We started hiking around the time I turned 50. As a Baby Boomer, I’ve heard the term “late-bloomer” used when someone does something later than normal in life. So now you know why I named my blog thelatebloomerhiker
Living in crazy California certainly made it easier to get out and enjoy the numerous trails available. After a few times out, I was hooked. The freedom and fresh air were awesome. Within a year, I did a four-day trek into beautiful Yosemite. This trip was with Marines who were half my age, and the hardest physical challenge in recent memory. While in the Sierras I discovered how much I loved camping in the backcountry. A couple of years later, I convinced my bride of thirty-one years to go with me for a 70-mile journey along the John Muir Trail. It was an experience that we will never forget.
For awhile, I was impressed with my ability to venture out and hike above 10,000 ft. with a 40lb pack on my back. Then, I started running across people who were at least 20 yrs older than me. My ego was level-set after a few encounters with these senior citizens. Physical disabilities aside, I discovered that hiking is one of those things that doesn’t have an age limit. From toddlers in backpacks to an 80-year-old Japanese man on Mt. Baldy, I’ve seen some amazing people. To date, the most impressive hiker was a blind senior citizen on Mount Cuyamaca. Basically, if you can walk and have a fair sense of balance, then you can hike.
So, for the rest of you Late Bloomers, shake off the nay-sayers and hit the trail. You will be glad that you did.
Have you ever crossed a rushing stream or creek? I’ve read many a tale from hikers crossing rain-swollen streams up to their chests in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. Obviously, they survived to tell about it but was it worth the risk? This could be a very short blog and I could say – use common sense. If you hike in the backcountry long enough, water crossings are inevitable. Most of the time, it will be safe to cross to the trail on the other side. Sometimes, the choice could be the difference between life or death.
I’ve crossed streams, creeks, and rivers and have never been swept away. Crossed frozen creeks and have never fallen through. But, what would you do if you got swept under, fell off the log or broke through the ice? Here are some ideas.
– Assess water hazards. Most well-established trails cross water at a location that is fairly safe. However, rainstorms and snowmelt can turn any crossing into a treacherous ordeal. Never cross:
1. In front of or immediately after a waterfall. Only a Darwin Award contender would do this.
2. Where there is debris, logs, branches that you could get entangled in. The water pressure can force you under the debris.
3. Rapid water above your thighs or waist. Even if it is below your knees, fast-moving water can trip you up. Assess the risk and look for a safer location.
4. Where there is a sharp bend in the creek or river. The water speed varies greatly here and it may be hard to climb out.
5. Where the bank is steep. You may not be able to climb out.
– Night crossings are not recommended unless you are familiar with the crossing and the water is very shallow. Do you know if there is a waterfall or some other water hazard downstream?
– Remove your socks and boots, strap them to your pack. I tie the socks in a knot. I carry a carabiner, tie my shoes in a knot and clip them in.
– If you have trekking poles, extend them to where the handles are above your waist to account for holes in the creek bed.
– Loosen the various harnesses on your pack. Unbuckle the sternum and waist straps. This allows for a way to shed the pack if it pulls you under. Often, the weight of the pack will pull you head first going downstream which is bad.
– Ziploc or waterproof bags should have been on your supply list. Put all electronics in those and stow in your backpack lid or high up in your pack. Depending on the depth of the water, might be a good idea to move your sleeping bag and strap it to the top. Same with your food supplies.
– If you have two or more people, face upstream and link arms. As an alternative, you can face upstream and form a conga line with the strongest person in the front. Hold on to the person’s waist in front of you. Shuffle feet sideways as you cross.
– If you perform the crossing alone or one at a time, use your hiking poles and face upstream. Always have three points in contact with the bottom. Shuffle or take small side-steps. Some crossings have rope or guy lines. If you feel comfortable with those, grab on and shuffle across.
– If hiking in a group, there may be someone who has a fear of being pulled under. Offer to make an extra trip and carry their pack. The extra weight of a pack while crossing a log or in the water unnerves some people. You can also tie a rope to their waist in case they trip or fall in.
– Cold water. Find a shallow spot. Icy cold water can cause you to lose feeling in your feet and legs and possibly cause debilitating muscle cramps. Cross as quickly as possible. Use a safety line if you are with someone.
– River shoes or water shoes with a thick rubber sole. Some people use waterproof sandals or clogs. Most waterproof hiking boots still allow water in over the top. If your hiking shoes get wet, you are just inviting blisters.
– Trekking or hiking poles provide you with additional stability. Put your hands through the straps in case you drop it.
– If you have convertible hiking pants, unzip the legs and stow them in your pack. If you are wearing cotton, you might want to cross in your tighty-whities or swimming trunks. It’s not great to hike in wet clothes.
– Carabiners, rope or paracord to tie loose items or as a safety line.
These work great and are lightweight: Black Diamond Neutrino Carabiner – gray, one size and strong paracord – Military 550 Paracord from Our School Spirit – Made in the USA (Black)
– Waterproof gear bags, bear canisters for food and ziploc baggies.
What to do if you fall in:
– In rushing water: If you followed the previous instructions about unbuckling the backpack harnesses before crossing, and it begins to drag you under, roll out of your pack and point your feet downstream to protect your head from rocks and debris. Try to navigate to the creek or river bank and grab on to overhead branches or anything along the bank.
– Once you crawl out of the water, assess your situation. If it is daylight, look for your pack downstream. You may see it washed up on some rocks or caught up in a tree root. Be careful when pulling it out., it would suck to fall back in. If a friend has a carabiner and rope, someone can attach it and pull it out.
– Falling through the ice: If your pack pulls you under, roll out of it. Frog kick and try to propel yourself onto the ice. If you are with someone and still have your hiking poles, extend one so they can pull you out. A rope and a branch can come in handy here too. Once out on the ice, spread your body out to increase the surface area and crawl toward the bank. Don’t stand up until you are at the bank. If you have a change of clothes, it would be a good idea to get some dry ones. Hypothermia is the real enemy now.
Do you have any tips for water crossing based on your experience or something you’ve read? Please share them with us in the comments section.
A great guide for backpackers: The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills
I like this guide in paperback form, but is also available in Kindle format.
Lastly, a true story and lesson learned from one of my crossings: Hiking on a southern California beach with my wife, we crossed a 10 foot inlet where the Pacific fed a lagoon. Up to our shins, it was easy. On the return leg 4 hours later, the inlet was 60 ft. wide and ultimately up to our shoulders as the tide rushed in to the lagoon. We made it, but it was scary. The salt water also caused a chemical reaction with my magnesium fire stick and almost caught my pack on fire. Whew!
Good, affordable trekking poles: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
Disclaimer: The information in this blog is for informational use only. There is no guarantee that following the recommendations will protect you from harm. Use common sense when hiking. Most seasoned hikers are not competing for the Darwin Award.
Nestled between Cuyamaca State Park and the southern section of Anza Borrego State Park is a nice trek along the Pedro Fages Trail. As we pulled off the road and read the trail marker, I tried to visualize the path that the Native Americans and later the Europeans took as they made their way through Oriflamme Canyon. The trail starts on the Sunset Highway (S1) near the junction of Hwy 79 at Cuyamaca Lake. The California Riding and Hiking Trail which actually starts near Otay Lake in southern San Diego County passes through Cuyamaca and through this area toward Chillihua Valley.
What makes this hike enjoyable are the wide open views as you start out in Mason Valley. One of the things that amazes me about southern California is the diversity of the land. Sure, it is dry and rocky in most areas, but you will find contrast all around. Today, the deep blue sky with scattered clouds was set apart from the rocky terrain of the Laguna Mountains.
The single track trail with wide open vistas made you want to run, but I’m a hiker not a runner. The breeze from the Anza-Borrego Desert made the dry grasses wave in unison. It was tempting to lie down in the meadow and just watch the cloud formations, but we had a goal today. We would hit the junction with the PCT and see how far we would go.
After 1.5 miles, you come to a Jeep trail. Out here they call them truck roads, but they’re mostly service roads for the USFS. Turn right, go through a gate and you will see small signs for the PCT. Turn right and you’ll follow the PCT to Mexico. A little farther up on the left is a battered sign for my favorite trail north. My wife and I talked about setting up some trail magic near here for the PCT class of 2015. Hmm, we will have to see. I’ve always had thoughts about becoming a trail angel. People who bring drinks, food to PCT thru-hikers are trail angels and the stuff they provide is trail magic. It’s an awesome way to bless people when they least expect it.
The trail has been fairly level to this point but as you follow it east-northeast it begins to drop into the canyon. It appears to descend around 800-1,000 ft. This is a very quiet hike through here, the only sounds are aircraft passing by and the fluttering birds. It’s definitely one of the trails less travelled. We were not exactly thrilled about hiking down and then having to hike back up at the end, but sometimes it is just what you have to do.
At the bottom of the canyon is another Jeep trail and the PCT hikers will take a right and walk along the road before bearing left 1/4 mile up. We took our lunch break at the bottom on a couple of boulders and took our shoes and socks off to cool down. It’s always a good idea to remove the boots/shoes on a warm hike. Helps to cut down on the blisters. A rare patch of cool, green grass made it even more inviting. A cool creek or mountain stream would have been perfect, but we are in the desert of So-Cal.
The hike up was a tough climb, and I must have left my trail legs in the Sierras because my calves were complaining. This would be a hot hike in late spring, summer and not recommended. Back at the main fire road, we noticed a Forest Service or Cal-Fire concrete water tank. On top was a steel lid to the inside. Unfortunately, it was empty but it sure would make a nice sleeping bunker on a cold night.
After the leg workout, the valley and meadow was a nice way to finish the out and back hike. About 200 yards out, a lone coyote trotted by. I tried howling at him, but my throat was parched and all that came out was a failed attempt of a silly human trying to make an animal sound. He did glance over at us and barely slowed down.
Today’s out and back to the PCT was a solid 6 miles. It was good to be back on the trail with my hiking partner. This trail didn’t have the best vistas, but any day that you can hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail is a good day. Thanks for stopping by my blog and remember to take the 10 Essentials when you trek into the backcountry.
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter
We were finishing up a section hike of the John Muir Trail in early September. The trip from Mammoth into Yosemite was filled with the most amazing views. In Devil’s Postpile Campground, it was nice to gather around the fire to talk about our upcoming adventure. During our hike, we observed that most of the terrain around the JMT was pristine. There was an area near Devil’s Postpile that had recently burned. It was apparently caused by lightning. The weather was perfect as we skirted thunderstorms for the past couple of days. Late August or Early September is a good time to do backcountry in the Sierras. Much later and the chance of snow really increases. The mosquitoes are not as bad and stream crossings are usually a bit easier. We met some southbound hikers before Donohue Pass that mentioned how they were pummeled by a storm, hail and all. Noticed the first bit of snow at Donohue and made the transition from Ansel Adams Wilderness to Yosemite NP. The trek through Lyle Canyon was at a fast pace as the storm seemed to be on our heels. For most of the week, we went without a campfire since the USFS had a ban in place.
We passed through Tuolumne Meadows and enjoyed some non-dehydrated food. Next was a glorious day spent near Lower Cathedral Lake where we made camp near the shore. What a magical place. The thunder continued to rumble around us through late afternoon, but it never rained. The next day we pressed on for 11-12 miles. We were fortunate enough to nab a site with decent views of Half Dome which appeared a couple of miles away. In Yosemite, below 9,000 ft. campfires were still allowed. We gathered up loose firewood and proceeded to make a nice fire. The site we picked already had a fire pit and we reinforced the edge with some additional rocks.
