Tahoe Rim Trail: Echo Chalet to Spooner Lake

TRT Day 7: 20 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRT Day 8:  22 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirty hiker feet (with dirty girl gaiters!)

Day 9: 10 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We heard a rattling sound outside in the parking lot.

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

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

Days 10-11 (PCT Side Trips)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tahoe Rim Trail: Tahoe City to Echo Chalet

TRT Day 4: 23 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

TRT Day 5: 21 miles

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

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

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

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

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

Dick’s Pass

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

Rose

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

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

“If there IS a 2021….”. She retorted.

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

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

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

Donner: “Did I miss a spot?”

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

Can you tell which way the wind blows?

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

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

TRT Day 6: 17 miles

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

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

Pika

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

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

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

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

“That sounds awful!”  I replied

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

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

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

Echo Chalet

When we started hiking again, it was brutally hot.

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

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

“What’s for dinner?”  I asked Donner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tahoe Rim Trail: Spooner Lake to Tahoe City

TRT Day 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hotel room gear explosion

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

TRT Day 1:  22 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRT Day 2: 24 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRT Day 3: 18 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bartram Trail: Cheoah Bald to Franklin, TN

Bartram Trail

Day 1: 19 miles

We woke up to our alarm, and got out of our warm comfy bed for the last time in a while.

At 8:30AM, Jen came to our house to pick us up. Her kids are used to being strapped into the back seat of her car. An hour and a half later, we were at the NOC, and our trail friend Rob (trail name Donner) met us there with another thru-hiker (AT class of 2018),Russell (trail name Savage). The two of them are doing a ~60 mile loop with the Bartram and the Appalachian Trail, and they had just done a 20 mile day the day before to reach us.

We started the long ascent on the Appalachian Trail up to Cheoah Bald, a 3000ft ascent. Having only gotten going at 10:45AM, and knowing that we had almost a 20 mile day to do, I tried to set a decent pace. The climb, however, was relentless.

The Bartram Trail officially starts at the top of Cheoah Bald, so you have the choice of either an out-and-back on the Bartram, or starting on the Appalachian Trail (a slightly more gradual ascent). John felt hot spots on his ankles and stopped to tape them up. We took brand new shoes for this trip – something we never recommend that anyone does.

At the top of Cheoah Bald we had a terrific view, and stopped to eat a late lunch. Given that it was already 2pm and we had done less than 5 miles, I started to question our goal. But, since daylight savings was a week ago, we knew we had quite a bit of sunlight.

The Bartram diverged unceremoniously from the AT a few steps later.

It was like exiting a highway onto a dirt road. The trail was soft and covered in leaves whereas the AT was bare and hard, having seen thousands more hikers in recent months. We descended from the top of Cheoah Bald along a beautiful stream with many impressive waterfalls.

We reached a stream crossing, and Donner painstakingly took off his shoes and socks in order to do the crossing barefoot. John and I simply plowed through with our quick drying Astrals (basically water shoes). Before long there was another stream crossing… and then another. Donner and Savage tried over and over to keep their feet dry while performing impressive rock jumps and log balances.

We reached a road, and after a nice flat section on a paved bike trail, we got to a parking lot and quickly got disoriented trying to follow the blazes. Finally, a fisherman showed us the way, and we headed up our second large climb of the day. My shoulder and right hip started bothering me. Same old problems, different trail. I kept my head down and kept plowing forward.

As we reached the golden hour (the hour before sunset), we started descending amongst rhododendron thickets. Soon darkness started to fall, but as we got to a landmark, we figured out we had only a mile left to complete our 19 mile day. I was impressed.

I soon pulled out my headlamp. I’m always the first to put out a light because my night vision is not good. The four of us completed the last part of the last mile with the help of my headlamp. We got to a nice camping spot along a stream and set up camp and ate dinner. It got cold fast, and my fingers were numb despite my hands being in gloves. I didn’t take long to jump in the tent and crawl into my two (yes, we each brought two) sleeping bags.

John took off his shoes, and to his horror his socks were covered in blood. He had massive blisters on the back of his ankles and they had popped. This is the first time John has ever gotten blisters, and we guess it is because they redesigned the heel cup on the shoes he’s wearing. He put some Neosporin on his ankles and put them in some dry socks for the night. Hopefully we’ll stay warm.

Day 2: roughly 20 miles

I think I must have snored last night because I vaguely remember waking myself up snoring. That’s a first. I must be getting old. John tended to his feet and we packed up and got going.

We walked along the Nantahala River for miles. The trail was easy, but sometimes hard to follow, and the river was high, so when the trial got close to the river, it was sometimes washed out.

We eventually got to a paved road, and after crossing it, we started walking on a gravel road, diligently following the blazes. We walked fast, hoping to get to a promised gas station and restaurant before they closed for the day. Eventually, however, the trail dead ended at a concrete road completely submerged by the Nantahala River. It looked pretty daunting, but upon further inspection, we saw blazes on the other side of the river. We stood there dumbfounded for a while, checking our maps and wondering why on earth there wasn’t any warning about this.

