Length: 19mi (30.6km) Days: 2-3 Difficulty: Medium (clear trails and manageable distance, but rough terrain involving ladders and some climbing) Gear: Standard gear + WAG bags Completed: September 2021
In summary: Druid Arch Loop stands amongst some of the best hiking that Utah has to offer and should be a bucket list trip for any weekend warrior or aspiring canyoneer. Wandering the exotic “needles” (most look more like mushrooms in my opinion), various arches, and desert landscapes makes for a unforgettable hike. The need to climb ladders, squeeze through tunnels and clamber over rocks on all fours only adds to the excitement. Exploring “The Needles” is undoubtedly a choose your own adventure type of trip, but no matter how you set your itinerary, do not skip the magnificent Druid Arch. The arch can be reached in a long day’s hike, but why not take some extra time to camp, soak in this beautiful place, and capitalize on its status as an international dark sky park?
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Permitsare required:To minimize the environmental impact imposed by backpackers, Canyonlands runs a strict permitting process for all backcountry sites. Prospective hikers will need to obtain a Recreation.gov permit in advance of their trip to secure their desired itinerary.
Build your own route: That’s right, there is no clear overnight trail or established route that is recommended to backpackers in the Needles District of Canyonlands. Rather, you will have to chart your own course based on the messy web of trails available in the area.
WAG bags are required: WAG, or “waste alleviation and gelling”, bags are intended to reduce the damage caused on an environment by human waste and are required of overnighters in Canyonlands Natl. Park. This may seem like a hassle, and admittedly it provided me with more than enough incentive to “hold it”, but the policy does have its benefits. Surely many of you have come across ugly caches of toilet paper and waste when backpacking, and this requirement prevents this in a dry environment where waste could take years to decompose.
Stay on the trail: This should go without saying, but staying on trail is especially important in southern Utah’s desert landscapes due to the presence of fragile biological soil crusts. These crusts, made up of living microbes, are critical to a functioning ecosystem in this harsh climate and a single errant footstep can destroy over 50 years of growth.
Be flash flood aware: World class canyoneering comes with its risks, so it is best to be mindful of these and take appropriate precautions. Check with a ranger before departing and NEVER camp in the floodplains outside of established sites. Remember, flash floods can occur even when no rain is present.
Day One: Squaw Flat to Campsite EC1 via Squaw Canyon (6.6mi.)
Standing in the Squaw Flat parking lot, deep within “The Needles District” of Canyonlands National Park, one can’t help but take in the desert beauty all around. The land is relatively flat, and pristine landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see, leading all the way to a dramatic vista of the La Sal Mountains 30 miles east. Despite this beauty, it isn’t immediately clear from the trailhead how this famous national park earned its iconic name. Rather than the deep sandstone canyons that adorn postcards and travel websites, the defining topographical feature of the park appears to be towering, crumbling buttes. Nonetheless, we embarked on our journey across the desert, following a flat dirt path that stretched into the expanse. As we walked, we took note of the sharp, weathered texture of our surroundings, indicative of the harsh realities of life in the high desert. The trees were gnarled and dry, the cacti prickly, even the dirt was wrinkled and brittle, formed into microbial soil crusts that had coalesced over decades to cope with the severe climate.
Steadily, as we moved along the path, we observed as a small orange crest on the horizon grew into a colorful wall of layered sandstone. We posited that that we had finally reached the eponymous canyons, 2.5 miles in, though it was entirely unclear how we were going to enter them. The trail appeared to be leading us straight towards a never-ending wall. We put our trust in the map, however, and after a bit more walking we reached the base, where a small crease in the stone brought us gradually up the steep sides of the cliff. Just when we thought we couldn’t safely climb any further, we were redirected towards a small fissure in the rock wall, no more than a couple feet wide. To cram through seemed absurd, but a log jammed into the crevice, seemingly to prevent a 127 Hours situation, had footprints on it that suggested it was possible.
After my first attempt at squeezing through the crevice was rebuffed, I had to rearrange my pack and give it another shot. This time I slipped through and was able to enter a narrow tunnel in the rock. The other entrance glowed orange in the late afternoon sun, and when we emerged from the darkness it was as if we had entered a whole different world. There we were, in the heart of the vast Squaw Canyon, blown away by the vibrant mix of colors and intense scenery around us. The canyon was deep, with multiple levels and interesting rock formations in all directions. After scampering down a log positioned as a ladder, we found ourselves walking atop the canyons second level. Both gazing down into the dried up wash below and gazing up at the prominent peaks above.
Perhaps 30 minutes after the challenge of squeezing through the tunnel, we were faced with our second exciting obstacle of the day: a metal ladder that would permit us to jump between canyons. Emma was a little anxious to test the ladder with a loaded backpack as counterweight, but my past experience on the Drakensburg Grand Traverse had prepared me well. This ladder was much shorter, and undoubtedly more secure. After conquering the ladder without an issue, we found ourselves on a smooth sandstone saddle with panoramic views of the Squaw Canyon and Elephant Canyon juncture. I cannot say that I have ever been in a natural place with more detail geologically, so we took a quick pit stop to grab water and snap photos. By this time, we were not far from our intended campsite in Elephant Canyon.
Following our break, the remainder of our journey was quite straightforward, but equally enjoyable. A similar ladder on the opposite side of the saddle dropped us officially into Elephant Canyon, where we caught a short set of switchbacks that took us to the labyrinth’s floor. After about two and a half miles winding along the canyon’s sandy bottom, we reached our campsite. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better location for our one evening in the backcountry as the hilltop site epitomized Canyonlands. A perfect sitting boulder served as our kitchen and dining room while we admired the sunset and soaked in an all-encompassing view of the distinctive spires and hoodoos that give The Needles its name. We both agreed, however, that the blunter, more rotund spires that filled Elephant Canyon were more akin to ‘mushrooms’ than ‘needles’.
When it was finally time to turn in, we decided to capitalize on what was projected to be a warm night by leaving the rainfly off our tent. Park rangers had educated us about Canyonland’s status as an International Dark Sky Park, and we wanted to see what the hype was about. It did not disappoint. Though bone tired, I spent at least an hour of the evening basking in the soft blue glow of the Milky Way. When I woke up restlessly, halfway through the night, the display was even better.
Day Two: Campsite EC1 to Squaw Flat via Druid Arch (12.4mi.)
Determined to buck our trend of later than desired starts on backpacking trips, Emma and I woke up early to begin our long second day on the trail. Fortunately, the trail supported our efforts by immediately sending us on a warmup climb into a new section of the park where we were treated with wonderful views. In a flash, Elephant Canyon had disappeared, and we were walking atop a mesa with panoramic views of the vast Colorado Plateau.
Just as there are various layers to Canyonland’s famous sandstone formations, we found there to be multiple layers to the hiking in the Needles, and by traversing the Druid Arch Loop were experiencing them all. No more than a quarter mile from our campsite, which had been tucked deep within the maze of canyons, we were now thoroughly immersed in the second layer. Ahead, we were faced with a great wall of thin sandstone, while just behind, we marveled at the curved domes of what appeared to be a plethora of mammoth mushrooms. What had once towered above us, now formed a false floor, obscuring the deep canyons below us in layer one. Perspective had certainly changed.
After another half mile or so of walking, we came to a small divide in the large sandstone wall where we crossed the threshold into the well-known Chesler Park. Once again, the space changed, opening into a beautiful sage steppe that resembled a natural amphitheater. The stage was wide and flat save for a few low ripples, while towering hoodoos and textured walls formidably boxed in 90% of the park. The small bit that wasn’t enclosed stretched endlessly away from the loop trail and into the horizon.
In addition to being integral to the scenery, the gentle grades of Chesler Park served as a respite from the steep climbs and backcountry ladders that allowed us to shave off a mile and a half from the day in no time. We used a few of these extra minutes to check out the Chesler Park campsites, where we were told that there was an archeological site worth exploring. The detour was short and definitely worth it. Barbed wire, rusted cans, bullets and inert dynamite combined with hundred year old graffiti served as a reminder that early settlers and gold prospectors had also frequented this beautiful place in search of wealth and a fresh start. As a fair warning to those who may hike with children, some of the sandstone graffiti is quite explicit.
Had we been camping in Chesler Park, I would have loved to poke around the ghost settlement for longer, but we had a schedule to keep to, and thus our stop was short-lived. After putting our packs back on and completing a quick jaunt back across the park, we were led once again into the mushroom forest. This short section turned out to be one of the most challenging parts of the trek. Prior to arriving at the Druid Arch junction, we weaved our way around and through a series of nameless capillary canyons trying to navigate our way back to the main vein. It was narrow, steep, rocky, and hot, but we eventually emerged in Elephant Canyon triumphant.
Facing a 1.6mi. one-way trip to Druid Arch, we decided it would be shrewd to abandon our heavy backpacks, so we did, stashing them under the cover of a few dense bushes nearby. Water and lunch in hand, we began an arduous climb up the wash and towards the canyon’s terminus. The entire way, two reflections stood out to me. One, how blessed we were to be able to experience this wonderful, protected piece of public land on a balmy fall day. And two, how smart we were to have left our packs behind. After the second time scaling the face a dry waterfall on all fours, I began to crave lunch and a resting place at the end of the fork. Even upon arrival at what appeared to be the back of Elephant Canyon, there was no arch to be seen. Here, we also ran into another confused couple, who had arrived 10 minutes earlier and were almost certain they had gotten lost. Puzzled, we poked around for a few minutes before I noticed a small path that appeared to run straight up the rocky cliff of the canyon. With no better alternative, I tried following it. A couple switchbacks into my scamper, I located a rock cairn, indicating we were on the right path. I called out and our new hiking party followed. Ten minutes later, we reached the top of a massive ledge, invisible from the canyon floor, where we stood collectively transfixed.
Despite completing a three day trip to Arches National Park just two days prior to our Canyonlands trek, Druid Arch instantly became my favorite geologic formation in Utah. For starters, the sheer scale of the double arch is incredible. At 150ft. tall, it resembled to me the AT-AT walkers from Star Wars. To add to the magnificence, the arch stared down an incredible view of Elephant Canyon from the upper levels. It was the perfect spot for a break, so we took a long lunch, soaking up the sun and admiring the colorful sandstone strata the entire time.
Reluctantly, after a wonderful morning of trekking, it was time for us to begin our journey back to the trailhead. So, we gathered our things, left the arch, recovered our packs, and followed a new path out via Elephant Canyon. While the proceeding 6.7 miles felt much like 12.3 miles prior, it would be erroneous to describe anything in The Needles as ‘more of the same’. Each winding turn and laborious climb brought with it a new vantage point, interesting landscape, or incomparable sandstone feature. Without suffering a dull moment, we finally emerged back onto the high plateau from which we had started. A cool breeze and refreshed vista of the La Sal Mountains greeted us upon arrival as welcome gifts to commemorate our journey.
Length: 40.3mi (64.9km) Days: 3-4 Difficulty: Hard (no facilities, elevation change, rough terrain, and wildlife) Gear: Standard + bear canisters (GPS/PLB recommended) Completed: September 2021
Insummary: Perhaps the best of the great American backpacking trips I have been on, the Teton Crest Trail is a route that all serious hikers should have at the very top of their travel bucket list. Make no mistake about it, the journey is difficult. Over the course of over 40 miles hikers must brave steep, rugged terrain, wildlife, and the potential for inclement weather. Still, the best things come to those who work for them, and the payoff of the Teton Crest is unparalleled. We turned every corner and topped every hill with a heightened sense of anticipation, never sure when we would be faced with a moose, bear, pristine alpine lake, or stunning mountain vista. There is no better way to explore the beautiful Grand Teton National Park than hiking the remote Teton Crest Trail.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Grab your permit early: Backcountry campsites are in high demand within Grand Teton National Park (GTNP), so it is important to register for a permit early and build a little extra slack into your travel plans should your route need to be modified. This is especially important on the Teton Crest, as it is the park’s most renowned long-distance route. There are two methods for securing a GTNP backcountry permit:
Book an “advance permit” during the online registration period which usually opens for the coming year in early January. This requires you to know your dates and place a non-refundable deposit. One-third of backcountry sites will be booked this way.
Book a “first-come first-serve permit” either the day of, or day prior to, your intended reservation. This is how the remaining two-thirds of sites are filled. Be forewarned that the lines for these permits form early at the visitor centers, and one should arrive early to ensure first pick of the available sites. We arrived at 6am sharp and were already the second group in line. By the time are visitor center opened, there were roughly 10 parties waiting.
Plan for a wildlife encounter: The Teton Crest is one of the best trails in North America for spotting big game wildlife up close and personal. This can be a highlight of the trip, but only if one is prepared. Bear canisters are required and spray is highly, highly recommended for every member of your party. Wolves, mountain lions, bison, moose, and elk are all present in the park. Be sure to keep your distance from the herbivores as well as the carnivores; all can be quite ornery (especially during the rut) and have caused loads of problems for naïve photographers who get too close.
Rent, don’t buy, essential gear: Bear bins and bear spray are necessary when camping in the Tetons (see above), but visitors to the park can save a lot of money renting gear locally rather than buying themselves. Hard-sided food canisters are best obtained at visitor centers within the park, while spray can be rented from the nearby Jackson Hole Airport or a number of outdoor proprietors in town.
Prepare for inclement weather: While we were blessed with clear skies on our journey, snow or thunderstorms are quite common in the region and hikers should be prepared for the worst. Snow is most common towards the beginning or end of the peak season (July – September), while thunderstorms can occur all summer. High heat is another possibility that hikers should take precautions against.
Crampons may be required: Check with a ranger to see if crampons or an ice ax may be required. Some of the steep passes may be covered in snow, especially if walking during the spring season.
Marmot-proof your campsite: Marmots are everywhere along the Teton Crest, and while fun companions during the day, they turn into destructive bastards at night. Consider hanging or tenting gear to keep it safe. We ran into a fellow traveler who had his shirt eaten overnight, and on our last evening one tried to make off with my hiking pole. Fortunately, it gave up on the heavy object, but not before taking a few bites out of the rubber grips.
Day One: Phillip’s Bench Trailhead to Middle Fork Granite Canyon (8.8mi)
The magic of the Teton Crest is that there truly is never a dull moment in the trail. Over the course of four days and 40 tough miles we never found a bad view or lost the sense of wonder that comes with the ever-present possibility of an animal encounter. From the moment we stepped onto the trail at the inconspicuous roadside pullout, we felt lost in the vast Wyoming wilderness.
Though we planned to get an earlier start to our adventure, the logistics of securing a permit, renting bear spray, and commuting to the trailhead gradually compounded into an afternoon start. The sun was shining and skies were clear however, so nothing could dampen our spirits. The first few miles near Phillip’s Bench were a fantastic warmup. We were far from the throngs of summer tourists moving in and out of the visitor center, but nonetheless we found the trail quite social. We pet a few cute dogs and made conversation with day hikers and locals exploring the more accessible parts of the park. Everyone seemed excited for us, and the few who had experienced the Crest told us we had some great hiking in store. As we continued on, we gradually moved between clumps of high density forest and wide open mountain meadows. The wildflowers had come and gone without us, but the colorful brush left behind painted splotches of maroon, lavender, and white across the rolling hills.