Before dusk, we went down to the creek to filter some water. The water flow here was poor and the mosquitoes were swarming. I pumped my water filter faster than ever before while swatting those pesky critters. All week, we evaded them and wore long sleeves and our head-nets. Tonight, I was bitten more while filtering than the previous six nights combined. Oh well, we needed the water for dinner and some extra to put out the campfire.
After dinner, we noticed the skies had clouded up a bit. We were spared from the rain one more night. I thought about a previous camping trip where the rain serenaded me to sleep. Next to a rushing stream, a light rain is the perfect sleep machine. Sometime during the night, we did hear thunder as well as see the lightning as it lit up our tents. It sounded like it was 10-15 miles away. Our site was in a good spot and not in a flash flood prone area.
By dawn, the far away storm had subsided. We noticed the campers above us had packed up early. They were going to Half Dome. We ate a light breakfast, packed up and were on our way to finish our trip. Today would be approximately 7 miles as we would pass the dome, Little Yosemite Valley, Nevada and Vernal Falls.
As we got back on the trail, we passed a small group heading back from a 3 day stay at one of the High Sierra Camps. They were chatting how “glamping” was the way to go. Glamping or glamour-camping is luxury camping. You stay in a yurt, or cabin and receive room service or have your meals prepared for you. Hmm, sounds nice after all. At this point, we started talking about real food again. While it had only been a few days since the cheeseburger in Tuolumne Meadows, the idea of fast-food still sounded good.
Eventually, we emerged from the canopy with Half Dome to our west and Vogelsang Peak to our east. Suddenly, there was a thrashing sound to our left and a group of 4-5 deer bolted out of the forest in front of us. What the heck? Then we saw why they were running. A white billowing cloud covered half of the horizon to the east. Was it a cumulus cloud – or smoke? The three of us stopped to get a better look. Within a few minutes, it started snowing. Except this was not regular snow, it was ash. Now it hit us – forest fire!
If you are up for a bit of four-wheelin on a fire road followed by some sweet views, then this is the trail for you. Don’t forget to pick up your hiking and camping permits at the Visitor’s Center in Idyllwild.
In the past two years, we have hiked almost every trail in the San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness area. This area has some of the most beautiful alpine hikes ever.
The Fuller Ridge Trail is located approximately 8 miles up Black Mountain Fire Road (4S01)from SR243 north of Idlyllwild. We did this one in early Nov during a mild and dry fall weekend. It follows the western ridge up to San Jacinto and is a tough 14.2 mile out and back hike to the peak with approx. 4,000 ft. of elevation gain. I’d give the full hike a good 7-8 hrs. We didn’t have enough time for that and just hiked a few miles in. If hiked in its’ entirety, it is a good practice hike for Mt. Whitney.
Driving up this single lane fire road is a bit of a bone jarring experience, but believe it or not, a vehicle with good clearance can make it through. It does require some maneuvering but the Jeep had no problem tackling this one straight on. The road takes you up the north side of the San Jacinto range with views of Banning and Palm Springs along the way. Ol’ Grayback (Mt San Gorgonio) is a close neighbor. Amazingly, we didn’t run across any vehicles coming down as it would have required some jockeying to make room for two. You might want to hit the restroom before this drive because it will test the strongest of bladders. There are a few pull offs along the way for pics. Around 6,800-7,000 ft., the road comes to an end with the entrance to a campground and Fuller Ridge trailhead. Only one other vehicle here this fall afternoon. We began our ascent through a heavy cover of conifers. It was cool and crisp with the wind whispering through the gentle giants.
The trail meanders through the forest with occasional views into the desert below. It is one of the most peaceful and secluded trails that you can hike around San Jacinto. Most people will not drive 30 minutes up a fire road to hike. It’s also a nice back way in to San Jacinto Peak. We would not be doing the 7 miles to the top, but it is a fairly mild if not long journey there.
The only sounds were the woodpeckers seemingly fussing at each other and the occasional chatter of the chipmunks. This appears to be a nice trail for runners as the slopes are generally mild and the trail is mostly single-track. We noticed a fair amount of ups/downs the first few miles. No water sources were available on this trip, so bring what you need. If hiked in the spring, you may run across some PCT through hikers on their long trek north.
It is a mostly shaded, well maintained trail with occasional steep slopes on either side. Almost all trails in San Jacinto are worth the trip. This one is no exception.
Today’s tip: Always let someone know where you will be hiking. We usually send a text to a family member with the trail name, location and when we expect to return.
If you hike in the backcountry long enough you will eventually come across a brook, stream, creek, river or ginormous mud puddle. You will be faced with a decision. Do I cross it, go around or turn back?
I once came upon a large mud puddle filled with the smelliest black mud ever on the Appalachian Trail and noticed half of someone’s hiking pole. Wow, that was a run-on sentence. I wondered, where the other half was and if the person fell into the bog. Actually did meet the owner of the broken pole at a lean-to later. I did make it across the bog and learned how to do the splits that day. Now, I can sing tenor.
Most of you will cross the creek, especially if there is a bridge. I’m sure there are some out there that even have bridge phobias. Kind of like driving on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and realizing midway that 23 mile long bridges with little or no guard rails scare the crap out of you.
What if there isn’t a bridge when you come upon that creek that is swollen to twice its’ size due to the thunderstorm that just occurred? No fear, the purpose of my blog is to help you. Actually, blogging just gives me something to occupy my time during my government furlough and keeps me from writing angry letters to my representatives.
Let’s assume there are no bridges, logs or rocks to step on to cross this creek. You have many options, most require some prior preparation. Still, you always have options in life. Unless you are a congressional representative up for re-election that is.
Your first choice for crossing is this:
Of course this method requires rope or a homemade hemp vine found only where they grow marijuana in the national forests of California.
The next method still involves rope, but it must be fastened to something on both sides of the creek. Once, there was a rope strung across the Little Wilson Stream in the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness, but it was too high to reach. Very funny.
Hiking with a friend certainly makes it easier to cross water, especially when you have to ford it.
The buddy system, while loads of fun when doing chicken fights in the neighborhood pool can be especially treacherous with 40 lb. packs. Always remember to loosen your straps and unbuckle those waist fasteners.
Sometimes, the body of water requires something more than rope and a friend. There are places in the middle of nowhere that require a boat ride to get to your resupply. Why do they always put it on the other shore? And why can’t you blow the horn more than once to get picked up?
I mean, really. Who gets off the trail to resupply at some resort? It’s only 40 miles to the next town.
So, there you have it. The most common ways to cross water. Why is it in Maine that a brook is bigger than a creek and a stream is wider than a river? Everywhere else it’s not that way. Well, maybe in other parts of New England. But, they were here first, so I guess they can call it what they want. Ayuh, that’s wicked cool.
P.S. – I must be passive aggressive because the WordPress grammar checker always underlines my writing and accuses me of “passive voice”.
The title should really have peaked your interest. How does a husband convince their wife to do anything? As we say in the military – here’s the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): It takes time.
Most things worthwhile take some effort. Typical of our manly ways, we tend to go for the gusto – straight away. Backcountry, or multi-day hikes take a bit of planning especially for someone who has never been. Specifically on the backcountry hiking, it’s easier when you live in an area that is conducive to camping and hiking. Either that or you have enough time and money to vacation in beautiful wilderness areas.
Living in southern California, we are within a days’ drive of the High Sierras which has made it uber-easy to do this outdoor activity. However, every state in the union has locations for hiking. From the Appalachian to the Continental Divide to the Pacific Crest Trails, including the national and state forests – there are many areas where you can get off the beaten path. Imagine Denali in amazing Alaska, or Waimea State Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
For me, I was determined to do an outdoor activity with my wife that we could enjoy together. We started by day hiking. I bought a book on trails within San Diego County and we began going out on Saturdays. We would pack a lunch and make a day of it. The more secluded, the better. Eventually, the hikes got longer with more elevation change. While flat terrain is a good break, the challenge of a good cardio workout made it more than a walk in the woods.
We would mix up mountain hiking with desert treks as the seasons allowed. We developed a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the creation. As believers, we observed God’s handiwork in the land and His animals. We also enjoyed each others’ company as we took breaks and drove to/from our hikes. The time in the car is a great time to talk about your marriage – and life.
You really don’t have to be equals as far as physical conditioning. In our case, she kicks my butt on the trail. However, consider the physical condition of your spouse. Start out with easy, short hikes and make a date out of it. It helps to start out with a trek that has awesome scenery. End with a sunset and/or dinner at a new café. We’ve discovered some decent eateries while out on the road. We also established a tradition of celebrating with a cup of hot tea after reaching each summit.
There were times when I pushed us too hard or it was too hot, but we learned from our mistakes. Once, we were almost swept into a lagoon in a rushing tidal inlet. We often share that story with others and always laugh. Another time, we got off track on a snow-covered mountain in the Sierras and bushwhacked for a couple of hours. Every year, there are new stories to share.
Day hiking presented an opportunity to do some camping. We eventually combined car camping with some hikes. If your spouse hasn’t camped before, car camping is a great intro. It allows for conveniences like coolers, chairs and bathrooms. If your kids are grown, go to campgrounds when school is in session. Much less crowded….
During this time, we also visited epic locations like Yosemite. Some places just leave you yearning for more. The Sierras are this way. I imagine the Rockies and so many other areas are similar. Eventually, we did a 3 day backcountry trip to the highest peak in our area – San Gorgonio. It was difficult, but rewarding. It really proved that she could hike in the backcountry with a full pack and sleep in the wilderness. We still laugh about being awakened at midnight by the spotlight of a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s helicopter looking for a lost hiker. Wilderness hiking builds memories.
I won’t exaggerate, it took a few years to get my wife into the backcountry on an extended trip. We worked up to it. I made sure that her needs were taken care of and that she felt safe. I gradually built up trust and gained some knowledge on our wilderness treks. Over the years, We’ve been lost a few times, but a handy GPS and some map skills would get us back on track.
I really could have made this blog a lot shorter by stating that backcountry hiking with your spouse (or significant other) isn’t going to happen quickly. Start out with day hikes, progress to car camping and do a short backcountry trip that has awesome scenery. “Now you’re cooking with peanut oil” Phil Robertson-Duck Dynasty, A&E.
Tucked away on a mountain road near the eastern Sierra town of Big Pine is the entrance to one of the most amazing getaways. The Big Pine Creek collection of campgrounds, lakes and trails are magnificent.
This trip was a last-minute adventure. My wife was back east helping out with a new grandchild and I knew that I didn’t want to sit around over the long Labor Day weekend. The Sierras are only 4-5 hours away from San Diego, so I packed up my gear and headed toward the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center in Lone Pine to get my backcountry permit. I researched a few areas to hike and was prepared to “settle” for whatever was available. Normally, this holiday weekend is one of the busiest up here. You should especially avoid Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne unless your plans are very flexible. One could write a blog on the best ways to get backcountry permits. The trails in the various areas are under the jurisdiction of the USFS or National Parks and traffic is controlled through the use of permits. About 40% of permits are reserved for walk-ins, the rest can be reserved through recreation.gov for a small fee.
The visitor center was actually not that busy and I was able to easily obtain the permit for the Pine Creek North Fork trail. Another 40 minutes and I was in Big Pine. The sign on the road that takes you to the trail is fairly obscure and starts out as Crocker Rd. The road passes through a neighborhood and gradually climbs several thousand feet. The rocky, desert landscape starts to change as you approach the sub-alpine area where the campgrounds are. The aspen and Jeffrey Pines are abundant in the lower elevations and I imagine that this is even more beautiful as the deciduous trees change in the fall.