We decided the best option was to attempt to ford the river. We prepared and linked arms. We got maybe 10 or 15 ft into the river before my feet started slipping under me. I was the lightest so I figured it was up to me to make the call to turn back. We got back to the bank and spent some more time staring at the map trying to figure out what to do, It turns out tat the Bartram Trail on the Nat Geo map is incorrect compared to the way it is blazed and also compared to the trail notes we were following. But we could walk 2 miles back to the road crossing and walk on pavement around this section. So, that’s what we did.

When we got to the road, I was worried about the amount of extra time and miles we were adding to Donner and Savage’s hike. They already had planed a 20 mile day followed by a 4 hour drive back home before work the next day. A 24 mile day sounded painful. As we walked the road, I stuck out my thumb.

Time passed, but eventually a pick up truck pulled over and drove us to the gas station. That probably saved us a mile or two, and a bunch of crappy uphill road walking. We were happy. Sadly, however, the gas station was closed. It was a good thing we weren’t counting on it, but it would have been nice to stop in for some more snacks.

We carried on, and followed the trail back into the woods straight uphill towards Wayah Bald. The trail was steep and we were all a bit tired at this point. My neck/shoulder problem was bothering me, as usual, and I tried to focus on one foot in front of the other, but I eventually stopped and took some Advil.

Before we got to the top of Wayah bald, we intersected with the Appalachian Trail, and this is the spot at which we had to bid Donner and Savage farewell. They would hike another 2 miles downhill to their car, and we would continue on. It was so nice to have other hikers join us for a stretch of trail, it was sad to see them go. But, as a parting gift, Donner gave us a few of his extra snacks. I downed two to three granola bars on the spot.

After they left, we continued uphill to Wayah Bald. There is an observation tower on top, and the views were phenomenal.

The cold wind drove us off quickly though, and we scurried down to start looking for a campsite. The Bartram soon diverged from the Appalachian Trail, and we carried on. Soon we found some flat ground to call home for the night. We’re above 5000 ft here, and I know it’s supposed to drop below freezing down in Asheville and Franklin so we’re in for another cold night. I’m so glad I have two sleeping bags!! I have no shame.

Day 3: 14-ish miles

We were warm last night, perhaps even warmer than the night before. It’s all about campsite selection. We picked the perfect spot – not in a valley, not near a stream, and somewhat protected by bushes.

We started what I had imagined to be a 10 mile mostly downhill section towards Franklin. I guess mostly downhill isn’t completely inaccurate as we did wind up at a lower elevation than when we started. For those of you veteran AT hikers reading this blog… do you remember the section of the AT they called “the roller coaster” in Virginia where the trail went up and down about 13 times? Well, that’s what this was like. We went up and down so many “PUD’s” (pointless up and downs), that I actually started to get annoyed.

I mean, I’m a hiker, I don’t generally mind going up and down a bunch, but I think what got to me was that trail was often times slightly steeper than was actually comfortable (like you had to climb on your toes, and descend slowly and carefully). Admittedly, my mind was also fixated on the all-you-can-eat Asian buffet that I knew awaited us in Franklin. My mouth watered.

At least I still had some Doritos left in my pack to polish off. I sat down and rummaged through my pack.

“Where are the Doritos?” I asked John

“What Doritos?” He replied

“MY Doritos!!” I barked

“I thought we were sharing” He said sheepishly.

“There were TWO bags!”

“They’re all gone…”

John looked at me with big puppy eyes.

“What do you mean they’re all gone?! You unceremoniously polished off two bags of Doritos without offering me any!?!”

I sighed. The Asian Buffet lingered in my mind for a minute as I swallowed a few spoonfuls of peanut butter can carried on.

As we descended, the first wildflowers started to appear: blood root, a beautiful while flower. And another strange green plant we didn’t know (if you know it, please tell us!)

We reached a road, and started the long road walk through Franklin. Road walks are boring, but I don’t mind them as much as I used to. I guess New Zealand changed me. As long as I don’t have to walk down a busy highway with no shoulder, I’m happy. Not that I want to be walking on a road. I’d happily skip it. But I understand that sometimes in order to connect two bits of trail, a road is sometimes the only way.

Before we knew it we were at Walmart resupplying. We bought five days worth of food and then dragged our heavy backpacks into the Asian Buffet and gorged ourselves.

We’re now spending the night at the Microtel. The lady here made us sign a piece of paper specially for hikers noting that if we got anything dirty, they’d charge us for it. They also handed us some non-perfect towels so that we wouldn’t get their perfectly white towels dirty. I wish all hotels gave towels like that to hikers. I was happy that they knew how to treat hikers, so I went back to the front desk and asked if they also had non-perfect sheets because John has bloody blisters on his heels and we didn’t want to get blood on their sheets. They told us no, but if we got blood on their sheets, they would charge us for it. I went back to my room with a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. I kind of wish they just put on their website that they don’t really want hikers staying at their hotel. I would have gone somewhere else.

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!