Gear Review: Tarptent Stratospire Li First Impressions

I bought the Tarptent Stratospire Li the day it was first released and I was so excited that there was now a true DCF double wall tent that would hold up to wind a little better than my Duplex. I have loved my Duplex for 2 years and it served me well but I wanted something a little more wind and rain worthy with my move to the UK pending. I love DCF for its waterproofness and being incredibly light.

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First Impressions

I had ordered the solid inner so had to wait a little longer for it to arrive, but arrive it did. I watched the set-up video several times and read over the instructions carefully. It looked fairly simple. However actually putting the tent up was a completely different matter. I couldn’t get anything tight and it was saggy along the ridgeline. I tried again; it certainly isn’t the most intuitive tent to put up and I’m used to having to finesse a DCF trekking pole tent. I was still not getting the taught pitch I was seeing in the pictures. I emailed Tarptent and got some advice. My third pitch was better but still not perfect.

Two things I noticed in regards to quality control:

  1. The stitching from on one strap from the inner to outer tent had already come apart. I was immediately sent a new one to replace it as it was an easy fix.
  2. The velcro on one of the storm flaps was barely attached. I was pressed for time and rather than sending it back to be fixed I sewed it myself.

I packed the tent away for my move to England and didn’t get the chance to try putting it up again until my weekend in the New Forest.

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Again I fought with the tent to get it right, forgetting to leave the pitchloc ends for last. Eventually I got a moderately-tight pitch. The biggest issue I had was the sag in the inner tent. The elastic from the inner to the outer was positioned very low and was thus not in a position to lift the fabric. This, in turn, created a serious loss of space in an otherwise spacious tent. It feels massive without the inner tent attached, but with the sag leaving 6-8″ between the walls on the non-pitchloc corners it felt small and cramped.

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I emailed Tarptent again with some questions about the reasons for the sag and if there was anything that could be done to improve the way the fabric hung. I got some advice back and within a few days I took it back out for some more testing. I tried slightly longer poles and shortened the size of the loops the inner was attached to.

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Lastly, while the little magnets that hold the doors back seem like a great idea I found that if I even brushed against them lightly they would come loose. I think part of this is the angle of the door…it can’t be rolled back in a straight line and has some tension pulling down on it from the pitchloc corner; this is turn means that it doesn’t take much pressure to nudge it loose. I prefer the toggle and loop closure on the Duplex for security but the magnets are a great idea for convenience and I’m just going to have to be cognizant of the issue.

First Time Out:

I took the SS Li on it’s first backpacking trip out in the Brecon Beacons in April and we were out for two nights. Despite the less-than-ideal ground (old quarry) I managed to get a pretty decent pitch.  Having modified the pitchloc ends to have Linelocs and cord made the difference on having a taught tent in a place that was very difficult to get stakes in the ground.

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There was zero condensation on either the fly or the the inner tent and I had left no doors or vents open, bar the peak vents. Despite the wind (which woke me up a lot) during the night and the less-than-secure pitch the tent stayed solid. The wind in the morning made it more difficult to pack away with the required “rolling around the struts” but I got it done. 

Pitch on the second night was quick and easy and very solid. Without any breeze the condensation in the morning was awful. I attribute that to our proximity to water, being at the low point of a valley and how cold the night got. Any tent would have had to deal with the same level of condensation (a friend’s Nemo had the same problem).

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The double wall design makes it much tougher to wipe down the interior of the fly, but that is not a Li issue, and because the inner is removable I was able to let that dry and then remove it to wipe down the outer. The inner tent isn’t super easy to remove as the clips are fiddly and trying to unhook (or re-hook) them to the small loops of elastic was a pain. When I got home I attached some tiny rings to those elastic loops in order to make the inner easier to remove. I do prefer a toggle and ring approach (like Hilleburg uses) to connect inner to outer for simplicity.

Final Thoughts

Overall I do like the tent. Tarptent were great with customer service with the few issues that I found. Tarptent do extra QC checks on tents that are shipped internationally but since they didn’t know mine was coming to the UK with me I missed out on that…checks that would have caught the minor stitching issues. They did offer to have it fixed here in the UK but since I had already fixed all but one thing it didn’t seem worth it.

The pitch is not intuitive so it’s worth taking time to do it a few times at home before heading out to camp with it. Once you get the hang of it the tent can be up within 5 minutes.

 

Gear Review: Enlightened Equipment Convert

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Specs: 10F Reg width/Reg length 850FP down quilt with the optional DownTek water-repellent down at no extra cost

Enlightened Equipment is a small cottage manufacturer located in Winona, Minnesota that specializes in down and synthetic quilts, underquilts and other down accessories for sleeping.

After researching for weeks for a new sleeping bag that was lighter than my 7lb Cabela’s mummy bag from years ago I tried a synthetic bag from Thermarest. It was a nice bag, warm and comfortable but still too heavy at over 3lbs, and I wanted something lighter. I would have to invest in a down bag that I hoped would last me a long time.

The more I read the more I narrowed down choices. Western Mountaineering bags were at the top of my list, but were just too expensive at the time for what I wanted, and the Kelty Cosmic 20 down bag at the lower end of the spectrum just didn’t have constant good reviews. That’s when I started reading more and more about people using quilts. I was intrigued.

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Reading forums, hiker blogs and reviews from all over the internet three or four companies kept cropping up with high recommendations: ZPacks, Katabatic, Jacks ‘R’ Better and Englightened Equipment.

Knowing that I wanted a lower-rated sleeping bag/quilt due to the fact that I am a cold sleeper at the beginning of the night, and the areas I generally camp and backpack in, I wanted a quilt that could be used as a sleeping bag in colder temperatures (quilts don’t do great below freezing, according to reports I have read). Both ZPacks and EE offered a zip-up quilt option; ZPacks as an addition to any of their quilts, and Enlightened Equipment as a separate model called the Convert.

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Several things swayed my choice when it came to choosing between the two companies. What it finally came down to was options: Enlightened Equipment gave me the options to fully customize my quilt the way I wanted it, from down fill-power (800 to 950), inside and outside colors, length and width (which ZPacks also does, although they only offer two colors) and the type of down used. I loved that I could choose the colors of my quilt, and there are over a dozen colors (for the exterior) to choose from. I also preferred EE’s baffle construction and orientation since horizontal baffles across the sleeper could allow the down to slide to the sides during the night, especially if you move around a lot. (This has now been done by ZPacks also).

After ordering, and knowing that all quilts are made to order, I waited. Within a day or two I felt like I’d made a mistake in the sizing and emailed Enlightened Equipment. They adjusted my order and sent me a new receipt with the updated information. A few weeks later I was looking at the website I noticed they had updated their color choices…they had PURPLE. I immediately emailed the company and asked if they could possibly change my order. And they did.

Less than two weeks later my quilt arrived in a cotton storage bag and large box, nicely packaged. I couldn’t believe how light it felt, although at 27oz not quite the lightest on the market but the 850FP down stands up to humidity better than 950FP and I don’t always plan on camping in the dry air of the western US. And I absolutely LOVED the colors…they were true to the colors on the website and I liked that my sleeping bag was unique to me and my personality.

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The material is thin and definitely translucent enough to see the down inside, but it felt like good quality and the construction and stitching were faultless. The zipper works smoothly although I have found that it does catch the light shell material very easily if you are not careful; I always run my fingers along the inside of the zipper as I am closing it up which seems to avoid the issue…keeping the zipper and material taught helps too.

My first outing with the Convert was on my Tongue River Canyon hike. It was only an overnight, and quite warm during the day. During the first use I kept it zipped up in the hoodless sleeping bag mode. I stayed plenty warm and toasty during the night, with heavy winds and some rain.

The second trip was to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Again I kept it in sleeping bag mode and was plenty warm the first night. The second night, having camped right next to a creek, everything got damp, including the Convert. Having my face next to cold, wet fabric chilled me to the point of having to put my down coat on underneath the quilt. I don’t believe this to be a fault with the bag that I got cold, but one of my own making.

The third and fourth trips (Little Horn Canyon and Walker Prairie) I finally used the Convert in quilt mode due to the warm temperatures. I found this set-up to be very versatile and I slept well in both places, staying plenty warm without the need to zip up the bag or even pull it around me. Of course a 10F bag is overkill when the overnight lows are in the 50s.

Taking the Convert on the Solitude Trail for a week was the longest test and it performed superbly. I mostly used it as a quilt with the top snap closed and adjusted as necessary as I slept. I was cold only one night, when it dropped below freezing, and I realized that I probably should have stuck with the original width I had ordered (slim vs regular)…there was just too much space in the bag for me to warm successfully in sub-freezing temperatures. Part of me being cold was that it was also a damp night. Even with too much space, an added layer made all the difference. Most of the reason I was getting cold was the ingress of too much air at the shoulder area and only a thin layer of fleece shirt to block it.

I like the vertical baffles on EE’s bags; they keep the down where you want it and I don’t find that it moves much after I’ve given the bag a good shake after it comes out of its stuff sack and allow it to loft.

The elastic draw string at the neck of the bag is sufficient for what it does but it is probably my least-liked element of the bag. It is very narrow, non-stretchy cord and I don’t like the tightening location. I’d like to see the cord replaced with a flat, elastic version that doesn’t feel quite so much like a garroting wire when tightened. It is especially difficult if you want to reach a hand out of the sleeping bag to scratch your ear, put on chapstick, grab your flashlight…or pick your nose!!! An elastic cord would alleviate some of this and make the bag more versatile, and placing the tightening location by the zipper with two toggles instead of one would also be an improvement. Of course, these are just my opinions on one aspect of the Convert that didn’t work for me. A neck baffle (as found as an option on Loco Libre Gear’s quilts would really be a plus).

Overall, the Convert (and other EE quilts) are great quality and provide a warm, light sleeping bag/quilt at an affordable price. Their customer service was impeccable and I really appreciated their efforts to make sure I got the bag I wanted, despite all the changes. I don’t think you can go wrong with Enlightened Equipment.


Caveat and Update: July 2018

I ended up selling this Convert as I upraded to a Western Mountaineering Versalite, or at least I thought it was a upgraded. I found the length of the Convert way too much and my feet were getting cold. In the end, and after only one 5 day trip I sold the WM bag as I found it too restricting; it was too small and confining (although plenty warm) and I missed my quilt. I sold the Versalite and re-ordered a Convert in the short length this time but still regular width, and using the same colors with 2oz of overstuff and I am very happy with my choice.

 

 

 

Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 2

Day 5

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We got a late start again today but at least the sun peaked over the horizon to the east sooner than usual and got us warmed up after a night below freezing. The mile hike down Ranger Park was gentle and easy and we kept watch for wildlife. We had to duck under a rope crossing the trail as the guys who had generously donated the beer the night before were blocking their horses’ escape route. We passed their camp, wished them a good morning and moved on. The trail split and we took the upper trail to Grave Lake. The initial climb was moderate and it soon leveled out. We passed two amazing waterfalls before we reached the lake and took a moment to enjoy the scene.

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Grave Lake was beautiful and more still than I think I have seen any body of water. It was like a mirror for the mountain surround. We paused for a snack and to take pictures…right up until I dropped my camera in the water. Yes, the second camera I have now drowned but the first that was almost brand new. I wasn’t happy but I hope I saved the SD and dried it out quickly. (How many photos were posted earlier in the blog will attest to how successful this was!)

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Thankfully I still had my phone and could continue to take pictures (which ironically turned out to be better quality than the ones from my camera). Of course the guys are taking plenty too so there will more than enough to choose from.

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We circumnavigated Grave Lake and climbed up over a boulder field which had taken out the old trail. The trail could be seen below us. We soon faced another steep climb to yet another waterfall, and then above it to cross the creek that flowed out of Baptiste Lake.

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We stopped for lunch and to refill with water while we enjoyed the incredible view of Mt. Hooker, a slab of sheer granite with a vertical wall that just didn’t look real.

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From the creek crossing it was all uphill to Hailey Pass. What looked like a short 1000 ft climb over 1.2 miles ended up being one mile of easy hiking followed by .2 miles of snow fields and a near-vertical trail of marbles. It was a trail where one false move would send you crashing to the bottom. Jerry said we could be at the top in 40 minutes. I thought that would be impossible and just laughed, but with that challenge in my head I motivated myself to get moving.

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Initially the trail meandered through rock-strewn grass meadows next to a snow-melt-fed creek before ending at the bottom of another snow field, beneath which was buried the switchbacks of the trail. We eye-balled the trail above us in order to give us a rough direction of travel and then went for it. Shoes with good grip and my hiking poles helped immensely to stop me from slipping more than a few inches in the melting snow. If I fell too far I’d probably have taken Jerry’s feet right out from under him too as he wasn’t far behind me.

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The trail after the snow field then got tough…and I mean one of the more nerve-wracking and steepest climbs I have ever done. I was amazed at how tough it was but also at how fast we managed to do it. Although it wasn’t 40 minutes we did make it to the top in 50! Now that was something I was proud of…and I still felt good and like I had energy. It was pretty freaking awesome.

We spent a few minutes at the top, hollering down the valley at Doug way below us, just a tiny dot on the trail, before turning west and heading down towards Pyramid Lake.

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We passed two alpine lakes immediately, one with a massive snow field to the side that looked like it would be fun to glissade down and fly off straight into the lake…if only it wasn’t so cold.

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We crossed the stream leaving the lakes and followed a rocky path down the valley for two miles before reaching a trail junction…and a bunch of tethered llamas! It was an odd site to walk on. From there we hiked another mile to Skull Lake where we made camp for the night at 4pm…a good time to allow for eating and relaxing.

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It was still warm and breezy and our tents dried quickly as we did camp chores. (We hadn’t had one morning where we woke up with dry tents…frozen, but not dry). Jerry had erected a large sign for Doug to see when he arrived in camp comprised of a dead-fall branch and his Ursack (I forgot to take a picture of it though). He wandered into camp a little before 6pm looking a little beat and voicing the same disbelief at the pass we had all just climbed, crossed and descended.

With dinner eaten we discussed the next day’s plans as I crawled into my sleeping bag to stay warm. We talked together as day faded to night, and waited for the moon to rise. We went to bed before it did.

Day 6

We were out of camp by 9am this morning with a short day ahead of us. We hiked only a mile before I emptied my pack, Doug pulled out his sleeping pad and umbrella, and Jerry and I made the 2.2 mile side trip up to Shadow Lake. Both of us wanted to hike more miles than the approximately 5 miles from one camp to the next.

We had barely gone 10 minutes when we saw a group of 4-5 people with a loose dog that didn’t look like it was under control. We stepped way off the trail, more than 40ft (further than I usually do), and as usual I put Kye and Cody in the down-stay position. This dog barreled up to us and then after sniffing introductions the dog laid into Cody. I kicked the dog who backed off and Jerry grabbed my hiking poles from me and stood on the defensive. One of their group hurried over to get their dog and several of them apologized although I wasn’t exactly in a mind to accept it. (Forgive the rant here: Dogs should always either be on a leash if they are not under complete voice control at all times. I always think it’s a little sad that people feel like they have to thank me for having well-trained and well-controlled dogs).

