downs keeping us working hard. We had a short but scary road walk to get to the next track which was very poorly maintained up towards Conical Peak.

We bumped into a French guy who claimed to be a SOBO. We were all intrigued. A SOBO starting in May? He explained that he was planning on hiking through the winter and he brought crampons and other winter gear to get him through. I made sure to get his name to look him up on facebook: Kevin Fuentes. I can’t wait to follow his journey.

We passed by a summit with some day hikers, but they must have come a different way because before we knew it we were climbing up a stupidly muddy track along a barbed wire fence which had a mixture of deep sloshy and slippery mud, cow shit and gorse (prickly bushes). There was no way day hikers were walking on this. The mud could be described as clay that has been extruded through thousands of cow hooves. It was so bad we couldn’t stop laughing. It was slightly less funny when the mud kept just kept going and going.

Just when we were thoroughly covered in mud and cow shit, we got to the top of a hill, went over a stile, and headed down a ridiculously grassy pasture with ankle busting lumps under waist high grass to give your ankles a work-out. At one point I twisted my ankle and fell – luckily the grass was soft, but I was not amused.

We had several kilometers of downhill through this thick grass before we finally hit the road. It wasn’t a long road walk, but my right hip hurt, my knees hurt and my feet hurt, so I was ready to be done. It had been a long day.

We finally got to the Holiday Park at Pakiri Beach, and for only $20 per person we were able to get a cabin. We had showers and did laundry. It felt good to be clean and to sleep inside.

Day 3: Pakiri Beach to Mangawhai Heads, 30km

We set our alarms for 5am so as to be able to hike at low tide. We read in the trail notes that we had two estuary crossings that were about 7-8km apart, and if we were to hit either one close to high tide, they could be chest deep. No thanks. Especially in the cool autumn temperatures. Low tide was around 6am, and we hit the beach right around then.

The first estuary crossing was straight away, and impossible to see because it was pitch dark out. I blindly followed Martin who was using the Guthook App on his phone to navigate towards the crossing point. Meanwhile I felt like we were just blindly walking towards ocean/water. Finally, the crossing was only about ankle deep, and once we were across, we had an easy beach walk while enjoying the sun rise. The sun didn’t rise until after 7am, confirming my belief that we now have between 10 and 11 hours of daylight per day.

Soon a rainbow appeared on the horizon, followed by a rain shower, and again blue skies. Several minutes later, the same thing happened again.

It was tough for me to keep up with John and Martin on the beach. My pace is simply slower. Martin must be over 6ft tall, and of course John is 6ft 4, so I’m trotting behind them trying to move my legs as quickly as possible.

It never got too warm, and 15km later we hit a rocky outcropping where they trail went up and around on a trail. We decided to try to scramble around the rocks instead since it was still somewhat low tide. It was precarious and the rocks were sharp. We scrambled up and down and around, and finally got to a point where the water came right up to the cliff, and we could not get past. Darn. We had to go back and take the trail instead.

We had a bit more beach walking after that until we got to the road leading to Mangawhai. The road walking was killing me. My hips hurt as did my feet. I spend quite a lot of time just wishing I was better at walking. I know that’s dumb, but seriously, I’m sick of being the weakest link. I’m always the slowest, the one who is in pain, and the one who has to try the hardest to keep up. It’s annoying. There aren’t enough women on long distance hikes. I’m not saying this because women are necessarily slower, but perhaps in general they are better at empathizing.

On top of being in pain, I was also zombie-walking. Waking up at 5am two mornings in a row caught up with me, and I was very tired.

I decided to stick out my thumb on the road, and someone stopped to pick us up. We weren’t far from Mangawhai Heads, so we only saved a couple of km, and moments after we got dropped off at the supermarket, Martin walked up. That’s how much faster he had been walking since the rock scramble fiasco. Sigh.

I was ready to sit down and get food.

