Minong Ridge Trail

Minong Ridge Trail

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Length: 50.9mi (81.9km)
Days: 5-6
Difficulty:
Hard (no facilities, isolation, rough terrain, and bugs)
Gear: Standard + GPS/PLB recommended
Completed: June 2022

In summary: At any given time there are likely more moose on Isle Royale than there are hikers, and that about sums up all you need to know about the Minong Ridge Trail, especially if you are an avid backpacker seeking solitude within an increasingly crowded parks system. Few places in America outside of Alaska or the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are better for spotting wildlife (we enjoyed double-digit moose sightings), plus the surrounding island scenery isn’t too bad either. The Minong is regarded as the isle’s most rugged and challenging backpacking route, which only adds to the adventure. You might battle through long travel, bugs, unpredictable weather, and real elevation swings, but the opportunity to camp under the northern lights on a remote island largely unblemished by human activity is worth it a thousand times over.


Preparation / Know Before You Go

Book your travel to the island well in advance: There are only two methods for getting to the remote Isle Royale, one is expensive and the other is quite time consuming. Despite the cost, I am a huge promoter of the Isle Royale Seaplane as it is by far the most convenient way to access the isle. Unlike the ferries, the seaplanes run seven days a week and offer multiple departure times over the course of the day. Also, unless you have access to a private boat, the park can only be accessed from three mainland towns: Grand Portage MN (ferry & plane), Houghton, MI (ferry & plane), and Copper Harbor, MI (ferry only).

The park closes seasonally: Isle Royale is only open each year from April 16 – October 31, making it one of just a handful of national parks that close seasonally. The timeframe for visiting may be even shorter if you don’t have access to a boat though, as the ferry and seaplane have even more constrained operating seasons. These seasons are weather dependent, but generally run from around mid-May through the end of September.

Bring bug spray & bug nets: Hordes of mosquitoes and biting black flies are present on the island and their presence tends to correspond with the peak visitation season from June to July. Experienced visitors recommend treating clothes and gear with permethrin spray before arriving on the island, but we were able to survive with DEET-based bug spray. There exist some pretty dramatic accounts of the Isle Royale bugs, but with copious amounts of OFF! we found them to be a tolerable nuisance. Bug nets add an extra layer of protection and go a long way for providing peace of mind.

Do not rely on the weather report: I don’t believe there is a weather station on Isle Royale and my hypothesis is that when you search the park on a weather app it is pulling data from Houghton, MI over 70mi. away. We had planned for a week of dreary rain based on our 10-day forecast and instead found ourselves battling through 90F heat on exposed ridges. The reading from Grand Portage, MN might be your best bet for an accurate forecast, but in reality, you should be prepared for anything.

The northern lights: The opportunity to see the northern lights (or ‘aurora borealis’) with minimal light pollution is a huge draw to the island. The timing of the borealis, however, can be difficult to predict. Visibility depends on a number of factors including cloud cover and the current sun cycle. Though it is imperfect, the best predictive tool I have found for measuring your chances of seeing the lights is this dashboard from NOAA. Hopefully you have more luck than us.

Pronunciation: You will hear all sorts of pronunciations of the park’s name, even from local Michiganders, but the technically correct one is “eye-el royuhl” not “eye-el roy-al”.


Day One: Windigo to Huginnin Cove (4.6mi)

All adventures to Isle Royale begin well before the trailhead. For us, it began in the parking lot of Isle Royal Seaplanes, condensing our packs, weighing our gear, and steeling ourselves for what had the potential to be a bumpy plane ride through stormy conditions. In actuality, our journey had started 6 months earlier as we tried to figure the logistics of getting to the least visited national park in the lower forty-eight. For the purpose of the retelling however, I will skip over that part.

Promptly 15 minutes before we were scheduled to depart on the last flight of the day, we watched as our plane appeared over the nearby hills, narrowly cleared the nearby Portage Canal Bridge, and landed in the water right in front of us. A dirty, but happy, group of hikers clambered out, still reminiscing about their time on the island. Right after them came the pilot, who imparted to us the importance of packing up rapidly so that we could be wheels up before the looming storm reached Houghton. Not wanting to relive my experience in New Zealand, we acquiesced and were soon a few thousand feet above Lake Superior, watching distant lightning strikes through the plane’s window.