The overnight parking lot for the hikers comes up on the right. There is plenty of room, but I found out that the trailhead is almost a mile away. Oh well, I needed to loosen up a bit. I passed the pack-train corral and noticed signs for the various campgrounds and Glacier Lodge. It was fairly busy in the camps as people were getting in their last bit of summer vacation. The trailhead is well marked at the end of the road. There is limited day use parking at the end and I recommend to drop off your gear if there are two or more hikers.
The trail wastes no time in elevation change as the steep, short switchbacks get the heart beating. You cross the first footbridge and the creek is rapidly descending through cascades and waterfalls. Normally, this time of year many of the creeks in the Sierras are dry. Not here, the Palisade Glacier ensures a year-round flow. The trail meanders through the forest but stays close to the creek. The rushing water provides the assurance that you can follow it all the way up to its’ source.
After the second footbridge, the trail gradually climbs the canyon and then flattens out for a bit. The riparian environment changes to a desert landscape with some cactus hiding under the chaparral. The trail diverges from the creek, but never far enough to lose sight or sound. Occasionally, the sound of the cascading water is an indicator that you will be climbing again. The louder the water, the steeper the incline. I’m a simple guy, so I tend to associate simple things you know.
One of the things I love about hiking in the Sierras is the change in eco-systems as you ascend the trails. You can start out in an arid desert and pass through riparian areas to sub-alpine forests with deciduous trees, followed by alpine forests and end up in snow-covered peaks above the tree line. It’s so cool to see the flora change while you hike. This trail appears to dead-end in a canyon and one knows there is only one way out – and that is up. The path diverges from the creek and the long switchbacks quickly take you above 8,500 ft. Evidence of the pack trains litters the trail where their path emerges from the corral. Fortunately, the trail is wide enough to step around the mule doodles. The trail is well maintained with many man-made steps carved from the granite. You round the corner near a significant cascade and the view is impressive. Temple Crag comes into sight and the trail rises above the creek. During the afternoon, the wildlife was missing but imagine that this is a place where deer would hang out.
Due to my late start and occasional thunder, I started looking for a campsite. 100 ft. from water and trail, that makes it a bit harder. Well, that and a flat spot for the tent that isn’t in a wash or drainage area. I found a suitable spot under some fir trees and set up the tent quickly. The two-person Eureka tent has been a good one. Lightweight and easy to set up. The bugs were almost non-existent. Mosquitoes are bad here in early summer, but this was perfect. Dinner was a Mountain Home chicken and noodle- too much for one person. The housekeeping routine when you camp solo is a bit different. Normally, you split chores like setting up the tent, getting water and cooking but tonight it was all mine. Within 45 minutes, it started sprinkling and by 7 p.m. a steady rain ensued. Fortunately, the lightning was distant and the trees seemed to reduce the impact of the rain.
Combined with the drive and a couple of hours of hiking, the rain was a natural sleep machine. The pitter-patter on the tent was peaceful and the rushing creek was a great combination. I was asleep by 8:30.
Next: This place has it all
We use the Nikon 3300 series for most of our pics. An easy to use camera a step up from the entry-level model. Nikon D3300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II Zoom Lens (Black)
Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.
John Muir – My First Summer in the Sierra
The last day was bittersweet. Ready to finish our week on the trail, we broke camp after a light breakfast. We filtered water at the creek last night and the flow was just a trickle, full of water bugs. The mosquitoes were relentless at the creek and we were glad that we didn’t camp near there. Generally, it’s not a great idea to pitch your tent near calm or stagnant water. 🙂
The John Muir trail guide was very helpful as it listed plenty of campsites – all were spot on. Today, as we made our way toward the Half Dome spur we met a large group on their way back to their base camp. Seems that the area we stayed in is often used by those who climb the dome. This group must have left camp around 4 in the morning to climb the rock. I’m sure Half Dome is a neat experience, it just wasn’t on our itinerary. Remember, as they say on the A.T. – “hike your own hike”.
As we passed the spur trail to Half Dome, we started seeing a lot of people. Alas, the splendor and solitude of the JMT started to fade. Within the next 30-45 minutes, we would come across more people than we had seen all week. It’s probably the main reason we don’t do the main attractions, too many people.
Continuing through Little Yosemite Valley, it seemed like a decent place to camp, but looked crowded. We have enjoyed the ability to pick out our own campsite on the JMT. The Merced River came up beside the trail and the smell of jasmine filled the air. Well, I thought it was jasmine, but they were probably fragrant mountain dogwoods with beautiful white flowers.
The Merced at this point was leveling out prior to the leap over Nevada Fall, and it was deceitfully calm. Clear with a slight green tint, this water has traveled many miles from its’ snowy origin. We passed the junction to Vernal Falls and the Mist Trail and emerged on solid granite. Dropping our packs, we removed our shoes and dipped our feet in the cool waters. Some adventurous souls were wading out into the river. We were probably two hundred yards from the precipice, but it still unnerved me to see people in the water. Almost every year, someone gets too close and is swept over the edge. On the other side of the Merced River, a foreign tourist had climbed down and was within 6 feet of the edge. This was surely a Darwin Award candidate so I took his picture.
We filtered some more water as the day hikers watched. One gentleman asked me if it was safe to drink. I explained that if it was filtered, yes. After a while, my brother and I ventured over and took some pics. The whirling cascade just puts you in awe of the power. John Muir captured this with eloquence:
The Nevada is white from its first appearance as it leaps out into the freedom of the air. At the head it presents a twisted appearance, by an overfolding of the current from striking on the side of its channel just before the first free out-bounding leap is made. About two thirds of the way down, the hurrying throng of comet-shaped masses glance on an inclined part of the face of the precipice and are beaten into yet whiter foam, greatly expanded, and sent bounding outward, making an indescribably glorious show, especially when the afternoon sunshine is pouring into it.
Ready to complete our journey, we got back on the trail and began the longest stretch to the valley floor below. I’m not sure why it seemed long, maybe because we were mentally finished. The stretch from Nevada to the valley was tough on our tired feet.
The scene at Vernal Fall bridge was chaotic. People, like ants milled about seemingly without direction. At least ants have a purpose. We just wanted to get through the throngs of people so we trudged on. I am sure that we looked haggard after a week on the trail, but it felt good to be near the end.
The asphalt sidewalk on the Mist Trail was another reminder that we were back in civilization. It felt awkward to walk on it with our poles clacking about. “Move over people, make a hole, real hikers coming through!” I wanted to say that, but my subconscious did not prevail.
At the end, the sign that lists the various trails was our last photo-op. While the sign showed 211 miles for the JMT, we actually only did our 68 mile section. It still felt good and I was proud of my wife and brother for completing it.
The shuttle ride from Happy Isles to the Visitor Center was tough. Throngs of people made their way on the shuttle and we were separated from my brother. We eventually found each other and enjoyed a good sandwich from the deli. The YARTS bus stop is across from the Visitor Center. In the summer, it leaves once daily at 5 p.m. from the valley and makes multiple stops on the way to Mammoth Lakes. For $18, it was a wonderful ride, comfortable with amazing scenery. Google YARTS and you will find the various schedules.
For the next few weeks, the memories of the trip would resurface and we would laugh about things that happened. It was an amazing journey and one that created great memories. I did push my brother and wife hard on this trip, but they persevered and made it through. It doesn’t take an athlete to do backcountry hiking. It takes a desire to explore and the ability to push yourself a bit beyond your limits.
YouTube slide show of our trip:
“Going to the mountains is going home.”
― John Muir
On July 4th, we decided to take a pseudo-zero day and hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake where we would relax. We passed by the Tuolumne Grill in the a.m. and got a wonderful bacon, egg and cheese biscuit. A quick shuttle to the Cathedral trailhead and we began the relatively short 3.5 mile hike to Lower Cathedral Lake. Short yes, easy no. (I left out the part where I almost took out a tourist’ eye on the shuttle with my hiking pole.) Lesson learned: When getting on the shuttles/buses, wear your pack, don’t try to carry it.
This is probably the most popular trail with day hikers in the Tuolumne area. As you near the lake you enter into a meadow and are in the shadow of Cathedral Peak. There are several creeks feeding the lake. Most day hikers stop on the eastern shore; we would continue on the north side of the lake and head west to the far end. We were rewarded with a lakefront campsite and plenty of solitude. Tip – get there early in the day for your choice of sites.
After setting up our camp and eating lunch, we did chores. My brother took one of his waterproof clothing bags and filtered some lake water. Oila, a washing machine! Dump the dirty water at least 100 ft. away from the lake and fill the bag with clean filtered water for rinsing. It was labor intensive, but the clothes came out smelling clean. We used Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable Magic Soap and it was great. I’ve used the peppermint soap in the past which can be used for bathing too. A clothesline between two dead trees and we were set. One biohazard Mary discovered was that the bees liked the aroma of the lavender soap on the clothes while they dried. I had some insect bite/sting paste in my 1st aid kit that does wonders for those stings.
At the far end of Lower Cathedral Lake, the water is warmer in the shallows of the shore. No fish in this lake that we could see. We ventured to the western edge where the lake’s outlet is and viewed Tenaya Lake 1,300 ft. below. The flows from Cathedral are one of many that make their way to the glacier made Tenaya. The Yosemite Indians actually called it Pywiack, meaning shining rock. The white man renamed it Tenaya after the Indian chief who fled here from soldiers one spring.
We would enjoy the remainder of our day at Lower Cathedral. Our Independence Day celebration concluded with fireworks presented by God. The sky to the west of the lake was most spectacular. I highly recommend spending the night here. Bring mosquito head nets and some bug repellant, as it can get a bit buggy.
Tomorrow, we are determined to put in some mileage. Tonight, we would sleep soundly in the quiet surroundings of another lake.
Links to a slide show of the hike:
John says it best: ….Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 438.
First half slideshow of our hike:
The continuing story of our northbound JMT section hike…..
By day 3, we all had our trail legs. You know what I mean, the steadiness that you get after a few days of stepping on, around and over stuff. Backpacks have a way of changing your center of gravity. Bend over a bit too far to smell those lupines and you’ll see how blue they really are. The night at Thousand Island Lake was amazing. The sound of the distant snow-fed waterfall created a peaceful nights’ rest.
At Thousand Island, it was a bit difficult to find a private place to do your business. Sorry for bringing it up, but it’s just one of those things that you have to do. One could write an entire blog about it, but I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say that sometimes you have to venture out to find that secluded spot and hope that the nearest trail is out of view. It is arguably one of the most challenging yet natural chores in the backcountry. Mosquitoes present a significant challenge with this, so you may need to apply some repellant where the “sun don’t shine”. The cathole shovel, tp and antiseptic wipes are essential gear. However, in a pinch so are a stick, leaves and some handfuls of dirt. Let’s leave it at that.
We admired the view from our campsite and did the usual tasks. Filtering water, making breakfast, tearing down camp and repacking those packs. The last task was usually the biggest pain. Packing around those bear canisters is like emptying a sardine can and then stuffing them back in. The climb out of Thousand Island Lake was steady and hot. The views over our shoulders of Banner Peak were ever-changing and dramatic. As we rounded a ledge, a fat marmot sat perched on a rock and it looked like a good place to stop. This is their territory and the scat is enough to prove it. Pausing occasionally to catch our breath, we would hunch over to shift the weight of the pack and lean on our poles. It was a funny sight for sure. Island Pass was like something out of a movie. Little archipelagos of grass seemingly floated around us. Birds were abundant here as were so many varieties of flowers. This area made me regret that we had to cover 10 miles today.