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The hike to Shadow Lake was easy terrain and we made the 2.2 miles in 50 minutes. We passed or talked to several groups going up over Texas Pass and into the Cirque. The pass looked pretty intimidating…as steep, or steeper, than Hailey Pass and no maintained trail over the top. As we ate a snack and drank some of our water we could see two tiny dots that were people on the top of the pass. That is what we must have looked like to Doug when we were at the top of Hailey Pass.

Texas Pass is the saddle in the far left of the picture:

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We returned back to the trail junction to see Doug taking a nap under his umbrella. I ate lunch and then we headed down the trail for a few miles. It was a short day, mileage wise between camps, and we set up camp in Fish Creek Park. Still no wildlife to be seen anywhere…this certainly isn’t the Bighorns where I usually see a ton of wildlife.

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We talked and did camp chores, ate dinner and talked some more with some very interesting subjects coming up. Once the debates on some of the more popular conspiracy theories came out I kept my mouth shut…not a subject I generally get into as it can get pretty heated and I don’t argue a point without facts to back me up.

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We had the clearest night yet and spent a while watching the stars and the Milky Way appear overhead before finally retiring to bed for our last night.

Day 7

We woke up to an earlier-than-usual-sun due to our camp site location which was nice as our tents and sleeping bags were once again soaked. I ate breakfast and brushed my teeth in my tent as I let my sleeping bag dry in the warming sun. We were slow to get going (again) as we only had 4 miles to hike to the truck…and from there a few decisions were going to have to be made.

Jerry and I talked most of the way back as we followed an easy trail down a mild grade with very little in the way of the spectacular scenery we’d been seeing over the past few days. Doug mentioned he wanted to take his time and savor the last few miles we had left in the Wind River Range.

Jerry and I got back to my truck around 11am, removed our packs and I grabbed a much needed diet Pepsi…it tasted pretty awesome. We found a note on the windshield from Jeri and Wayne and we set off to find them in the campground, just next to the trail head. They had done some hiking while we had done the loop but Jeri had remained sick the entire time we had been gone although she was starting to feel better, finally.

Upon a brief discussion all agreed that a hotel, a shower and beer and burgers in Pinedale were definitely called for. After that had been decided (we already knew Doug’s opinion on the matter) Jerry went to wait for Doug by the privies so he didn’t walk all the way back to the truck at the other end of the parking lot as Jeri and Wayne packed up their camp.

While Jeri and Wayne packed up, and Doug threw his pack in the car, Jerry and I headed for my truck to go see if we could find my misplaced headlamp at the place we had camped the first night. We had no luck.

With no headlamp to be found (I did find it in the camper when I got home) we headed down the mountain towards Pinedale and I pointed out the original trail head we had planned on using (Scab Creek TH) which was much further out in the basin than Big Sandy TH. We agreed we had made a good choice in changing it.

The sign as we drove into Pinedale was pretty apt. It read “Pinedale: All the civilization you need”. After a week in the wilderness a small town was exactly what we needed to ease back into the world of motors and money.

The first stop in Pinedale was the liquor store during which time Jeri, Wayne and Doug must have passed us as they called us from outside the brewery, and they had originally been behind us. We drove to meet them and I made a few phone calls and managed to locate enough hotel rooms in the same hotel to accommodate us all for the night. With beer in tow we headed for the Gannett Peak Motel, and despite desperately needing showers we all opted for a cold beer or two first. Showers did follow quickly as we were all hungry and ready for a good meal and did not want to completely offend the Pinedale locals with the smell of the mountain and hard-earned sweat.

With everyone showered and in cleanish clothes we finally walked the couple of blocks to the Pinedale Brewery and Grill where everyone ordered the much-talked-about burgers, except for Doug who had been more vocal about steak (and Rocky Mountain Oysters but they weren’t on the menu). We were also joined by our motel neighbor, Ramone, who was heading out for his own solo trip in the Wind River Range the following day.

Burgers, beer and steak disappeared fast and the conversation flowed well. Dinner was followed by Jerry riding a moose and then a brief visit to the Cowboy Bar where we listened to the jukebox and played a couple of games of pool (Wayne and I won both games as a team). We headed back to the hotel shortly and all headed to our respective beds to get some much needed rest.

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Day 8

No one slept well last night. I think we all slept worse than we did on the mountain, which is saying something for me since I did a lot of cussing at my hammock quilt (such a small one is not recommended for ground sleeping).

Coffee was found across the street, as was a cold diet Pepsi. Bags were packed and loaded in vehicles, dried tents were folded and put away and final pictures were taken. Dogs pouted and sulked as they knew something different was happening with people they had bonded to. With not much left to do we said our goodbyes with hugs and handshakes and I watched everyone drive away.

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It felt strange and kind of empty now that I was alone. I had spent 24 hours a day with Doug and Jerry for a week and we had certainly built a bond between the three of us with our shared time on the trail and the experiences we had. If this is what it feels like coming back to civilization after only a week on the trail, and creating amazing memories with new friends, I can begin to understand how it feels for a thru-hiker who has spent many weeks and months on the trail creating these relationships and then having to go back to “real life”.

Summary

The Wind River Range loop we did was brutal, beautiful and challenging but all those facets came together in the most amazing way to push me harder than I have ever been pushed before and also to learn how much more I can challenge myself. Depsite how tough it was there was never a moment in my mind I thought I would quit or couldn’t do it and I thrived on the challenge.

We had impeccable weather despite most nights dipping below freezing. We saw almost no wildlife (a couple of deer, multiple marmots and lots of squirrels and birds) which was surprising, but the majesty of the mountains mostly made up for it.

I created some friendships that I believe will last a lifetime and we are already talking about other trips together. This really was one of the most amazing weeks of my life and I look forward to repeating it in the future.

Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 1

Day 1

I awoke early to frost on the windows and a frozen water bowl for the dogs. I heaved myself out of the warm confines of my cozy bed to let the dogs out, brush my teeth and grab a diet Pepsi (my coffee). We were soon on the road and heading over South Pass at the southern end of the Wind River Range, and a well-known re-supply hub for CDT thru-hikers.

A right turn onto Lander Cut-Off, a well-packed dirt highway, would take us straight to the turn-off for Big Sandy trail head where I was to meet the others backpackers I would be hiking with but whom I had never met. The road was typical Wyoming dirt highway and it was safe and easy to drive at 40-50 mph, except on the frequent and often-unmarked curves. After 26 miles I took the right turn up to Big Sandy trail head. The road was slightly rougher but still a decent 20-30 mph road with a few washboards and some small rocks, but the views at the top were stunning.

I had planned on arriving early as the fishing looked promising in Big Sandy creek. After finding a good campsite 3/4 mile south of the trail head I checked the creek out for a hour or so using the 2-weight fly rod my dad had left in my care. Other than being completely thrown by the right-hand reel the fish just weren’t interested no matter what fly I cast out into the water. I could see a handful biting but just not where I was. The creek was wide enough that my 4-weight might have been a better choice for fishing. After just over an hour of attempting to catch a fish I gave up and went back to the truck.

I ate lunch and took the dogs to the creek to play since there were no fish biting and no fishermen to disturb. I threw sticks and rocks for them to chase and go after in the current (the sticks not the rocks) and Kye brought me at least half a dozen 1lb rocks that she had dragged out from the bottom of the creek, and not the ones I had thrown. With the dogs worn out and thoroughly soaked we headed back to the truck where I set up a chair, grabbed a beer, turned on the music and made bets with myself about when the others would arrive.

Arrive they did, right at 3:15pm (I had bet myself 3pm) and introductions were made as we talked and drank a few beers. (Despite comments on White Blaze not enough beer had been brought in their cooler). One by one everyone grabbed their packs to set-up tents and roll out sleeping bags and pads…I was the only one who didn’t as I was going to use and appreciate one more night in a bed with sheets and comforter in my truck. As dark settled over us we gradually dispersed to our sleeping areas, all excited and looking forward to the week-long adventure that lay ahead of us.

Day 2

Last night was slightly less chilly than the night before which was surprising since I believe the elevation was higher.

I awoke to the sounds of car doors slamming before the sun had peeked over the horizon. I think I was the last one out of bed, but the window coverings I use keep my truck a lot darker than the tents were. It was a slow start to the morning as everyone made their coffee or oatmeal, stretched, warmed up and eased their way into the day. Camp was packed up and we hit the trail head parking lot at 9am where we made good use of the privies before heading up the trail.

Doug and Jerry:

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With the exception of a few rocks and a couple of short, steeper sections the trail was easy hiking through old pine forests with a lot of ground debris and dead fall (not on the trail). We passed dozens of parties coming down the trail, pulling off to the side almost once a minute for the first hour. Couples, singles, groups with dogs…most of which also carried packs, and almost all of which were well behaved…hiked down as we hiked up. We took our first break at the half hour mark as Jeri was struggling slightly. It was a good place for a snack and we BSed for a while until everyone was ready to continue.

Wayne and Jeri:

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The trail remained mostly flat and easy to hike and I barely used my hiking poles…they began to feel like a useless appendage. Within another half hour Jeri was really having a hard time and we took another break with an amazing view of green meadows beside Big Sandy Creek. Sadly Jeri became unwell and decided to that she needed to rest a while before continuing. She told Doug (Huck), Jerry (Not Bad) and myself to continue. We left Jeri and Wayne and hiked on, all three of us feeling terrible about leaving them behind but also knowing what we had each committed individually to this trip, financially and emotionally. We committed to only hiking as far as Big Sandy Lake and waiting for them, camping the night there.

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So on we went, taking our time to meander the four easy trail miles, enjoying some stunning views in between the trees and taking breaks to refill water and BS. We all hiked at our pace and caught up with each other every 10 minutes or so. Jerry, with his long legs and tiny pack was way out front leaving the rest of us in the dust. I found myself in the middle of the pack hiking my normal moderate pace with a heavily loaded pack set up with seven days of supplies. Doug brought up the rear, enjoying a leisurely stroll.

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By 2pm we arrived at Big Sandy Lake and stopped to eat a late lunch as yet more groups passed our phenomenal lunchroom-with-a-view lake-side eatery. We looked at the map and got our bearings, picking out a good spot half way around the lake to stop for the night, flat and easily visible if and when Jeri and Wayne showed up.

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We picked our tent spots and got our tents up in between gusts of wind, and despite the rocky terrain the ground was surprisingly easy to put stakes in securely…always a nice thing to have. Sadly Doug’s tube of pesto sauce had leaked in his food bag and all over his now-smelly bear-resistant Ursack (so much for the smell-proof Opsak liner). At a suggestion he grabbed his soap and headed to the creek to at least try and get some of the oil and smell out before dinner (and no, he didn’t wash it in the creek).

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We had plenty of time to kill so we took pictures, I sent my check-in message to a friend via my InReach and we talked. We hoped we’d see our missing companions but none of us were optimistic, sadly, and all of us were bummed as this trip had been long in the planning.

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With evening drawing in we cooked and ate dinner as the wind remained strong and kept me a little chilled…the other two were fine. We debated about hanging food. We had Ursacks which are bear-resistant kevlar bags with odor-proof liners and can be tied to a rock or tree to prevent bears taking off with them. However, with the area known to have habituated black bears around we decided to try and hang them too…just to err on the side of caution. It was an interesting hang and definitely a team effort to get 3 7lb bags of food high into the chosen tree. On a positive note for me I managed a personal best for rock throwing…made it over the branch on my second throw. Yay me! Hope we still have food tomorrow or this is going to be a very short backpacking trip.

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After the bags were hung and camp was set for the night we looked at the map and brainstormed about the trail for the next day or two and made a rough plan, all the while still watching the trail across the lake for the others.

Finally it was too cold to be outside the tent and I crawled into my tent with the dogs and under my nice, snug quilt. Just as I was switching my socks for bed I got called back outside to watch the moon rise over the peak to the east…it was very cool to watch but tough to take a good picture of.

The guys talked for a while as lay in my tent writing…of course, being guys and knowing my feelings on bears (this trip was only going to be a possibility as a group trip for me) they tried growling, which I just snorted at. Then, of course they had to give me a hard time about not providing them with epic Dune Elliot reading material for the trip…something they had both asked for prior to the trip. Funny guys, and good entertainment too. They don’t know I hid peanut M&Ms under their tents for the bears to find!!!

Day 3

For some reason we seem to be slow getting started in the mornings. It might be something to do with it being damp and cold and it is hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag and into cold clothes.

The view was just as stunning this morning as we packed up camp, retrieved food bags, ate breakfast and tried to warm up. The only bad thing about such an amazingly gorgeous location was the tougher-than-normal search for a private location to dig a cat hole!

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We were out of camp by 9am (again) and the trail immediately started out steep, turning and curving up some switchbacks before flattening out for a short time but the grade and foot-bed was generally pretty good…not the incessant rocks I’m often subjected to on less popular and more remote trails. Each step higher gave us more and more incredible views as we approached treeline. Every time we paused to look back at the view the cameras were immediately pulled out.

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There were a handful of other hikers on the trail but there were far fewer than yesterday. We finally asked a group of climbers to take a group picture of the three of us. We took our time, slowly climbing towards Jackass Pass that would lead us into the Cirque of the Towers. Each panorama was more spectacular than the last, although how I am not sure.

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We crossed the creek and bypassed the first lake as we looked down into its clear blue waters, which looked inviting but were bitterly cold. At the head of the lake we were half way to the top of the pass and we snacked and refilled with water before making the final push to the top. Another steep tail led up from the lake before once again flattening out for a short time before we reached our biggest challenge.

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Between us and the pass into the Cirque was another small lake. On one side was a solid wall of granite with a pretty deep snow shelf hanging above the water, on the other was a small boulder field followed by a large boulder field…this is where the trail went.

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Initially it wasn’t too bad as most of the boulders were hoppable and easy-ish to navigate. A short dirt trail led onward into another boulder field and then led up. This was no longer hiking…this was bouldering and climbing. The dogs did superbly although Kye got stuck in one place and almost fell into a hole…thankfully Doug was behind her…but she managed to extricate herself and move on. It had my heart pounding slightly as I couldn’t get to her quickly and she could have fallen. It was a pretty gnarly section of “trail” and we agreed to stop and have lunch before hiking the last half mile to the top.

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Some of these boulders were as big as trucks and small cabins:

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I gave the dogs a reprieve and removed their packs as they had done a lot of hard work in the boulder field. They took naps and we ate. It was the first glimpse we got of one of the towers that comprised the cirque. We also watched two rock climbers either climbing or repelling a seemingly sheer rock face.

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The last half mile was the steepest yet and nothing but loose sand and a few rocks. I was stopping often, not just to give my muscles a break but to visually inhale the view. Nothing up until that point compared to the towers, peaks and valleys of granite that assailed our eyes as we reached the apex of Jackass Pass (aptly named) and the beautiful Lonesome Lake at the base of the Cirque. It was too much to take in…there were just no words to describe what it looked like or how it made me feel to see. If I could imagine a cathedral God would create…that would be it.

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Feeling dumbstruck and slightly emotional we descended towards Lonesome Lake (the first test if how my knee was holding up, and it did good), stopping every five minutes again to take more pictures of the snow and intense fields of wild flowers that were still bright and blooming in vivid reds and yellows and blues at this time of year. It seemed surreal.