Town was nice. We took a long break, ate some fish and chips and bought some groceries before walking on along the beach to the Holiday Park where we could camp.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to be fast asleep by 7pm.

Day 4: Mangawhai Heads to Waipu, 23km

After about 12 hours of sleep we emerged from our tents. We had a small road walk to get past an inlet and back on the beach again. The beach walk was all too short, and after looking at the map we decided we could make it longer by continuing on the beach along a rocky stretch where we figured we could get around while it was still mid-tide.

This turned out to be true- but just barely! We went through a rock archway which was just starting to fill up with water, but we were able to squeeze through before we would had to get our feet wet.

From there there was a beautiful trail leading up away from the beach. This trail was built like a great walk trail – wide, well graded and with tons of stairs. The other thing there were tons of were wasps. These seemed to be mainly of a different variety than the European wasps, which we would call “yellowjackets” in the States. I believe that these wasps were paper wasps. My suspicion is that they build their nests in the tall thick flax leaves.

We then kept traveling up through farm fields with great views of the coastline and the beautiful green hilly farm fields. It’s amazing how green the grass is here. Is looks like high definition bright green.

The trail passed over a road and we continued on past a ghost community. It was a gated community that had been built with roads and some landscaping, but no houses, just lots of land that looked like they were once for sale. It just looked like an abandoned project. Planted trees were dead and the grass hadn’t been mown in months, maybe years. The trail continued a ways through native bush on a really nice trail.

Unfortunately the trail ended at a gravel road which meandered through logged forest with blazing sun for many kilometers before we hit the main road again where we could hitchhike to Waipu.

In Waipu we found that the Waipu Hotel had camping in the back for $8 per person which included a shower. One of the best deals on the trail so far.

Day 5: Waipu to Whangarei Heads, unknown distance.

Today we needed to get around the huge inlet that makes up Whangarei Harbor. The trail kind of just ends at one side and carries on at Whangarei Heads. Apparently you can sometimes find someone to help you across by boat, but we decided to hitchhike around so as to be able to hit the Pak n Save (cheaper grocery store) and the library in Whangarei on the way to Whangarei Heads. It turned out not to be hard to hitchhike, and we were able to resupply without spending a fortune. Lots of the smaller coastal towns only have convenience stores, called Four Squares, which are much more expensive.

Once at Whangarei Heads, the trail follows a road for quite some time, and we decided to spend the night at a place called the “Bus Stop”, which had camping spots with a sort of outdoor kitchen and a toilet. Since it was still early in the day when we got there, we decided to take a scenic side trail, the Mount Manaia Track. This track is not on the Te Araroa, but looked pretty cool, and only took us 30 minutes to reach the top, climbing up a ton of stairs about 400 meters up. I was pretty proud to make it up in half the time written on the trail head sign.

The views from the top were fantastic, giving us a view of the coast that we had just covered the previous days along with the inlet that we had navigated around. Near the inlet was the only oil refinery in New Zealand.

The rock formations around the top of this mountain were equally stunning.

We hiked back down and set up camp at the Bus Stop. It was a really nice little spot.

Day 6: Whangarei Heads to Taiharuru (TA Walker’s Camp), 22km

Today’s walk was great. It started with a walk on the Te Whara Track, which climbed up a never ending staircase to the top of a rocky ridge, in a similar fashion to the side trail that we took yesterday. My legs were tired, probably from all the stairs yesterday, but eventually, when we did make it to the top, the views were well worth it. The track itself was also very nice. A lot of effort must have gone in to install all the stairs, and the trail was free of mud, and mostly not overgrown. This must be a popular day hike.

From the end of that track, we started a long beach walk along Ocean Beach. I was surprised by how many banded dotterels we saw running along the beach. These birds are endangered, and there are apparently only about 1,500 of them left. But, they’ve got to live somewhere, and this is obviously their habitat.

The beach walk was slightly too long. It was sunny out, which I’m seriously not complaining about since we’ve been so lucky with the weather this week, but I think the sun made me quite tired. My feet also grew tired of walking on sand.