After some gradual climbing, we reached Phillip’s Pass, at which point were ceremoniously left the civilized world behind and stepped onto the official Teton Crest Trail. We had reached the Teton backcountry and pushed into it, thrilled to be crossing a major milestone off the outdoor bucket list. No more than 200 yards from this milestone, our joy was transformed into a moment of pure terror. The ensuing trail had led us into a small thicket of trees, where a downed log posed as a bit of an obstacle. As I began to clamber over the old trunk, I saw a from the corner of my eye a massive movement. I knew it could only be one of two things, and either way, we were far too close. As I snapped to look, I found myself face to face with a fully-grown bull moose. It was in the trees roughly 10 yards away, and had stopped grazing just to size up the two bipeds that were obliviously encroaching on its personal space. “Emma, MOOSE!” I whispered as loudly as I could. We stood frozen for what felt like an eternity, until our hearts started beating again and we found the composure to slowly sidestep the log, giving the moose a much wider berth.
Once clear, an overwhelming sense of euphoria crowded out fear. We could not believe what we had just witnessed. Though we had begun our journey hoping for a moose sighting, this was a bona fide encounter. Better yet, we had had a story to tell that did not involve being curb-stomped. The remainder of the day was a relative blur. A heavy dose of adrenaline propelled us up and down some intense grades, along the edges of beautiful canyons, and around Rendezvous Mountain. Despite our intense focus on the potential presence of big game, we made a deliberate effort to soak in the magnificent scenery around us. Perhaps a few hours before dusk, we rolled into Middle Fork Canyon and made camp not far from a calm mountain stream where we ate dinner and quietly watched a set of grazing mule deer.
Day Two: Middle Fork Granite Canyon to Alaska Basin (9.8mi)
We woke early on day two of our adventure ready to get a move on. It had been a silent, warm night, and the relative heat combined with a discomforting sense of “bearanoia” made for light sleep. Nonetheless, the calm morning hinted of another beautiful day and after a quick oatmeal breakfast we were back on the trail. We began with a quick climb out of our protected canyon and over another saddle. At its core, the Teton Crest is navigating a series of remote canyons and the steep mountain passes that divide them. Upon reaching the terminus of Granite Canyon, we began a steep, scree-covered descent towards Marion Lake. As we worked around the rockfalls, we could were greeted by the shrill pips of nearby pika and marmots wary of our presence. Still, we never saw more than a flash of fur as they dove into crevices out of our sightline.
At Marion Lake, we paused for our first break of the day. It was early and our legs were still fresh, but we agreed the scenery at the crystal clear lake was too good not to enjoy. We fancied a swim, but fear of chafe and a desire to wait until the heat of the day convinced us otherwise. Had we started a little earlier the day prior (or secured the right permit), I would have loved to have camped there. Following the lake, we made yet another climb, this time to Fox Creek Pass along the border of the national park and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. There we stood underneath the prominent Fossil Mountain, which we had mistaken as part of the Teton Range the day prior. Our map indicated that there were some caves not too far away, but sadly we didn’t have the extra time to explore.
Beyond Fox Creek Pass, we entered what would be our favorite section of the day: Death Canyon Shelf. Aptly named, the “Shelf” is a wide 3.5 mile long ledge sandwiched between a sheer cliff on the left and the deep Death Canyon on the right. The views were incredible. For lunch, we stopped along the cliff’s edge and enjoyed a full view of the canyon, stretching all the way through the Teton Range and out to Phelps Lake. We also saw a handful of wildlife, including a rare family of bighorn sheep that appeared to dive off the shelf as we approached. Our favorite encounter, however, was with a burly, enterprising marmot. Unlike the ones near Marion Lake, he was busy foraging for fresh leaves and could not be bothered to take cover. Rather, he allowed us to get closer, then struck some poses for the camera before going on his way.
An hour or so before dusk, we concluded our journey on the Shelf by traversing Mount Meek Pass and beginning a steep descent down the “Sheep Steps” to Alaska Basin, where we would make camp. It was an all-time great campsite, tucked in amongst a set of gorgeous alpine lakes. After setting up the tent, we found the perfect lakeside spot for dinner and reveled in a colorful sunset. We finished our evening chores by lamplight, and as we finally packed back into the tent, we were treated to an unforgettable celestial display.
Day Three: Alaska Basin to North Fork Cascade Canyon (10.2mi)
Our third day on the Teton Crest really captured the essence of the route, a surplus of breathtaking scenery and wild trekking mixed in with a dash of suffering. Emma found that a minor ankle roll she endured the day prior had worsened overnight, making her hiking boots uncomfortable. As the day started with a series of taxing climbs, it surely was not the ideal day for wearing Tevas, nevertheless she endured without complaint.
After saying goodbye to our beloved campsite in Alaska Basin, we began a winding climb up a nearby ridge to Sunset Lake. If the elevation gain and thin air wasn’t enough to shake off the morning fog, an army of pika made sure we were awake and ready for the potentially treacherous switchbacks. As the path out of the basin overlapped vast scree fields characteristic of old landslides, it was the perfect habitat for this social clan of hamster-like rodents. Upon reaching Sunset Lake, we overtook two groups of backpackers who were still in the middle of their morning coffee. We contemplated a break, as we hadn’t had any social interaction over the past 36 hours or so, but ultimately, we still felt good and elected to keep riding Emma’s bad ankle to Hurricane Pass while it felt warm. This turned out to be a savvy move. We had proved to be hardy hikers over the first two days on the trail, but the Hurricane Pass climb was a new beast. The climb was itself was long, but a surfeit of false peaks made it seem endless. Time and again we drove to what we believed to be the “finish line”, only to find it a mirage, stretching into a further vertical climb.
Triumph cannot be had without the struggle however, and the reward atop Hurricane Pass was well worth it. From the saddle, we were treated to spectacular, panoramic views of the Teton Range from “The Grand” to South Teton. As we moved closer, verdant Cascade Canyon and a series of glaciers came into view. Still recovering from our climb, we decided to cool off by laying down in a small glacier nearby. After soaking in the view and recharging with some fruit snacks, we saddled up and began a trek down into Cascade Canyon, our home for the rest of the day. Moving past the famous Schoolroom Glacier, which had receded beyond the trail completely, we ran into a group of backpackers headed uphill who alerted us that there were multiple moose in the canyon. Excited, we took off on at a quick clip, hoping for a safer, more reasonable encounter this time around.
As we hustled through the great canyon, re-immersed in the forest for the first time in a few days, we ran into a plethora of day hikers and weekenders who were exploring the canyon. Many regaled us with similar stories of a moose sighting “just back a mile or so”. After perhaps an hour of hiking we had given up hope entirely, and of course, that was when I finally spotted one. We had been coming down a moderately steep ridge, not too far from the end of the South Fork Camping zone, when I noticed a massive bull grazing in the open meadow below us. Silently, we dropped our packs, sat trailside, and watched as the moose went about his day. It was surreal. The moose must have stood at least 6ft. tall, and based on the breadth of his antlers, it was a marvel he could hold his head up at all. Eventually, our friend lumbered out of view to pull fresh branches from a tree, so we went on our way.
The sighting energized us for the rest of the afternoon, and aside from a long lunchbreak we took next to a trailside river, we made great time. As we were within a day’s hike of the Jenny Lake Lodge, this section of the trail turned out to be moderately populated. Despite hearing a few more stories of nearby moose and some black bear cubs, mule deer and marmots constituted the remainder of our day’s animal encounters. Approximately an hour before dusk, we reached a suitable campsite near the far end of the North Fork Cascade camping zone. A wash was long overdue, and the riverside spot was optimal for a pre-dinner sponge bath. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying dinner on top of an enormous boulder, which provided a picture perfect view of the Grand Teton framed by the steep canyon walls.
Day Four: North Fork Cascade Canyon to Jenny Lake Lodge (11.5mi)
By the end of our third day on the Teton Crest we felt like trail veterans, and our anxieties around grizzly activity faded, allowing for a better night’s sleep. This turned out to be to my detriment however, as I woke on day four to find one of my hiking poles had been knocked over and dragged across the campsite. Confused, I investigated further and found that there were small teeth marks and chunks that had been removed from the pole’s rubber handles, tell-tale signs of a mischievous marmot.
Our goal on day four was to get an early start, so boots met trail before the sun emerged above the canyon rim. Since we had come to the Teton’s alone and our car was at Phillip’s Bench, we knew we may have to try our hand at hitchhiking for the first time and felt an early end to the day would give us our best shot. Incidentally, the pre-dawn departure would also mean that when we arrived at the dazzling Lake Solitude, we had it to ourselves. As the sun broached the eastern wall and reflected off the glassy surface, it cast the entire canyon in an ethereal glow. Though our legs were fresh and water bottles near full, the moment felt sacrosanct, so we stopped for a good 45 minutes and took it in, finally moving on when the first set of backpackers emerged from the lower canyon.
Back on the road, we were quickly pulled from our reverie by a nasty climb right up the canyon wall. We knew it was coming and steeled ourselves. Having come to the terminus of Cascade Canyon there was nowhere to go but up; still, it was soul-crushing. The journey featured the longest single switchback I have seen in my entire life, and even as we toiled away, if never felt like we were making any progress towards the rim. Nearly a mile later, shouts and laughter from a group that had scaled the eastern wall signaled our arrival at Paintbrush Pass, the highest point on the Crest. After pausing for photos and socializing with some fellow Chicagoans, we began our final descent.
Aside from a tenuous downhill stretch immediately following the pass, the remainder of our day through Paintbrush Canyon and out to String Lake was pleasant. The grade was manageable, and the weather remained perfect. Though the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is notorious for potentially harsh and unpredictable weather, it appeared we would make it through without seeing a single cloud. As we walked, we were reminded of signs in the visitor center that had warned of “increased bear activity in Paintbrush Canyon” by a number of passersby who reported sightings. Unfortunately, or fortunately (this question of our luck was debated much of the way down), we never saw any of the young black bears or grizzly and cub that had been reported “just down the way”.
When we reached String Lake and the rejoined society we were overjoyed, feeling a mixed sense of accomplishment and relief. A shower and proper meal were certainly in order and the only thing standing in our way was a lift back. Regrettably, our doubts towards a ranger’s assurances that we would be able to call a rideshare were confirmed, and we attempted hitchhiking. Just as we started to grow concerned, a group of friendly Ohioans that we had met on the trail offered to squeeze is into their sedan, thus concluding our unforgettable adventure in the Tetons.
If looking at an NPS map of the Grand Teton backcountry, you may notice that the actual Teton Crest has no trailhead. Rather the route is a thoroughfare that serves as the backbone of an expansive trail network on the west side of the mountain range. This means that there is no set path, and a number of modifications can be made based on campground availability, desired length, etc. I have listed out a handful of the popular itineraries below:
Start at Phillips Bench (recommended): This is where we started and is perhaps the most popular route. It allows for a longer, more gradual approach to the Crest, and takes hikers across beautiful wildflower fields.
Start at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort: A second popular route that allows hikers to leave from the popular ski area and then take a gondola up to the Rendezvous Mountain. This gondola ride makes this the shortest itinerary.
Start at Granite Canyon / Rockefeller Visitor Center: A shorter, but much steeper, route that will connect to the Teton Crest via Granite Canyon Trail.
Start at Taggart Lake (loop): This itinerary turns the route into a loop, which may be ideal for those with one vehicle that do not want to hitchhike. You may start at Taggart Lake, connect to the to the Crest via Granite Canyon, then use the Valley Trail to return to the trailhead.
Start west of the park: While a vast majority of trekkers begin their journey from within the national park, the Teton Crest can also be accessed from the Jedediah Smith Wilderness via the Moose Greek, Game Creek, Fox Creek, or the Alaska Basin trails.
Length: 23.1-26.8mi (37.2-43.1km) Days: 2 Difficulty: Easy to moderate (well maintained, basic facilities, moderate elevation change) Gear: Standard Completed: June 2021
In summary: Despite its status as one of America’s newest national parks, the New River Gorge (NRG) area offers scenery that rivals many of the system’s most iconic reserves. The Traverse in particular is a strikingly diverse trail that follows the eponymous New River through dense forests and overgrown mining ruins. Backpacking is still new to the park, and thus there are opportunities for trailblazing trekkers to be amongst the first to enjoy quiet, low traffic routes.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
This is not an official route. You will not find the New River Gorge Traverse anywhere on a map and park officials won’t know what you are talking about if you inquire, and that is because I made it up. To give credit where credit is due, I strung this route together based on an account given by 30+ year NRG veteran Eve West (link). Should more trekkers continue to take advantage of this great trail, I would propose that the park officially commemorate Eve by naming a trail or route after her.
Transportation options are limited. In the backwoods of West Virginia there are few 3rd party transportation options. Should you set out to complete this trail, you will need to pre-arrange travel between the trailheads. Since we hiked as a group, we opted to bring two cars and drop them at opposite ends of the route.
Water filtration products are necessary. Since the park is still growing into into its new, elevated status, even the official campsites are primitive. Water filtration devices will be necessary as potable water is not available on the trail.
Customize your route. The NRG Traverse offers a number of opportunities to add to or customize your route should you choose. For starters, you can opt to begin your journey at either the Thurmond or Minden trailheads. Additionally, the Long Point Trail and Kaymoor Miners Trail are popular side-treks that can add attractions to your experience.
Go whitewater rafting. While the purpose of this site is not to plug other excursions, we went rafting the day after our backpacking trip (Adventures on the Gorge) and had an incredible time. The New River Gorge and nearby Gauley River are world class rapids that offer chaotic fun for all ages. When in Rome…
Since there is no official backpacking route in New River Gorge and the Traverse is an amalgamation of a couple popular trails, I wanted to lay out the whole route in one place for convenient trip planning:
Start: Rend Trail @ Thurmond Trailhead (Alternate option: start at the Minden Trailhead)
Connect: Arbuckle Connector Trail from the Rend Trail
Connect: Southside Trail from the Arbuckle Connector Trail
Stop: Camp and recharge at the Brooklyn Campground
Connect: From the Brooklyn Campground, connect to the Cunard River Access Rd.
Connect: Kaymoor Trail from the trailhead along Cunard River Access Rd.
Connect: Kaymoor Miner’s Trail from the Kaymoor Trail
(Alternate option: Hike to the bottom of the Kaymoor Miners trail for ~800 stairs and ~0.5 extra mi.)
Connect: Fayetteville Trail from the Kaymoor Miner’s Trail
(Alternate option: Add the Long Point Overlook to your trip for an extra 3.2mi round-trip)
Connect: Bridge Trail from the Fayetteville Trail
Finish: End the New River Gorge Traverse from the Bridge Trail Trailhead
Day One: Thurmond Trailhead to Brooklynn Campsite (9.1mi)
The first full day of our much anticipated New River Gorge backpacking trip came with its fair share of misfortune, but we weathered the ups and downs and enjoyed the time outdoors nonetheless. Our morning started early, as we sought to get a fast but relaxed start to a relatively brief day on the trail. After dropping our cars at the separate trailheads, we set off on our journey from a non-descript parking lot in the town of Minden, WV. This stretch of trail was calm and beautiful. Birds sang and bright orange newts (called ‘red efts’) dotted the path. Things were going swimmingly, until approximately 1.5 miles into the Rend Trail we encountered an impassable fence. It indicated that a key bridge section was out and the trail would be closed until further notice.