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We took yet another break at the edge of Lonesome Lake, trying to absorb the majesty of what we were surrounded by before covering the final two miles to our camping spot. A great trail, stunning views and good conversation helped the final 45 minutes disappear beneath our feet and we made it to the trail junction at about 4pm.

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We all scouted the area for suitable places to camp and I found one just south of the trail with several nice, flat tent spots:

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I got my tent up quickly, as did Doug and Jerry as we all needed them to dry out from the condensation and dew from the night before. We ate dinner, looked at the maps again, hung our food bags and then went to spend the final hours of daylight watching the sun set over the Cirque’s towers and listen to the bugling of bull elk next to the creek. It was a pretty amazing evening and we all went to bed tired.

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Day 4

We all awoke to the sounds of elk bugles this morning and were up and at ’em at 6:30am as I yelled at the guys in their tents. We had decided we wanted an early start as we had a big climb ahead of us and a long day. It was definitely cold and I tried to do as much stuff from the warmth of my sleeping bag that I could…it wasn’t enough and I still had to brave the frigid air for multiple things. I’m definitely a little jealous of the guys as they don’t feel the cold like I do.

The sun finally peaked over the tops of the trees as we were finishing packing up and the guys went to replenish water. I always do mine the night before so I don’t have to deal with more cold stuff in the mornings.

With water bladders and bottles full we started up the steep and grueling climb from Lizard Head Meadows to Lizard Head Pass. The trail started in trees but soon climbed above them for more views of the Cirque of Towers and dozens of other granite walls and peaks, valleys and lakes. We could see down to the place we camped and the probable location of the elk from the night before. Walls still towered above us and the alpine tundra soon lay before us, criss-crossed with natural springs and plenty of water (we had been a little worried before as some of the water sources were seasonal).

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Rocks and short-tufted grasses and low-scrub plants were abundant, with the plants starting to turn pretty fall colors of reds and yellows.

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We finally reached the top of Lizard Head Pass and a gently-graded but rocky path led us down the far side until we reached the bottom of another short but steep climb that circumnavigated Cathedral Peak and down the other side. We stopped for lunch to fuel up for the final climb of the day and it was then that Doug told us that he’d tweaked his knee and that it wasn’t doing so good. He was just going to take it slow and easy as we continued.

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Nap time while we waited for Doug:

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From Cathedral Peak we descended along the side of the hill to our first snow-field traverse. I picked my way across rocks for the most part on the near side of the snow as it seemed to be the easiest and safest route and had less snow to fall through. The snow was solid, though, albeit a little slick and Jerry and I made it safely to the bottom. Doug, on the other hand, chose a different route as he caught up with us and managed to slip twice and fall once…it was definitely graceful. Two thumbs up and a high score.

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Can you see Doug on the snowfield in the picture below?

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The trail followed the valley for two miles, high above the creek and I ran out of water half way down. Thankfully Jerry had caught up with me and helped me out with a little water.

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We reached a trail junction where we left signs and arrows for Doug to follow so he knew where we went and then headed past Valentine Lake were I chugged half a liter of water after filtering two liters. Jerry and I then quickly covered the last mile to Ranger Park, crossed a creek shoe-less which was uncomfortable, painful and cold to say the least…thank God for hiking poles. We found a gorgeous tent site…the best one of the trip so far…with an amazing view akin to Devils Tower. Doug showed up within the hour.

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As we were setting up camp two riders with pack horses veered off the trail to come and talk to us. Jerry, the sweet-talker that he seems to be, managed to wrangle three beers out of the riders who were heading up to Grave Lake, fulfilling our much talked-about interest in a cold beer while hiking this amazing place. It was awesome trail magic and a wonderful gesture, so thank you to the two kind gentlemen from Casper, Wyoming. There’s a reason I love this state and will always call it home.

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We ate dinner and watched a mule deer wander near to camp before hanging our food bags and talking for a while as the moon rose. It was a grueling but amazing day. A few coyotes and a couple of elk bugles were the farewell song of the day.

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Centennial Trail South, Black Hills, South Dakota

This hike was dedicated in memory of my Grandad, Ron Finnis, who died at the age of 92 on April 8, 2017. I carried his picture with me the entire trip and carried his memory in my heart.


Day 1

Southern Wyoming and northern Colorado took a final wintery hit during mid May and were nailed with over 12 inches of snow in under 48 hours postponing my departure to the Black Hills of South Dakota for 24 hours. Sheridan was blessed with maybe half an inch of snow, a few clouds and some very wet precipitation but we weren’t affected by the final “hurrah” that Mother Nature sent our southern counterparts.

While the weather didn’t affect me directly it did affect the acquaintance who was helping me out with transport logistics from truck parking to trailhead drop off. Thankfully, Saturday morning saw cold but clear skies and wet but snow-free roads out of Cheyenne and we met at the Norbeck Creek trail head in Wind Cave National Park.

With my backcountry permit in hand, my resupply box dropped off at Legion Lake Lodge I bid farewell to lonehiker (his WhiteBlaze ID) and prepped the dogs for the trail. It was at this time I realized, with dread, that I had left my wallet…ID, money, credit cards and all in my truck, an hour away by car and 60 miles on foot. I cursed myself and my stupidity as I had been planning on, and looking forward to, lunch and a beer at Legion Lake Lodge as one of my meals. I had only packed a certain amount of meals and snacks to get me through the planned days.

With my irritation level on high I set out in a less-than-perfect mood from Rapid Creek trail head, the same trail head I had started from the previous year, although this year I was heading south. My legs felt oddly new and my pack felt heavy and I questioned my ability and decision to hike 60+ miles for the first outing of the year.

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My doubts and misgivings were quickly quelled as the dogs and I followed the trail along Rapid Creek, through tall grasses and spring growth that was vivid and green with new life. Within a mile I remembered vividly why I loved being out there with everything I needed on my back. The wind was chilled but the day was a good day for hiking.

Trees with new budded leaves provided a veiled canopy and birds hidden in the branches sang us a hiking theme as we trekked up and down the modest inclines of the hills. Very little stood out through those first few miles and they quickly disappeared beneath our feet.

After four miles we ran into a cyclist coming from the south. We stopped and chatted for a while; he had hiked the trail before but this was his first attempt at biking it…and he admitted it was tougher than he thought it would be. We went our separate ways after a brief intermission. We crossed Brush Creek and refilled and filtered water before taking a break for some M&Ms and to relax out of the wind and in the sun. At this time the cyclist came back down the trail; he had lost his rain pants (not a good thing with the weather forecast). He went back down the trail to look for them…I never saw him again so I don’t know if he found them and continued his trip.

I was surprised by my arrival at Brush Creek trail head. The miles felt like they had flown by and my plans for only doing 5 miles went out the window. It was only 3pm and I was not ready to quit hiking for the day…what the heck would I do for six hours before bed if I set up camp?

We continued on for a while, through meadows and stands of pine trees, negotiating terrain of moderate difficulty and complexity with relative ease…it was the first day after all and the three of us still had fresh legs.

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The wind was the bane of our existence and made filming anything worthwhile a little difficult. Who knows whether anything will come of it.

We finally stopped at around 6pm, a couple of miles north of Sheridan Lake. It was my first night setting up my hammock and tarp without YouTube and the good folks at hammockforums.com to help me. I had set things up at home before so I had the basic concepts down but it was definitely a new experience…I was starting to miss my tent.

The campsite was pretty and just up the trail from a good water supply. Sadly, at this point I noticed that my water filter was acting improperly and I wasn’t getting much flow from the dirty water container to my Smart Water bottles. This is not a good thing in any backcountry expedition.

It took me a long time to get settled into the hammock that night. It was my first night sleeping in such a manner and I was forever adjusting the underquilt to get it into the right position to keep me warm from below. I finally got it right after a couple of hours and fell asleep. It was not the most natural of sleeping positions for me but I was surprised by the quality and quantity of sleep I achieved; I generally sleep very poorly on my first and second nights of camping.

Day 2

I awoke at my normal 6am time, ignoring the sun for a while until the raucous calls of the morning birds dragged me out of the warmth of my down quilts. (I have to give a shout out here to George Carr of Loco Libre Gear for making outstanding quality and super-warm hammock quilts that were intuitive to use…absolutely awesome and worth the money and the wait (they are custom made to order in the USA)).

The second day started a little slow but we were back on the trail by 8am, quickly covering the few miles to Sheridan Lake and encountering a bridge-enforcer…a lone marmot who decided to make a stand against intruders who wanted to cross his bridge.

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Unfortunately, by this time, the sun was mostly hiding behind the clouds and the wind was unpleasantly brisk and chilled me quickly. We paused for a half hour to refuel and filter water (a chore with a barely functioning filter) and started the arduous 3 1/2 mile trek up Mount Warner. I had been warned that the next water source was over seven miles away and had loaded up with four liters of water. It is always guaranteed that the heaviest water-carries begin with the steepest and longest inclines, and every time I thought I had reached the top I was wrong and the trail kept climbing.

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During the climb we constantly heard the blasts of a steam engine whistle. A glance at the map confirmed we were near Hill City which has a historical railroad museum; it was a fitting reminder of who I was hiking this trail for.

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Finally the top of Mount Warner was a achieved and we took a snack/lunch break, basking in the sun that had briefly appeared. Sadly the reprieve didn’t last for long as we watched some dense rain clouds heading in our direction. I did not want to be on top of a mountain if the storm was an electric one and we hurried down the far side of the peak and into the trees. I was praying fervently that the rain would hold off, at least until we reached the underpass that took the trail beneath the highway.

Sadly we didn’t make the tunnel in time and we were caught out in it, protected by the trees to a degree but still we got wet. Thankfully we only had 3/4 of a mile to cover and we hurried through the downpour to get to the shelter of the tunnel.

In typical hiker-trash style we waited out the deluge beneath the road and made use of the shelter by pausing to cook a dinner of mac and cheese, or a poor substitute of it without milk and butter. It was filling and hot and hit the spot even as I burned my mouth while trying to eat it. It was at this time that I realized I had left my usual lighter in my other cook kit. A few more curse words erupted from me. Thankfully I carry a spare in my first aid kit.

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The rain abated and we packed up and headed out, leaving the road behind. The frustrations of the rain was compounded by the lack of or incorrect signage for the trail and I wandered through tall grass for a while before checking the map and finally stumbling across the trail accidentally. Rain was threatening once more and I donned my poncho, again. It drizzled a little but the clouds kept the moisture to a minimum.

With the clouds disappearing and the sun finally coming out I found a good place to set-up camp. Water, for me, was filtered from a nearby creek a little further down the trail but I left the water for the dogs unfiltered as my filter was pretty much done.

I tried a different technique with the suspension of the ridgeline of my tarp but couldn’t get it tight and I hoped the wind wouldn’t be too strong throughout the night as I was too tired to return it to the original configuration. I was in my hammock by 8pm and listened to the birds for a while before finally falling asleep as darkness fell.

Day 3

I woke up pretty sore and sleeping in a hammock was not helping my back, aggravating an old injury. I had not slept well, but I still felt refreshed and had still slept better than I usually do on the ground. The pain dissipated after I extracted myself from the warmth of my down quilt and started moving.

After collecting more water for the dogs we crossed some rails and followed a powerline up a short but steep incline to Big Pine trail head, crossed another road and hiked a short distance to the wilderness permit station. As with any wilderness area in the USA a self-issued “permit” is required; it is really only a way for the NFS to keep track of the usage in the wilderness and is free.

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With our permit in hand we headed into the Black Elk Wilderness. The initial trail proved to be one of the nicest I had hiked on until that point and the grade was easy to climb. A creek provided a great excuse to pause and enjoy the sunshine and eat a snack before heading deeper into the mountains. It was after this break that I ran into lonehiker hiking north; we were both a little surprised to run into each other so early…I had predicted it would be around noon (it was only 8:30). We talked for a while and he offered me the use of his spare water filter which I graciously accepted, along with the loan of a $20 bill to get a burger at the lodge as I had originally planned. Trail magic (unexpected acts of kindness or food) is a wonderful thing.

With a lighter heart and less stress over my water situation we parted ways and I continued deeper into the wilderness with lonehiker’s warning about all the downed trees ahead. Sadly, downed trees weren’t my only problem as it started to rain again as we climbed up to the view of Mount Rushmore. Helicopters buzzed like flies overhead as the transported people on aerial tours of the national memorial which dampened the feelings of being in the wilderness.

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Lonehiker’s warning was appropriate and I was soon cursing the condition of the trail as I negotiated over, under and around countless large, broken trees…in the rain. It was the worst hiking I had ever done…if it could be called hiking at that point. I was really starting to question why I was even doing what I was doing and I certainly wasn’t having a good time.

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The only positive was the beautiful butterfly I almost stepped on in the middle of the trail, and a few stunning rock formations.

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While I now had a usable filter my dirty water squeeze bag had sprung a leak which made keeping my clean water separate a lot more difficult as potentially contaminated water leaked down the spout as I filtered. I continued to leave water unfiltered for the dogs.

The trail finally improved as we left the wilderness and passed Iron Creek trail head where we paused for lunch and a long break. Again the rain was threatening so we made use of a large evergreen to protect us should it downpour while we were eating and sleeping (the dogs, not me).

It was too early to quit for the day at only 2pm and I was definitely tired but I was motivated to keep moving to put a couple more miles behind us before finding a good campsite.

Knowing that it would be a dry camp that night I loaded up with four liters of water and dreaded the uphill climb that awaited me. Rain started to fall as soon as I donned my pack and we climbed upwards to an exposed ridge that had been logged extensively. I was concerned about lightening but while it rained and the wind blew continuously the danger of an electric storm was avoided. The trail followed a good logging road and the miles flew by, somehow. By the time the rain was done I had already put 4 miles behind me…I hadn’t even realized how quickly I had covered those miles.

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The sun finally came out and the clouds and rain departed for a while and we used that time to hike the last couple of miles for the day. I wanted to get camp set up before the rain came in again.

With only a mile to go before the Legion Lake Lodge we set-up camp. I returned the tarp to it’s original configuration (still not happy with it) but at least it was moderately taught. The dogs dozed and I ate a snack or two before climbing into my hammock as more rain clouds loomed over us, finally dumping their load on us as I stared at the trees through the translucent fiber of my tarp, listening to the drumming sound of each raindrop as it fell. My tarp did a good job and we stayed dry. I finally fell asleep as the rain quit.

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Day 4

With plenty of time to kill in the morning before heading to the lodge, only a mile away, I decided to try fixing my tarp ridgeline suspension in a more suitable manner. I cut the continuous rideline that suspended the tarp between two trees and attached each piece of cord separately to each end. I hoped it would work better.

By 9:30 I ran out of things to occupy me and loaded up, climbed the hill and covered the mile to Legion Lake Lodge. I retrieved my resupply box and sat on the patio with the dogs as I sorted through all the unnecessary food I still had…I had made some mistakes with the food I had packed and just wasn’t eating it due to the complexity of making it. I dumped half of the things I had either carried or added to the box, keeping only that which I knew I would use on this trip or future hikes. It was still too much food.