After approximately 25 minutes in the air, the Isle Royale started to come into view and pending another 15, we found ourselves rounding the mouth of Washington Harbor and preparing to land. As we descended, the pilot pointed out a nearby bald eagle’s nest, at which point an adult eagle flew the coop and passed directly under our plane. It felt like an omen, an auspicious start to an unforgettable trip.

Once docked at Windigo, we popped into the small general store to register our trip and purchase some fuel. With supplies procured we made a quick exit, hoping to get a few miles in and reach Huginnin Cove before it got too dark. Already it was approaching 5:30pm and the overcast made it feel even later. The long summer days of northern Michigan would ensure that daylight was never an issue on the Minong Ridge, but none the wiser we hustled to the trailhead. Almost immediately, we were swallowed by the island’s thick boreal forests. Shrouded under the dense canopy we wove our way around Washington Harbor and began to follow a narrow ravine to the island’s western coast. Along the way, we talked excitedly about what was ahead and our desire to spot a few members of the island’s famous moose population.

To our surprise, it didn’t take long at all. Only an hour or so in, we found ourselves standing face-to-face with a young cow no more than 20 meters away. We nearly missed her. As we talked and walked on by the moose had stood frozen, patiently waiting for us to pass. It wasn’t until she was almost behind us that we noticed a large figure watching us from just beside the trail. After a split-second of panic, we paused to watch the beautiful creature. Eventually, she became comfortable with our presence and began grazing, working her way over a grove of saplings until the prime leaves led her out of sight. It was an incredible moment, but its reign as the highlight of the day lasted only until we arrived at Huginnin Cove. There we enjoyed dinner and a magnificent island sunset from our beachfront campsite. To this day, the spot remains amongst the best sites I have had the privilege of staying in.


Day Two: Huginnin Cove to North Lake Desor (13.9mi)

There are few better ways to start a day than waking up at dawn to the meditative sound of gentle waves at your own private beach. Had I had a mattress and a real pillow, I may never have gotten up. The hard ground takes its toll however, and after a few minutes of relaxation, we unzipped our tent and stepped out into the pre-dawn light. A pot of coffee and pack of oatmeal later, we were on our way along Isle Royale’s western shore. Before reconnecting with the main route of the Minong, we enjoyed a few miles of scenic coastal walking, accentuated by natural arches, sea stacks, and uninterrupted views of the Minnesotan-Canadian coastline. The decision to weave the Huginnin Cove loop into our journey along the Minong was one we made at the last minute, but I would highly recommend it to anyone else looking to maximize their time on the island.

Just before we arrived at the trail’s junction and officially stepped foot on the Minong Ridge, our day really started. Abruptly, the trail pointed us away from the coastline and up a gnarly switchback. Again, we were making our way into the heart of the thick northern forests that seemed to blanket almost the entire island. For the next couple miles, we would track the thin dirt path through the woods until the trees gradually began to thin and we appeared atop a rocky clearing. A look down upon the forest canopy below signaled that we were now on the Minong.

Spoiled by the gentle grade and coastal breeze of our morning mileage, we were soon forced to adjust to “the ridge” portion of the trek. What had steadily led us up almost immediately sent us back down. Little did we know, this exhausting pattern of ascents and descents would come to define the remainder of the day.

At the bottom of our first “bump” along the ridge, we came across a beaver pond, and to our surprise, the trail led us right across the top of the dam. This dam wasn’t so much a pile of sticks as it was a line of logs reinforced by tufts of tall grass. Thus, a crossing was possible but exceptionally tedious. Our walking sticks offered little help as they simply plunged through the muck when leaned on for balance. Just when we thought we all would make it safely across, Jordan suddenly lost his footing and found himself knee deep in the swamp. A new pair of socks and a lot of laughs later, we regrouped and were on our way again.

Through the remainder of the day, we soldiered on, steadily chipping away at our mileage and hoping for an early arrival at Lake Desor. The sun was out, and the set of exposed ridges offered little respite from the building heat. When stopping for water or to empty gravel from our boots, we often were forced to make a difficult choice between baking on the ridge or facing a swarm of mosquitos in the buggy lowland shade. Nonetheless, it was another memorable day on the trail. We added to our moose tally (surprising one that was headed our way on the trail), enjoyed several panoramic viewpoints, honed our dam-crossing abilities, and best of all, experienced everything in near-total solitude.