We descended into an area near Wough Lake and heard rumblings of thunderstorms. The skies to the north were menacing and I kept an eye on the direction it was moving. We discussed what our plan would be for inclement weather, especially if caught out in the open. Things like avoiding meadows, tall trees and shallow caves if lightning is nearby. Lightning is a strange and dangerous occurrence and you should have a plan whether you are alone or hiking in a group. In a group, it’s a good idea to spread out so a stray bolt doesn’t take everyone out. If possible, find a clump of medium-sized trees for shelter. The tallest and shortest trees are not advisable. The position for protection is simple. Sit on your backpack or sleeping pad with your two feet touching the ground or pad. Don’t lay or stand up if possible. If in a tent, do the same and don’t touch your tent frame. Enough of the morbidity, you can do some research on hiking and lightning. It is “enlightening”.
We would cross several streams over single logs perched 6-8 feet above rushing streams and creeks. It requires a sense of balance with a pack and if you are unsteady should consider having a mate take your pack across for you. Something about a skinny log, sights and sounds of roaring water can unnerve almost anyone.
We passed through a canyon and ran into a large group from Tennessee. They proceeded to tell us how they were pummeled by hail and rain for 1 1/2 hours. I must say, God protected our little group because we avoided bad weather all week. Either way, be prepared. We started the steady climb up Donahue Pass and a 80% cloud cover made it much more comfortable as we were totally exposed. The trail is well-defined and there are plenty of boulders to take breaks on. We ran across a couple of SoBo’s (southbounders) who provided upcoming trail conditions. We did the same. It’s very common to briefly stop and chat to discuss weather, trail conditions and experiences. People who are out here most often share our appreciation for the outdoors and generally are friendly with good attitudes. While I still scratch my head when we come across solo female hikers, they are safer out here than in their urban neighborhoods.
We would also run across a PCT thru-hiker who was disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to walk 30 miles today. Man, I thought we were doing good at 10 miles per day.
Reaching the Pass, we would tread across the last remnants of snow fields and cross into Yosemite territory.
The trail becomes a bit hard to follow on the north side of Donahue as you cross more snow. Some cairns indicated the general direction.
We quickly descended into the beginnings of Lyell Canyon. The landscape, ever-changing was devoid of all but the hardiest of vegetation. The hiking poles made the descent easier as we snaked our way down. Forty five minutes later, we reached a wide creek and realized that we would have to ford it. Two hundred feet downstream was a waterfall and cascade, so no crossing there. We put on our water shoes and stepped in the cold creek that would become the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. Here, underneath the snow of Donahue Pass, the water was a chili 40-45 degrees.
I crossed without incident, my wife mentioned that her feet were getting numb within 30-45 seconds. When fording water, it’s best to unbuckle your pack in case you fall since it can absorb water and drag you under. It took a bit to warm up from the creek as I imagined what it would have been like if there had been a heavy snow year.
We would cross countless tributaries to this creek as we ventured further in the valley. Some streams were cutting across the trail on a ledge that was five feet wide. Rock hopping was common and we definitely got better at it. We would also cross the creek twice more before finding a campsite. At the last crossing, we did it in our hiking shoes. My shoes, while excellent on the trail, were not waterproof.
We made camp around 100 ft. from the water in a beautiful stand of pines within earshot of the cascades. The sun was setting quickly as we ended a tough day on the trail. Dinner was spicy beef stew. We slept like hibernating bears. Tomorrow, July 3rd would be a race to Tuolumne Post Office to retrieve our supplies.
The big day was here. Anyone who has ever hiked in the Sierras can tell you the allure of these mountains. The vistas are like fuel for the soul. This trip was planned about six months ago. We decided to do a south-north section hike of the JMT starting in the Mammoth Lakes area and ending up in Yosemite Valley. 90% of hikers do the north-south route and finish at Mt. Whitney. While that fourteener is on the list, this trip was meant to enjoy a seven-day trek up the legendary trail.
My friend obtained the permit through the recreation.gov website ahead of time. He couldn’t make it, but listed me as an alternate group leader which made picking up the permit easier. I will not go into detail, but if you don’t need to climb Whitney or Half Dome, obtaining the permit is very easy online. Overall, the fee for four people online was $26, which included a processing fee. At the Wilderness Centers or ranger stations, it is around $5 per person. There is no guarantee of trail availability for walk-ins, so plan accordingly.
Since my friend could not make it, I asked my trusty hiking partner – aka my wife to go. She reluctantly said yes! We also asked my older brother who said that it was on his bucket list. Early morning, June 29th we left suburban San Diego heading toward Mammoth Lakes. Today was a hot one, with forecasts putting the temps between 100-110 degrees in the Owens Valley area. Mammoth was projected to be in the 90’s. Whew!
We picked up our permit at the Mammoth Visitor Center and spoiled ourselves with a burger at a local tourist trap before heading to Mammoth Lakes Inn to catch the Reds Meadow Shuttle. The shuttle was $7 and would drop us at our choice of campgrounds. We chose to stay at Devils PostPile Campground. At $14, it was a good bargain and had nice sites located close to the San Joaquin River. We pitched our tents and settled in for a leisurely night before our first hiking day. The camp has bathrooms, potable water, picnic tables and fire rings. This was luxury camping to us compared to the rest of the week. You can tent or RV camp.
We would try out our first dehydrated dinner at the camp. It was an Alpineaire Black Bart Chili. Yummm. We hung out by the river, my brother trying his hand at fly fishing. Discussing tomorrow’s itinerary, we would rest well with the sound of the cascading San Joaquin River 100 ft. away.
Temps are forecast to be in the 80’s tomorrow. Hopefully, as we climb out the temps will drop between 3-5 degrees for each 1,000 ft. Oh well, at least there is plenty of water up here.
Next: Section Hike of the JMT – Day 1
After much preparation, our section hike of the JMT commenced. Our plan was to do a 60+ mile section from south-north. We would start around Devils Postpile and finish in Yosemite Valley. There are a lot of logistics that go into an extended backcountry trip. From clothing, food, transportation – the options are numerous.
How much will it cost? It will vary widely depending on your choices for transportation, gear and food. Don’t go cheap on essential hiking gear. You get what you pay for. The $25 tent is not a good idea for a High Sierra backcountry trip.
It started with choosing a time of year to do it. In the Sierras, the previous winter has a lot of impact on trail conditions. This year was a low snow year, so the streams were not very high. Since there was less snow, that usually means less standing water so mosquitos should not be as bad. Well, that’s debatable. To some, any mosquitos are bad. Ensure that you don’t have problems fording streams or walking across logs over rushing water. Late June/early July worked for us. I hear late August/early September is a good time.
Next choice was the distance to hike. This is where you need to know what your limits are. Can you hike 8-10 miles per day with a full pack at high altitude in 80 degree temps? I can tell you as an avid day hiker, there is a lot of difference between hiking 10 miles with a daypack and with a 40 lb. pack. It’s not pleasant to do a forced march just to make your mileage.
Clothing was another choice. What to wear? Best advice I can give is to check blogs and user groups to see what others are doing. Yahoo has a great JMT user group with relevant info. Due to a forecast of high temps, we would take synthetic short and long sleeve shirts, convertible pants and rain/wind jackets. Still, conditions in the Sierras vary widely, so an extra layer or two is a good idea. Those light weight hiking shoes may not provide enough support on a multi-day hike with a full pack. Test it out first.
Food was next. Dehydrated meals are the easiest and they’ve come a long way. Test some out ahead of time and read the reviews for each. There is some amazing innovation in the area of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Ensure they you have plenty of snacks like energy bars, trail mix, beef sticks and fruits like apples. My wife found healthy alternatives in the form of grass fed beef sticks and even some gluten free snacks. It’s amazing how many calories you can burn in 6-8 hours of hiking, so do the math. Bear canisters are mandatory in most areas on the JMT, so plan to rent or bring your own.
Transportation. Since we were doing a section hike, we chose to leave our car in Mammoth Lakes, catch a shuttle to the trail and for the return leg, catch public transportation (YARTS) back to Mammoth. It ended up working out great. Have a backup plan in case you miss your ride.
Research and planning was everything on this trip which helped make it successful. I learned so much reading others’ blogs and experiences.
NEXT: John Muir Trail Section Hike – Day 0
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
As we prepare for our section hike of the JMT, I am enjoying watching my wife pack, unpack the bear canister. Her frustration mounting, I assure her that it will all fit or we will hang the non-essentials from a tree. Hopefully, by the time we hit Yosemite where bears come to feast, we will have mostly empty bear cans. Whoever created the saying it’s like packing 10 pounds of “stuff” in a 5 pound bag must have invented the bear canister.
The logistics of a section hike in the backcountry are significant. Permits, transportation, food, clothing, checklists, on and on…. Watching her pack, it’s obvious that organized people can get more in their canisters than the rest of us. If you’ve ever crammed a bear canister into an ultralight backpack, you realize that you may be wearing the same clothing all week because it’s either food or clothing.
Keep in mind the pack-it-in, pack-it-out rule. While I agree that we should be good stewards and not leave our trash in the wilderness, it literally stinks to carry your garbage around for a week. I would advise that you rinse out those foil tuna packs after you empty them or your apples will smell like Chicken-of-the-Sea by day three.
Should you pack your bear can with each day’s meals? Like day 5 on the bottom, day 4 above that and so on. I guess if you are OCD then yes. Otherwise, it’s fun finding your food, kind of like the treat in the bottom of a Crackerjack box.
When I got our bear cans, by the way I picked two different types, a Garcia and a Bearvault, I got some reflective tape and made smiley face designs on them. That way, if we need to find a bear can in the dark after Yogi rolls it away, it will be smiling back at us. Along with my phone number, I added a little graffiti like “eat me” and “sorry Yogi” on the reflective tape with a Sharpie. If I have to use those darn things, I will make the best of it.
The old standby canister used by the Park Service: Backpackers’ Cache – Bear Proof Container
BearVault BV500 Bear Proof Container Bear Vault – This one is my favorite, roomy and you can see your stuff.
Always stow your bear canisters between 50-100 ft. away from your tent and wedge them between rocks or trees. Never place them around a cliff or near water unless you plan on fasting for a few days. Enjoy packing them, practice or watch others pack a bear can for cheap entertainment. It’s better than watching Duck Dynasty.
Most of our hiking is in southern California with a desert climate that is arid and dry. From the Colorado Desert in the Anza-Borrego region south to the San Bernardino Mountains, we can go for months without significant precipitation. Water is one thing you can’t scrimp on. The mind plays tricks on you if deprived of this vital liquid, especially since the brain is made up of approximately 75% water.
It’s really important to understand the area that you hike in. On longer day and section hikes, you should know where there are water sources or carry a boatload with you. At over two pounds per liter, it adds up quickly and can make up the bulk of your pack weight. Hydration really is a common sense thing-especially if you’ve ever run out of water. On multi-day and section hikes, it’s a good idea to research trail conditions and water availability. During low snowfall years, many streams are dry by early-mid summer.
How your body loses water
On the trail, the most obvious ways are 1. perspiration (evaporation), 2. breathing-especially if you’re a mouth breather, and 3. urination.
Let’s talk about the symptoms and effects of dehydration on the body first. Dehydration simply put is “deficiency of fluid within an organism” Ha, I like that one. Deficiency is lack of and the organism is your body. When your body lacks the fluid, it’s like running your car with no water in the radiator. You can only go so far before the engine shuts down from overheating. Your body can only go so far because your blood plasma needs water and your organs need the blood.