The weather had finally cleared and while the breeze was a little chilly the sun was finally the dominating fixture in the sky, and no rain was predicted.

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I had been informed that lunch wasn’t available until 11 so I spent the hour on the lodge’s deck with the dogs, enjoying the sunshine, watching a family of geese and waiting impatiently until I could order that much-desired burger and beer. The radio station was playing a lot of 90s music which was a fun and pleasant backdrop to the beautiful lake, and definitely lent an air of nostalgia to the morning.

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Finally I got to order my burger and beer…and DAMN was that thing good. My caloric needs had not been kept up for the reasons mentioned above so the burger went down a treat…but I should have ordered fries instead of coleslaw. I was trying to be a little healthy and I can rarely manage to eat a side of fries; this time I think I could have managed it.

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With only a short four miles between myself and the next campsite I relaxed on the deck until 1pm, ordering another beer which I drank while people watching. It was a pleasant day to sit and relax but finally I made a move, loaded up with four liters of water from the lodge so I didn’t have to filter any for a while and hiked away. (I had thought it was seven miles to the next potable water, hence the amount I carried).

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Signs at Legion Lake Lodge campground had warned about the possibility of bison in the area. Up until that time I had not realized I was in Custer State Park. Bison are dangerous. I had gone the first three days of the trip with constantly being cognizant of the weather, now I had to be continuously aware of the possibility of running into bison…not an event I would relish.

From Legion Lake we bypassed a group of horse riders using english saddles which surprise me. We chatted briefly before I continued on and followed an easy grass-covered trail through some pines where a coyote crossed our path, and then out into a beautiful rocky scenic area with views of Custer State Park that were pretty stunning. The trail quickly went from pleasant to rough, steep and very rocky with loose scree making the hiking particularly difficult…progress was slow as we paused often. During one break two other backpackers passed by, going the opposite direction. They said “hi” but weren’t particularly friendly…not something I’ve come to expect from most backpackers who are usually apt to chat for a while.

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With the steep climb behind us we now had to navigate an equally steep and rocky descent more suited for four-legged creatures, like mountain goats and border collies, than bipedal critters like humans.

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Thankfully the trail eventually flattened out but the rocks remained for a while until we entered French Creek Canyon. Two water crossings were tough to navigate but I avoided getting wet, just barely, and was glad to not have to remove shoes. The canyon’s wide and flat bottom made for a last easy mile of hiking before we reached the campground where we took a break and learned that camping in the area wasn’t free (I thought the campground was the only fee area). Of course, without my wallet I had no money and eventually sought out the camp host who gave me permission to camp without paying…another wonderful source of trail magic.

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I set up camp a little further down the creek from the campground, hoping the bison I had seen across the bridge wouldn’t wander into my camp during the night. My tarp was finally set-up properly and I was very happy with my adjustments to the suspension. I crawled into my hammock early as it was getting chilly and listened to some music for an hour before settling in for the night as it got dark.

Day 5

I woke at 5am, a little cold and aware of the condensation on the inside of my tarp and on my quilt. I was pretty sure it had dropped below freezing overnight, and ice in the dogs’ water bowl confirmed my suspicions when I finally crawled out from my hammock. I tried to accomplish as many tasks from the warmth of my quilts and hammock before braving the cold morning air and packing up camp.

Two large bull bison blocked the entrance to the campground. I had to navigate my way around, through very wet grass and up a hill to get back to the trail. Of course bison were scattered throughout the campground (I was surprised that it wasn’t fenced to keep them out) and blocked my way to get from the horse corrals to the water spigot and the exit trail. At least four bison were within twenty yards of the road. I finally asked one of the horse owners if they would be willing to transport me and the dogs the two hundred yards to the bathhouse in their truck. They kindly helped me out (more trail magic).

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I filled up with another four liters of water so I didn’t have to filter later, but lost some of it inside my pack due to the worsening leak in my squeeze bag. Some of clothes were wet by the time we had gone a mile; this is why I keep most of my clothes and down quilts in a waterproof trash compactor bag in the bottom of my pack.

I rearranged water bottles, changed pants as the day was already heating up, and kept hiking while a couple of garments were strung on the outside of my pack to dry in the sun and breeze.

Wide valleys, tall grass and adequate shade provided the perfect location for bison and I was more aware than ever of the possibility of running into a herd. I was constantly vigilant and kept the dogs to heal at all times unless I could see for a good distance.

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While the warm sun was appreciated, the lack of trees through the meadows and the burned forested areas provided no shade as the day heated up. I saw many cars on the wildlife loop road pause so I believed there were bison in the immediate area, but without seeing any there was a possibility they were stopping for deer or other wildlife.

I had been following bison and horse tracks for a while as we crossed a steep hill and the valley before us was prime bison grazing. At least in the open areas it was easy to spot the large animals from a distance and give them a wide berth. I still didn’t run into any.

It was only after nine miles of hiking, and reaching the grazing area by the gate between Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park that we came across a large bull. He eye-balled us and started heading in our direction, crossing the creek with a huge leap and paused. The dogs and I quickly diverted and made an unscheduled crossing of Highland Creek. I got wet, but it was better than the alternative. The official creek crossing on the trail was far too close to the bull.

With some space between us and the bison I stopped to converse briefly with an older couple who had also been watching the bull and waiting to see what he would do before they started hiking. They were heading up the trail I had just come down. I was informed that they use dogs when rounding up the bison and it was probably Kye and Cody more than me that had attracted the bull’s attention.

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Once safely through the gate and into the Wind Cave National Park we paused for some water play time beside the road before looking at the map. The trail confounded me and there was NO signage for the Centennial Trail (89), anywhere. I wandered up a road for a while before making an educated guess and locating another trail with a national park number on it. I could only hope that it was the right trail. Finally after several markers I found one with the correct trail number “89” designation on it. That kind of information would have been useful on the trail head sign.

I was very disappointed with how poorly the trail was marked in the national park especially when I found myself in a wide, flat valley with prairie dog towns extending in all directions. Poles with trail numbers on them went in at least 4 different directions but there was no indication from a distance which way I should go, no arrows, no nothing.

Finally I found the correct pole designating the trail number I needed. I think I pissed off a lot of prairie dogs during my wanderings back and forth, and they were certainly very vocal about it.

It was getting hotter, shade was more-or-less non-existent and I was a little worried about my water lasting until the next creek.

I saw a handful of bison off in the distance, a safe place for them to be, and meandered through the endless prairie dog towns following the occasionally-hard-to-find trail markers. More hikers coming the opposite direction warned me of bison on the trail a little further down and I spotted them over the crest of a hill. Thankfully it was an area that was easy to navigate around and we finally made our way to Norbeck Creek, following a steep descent down to the valley floor.

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By this time both Cody and I were limping pretty badly. I was having some serious knee pain that was exacerbated by the downhills and Cody’s old shoulder injury was bothering him. Kye was doing great and thankfully we only had a mile or so to hike, uphill, to the trail head and the truck.

We enjoyed the stream for a while and Cody decided that laying in the cool water felt good. I was glad I had removed their packs.

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Norbeck Creek followed a beautiful but narrow canyon upwards and it was definitely in my mind that it would be a pretty unfortunate place to run into any buffalo, a feeling confirmed by the ever present hoof prints in the dirt of the trail. I had just finished filming a clip regarding that thought and hoping I wasn’t junxing myself when the canyon opened up and several cow bison and their calves were descending a trail at the far end. I had certainly jinxed myself.

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With nothing to do but wait I let the dogs sleep for fifteen minutes before deciding to make a move, planning on bushwhacking around the far side of the valley. Apparently the bison had decided the same thing as they crossed the creek and climbed a trail on the opposite side of the canyon and left. It was now safe to continue.

Just as I thought I was home free I saw a plume of dirt…a good indicator that there more buffalo ahead. And yup, three bulls were in grazing or sleeping just off the trail and they didn’t look like they were planning to move any time soon.

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I could see my truck ahead, at the top of the hill. Instead of waiting for the bulls to move (which probably would have taken forever) I bushwhacked up the side of the canyon, tripping on rocks and branches, and feeling utterly exhausted and deflated, and finally got back to my truck. I was grateful that the incline was neither steep nor dangerous.

Back at my truck, Cody was still limping badly…right up until the time I removed his pack and he took off to explore under a fallen tree that held countless interesting smells, no limping in sight!


Final Thoughts

Between the weather of the first three days, and some signage problems in a few areas, I was initially frustrated and not having the greatest time. There were several times I thought about quitting but between not being a quitter in general, and remembering who I was hiking the trail for, I persevered and gutted it out…and I’m glad I did.

This one’s for you Grandad; thanks for coming with me

Johnson Creek Loop…or that’s what I’m calling it! And the Elk Lake Loop

Johnson Creek Loop

Day 1

I had grander ideas in mind than the trails would allow today.

Kye and I started out at Hunter Trailhead, but instead of heading into the wilderness we followed the road for a short way then turned onto a jeep track. We saw multiple riding groups from the Paradise Guest Ranch and they were all very friendly, although some of the horses weren’t completely sure about the pack I was carrying, and several of the riders complimented Kye as always. We followed one group at the turn off to trail 167 and hiked through a myriad of pine trees on an easy trail as it meandered through many blow-downs of pine trees. I tried to keep my distance from the horse group so as to not bother the horses too much…some horses don’t like backpacks.

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Looking east along French Creek; the trail went below the cliffs in the background

I caught up with the riding group at the bottom of the hill just after they crossed French Creek, a willow-bordered moderate creek with cold water. As always I looked for a way to rock hop across and didn’t have to look far. The horse group went one way, and we turned east following the valley downstream as we sung nursery rhymes to keep any bears aware of our presence. Apparently I need to learn some more songs!

After about a mile and a half a trail led north. It wasn’t marked and but it was in the right location according to the map. What I didn’t take into consideration were the maze of riding trails in the area that lead back to the ranch, and it was these trails that were clear and obvious…the one I wanted didn’t have a turn off and I bypassed it early on. A mile or more later I discovered my mistake and back-tracked and headed across country until I found a reasonable trail to follow in the right direction. Thank God for GPS again because even when I was on the supposed “right” trail it was pretty much non-existent. There were a few stretches where it could be seen, but many places were buried under fallen trees or completely grown over with low growing plants and grass.

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My only water source…kinda unpleasant!

We got to the destination creek, Johnson Creek, after spooking some antlered critters (I couldn’t tell if they were bucks or bulls) a little further east than I should have been. It was slow-flowing and didn’t look great, but I needed water and I needed to cook lunch which also required water. I filtered two liters and hiked up the valley, following a cattle path…yet another horrible, hard to follow route…to where the “trail” headed up to an ATV road from the marsh. I boiled water and “cooked” pasta and potatoes for lunch but didn’t heat quite enough water and some of the pasta was still slightly crunchy…I didn’t care, I was starving and my body needed some energy; it was 3pm already and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

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One of the many upland game birds that ALWAYS make me jump when they fly noisily out of their hiding places in the downed timber and low brush

It was due to the lack of trail and the amount of time it was taking me to get anywhere that I decided to change my plans slightly. Instead of aiming for Elk Lake, which was too far distant for the daylight and tired legs and frustrations, I decided to take a different trail, pick up some water at the South Fork of Sayles Creek and camp at a four-way trail crossroads near the boundary of the Bud Love Wildlife Habitat Management Unit.

The initial trail was great and easy to follow and hike but when I checked the GPS I was off-course…apparently! I backtracked to the point the trail was supposed to go but the trail was another one of those barely-there trails that must have been re-routed. I needed the water from the creek that the trail supposedly went by but I was seriously let down by the total lack of water…it was a seasonal flow higher up but this area was supposed to a continuous creek. I didn’t have enough water to camp where I’d planned and I was a little concerned. I looked at the map and figured I’d make a decision at the crossroads…there were options, but not good ones.

Somehow, as we climbed over and under trees, there was a little water in what was supposed to be a seasonal drainage. We disturbed a golden eagle drinking in the rocks but of course as soon as I went to pull my camera out it took off. The water didn’t look great but it was flowing and I had my filter. It was all I needed to see and I set up camp above the “creek” and below two beautiful rock formations, and surrounded by cow poop! I didn’t care.

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A pretty open and stunning campsite location; a little windy but it was stunning!

I ate jerky, cashews and cookies for dinner, fed Kye and then went to filter some water. I managed to get enough floaty-free water to mostly fill my water bottles and enough to get me to the faster and cleaner creek in the morning.

After pulling water from the creek (pre-filtering) we came up the hill and found a cow and calf glaring at my tent. Kye of course wanted to run them off and take care of cow-dog business but I didn’t think it was necessary and they eventually wandered off, down to the water below. I did not see them again.

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Who can stare the longest?

We sat outside, on the saddle between the two rock formations, enjoying the last warmth of the sun before it disappeared behind the trees as I filtered the water from the wannabe creek; it actually looked and tasted good once it was filtered. With the air temperature dropping without the sun it was time to put my jammies on, crawl into my sleeping bag and write the day’s journal.

Day’s Note: After some modifications to the lumbar area of my backpack at home (some faux sheepskin wheelchair-arm-covers, some velcro and part of a thin yoga mat) I have found it incredibly comfortable all day which is awesome. My legs, having had a two week hiatus from hiking, are not happy with the weight. I didn’t realize such a short break would make that much of a difference…wussy legs!

Day 2

I almost got ate by a bear this morning!!!

Actually, that’s not true. Something rattled and shook my tent at about 5am and I woke up abruptly, screaming at the critter to leave…or more screaming/roaring at it! Of course I had been dreaming about bears, but after yelling at the culprits and rattling my tent at them I heard pounding hooves take off in the darkness. I got out of my tent with my headlamp and saw three pairs of eyes looking back at me in the darkenss from the ridge beyond the icky drainage water. I am 99.9% certain they were cows, and not a bear sow with cubs, trying to figure out what strange construction was in their pasture.

I managed to sleep until 7am despite the adrenaline coursing through my system from the scare. The sun penetrated my tent from over the eastern plains and warmed the tent quickly. At that point there was no more sleeping and we got up.

If you know me by now, you know my normal morning routine and I need not repeat it yet again. The only thing new was the enjoyable Snickers bar for breakfast and the inaugral use of my new titanium cat-hole shovel, which worked fabulously…I won’t go into details!

After packing up camp we followed the trail south, crossing the nasty drainage “creek” and up and over a saddle in the trees into the Johnson Creek drainage. We spooked a herd of bull elk…yet another occasion I spooked wildlife but barely saw them. The hike through meadows and aspens was pretty and serene as we hiked down from the top and we passed a young man on horseback, with his dog. They were polite and courteous and we continued down the trail after they had gone on their way.

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The ONLY hoofed animal that allowed me to get a picture

From that point until French Creek the trail was a mix of pines and open meadows. The meadows were hot but a welcome reprieve from the closeted evergreens and often provided decent views…however, the trees provided shade from the ever-present sun that was beating down pretty intensely. We passed another couple of men on horseback, and one of the horses decided to crow-hop when he saw me…he eye-balled us big time and snorted a little as he went by.