By the time the heat and constant change in elevation really began to wear us down, a sliver of blue peeked through an aspen grove due east, giving us our first glimpse of Lake Desor. This proved to be the morale boost necessary to propel us over the last few bumps and down into camp. We rounded out the evening with a well-earned meal and rejuvenating soak in Lake Desor.


Day Three: North Lake Desor to Todd Harbor (10.7mi)

Sunrise at Lake Desor could not have come soon enough. The more I have hiked over the years, the more I have come to believe that there is a sort of supernatural force governing life on the trail, enforcing a sense of balance. Climbs are followed by descents, easy miles by hard, and in this case a great night’s sleep was followed up by a restless one. Despite being relatively close to the water, we lacked the cool coastal breeze that made Huginnin Cove so peaceful. That made for a muggy evening that I, in particular, suffered through. Still, it was nothing that a strong cup of black coffee couldn’t fix.

The hiking began almost exactly how it had ended the day prior. Doubling back out of camp, we climbed our way right back onto the bumpy Minong Ridge route. Whatever grogginess that lingered from my poor night’s sleep was soon shaken off as the early mileage tested our cardio. Fortunately, we were able to sneak a couple of the harder morning miles in while a thin fog cooled the isle.

After traversing a handful of steep bumps and passing by the largest beaver dam I had ever seen, the fog began to burn off and the temperatures steadily rose. On the bright side, this brought improved views of Lake Superior and the Canadian shoreline across the way. To pass the time during ridgetop snack breaks, I began using my Isle Royale map, Garmin InReach, and questionable sense of direction to make dubious claims about the landmasses we were looking at in the distance. By the end of the hike, plans to visit Thunder Bay and Sleeping Giant Park for our next backpacking trip were in motion.

Another memorable moment from one of our day three snack breaks occurred when we heard a peculiar noise echoing from a valley below. Curious, we scanned the swampland and thick forests a few hundred feet below before we saw the movement of a moose grazing on the edge of a shallow pond. Every so often she would stop and let out a deep bellow. On the second or third instance of these calls, we saw movement again, out of the tall grass came a small calf. Thrilled, we watched as the calf awkwardly wobbled through the swamp to rejoin mom before they both began a slow retreat in search of greener pastures. It was a wonderful sight and one that we had a chance to share with two southbound hikers 15 minutes later when they asked if we had encountered a moose yet. After they longingly told us they had yet to see one after three days along the Minong, the moment felt even more special.

The midpoint of our third day on trail came right as we stumbled upon a lush grassy clearing just beside a small waterfall and rushing spring. Nestled in between two steep sections of the Minong ridge, it appeared the perfect spot to refill our water bottles, wash the unmentionables, and soak our feet. The only downside was that there was no break from the afternoon sun, so we elected to postpone lunch until we were further downstream. Once the packs were back on and we were ready to get rolling again, we noticed one small issue – the trail had disappeared. From where we stood, we had two options, we could follow a series of faint game trails that abutted the stream’s edge, or we could cross on an unsecured log. Hoping to avoid the possibility of taking an unexpected swim, we decided to test the game trails. After each one eventually petered out, we agreed we would have to try the log. One by one, we made the precarious crossing and fortunately nobody took a dip. Across, we noticed where a clear section of the trail picked back up and climbed our way back onto the ridge.

The remainder of our afternoon mileage largely followed this long, continuous, and densely forested section of the Minong. We never did end up crossing the stream again, and after coming to terms with the likelihood that my Garmin had tricked us, we stopped for a buggy trailside lunch. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant afternoon. Detached from the incessant ups and downs of the Minong’s most difficult section, we cruised along the isle’s spine and into camp where two more thrills awaited us.

Firstly, perhaps a quarter mile away from Todd Harbor, we were startled by a crashing sound to our left, just off the trail. There, we spotted another moose a dozen yards away, this time fully grown. She stared curiously at us for a few seconds, likely assessing our intentions, then resumed her grazing. With beaver pond to our right preventing any detour, we eventually inched too close along the trail and she took off crashing through the woods. Our second thrill came when we finally arrived and saw the magnificent little lakeside beach that lined the Todd Harbor camp. It wasn’t quite as private as Huginnin Cove, but the sweeping views of Lake Superior were just as breathtaking. We grabbed the last available site in the campground (it wasn’t too crowded, but there were only 6 or 8 spots) and made a beeline for the water.