Frustrated, we were forced to retreat and start shuttling our crew of 8 people to a new trailhead (the Thurmond one) 20 minutes away. By the time this was complete, it was already ~2pm. There was some apprehension about whether we had enough time to complete our mileage for the day, but we had come far enough and elected to continue onwards. As we descended into the Appalachian wilderness however, our worries waned. The early path was clean, well marked, and remarkably scenic. On the left we skirted sheer rock cliffs, some still lined with coal, while on the right we were smothered by dense forest.
Hustling throughout the afternoon, we reached the Arbuckle Connector in under an hour. The only interruption was a sudden wipeout on a slick bridge. No one was hurt, but we found all the bridges on the NRG Traverse to be quite treacherous, so trekkers beware. After a steep, narrow, but short descent we reached the Southside Trail, our home for the remainder of the day.
The Southside felt remote and at times it was a bit overgrown. The trail remained clear, but the only real signs that others had walked our path were the 100+ year old coke ovens and mining ruins that dotted the side of the trail every mile or so. It was hard to believe the same rugged, densely forested valley was once filled with bustling coal towns at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. We did appreciate the work the early industrialists had done to cut a flat path through the Gorge however, as the level ex-railroad tracks allowed us to knock out 7mi. in record time. With a half hour to spare before dusk, we arrived in the riverside Brooklynn campground. The site included five sections large enough for groups, so we spread out and enjoyed a well-earned meal just before some heavy rains rolled into camp.
Day Two: Brooklynn Campsite to Bridge Trail Trailhead (14.0mi)
After enduring a stormy night, we woke to a clear but foggy morning. This provided an excellent backdrop for our morning chores as the thick fog formed low and close to the still, glassy water. When filling up our filters at the river’s edge I was astounded to find that the water was actually warm. It was a significant departure from the glacial rivers I was used to out west, and we would later learn the temperature was over 70 degrees (21 celsius)!
By the time we finished packing up camp, the fog had burned off and we were treated to a bright, sunny morning. This turned out to be a little bit of a curse however, as we began with a tough stretch of windy, uphill road walking. It was a very unpleasant mile and a half, but we made it to the Kaymoor Miners Trailhead without being run over by one of the resort buses, shuttling whitewater rafters to the nearby Cunard Boat Ramp. In no time, we were back in the wilderness, traversing the rim of the winding gorge. As it had the day before, the trail surprised us with its diversity. While still being immersed in the dense forests, the environment seemed to shift constantly between temperate and tropical. Massive trees would emerge out of nowhere, many covered in layers of moss, gigantic fungi, and thick canopy vines that appeared to be straight out of Tarzan. A bold member of our group considered swinging on the vines, but an exploratory tug seeded enough doubt in their stability that he decided not to.
Over the course of our adventure on the Kaymoor Trail, we steadily climbed up the canyon and I constantly felt we were tantalizingly close to a memorable viewpoint. With just a mile or so left in the section, that viewpoint materialized. We suddenly emerged from the cover of the thick canopy and found ourselves standing atop an open hillside clearing, evidently created by a landslide years ago. The spot was surreal. Across the way we could see the magnitude of the deep and immensely green gorge before us. To our left, we gazed up at the threshold of the forest, entangled in a massive web of vines and ivy. It seemed a gorilla or creature from Jurassic Park might emerge at any moment.
Following a quick water break on our favorite ledge, we continued on and in no time arrived at the Kaymoor Miner’s Trailhead, which was surrounded by relics of the old coal mines. Tired and facing a long upward trek out of the gorge, we dropped our packs to rest and do some nearby exploring. As the Miner’s Trail is a favorite day hike of park visitors, this was the most populated section of our journey and we enjoyed the company of some locals, two of which had come to run the 821 steps down the ruins of the old mine processing plant. As a sucker for historical ruins, I was convinced to make the short but grueling trek down with them. The quantity of ruins and photos I was able to snap made the side trek worth it, but I was definitely questioning my decision on the way back up.
To compound the pain from ascending 821 steps, our post-break climb towards the Fayetteville Trail was agonizing. Though our trek through the gorge was largely devoid of dreaded switchbacks, the Traverse seemed to pack roughly a third of our trip elevation gain into this single stretch. A bout of heavy rain prior to us reaching the top kicked us while we were down. Still, all survived and at the top spirits were immediately lifted as we could sense the finish line approaching.
Our final five miles through the Fayetteville and Bridge Trails were enjoyable, yet largely uneventful. Since clouds had rolled in and hampered visibility, we elected to skip over the highly recommended side trek along the Long Point Trail. Everything we’d read suggested the 3.2mi. out-and-back offered the park’s best views of the bridge, but we doubted we would be able to see much given the weather. With just under a mile left to go in our journey however, we did get our own spectacular look at the engineering wonder. The aptly named Bridge Trail actually passes directly under the massive New River Gorge Bridge. To enhance the effect, the dense forest canopy made it so that we were unable to see the structure until we were almost directly underneath it. Pictures truly do not do the landmark any justice, the new River Gorge Bridge is huge. Even standing just below, it was difficult to fathom how the bridge was built, or how it spanned, unsupported, across the entire gorge.
Following our crossing beneath the bridge, were were less than a mile away from a hot shower and warm clothes. The traverse tested us one last time with a rocky climb back to the level of the road, but we were determined and powered through with steeled reserve. Soon we were standing at our car, celebrating our success, and recounting fresh memories of our trailblazing traverse as a group.
Length: 171mi (275km) Days: 16-18 southern half from Aqaba to Dana (+20 to complete the northern half) Difficulty: Expert (no maintained trail, extreme temperatures, supply scarcity) Gear: Standard gear + GPS and extra containers for water Completed: April / May 2019
In summary: If you consider yourself a desert rat or an aspiring anthropologist, then the Jordan Trail is the perfect thru hike for you. An unmarked, GPS-based trek through the entire country, the relatively new trail system provides trekkers a chance to embrace the Bedouin culture while venturing across holy land. The journey is challenging, but the unforgettable opportunity to ‘discover’ the Lost City of Petra the way the ancient caravanners did is well worth it. There is no better time than now to hike the Jordan Trail, as it remains one of the best kept secrets in trekking.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Buy a reliable GPS with a PLB: The Jordan Trail is largely unmarked and unmaintained, with the exception of some rock stacks in tight canyons. To find your way, I would recommend using a true GPS (as opposed to a phone) that allows you to chart your own course and position relative to the advised path. As parts of the trail are extremely remote, I would also suggest bringing along a personal locator beacon, or GPS with PLB-capabilities, to ensure you can get help if something goes wrong.
Download coordinates ahead of time: Maps and coordinates can be found in a number of formats here.
Prepare for water scarcity: The Jordan Trail traverses a desert, so it should be no surprise that water is hard to come by, especially towards the end of the trekking season (November – April). The trail association’s GPS coordinates mark potential water sources, but we found a number of them to be dried up. Even during the peak season when the climate is wetter, it can be over a day between refill sites from Aqaba to Wadi Rum. We carried 7-8 liters of water each, and even then had a couple of close calls. It should also go without saying that filtering water from old wells and wild springs is recommended.
Take advantage of the Bedouin hospitality: While hiking, you are sure to come across the Bedouin people, usually herding goats or camels and living off the land. In my experience travelling, I have never come across a friendlier or more welcoming bunch of people. We were invited to tea countless times and provided dinners at which no payment was accepted. Enjoy your time with these people, as it is part of what makes the trekking experience so special. It is worth noting that most abide by a code of social conservatism, so please be respectful of their beliefs and customs. For example, if invited to spend the night in a Bedouin camp, know that it is commonplace for men and women to sleep in different spaces.
Decide your hiking direction, section and distance: The JT is divided into 8 distinct regions, presenting hikers with 9 potential entry/exit points. While it officially runs from north (Um Qais) to south (Aqaba), it’s common for hikers to head in either direction. One thing to keep in mind is that the southern portion of the trail is drier and hotter, so take that into account when timing the trip and selecting your direction. Since we had ~3 weeks and wanted to cover Petra, we elected to hike from Aqaba to Dana.
Day One: Aqaba to Final Camp (11.4mi)
The morning of our first day on the trail began with an early cab ride from our hotel in the city of Aqaba to the trailhead a couple of kilometers south. There we stopped at a local inn for a continental breakfast and then departed from a signpost on the nearby beach. Given that Aqaba is officially the ‘end’ of the Jordan Trail, the day’s hiking was relatively unremarkable. It would have been incredible, coming from the north, to finish the grueling trek by jumping in the Gulf of Aqaba, but since we were just getting started there was no swimming for Ben and me.
Slowly, we worked our way across the foothills by the shore, passed some industrial parks and highways, and then climbed into a shallow set of mountains from which you could see across the gulf to Egypt and Israel. The primary terrain was sand or loose gravel, so our movements were labored and in the heat of the day we thoroughly exhausted ourselves. We were also carrying 15 days worth of rice, orzo, oatmeal, and beans, so the extreme pack weight compounded our struggles. After a midday siesta in which we took shelter from the direct sun, we continued onwards, anxious to reach camp before nightfall.
We cut it close arriving well after dusk, but succeeded in making camp on a windy hilltop just before the sky went pitch black. We went to sleep exhausted, but looking around, we could tell we had better days in store. Civilization had disappeared and we were immersed in the desert landscape, a great backdrop for trekking.
Day Two: Final Camp to Wadi Waraqa (16.1mi)
Slated to be one of our longest days on the trek, we made sure to get an early start to our second day. Almost immediately, we were tasked with working our way up a narrow canyon in order to cross over a tall hill. Though the going was tough, the scenery was much improved from the day prior and that lifted our spirits. Our remaining issue was that the sun rose early, and despite starting the prior day with 7.5L of water each, we were in need of a refill.
Around noon, we reached the town of Titen. To our dismay, it looked like a ghost town. Most of the residences were built like compounds with high walls, and we saw no signs of life. Eventually, we spotted what looked like a gas station a half mile down the town’s single road and opted for the detour. When we arrived, we were greeted with open arms by a couple of Jordanian soldiers who informed us that we had stumbled upon a border checkpoint near Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, they were friendly and it appeared we had broken up what was a monotonous day. The whole barracks came out to greet us while the commanding officer ordered our waters filled and tea served. We had lunch with the men and rested before heading back out into the barren desert.
We didn’t make it far into the latter half of our journey before needing to take a second siesta. Around a mile or so outside of Titen we happened upon a large, solitary tree, the first we had seen with a dense enough canopy to offer shelter from the sun. We learned pretty quickly that in late spring, the heat would make hiking between 1-3pm unbearable. Once the air had cooled, we powered through the remainder of the journey feeling refreshed, stopping only to admire herds of camels, or to tell the Bedouin in a beat up Toyota pickup that we were walking by choice and did not need a ride.
By early evening we came to Wadi Waraqa, a great sandy campsite in a shallow valley that is likely a riverbed during the short rainy season. Sites were well positioned, with each having its own well. We had an initial scare, as the water level was too low for us to reach in each well, but after some exploring I found a rusty bucket on a rope that had been stashed in a bush nearby. A long drink of water and a sponge bath went a long way for us, and I felt we were starting to settle in to life on the trail.
Day Three: Wadi Waraqa to Wadi Rum Village (12.8mi)
Day three was a definite turning point for us on the trail, and we rose at 5:00am with a new sense of confidence. Our first two days had been harsh, but we learned to make adjustments (starting before dawn, resting in the afternoon, leveraging the locals for water) and felt that we now had a game plan for success in the unforgiving desert.
We started the day wandering the famous Rum desert, weaving around picturesque sandstone mountains, or ‘jebels’ in Arabic. Due to the way in which these jebels abruptly stood out from the otherwise flat expanse, most better resembled enormous boulders. As we approached, we marveled at the soft stone walls, naturally sculpted into ornate honeycomb patterns that glowed with red and orange hues in the soft morning light. Before long, the sun rose and so did the temperature. However, we were in search of a water source marked Qattar Spring on our GPS so we decided to push further into the afternoon than usual.
Finding the spring turned out to be more challenging than we thought. It was marked as being somewhere on a massive jebel, and after climbing around the cliff for 30min. in the heat of the day, we gave up and redirected towards a small tree growing horizontally from the rock. Just as we reached the shady spot, we noticed a small hose, protruding from a crevasse in the rock that was filled with water. This made for a wonderful siesta. The next couple hours were spent sleeping and reading; we could see our destination of Wadi Rum on the horizon so we enjoyed our little oasis knowing we didn’t have far to go.
Eventually, it was time to push forward, so we climbed down and made our way to the village. Wadi Rum is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Jordan, so as we walked we observed Toyotas zooming by, taking visitors to the luxury Bedouin camps in geodesic domes around the desert. Upon arrival, it was almost dusk and we found the backpackers hostel that was on our map had closed. Alternatively, we identified a large dirt lot with space for our tents. We tried to ask some locals nearby if we could camp there, and though they spoke some broken English they didn’t seem to understand. We later recalled that land ownership is tenuous in Bedouin culture, and they probably couldn’t see why we needed their permission. After settling, we walked the town and purchasing some sodas and Jordanian ice cream, which immediately became a trip staple.
Day Four: Wadi Rum Village to Al-Shakriya (7.5mi)
As our sleep was frequently interrupted by a pack of stray dogs fighting outside our tent, we got off to a slow start to Shakriya. Ben also found in the morning that one of the dogs had taken his left boot. We couldn’t find it anywhere, but the crisis was averted when the presumed culprit dragged it back into camp as we were packing up.
As for the walking, it was short but memorable. The same pack of dogs that was tormenting us at night, decided to be amicable in the morning and followed us out of town. As we walked along the road to the Wadi Rum visitor center, more and more joined us from nearby houses. Before long, we were shepherding 15 or so dogs on our way. The visitor center offered a quick respite, and gave us a chance to read up on the local history featuring Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab Revolt.
After a couple more kilometers, we arrived in Al-Shakriya. Similar to the villages we had encountered before, it was very sleepy. The compound-style houses made it difficult to find anyone, but eventually we chanced upon a group of kids that were thrilled to see us. We asked them if there was a shop nearby, and they took us to their home where the patriarch of the family treated us like honored guests. We sat for an hour or so, talking and learning about the Jordanian and Muslim culture. The father was a game warden at the nearby park and tasked with protecting rare oryx, but like so many other men he also ran a small shop out of his garage. We stocked up on treats for the evening, then walked to some sand dunes a hundred meters outside of town. Before long, the energetic kids found us again. It was nice to have some extra hands as we collected scrap wood and built an open fire hot enough to cook our tougher beans and lentils.
Day Five: Al-Shakriya to Rock Bridge of Kharaz (9.9mi)
Our fifth day on the trail would end up going down as one of the most memorable days of my life. We woke early, and after a quick oatmeal breakfast we hit the road. The prior day had been very hot, so we were hoping to knock out the full 16km before lunch and our daily siesta. The scenery was beautiful. For miles all we could see were untouched sand dunes and ruddy brown jebels rising sharply above the orange dunes. We didn’t see another soul for the whole journey, and it was surreal to have the silent desert to ourselves.
Though our progress was slowed by the terrain – while marvelous to look at, the deep sand dunes made for strenuous walking – we were able to accomplish our goal of reaching camp just as the afternoon heat bordered on unbearable. As we arrived, coming around the corner of a large jebel, we were abruptly faced with two surprises: One, there was a massive rock bridge providing an impressive backdrop for what our GPS showed as the campsite. And two, a small crowd of Bedouins were camped out, sitting in the shade with their camels, smoking hookah, drinking tea, and watching the day go by. They enthusiastically waived us over, so we obliged and learned that one of the group members was an American trekker headed south on the trail.