We reached French Creek Cow Camp and took a break and ate a snack or two while relaxing in the shade of the quaking aspen trees. It didn’t last long (I never can sit still for long which is why I need a hiking partner) and we continue to follow the creek to where we had left it the day before (trail 106…the non-existent trail). We retraced our footsteps from this point, playing the Lord of the Rings soundtrack at a moderate level to keep bears aware of our presence, until we reach the creek crossing where trail 167 and 042 merged. Cows relaxed in the shade of many of the trees, rocks loomed over the valley and the brooks babbled incoherently as we took another break and filled up with water…our first since the icky water of the previous night.

Relaxing in the shade of the pine trees along French Creek I chugged almost a liter of water while I ate some lunch. Jerky, cashews and M&Ms were on the lunch menu, followed by a breakfast bar for dessert.

After about 30 minutes of rest and relaxation we hiked on, following French Creek for a short way before turning up a draw and over another saddle into an area inhabited by the saddle-horses of Paradise Guest Ranch. It was a beautiful scene seeing the horses in such an open meadow with the rugged peaks of the Cloud Peak Wilderness in the background.

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Paradise Guest Ranch

The trail mostly disappeared, but having checked Google Maps before I left I knew where the trail went through the fence/gate and out to the road. A few of the horses were intrigued by our presence but were more worried about eating and getting to water (a nasty “pond” they seemed to revel in).

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Ranch horses heading for a drink…and I thought they were coming to see me!

The ATV road seemed to go on forever. I was worried that the map was incorrect (again) and kept an eye on my GPS app. The biggest issue was that my GPS app (Earthmate for DeLorme) showed too many of the available trails this time and was of little help. I felt like I had been hiking for two miles on the track (it should have been one mile) when we finally came across the junction that split the road…one heading back to the car, and the other heading towards South Rock Creek and Soldier Park. I was relieved to see the sign but also had to resign myself to another 30 minutes of rocky, boring ATV-road hiking…not the most fun or the most scenic.

The only interesting thing along this stretch were the countless frogs in the wide fords crossing a couple of creeks.

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Around 2pm we arrived back at the car at Hunter Trailhead, used a real restroom and headed home to a beer or three. It wasn’t the greatest or prettiest weekend of hiking, and it didn’t go as planned, but a rough weekend hiking beats a day in the office any day of the week!


Elk Lake Loop

Day 1

With the weather looking pretty warm for the weekend I decided to try a shorter version of the hike I had intended to do two weeks ago.

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Kye and I started at Hunter Trailhead again, spooking a curious coyote, and retraced our footsteps for the first mile, crossing French Creek before turning left instead of right and following in the footsteps of the mile I hiked near Paradise Guest Ranch…this time, knowing where the gate was I made a direct line for it and found an easy trail to follow. Once through the gate we followed an ATV road down to the South Fork of Rock Creek before climbing gently out of the valley.

For once the trails had moderate inclines and weren’t too rocky. After Rock Creek there were no more views and we spent the rest of the day hiking through pines, aspens and undergrowth. The only wildlife we saw were the rear ends of some elk I spooked near a hunting camp.

As I hiked down towards the Middle Fork of Rock Creek a palomino horse was standing to the side of the trail, not tied and not with anyone. He or she (I forgot to look) had a bow scabbard on the saddle. He looked pretty happy to see me and followed me down the trail. I tried to get him to stay but he was having none of it, so I had another companion with me for a half mile or so. We got to the Middle Fork of Rock Creek and another horse whinied at us. I assumed they were together and sure enough I found the other half of a red lead rope on the ground. There was no one around, but a jacket had been left on a branch. I tied the horse with what was left of his lead rope, which was barely enough, and got back on the trail.

At this point my map and GPS didn’t agree with where the trail should be and it wasn’t marked (surprise!) so I actually went past it the first time until the other trail I was following petered out and I had to backtrack. Even following the trail, which went in the right direction and was well-worn, I couldn’t get my GPS position to admit that I was on the right trail…hmmm.  And there was snow!

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Snow, and one of the better parts of the steady and steep trail

The only opportunity for a picture across the plains was as we got towards Gem Lake…after a constant upward slog for several hours. I was making poor time as I was out of energy and needed to reach the lake to cook dinner. It was very picturesque. I had planned on getting water and hiking a little further on but I was spent so I made do with a narrow meadow over-looking the mountains and the lake.

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Cloud Peak Wilderness in the background, and Gem lake to the right

We set camp and took some photos as we listened to an elk bugling to the north of use. One elk appeared across the lake and I tried the elk bugle call on my phone, with no success. Dinner was hot and very welcome after such a tough day and hiking for close to 8 hours and with the sun setting Kye and I made a quick walk to the lake edge before crawling into bed to listen to the elk.

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Kye keeping me company while cooking dinner in the safety of a rock well

I was definitely hoping nothing would rattle my tent during the night. I didn’t bother even trying to set up my hammock which meant I was carrying that extra pound for no reason.

Day 2

Damn it was cold and windy last night. I wore three layers in my sleeping bag, mostly because I couldn’t be bothered to take them off and I was toasty in my sleeping bag. The only chill was the wind creeping under the doors of my tent. It was also the wind that kept rattling my tent that kept me awake for much of the night; I certainly wasn’t cold because of the outside temperatures. I even closed all four doors of the tent to keep the wind out, but it only did so much. I was surprised there was no condensation in the morning…I guess the wind was good for something!

I pulled all my clothes under the quilt before I changed and kept all layers on until I left camp. It was definitely a chilly morning and Kye’s water bowl had frozen. Learning from experience I had stored my water filter under my pillow and on top of my down-filled sleeping pad to keep it from freezing!

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Bundled up just after leaving Gem Lake

The morning sunrise was gorgeous over the peaks and Gem Lake, and I got to witness all of it since I was up before the sun. We took the trail south towards Elk Lake, through yet more trees before opening onto a mountain-side meadow and came across a small herd of cow elk up on the hillside.

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The watched me for a while and I was able to take a few pictures. The trail dumped us out above Elk Lake with the sun highlighting the peaks to the west. The previously mentioned elk herd was above us and was accompanied by a rather large bull elk. I tried to get pictures but they were quite a way from us.

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I crept quietly between pine groves to see if I could get a better picture or two but they disappeared into the trees. I pulled out my phone and played the one elk bugle call I have downloaded. The bull and I talked back and forth a couple of times before he disappeared over the hill, apparently bored with us. We saw no more elk.

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Elk Lake. The Solitude Trail led me on the far side of this lake the last time I was there

We hiked through trees and crossed creeks back towards Hunter Corrals, trying to hurry in order to make it back home in time to talk to my sister in
England before the end of the day. Trying to cover 10 miles in 4 hours was more than I was accustomed to and I spent a most of time tripping and cussing the roots and rocks in my path. We took no breaks coming down and my legs were like jelly by the time I reached the car; it didn’t help that I’d had very little sleep the night before and I was beat.

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Kye taking a break before the long march back to the car.

Backpacking the Solitude Loop Trail

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Looking down on Misty Moon Lake

The Solitude Loop Trail is a 55+ mile trail that circumnavigates around the Cloud Peak Wilderness of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. It can be accessed from several trailheads within the Bighorn National Forest; the easiest to access from the highway is Hunter Trailhead off Highway 16 west of Buffalo, while the closest trailhead to the Solitude Trail is at Coffeen Park at the end of a 7 mile high-clearance road.

Day 1: Coffeen Park Trailhead to Camp 1 near Granite Lake 

Today began leaving the house just after 7 am and stopping briefly in Sheridan for some breakfast to get me through the morning. The drive up Red Grade was uneventful and we finally turned off towards Park Reservoir. It was a 7 mile rough dirt road to Coffeen Park where the trailhead is. Cody and I got organized (he ate a can of Vienna sausages),added our Wilderness permit to the box, put on our packs and started hiking.

The trail started out very easy through a green tunnel of pine trees. We were very lucky to spook a couple of moose within the first few hundred yards and they took off across the creek. Less than half a mile later we came face to face with another young moose who turned around and headed back up the trail. Not long after we saw a large pine martin. Unfortunately, all of these animals disappeared into the trees too fast for me to get a picture.

We passed several other groups hiking down on our way to Geneva Lake, a beautiful long lake set below immense granite cliffs. The trail was generally easy with a few rocky sections, but it was simple to navigate and well signposted…for a change. An unchallenging trail was nice for the amount of weight I was carrying and my back and shoulders were definitely feeling it, especially without it being adjusted perfectly. It was at Geneva Lake we stopped for lunch and to take a 45 minute nap before continuing on and following the east bank of the lake for a half mile. At the end of the lake the trail got a lot steeper and rockier and disappeared into the trees.

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We hiked up and up switch backs, watching the clouds come over the sheer cliffs to the west and hoping it wouldn’t rain. It drizzled a little when we crossed a creek that fed into Crystal Lake where we stopped to refill with water and take another break before attempting Geneva Pass.

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At the creek Cody discovered a porcupine. I didn’t realize what he had flushed initially and was glad I never let my dogs chase stuff…a face full of quills would have put a swift end to our trip. I did manage to get a couple of photos, but the porcupine was pretty shy.

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We continued climbing for a while until we were dumped into the lush meadow below Geneva Pass. It was beautiful with a small creek and towering pinnacles to each side. It was easy crossing the meadow but the hike up to the pass was particularly rough and rocky with hundreds of loose stones. A stream flowed from a waterfall and meandered through grass and careened over boulders before disappearing down a ravine and into Crystal Lake below.

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We finally reached the pass with a stiff wind ahead of us and some seriously dark and forbidding clouds to the south-west…promising rain. The view from the top of the pass, however, looking both ways was stunning but pictures will never be able to capture the grandeur of the peaks.

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We hurried down the valley, hoping to avoid the rain and praying it wouldn’t thunder while we were so exposed and high up. The rain did start briefly and we ducked under a tree to wait it out while I pulled my poncho out of my pack to protect us if it got torrential, but it the only thing I needed it for was protection from the cold wind.

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Finally the sun came out and we ate some snacks before packing everything away and proceeding. The hike down the valley was just as gorgeous as the hike up and the bald granite mountains made me feel pretty small. Cirques had been carved into the rocks high above and we passed the turn off for the Cliff Lake Loop. I didn’t take it, although I’m sure it would have been a gorgeous side trip.

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We took another break at 4pm for 30 minutes for a quick nap and then we hiked on. After only 10 minutes back on the trail it started descending back into the trees so I made the decision to backtrack 100 yards and find a place in the open and airy valley, surrounded by boulders and pine trees and grass. As usual it took me a while to find a flat spot for the tent, and of course after the tent was up I realized, as always, that it wasn’t in a flat spot.

I cooked a dinner of rice and pasta on my little alcohol stove, fed Cody and hung my food bag. I actually managed to find a decent branch and get the rock over it the first try…I must be getting better. I had discovered at this point that the heavier the rock, the easier it is to get the bag over the higher branches.

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There were no biting flies this time like on my trek over Walker Prairie and Horseshoe Mountain, and there had been a fairly consistent breeze. There were a few mosquitoes, but nothing the breeze couldn’t handle…or me killing them!

Sadly the breeze died down just as it was time for mosquitoes to come out, and while waiting for what I was hoping would be a beautiful sunset. It wasn’t, but the dying sun and dark clouds over the eastern peaks created beautiful lighting. It was also during this time that I heard a female elk bark and we crept to where I thought they were. There was a small herd of about ten cows and a couple of calves eating and drinking in the meadow just beside us. They continued to bark and grunt for a couple of hours, well past the time I went to bed at 8:30.

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I got a decent amount of sleep but not great, which is typical for the first night out.

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Day 2: Camp 1 near Granite Lake to Camp 2 at Lake Solitude

Woke up this morning around 5:45 to the irritating “caw caw” call of a crow or two. I dozed fitfully for a while and made it to 6:45 before I actually crawled out of my sleeping bag and got dressed. It was chilly as the sun was still hidden behind some ominous looking clouds. The sky was leaden as I retrieved my food bag and ate breakfast. I started packing everything away as a few rain drops fell. I stuffed my backpack quickly as I rolled up my tent…more rain drops. Looking at the sky I debated leaving my poncho within easy access but decided against it. By 8am we were packed up and heading down the trail just as the thunder was rumbling over the peaks to the east. Black clouds shrouded the granite, merging together like Thor and Atlas (yes, I know, two different mythologies).

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We didn’t get far before I had a major mishap crossing North Paint Rock Creek. I’m not sure if I tripped, slipped or if a rock rolled but I fell…hard. Now, my trekking poles have saved me from many hard falls on multiple occasions, but this time they were the cause of my injury. I planted mouth first onto the head of one of my trekking poles and one of my teeth ripped a rather large and bloody gash inside of my lip (don’t look at the pictures if you are squeamish), and put a hole in the cap of my pole. My mouth was numb for a while but the pain and shock caught up with me quickly and I had to sit down along side the creek as I was feeling a tad bit nauseous. I took that time to filter some water as I recovered.

 

After about twenty minutes I felt okay to continue, drank some water (which stung) and headed down the valley, which was gorgeous and was mostly grassy open meadows, and followed a very fishable creek…I looked in one pool and saw two or three 8-10″ trout.

We finally reached Teepee Pole Flats and the junction to go to Poacher Lake, which was the way we were to take. The trails in the wilderness have all been well marked so far but I have been curious about where each one leads so I stopped and pulled out the map to take a look what trail we were merging with.

We crossed the creek…again…and started hiking up a rather rough and rocky trail which, similar to others I have done, never seemed to end even through it was only supposed to be just over a mile from the junction to Poacher Lake. It felt further.

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We paused at Poacher Lake for lunch and I was disappointed. We had just finished our water and I was hoping to refill, but the edge of the lake was really hard to access and very marshy from the east side. It would have been possible to walk around but I knew, from the map, that there was a creek only another half mile further on, and a pretty easy hike downhill.

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At the unnamed creek, with an incredible view of the peaks to the east and marshes below, we refilled with water and took a nap…or at least I did; Cody kept watch.

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Another climb over a low saddle dropped us into the Paint Rock Creek valley and we got our first glimpse of where we would be climbing the next day. It looked impossible from our vantage point. The climb down was treacherous for a short stretch and reminded me of Wolf Creek Trail, except it was shorter and the footing was slightly better. The trail dumped us out on the banks of Paint Rock Creek, and try as I might I could not find a way to cross by rock hopping. This was our first wading creek of the trip so far and I had a hard time getting Cody to cross the deeper water. There were rocks he could manage (I just couldn’t do it with a backpack) but I had to walk a short way up the stream to show him. He eventually figured it out and we again refilled with water before the mile to Lake Solitude.

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The initial climb away from the creek was steep and slightly rocky but easy to follow as there were many foot prints, although I had seen no one since Circle Lake the day before. We rested a couple of times as my new pack as been causing me some of the same issues as my Arc Haul, as well as some new ones (so at least I know it’s not the pack, it’s me), and we were pushing ourselves the last couple of miles.

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We reached Lake Solitude and were met by a very friendly white labradoodle. At least he was friendly! The one thing I can’t abide on trails is people not keeping their dogs under control. While this dog was friendly and Cody seemed to like him/her, there’s always a chance that something not so genial could happen.