Day Four: Todd Harbor to East Chickenbone Lake (8.7mi)

Coming off our second difficult day on the trail and a poor night of sleep, we decided to take our sweet time leaving Todd Harbor. By the time we rose and fired up the stove for some pancakes, only our neighbors were left in camp. A friendly father-daughter duo, they were taking their journey slowly, a few miles at a time. I envied them as we tried to get our legs moving again, feeling the effects of the days prior on our legs and shoulders. Still, spirits were high as we departed knowing that we had a shorter hike in store.

The walking started leisurely enough as we plodded northward, immersed in the forest despite remaining within a thousand or so feet of shore. After about an hour, it picked up. The trail sent us right back up a tall ridge that got the quads burning again and brought flashbacks of days two and three. Fortunately, this time the stretch of rapid elevation change didn’t last long and after some scenic views of Otter and Beaver Lake, we descended towards McCargoe Cove.

As we rolled into McCargoe just after noon, two things immediately stood out. The first was how picturesque it was, sitting at the base of a long inlet of placid blue water. While our campsite at Todd Harbor left little to be desired, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy as we passed the handful of wood huts and tent sites that looked over the cove. The second observation was how crowded it was. Now, on Isle Royale it only takes twelve people to constitute a crowd, but it still struck us as odd. We hadn’t seen a soul on the trail since Todd Harbor and it was still early for making camp. Additionally, many in the group seemed to lack gear that would suggest they were prepared for a night in the backcountry. Approximately 30 minutes later, the distant hum of an engine broke the silence of the cove and our questions about the group were answered. I had forgotten McCargoe Cove was one of the few ferry stops that provided day hikers and campers alike access to the west side of the island. As the Voyageur II arrived, we watched the group pack up and chatted with some rangers while preparing lunch. We were hoping for tips on where to find the bizarre bleeding tooth fungus, but sadly learned our odds were low around this part of the island. Eventually the ferry departed the way she came, and we were alone on the dock until a moose appeared on the opposite side of the cove, wading into the water to graze on some aquatic plants.

The hours ticked by as we sat near the McCargoe dock with the quiet confidence of backpackers who have just a few miles to go and plenty of daylight. Eventually, Chickenbone Lake beckoned and we resumed our journey by following the general path of our friend, the aquatic moose, who had disappeared into a nearby swamp. In a short while, the trail turned muddy and we soon found that several of the logs or boardwalks but it place by the park service had been submerged. It seemed the beaver dams that dotted the area were changing the landscape faster than the rangers could keep up. Fortunately, we had acquired a level of surefootedness from all of our earlier dam crossings and the muddy intersections no longer posed such a severe obstacle.

During what was probably our third successive dam crossing, a movement in the nearby water caught my eye and forced me to do a double take. Swimming in the little pond he had created was a beaver! Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was very familiar with beaver dams and ponds, but in all my time hiking and exploring I had never seen one. I’d gradually reached the point that even though we had already passed probably 50 dams on the Minong, it never remotely occurred to me that we could be lucky enough to see one of the inhabitants. I was overjoyed and held up the group for at least 20 minutes watching until he disappeared below the surface for what appeared to be the last time. Perhaps a hundred yards beyond the dam, we spotted our second moose of the day, grazing in a nearby swamp, but if felt like such an insignificant sighting compared to the beaver.

Just before 4pm, we arrived at our campsite for the evening – East Chickenbone Lake. In spite of the name, the site was, to our dismay, pretty far from the actual lake. In need of water for the evening, we set up camp and then made the steep trek down to the lakeshore. There we filled all the containers we had with water and for the third consecutive night had a proper bath. The water access point itself was quite treacherous and involved stepping over a silty slime that coated the bottom of the lake. Ironically, I teased our friend Jordan, the last one in, about the biting fish and sea lampreys that would probably take a liking to our blistered feet only to find a leech between my toes as I stepped out.