After a long afternoon of drinking tea, riding camels, and talking (sometimes about heavy topics like Jamal Khashoggi, King Abdullah, and US-Arab relations) in the shadows of the arch, we started to set up camp. Just as we began to unpack, one of the men named Omar reappeared with three camels and invited us to join him for the evening. After a little discussion, Ben and I decided it was too unique of an opportunity to pass up. We said goodbye to our new American friend, climbed onto Omar’s camels, and took a bumpy ride across the desert. A mile or so later, we arrived at a nondescript jebel. In very elementary English, Omar told us we had arrived and led us through a narrow passageway to the middle of the mountain. There we found two other men and a whole camp replete with goats, dogs, chickens and camels.
We dropped our packs and Omar led us to the other side of the mountain where a small kinked hose seemed to be hanging from the jebels summit. It was explained, mostly through gestures, that water from the rainy season was trapped in the jebel, and the Bedouin knew the location of these secret pools where water was stored. We drank as much as we could and got the closest thing to a shower that we would have on the trail. When we returned to camp, we saw Omar’s tent-mates Muhammad & Abu Suleiman were preparing a feast of chicken, rice and mystery stew in a below-ground pit fire. After sharing the delicious meal over a fire and tea, sleeping mats were rolled out for us and we went to sleep in the open air, under an incredible canopy of stars.
Day Six: Rock Bridge of Kharaz to Humeima (11.8mi)
As we slept without tents, both Ben and I rose early to the morning light. To our surprise, our new friends were also awake and they appeared to be taking apart the camp. Omar brought us some bread, and explained they were moving another 2km. or so, to a new site. They had already released the camels and goats, fixed with bells so they would later be able to herd them back to the new, yet temporary home. He even showed us how they had tied the camels front legs together to shorten their stride and prevent them from going too far. After breakfast and another trip to the watering hole, Ben and I set out to New Humeima. We had strayed from our intended course, but to save time decided to beeline for the town, rather than backtrack to the trail recognized by our Garmin.
The unchartered course turned out to be no problem at all. Like the days before, deep sand taxed our bodies, but we made good time and felt fueled by the high of the day we had just enjoyed. Around lunch, we arrived in New Humeima. It was a small, roadside town that served as a refuelling station for travelers and truckers taking the long highway from Amman to Aqaba. We stopped for a long rest there and of course got some ice cream. As the afternoon heat passed, we pushed onwards and crossed an immensely flat and barren landscape in search of the Old Humeima ruins where we planned to camp.
After what felt like an eternity of walking, we spotted the ruins and did a little exploring. There wasn’t too much to see in terms of the ruins. All we found were some old aqueducts, wells and a couple of rubble piles that indicated former buildings. We would later learn, however, that the ruins were a very important archeological site for clues as to what life was like in the Nabatean, Abbasid and Umayyad periods. After perusing the ruins for 20 minutes or so, we noticed a truck approaching from a settlement not too far in the distance. Before long it pulled up to us, and two boys no older than 15 got out. They told us they were friends of Abu Sabuh, and would take us to to his homestay. We had been told Abu Sabuh was a supporter of the Jordan Trail, so we followed orders and climbed into the back of the truck. We were soon greeted by an old toothless man who spoke good English. He was friendly, but things got a little dicey when he tried to charge us $70JD for two people. It seemed extreme given the local exchange rate, but after showing him we only had $50JD left and needed some emergency funds, we settled on $40JD for the night. If he was frustrated by our inability to meet his fare, he didn’t show it, and we enjoyed a pleasant, traditional dinner. We also felt a little better about the value we received, as his wild stories of snake bites and kooky thru-hikers from around the world were worth at least a few dollars.
Day Seven: Humeima to Wadi Aheimar (16.3mi)
Setting off on the Jordan Trail, we had expected to come across serene desertscapes, and humbling ancient ruins. What we encountered on the road to Wadi Aheimar however, came as a great surprise. After a quick breakfast with Abu Sabuh and a water resupply, we were on the road again. In no time, we completed a short stretch along a rural road, and found ourselves descending into a narrow canyon, undetectable from our previous position above. Over the next couple hours, we wandering through an ever narrowing canyon. The slim gap above often coming within a foot or two of closing entirely.
The route was unlike anything I had ever hiked before. Ben likened the day to the Zion Narrows, but remarked that the lack of a crowd made Wadi Aheimar even better. Smooth sandstone walls lined an undulating, ribbon-like path worn away by centuries of flash floods. Even as afternoon approached, the narrow passageway kept us sheltered from the blistering sun above and treated us to a spectacular light show as the few rays that were able to pierce through the gap highlighted to orange, red and yellow hues of the worn rock. It was impossible to tell what was going on at sea level 150ft. above, but in our private canyon we were enjoying a spiritual calm.
As is always the case in nature, a sense of balance was restored to us by the end of our day. Perhaps due to the excessive load of water we were carrying, about 2/3 of the way into the day, the chest strap on my backpack burst and my waist buckle concurrently failed. This immediately concentrated the immense weight I was carrying onto my shoulders. After a failed attempt to rectify the issue, we high-tailed it through the rest of the day. Exhausted, sore, and short on expletives, we made it to camp just before dusk. I hardly ate dinner as I spent most of the evening working over my straps with my multi-tool, When my chest strap clicked into place after an hour of work, I screamed for joy and went to sleep with a renewed sense of anticipation for the next leg of the trail.
Day Eight: Wadi Aheimar to Wadi Gseib (9.7mi)
Despite our very best efforts to ration supplies, the 16 mile day prior put us in a tight spot water-wise. We commenced the day with a quick Snickers bar breakfast in order to avoid cooking oatmeal and hit the road. The day began along a riverbed before we skipped over a pristine, yet challenging sand dune. Around midday, the alarm bells really started to ring as we were each down to our last liter or so, and the temperature was steadily rising. Soon after we decided to push the Garmin SOS button if we reached camp without a refill, a Jeep was spotted on the horizon. We took off on a jog and found a couple of workers who had no water. Miraculously, as we tried to convey our concerns to the them in hopelessly broken Arabic, a lone Bedouin approached with his donkey. We turned our attention to him, and kindly, he offered to take us to some “maiy”.
After a detour of 20 minutes or so, we discovered a small camp where our guardian angel had a large cistern full of water. He patiently watched as we stuffed our packs and stomachs with as much as we could carry, then refused to take any payment for his services. Nevertheless, we showered him with as much gratitude as we could, before bidding our farewells and continuing on. The remainder of our day took us through a maze of white sandstone canyons. We had a tough little uphill section, but as it was concise and the adrenaline of the day was fueling us, we elected to push through the heat of the day and into camp. The highlight from the final leg was when we saw a large snake which fortunately did not look venomous, and fled immediately.
In camp it was still sunny, so we lounged beneath a couple of trees and read to pass the time. Before long a group of three Bedouins came by, and enthusiastically invited us to tea. This evolved into them showing us how to extract freshwater from the seemingly bone dry riverbed by digging down with pickaxes and shovels. We shared some good laughs all together, and soon after we were invited to dine with them by the leader of their hunting group, referred to only as “The President.” We watched with interest as they prepared a great feast of Bedouin bread (similar to naan), potatoes, and chicken, all cooked underground. Ben was even given the honor of finishing the bread by flinging the hot embers of the fire across the dough. It was another great meal and night of sleeping under the stars with unexpected guests.
Day Nine: Wadi Gseib to Wadi Al-Saif (7.7mi)
The hiking on day nine was scheduled to be short, so we took our time in the morning saying goodbye to our new friends and filling our water bottles from the muddy hole we had dug yesterday. We had learned the hard way that in the Middle Eastern desert, it is essential to be an opportunist when it comes to water. The trekking was similar to the day before. We navigated our way through some tight canyons, which proved to be a challenge given our GPS path was not the most precise at a micro-level. Fortunately, every time we thought we had finally gotten lost, one of us (usually Ben) would spot a delicate rock cairn that got us back on track. After climbing out of one of the canyons for what appeared to be the final time, we were treated with a view of the sandstone peaks all around us. It was remarkable how much the scenery differed from the open desert we had become familiar with pre-Humeima.
We stopped for a great afternoon lunch of Nutella tortillas before making the final push into Wadi Al-Saif. We ran into a couple hunting parties along the way, consisting of men with large rifles and their weary donkeys. It didn’t look like anyone was having much success. Our friends the night before had told us that they were in search of gazelles, but we hadn’t seen any from our time in the area. After an unexpectedly strenuous final push into Al-Saif, we were stunned to come over the last hill to see 8 or so green tents pitched in the site below. As we approached, we were greeted by a tour group consisting mostly of French Canadians. We planned to keep our distance from the scattered group, but just as we were settling for dinner, their Jordanian guide came to our site and compelled us to join them for dinner.
Originally, we politely declined. We explained that we did not want to crash their evening, or steal the meals that the Canadians had likely paid handsomely for. This excuse did not fly with the man in charge however, and after explaining that the Bedouin culture called for hospitality, community and the sharing of resources no matter how scarce, we gave in. For the second night in a row we had a feast and good company! I think it did both Ben and I a lot of good to socialize freely, in English, with people other than each other.
Day Ten: Wadi Al-Saif to Wadi Sabra (10.9mi)
Our 5:00am wake up call proved to be well worth it as we finished packing up just as the French Canadians were sitting for breakfast. We had another wonderful meal and afterwards spent an hour or so sitting and talking with the lead guide. After counseling us on what to expect from the next couple of days, he filled our water bottles and sent us on our way. The sun was up and the day’s hiking led us through and over some more spectacularly colorful canyons. The rock was distinctly layered, almost white in some areas and orange like the Wadi Aheimar narrows in others. Even better, some of the canyons were still a little wet, and the colors of the rock were accented by verdant green bushes and bright pink wildflowers.
Not too long after a long lunch break in which we, for the tenth day in a row, enjoyed Nutella and tahini tortillas, we left the canyons. They were replaced by a stretch of road walking in which we crossed over a series of desolate hills. Over the course of this section we encountered two cars, both of which stopped and offered us a ride. The drivers appeared confused by the concept of backpacking, but as we repeated “almushi” and mimed walking symbols to indicate our intent, they let us be. As we reached the top of the final roadside hill, a small town came into view. It was the first sign of civilization that we had received for a couple of days, but it disappeared as quickly as it came when we bent towards a dry riverbed and continued our journey.
Around 3pm, we reached our intended campsite near Gaa’ Mriebed. However, the GPS waymarked site was unimpressive and as we had both daylight and a long day scheduled we pushed on a little further. A few miles down the road there was a marking for the Wadi Sabra pools and dreaming of being able to bathe, we set that as our destination. Despite the gradual re-emergence of wildflowers and large bushes that stoked our expectations, our dreams of swimming were eventually dashed. In early May, the Wadi Sabra pools were small and bug infested. Still, they provided plenty to filter and allowed us to cook some of our more water intensive lentils and pasta for dinner.
Day Eleven: Wadi Sabra to Petra (11.7mi)
Expectations were high for our eleventh day on the trail, and the thought of reaching Petra lifted our spirits significantly. Wanting more time amongst the ruins, we left early and did not stop for a rest break until we reached what we thought was the site of an ancient amphitheater halfway to our destination. There was little to see other than what looked like a couple of large rectangular, and human-cut stones, so we we made the stop quick. No more than 5 min. beyond where we originally stopped, however, we came upon the actual amphitheater. It was stunning, set directly in the massive cliffside and remarkably well preserved. We dropped our packs and immediately started exploring. After walking around a bit and taking in the same view the ancients enjoyed, we stumbled upon a placard that indicated the amphitheater was Roman and built in the 6th century as an event space that could hold up to 800 people.
Energized by our find, we continued on to Petra at a rapid pace. We powered through a grueling hill in the midst of the morning heat, and at the top, the modern city of Petra came into view on a distant hillside. We knew we were closing in, but still, despite the unobstructed view, we could see nothing of what was to come. We soldiered on across some open plains and over time grew to understand the wonder’s “Lost City” moniker. Finally, after another hour or so of walking, we noticed a small hole in a large cliff that resembled a doorway. Naively, we mistook the simple structure for the waymarked “Snake Monument”, and took off directly for it. When we arrived, we found the structure to be filled with goats and unheralded by any historical markers so we used the cave as a shady lunch spot and place to gather our bearings. Around 15min. into our lunch a truck appeared out of nowhere, and some park rangers got out to greet us. They were very friendly and just wanted to check in as they had spotted us entering the monument from behind. After flashing our permits, they explained to us the best way to proceed and took off. We finished our lunch and then continued as we had been instructed to.
As we edged closer to the park, we started to notice more and more hill carvings that signalled the nearby city. To our surprise, it appeared a large community of Bedouins were still living just outside the main park boundary, having repurposed a number of the less spectacular tombs, caves, and facades as homes. We admired these unique dwellings until, seemingly out of nowhere, Petra revealed itself. After rounding a corner, we were suddenly faced with a series of sandstone cliffs blanketed in remains of the ancient city. Following our Garmin, we weaved our way into the thick of the park by climbing up to the High Place of Sacrifice where we could truly marvel in the sheer size of Petra. We were anxious to explore further, but given the steep climb, high heat, and weight of our packs, we elected to get some rest and save the exploring for our next day. Still, the walk to the city was marvelous, taking us past the grand Treasury and through the famous Siq, a narrow 2km. road that led the ancient Nabatean caravans through thick sandstone walls and into the heart of Petra.
While downing some cold drinks and ice cream at a local convenience store, the shop’s proprietor asked us if we needed a place to stay. We said we were interested, and he called down a man who said that he could offer us board for 15JD a night. Ben stalled while I price checked a couple more legitimate establishments, but after finding nothing cheaper than 120JD we accepted. The man led us to what turned out to be 3 room private hostel. The accommodations were modest, but we couldn’t have cared less. They had a functional shower and after eleven days in the dust and dirt, that was all that mattered.
Day Twelve: Petra
Taking an extra day to explore Petra is a must for any thru-hikers taking part in the Jordan Trail. Though the GPS route does a great job of planning a relatively comprehensive path through the monument, I would recommend setting aside AT LEAST one full day in order to properly soak in the magnitude of the ancient site.
There are a myriad of great resources for learning about Petra, so for brevity’s sake I won’t go into detail about our time there. Perhaps I will save the pages I assure you I could write for a future post, but I will at least share some photos and two pieces of wisdom that I would want all visitors to have in mind:
Visit the Petra Museum: Just steps from the entrance to the park, the Petra Museum is a remarkably well executed exhibit that succinctly conveys the rich history of the city from the Edomite era through to that of the Byzantines. If possible, view the museum before touring the park, as it really sets the stage for what you are about to see.
Come early, stay late: As one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra is by far the most popular attraction in Jordan and probably the whole Middle East for that matter. Getting an early start or a late finish helps you not only avoid bustling crowds, but also see the monument in a new light. The park managers are also relatively lenient around closing time if you are respectful and don’t appear suspicious. By stopping for an evening tea at a small hut overlooking the Treasury, I managed to enjoy a leisurely exit through the Siq in almost complete solitude.