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The labradoodle belonged to a group of young men with horses who had paused at the beginning of the lake. They also had a blue heeler with them who didn’t seem impressed with Cody…but he pretty much ignored her and we kept going. I had planned to pause for another rest at that spot but with only another mile of fairly flat, decent trail to go before my chosen campsite I delayed delaying and kept going. I was definitely hurting, but not enough to stop.

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We reached the eastern end of the lake and grabbed a snack of M&Ms before crossing the creek. Of course we managed to spook a cow moose who eyed us very warily. She was very close and I hurried to get across the creek. Of course nothing is ever simple when you are in a hurry and the creek was impassable with shoes on. I hurriedly pulled off shoes and socks and gaiters and waded the creek quickly, not even stopping to put shoes or socks or gaiters back on when we reached the other side.

A large meadow, used extensively by horsemen, provided ample camping opportunities. It was way too early but I was spent and we found a previously used flat spot (actually flat for a change) and put the tent up amid some major blustery wind which continued well into the evening. I fed Cody and gave him the last of the water while keeping an eye on the creek to see if the cow moose would show herself for a photo…she didn’t. That’s four moose now I’d seen and not one picture to show for it.

With the wild wind I decided not to cook and ate tomorrow’s lunch instead along with a couple of extra snacks I hadn’t eaten. I decided I would eat dinner for lunch the next day when I could find a more convenient and less breezy (ie safe) spot to cook. As I was eating a couple of other backpackers arrived from the other direction and their dog decided to be their welcome party as he bounded into my camp. Cody liked him and wanted to play…again, not impressed with people allowing their dogs to run wild.

I filtered water from the lake and then washed my socks (not IN the lake; Leave No Trace principles), leaving them on a rock by my tent to dry. I hoped the wind wouldn’t blow them away and made sure to bring them under the tent awning before bed.

I did not hang my food bag today for two reasons…one, no suitable trees this high up, and two, the chipmunks are more of a worry here than bears. Hoping I don’t get eaten tonight!

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We watched sun disappear behind the cliffs of the lake and then crawled into the tent to escape the wind which blew insanely hard for two minutes…it almost felt like the tent was going to blow away with me in it. I hoped everything would still be there in the morning. Also went inside to write the day’s journal before dark.

The cliffs on the far side of the lake looked stunning in the fading light…unfortunately we lost the sun ourselves and that meant it was getting to be time to crawl into bed, even with it still being daylight out.

Unfortunately it seems that even up here in the wilderness you can end up with some noisy neighbors. They were across the valley from our campsite, but I could still here them…inconsiderate poofballs!!!

Day 3: Camp 2 at Lake Solitude to Camp 3 near Trail Park

Woke about 6am after a fairly restful night. The noisy neighbors didn’t stay noisy and the only thing that woke me was Cody constantly moving himself under the floor of the tent…don’t ask! I think he is probably getting cold, but he’d be cold inside the tent or out since there is only mesh separating us. It would help if he stayed sleeping on the insulated sleeping pad I always bring for the dogs.

I was out of my sleeping bag a little before 7am and watched the sun hit the highest points on the south side of Lake Solitude…it was really beautiful. It also got colder as the sun pushed the colder air down into the valley. I was glad to see that I had camped far enough away from the lake that I didn’t have a condensation problem.

I followed the normal morning routine in packing up, and thankfully my food bag is starting to feel lighter. That’s a good thing since my pack is not so comfortable.

From Lake Solitude we hiked up another crazy steep and rocky hill and through some pine and aspen groves until we crossed a bridge below a waterfall. I believe this is one of the few permitted structures in the wilderness. We continued climbing…and climbing…and climbing and crossed a hump that put us back in the Paint Rock Creek valley. The walls of the canyon were steep, shear and overly impressive. I’m not sure whether I stopped more to catch my breath or to look at the view. Mostly the trail was open but occasionally ducked into stands of trees, depending on the terrain.

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The trail dropped down slightly (ugh) to cross Paint Rock Creek before rising sharply again (yes, more climbing) to parallel the creek on the southern bank. Eventually it leveled out slightly and rose out of the trees to Moor-like tundra and rocky outcroppings. From this point on until I reach Misty Moon lake I stopped so often I was barely hiking…there was just too much view to take in.

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We rounded a bend high above the valley floor and saw some rock climbers and then a small tent village. It was at the base of a waterfall and it is my belief that this is where most people camp who are summitting Cloud Peak. It reminded me of the videos and images I have seen of Mt Everest base camp.

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There were many more tents around Misty Moon Lake, which was as picturesque as it sounds, although busier than you would think for somewhere you can only hike or ride to. We climbed down a small slope to the edge of the lake and found the perfect spot to cook lunch. I am very careful with open flames anywhere in the forest, and even more so when fires are such a risk. It was an open dirt area that looked like it had probably been full of water when the snow melted but had since dried out. It was perfect for a safe cooking spot, and protected from the wind. Pasta with enchilada-soup sauce was on the menu today and it turned out really well. It was very satisfying and I have decided that it is actually better to cook lunch than dinner. I rarely want to cook at night and a bigger meal in the middle of the day when I am actually hungry gives me a good boost for the rest of the day. It also forces me to take a good long break half way through the day which I often have a hard time doing.

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After refilling on water we circumnavigated the lake while taking the usual obligatory pictures and then started the climb towards Florence Pass, the first step of which was up a steep ravine in which flowed the creek that fed Misty Moon Lake. I ran into a horse rider just before the top and we talked for a short while…she warned me how pretty it was.

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The horse lady was right…it took my breath away. Granite walls rose straight out of the valley like fortress walls (hence the name of the lakes) and turquoise-blue lakes rippled like eyes, something living in the face of the mountain. If I thought I had stopped a lot before it was nothing compared to this valley…two steps stop, three steps stop. I took so many pictures but nothing could capture the grandeur and majesty of such a place…I just wanted to keep absorbing it all as much as I could.

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From Fortress Lakes we continued hiking up the valley until we had to cross a talus field where it was obvious someone had put a lot of work into making a path through the boulders. It was an artform in itself. There had been a short one yesterday as I had followed the bank of Lake Solitude, but nothing on this scale.

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At the top, which I didn’t realize was the top without a sign, was Florence Pass and it looked down on Florence Lake, another blue-green lake encompassed by yet more steep slopes of granite boulders and cliffs with just one tiny cornice of snow still hanging on high above. We paused for a break at the lake’s outlet and looked at the memorial plaque for the bomber plane that had crashed into the mountain above us. It was renamed Bomber Mountain in honor of the men who died there.

 

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Below Florence Lake lay a mile or so of boulder fields. The book had warned horse riders that this was a trail not suitable for novice riders or inexperienced horses. After hiking down it and wondering who on earth ever though it would be a good idea to build a “trail” from Medicine Cabin Park to Florence Pass I came to the conclusion that only the most experienced riders and most sure-footed horses should ever attempt such a trail…and only going up.

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The hike down was slow and it was definitely hard on the feet, but we made it while taking our time being careful…one bad move would send you down to a very ugly grave. I really still can’t fathom how much work it must have taken to put in the usable trail as it is now…so much work and dedication.

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At the bottom of the Stone Giant marble-alley (Hobbit reference) we reached the green meadows of Medicine Cabin Park. I had planned on pausing for a while to kill time but the black clouds behind us had us scurrying quickly down the trail to avoid the rain. For about a mile we stayed in the open meadows and then the trail took us back into the trees where we pretty much stayed for the rest of the day, except for a few view-points of waterfalls and two creek crossings, both of which forced me to remove my shoes. This water was quite a lot colder than the crossing of Paint Rock Creek…no idea why except maybe that Lake Solitude is 2000 ft lower that the source of this creek (Florence Lake) and thus warmer.

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We got caught in a short rain shower after the second creek crossing as I was trying to put my shoes back on and we ducked under some thick-branched pine-tree limbs. It didn’t last long and I looked at the map while we were waiting. It was about another mile to the last water before tomorrow’s hike over Ant Hill and to Elk Lake so we planned to stop there and find a dry campsite.

We found a secluded campsite on a grassy knoll just off the trail and with views up the canyon we had just come down not too long ago. We put the tent up and I bent more tent pegs (I already bent one the first night but had a spare). Sometimes the most level place to put a tent doesn’t have the greatest soil. The tent pegs still work though.

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With the tent up, sleeping pad aired up (for now) and sleeping bag re-lofting I fed Cody and ate dinner then returned to the creek for water. I was beginning to wish we’d stayed in some of the flatter spots nearer the creek, but since it was prime moose habitat I didn’t want to get stepped on during the night. We took 3 liters from the creek so I wouldn’t have to go back in the morning if I decided I needed more for yet another steep climb first thing. We lugged the heavy weight back to camp and chilled out for a while as I cautiously watched the sky for rain. Two thunderstorms skipped by us with barely a drop of rain, one to the west and one just barely to the east of us. We were lucky. I had already thrown everything in the tent and was ready to dive in myself, with Cody, if the rain hit.

I remained cautious and decided to wait out the rain in the tent and write since there was so much to record about today. It was the one part of the trip I had been looking forward to most and it certainly didn’t disappoint in any way. Every hard step was completely worth it and I hope the pictures can show at least a little of what I was seeing.

We also, finally, got a beautiful mountain sunset…the first of the trip.

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Day 4: Camp 3 near Trail Park to Hunter Trailhead

It was cold last night…so cold that I had to put my down jacket on inside my sleeping bag, and despite having the tent doors open there was condensation inside the tent and my sleeping bag was thoroughly damp from head to toe.

I was awoken by a very angry squirrel outside my tent this morning…it was only 6am! How inconsiderate of him to be yelling in the tree next to my tent at such an early hour. It was a good thing we got up when we did for the frigid temperatures last night had frozen the water in Cody’s water bowl. The sucky thing about that is that my water filter should never be allowed to freeze, and this meant an emergency message sent from my DeLorme InReach satellite messenger to have my parents meet me at the nearest trailhead. I had to replace it, unfortunately, and that meant a 6 mile hike out.

The best thing about the morning, despite the chilly temperatures and potentially frozen water filter, was the moose cow and calf that wandered into camp around 7:30. They trotted off into the trees before I could grab my camera but I stalked them to the far side of the clearing and managed to get a few shots before I let them be….finally some pictures of moose!

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The hike to Hunter Trailhead was long and boring, being mostly on rough ATV trails which are never fun to hike. I swear it was divine intervention that the filter was at risk of freezing last night as the day brought rain, thunderstorms and more rain. It would have been miserable hiking. On top of that both my sleeping bag and tent were wet, Cody was looking stiff and a little sore first thing and my sleeping pad was losing air over night, and I was glad of the opportunity to switch packs.

A brief reprieve meant a shower, a chance to wash clothes, eat some good food and drink a couple of beers…as well as the trip to Walmart to get a new filter. I will be dropped back at the trailhead tomorrow to continue my hike on the Solitude Trail.

Day 5: Hunter Trailhead to Camp 4 at Willow Park Reservoir

The parents dropped me back at Hunter Trailhead at 9:45 with my other pack, a different dog and a new sleeping pad. I still hadn’t decided exactly which route I was going to take…stick to the Solitude Trail as a purist and hike the extra 6.2 miles back to where I left it, or take a slightly shorter (by 4 miles) non-Solitude Trail route. I hiked a short 2.5 mile trail to Soldier Park where I made my decision; I would regret it if I didn’t hike the whole loop. It was also here that I paid my respects at the graves of the two soldiers buried there, and for which the park is named.

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With my fate decided we hiked the last 3.5 miles back to the junction of trails 038 (the Solitude Trail) and 024 and started the hike up the Ant Hill trail portion of the loop. As with most of the trails encountered so far it was steep and rocky but we made good time for the first section which was well marked trail through pine trees and some meadows. Once the trail crossed South Rock Creek it became very faint and often non-existent, relying on the presence of cairns to show the way. Unfortunately the cairns led straight up the side of the mountain; after having done 6.2 miles I hadn’t planned on it was tougher than I cared for, and after I reached one cairn I thought was the top there was another, higher up and further on…that happened more than I care to think about. Once Kye and I finally reach the real top we took a break…or at least I did. Kye was way too interested in the marmots to take a nap or rest.

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The way down wasn’t much easier than the way up since there was no trail, but the north side of the pass was rougher and rockier although at least we had gravity on our side this time. The trail led back into pine trees and boulder fields as we cut down towards Elk Lake. It was here where I finally got a picture of one of the elusive pika that live in similar rocky areas to marmots.

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I spooked some elk (I had my music playing quietly to makes bears aware of my presence) but still managed to get a couple of pictures before they completely disappeared.

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We circumnavigated the lake and lost the faint trail a few times. I knew where we supposed to go so wasn’t worried about the lack of cairns or signs. I had planned on camping at Elk Lake but thought it was a little early so looked at the map and decided to get water and camp a little further on…big mistake! I met a nice Hutterite (I think) couple on horses, who had spooked a cow moose and her calf just in front of me, and they asked me about camping at the lake and if there was an easier trail to Hunter Trailhead than the one they had had come up on from the Bud Love WMA.

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After explaining the trail from Elk Lake to Hunter via Triangle Park I was looked for the trail to Gem Lake…it wasn’t signed so I never found it and ended up hiking to the ATV trail and the next creek crossing. Of course, from that point on there were no suitable places to camp in the dense forest and we just had to keep hiking. I made use of my GPS map and satellite tracker and was glad to see we were only 1.5 miles from Willow Park Reservoir which is where we stopped for the night…after 7pm. I did see a bald eagle fly just over the lake within minutes of our arrival which was pretty neat…no pictures though.

I got the tent up, fed Kye and hung the bear bag. I wasn’t even hungry enough to eat anything and I was exhausted, and with the rain that had been threatening all day starting to get more serious it was time to crawl into my sleeping bag at 8:30, write the day’s journal and listen to all the creatures making noises outside the tent…including a screech owl (I think) and a deer (I hope). I made sure to have my bear spray close by and easy to grab. No food or smells in the tent except me and the dog, but being alone spooks me with the bears…probably more likely to get stepped on by the deer than anything else.

Day 6: Camp 4 at Willow Park Reservoir to Camp 5 at Highland Park

Not a great start to the day…it rained most of the night, off and on, so both the inside AND the outside of the tent were wet with no chance of the sun helping out for a few more hours due to the trees and the clouds. I carry a half of a small Tek Towel by Sea to Summit for just such an occasion and got the tent dry enough to pack away.

The morning routing was normal except I didn’t get up at the normal time and I refused to get out of my sleeping bag until almost 8!

The bald eagle showed up again this morning as I was cutting across country at the head of the reservoir.

The lack of a good start continued when I couldn’t find the trail leading away from the reservoir…in fact, nothing was signed at all. Checking the GPS it said I had passed it…NOPE. Where the trail was supposed to be there was nothing…not even the faint hint of a trail left behind. That was frustrating so I kept walking back along the road to look for trail 118 which went via Beaver Lakes but wasn’t actually part of the Solitude Trail, just a more scenic route. I couldn’t find that trail either and ended up back where I started by the bridge over the creek. I sat down and almost cried…the two routes to Highland Park, and thus back to the car in Coffeen Park, just didn’t seem to exist.