Symptoms of Dehydration
Dehydration doesn’t occur instantly, there are stages and warning signs along the way. The most obvious symptoms may be thirst, dry mouth, dizziness, headaches and nausea. Urine is a great indicator of your hydration state. Dark or yellow pee is an obvious sign that you need more water. However, in some cases people in a dehydrated state don’t even urinate because there isn’t enough fluid in the body. As your body loses water through dehydration, it can reach a point where it starts taking fluid from the organs, which is a very bad thing.
I am the master of the obvious. Prevent dehydration by taking in more fluids than you lose. If you start out with a deficit, and you exert yourself on a tough hike, you never catch up and put your health at risk. We always try to “tank up” and drink 16-32 oz. of water before a hike. Doctors say it’s always good to start your day that way. The two cups of coffee don’t count either. On the trail, we ward off the thirst by frequently sipping from our water bladders. Drinking a few sips every 5 minutes or so while going uphill barely keeps us ahead of the curve on a hot day. Some people use water bottles like a 32 oz. Nalgene or Camelbak, but use whatever works best. We prefer the 100 oz. Camelbak bladders and I carry a spare liter of water in a bottle.
If you recognize symptoms of dehydration in yourself or a fellow hiker, take a break and drink as much water as is comfortable. Other health issues like heat stress or acute mountain sickness are made worse if you are in a dehydrated state. Remember the car radiator analogy…. Your body regulates itself better when it has plenty of fluids to work with. On a challenging hike, a liter of water lasts me 2-3 miles. Figure out your usage and plan accordingly.
I have used some of the following products for water filtration and highly recommend them:
Sawyer mini-filtration: http://amzn.to/1FDDL48
Katadyn Vario Water Filter: http://amzn.to/1cDgkRd (the absolute best)
Platypus Gravityworks 2L: http://amzn.to/1JtIWee (for several people, good for group camping)
1. You don’t need as much water in the winter time. Actually, you may need more as cool temps provide a false sense of hydration. It’s typically drier in winter and you may lose more through perspiration and respiration.
2. You can get fluids from other drinks like soda, tea. Some beverages actually act as diuretics and can cause increased fluid loss through urination. Water is always best. You can add flavor or add electrolytes if needed. Alcohol and hiking? Niet.
3. I can drink water from that stream. Sure you can. Be prepared to get a classic case of diarrhea due to giardia and cryptosporidium, two bacteria that can probably only be eliminated with antibiotics. You should always filter or treat water from a stream or lake. The animal that pooped upstream just didn’t know any better.
Hiking and good hydration practice go hand-in-hand. Never hit the trail without enough water. Bless you friends, enjoy your walkabout – where ever you are!
P.S. – I often use my Nikon 3300 series camera on the trail. Durable and takes amazing pics. http://amzn.to/1F0F38L
The sun was rapidly sinking below the ridge as I struggled to get my bearings. As it dropped out of sight, it would be dark in 45 minutes. A bit of panic set in as I lamented over my ineptness. Headlamp shattered, my flashlight was gone. Banged up and lost, it was going to be a long night.
Coming up on three years of hiking, I’ve spent many hours learning about backcountry navigation, survival and general stories of thru hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail. I’ve managed to put some of it into practice and have never been lost for more than a couple of hours. In southern California it seems that a hiker gets lost almost every week. What follows is a tale of something that I hope never happens to me – or you.
The day began like any other solo hike. I picked my route out ahead of time, texted my wife with my intended route and off I went. It was late March and there was plenty of daylight left. The Momyer Creek Trail in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, is part of the San Bernardino National Forest. This area is loaded with challenging trails, many intersecting and often leading to multiple summits over 10,000 ft.
The trail, one of the less popular in the area is peaceful and offers good solitude. It’s also one of the least maintained with many blowdowns and much erosion. Volunteers take care of these trails and it is hard work, so no complaining here. It was also early in the season and there was still snow at the higher elevations.
I had checked the weather before leaving and it was pretty standard for early spring in the mountains of southern California. Above 6,000 ft, daytime highs in the 60’s, night-time lows in the 30’s with a slight chance of flurries above 7,000 ft. after midnight.
The hike up Momyer was a good workout, mostly a single track trail that generally followed an easterly direction. By late morning, the sun was warm and the sounds of the woodpeckers echoed through the forest. I stopped every couple of miles to rest and take in the surroundings. So far, no other hikers were around. Off in the distance, the rumbling of a rock slide could be heard. The melting snow must be loosening the granite on the slopes of “Old Greyback” as San Gorgonio Mountain is affectionately known.
My goal was to hike to 9,000 ft. and turn around. Stopping in Saxton Camp, I had a snack and noticed that it was around 4:00 p.m. Thankfully, Daylight Savings Time was a couple of weeks ago, so I could reach the trailhead by nightfall. Yep, 7 miles to go, I can do that.
As I was making my way down, I came across a landslide on one of the slopes. Debris totally blocked the trail. It was a steep talus, too steep to climb. The drop-off was even more precarious and too risky to traverse. No problem, I would backtrack and find a way above the slide. With approximately 90 minutes of daylight left, this needed to be a quick detour. I have a headlamp and flashlight, so I was prepared in case of a delay. Checking my map, I estimated that I was around 7,500 ft. and in an area of steep slopes for a half mile in each direction. Going back, it was difficult to find a path up a slope that wasn’t covered in scree, those loose rocks and pebbles. After about 15 minutes, I noticed an easier route and began a climb up. Reaching a clump of trees, I could see the trail below. Holding my hand up to the sun, I noticed two fingers between the sun and the ridge. That meant 30 minutes until it dropped out of sight.
Looking around for a reference point, that’s when it happened. One second I was standing next to a Jeffrey Pine and next thing I knew I was sliding downhill. Trying to slow myself down, I attempted to dig in with my heels. That wasn’t having much of an effect so I rolled over trying to grab the scree with my hands and clawed as much as possible. Digging my knees in, it felt like I was gaining more speed and bringing the mountain down with me. Then, there was a sensation like the bottom dropped out, and I landed on a ledge. The abrupt drop knocked the wind out of me. I was gasping like a fish out of water.
Well that sucked. After what seemed like an eternity, I rolled over and sat up to assess my situation. No broken bones that I could tell, lots of cuts and abrasions and a goose-egg on the side of my head. One hiking pole was still strapped to my hand, the other nowhere in sight. Worse yet, I was disoriented and unsure of where the trail was. Covered in a light, powdery dust, I must have been quite a sight. A crow flew over me and cackled. I’ve always disliked those birds.
Before the sun went totally down, I checked the supplies in my daypack. Emergency kit, first aid kit, water, snacks, gloves, knit cap, warm jacket, extra socks – you know the ten essentials and then some. My headlamp was a casualty of my excursion down the slope, the lens busted and bulb gone. The Otter Case protected my phone from getting demolished, but no cellular signal. I cleaned my wounds, none of the cuts too deep. The lump on the side of my head concerned me a bit, but I didn’t feel dizzy or lethargic. Looking for my backup flashlight, it wasn’t in the side pocket of my pack. What else could go wrong? With the sun setting and no light I needed to find shelter for the night, out of the winds that would come in from the northeast. Searching the immediate area, I located a spot that looked ok. The patch of flat dirt was clear of widow-makers, you know the dead trees that can drop branches and crush you in the middle of the night. I collected some pine boughs to insulate the ground near a boulder about the size of my car. I had about 1.5 liters of water, a couple of snack bars and an apple. I pressed the button on my Spot GPS to alert my wife that I was ok. Hopefully, she gets the message. Unfortunately, it is a one-way transmitter.
Like many areas in the mountains, cellular coverage is sporadic. Checking my phone one more time, I was disappointed to see no signal. Wait, one bar but no 3G – would it work? I tried a call, but it failed. Tried sending a text and it failed too. Oh well, better save my battery for when I do have a signal.
The last bit of light faded from the sky. No city lights for reference. Pulling out my jacket and space blanket, I settled in and stashed my pack to the side. Hearing crickets, the sky turned darker shades of blue, some pink and then black. Stars began to emerge as the daylight faded. A waning crescent moon was my only nightlight. My eyes adjusted somewhat and I prayed for an uneventful night.
NEXT- Lost in the San Bernardino Mountains-Part 2 – “Hey, that’s my pack!”
You can usually tell the experienced hikers from the rookies on the trail. With only 3 years of hiking under my belt, I’m no longer a rookie you see, I’ve moved up to a novice. Not that I don’t make rookie mistakes on the trail now and then. Like the time I almost lit my friend’s JetBoil with the little foam koozie thing still on. Man, I might dedicate one of my future blogs to my rookie mistakes.
So back to the subject at hand – hiking or trekking poles. Almost every seasoned hiker uses them. Early on in hiking, it was with a single pole. Not sure why I started using one. One pole was ok, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Either that or I wasn’t using it properly. After some research, it became obvious that I could have gotten by with less knee pain with two poles.
Most people will tell you that they use poles to lessen the impact on the knees. The knee is an amazing feat of design by our creator. It absorbs repeated pounding and tremendous weight over and over. The compressive force exerted on the knee going downhill is significant. One study revealed that the typical runner’s knee absorbed between 2-4 times the bodies’ weight. for a 150 lb hiker, that’s approximately 500 lbs each time! The average person’s stride is 2.5 ft. So, in a 10 mile hike, you take roughly 20,000 steps. So here’s some numbers that will blow you away. That’s over 10,000,000 pounds of force or 5,000 tons absorbed by your knees on this particular hike. Good golly, check my math on that one. No wonder my knees ache sometimes. Supposedly, a 1999 Journal of Sports Medicine study revealed that used properly, poles reduce the stress to the knees by up to 25%.
I bought my single trekking pole a partner and that’s when the benefits became obvious. With two poles, I developed better balance going downhill, didn’t slip as much, moved faster and even learned how to “spider” with them. Yes, I know arachnids have eight legs, but someone came up with the name for the technique. The poles even gave this boy some rhythm, where there was none before.
One of the reasons I took up hiking was to get some exercise. Using the same math as before, imagine lifting your trekking poles even 5,000 times on a hike. At an average of 10 ounces each, that’s over 3,700 lbs of lifting. Wow, who needs a Nordic Track? Back to the balance discussion – poles provide the stability when carrying a heavy pack on those extended backcountry trips. They are invaluable when you have to ford those fast-moving streams. Think about it, having 3 points on the ground at all times when crossing over those slippery rocks.
There are times when poles are a nuisance or even a hindrance. Bouldering or rock scrambling is not the time to be using your poles. Hand over hand climbing or bushwhacking through dense vegetation may be some other situations where they are best left strapped to your pack. Lash them down and stow them with the tips down to avoid skewering yourself in the neck or head.
If weight is an issue, then shelling out the money for lighter high-tech carbon poles may be for you. Expect to spend $150 or more for those. I remember a time on the A.T. where we ran into a fellow with 1 – 1/2 carbon fiber poles. We saw the other half of his pole 20 miles later in a swamp with thigh deep mud. The brittle carbon fiber pole was no match for the Maine muck. On the other hand, my $25 aluminum poles were going strong 200 miles later. Even something as simple as this comes with accessories. Rubber tips are more eco-friendly, mud and snow baskets will keep them from sinking down. Some have compasses and thermometers built into the handle. Handles are typically plastic, rubber, or even cork, with straps to prevent flinging them over the ledge when you point out the awesome scenery or mountain lion. I prefer cork handles since it is comfortable and doesn’t cause as much sweating.