I was happy when it was over and we had another hill to climb. This was Kauri Mountain. I wouldn’t really call it a mountain, but it was a nice hill with lots of Kauri trees.

We had planned on staying at a place called Tidesong, where some trail angels help hikers get across another inlet, which is crossable at low tide, but at high tide they can help hikers across by boat. They also offer accommodation. But we gave them a call, and they were not at home, but sounded like very nice people.

Coming down from the “mountain”, we decided to stop at TA walkers camp, a little spot almost a kilometer off the trail/road which someone erected for hikers. There is a small cabin with a hot water shower and two beds. Nobody had been here in months, and we had to figure out how to connect the hot water heater. We wound up having to call the owner for help, and they were surprised that anyone was still hiking this time of year. They sorted out the water and apologized that they hadn’t cleaned the place out in a while. We weren’t too worried.

After they left though, the number of spiders and other bugs in the cabin started to make me feel slightly uncomfortable. There were hundreds of spiders everywhere with webs all over the place. On top of that, as darkness fell, I saw several cockroaches crawling around. John also evicted two wasps, which I was particularly unhappy to discover. I felt bad because I almost wanted to pitch the tent outside. Instead I decided to just take the bug netting part of the tent and sleep in that using the umbrella inside of it to keep it off my face.

This is a nice place otherwise- obviously a lot of thought and work has gone into it, it’s just that we’re here very much off-season as most of the hikers come through southbound many months earlier. I was pleased that the shower had shampoo and conditioner, and they had tea and coffee along with a few other things. I bet this is a nice place during the right season.

Martin had hiked ahead and camped near the edge of the estuary. I soon realized that we wouldn’t see him again.

Day 7: Walker’s Camp to Tidesong, 3km

Strangely, today is our last day on the TA, and since we need to be in Auckland tomorrow, we didn’t want to hike away from the road that would get us out of this area. We decided that we wanted to stay with the really nice sounding Trail Angels just a few km down the trail, half way across the estuary. We were able to cross the estuary at low tide. The water was only up to my mid thigh, and the mud wasn’t much deeper than my shoes.

Before we knew it we were at Tidesong having a cup of coffee with Hugh and Ros, a lovely couple who have done quite a lot of the Te Araroa Trail to raise awareness for kidney transplants. Ros donated one of her kidneys to Hugh, so between them they only have two kidneys. Seems like a huge success story.

We spent the day chatting with our hosts, wandering around the trails on their property and organizing our gear for our next volunteer gig at Tiri Tiri Matanga Island, which we are super excited about.

It’s kind of a weird and anticlimactic finish to a long distance hike, and I kind of wish we had the time to make it to Cape Regina to see the end of the trail, but it’s really not about the destination, and we were lucky to have been able to hike a lot of this trail while still seeing many other parts of New Zealand along the way.

We may not have done a purist thru-hike of the TA, in fact we didn’t even do what I would really call a thru-hike, but I do think we’ve seen most of the best bits of this trail at this point so I have very little regret.

Going into this trip, I had a lot of doubt about my abilities to do this and other hikes. My right hip still aches on almost a daily basis and my frozen shoulder is still frozen and causing pain up my neck and down my back. I’m lucky I was able to hike at all and that my ailments have only slowed me down rather than stopped me entirely.

I really hope that I can inspire people who aren’t in perfect shape to attempt long distance trails. Injuries, disabilities, illnesses, etc. shouldn’t keep you from hiking, even thru-hiking at your own pace. I have to admit it has been a really hard adjustment for me to take it more slowly and accept a certain level of pain, and I often times wonder if this is the new normal, or if in years to come I will once again be able to pound out 20-30 miles a day, day after day. I try not to focus on these thoughts though, but rather on what I CAN do.

Soon I will post a wrap up blog about the TA – with all my thoughts about this trail and hopefully this will be of use to some of you contemplating doing it. I certainly have a few opinions to share!