I got up and crossed back along the head of the resevoir to where my GPS said the trail should be. I made a risky decision to try and bushwhack along the route and see if there was a remnant of a trail. Thankfully there was but somehow I ended up off course (too many deer trails) and found myself wondering how good an idea it had been. I retraced my steps to a decent path and followed the direction my GPS told me I should be heading…it turned out that track was actually the trail I needed to be on, even though it was rough and unused. Many downed trees had to be navigated over, under or around during the descent to the creek. And there was another challenge…crossing not just one, but three creeks. The first was easy with a sandy bottom and the second was more like an irrigation ditch, but the third was tougher. I gauged the speed and depth of the water and decided it was too deep and fast for Kye to carry her pack across so I removed it and carried it for her. She struggled a little with the crossing but managed it without incident after a little encouragement. The whole ordeal left us exhausted, tired and frustrated, but we did it and I was proud of myself for not giving up and going back like I almost had several times. (It should be noted that the book does not list this as the correct route for the Solitude Trail even though it is listed as such on the map; it takes the hiker/rider around via ATV roads and then a pack trail).

We found a spot to sit and put shoes back on and were finally reacquainted with a proper ATV trail. Except this one didn’t look like it had been an ATV trail for a year or two…I’m guessing that’s why the other cut-across trail was closed also. At least it was a worn trail with no trees to climb over and easy to find. We followed it all the way to Kearny Lake Reservoir. It was a pretty tedious and boring hiking through never-ending pine trees and no views. The only exciting things in three miles were the waterfall and the three cow elk I spooked out of the river just above it.

Kearny Lake Reservoir was nothing special and in fact I barely saw it, just as I topped the dam and then followed the road away again; you couldn’t even access it for water. I hiked on and climbed one of the steepest hills yet, all to get to Lake Winnie and a water supply since I was out. With all the frustration earlier in the day I hadn’t been drinking much and was a little dehydrated.

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It was still early and the mosquitoes were bad so I made the decision to push on for Highland Park and a dry camp. Those two full liter bottles of water were heavy! I also knew that it would have to last for a few miles out of camp in the morning since the map showed no creeks for a while.

The hike up to Highland Park looked steep on the map but wasn’t as bad as I expected, mainly due to the fact that I was trying to kill time and not get to camp too early. I hate sitting around for hours with nothing to do but stare at the sky or the view.

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Some of the best views were to be had from Highland Park as the trail dumps you just below Black Tooth Mountain and Mt. Woolsey…a very spectacular last campsite for the trip. I’m glad it was a good one.

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Day 7: Camp 5 at Highland Park to Coffeen Park Trailhead

It was pretty cold last night…or at least I started out that way and I put my down jacket on under my sleeping bag and pulled my Buff over my beanie to cover my ears and my neck. I stayed warm after that and woke up so toasty I didn’t want to crawl out of my sleeping bag into the chilly morning air. I watched the early morning sun touch the peaks of Black Tooth Peak and Mt. Wolsey through the door of my tent…it was definitely a good way to start the day, and a much better beginning than the one I had yesterday.

After the normal morning routine I packed up quickly and looked at the map to gauge how long it would take me to cover the remaining distance back to Coffeen Park. I figured it would take about 5 hours to cover the distance, which would put me back at the car around noon.

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I left camp at 7:15 and hiked to the top of the ridge overlooking Highland Park, and the valley of the East Fork of Little Goose Creek, scattered with boulders and pine trees to the north. The hike down was fairly easy and we crossed the seasonal trickle that was the beginning of the East Fork of Little Goose Creek where I made sure Kye got some water. I hadn’t planned on there being water available in this creek as the map had suggested it wasn’t always flowing, and being a dry year I wasn’t relying on it. With only a liter of water left from yesterday I was glad to make use of the water available for Kye.

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From the creek we hiked back up towards another ridge, through the pines with only an occasional view of the pine-clad hills in the valley. It wasn’t the most scenic stretch of the trail, but it was short and soon took me back into boulder-fields and grass meadows which then led me over the second ridge of the day. The view to the north and east was expansive and I could make out the line in the trees and fields that was FSR 26, aka Red Grade. It looked so far away.

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The trail remained at a similar elevation for a couple of miles, following cairns from point to point before dropping down into the trees again. The grade was pleasant and the rocks weren’t too irritating (for a change). We ran into a group of four women backpackers who were on their way up to spend a few days at Highland Lake, above Highland Park. We chatted for a few minutes while they were resting before Kye and I continued down the mountain.

As we hiked I started to feel as though the trail was taking us in the wrong direction so I pulled the map out to check. It wasn’t particularly informative at the time as I had no reference point to go by, but since there had been no other trails joining the one I was on I had to trust that I was going the right way.

The trail dropped me out at the head of Bighorn Reservoir…not where the map said I should be coming out at, although the sign at the junction of the trail and the ATV road said “038 Solitude Trail”. I traversed Cross Creek barefoot since there was no way to safely boulder-hop and filled up with water on the far side. I was half a mile too far north on FSR 625 and questioned an ATV rider as he went by. He said he was heading towards Cross Creek Reservoir but had never seen a trail sign off that road before; that was not information I wanted to hear.

We hiked half a mile up 625 and found where the Solitude Trail originally joined FS 625, coming in from the east, but the trail leaving the road and heading west did not seem to exist. Both the map and my GPS agreed on the point it SHOULD have been, but there wasn’t even the hint of a trail there. I knew there was supposed to be a well-worn trail crossing the ridges between me and Coffeen Park as I had passed the junction of the two trails the day I had started, on my way up to Lake Geneva.

I steeled myself to having to hike across country again and kept my GPS on, checking it every few minutes to gauge my location in relation to the “trail”. We went straight up a ridiculous incline littered with boulders, downed trees and shrubbery. It wasn’t impossible, but it was difficult. At the top, stepping over, around and under trees and “hiking” for a short distance we finally found the actual trail coming from the north-east. I was interested to know where it had started and how we had missed it. I was sure there had been no signage anywhere we had walked along FS 625, and I had been looking pretty intently even at the start of the road; of course I have been known to be blind on occasion. I couldn’t locate it on Google Maps when I got home either.

Now back on the proper trail the hiking was much easier but remained within the trees. With the last ridge climbed and crossed the trail meandered steeply down…and down and down and down. I was glad I hadn’t started the trip going this way as it would have been a little disheartening to climb such a steep hill for so long and with no views. I did note that the trail I was on didn’t line up with the one on my GPS, and my location was nowhere near the trail on the map or Earthmate App for the GPS. If my GPS location was wrong, it would have been a first as I had been consistently checking its accuracy.

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Two hours later than expected we finally reconnected with the Geneva Pass Trail I had started out on, and I did a little dance and “whooped” a little as I celebrated completing the Solitude Loop Trail, (plus 14.5 extra miles hiking out to and back in from Hunter Trailhead, and the mile in and out to Coffeen Park Trailhead). It was a proud moment as I finished one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.

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We hiked the last mile back to the car and of course I hadn’t taken the key out of my toiletries bag and put it in my belt pouch like I had planned to, and it was buried half way down in my pack. Oops!

After I got the car open I gave Kye a treat of a whole can of Vienna sausages, which she wolfed down pretty fast. I loaded everything into the backseat and headed back to civilization, not really ready for such an epic trip to be over.

 

Gear Review: ZPacks Arc Haul Backpack and Duplex Tent

I’ve read so many reviews for gear that it almost seemed redundant to do another one myself, but since all the reviews for the Arc Haul and Duplex have been predominantly positive I figured I’d throw my two-cents worth into the pot.

ZPacks Arc Haul

Specs: The base weight for the Arc Haul is 24 oz. Mine weighed in at approximately 31oz with the added belt pouches, lumbar pad, top/side mesh pockets, shock-cord lashing, double top straps and side roll-top closure straps.

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I have now used this pack on four trips. It took most of the first trip up Tongue River Canyon to get the fit dialed in properly which can take a few miles since everything is adjustable and removable. I started with the shoulder straps sitting too low and they would rub my collar bone and pull down with too much weight on my shoulders. A slight adjustment in the strap attachment and they fit great. The other issue was the mesh backing where the top would rub against the bones of my shoulder blades. A few more adjustments to move the mesh upwards towards the top of the pack while still keeping the arc in the frame and it was again comfortable.

I have loved everything about the design and quality of this pack. The 62L capacity (main compartment, mesh back pocket and two side/bottom pockets, 49L main compartment) was adequate for all my gear and four days of food but I did find that the two side/top mesh pockets to be extremely useful for my water filter/squeeze bag, dog water-bowl and a rain jacket for convenience. I highly recommend them if you buy this pack.

The roll-top closure is very secure and I like the velcro closure aspect of the opening. It is not normal velcro that seems to pick up all kinds of debris and wears out, but some kind of hybrid that feels more durable. I chose to incorporate the side buckle closures on my Arc Haul as I like to carry a sit pad on top of my pack and the standard closure wasn’t going to work for me (plus is could catch overhead branches). I am glad I chose the side closures and they kept the pack closed securely and did not permit the entry of any rain water.

The belt pouches are HUGE and carried all my food for the day (except dinner), my phone, camera, car keys and still had a lot of room left over. The only issue I had was the tape used to seal the seams on the inside started to separate and left a very sticky and hard to remove residue on the screen of my phone. After learning that I made sure to keep my trash or snack bag between my phone and camera and the interior of the pouch (the side that is attached to the belt).  With this one exception, the belt pouches were great and sit comfortably on the belt and hips and don’t get in the way.

The lower side pockets are a perfect size for two 1 liter Smartwater bottles, and while it can be a pain to put them back in, it is possible to remove and return the bottles to the pockets while wearing the pack if you are limber enough. I can also fit my bear spray and bug spray in the side pockets with my 1L Smartwater bottles but that does make it difficult to remove and return the water bottles while wearing the pack…but that is my problem and not an issue with the pack in general. The elastic around the top of the pocket is tight and keeps things secure so I never once worried about a water bottle falling out, even when bending down to pick up a dropped hiking pole.

The only issue I had with this pack is the frame. I had it arced to just below the recommended 2 1/2″, and even with the additional lumbar pad I still had issues with pressure from the lower bar of the frame to which the belt is attached. I could not feel the bar itself, but the rigidity of the frame pushing into my back caused my legs and lower body to fatigue faster. Towards the end of the day I would have to loosen the belt and carry more weight on my shoulders to relieve the lower back pain and give my hips and legs a break.

I seem to be the only one with this issue with the frame and believe it is more to do with my size (very slender with almost no natural cushioning on my hips and back) than it is to do with the pack/frame itself. I have found no other reports or experiences of others having this issue, especially after adding the lumbar pad.

Overall, I have loved everything about this pack, but due to the lumbar/frame issue it is a pack I will have to retire for the foreseeable future. I would, however, recommend this pack to others since no-one else seems to have the issue I do. After contacting ZPacks, and receiving an email directing from Joe who made some suggestions and offered to make a custom belt for me (which I’m not sure would alleviate the problem), it is obvious that their customer service is impeccable. I have constantly been impressed by their responses and attitude to my questions and requests for help.

Edit 8/31/2016: After a little bit of research, experimenting and crafting I made my own modified lumbar pad that is thicker and slightly larger than the stock pad you can order from ZPacks. It works wonders and feels amazingly comfortable now. My Arc Haul is back on the trail and doing what it is supposed to do very well. Yay!

ZPacks Duplex

Specs: I ordered the Duplex in the heavier-weight 0.74oz spruce green which weighs in at 23.2oz. (This does not include stakes).

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This tent is my first piece of Cuben Fiber gear and I went with the 0.74oz material vs the standard ZPacks 0.52oz CF for the added durability and thickness. It only added $15 to the cost and 2.2oz to the overall weight; I felt that this trade-off was worth it for peace of mind and added life-length since this was a big investment.

I watched the ZPacks Youtube video for how to put this tent up as it is not intuitive, especially using the doors. Joe at ZPacks makes a very good and clear instructional video on how to erect the Duplex which I have linked to at the bottom of the page.

After figuring out how to put the Duplex up I have found that after a few times of practice it goes up very quick and easy. It takes a few adjustments once it is up to get the correct angles on the lines and the roof pitch, but these are often minimal and take just a few seconds.

The fluorescent yellow guy lines are solid and light, but I still manage to trip over them sometimes. Even as bright as they are, yellow still blends in with tall grasses more than pink or red. I have been using some stakes I got with an old Kelty tent and are similar to MSR Groundhog stakes in profile (Y-shaped cross-section), but not as light. I have found they work very well with the guylines and have been far more secure, durable and easier to get into the ground than the U-shaped stakes I had from Six Moon Designs, especially in some of the harder or rockier ground.

The biggest test of the Duplex was in a major thunderstorm the first night of my Walker Prairie hike. I was able to get it up quickly and all my gear and dog inside before it poured down on us. The nice thing about Cuben Fiber is that it is waterproof, not just water resistant. There were no seams or locations that water leaked into the tent during that deluge and my dog, my stuff and I all stayed dry, even when the wind picked up.

There is enough space in the Duplex for me, all my gear and two dogs with their cut-down CCF sleeping pad. Two people would find it a squeeze and wouldn’t recommend it unless it was an adult and child but I have seen them used for couples, and then all gear would have to be left under the awnings which are definitely adequate for dry-storage of gear.

The awnings are spacious and are high enough off the ground to permit a reasonable amount of airflow, but I have found that with two dogs in the tent (the first night in the Black Hills) plus me that I still ended up with a lot of condensation on the inside. Leaving one or both doors open or having the dogs sleep under the awnings makes a big difference in the condensation levels. My one night up in the Little Horn Canyon with one dog and an open door left me with a completely dry tent in the morning. Of course so much of this has a lot to do with campsite location and most of my condensation issues have been due to camping near creeks and at the bottom of valleys. The condensation issue is always going to be one of the trade-offs with a single-wall tent.

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The Duplex has become one of my favorite pieces of backpacking gear so far and despite the hefty price tag I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again. I love the space, the design, the ease of putting it up and stowing it away, and I love how much living area I have for the weight. Sitting out the storm was comfortable when you have enough room to move around and organize.

I would like to see ZPacks offer a net tent inner with bathtub floor to go with their Duplex tarp (an option not well known about) as well as the standard model with the attached floor and mesh as I believe this would be a great set up, and even more versatile.

ZPacks now offers a free-standing option for the Duplex tent, but with another hefty price tag for the poles plus a weight gain of 10.2oz which puts in the weight category of other free-standing but less-expensive double-wall tents. It would be a good option for those who don’t use trekking poles. Here is a great review of the Duplex tarp with the freestanding option.

ZPacks Duplex Set-up Video:

 

 

Three Days Backpacking Walker Prairie, Horseshoe Mountain and Wolf Creek Trails

Day 1

The trail head for the Walker Prairie trail was down a mile-long rocky, primitive road. I decided to not torture my parents by driving to the bottom and making them drive back up. I started hiking about 1/2 a mile from the trail head. The road was easy for Kye and me to navigate on foot and the roads were well signed.