Some other uses for trekking poles:
– The make great spears for self-defense.
– You can wrap duct tape around the shaft which can be used in emergencies.
– You can make a huge cross symbol for those trail vampires
– Use them to make noise so that you don’t sneak up on a bear or to scare away mountain lions. No, really.
– Sword fights or fencing around the campfire. Rubber tips on of course. 🙂
So, like anything else in hiking gear, you get what you pay for. If you’re not sure about the need for poles, borrow some from a friend or spend a small amount on an entry-level set. Your knees will thank you.
U.S.D.A. Identifier: Lost Creek Trail, 1E09
Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil.
Distance as hiked: 8.8 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-6,300ft., Top of trail-8,200ft.
Temps: 60-70 degrees
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Today, we would venture out farther from home and drive the 90+ miles to check out the trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness (SGW). While a day hike to San Gorgonio Mountain is possible, it would be a very long day for us and is better attempted as an overnighter. All trails in the SGW require the perfunctory wilderness permit, which can be obtained by stopping by in person at one of several ranger stations, via fax or by snail mail. Follow the swa.org link above for permit directions. I’ve become a bit of a purist and believe trail permits are government out of control, but I am a rule follower.
We stopped in after noon to obtain our permit at Mill Creek Ranger station. While inside, Mary met an old friend and insisted that I take their picture.
From Mill Creek, follow SR38 to the South Fork Campground. Parking for the trailhead is across the road from the campground and is co-located with the Santa Ana River Trail. It is fairly well-marked and breaks off at a marker in the campground. The trail wastes no time gaining elevation over switchbacks that gain 400-500 ft. The trail joins a fire road for a mile and changes to a wide creek bed laden with rocks before narrowing into a rutted single track. Evidence of recent equestrians is scattered along the trail.
This is one of the most interesting and diverse trails that we’ve been on in the San Bernardino National Forest. We traversed areas with deciduous trees, rounded a corner and saw cactus on the verge of blooming. As we crossed the top of a meadow, we saw an area of seasonal springs. There were a few blow-downs and widow-makers throughout the hike. At times, the trail became narrow with sheer drop-offs into the Santa Ana River canyon below. Overall, the climb was gradual with few switchbacks and limited scree to slip on. Pine straw does cover sections of the trail and is a bit slippery. On a side-note, the PCT skirts many of the trails in the San Bernardino Forest and is located less than 10 miles east of this trail.
For the first couple of miles, Sugarloaf Peak to the north is the prominent land mass and the perspective changes as you pass through 7,000 ft. Eventually, the path takes a 180 and you head in an easterly direction with views of snow-covered peaks to the southwest. For this area in southern California, I believe the best altitude for hiking is between 6-8,000 ft. The temps are usually mild and the sub-alpine surroundings offer respite from the sun. This trail is especially appealing due to the solitude. We would run into only one other couple all day.
We stopped at Grinnell Campground, an open area with awesome views to the south-southwest. It was peaceful and we enjoyed our hot tea. When hiking 8-10 miles, it’s a good idea to cool your jets by removing shoes and socks to allow for some air to dry out those puppies.
Our descent was quick with minimal stops for photos. Rounding a switchback, we did see this in the distance and like most hikers is one thing you don’t ever want to see. Notice the smoke was blowing in our direction.
A fire in the backcountry is a scary thing. Fortunately, this one was far enough away and we were only a couple of miles from the trailhead. Cal-Fire had it contained within a few days. If you hike frequently in this region, you know how much fuel is on the ground. Fires can be swift and devastating. It’s a good idea to talk about an escape plan and how you would deal with a fire when out on the trail. Trail maps and/or knowledge of the local terrain is invaluable and can make the difference between life or death in a forest fire scenario.
Well enough of the gloom and doom. We lived to see another beautiful day in southern California and have discovered an amazing array of trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness area. This will serve as our practice area for our section hike of the JMT this summer. My parting advice this week:
– Take trail maps, GPS and discuss escape route options. These Tom Harrison maps are the best: San Gorgonio Wilderness Map (2015) (Tom Harrison Maps Waterproof and Tear Resistant)
– In fire situations, avoid canyons and ravines as fires often ravage these areas.
– Consider a GPS locator for emergency situations. I use a SPOT GPS Messenger. SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange While there is no guarantee that it works 100% of the time, it operates consistently if used properly. There are other higher quality GPS locators out there.
– On day hikes, take extra water and snacks – just in case. This week, several more novice hikers got lost in SoCal. Fortunately, all were found quickly. None of them had water or food for their unplanned overnighters.
Use common sense out on the trail and enjoy the outdoors wherever you are. Consider stocking up on a couple of pieces of survival gear including: Heavy-Duty Stainless Steel Camping Mirror – Personal Use, Emergency Signaling or this whistle: UST JetScream Whistle
Do you remember the first time you hiked in the dark? Was it unplanned? Many, if not most of our day hikes end up at dusk or near dark – mainly because we frequently start late. We do it to avoid crowds on our local/regional day hikes. Having done a few backcountry trips, I can tell you that we try to finish before dark. However, there was this one backcountry trip……
The allure of the Appalachian trail was enough for me to fly out to the east coast from sunny San Diego. While hiking the entire A.T. is a dream, my friend and I would settle for a 7-8 day section hike. Decidedly, we would make this interesting and hike one of the hardest sections of the trail-The Maine 100 Mile Wilderness. In previous blogs, I’ve written how it was the one of my greatest challenges. This section of the trail was unforgiving. At 12 miles per day, we could easily make it out in time. A miscalculation of the terrain caused us to fall behind schedule. Well, my friend was doing fine. At half my age and a Marine, he was like a darn gazelle on the African plain. We had to make it out by a certain day to meet family and for me to catch a flight home. Anyhow, by the end of the first day, I experienced night hiking with a full, no – overloaded backpack.
I learned many things on that trip. Mainly, if you bite off more than you can chew on a backcountry trip, you just suck it up and go with it. The first night hike wasn’t extreme by any means, just different. As night fell, I broke out the headlamp and concentrated on the trail beneath my feet, occasionally looking up front for my friend – who must have had built-in night vision, because he wasn’t using a headlamp. I was starting to think that the government must have put night vision implants in their Marines, but as I would learn later, your eyes will adjust to the dark with pretty good acuity. Fortunately, after a couple of hours we stumbled on an empty campsite and settled in using our headlamps. Sleep came quickly after a long day on the trail.
With each passing day and night, the novelty of nocturnal trekking wore off and at times became drudgery. Much of the trail in the Maine Wilderness is composed of obstacles. For the duration of the 100 miles, every other step seemed like I was stepping on a tree root. Navigating a trail made of roots with the 40lb pack was tough. Even with my acquired “trail legs”, the root jumping ritual gets old quickly. By the way, the A.T. is fairly well-marked with the white blazes on the trees or rocks every 100-200 ft. – during the day that is. At night, the supposedly bright blazes get absorbed by the darkness. Often, my partner would hike ahead to find a campsite and I would trudge along through the darkest forest east of the Mississippi. I was usually so tired, that I didn’t give the darkness much thought. Thinking back, it was probably downright spooky. In Maine, the forest canopy is so thick that you don’t see many stars at night. Sometimes, the trail is only 2-3 ft. wide and the forest so thick and dark that it seemed to close in on me.
Did I mention that a good portion of the A.T. in Maine is built out of logs and cut lumber? The trail is often surrounded by water and much of it passes through creeks, streams and swamps. The “bridges”, many of them built by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, provide a way to navigate these watery areas. At night, the bridges seem narrow, loose and rickety. One slip and you could end up knee-deep in muck. Looking back, I can’t say that it was enjoyable. Fortunately, the swamps in Maine are not home to anacondas or gators. But, as you make your way over these logs late at night, don’t let your imagination wander too far. Occasionally, I would stop and scan the swamp with my headlamp, hoping that I would not see a pair of green eyes looking back at me.
On one night, I was in a particularly thick part of the forest near Joe-Mary Lake and lost the trail. My friend was probably 15 minutes or so ahead of me scouting out the campsite as usual. For a minute, panic set in as I couldn’t see the next blaze. I gathered my wits and focused on what appeared to be the trail and scanned the trees and rocks with my headlamp. A faint blaze appeared 50 ft. ahead on a tree. Was it a blaze or a faded piece of bark? Eventually, the trail became more apparent and 20 minutes later, I would find my friend setting up our home for the evening.
Summertime brings out the bugs on the trail and they love lights. One night, we were taking a break on a boulder and we had our lamps on. We scanned the area around us and saw something moving about 20 ft. away. Suddenly, it flew at us and thumped my friend in the head, me in the chest. It was the largest iridescent moth ever. It continued to dive bomb us and we would run away screaming until we realized that we just needed to turn our lights off. After sneaking away in the dark, we would turn our headlamps on hoping that Mothra was long gone. As the adrenaline faded, we continued to be hounded by smaller moths until we made camp.
By the 6th or 7th night, we would be putting in 12+ hour days and able to hike well into the darkness without headlamps. You really do gain confidence and your eyes seem to gather in every bit of light possible. We even braved a river crossing at night. Fortunately, the water was only to our knees so it wasn’t too bad.
Near the end of this trip, I was a seasoned night hiker. Did I enjoy it? No, not really, it was done out of necessity. On the A.T., the “green tunnel” really makes the night seem darker. I never realized how pitch black it gets in the woods. I think it comes from just being a city dweller. However, many thru-hikers absolutely enjoy night hiking and can knock down some serious mileage. Is it risky? Yes, you just have to know what the acceptable risk is.
Some tips for night hiking, based on my limited experience:
– Have a backup headlamp or flashlight, plus spare batteries
– Know the terrain and assess the risks of hiking in the dark.
– Water crossings at night can be dangerous. Have an idea how deep the water is. Always loosen or unbuckle your backpack straps.
– If you lose the trail, stop and gather your wits. No need to panic. GPS works in the dark too.
– Don’t let your imagination wander too far. You probably aren’t surrounded by alligators.
– When moths attack, turn off your light
I will do night hiking again, perhaps next time it will be under the wide open sky of the John Muir Trail. 🙂 Hike your own hike my friends, and don’t forget the headlamp.
We are coming up on three years since we’ve started day hiking in Southern California. What originally started as a way to get in better shape has morphed into a love of the outdoors and appreciation for an awesome creation.
It is a blessing to live in an area surrounded by “hike-able” terrain. Between San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, there are hundreds of trails to choose from. From coastal strolls to desert jaunts and a trek into the mountains, we just about have it all out here. No doubt, we live in one of the wackiest and most heavily taxed states in the union. A couple of reasons people tolerate the craziness out here is the abundance of outdoor activities and the ability to get away from it all.
The Peninsular Range of mountains in southern California runs north-south. From the San Jacinto’s to Baja California, they provide fantastic ocean and desert views. The trails encompassing the Laguna Mountains in the south are sub-alpine with areas of chaparral. They are often arid, with stiff, cold desert winds in the winter and hot, dry breezes in the summer. The famous Pacific Crest Trail winds its’ way through the Peninsular Range from Campo down by the Mexican border to Mount San Jacinto in the north. We’ve hiked a good bit of the PCT through here, 10 miles at a time. I’ve even thought about becoming a trail angel to the PCT thru-hikers one year.