Hamilton to Hunua Ranges

Hamilton to Hunua Ranges

From Kaimai Mamaku, we got a ride to Hamilton. After a night in Hamilton, I was feeling quite a bit better and we figured out that our friend Martin was only one day ahead of us on the Te Araroa trail (the trail goes through Hamilton). We made a plan to hitchhike slightly north of Hamilton to hike with Martin on the Te Araroa for a few days before our volunteer stint with the Department of Conservation.

We got to the town of Ngaruawahia by getting picked up by a taxi (no joke) who decided to take us there free of charge. I have no idea why.

There we met Martin and started hiking up into the bush on a huge staircase which was absolutely jam packed with people trying to get a work out. There were almost more people here than on the Tongariro Crossing, but then again, it was a public holiday, so everyone was off work.

The stair case went up about 400 meters or so to the summit where there was s lookout tower with nice views. From here, all of the exercisers headed back down the staircase the way they came while we headed down an overgrown hidden trail along the ridge. We left the crowds behind in a heart beat. The trail was overgrown, muddy and dense, but we pushed through, slipping and falling until we got to a section with a really big Kauri Tree.

Kauri trees are the largest trees in New Zealand, and they are currently being threatened by something called Kauri die-back. They’re not entirely sure what causes Kauri die-back, but they believe that people bring a disease in on their shoes and spread it to the roots of trees. For this reason, some of the biggest trees are surrounded by board walks, and when you enter or exit an area with Kauri trees, you have to go through a station where you throughly clean your shoes.

At the end of the track we cleaned our shoes and met a man and his wife who started talking to us and wound up giving us each a huge bag of fijoas – a fruit which was currently in season, and many people in New Zealand have fijoa trees. They taste slightly similar to kiwis only (in my opinion) slightly more bitter and slightly more disgusting.

From there we walked to Huntly, a town where we had booked a very cheap Airbnb, which was great.

The next morning we decided to hitchhike to get closer to the Hunua ranges, but wound up road-walking quite a way to get there. After 20km or so of walking on various roads, we finally got the the track that we wanted to hike on only to find it was closed. Needless to say, we were quite disappointed. After we looked online, we found it it was probably due to storm damage.

We were in the middle of nowhere, but a car with a lady in it pulled up and gave us a ride back out to Route 1 where we tried to make an alternative plan. We decided that we would walk to the nearest small town where there was a place we could camp for free, and we would make a new plan in the morning.

The next morning we decided we would try to hit the Hunua Ranges from the other direction by hitchhiking around. This took some time, but we got there and were able to hike a short distance in the bush to make it to Hunua Falls.

Here we figured we would camp, but someone from a summer camp right next door told us that the rangers didn’t like people camping there, but we could camp inside the summer camp since nobody would be there over the weekend. In return, we only had to bring the trash cans back behind the gate in the morning. It was a deal.

There was cell phone reception at the camp, and overnight we read the weather forecast and found out that a big storm was headed our way. They predicted 60 to 100 mm of rain with winds up to 120km/hr. There was no way I wanted to be outside for that. John and I decided that we would simply head for Auckland since that is where we needed to be in another day or two anyways for our vonunteer gig, while Martin decided to walk to a farm which had a Czech pig roast party planned for the weekend.

We parted ways and before we knew it a car picked us up, and the gentleman was actually headed to Auckland with his wife that day, and agreed to take us in.

The storm was disappointing. I’m not sure how much it rained, but it couldn’t have been as much as they predicted, and it seemed like the wind really wasn’t that bad. We were kind of bummed to be stuck in Auckland instead of eating pig with Martin at the random Czech party on a farm near Hunua Falls.

Even so, it was good to get ready for our volunteer stint which we are very excited about. We will spend 5 days on a predator free island with rare and endangered birds including kiwis while helping with small projects around the island. Stay tuned!