Day Thirteen: Petra to Little Petra (7.8mi)
I cannot say that on Day 13 we were happy to be leaving Petra, but we understood the necessity and were looking forward to what was in store the rest of our journey. Thus, we rose early and entered the park for the third and final time. The GPS had us exiting the park via a new route that took us through a nice canyon just off of the Siq. The path turned out to be a bust however, since no more than a hundred meters from where we were supposed to exit, we encountered an insurmountable rock wall. Slightly discouraged, we backtracked and took the standard way to the Monastery, through the Siq and across the Colonnaded Street.
Though delayed by our earlier mishap, we still couldn’t resist the chance to spend a little more time in the presence of the Monastery so we stopped for a long drink of tea before exiting the park from behind. This new leg of the journey wrapped us along a narrow mountain pass and spit us out back in the rolling desert foothills. Just like that, all signs of the historic site and bustling tourist attraction disappeared. Ben and I continued on for a couple uneventful miles before pausing for a long lunch break at an early Edomite excavation site. Here we found piles of stone formed into makeshift huts that a sign indicated were from 6000-8000 BC and indicative of man’s first attempt at a village lifestyle. In no hurry, we poked around before continuing on to Little Petra.
Upon arrival at the entrance of the park, we had our first and only unpleasant experience with locals. A couple men claiming to be affiliated with the park, tried to convey to us that we should stay with them in an Abu Sabuh-style homestead. We were interested, but really didn’t have the money they were hoping for. When we politely declined, one of them became upset and tried to intimidate us with threats we may be arrested for camping inside the park despite our insistence that our site was beyond the boundary. After a little back and forth, we decided to grab our things and hurry through the monument. The park proved to be a worthy stop with ornate Nabatean tombs and facades, but we were admittedly de-sensitized from our time in ‘Big Petra’. After a quick hike at a brisk pace, we exited the site via a demanding set of stairs and arrived at a gorgeous hilltop campsite.
The remainder of the night was pleasant. We had a natural fire and watched a breathtaking sunset that seemed to paint the sandstone hills in gold. The mood was slightly disrupted however, when Ben went to move a rock for the fire that broke in half and revealed a monstrous yellow scorpion beneath. It was safe to say that we slept with our boots inside our tents this night, and that turned out to be a prudent move. A week later, when consulting a hotel copy of Lonely Planet, we learned that we had encountered the particularly dangerous Deathstalker scorpion, and that they were common in the Little Petra area.
Day Fourteen: Little Petra to Ras Al-Feid (14.3mi)
A longer day on the trail got off to glorious start as we hiked a scenic ridge down to a pretty well constructed dirt road. For the first time, we spent a majority of the day working with established trails. This made the walking smooth and fast, even with close to a full load of water. The climate was also shifting, despite another day of intense sun the air felt cooler and the landscape was getting greener. We even passed a couple commercial reservoirs that gave us hope our water supply would be less of a concern over the last stretch of trail. Soon after we left the road, we were surprised to encounter a couple Americans and their guides hiking the opposite direction from Dana to Petra. It turned out that this was a much more popular section of the trail, as we would encounter a couple more trekkers over the next couple of days.
We stopped for lunch at an idyllic spot and as we had been making great progress, spent much of the day there. We held a vantage point that allowed us to see out of the mountains and down to the flat desert stretching for miles below. Far in the distance we could make out a couple of small Israeli settlements just across the border. Post-lunch, we took advantage of the cooler weather and spent a little time reading and trying to even out our incurable farmer’s tans. When we continued we were in good spirits and enjoyed great conversation as we comfortable traversed a series of ridges.
By Day 14 of our journey we had become well aware that luck never lasts too long on the Jordan Trail and that manifested itself again over the last 1.5 miles of our journey to Ras Al-Feid. The waymarked campsite turned out to be well off the beaten path, and to get there we had to make an onerous descent down a steep hillside and then an equally challenging ascent to the top of a large hill. The only positive of the taxing, 1.5 hour detour was that we stumbled upon a small water source along the way, though even that was cloudy and filled with larvae. Once situated, we found the hilltop to be incredibly windy. Even with some solid stones to anchor my pitch, I had some apprehensions about leaving my tent should it decide to take flight. Nevertheless, our stakes proved secure and the exertion of the evening made it sleep possible despite the racket from the wind pounding at our tents.
Day Fifteen: Ras Al-Feid to Wadi Malaga (8.5mi)
What we imagined to be a shorter, easier day on the trail in the end turned out to be quite a challenge. The day started with the reverse of what we had ended the previous evening with, a long backtrack to the main road with a layover at the secluded larvae pool we had discovered at the base of a stunted, gnarled tree. As mentioned previously, the water was quite off-putting, but we were running low and at this point knew much better than to pass up an opportunity to refill our HydraPaks. The refill put quite a strain on our filters, which were filthy, and altogether the process of straining and sterilizing the quantity we would need to get us through to Dana took just under 2 hours. By the time we were finished and back on the trail the sun was up and much hotter than it had been the day prior.
The real trekking for the day began in a canyon that soon turned quite lush and was fed by a small stream and series of pools. In hindsight, we wished we had gathered water from this idyllic spot, but never once did we regret our conservative approach. Too many times we had been let down by waymarked water sources that were dry or too difficult to locate. Reluctantly, after a short time in this oasis we were directed straight up a hill and out of the canyon. In such a tight spot, the GPS was very unclear regarding the best path out so the result was a free scamper up the hill. This proved difficult as the rabble was very loose, and larger rocks were frequently breaking away. Eventually, we reached the saddle, but not after overcoming a couple falls each.
Frustration persisted as we reached the the ridgeline and found ourselves facing a steep, long descent down the same tenuous rockfield on the other side. Our knees and ankles were certainly tested, and I was fortunately to come out uninjured from a decent forward fall that crunched my right elbow and wrist pretty good. When we finally reached the bottom, we were disappointed to find a slow, uneven walk the rest of the way to camp. By the time we arrived at our destination the sun was approaching the horizon. As we hastily unpacked, we were greeted by a German fellow who was coming from Dana and asked to pitch by us. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. We greatly appreciated the company after a hard day, and he was in need of the coordinates for water sources. It was fortunate that he ran into us, as he did not seem fully prepared for what was in store.
Day Sixteen: Wadi Malaga to Dana (14.6mi)
The final long push to Dana got off to a fast and early start as we wanted to make sure we made our 6:00pm pickup with plenty of time to spare. I had struggled with the campstove the night before as well, and after having fallen asleep with a half portion of exceptionally crunchy rice in my belly I was greatly looking forward to a proper meal. By 5:30am, we were loaded up and walking, just as the sun peeked over the eastern mountains to cast a soft blue glow across the rocky plains. We made quick work of the morning stretch as we found the ground leaving Wadi Malaga to be much more stable than it was coming in.
By midday, we had already passed the Edomite ruins and the posh Feynan Ecolodge, a popular respite for weary Jordan Trail travelers. Eventually, we bent our way back towards the hills and found ourselves at the base of a long, narrow canyon that was the last thing standing between us and our finish line, the old city of Dana 2.5 miles away. Even from this distance however, we could see a massive set of switchbacks at the end of the gorge, so we decided to take a break to recuperate before this final test.
After an hour or so of lounging in the shade and drinking what water we had left, we set off determined to cap off our adventure. In an hour we had reached the switchbacks and were tantalizingly close. It was a soul-crushing vertical climb, but after 30min. or so of numbly putting one foot in front of the other, we reached the top! The town was quiet as it was the first week of Ramadan and all the locals were fasting, but fortunately there was a hotel nearby and a couple of employees welcomed us with open arms. They made for good company as we recounted our journey with them until our ride showed up. Generously, they opened a nearby convenience store just for us so that we could get a bite to eat despite the local restrictions and best of all, we got a camel’s bath as they sprayed us each down with a loose garden hose. It was a unceremonious, yet memorable conclusion to an incredibly challenging but rewarding trek.
Length: 156mi (251km) Days: 16-20 to Birethanti (+1 day to Dhampus, -5 days if you finish in Jomsom) Difficulty: Hard (extreme altitude and temperatures, seasonal exposure to ice and snow) Gear: Limited backpacking gear required. You will need layers for both cold & warm temperatures Completed: April 2019
In summary: One of the greatest alpine treks in the world, the Annapurna Circuit is one that all serious trekkers should have on their bucket list. This hike offers a spectacular opportunity to see some of the highest (and most dangerous) peaks in the Himalayas from all angles. Not only does the Annapurna provide some of the world’s best panoramas and mountain vistas, but it is also a culturally immersive journey. Staying in humble, family-run teahouses along the way, trekkers are sure to learn a lot about the Nepali / Tibetan culture and sacred sites along the way.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Permits are required. All trekkers in the Annapurna region are expected to purchase a permit as well as a TIMS card in advance of hiking. These can be obtained for ~$40 USD at a Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) office in Kathmandu, or in cities closer to the trail such as Pokhara & Besisahar. You will encounter a couple of checkpoints along the trek, so ensure you are carrying these at all times.
Decide how you want to hike. There are a number of ways to hike the Annapurna Circuit, and groups of all types will be encountered on the trail. The easiest (and most expensive) way to trek is to go with an commercial tour group such as Intrepid Travel. The intermediate option is to hire a porter to carry your luggage, and the advanced option would be to hike unassisted. In my humble opinion, I would recommend one of the latter two options. While tour groups are fantastic for managing logistics and providing experts to point out interesting sights, you do sacrifice your autonomy and this could be critical if you need to take it slow or want to check out other things along the way. Although my hiking partner Ben and I decided to embrace the physical challenge of tackling the hike unsupported, hiring a porter is an admirable way to stimulate the local economy.
Dress for all possible weather. The Annapurna is notoriously difficult to pack for. Trekkers can expect to experience high temperatures while in the lowlands, and then extreme cold near the pass. Pack smart to avoid getting yourself into any trouble. Fortunately, you should have extra space in your bag since you will not need a tent or cooking supplies.
Educate yourself before you go. If there was one thing I regretted about my incredible journey to the Annapurna region, it was that I didn’t learn more about the local culture in advance. The Himalayas are one of the most sacred natural regions in the world, and though we picked up a ton of knowledge along the way, I wish I had more appreciation for the place and people prior to hiking. Read up on Buddhist culture, buy a guidebook, and stop in at the ancient monasteries along the way to ask questions of the friendly students and monks. If you treat them with respect and display ample curiosity, they may even invite you in for a private tour of spaces not usually open to tourists.
Treat teahouse proprietors with respect. It is well documented in other travel blogs that you can often receive free lodging in exchange for ordering your meals at a particular teahouse. If you are offered a discount, accept it! But don’t be an asshole tourist and harass the innkeepers for cheaper rates. Rarely is lodging more than $5-10 USD (500-1,000 NPR) per room, so you can pay it. Additionally, don’t stay in one lodge and purchase meals from another. That is a faux pax and disrespectful, as the food is generally where the money is for the locals.
Prepare for altitude and take it SLOW. I highly recommend a quick health check up in your home country before heading to extreme elevation. HAPE and HACE (high altitude pulmonary / cerebral edema) are serious concerns as you will reach altitudes of over 5,400m. (17,750ft.) on the journey. The itinerary below is designed to help your body acclimatize, but some people require more or less time than others. Make sure you spend at least one day on an acclimatization hike, and if you feel sick or drunk near the pass, head to lower elevation. As an extra precaution, I received an EKG and altitude medication prescription before departing.
Eat the Dal Bhat! One, because it is delicious. Two, because it usually comes with unlimited rice and lentil soup that will help remediate your caloric deficit. It used to be the case that dal bhat was the only dish that most teahouses carried, but almost all have since expanded their menus. Still, there is a reason the locals say: “Dal Bhat power, 24 hour!”
Day One: Kathmandu to Bhulbhule (5.5mi)
Despite being a short hiking day, our first on the Annapurna Circuit was a long and exhausting day of travel. We caught the 7:00am tourist bus from Kathmandu and took the bumpy 5+ hour ride up to the mountain town of Dumre, were we and a kind Austrian couple jumped off. We split a cab with them, and in no time were at the trailhead in Besisahar. We grabbed a bite at a local restaurant, got our TIMS cards stamped at the checkpoint, and embarked on the journey on a lifetime.
Being in the lowlands at ~800m. above sea level, the surroundings were lush and verdant. The couple miles we were able to get in before dark were along the edge of a narrow valley dotted with terrace farms. As we passed through some of the farms, following the familiar red & white trail markings, young children would run out of houses to come say ‘hello’ and ask us for treats. We had been instructed not to hand out anything, but we found the kids friendly and entertaining nonetheless. Though we had originally wanted to make more progress on our first day, nightfall came quickly on account of being tucked in the mountains, and we had to pull up in the town of Bhulbhule.
Our night in Bhulbhule was pleasant. We had a nice meal at the hands of the matriarch running the teahouse, and got our first look at the simple accommodations of a Nepali teahouse. Our room was clean, but a bare concrete room square two wooden beds and quilt blankets. As tired as we were, we had no problem falling asleep.
Day Two: Bhulbhule to Tal (17.5mi)
Our second day on the Annapurna was a beast. We made a decision to combine three lowland days into two, in hopes of earning ourselves an extra acclimatization day or tourist day in Pokhara, and ended up paying the price. We shoved off around 9:30am and enjoyed some fantastic hiking through terrace farms and small villages. The weather was superb, and every once in a while we could get a glimpse of the towering Himalayan peaks that would become our reality within a couple of days.
After around five hours of steady climbing, we reached the steepest and longest set of stairs I have ever seen in my life. Our map indicated that it would take 1hr. and 40min to move approximately 0.5km., and though we made good time, it was not too far off. Our troubles were rewarded by lunch in the hilltop village of Jagat, but the climbing took a toll on our legs. After a long break however, we soldiered on.
A mile or so into our second leg, our paths were blocked by an obstinate goat that just did not look friendly. When scrambling over some off-trail rocks to get around the path, we noticed a baby goat that had to have been birthed within the hour laying smack in the middle of the trail. It was quite a surprise and obviously the reason the goat was defending the path. Beyond that encounter, the rest of the journey was hell due to some unforeseen circumstances. Ben twisted his ankle pretty good on a loose rock,and I experienced a brutal episode of cramping in my quadriceps (likely tied to the earlier stairs). These ailments cost us a lot of time, and regrettably we were still on the trail well after dusk. When we finally limped into Tal, we crashed at the first guesthouse we saw, and forced ourselves to eat some dinner before bed.
Day Three: Tal to Chame (15.1mi)
Remarkably, we awoke on day three feeling pretty refreshed and were without too much soreness! We spent much of breakfast cursing the day prior, but when we hit the trail the sun was shining and the air was sweet. The Himalayan Range is potentially the most breathtaking and peaceful setting in the world, so it was impossible to feel down for long.
The day’s walking took us along the edge of the valley formed by the Marsyangdi River. Like every day prior to the pass, it would be a steady climb. Fortunately, there were no soul crushing sets of stairs like the day prior. I wish I had taken a photo of these stairs to show you all. I have also run countless Google searches on the “Jagat stairs” to no avail. My hypothesis is that trekkers are so devastated upon seeing the stairs, that they forget to capture a picture of them for future war stories.