This was not the last strange occurrence of the evening. As we returned to camp exhausted and ready for bed, we drifted into some sort of wildlife witching hour. Soon, our camp was overrun with turtles who appeared to have climbed up the hill from a nearby swamp. Though they generally feared us, they made their way around camp poking around our tents and examining all of our gear. Then later, just as we were brushing our teeth and preparing to turn in, a gorgeous red fox ran right through the middle of our camp coming within a few feet of Emma as she stood frozen. It was so bizarre, the fox clearly saw and heard us but seemed to pay no mind as he went about his way.


Day Five: East Chickenbone Lake to Three Mile (10.3mi)

Our final full day in the backcountry got off to an uneventful, yet ceremonious, start as we packed up and descended the small hill that we had camped on the night before. At the bottom, within a few hundred yards of camp, we came to a fork in the road. Though we continued straight on through, this marked the technical end of the Minong Ridge trail, a bittersweet landmark despite the fact we still had a dozen miles to go. From this point forward, were officially walking on ‘The Greenstone,’ Isle Royale’s other famous cross-island trek.

The day began with another climb onto a rolling ridge that, while still taxing on tired legs, paled in comparison to the steep grade and rough terrain that we had encountered on the Minong. Another thing we immediately found to be different as part of The Greenstone was the traffic. The route was by no means crowded, but within a mile or so of hiking we passed two other groups of backpackers who were undertaking a popular lollipop that loops around Moskey Basin and Lake Livermore. One of the parties consisted of a couple, coming in from West Chickenbone who we leapfrogged a couple times as our group would stop for water or to dig fruit snacks out the food bag. At a particularly scenic viewpoint not too far from Mount Ojibway, we crossed paths again and asked them to take our photo. Little did we know, that would be our last panoramic view from one of the Isle’s beloved ridges. Soon after, we reached another fork, took a right turn off the Greenstone, and descended towards the Daisy Farm campground, which was nestled right along the lakeshore.

There is always something so satisfying about finishing a long trek along a large body of water. It serves as the perfect finish line and as we pulled up to the Daisy Farm dock to look out over the lake, I could tell each of us was feeling that sense of catharsis. The thin crowd of people milling about the island’s largest campground only added to this effect. Though we still had miles ahead, we decided to soak it in and take a long break. We ate, read, slept, and poked around camp without the oppressive weight of our packs. By the time we moved on to make the short trip down the coast and past the lighthouse to Three Mile, we were feeling refreshed, ready for another fifty miles. When we rolled into camp and found no vacant sites, even that could not break our spirits. Eventually, we located a kind hiker who was only mildly annoyed to have to share his private beachside site with a group of backpackers. Later that evening someone in camp informed that a dead moose was decomposing near one of the other sites. The repugnant smell apparently resulting in a few closures and significantly reducing the capacity of the small camp.


Day Six: Three Mile to Rock Harbor (2.7mi)

Though only a couple miles stood between us and celebratory beers at the Rock Harbor Lodge, we decided to start our day at dawn in hopes of beating the rest of the Three Mile crowd to the premium sites. In spite of our best efforts, the plan was eventually foiled by a particularly slow-to-rise crowd around the Rock Harbor campground. Nonetheless, the rush out of camp proved well worth it as we had one of the busiest, most scenic stretches of the trail to ourselves.

Embracing the calm, sleepy aura of the isle at dawn, we hiked largely in silence, accompanied by the sound of gentle waves lapping against the protected harbor. We didn’t stop until about halfway through our journey, when we took a short break at a trailside landmark known as Suzy’s Cave. As we polished off our supply of CLIF Bars and Welch’s fruit snacks (a personal favorite when hiking) for breakfast, I took a few minutes to poke around and do some extremely elementary spelunking. After clambering uphill to the mouth of the cave, I decided to crawl through to the other side of the shallow passage. There, I came upon a series of footpaths that led up the back side of the large rockface that the inland sea arch had been carved into. When I reached the top, I was faced with a magnificent view of Rock Harbor that seemed a fitting finale for a tough, but memorable, week. Just as I had finished soaking in some of my last moments on the trail and was prepared to head back down, a fox emerged from behind some bushes a few feet away. Upon recognizing my presence, he paused, calmly sat, and stared curiously forward. After a brief moment, he gave a short nod, as if to congratulate me on the completion of our journey, and subsequently disappeared down the hillside towards the rest of the group. It seemed a symbolic ending to an wonderful trip.