The wildlife on the trails down here is sometimes sparse, but encounters are more frequent in the early morning hours and before dusk. Deer are abundant as are wild turkeys and a host of reptiles. Once the temps hit the 70’s, we occasionally run across two types of serpents – the Pacific and Diamondback rattlers. Often sunning across or along the trail, they usually slither away, but sometimes need a little encouragement from a hiking pole. Rarely will we find one coiled and ready to strike, but it has happened. Woodpeckers are the most common woodland bird and the California Quail is the ground dweller that we most often see – and hear. Red tail hawks frequently ride the afternoon drafts in their search for prey. Huge white owls are an occasional sight in the deserts after the sun goes down. We have yet to encounter a big cat on the trail, but we have seen a young mountain lion while driving out of San Jacinto. Skunks, bobcats and a host of vermin travel the same trails that the humans do.
Hiking season is year round with summer hikes around 8-9,000 ft. and winter hikes at lower altitudes. On one trip, we passed through a 106 deg desert climate and finished out at the snow-covered summit with temps in the 60’s. Wind is usually a factor and its effects are significant wind chills and increased dehydration. It’s usually the reason we layer our clothing too. Often, we are peeling layers off and putting them back on to stay comfortable. We have been blessed with amazing weather but usually check the forecast before heading out.
Our favorite trails are up in the San Jacinto area, the granite peaks provide majestic views, the Jeffrey pines provide ample shade for the rest breaks that you’ll need as you climb the 2-3000 ft. elevation changes, with the average hike above 6,000 ft. If you seek solitude, hit the trail later in the day and you will run across few bipeds on your hike. Bring a headlamp, and you will be rewarded with interesting descents through the forest as the sun drops behind adjacent peaks. Many of the trails are comprised of scree from decomposed granite and are slippery. Trekking poles are invaluable tools and have saved us from many a tumble. Even more important, the poles are knee savers. They will probably make nice spears too.
The easy to moderate trails in the Laguna Mountains are like casual strolls and make for a nice getaway from the suburbs. Take a lunch and enjoy watching the waterfowl at Big Laguna Lake and be on the lookout for the foxes as they seek out the field mice in the meadows. They’re watching you from a distance, but you can usually get a good photo with a zoom lens. This area is the best for an easy hike with mountains on one side and the desert on the other. The colors at sunset are beautiful.
All in all, the Peninsular Range offers some of the best day hikes, all within 90 minutes of San Diego. We are constantly on the lookout for those obscure trails less traveled and are often rewarded with solitude, awesome scenery and a decent workout. Wherever you are my friends, just venture out and explore.
Bloggers have various reasons they write. For some, it is to share their thoughts. For others, it is a release or an outlet for the passion that they may have for a particular activity. Many are amateur photographers and enjoy posting their work. This episode is dedicated to a recent overnight camping trip to one of my favorite places and a quirky area of photography that is fun.
Anza-Borrego State Park is about 75 miles from my home in North County San Diego. From late fall to early spring it provides a variety of activities due to the milder weather. This mid November day found us heading out to an area a few miles east of Borrego Springs to hike and camp. One of the neat things about this state park is the freedom to move about and explore, including free camping. Free? In a state park? Sure, just stay outside the park campground and you can pretty much pitch a tent or park an RV without paying a dime.
While researching camping in Anza-Borrego on the Internet, I stumbled on a blog that discussed “boondocking”. A strange word, the last I heard anything close were the boondockers – black chukka boots that we had in the Navy. However, boondocking is basically free camping in remote areas or private property – with the owner’s approval. At times, there is probably a fine line between legal camping and trespassing, but I’ll only go where it is legit.
So a boondocking we went down Rockhouse Canyon Rd. near Clark Dry Lake. It’s a nice valley located between two mountains – Coyote Mtn to the west and Villager Mtn to the east. Rockhouse Canyon is a dirt road located approximately 5 miles east of Borrego Springs on SR22. You can usually see a cluster of RV’s near the highway as most don’t venture too far down the sandy road. During the week, you can drive a mile or two and find a secluded campsite. There is one rule in the state park: you must use a metal container for fires. However, we noticed there is an abundance of homemade fire rings throughout this area. We pulled in, looked around and noticed the nearest neighbor was almost a 1/2 mile away. Yes, this will work.
We would stay in the valley and hike north toward Clark Dry Lake on the jeep road. Overall, the road was in good shape this time of year. We ended up walking out on the lake bed, passing Coyote Mtn on the left and came up on a quarry. It was a good opportunity to have fun with some levitation photos.
If you look up levitation photography, you will find some very creative shots of people seemingly flying or floating through the air. I’m not very good at it, but it is fun to try and will make for a good laugh a few years from now. The trick is having someone take the pics or to use a remote. The auto settings on the DSLR usually work, but if the light is low, you may need to play around with the the shutter speed and ISO to prevent blurring. Anyhow, this is just another offshoot from being outdoors. You see, hiking opens up all sorts of possibilities. Just use common sense and don’t try levitating in front of a busy highway or railroad track. 🙂
The real visual treat in the desert occurs after the sun sets. You just have to experience it. Tonight, it was nearly a new moon and the stars almost outnumbered the grains of sand on the beach. Next time, I must bring a telescope.
In my opinion, a campfire is an absolute necessity for a night in the desert and knocked the edge off the rapidly dropping temps. The forecast called for 43 degrees, but we came prepared with several layers of clothes and some 3 season sleeping bags. By the morning, it would drop to 33 degrees. The animals were most active around sunset and we observed many jackrabbits. Several desert foxes ventured within 20 ft. of the campsite – curious little creatures with bushy tales. The coyotes began their yelps and would call out from the east and west. Once in the tent, the silence of the desert lulled us into a gradual sleep as I dreamt of the Bighorn Sheep jumping over Coyote Mountain.
Huddled in our sleeping bags, the dawn began to faintly illuminate the tent. I scrambled out and encouraged my wife to come out to see the sunrise. The air was dry and cold, but the sky was beginning to blossom with various hues of light. After watching an amazing display, we made our hot chocolate and enjoyed a nice, hot breakfast. My wife’s first car camping experience turned out very well. I think that she might try it again. Hopefully, next time it will be a little warmer at night. I encourage you to try camping in the desert – it will be a real treat.
Dazed and losing consciousness, the shade of a scruffy manzanita tree was just ahead. My calf had doubled in size due to the swelling. Using my hiking poles as crutches, I would take a step and drag my leg. Checking my cell phone for reception, my heart sank – no signal. I tried dialing 911 anyway and the call failed. Reaching the small patch of shade, I crumpled on the dusty trail and took my pack off. I fumbled for my SPOT Messenger, an emergency beacon, flipped the cover over the SOS button and pressed it. After a minute, the light was green indicating that the message for help was transmitting. The throbbing in my leg had ceased, replaced by a numbing sensation – similar to falling asleep on your arm. I remember seeing the jagged peaks of the Ocotillos on the distant horizon and faded into a dream….
Living in Southern California, I became interested in the Pacific Crest Trail or (PCT) soon after becoming an avid day hiker. The 2,600 mile trail begins at the U.S. – Mexican border near Campo, California and ends at E.C. Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada. The southern terminus of the trail is marked with a monument, the border fence on the other side of a dirt road. I’ve hiked sections of the PCT, usually 8-10 miles at a time. At this rate, I would hike the entire PCT in 30 years. The realities of life keep this thru-hike fantasy at bay.
Today, I would park almost 20 miles north of the trailhead near the Lake Morena Campground and have a friend drop me off at the border near Campo. He was on his way to Yuma, so it was only 12 miles out-of-the-way. Dropping me off on the dirt road, I would walk to the border, touch the PCT marker and backtrack north. I waved to my friend as he pulled away on the dirt road and headed north. Dust arose as the car faded in the distance. How strange it must be for the Mexicans who witness the hikers that walk this desolate trail. I’ve read that encounters with illegal immigrants are rare in the daytime down here. At night, the human smugglers known as coyotes herd the immigrants through this area, often abandoning them at the first sign of trouble. Human trafficking is a sad thing and I tried not to think about it. On this fall day, the sun was out early to greet me. The forecast had temps in the mid 80’s – not bad for the desert. I had 4 liters of water and enough food for a couple of days. Water is pretty scarce around here this time of year. This would be my longest single mileage day since my trek on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. I’ve worked up to the longer mileage and was fit enough to give it a go. The sky was clear with a few wispy cirrus clouds. Taking out my little camera, I had to get a shot of the beginning of this famous trail.
It was so quiet out here because the sand and chaparral absorb most of the sound. The occasional chatter of a Gambel’s Quail would break the silence. Using my map, I would pick my way around fences, up dirt roads and past some ranches. Passing through the little town of Campo, I would see a post office and a small store. Walking across Hwy 94, I saw cars in the distance, the blacktop making them seem like a mirage.
Crossing some railroad tracks and an old jeep road, I was making good time. Finding shade in the cleft of a boulder, I took a break. The screech of a red-tail hawk on the hunt pierced the tranquility. It was catching a morning updraft, conserving energy. The trail was relatively easy to follow and the elevation was around 2,800-3000 ft. Checking my GPS, it indicated my average speed was 2.8 mph. I was on track to make it to my car by sundown. While prepared to hike in the dark, it’s not something that I enjoy doing. Around the 8 mile mark, I made the crest of a ridge and noticed a descent into a canyon, followed by a 300-400 ft climb. I crossed another jeep road with a gate. Time for another snack, but I would keep moving. While unwrapping my snack bar, I remember looking up in time to avoid tripping over a rock. The Pacific Rattler struck without warning. I remember yelling and lunging forward, the adrenaline surging through my body. I must have run another 30-40 feet before stopping. Looking back, the snake was still coiled under the rock near the trail. The pain in my calf jolted me back into reality. I dropped my poles and unfastened the nylon gaiter on my right leg. Two small holes, one with blood on my calf. The serpent had bitten me through the gaiter. My initial reaction was one of panic. Within a few minutes, the area around the bite burned like fire and the skin turned red and was swollen. I got farther away from the snake and retrieved my cell phone to call for help. No signal! I was in a canyon with no reception. At this point, I wasn’t worried about dying. I knew that most rattlesnake bites were not fatal and that it was important to calm down so that I could make good decisions. I had not seen one person since the little hamlet of Campo, so I prayed to my God for calm and asked Him to get me out of here.
Looking at my map, I was 9 miles into my 20 mile hike. The campground was 10 miles to the north with a 1,200 foot climb. Campo was 8 miles to the south. Not knowing how the snake bite would affect me, I decided to head back south and prayed for a phone signal. I made a detour around the wretched snake and began to feel a bit lethargic and dizzy. Sweat was dripping as my body reacted to the situation. I drank more water and tried to stay calm. Up ahead near the ridge, I noticed some scrubby trees and hoped for some shade. My leg was swelling noticeably and I knew to leave my shoes on. I made it to some manzanitas and dropped my pack.
Still no signal. I knew what had to be done. Six months earlier, I had purchased a GPS device that serves as an emergency beacon and allows for me to be tracked by family members on a website. At the start of my hike, I transmitted the “OK” signal to my wife which sends an email and text to her cell phone with my location. Now, I fumbled for the device and knew that I had to signal for help. I flipped off the safety cover and pressed the SOS button. After a minute, it blinked green indicating that it was transmitting. Hopefully, help would be here within the hour. Looking around, I noticed the tranquility and beauty of the land. The Ocotillos mountain range was in the distance. The last thing I remember was a slight buzz in my ears.