As we pushed through the roughly 15mi. day, we could start to see signs that our elevation was increasing. For one, the small villages that we passed through were changing. We were encountering fewer terrace farms, and it seemed that timber was taking over as the predominant industry. Toward the end of the day, we could hear the sound of axes and chainsaws echoing through the valley.
Our day ended in Chame, at one of my favorite guesthouses. We received a private little cottage for lodging, and the dining room was both cozy and packed with hardened trekkers from around the world. We spent some of our evening chatting with Germans over Tibetan tea and a warm fire, then ordered our first dinner of dal bhat. This teahouse was serving chicken with the dal bhat (first serving only) which provided some much needed protein. We ate like kings. I went to sleep having taken down two sizeable portions, while Ben impressively put down three.
Day Four: Chame to Upper Pisang (8.7mi)
Day four was one of my favorites of the trek, and definitely the most enjoyable one in the “lowlands”. The sky was blue and the temperature perfect. By this point, we had reached ~3,000m. (~10,000ft.) of elevation and it really felt like we were in the mountains. The biggest challenge of the day was deciding when to stop for a photo, as I felt like every 5 minutes we were running into the “perfect shot” of Annapurna II.
The highlight of the day was around lunch. We had just scaled a sizeable incline, and at the top we noticed a couple of conspicuously modern buildings surrounded by apple orchards. We approached, and were thrilled to find that the building was a cafe selling fresh apple products. We loaded up on donuts, fresh apple juice, and dried apple chips. The food was phenomenal, and a much appreciated departure from a diet heavy in breads and rice. After stuffing our faces and grabbing a couple bags of apple chips for the road, we continued along the winding trail. Around early afternoon, we dropped to the level of the now raging river and crossed over and back a couple times. At this point the scenery was really starting to change, and by the time we made Upper Pisang, it was completely different.
Upper Pisang resembled something out of a travel magazine. Perched on steep rocky slopes and towering above its counterpart Lower Pisang, every single teahouse had a magnificent view of the massif and the sharp peaks of Annapurna II & IV. Immediately, Ben and I elected to head to the highest of the guesthouses in search of the primo panorama. We were thrilled with what we found, and after a quick respite, we hiked a couple more stairs to the large monastery right above us. The site was brilliant, decorated with bright colors and ornate carvings. We sat for a while on wool pillows and listened to a monk, playing the drums and cymbals. Once finished, the night was capped off with a thermos of Nepali milk tea and a heaping portion of dal bhat while we read and watched the sunset from our dining room windows.
Day Five: Upper Pisang to Braga (9.3mi.)
Day five was marked by a 6am wake up, as we hoped to catch the sunrise from the monastery. We were told that taking part in morning prayers can be a peaceful and auspicious way to begin any day of trekking, but unfortunately no monks were present. Nonetheless, we were able to watch as a friendly old woman tended to the grounds and started a weisang (incense) offering of pine branch and tsampa (a local grain often used in porridge). The morning view of Annapurna II was well worth rising for in itself. It was a clear blue day, and we spent a good amount of time watching in awe as clouds formed off the summit.
The rest of the day we kept climbing as we continued our rotation around the Annapurna range. Right off the bat, we were faced with a harrowing ascent that rivaled that of Jagat. Fortunately our path led us along switchbacks as opposed to stairs, but at 10,000 ft. of elevation we were huffing and puffing as we reached the top. When we immediately spotted a small wooden shack selling “apple pies” and yak cheese at the summit, we were overjoyed. We spent the equivalent of a whole meal’s worth of rupees on these incredible snacks, and then sat to enjoy the view.
As we continued on our way, we could really tell that we had entered a new environment over the last day or so. We were nearing the treeline and banks of snow could be seen dotting the hillsides around us. The villages themselves had changed as well. Stone replaced wood as the primary building material, and the cows from the lowland farms had been swapped for hardier yaks. The change of pace was welcomed though, and is part of what makes the Annapurna Circuit such an enjoyable trek.
The remainder of day five we found to be quite pleasant. The elevation gain was gradual, our lunch of yak macaroni was amazing, and towards the early evening we were given an impromptu tour of a local gompa (monastery) by young students. They told us about the stupas that blanketed the region and showed off a sacred handprint that was etched into a rock on the premises. Unfortunately, the language barrier made it very difficult to understand the significance of the revered handprint. The day finished in the town of Braga, just shy of Manang, in the Hotel Buddha. The culmination of a great day came when we were informed that for a couple rupees we could use the hotel’s electric water heaters for a HOT SHOWER!
Day Six: Rest Day – Kicho Tal (9.9mi.), then Braga to Manang (2.8mi.)
It is worth noting that for most trekkers on the Circuit, the “rest day” is not restful. The same should go for you if you elect to hike the circuit. Upon arrival in Braga, we were at over 11,000ft. (3,450m) and starting to stage for the pass. In order to assure that our bodies were ready for the extreme altitude, we elected to follow best practices and go for an acclimatization hike. This is when hikers day trip up to a high altitude to give your body a chance to adjust to the thinning air. Most trekkers do this and I would NOT recommend skipping it on the Annapurna. If you need a true rest day off your feet, then do this in addition to your acclimatization hike.
In Braga, there are two great options for your acclimatization hike: Kicho Tal (the Ice Lake) or Milarepa’s Cave. Kicho Tal is a sacred ice lake that is supposed to have reflective views of the Annapurnas when melted, and Milarepa’s Cave is a holy site where it is believed that a famous Tibetan philosopher meditated and lived off of stinging nettle. In the end, we elected to hike the Kicho Tal. After a slow and relaxing morning, we packed up a small day bag and set off.
The hike itself proved to be quite a challenge; the trail was steep and the weather harsh. Still, we had left our backpacks at the Hotel Buddha, and moving without them was liberating. After a couple hours of trudging our way through the snow, we made it to the lake. It being early April, Kicho Tal was still 95% frozen over, but there was a beautiful white stupa and the views at 15,000ft. were were worth it. With some good luck, we discovered an abandoned miners hut that we could crawl into for a lunch out of the wind.
The way down was quick and largely uneventful. We had made plans to swing by Sher Gompa, a 900 year-old women’s monastery, but got a little lost and overshot it. In the end, we skipped it, went back to the hotel to grab our bags, and completed the short, flat walk into Manang. We found Manang to be very enjoyable. It was one of the largest towns that we passed through, and as the last town before the pass that is inhabited year-round, it had more amenities. There was a cute one-room DVD movie theater, a small cultural center, and a local bakery at which we ordered some fantastic fresh apple crumble to cap off the day.
Day Seven: Manang to Yak Kharka (5.8mi.)
After a great night’s sleep we woke up ready to tackle a more relaxing day seven on the trail. Interestingly, Ben and I found out over breakfast that we both had been having wild, lucid dreams over the last couple evenings. I don’t know if it was related to the altitude or the spiritual fabric of Nepal, but it was certainly a twist neither of us expected on the trip.
We started the day by checking in at the ACAP checkpoint, and then filling up at a clean water station gifted by the New Zealand government and operated by local women. Once we were on the trail, we were able to enjoy sunny skies and a steady ascent. The trail was busier (though not crowded) and we made conversation with a number of the groups we encountered. Since around Chame or Pisang, most of the trekkers making the journey had fallen into the same cadence, so we started to recognize faces from prior teahouses and the trail. It was quite fun to watch as this little community of Czechs, Germans, Dutch, French, Japanese, and Americans developed.
After a quick three hours or so, we arrived in Yak Kharka. We had the energy to go further, but it was not advised. Though the distances shortened considerably in the final days before the pass, it is vital to give your body time to acclimate prior to the big crossing. Instead, we spent the remaining hours of the day relaxing, reading outside, and making friends in the cozy teahouse dining room. Yak Kharka lived up to its name in that there were docile yaks roaming all around the small village, and every teahouse was serving up protein-packed yak-based meals. I opted for a yak burger, while Ben crushed a massive yak steak. The meal did a lot for our strength, and we fell asleep early, ready for the challenge of the next two days.
Day Eight: Yak Kharka to High Camp (5.0mi.)
As we anticipated a little bit of a log jam at the staging sites for the pass, we decided to get an early start out of Yak Kharka. Despite some snow on the ground from the night before, the sun was out and it gradually warmed. The walk was tiring, but we were hardened from the rigorous days prior and made quick work of the early sections. Upon conquering a steep hill 2/3 of the way to Thorong Phedi, we stopped for a quick breather at a remote teahouse with a number of other trekkers. A cup of lemon ginger and a quick photoshoot later, we finished the journey to Thorong Phedi.
At Thorong Phedi, we were faced with a decision: spend the night at the lodge there, or push to High Camp. We had read that some hikers struggle with the altitude at High Camp, but the idea of staying at the highest lodge on the trail and shaving some mileage off the big day was just too tempting to pass up. The final push was a challenge. The trail pretty much went 400m straight up a hill, no stairs, no switchbacks. Additionally, ice coated much of the path. Still, we made it, and feeling accomplished we grabbed a room at 15,900ft. (4,850m).
The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent lounging in the High Camp dining room, eating dal bhat and trying to nap. Overall, we felt great considering the altitude. Some hikers were complaining of headaches, but my only symptom was being tired, yet unable to actually sleep. We were told this was actually quite common, and that at extreme altitude your body can be working too hard to fully fall asleep. Fortunately, when it was time to go to bed, I was able to get some shut eye. This was not however, before stepping out for a moment to stargaze. The night sky at High Camp was incredible. With no significant light pollution at such an altitude, you could see millions of stars and the bright band of the Milky Way.
Day Nine: High Camp to Muktinath, via Thorong Pass (8.7mi.)
Our big day started at 4:30am. It might have been hard to roll out of bed that early, except our room was ice cold and we were anxious to get the blood flowing again. Still, we were shocked when we stepped outside and saw that a number of groups had left even earlier. Nevertheless, we strapped our headlamps on and took off across the snow.
We could not have picked a better day to cross the pass. There was not a cloud as far as the eye could see, and as the sun rose we were treated to picture perfect views of the great Himalayan peaks. The wind was cutting through our gloves and balaclavas pretty good, but the ground was frozen enough that it did not impact visibility at all. We were huffing and puffing as we made made climb without crampons (I would recommend them), but our legs and lungs were strong and by 7:15am we were standing atop Thorong Pass, the highest passes in the world!!!
The energy at the top was electric. Trekkers were shouting out of joy as they reached 17,770ft. (5,416m.), and even the Nepali guides and porters who had done the trek countless times looked genuinely thrilled. We snapped photos, ate celebratory chocolate bars, grabbed tea at the family run shack, and just relished a spectacular moment. Though we still had some exciting days ahead, this was definitely the highlight of the trip, and a memory that we had worked incredibly hard to make. After about 2 hours of taking it all in, we began our descent.
Very quickly, we learned the descent into Muktinath would not be something to take lightly. In a short time, we descended approximately 5,250ft. or 1,600m. on an icy and rocky path. This was very hard on the the knees, and each of us took a couple tumbles. On one of my missteps I ended up twisting my ankle pretty good and bending my hiking pole at a 90 degree angle. Later we would have to bend it back with the help of a large rock. Eventually however, we did arrive in Muktinath. It was a bustling town, and packed with Indian tourists who had come as part of a Hindu pilgrimage. We found a hotel and spent a little time walking the streets and shopping for family back home. Finally, we enjoyed a hot shower and then settled in for the night, still riding the high from our day on the pass.
Day Ten: Muktinath to Kagbeni (9.3mi.)
We had a relaxing day planned for day ten, so we took our time leaving in the morning and did not depart our hotel until around 9:45am. The slow pace was welcomed, as our bodies needed to recover from the strenuous day at Thorong La. Nonetheless, we still elected to take the longer scenic route to Kagbeni via a tiny village called Jhong. We had been told the main road to Kagbeni could be busy and very dusty, so we felt the extra mileage was worth it.
The scenery near Muktinath was completely different than what we had encountered on east side of the Annapurna range before the pass. The land was dry, dusty, and much flatter on account of a massive riverbed in between the Himalayan ranges. The region was clearly more inhabited, but still we felt a sense of isolation on the trail, and the new environment was appreciated. In Jhong, we came upon a fascinating 14th century monastery that was perched atop a sharp ridge and the ruins of an even older fort. The monastery had been severely damaged by the 2015 Nepal Earthquake and was undergoing restoration, but still we were able to go inside to peer at the intricate wall and ceiling paintings.
The remainder of the walking was uneventful. The path took us along remote farming roads and past herds of domesticated goats. The terrain resembled that of a desert until we came to Kagbeni, which was a scenic, dense, walled-in village at the edge of the massive riverbed. We descended into the town where we met a friendly German fellow who gave us teahouse recommendations and took as to a great German Bakery. After dinner, Ben and I walked over to another 14th century monastery belonging to the Sakyapa Buddhist sect (one of 4 major Tibetan schools). We paid for a tour, and were assigned a young boy with great English who lived and studied at the monastery. He was kind and patient as we peppered him with questions about Buddhism, the monastery, his life, and other sights / customs we had encountered in the region. It was a great ending to the day, and gave us both a lot more appreciation for the journey we had been on.
Day Eleven: Kagbeni to Chhairo (9.3mi.)
Day eleven on the Annapurna required us to run some errands, so we made quick work of the morning walk along the sandy, rocky riverbed. Our knees were feeling the residual effects of our recent climbs, but the flat ground felt good and really put into perspective the mountains on either side of us. By early afternoon we had reached Jomsom, where we got our permits stamped and went for a cash resupply at the only ATM on the route. There is a small airport and some bus stations at Jomsom, so this is a popular spot for many trekkers to end their journey. We could tell this was the case, as we encountered far fewer trekkers over next couple days and had lost touch with most of our little pre-Thorong La community.
After a great lunch of Thakali cuisine, the Thakalis are a prominent ethnic group in this region, we continued on. The rest of the trip was peaceful and uneventful, though we did make some last minute changes to our plans. Initially we intended to spend the night in Marpha, a sizeable riverside community similar to Kagbeni. However, just before dusk, as we neared Marpha, we came across a small village called Chhiaro that turned out to be a Tibetan refugee camp. As we ventured through, we were greeted be a couple of curious and happy children who wanted to play. We stopped for a bit, and ultimately decided we would rather spend our money in this community. We located the only inn in the village that we could find, and settled in.
It was a great evening. The children came back with some friends and a flat soccer ball, and we spent an hour or so before dinner kicking it around on the grassy patch outside our room. Our dinner did not disappoint either, the menu of traditional Tibetan food was a strong departure from the standard teahouse fare we had encountered elsewhere on the circuit. Most notably, Ben ordered this dish I could not venture to pronounce that tasted like sugared gnocchi. If passing through the area, I would strongly recommend all trekkers work Chhiaro into their itinerary.
Day Twelve: Chhiaro to Kalopani (10.6mi.)
The day started with a hearty and unique Tibetan breakfast, then by 8:30am sharp we were back on the road. Our ACAP map indicated it would be a brisk 4hrs. walk, but similarly to the day prior, we learned that it would take much longer on the scenic side of the river. Still, we enjoyed the trip and were happy to not be moving along the side of a road. The scenery offered some great views of the Nilgiri and Nilgiri North peaks, and generally resembled some of our early days on the circuit, though it was not nearly as difficult. Just before lunch, we got a fleeting look at the prominent summit of Dhaulagiri, which was once thought to be the tallest mountain in the world (now it is the 7th).