We started by crossing a log bridge over Ranger Creek and following short climb to the ridge line where we hiked along a nice and easy path through the trees for a while before dropping down to run along the bank of the East Fork of Big Goose Creek. The freakiest thing was coming across the carcass of a half eaten elk half in and half out of one of the minor tributaries running into Big Goose. It was covered in flies and I hurried away from the water crossing as fast as possible with a pack before the owner of the carcass came back to finish it off.

We followed the creek for almost three miles, making four fords of the creek in a short period of time. The water was bitterly cold and I had to carry my shoes and Kye’s pack while trying not to loose my footing and get too wet. It was irritating to have to keep switching out my hiking shoes for water shoes, but having dry shoes and socks to hike in was a priority. The shoes I chose, however, were pretty crappy and too big.

The creek itself was gorgeous and I kept having to stop to eyeball all the fishing holes (and the pretty big fish I could see in them), and was beginning to wish I had a backpacking fly rod and some flies with me.

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From Big Goose creek we hiked up the side of the valley to a place I lost the trail. Using intuition and having keen eyes (and screenshots of the guidebook pages) helped me locate the faint signs of a trail and climbed through a grassy “field”, past a granite knob and through a saddle. Looking behind me gave me some great views of the creek.

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Having made it over the saddle and to the ATV trail I was rewarded with stunning views of canyons, peaks and wide open grassland. This was a short but sweet section of the hike and soon we were descending down a steep and rocky section of road/trail that led us to the West Fork of Big Goose. Thankfully there was a bridge to cross this time and we took a break in the meadows alongside the water.

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Before long we packed up and hiked up another steep path, through more grassland with no trail and over yet another saddle to Prairie Creek. Unlike previous hikes, this trail definitely had plenty of water and I didn’t have to carry much which was nice for my pack weight

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We followed Prairie Creek down to where it joined Walker Creek which we forded by rock hopping instead of getting our feet wet, although Kye still insisted in wading through it, and took a few minutes to fill up on water before another steep climb into Walker Prairie, a huge expanse of grassland high in the Bighorn Mountains. Again here we lost the trail, but knowing which general direction I needed to be going we meandered up the valley above some massive granite outcroppings. The biting flies were a nightmare and we had to keep moving just to keep them from harassing us too much. Kye was on receiving end of the worst of it so despite wanting to take a break and rest and eat we just kept going.

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We passed She Bear Mountain and Walker Mountain and crossed a fence line before turning up a grassy draw with, again, no easy trail to see until we’d done some more trail blazing.

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Now we were on an exposed trail above the trees and the clouds just kept looking darker and darker, and unfortunately they seemed to be heading our way. Thankfully they were moving slowly and we hurried down the hillside to Quartz Creek, hoping I’d have enough time to get my tent up before the rain hit. We forded the creek and I tried rock hopping in order to keep from having to switch shoes again but one rock rolled and my trail runners ended up soaked. Hopefully they will be mostly dry by the morning.

A few sprinkles hit us as the tent was finally up and I threw everything inside, including Kye despite the delicate nature of the material my tent is made of…it’s not generally good to mix claws and cuben fiber. After I had things pulled out of my pack, and trying to get organized in such a small space, the rain started and the thunder and lightning came. One strike was almost on top of us and it freaked Kye out more than me and she almost jumped on top of me, although it did make me jump too. I ate a few snacks while waiting for the storm to pass and wrote most of today’s journal.

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A second storm came through about 30 minutes with a lot of intense rain but the thunder and lightning wasn’t as close. I finished dinner and fed Kye hers while waiting for the rain to abate, which it eventually did. When we could finally see the sun we went to the creek so Kye could drink and I could find a rock to throw into the trees to hang my food bag. I did better with hitting the branch this time, although the choices of usable branches was still limited.

With all the rain and the sun coming out there were two half rainbows above the valley and I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the stunning scenery, my campsite and the rainbows above it, and Kye.

Headed to bed around 8:30 but it was too light and I wasn’t particularly sleepy so I took the time to finish writing today’s blog.

Tomorrow should be another good hike, although it is looking steeper than most of today’s hiking. Hoping the weather holds through the night and gives my tent and shoes a chance to dry out…wet shoes in the morning will not be pleasant.

Day 2

No flies this morning but the tent was still wet outside from last night’s rain, and inside from condensation. Having camped near Quartz Creek I expected there might be an issue with condensation…it is the bane of single-wall tents, even with decent but not good ventilation. I tried lying in bed fpr a while, waiting for the sun to peak over the mountains but by 7am it was still not visible and I attempted to dry the inside of my tent with camp towel…it helped but didn’t completely cure the problem.

I had my sleeping bag, pad and pillow packed up before I exited the tent, and changed into my hike clothes so I could put my base layer/pajamas away. I put on my water shoes because they were, ironically, the only footwear that was not wet. I retrieved my bear bag and made coffee while waiting for things to dry…my tent dried quickly after I toweled off the exterior and the sun and breeze had their turn.

My trail runners and insoles were not so lucky and I resigned myself to hiking in my water shoes and socks for a while. I stuffed the insoles in the mesh pocket on the front of my pack and hung the shoes from my top straps. Thankfully the sun was at my back and a mild breeze was blowing. This still didn’t keep the flies at bay which started harassing us as soon as I disturbed them along the water’s edge while getting water. We were packed up in record time after that!

The trail followed a fairly easy trail along and slightly above Quartz Creek, which was good because hiking in too-big water shoes and socks was not conducive to anything more than a flat trail.

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A couple of miles downstream we could see the ford of Quartz Creek that led to the Wolf Creek Trail, and another which I was planning to take. As we approached the ford from downwind a small herd pf elk was crossing the creek. We stayed still and quiet and I managed to capture some great pictures. Being downwind meant they didn’t catch our scent and didn’t realize we were there until they were 20 yards from us. Kye behaved impeccably but still watched them intently as they took off up the slope towards the rocky outcropping of Big Mountain.

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With the elk gone we crossed the creek…I did it barefoot which was very cold but I didn’t want to deal with wet shoes again. On the far side of the creek I filled up with water, and finally my shoes and insoles dry enough to put back on.

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From the creek we climbed an incredibly steep hill for about 3/4 of a mile before it joined an ATV road. It was so steep I was stopping ever twenty or thirty yards…it was also incredibly which made things that much harder. At least out of the grasslands the flies weren’t as bad, although they were still somewhat irritating when we stopped at the top for a break and to eat some lunch.

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The ATV road continued to climb gently upward with some challenging rocks, at least for vehicles. They were a minor nuisance and the trail gradually flattened out. Within a quarter of a mile I was bored of the road and turned on some music (thanks to my friend Geoff who provided me with some Bellowhead…the perfect hiking music) to keep me company as I hiked down the tree-lined road. There was very little to look at and a couple of creek crossings, the last one of which we stopped at for a break and a nap and to fill up with water.

After four miles we turned onto FS 427, a trail that had some use but mostly disappeared in the grassy areas. At one point I lost it and then thought I had found it…a very well-groomed, well-defined trail that led north. It was even marked “TRAIL”. It was NOT the trail I wanted…and I ended up too far north and too far west of where I wanted to be. I had no idea what trail I was actually on or where it would come out but it did eventually dump me out about a mile west of where I actually needed to be.

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There was no way to easily cut across from my location unless I hiked on the road (not ideal) and I found myself bush-whacking across some very rough terrain to get to where I needed to be and even then the trail wasn’t sign posted, and the book was little help now the access road had been abandoned.

We finally got on the right trail, just below Steamboat Rock and south of the highway, and started climbing the valley after almost going the wrong way again. It amazes me how badly some of the major trails that are on the National Forest Bighorn map are sign-posted or marked.

All the bad signage of the day and off-trail hiking were made up for by the sighting of a rather large bull moose in a small clump of aspens which I never would have seen if I’d been on the right trail in the first place. Kye alerted me to its presence and it was certainly aware of us so I gave the aspen grove and the moose a wide berth and almost lost the path again. He continued to watch us as we got above him and I attempted to take some pictures which was hard since he was so well hidden.

The grade started out fairly easy but got steeper as we hiked and the sun beat down on us without any clouds to help. There was little breeze and my energy was pretty much spent by this point. We did make it to the top and chugged a lot of water. We passed an old brass NF boundary marker and continued down into another drainage towards the South Fork of the Little Tongue River, passing several cattle and fighting flies again…it must be an upper grassland issue because they were miserable.

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We made camp just below the strata of Horseshoe Mountain, filtered some water, hung the bear bag and relaxed while trying to fight off the bugs. I am currently hoping the cattle don’t run over my tent in the night…at least I have a cow dog!

I spent a few amusing minutes watching a wasp catch some of the really irritating biting flies that had caught themselves beneath the awning of my tent. It came in and out several times, it took several attempts before it consistently remembered how to get out again…no matter how many times it ducked under the door. I’m just thankful for the clean-up job it was doing. It went to bed as the light faded but showed up again at first light. I’d never seen a fly-eating wasp before!

Day 3

Unfortunately I woke up at 5:30 this morning and was out of bed by six, quickly packing things away. I was still tired and achy from the day before but I knew I only had six miles to go. I couldn’t stomach another chocolate pop tart so settled for last night’s cookies instead. I didn’t have coffee either and tried just munching on it…well that was gross!!!

We tried starting out at 7am but with no clear trail I tried a couple of different routes…actually there was no trail at all except for some steep cattle trails which the book explicitly told me to avoid. I was really beginning to cuss the book and the map. This time it was the map that came through and gave me a clearer idea of where I should have been going. It was all steep uphill, through grass and on sideways angle which just sucks to walk on, even with hiking poles. It was fairly miserable and my ankles were really hating on me, especially the Achilles tendon in my left foot which I’d already been having problems with.

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We finally reached what I thought was the saddle at the top and found the trail…who knows where it started but I was glad to have found it, especially since the top wasn’t really the top and I had another half mile of upward hiking to go.

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Finally we reached the top of the Sibley Creek watershed and meandered through grassy fields towards the junction with Wolf Creek Trail. While the upward climb had been hard, especially on my tendon, now it was all downhill, and once we reached the junction of the two trails it was steep and loose dirt and rocks and completely miserable. It had to have been one of the worst trails I have ever been on. By the time I completed four miles of this my legs were like jelly and I’m not sure I could have walked much further. The book had claimed the waterfalls were worth the trail but I’m not sure they were, at least from the direction I had come. They were pretty though and there were a couple of nice-looking fishing holes.

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I arrived at the trail head at Eaton’s Ranch to witness the wranglers running the horses down and off the mountain, and the subsequent cloud of dust, and made my way to the office to drop off a guest’s driver’s license I had found on the trail, to call my dad for pick up and to hope they had beer for sale…they did, but the girl behind the counter couldn’t sell it to me because she was underage.

I’m beat up, stinky and worn out but it was quite the three days of backpacking.


After-thoughts from the hike:

Sadly I think the super-lightweight backpack I’ve been carrying has been contributing to my fatigue due to the bar that sits along the lower back. I’m thinking I need to rent something different from a local store to find out in order to be sure before I order a new one. My shoes are also an issue and I think they are contributing to my Achilles tendon issue as it doesn’t seem to hurt when walking without them.

I also need to re-think my food strategy. I’m not loving on my breakfast choices but my lunch and morning/afternoon snacks are generally fine. Dinner is another problem as I don’t want to cook. I am finding a need to research a way to make pasta or rice salad from dried ingredients that I can add cold water too to make a decent meal. I am also done with trying to make coffee in the morning as it’s never been my favorite beverage and am looking into the caffeinated candy bars available on the coffee aisle for a combination breakfast snack and wake-up boost.

With no cooking or heating water on the menu I can now leave my stove and fuel behind to lighten up my pack even more…it’s kind of addictive trying to figure out ways to lighten your pack while still carrying enough to be safe and comfortable-ish.

A Weekend Hike up the Little Horn Canyon

Day 1

Today was the big 50K Big Horn Trail run. I parked at the trail head parking lot and hiked a few hundred yards up a two track. It was pretty crazy and I had no idea where the trail actually was with all the tents, vehicles, trailers etc. I ended up having to ask someone where the Little Horn Trail started.

Kye had her pack on and got of compliments as we meandered through the myriad of runners.

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Kye in her stylish pack with a view down the canyon

The trail followed the river for a few miles, mostly staying above it, but coming within a few feet of it on a couple of occasions. We took these opportunities to cool off and refill water.

 

The one and only water refill I did was at our first river stop. We had crossed so many springs and seeps that I didn’t think of refilling again at the second stop or when crossing the next creek. This was a pretty big mistake on my part and while the water lasted to within a mile of the next water source I had rationed it as much as possible, and Kye and I were both pretty thirsty by the time we reached Wagon Box Creek…that water was SO good. It was definitely our salvation.

 

Very little notable on the trail except for the small garter or grass snake I almost sat on and the amazing land slide area across the canyon near to where I camped for the night. The trail runners had pretty much disappeared by noon and a bunch of people were packing down bags of garbage…that looked like a lot of work. I also ran into a few backpackers, one of whom happened to round the bend just as I was done peeing and pulling my pants up…I honestly think he was more embarrassed than me; no one on the trail for an hour and then when I got to pee, THEN there’s someone walking by!!!

I also realize I brought too much food….again…but the decision to go stoveless was a good one. I am enjoying the lighter weight of my pack.

Kye and I camped just above Wagon Box Creek, in a sheltered (mostly) alcove, so I do ‘t have to worry about water. I had an amazing view and a little fire pit…it was too breezy for a fire, but maybe Sunday evening.

Tomorrow I plan to leave my tent and sleeping bag behind and hike up and back with just water and food. My pack isn’t really designed for such a small load, but I will make do since there’s no point in packing it all up.

Day 2

I had added strips of silicone to the underside of my sleeping pad, and even though I still don’t care for the pad the silicone kept the pad in place in the tent, and underneath me, and I managed to get a pretty good night of sleep. I had my beanie on and pulled down over my eyes so I didn’t wake up until 7:30am. I hadn’t realized how badly I had oriented the doors of the tent until the sun rose through the opening, blinding me even with the beanie over my face.

As decided yesterday I left much stuff behind, but I did pack it away since I was a little worried someone might come along and like the look of my gear. The problem with ultra-light tents and sleeping bags is that they come with a hefty price tag, and I didn’t want all that money walking off the mountain without me.

With just a few snacks and some water Kye and I continued to hike up the mountain for another mile, where I thought the trail split and came back together as they often do. Well, I was wrong, and I ended up taking the wrong fork. I studied the map and returned to the ford of the creek but there was no way I was crossing the raging torrent without water shoes or a companion. I’m not even sure Kye would have crossed it safely either, even without her pack.

With that route a no-go I had no where else to hike and made the decision to hike back to camp, pack up and hike the 10 miles back to the car.

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Beautiful raging creek. They had purposefully leveled this area as a fording place for horses

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This was the people and dog-crossing for the creek.

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Quite the log jam

I was definitely exhausted upon arrival at the car at 5pm, but it was definitely a worthwhile weekend of backpacking.

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