I remember having strange dreams. In one of my dreams, I was dressed up in a fat bunny suit and jumping through the neighbor’s yards. I still don’t understand that dream. It was bright when I woke up. In a strange room, the beep, beep of the monitor and I.V. in my arm left no doubt where I was. A nurse came in and told me that it took three vials of antivenom to treat me. My leg would be fine, albeit sore for a long time.
Later, I would be told that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department received the call from the company that monitors the SPOT GPS messenger. The police chopper was on the scene within 55 minutes. Working with the Border Patrol, they would make their way up a jeep road and haul me out on a 4 wheeler with a gurney. A helicopter would land on Hwy 94 and take me to the hospital in El Cajon, 35 miles away.
Friends, fellow bloggers – at this point I must tell you that this story is a work of FICTION. This didn’t really happen to me. Have I seen rattlers on the trail? Yes, many. Normally, the rattlers are not aggressive and actually prefer to stay away from humans. Most rattlesnake bite victims are oblivious to the snake until they step on it or surprise it on the trail. I can only tell you that if you do hike alone, ensure that someone knows where you are and take a cell phone. Unfortunately, if you hike in remote areas, a cellular signal is not guaranteed. For peace of mind, I picked up an emergency beacon and hope to never use it. Be prepared for the chance rattler encounter and have a plan. If you do stumble on one, freeze and allow it to retreat. If it coils, slowly back away and give it a wide berth. The most common rattlers in Southern California are the Pacific and Diamondback. In my experience, the Pacific Rattlers tend to be more defensive and will coil when threatened. They have the ability to strike out at 40% of their length. A coiled 6 foot rattler can lunge over 2.5 ft! Most of my encounters have been in the afternoon. I actually came within two feet of a coiled Pacific Rattler this past summer; but for the grace of God was not bitten. Enjoy your hike and be alert!
Trekking poles are also great because they can put some distance between you and a snake. I highly recommend these made by Kelty: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
If you insist on walking through rattlesnake infested brush, at least consider these: Rattler Scaletech Snake Protection Gaiters (Green)
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
I admit to being a bit of an introvert. Maybe that is why hiking in the backcountry is so enjoyable to me. The solitude and peacefulness that one can experience is guaranteed to lower your blood pressure by ten points. Admit it, you don’t really enjoy crowds. With over 22 million people in Southern California, the thought of having a space pretty much to my wife and me is ok. If you make it to the backcountry, you will see what it’s all about. After a few hours are spent on the trail, you may notice certain sounds that are missing. You don’t hear cars, sirens, doors slamming and people talking loudly. You hear the wind blowing through the trees. You hear the woodpeckers, hawks, chipmunks and quail. The sounds of nature envelope you. You hear your footsteps as you walk, the clicking of the hiking poles on the granite. You see blue, open sky. The contrast between the terrain and horizon, especially at sunset is amazing. At night, the heavens reveal as many stars as the descendants of Abraham. The moon is so much brighter. The air seems much more crisp and cleaner.
If you are a believer, you may recognize that your surroundings in the wilderness are not just happenstance. I think the beauty was created by a God that loves us and provided this for our enjoyment.
Wildlife (Southern Cali)
Admittedly, in SoCal there aren’t many large animal encounters on the trail. Hikers typically aren’t stealthy because we actually want the large animals to hear us coming. Startling a bear or cougar is probably not a good idea. In our experience, we have come across more deer than anything else. I’ve found that the earlier (or later) you go in the day, the chances of viewing the critters are better. On the trail, it’s mostly birds, reptiles and small mammals. In the spring and summer, the rattlers are out and it’s not uncommon to run across a few.
I love to take pics on the trail; it’s a way to share my experience with others. Up until last year, I used a point and click camera. It was ok for landscapes, but not for wildlife. After getting a DSLR, my desire to take better photos increased. Now photography is another part of my hiking experience. I still don’t know much about it, but found if you take enough pics, some will turn out just fine. Just get the basics down like composition and lighting.
Most of the hiking that I do with my wife are day hikes. We tend to walk an average of 7-10 miles and try to include some decent elevation changes. We stay on the trail, but there are often side trips to check out the scenery or just to explore. Sometimes, we lose the path and bushwhack for a bit. For me, the experience of hiking is better enjoyed when you can share it with someone. My wife of over 30 years is a great partner on the trail. While we’ve had some close calls, lots of tumbles and have been a little lost, she trusts that I will get her back to the car eventually. Our time on the trail has forged a special bond within our marriage. Now, if I can just get her out on a multi-day backcountry trip. …. For now, I’ll just have to do that with the guys.
I tend to bring more stuff (proportionally) on a day hike than on a backcountry trip. Plenty of water, 1st aid kit, survival, GPS, maps, extra snacks and clothing. Sometimes the temperature varies 25-30 deg. on a day hike. We’ve hiked when it was as cold as 18 in Yosemite and as high as 98 in the Borrego Desert. In our experience, hiking in the cold was more comfortable. The heat just saps your energy.
Occasionally, I will hike solo and always let family members know my destination. A text to a family member or friend is invaluable. This year, I purchased a SPOT Messenger, a GPS locator that can send my location to friends, family members. It also functions as an emergency beacon if needed. While I don’t take risks while hiking solo, it provides some peace of mind. I used it on a hike this past summer on the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness (part of the Appalachian Trail) and our family members could track us on a daily basis. Even a couple of my coworkers followed our trip as it plots your location on Google Maps.
I’ve learned and experienced many things on the trail. After 3 years of hiking, mostly in California, I’m still quite the novice. I’ve learned to be aware of my surroundings, and have not taken a serious tumble yet. Oh, I’ve fallen in streams and came within a couple of feet of a coiled Pacific Rattler, but am convinced that I must have a guardian angel with me.
Most trails that we hike are not easy, that would be boring. Do the research, find some with hills and varied terrain. I’ve sought out guidebooks for my area like: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: San Diego: Including North, South and East Counties and Afoot and Afield: San Diego County: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide Seek the obscure trails and you may be rewarded with killer views of sunsets or lush alpine meadows. Find the websites that lists the hikes. They don’t always turn out as advertised. On a couple of occasions, we’ve had to turn back due to overgrown brush. Oh, and if you tend venture off trail, take a trail map-they are invaluable. You can’t worry about bugs out here-ticks, arachnids and once a tarantula. No scorpions yet, thank goodness.
The bottom line is just get out my friends. This doesn’t only apply in SoCal, there are trails all over this great country. I guarantee after you spend a few Saturdays off the beaten path, you will be hooked.
I now use a Nikon 3300 series DSLR, a great camera for the trail: Nikon D3300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II Zoom Lens (Black)
PART I: The Anza-Borrego Desert is an amazing place. I know, to think of the desert as amazing is weird. However, this desert in southeastern California is one of the most serene and beautiful places ever. Anza-Borrego is well-known to southern Californians for its’ desert flower blooms in the early spring. It’s also known for the miles of jeep/RV trails and horseback riding paths. Last year, we walked 7 miles down a jeep trail with the stiff desert wind filling our nostrils with the aroma of desert lavender. This time, we were hoping to go higher and find some elusive Desert Bighorn Sheep.
The intensity of the desert flower blooms in Anza-Borrego depends mainly on the amount of rain. This past winter was one of less than average rainfall, so research on the Internet indicated that it would be a less than spectacular display. Today’s goal was the Alcoholic Pass Trail, a path that would hopefully take us higher into the Coyote Mts for some views of the desert floor and Santa Rosa Mountains to the north. Arriving just in time for lunch, we spread out the blanket in the sand behind the car. It was almost like the beach except there was no water and lots of desert flora.
The weather in the desert is a bit unpredictable. In the early spring, it is fairly mild with few thunderstorms and constant winds. It was a mild 76 degrees. We hit the trail and the incline was steady with plenty of switchbacks and a lot of lizards. The perspective of the desert floor changed constantly as we went up. The barrel and fishhook cacti was colorful today.
We broke out into an opening where we signed the trail register. It was cool to write our thoughts and place them back inside a Vietnam era 7.62mm ammo can which kept the trail register out of the elements. Up ahead, we could see the Santa Rosa Mountains as we did some light bouldering and dropped down into the canyon. The vastness and beauty of the surrounding desert was awesome.
The trail ended at this point in a desert wash. I suggested that we climb an adjacent hill, and we picked our way to the top around various sized rocks and boulders. The terrain was so rugged that we had only walked 2 miles in a couple of hours. Normally, we hike twice as far. As we looked around, we decided to head back west toward a high ridge. Going off trail is usually an adventure and is where this blog gets interesting.
As we looked to the west, we picked out a reference and started making our way. The scrambling over rocks was challenging, but the grade was not too steep. Making our way through a few ravines, I commented about not seeing any footprints or horseshoe tracks. Mary casually mentioned that there weren’t any footprints because we were on rock. Sometimes, I just say goofy things. The late afternoon heat was apparent, but we each had 3 liters of water and were well hydrated. We stopped frequently to catch our breath as climbing over the boulders on this summit really helped us burn some calories.
We finally made our way to a high ridge and the terrain flattened out. I showed Mary a beavertail cactus and mentioned how soft the pads were – kinda like leather. I had touched one earlier in the day, and thought that it was weird that a cactus didn’t have needles. Mary, who trusts me almost implicitly, gently stroked the cactus and agreed that it was “velvety”. We continued up the ridge. I was in the lead and within a few minutes, she said, “Oww, I have something in my fingers”. Looking at her hand, I was surprised to see about a dozen or more tiny cactus spines lodged in her fingers. I tried to get out as many as possible, but the plastic tweezers in the 1st aid kit, were too big. I felt bad for her and learned a valuable lesson – don’t pet the cactus. Actually, Mary probably learned a valuable lesson too-don’t believe everything John says.
After reaching the ridge, we started to pick our way down the mountain. No trail here, just an escarpment of boulders and scree (talus) that moved beneath our feet. 900 feet below, the desert floor teased us. There was no path here, and the grade varied between 30-100%. A 100% grade is equivalent to about a 45deg angle. Covered with loose rock, it was not fun or safe, so I tried to avoid the extreme grades on the way down. So, the off trail adventure turned into a “hiking down the talus slope” adventure. My wife, who I am now convinced is one of the toughest girls you will ever meet, extended her hiking poles and followed me down the mountain.
We were doing fairly well, and the altimeter on my GPS indicated we had dropped down about 500 ft. but picking the path down was difficult. Oh, we did see evidence of the Bighorn Sheep. Lots of “sheep dip” on cliffs and under boulders, but no sheep. I remember our conversation going down as we joked about how crazy it was for two fifty+ year olds to be doing this and how the sheep were probably laughing at the bipeds slowly making their way down. Then it happened. I remember hearing rocks and gravel tumbling down behind me and by the time I turned around, she was on the ground with a dazed look on her face. Mary had slipped and rolled down the hill about 10 feet. Her hat and poles were behind her and she asked if her head was bleeding. She told me that other than bumping her head, she felt a bit lightheaded. I did a quick assessment to ensure she wasn’t seriously injured and then she told me something that we will laugh about for years to come. In a calm and monotone voice, she said “There’s a rock on my arm”. I glanced over and yes, there was a 5 lb. slab of granite on her forearm. Hoping that it wasn’t attached to her arm, I lifted it off and tossed it aside. We spent the next 10 minutes or so ensuring that she was ok, prayed together and asked the Lord to give us a safe journey and we continued down. Other than taking it a bit slower, she never complained or whined about anything. She was a bit upset about the tear in her pants, but I assured her that REI would take anything back.
NEXT: Hummingbird, stars and Hedwig.
- Anza-Borrego Wildflower Update 3/11/12 (naturalhistorywanderings.com)