We found lunch spots to be harder to come by this day, as many of the small villages did not have a restaurant, but eventually we had a great meal in Kokethanti. Towards the end of our lunch, some clouds started to roll into the valley, so we hustled out and 20 minutes later found ourselves at our final destination in Kalopani. The lodge we found in Kalopani turned out to be a hospitality school offering on-the-job learning, so we treated ourselves to a great 4-course meal from the young chefs in training. Now that we were at lower elevation, we also decided to break our streak of sobriety and sample some of the Pine Forest’s local apple brandy and beer selection. Note: it is not recommended to drink alcohol prior to Thorong La, as it can exacerbate symptoms of altitude sickness.
Day Thirteen: Kalopani to Tatopani (13.5mi.)
Happy Nepali New Year! We had a long, but fast day of steep downhills ahead of us for day thirteen. As we wound our way down mountain roads, we couldn’t help but notice trucks and motorcycles of well dressed locals headed in the opposite direction with food and bottles of beer strapped to their vehicles. Eventually, we ran into a friendly Nepali man who explained to us that at midnight on April 14th, they would be ringing in the year 2076. The chance to witness these holiday celebrations gave us a little extra energy for the day.
As we made the rapid descent towards Tatopani, we could see the landscape around us changing. It was becoming greener as grass replaced rock on hillsides, and the trees were getting taller. It seemed this part of the valley received significantly more rain than the other regions, and we spotted a number of small waterfalls along the way.
When we reached Tatopani, we were told that there was a popular hot spring nearby, that we could experience for around 150 rupees. We were delighted to hear this. I had started to experience some mild pain in my left quad, and we both felt the spring could be therapeutic. We couldn’t have been more satisfied as we sat in the natural jacuzzi-like spring and watched happy trekkers and religious pilgrims enjoying the two large cement pools. For dinner, we feasted on dal bhat and had some celebratory Namaste beers to ring in the new year. For the first time on the circuit, I went to bed feeling like I had overeaten.
Day Fourteen: Tatopani to Ghorepani (12.3mi.)
Day fourteen on the Annapurna went down as our toughest on the trail for two reasons. One, it was a steep uphill day, that saw us gain 1,670m., or approximately 1 mile, in elevation. Two, my quad injury devolved to the point where my left leg was almost completely lame. I held up well during the daunting 500m. vertical climb that started our day, but after that things got worse and I relied heavily on my trekking poles for stability. I limped my way into lunch at Sikha, and we discussed pulling out, but there was no road access so the only option really was to continue. After around 2.5 hours of rest and massage, I felt stable enough to continue.
Aside from the injury, the day was strenuous, but offered some great scenery. Climbing back into the mountains, we were able to see the surrounding peaks from a new perspective. When we finally made it to Ghorepani and crashed at the first inn available, we caught some incredible views of both the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna ranges. Beyond the views, the night at the inn was very pleasant. It appeared we were the only one’s staying there that night, so we had the full attention of the friendly innkeeper. As he served us the best chicken dal bhat of the journey, he made it clear to us in broken English, “I am Nepali, I love God. When you stay at my house, you are my God. When you happy, I happy. When you not happy, I sad.” We went to sleep thankful for his kindness and praying for better health in the morning.
Day Fifteen: Ghorepani to Ghandruk (10.5mi.)
Thankfully, I awoke to find that the condition of my leg had significantly improved. Even better, it had improved to the point that I felt comfortable doing a pack-less 6:30am hike to the top of the popular Poonhill. The hike was through a forested ridgeline and took us up around 600m. of elevation. Surprisingly, we found the trail to be relatively crowded. It turned out the Poonhill was a popular hike for both day-trippers and backpackers on a short four day loop from Birethanti –> Ghorepani –> Ghandruk –> Birethanti. Still, despite the crowds, the view from the top of Poonhill was well worth the trouble. We marveled at the unobstructed, panoramic view from Daulagiri to Annapurna I and Muchapuchare, before eventually heading down. For a while, I had been growing worried that we would never get a clean look at Annapurna I on this journey.
After grabbing our packs, we embarked on an up and down day through dense, green, moss-covered forests towards Ghandruk. Within the first hour, we reached and crossed Deurali Pass, which was peppered with bushy trees of vibrant pink flowers. These were some of the first bright natural colors that we saw on the circuit. Over the course of the afternoon, passed a countless number of tourists doing the shorter hike and the porters carrying their gear. I have tremendous respect for the industrious porters. They would often be carrying the bags for two to three foreigners, all by a single rope affixed to their foreheads. Many of them were quite old, and I always found it amusing to watch a 50+ year-old Nepali woman carrying three bags by her head dust a conventionally fit European couple up a steep hill. My amusement did turn to shame however, as my leg tightened up again, and by the end of the day I was the one getting beat up the hills.
Around early afternoon, Ben and I stopped for a satisfying lunch in Tadapani. Shortly after continuing, we passed a lone teahouse where the proprietor was standing outside and trying to convince us to come in before it rained. As there didn’t appear to be any ominous clouds in the sky, we wrote her off as a persuasive saleswoman and continued on. 45 minutes later, we realized we had made a huge mistake. Out of nowhere as the soothsayer predicted, massive clouds rolled in and we were caught in a downpour. Shortly thereafter, the downpour turned into what felt like a cyclone. We took off running through the intense thunder and lightning, and soon we came upon a teahouse where the owners welcomed us with open arms. As we changed out of our sopping wet clothes, I heard a large ‘crack‘, saw a flash and then smoke coming from a tree outside our window. It appeared lightning had struck no further than 20 meters away. The remainder of the evening was quite peaceful however. As the storm raged outside, we huddled around a fire with other trekkers and a few guides who regaled us with stories of climbing expeditions, Nepali tigers, and the 2014 avalanche.
Day Sixteen: Ghandruk to Birethanti (12.5mi)
As was so commonly the case on this crazy adventure, our final day on the trail did not go as planned, but worked out for the best. We set off for Dhampus, the furthest of the two endpoints, after a quick 7:00am breakfast of Tibetan pancakes (a staple on the trail) and muesli. Within minutes, we passed through the full town of Ghandruk, and were faced with a narrow and treacherously steep set of switchbacks that led to the bottom of a ravine. It took a substantial amount of time before we reached the bottom, and there we were faced with a fork in the road. One path would take us on a 1.5 day journey to Dhampus, the other would lead to the traditional end of the trail in Birethanti. Given my quadricep was starting to act up again, we decided to play it safe and move towards Birethanti instead.
The new road led us steadily downwards along a small river for around three hours. Over the course of this time, my conditioned worsened, so I became increasingly grateful for our decision. Nonetheless, the idea of being hours away from a truly soft bed and a hot shower was motivation enough and we pushed onwards. Before long, we came around a small bend where we sighted the Birethanti bridge, also known as ‘the end of the road’. We were overjoyed! We purchased a meal and some celebratory ice cream, over which we recounted memories from our great journey. Afterwards we grabbed a cab and headed towards Pokhara.
The cab ride was hell. Two and a half hours of hairpin turns and suspension-crushing potholes was not much appreciated by two tired hikers in need of sleep, but it all was worth it when we arrived at our hotel in Pokhara. The rest of the evening was spent aimlessly wandering the beautiful city, in search of some new, more familiar cuisine, a fitting end to the trek of a lifetime.
Background: Prior to around 2014, there was no improved road connecting Besisahar to Manang. Even earlier than that, there wasn’t a large road along the Kali Gandaki valley. If you do any significant reading on the Annapurna Circuit, you are more than likely to encounter travelers, especially older ones, sharing their opinions on the impact the new roads have had on the integrity of the trek. Some of these accounts can be quite discouraging, so I thought I would share my two cents for any prospective Circuit hikers.
In short, while I never experienced the pre-road version of the AC, I do not share the opinion that the road has substantially lessened the experience. For the most part, the NTB has done a fantastic job building footpaths that keep you far away from the eyesore or traffic sounds of a road. If I had to estimate, I would say that we spent ~75% of the journey on the complete opposite side of the valley from the road.
On the other hand, hiking along the road was almost always an option, and in fact it tended to be the easiest option. While I hope those writing scathing reviews about the decline of the Annapurna are not among the many groups who we watched take the flatter, more gradual path to the top, I suspect some of them might be. Generally, if you want to avoid the road you almost always can. If you are hiking with a guide or tour group and want to stay to the more difficult, but natural path, you should make that preference clear. Lastly, I would like to point out that this is not just my opinion, but that of a number of pre-road trekkers we encountered on our journey. While most noted that the Annapurna Circuit is gradually growing more popular, and thus more touristy, they all cited that they still come back time and time again because of how breathaking the adventure is, road or no road.
Length: 48mi (78.4km) Days: 3 to 5 Difficulty: Easy (well maintained, designated campgrounds / shelters) Gear: Standard gear + insect repellent. You can leave a number of items behind if staying in track shelters Completed: March 2019
In summary: The longest and most diverse of New Zealand’s 8 hikeable “Great Walks”, the Heaphy Track is a fantastic hike for trekkers of all ages and experience levels. The south island offers stunningly diverse scenery, rare wildlife, and a strong outdoorsy culture built around well maintained treks. I cannot think of a better option for those who want an exotic hiking experience, but may not feel entirely comfortable or capable of roughing it.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
The Heaphy Trek can be done year round. A moderate climate makes the Heaphy safe for walking year round. The peak season is the southern hemisphere summer from December to May, but off seasons do result in fewer crowds.
Permits / site reservations are required and can run out FAST. The “Great Walks” of New Zealand are a set of 9 outdoor adventures that are incredibly popular with locals and tourists alike. When we originally set out to backpack in NZ, our goal was to do the famous Milford Track. Sadly, even 8 months in advance, permits were sold out. Since the Heaphy Track is longer and offers more flexibility for your itinerary, permits are a little easier to come by. Still, you must have one and they do sell out. Friendly park rangers do walk the trails and patrol some of the campsites, so do not try to slip by without proper reservations.
The trailhead is far from any major city. Located near Bainham, the start of the Heaphy Track is a good bit off the beaten path. The nearest town of any size is Nelson, a bumpy 3hr. van ride away. The nearest major city is Wellington, which if you are familiar with local geography, you will know is on the North Island. Therefore, accessing the Heaphy Track is best done by coordinating with a tour company. We were able to secure our arrival through Golden Bay Air, which offered us not only a 5-seater flight from Wellington, but also a van ride to the trailhead. There are a number of operators that can assist with this travel, but be sure to arrange these well in advance.
Choose your sleeping accommodations. Save for a few exceptions (Lewis Hut, Scott’s Beach & Kohaihai), trekkers on the Heaphy will have a choice of each night of whether they would like to stay in a tent, or upgrade to a spot in a shelter or hut. When we completed the journey, campsites were $17NZD and huts / shelters $34NZD. Remember, this decision must be made in advance. For the most part, the campsites were very nice, but some such as Saxon and Mackay were on elevated platforms (hardwood). Also, know the difference between shelters and huts. Shelters are well maintained, enclosed buildings usually with running water and sleeping bunks. Huts on the other hand are open, and while offering raincover, they do not keep out sand flies / spiders (I personally would not pay for them).
Purify your water. Though most shelters and campsites have pumps or sinks, the NZ NP website mentions a giardia presence in the area. We saw signs in a few of the sites recommending water be boiled, so I would pack a filter and play it safe.
If flying, have a backup plan. If you fly in or out of the trek like we did, it is important to have a few days of slack in your itinerary. Even in the high season, occasional storms can make it impossible for small planes to service Takaka / Karamea. This almost burned us, so plan accordingly, pack extra ratios, and have backup plan!
Day One: Wellington to Brown Hut
Day One for us on the Heaphy Track was largely a day of travel. Since we didn’t know exactly how long it would take to get from Wellington to the trailhead on the South Island, we booked our first night at Brown Hut, no more than 1km. from the inception of the trail. The day began with an early morning drive from our hostel to the Wellington airport. As we arrived at our gate we were greeted by the friendly Golden Bay Air pilot, who then walked us out onto the tarmac and to our plane. The flight itself was pleasant, with great aerial views of the mountainous, vibrant green islands below. After roughly 40min. in the air, we landed on a narrow airstrip in the middle of a cow pasture. We stepped out into the sleepy farm town of Takaka, picked up some camping fuel that we ordered from the airline, and quickly boarded a van to the trailhead.
After a long and bumpy, but scenic car ride, we arrived at the trailhead and took a short walk to Brown Hut. It was no later than 1pm when we arrived, but as we had finished our walking for the day we spent the rest of the afternoon reading and exploring the nearby river. Our ability to enjoy the great weather and relaxing day was slightly dampened by the ever present sand flies, but nonetheless it was wonderful way to recover from the travel day. We resigned to our tents early, ready to tackle the first day of real hiking the next morning.
Day Two: Brown Hut to Perry Saddle (10.9mi)
Enthusiasm for our our first day on the trail pushed us out of our sleeping bags and out of camp before sunrise. We made pretty quick work of the day, spending most of it winding our way slowly into the surrounding hills and thick beech forests. After stopping for lunch and a sunny nap at the Aerore Shelter, we ran into a friendly ranger who checked our permits and cautioned us of the large, flightless birds called ‘Wekas’ that are known for stealing food or camping equipment. No more than 5 minutes after he left, did we catch a glimpse of one before it took off into the woods. The remainder of the walking was as before, a slow and steady hill climb through thick forests. Towards the end of the day, we came to Flanagan’s corner, the highest point on the official trail at 915m. (3,002ft.) This point offered us a quick, but mandatory out-and-back detour to a private picnic bench and fantastic vista of the Aerore valley below.
After a brief stop at Flanagan’s Corner, we knocked out the last mile or so and arrived at Perry Saddle. It was a fantastic campsite next to a modern hut, carefully tucked in between two mountain peaks. As we were making camp, we were greeted by a talkative ranger who told us about the area, including details about a swimming hole and great day hike up Perry’s Peak nearby. We saved the hike for the next morning, but made sure to check out the swimming hole before bed. It was, as expected, freezing, but a great way to end the day and restore our tired legs.
Day Three: Perry Saddle to Saxon (7.7mi)
Given we had a short day ahead, we took the ranger’s advice and elected to start the day with a hike up to Perry’s Peak (1,238m), but not before taking in some amazing views of the morning fog in the saddle. The total trip took about 2.5 hours, and as it was still morning it was a foggy trek. We left our packs at the hut, which was a smart choice given the steep and rocky journey to the peak. Fortunately, when we reached the summit, we were rewarded with 15 minutes of clear skies and amazing views as the clouds sunk into the lowlands below. After descending back to the saddle, we took one more dip in our beloved “mountain spa” and then departed for Saxon.
The weather was pleasant and so was the scenery. The path turned out to be relatively flat and this was a nice respite given our morning climb. After an hour or so in the woods, we emerged to Gouland Downs. The “downs” in NZ are large flat areas of tall grass and brown scrub brush that stand out against the contrast of the surrounding green hills. The Gouland Downs were the largest of the downs that we passed through, and the environment reminded me of photos I had seen of the African savannah. It was a stark change from what we had experienced thus far on the Heaphy. After traversing the plains, crossing winding streams, and almost losing my lunch to an emboldened Weka, we made it to Saxon. The campsite was set on uncomfortable raised wooden platforms to protect the scrub from tents, but there were no visitors in the hut so we spent most of the evening in there cooking and talking to two young German boys headed in the opposite direction.
Before turning in, we were blessed with the thrill of the trip when out of the down brush emerged a rare Takahe. Takahe are large, flightless birds endemic to NZ that were once thought to be extinct. We had been told to look out for them in the Saxon area, but were also cautioned by locals who had done the hike multiple times and had never seen one. Though it was dark and the bird kept its distance, we could not believe our luck and went to bed feeling both fortunate and accomplished.
Day Four: Saxon to James Mackay (7.3mi)
The highlight of day four came before we even emerged from our tents. I was startled awake by the sound of screeching Wekas and a commotion just outside our tents. When I drew my rainfly and peered out, I saw a Takahe just feet away, chasing away Wekas and exploring our campsite. Ben and I were stunned, and after watching for minutes from the seclusion of our tents, we slowly emerged to snap photos. The bird continued exploring, undeterred by our presence before disappearing into the brush again.
Due to the abbreviated day and some latent soreness from our summit the day prior, we made a slow exit from Saxon and spent much of the morning washing and sunbathing at a nearby stream. When we did depart, we found the hiking to be fast and pleasant. Like the days prior, we were treated to some incredibly diverse ecosystems. Moving between “downs” and small patches of alpine forest, our luck in spotting local wildlife continued. While walking, Ben’s sharp eyes detected both a Powelliphanta snail and a small owl along the side of the trail. Though not nearly as spectacular as a Takahe, the Powelliphanta are the world’s largest carnivorous snails and another one of the many unique species endemic to New Zealand.
Upon arriving at the James Mackay site, we found the accommodations to be modern and crowded. Though we were camping on the wooden platforms outside, we enjoyed the company of the Kiwi hut-goers nearby. We wrapped the day by bathing in a cold stream (the 3rd in three days!) while chatting with local hikers and taking recommendations from the resident park ranger for the days ahead.
Day Five: James Mackay to Heaphy Campsite (12.3mi)
Once again, day five on the Heaphy Track failed to disappoint in terms of biodiversity. We started early, hoping to separate ourselves from the other groups, and quickly transitioned from the hilltop hut into a thick beech forest. The hiking was mostly downhill as we worked our way to the coast, so we made quick work of the 12.3mi. day. As we reached Lewis Hut in the late morning, we popped out along a gorgeous, but sandfly-infested river. We tried to stop for lunch, but when the bugs became unbearable we continued along, criss-crossing a series of bridges before entering the coastal zone.
Had we hiked without delay, we could have easily made the Heaphy Hut by noon. However, we had been given a strong recommendation by the Mackay ranger to try some spelunking in an inconspicuous limestone cave along the way. Armed with a crudely drawn map, Ben and I made an unforgettable expedition.
After close to an hour of searching, we located the small cave with an outwardly flowing stream, perpendicular to a tiny bridge. We dropped our packs, affixed our torches, and cautiously ventured inside where we were immediately confronted by a cave spider about the size of my palm. We had been warned the spiders and crickets, though harmless, could reach the size of dinner plates so we were sufficiently on edge. Once deep enough, we flicked our torches off for as long as we could bear, and marveled at the thousands of fluorescent blue dots generated by tiny silkworms suspended from the cave ceiling. It was a beautiful experience similar to staring at a sky full of stars, but eventually we elected to leave the spiders behind and crawl out.
The remainder of the day was incredible. We knocked out the last mile of the day, finishing our journey on a pristine beach. We napped, clowned around in the pounding surf, and took independent walks down the beach to enjoy a little solitude. Refreshed, I fell asleep to the cacophony of nocturnal birds, dreaming about all the adventure we had just had.
Day Six: Heaphy Campsite to Kohaihai (10mi)
With heavy hearts, we reluctantly embarked on what would be our last day along the Heaphy Track. Though beautiful and coastal, there was little to report on our journey to Kohaihai. Most of the hiking traversed a narrow, pristine coastline. Though picturesque, the ever-presence of biting sand flies ensured that the beaches remain untouched. At the top of Kohaihai bluff, we found a nice picnic table and discovered that the strong, warm breeze was enough to ward of most of the sandflies. We used that as an excuse for a long pit stop before pushing on to Kohaihai.
Upon reaching the southern trailhead, we mourned the end of our journey while simultaneously celebrating our fortune as we had arrived just before a large set clouds rolled in and brought an accompanying storm. The last moments of the trip were spent hiding out in our tents, scratching our bug bites, and polishing off the supply of freeze dried hiker meals.
The next morning we boarded another tiny plane, and suffered through two turbulent rides back to Wellington. Despite the discomfort of skirting a storm in a 5-seater aircraft, we had run out of food and were thankful to be able to escape on time.
Overall, the Heaphy Track is a stunningly beautiful trek that I would recommend taking time to soak in. Admittedly though, the itinerary that Ben and I had laid out for our journey was particularly lengthy and slow. If I were to do the trail again, I would likely break it up into 4 hiking days as opposed to 5. That being said, ambitious trekkers often complete the trail in 3 days, and we even encountered an ultralight jogger at Saxon who was aiming to wrap it in two. While the large number of huts seeming offer an infinite number of options, here are two sample itineraries that could work for those wanting a faster pace:
4 Hiking Days Option 1) Trailhead to Perry Saddle Hut (10.9mi) 2) Perry Saddle to James Mackay Hut (15.0km) 3) James Mackay to Heaphy Hut (12.7km) 4) Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai Shelter (10.1km)
3 Hiking Days Option 1) Trailhead to Gouland Downs Hut (15.2km) 2) Gouland Downs to Lewis Hut (18.45km) 3) Lewis to Kohaihai Shelter (15.0km)
Keep in mind, shortening your itinerary will limit your time for extra attractions such as summiting Mt. Perry, exploring the limestone caves, and soaking up the sun at Heaphy Beach.
Length: 32.8mi (52.8km) from Makah Trailhead to Rialto Beach. Option to extend another 18.3mi (29.3km) to Oil City Days: 3 to 4 (5 to 6 with extension) Difficulty: Hard (rocky scampering, steep passes requiring rope assist) Gear: Standard gear + rain essentials, water shoes for fording, bear canister (required), tide chart (required), GPS or PLB (highly recommended) Completed: September 2018
In summary: Gorgeous beach trek and a wonderful way to explore the most remote corner of the United States. Enjoy panoramic views of haystack rocks and fall asleep to the sound of the waves and gulls. Just be wary of the tides and come ready for sand / water. You are passing through a rainforest by the way.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Getting therecan be difficult. The trailhead is far from nearby cities (~2hrs from Port Angeles and ~3.5hrs from Aberdeen). Trekkers should also arrange for a dropoff / pickup or transit between the trailhead and destination. There are no roads along this part of the coast so the drive is over 1.5hrs. from one end of the trail to the other. Fortunately, affordable parking can be arranged with the local Makah if you need to leave a car. Just look for the lawn signs steps from the trailhead and pay cash.
Follow the rules! This trek place takes place along some of Washington’s most beautiful, but also most vulnerable natural coastlines. Thus, much of the land is protected and hikers are required to follow a number of guidelines put in place by the NPS as well as various native tribes who have graciously opened their land for public use. Rules to know include:
The northern trailhead begins on the Makah Reservation and permits are required for access
These can be purchased at a number of locations in Neah Bay for ~$10. Check out the local shops and native museums while you are there!
Campsite reservations MUST be made with the National Park Service in advance (they book fast depending on season)
Many campsites have quotas to reduce wear. Find more information here.
Bring a bear canister and store all scented items in it at all times. You may not hang food.
This is actually more for racoons than bears. They are aggressive and have been known to run off with daypacks in the area
Canisters can be loaned from the NPS Wilderness Center though purchasing ahead of time will save you a detour
Get a tide chart and be wary of the tides. I cannot emphasize this enough. You can purchase tide charts at any local convenience store, gas station, Chamber of Commerce, etc. At the very least, having a tide chart and learning to read it will save you from trip delays. At most, it will save your life. If you are informed, this journey is very safe. As 90% of the trail is along the beach, it is nearly impossible to get lost! However, in some stretches the beaches are thin, rocky and bordered on one side by impassable cliffs. An official wilderness map will tell you how low the tide must be to pass at certain points along the trail and the tide chart will indicate at what times that is possible. Outside your window, the pass or entire beach will be swallowed up. Bring a GPS or PLB for emergencies, but do not chance it. The water is rough, the shores rocky, and I do not imagine the Coast Guard’s commute is short.
Purify your water. Though the route crosses a number of rivers, many of which are crystal clear, giardia is present in the area so never drink the water prior to cleansing it.
Day One: Shi Shi Trailhead to Seafield Creek Campground (7.3mi)
Day one got out to a slower start than anticipated after cell reception issues required a detour to the Quinault Ranger station in order to register and reserve campsites. By the time the drive was complete, Makah permits / tide charts were secured, and final gear checks made, it was around 1pm. Nevertheless, I happily embarked on a nice summer afternoon.
The trail started off with an unremarkable 2mi stretch through the coastal forest, but in no time I was spat out onto the beautiful Shi Shi Beach. My excitement was tempered relatively quickly however when I realized I had long missed the window for crossing the base of Point of the Arches. Fortunately, the 2hr tide delay offered a chance for some relaxing beach reading with the picturesque Point of the Arches haystack formation as my backdrop.
Around 4:30pm or so, the tide was low enough for me to get around the point, though not without getting soaked up to my knees. A short while later I reached the first overland pass, marked by a circular warning sign and a nearby rope and buoy. Like many of the other passes I would encounter, the steep path up the hill was slick with mud and I relied heavily on the rope assist. From the top of the cliffs, the view was incredible. Coastal forests in Washington tend to be sparse with wind-broken foliage, thus I was rewarded with panoramic views of the ocean and haystack rock formations. The sunset and dusk glow added to the effect (and picture quality), but also made it clear I needed to hustle.
As the sun went down and dusk turned to dark, it became pretty clear I was not going to make it to the Ozette campground as I had hoped. Instead I pulled out my headlamp and crawled over the rocky beaches at a snail’s pace. Amusingly, my lantern attracted insects and bats kept darting across my line of sight, some just feet from my face. Less amusingly, I found scampering across boulders and slick rocks to be very precarious in the dark and I didn’t make Seafield Creek until hours after dark. A set of colorful washed up buoys and retaining logs marked the site, and after a hasty dinner I was fast asleep.
Day Two: Seafield Creek to Cedar Creek Campground (16.4mi)
Day two got off to an early start, as was mandated by the tides. Keen on avoiding another round of night hiking, I packed up and headed out on a foggy morning. The day started with some calm, quiet beach walking. Before long, I came to the Ozette River where I was greeted by a pair of massive golden eagles that had just been fishing. The river was just too large to jump so I had to drop my boots and ford it barefoot. Though not an absolute necessity, I would recommend water shoes for this reason. Some of the river bottoms could be slick or rocky.
Beyond the river, I entered the Ozette Indian Reservation. One of the special things about this trek is that in addition to it’s obvious natural beauty, it also leads trekkers through historically significant lands. The beach at Ozette is the site of an 18th century mudslide that swallowed an entire Makah village. Hundreds of years later, the space was excavated as part of a major archeological dig. Some of the buildings from the dig still stand abandoned. At the southern tip of the reservation I made my way around Cape Alava, a beautiful beach area popular with day hikers and overnighters looking for a shorter trip. To my right, Ozette Island and the Wedding Rocks loomed large out on the water. Though I could not see any, the barking of seals echoed landward from the isolated haystacks.
Near Wedding Rocks I stumbled upon a set of petroglyphs, one of my favorite sites from the trip. My map noted they were in the area, but after about 20-30min. of searching I gave up and decided to move on. As I did so I paused for a drink of water, looked behind me, and there they were. Large and impressively well preserved I could easily make out the whales, faces, and fertility symbols etched into the large boulders centuries ago.
The rest of the journey was long and grueling, but worth the effort. Much of the route required some pretty tough scampering over rocks and boulders often slick from high tide being caked in algae, barnacles and anemones. I did my best to disturb as little of the sealife as possible, but it was difficult. I put my hiking poles to the test, shoving them between rocks and into holes in order to preserve my balance. I would not recommend hiking without poles. If I’d have been without, I likely would have spent a significant amount of time on all fours exposing my hands to the sharp barnacles and mussels. The scampering did offer a glimpse into some massive tide pools which I really enjoyed and spent a lot of time exploring. Fluorescent anemones and colorful starfish reminded me of aquarium touch tanks from when I was a kid.
After over 16 miles I finally arrived at Cedar Creek, which was in my opinion the perfect campsite. No matter how you set your itinerary, I would recommend one night here. The tent spots were insulated from the coastal winds, but still close enough to the surf that you could fall asleep to the sound of the crashing waves. In true Pacific Northwest fashion, the sunny weather of the day was steadily exchanged for a coastal haze, and I was blessed with a natural shower as I made camp.
Day Three: Cedar Creek to Rialto Beach (9.1mi)
The day three start was just as early but a little slower as some soreness and fatigue had set in from the rock scampering the day prior. By sunrise the rain had retreated and been replaced by a blanket of ocean fog. The fog was thick enough that despite there being no actual rain, it soaked my fleece and I was forced to switch to the rain gear. The actual walking started with a leisurely couple of miles down a large beach. Things became a little more complicated when I came to the only overland pass of the day. The hill had become very slick with mud and even with the rope assist ascending was a challenge. I managed to avoid any spills by leaning back a near 45 degrees and trusting the integrity of the rope. On the way down I wasn’t so lucky and a misstep resulted in a 15ft slide down the side of the hill. Fortunately no injuries were sustained and I was back on another beach, this one littered with huge old growth logs.
Around late morning I turned the corner on Cape Johnson and was one step closer to the home stretch. The tide was just low enough, but even then the strip of dry beach and rock was thin. Before long I came upon the Chilean Memorial, a small headstone memorializing the sailors of a notable shipwreck just offshore. This is one of two such memorials on the North Coast Route, as the surrounding waters are known to be one of the most treacherous nautical areas in the world. As I continued to work my way south, the weather improved and before long I was enjoying a perfectly warm but windy afternoon.
The end of my journey came ceremoniously upon reaching Hole-in-the-Wall, a natural sea arch that is a favorite tourist attraction along the Pacific Coast. Over the course of my three days on the route, I mostly enjoyed solitude, only passing three other groups of hikers headed in the opposite direction. Once I cleared Hole-in-the-Wall, I was on the populated Rialto Beach. I moved past day trippers and beachgoers who seemed to be wondering where the muddy guy in the large backpack came from. In no time I was sitting in the parking lot, awaiting my pick up and looking forward to a hot shower.
Though my journey ended after three days at Rialto Beach, many people on the North Coast Route will continue south through Oil City. There are two obstacles to this journey that prospective hikers should be aware of:
The southern end of the North Coast Route requires very low tides to pass some of the headlands. Depending on when you go, tides may not dip below 2′ and thus the trip would not be feasible. This happened to be the case when I went and prevented me from completing the whole journey.
The Quillayute River at Rialto Beach is impossible to ford. Hikers thus have two options for continuing to Oil City. One would be to hike / hitchhike 9.1miles along the road from Rialto to the Third Beach trailhead. The other would be to call the La Push Harbormaster and ask him to ferry you across. I was told this could be done for $20-40, but was also warned that it should be arranged ahead of time since calling day of is not always reliable.