When we rolled into Rock Harbor an hour or so later, it was hard not to feel the excitement in the air. The small island “town” was a busy mix of recent arrivals and soon-to-be departures. Everyone was enthused about what they had experienced or were to experience on the island. After snagging our first wooden shelter of the trip, we made our way down towards the lodge with the whole day ahead of us. Deciding it was still too early for a pile of food and flight of beers, we elected to take another hike out to Scoville Point. It was rejuvenating to be moving around without the deadening weight of our packs and the hike turned out to be wonderful. Surprisingly, the wildlife on this end of the isle was quite active as well. Before finishing our little side quest, we had spotted nesting bald eagles, a family of sandhill cranes, and a mating pair of common loons.

With our hiking finally complete, we passed the remainder of our time on the island eating, drinking, and playing board games borrowed from the lodge. We made friends with several other groups of visitors, mostly visitors to the lodge who were generally eager to hear about what life was like on the Minong. Though we settled down for an early night’s sleep, we made plans for one last adventure: a 2:00am walkabout in search of the Northern Lights. Though the aurora ultimately eluded us, we did get a final thrill when we encountered a bull moose, no more than 10 meters away, in the pitch black.


Alternate Itineraries:

There are a handful of side treks that you can do from the Minong Ridge Traverse and route modifications are encouraged. We added a sojourn to Huginnin Cove and found it to be our favorite campsite of the trip. Perhaps the most important logistical decision you will have to make in planning the Minong is whether to hike eastbound (Windigo –> Rock Harbor) as we did, or westbound (Rock Harbor –> Windigo), as most others do. This choice will have quite an impact on your overall experience, so to help, I have done my best to layout the advantages of each:

  • Northbound:
    • Allows you to get the hardest section out of the way first
    • Grants opportunity to finish with a burger and brews at the Rock Harbor Lodge
    • Ends in a part of the park with more day hikes and activities in case you finish early or with unused buffer days. This also comes in handy if you have the misfortune of facing flight / ferry delays or cancellations due to bad weather. These cancellations are uncommon, but not rare
  • Southbound:
    • Offers a more gradual ascent into the steeper section of the trail, best for those who would prefer to acclimate themselves with the rigors of backpacking
    • Allows you to finish strong with the hardest sections (pack will be lighter)
    • You can enjoy a more social experience with hikers headed your direction
    • Can lead to arrival at more crowded campsites earlier in the day (Three Mile, Daisy Farm)

Additional Sources:

The Boy Scout Trail

The Boy Scout Trail

Joshua Tree Natl. Park, California

Length: 16mi. (25.7km.), with extensions 23.5mi. (37.8km.)
Days: 2
Difficulty: Easy (trails clear and elevation gain reasonable, but beware of extreme temperatures)
Gear: Standard gear + extra water (no source along route)
Completed: April 2022

In summary: Due to its hot and rather unforgiving environment, Joshua Tree is not particularly known for backpacking. However, if you are determined and willing to take some extra precautions, most local experts would recommend fulfilling your sense of wanderlust on the Boy Scout Trail. An out-and-back trek that spans 8mi. each way, the Boy Scout Trail offers a look into the variety of landscapes that make up the Mojave portion of the park. Groves of the eponymous Joshua Tree dot the first portion of the hike, while the latter half serves up impressive mountain vistas and sunscapes. The possibility of spotting some elusive bighorn sheep or the rare desert tortoise only adds to the hike.


Preparation / Know Before You Go

Register before you hit the trail: Though permit availability does not limit the supply of backpackers in Joshua Tree, you are required to register for safety reasons. Your car is at risk of being searched / towed if you have not registered.

There is no water: There are no reliable water sources along the route, so it is critical that day hikers and backpackers alike bring extra water. To help us complete the journey without a cache, we packed food that did not need to be cooked or rehydrated.

Extreme heat is common: Keep an eye on the forecast and prepare for the extreme. There is practically no shade along the entire route and the park service recommends tourists avoid all long hikes when temps approach triple digits. For this reason, avoid the trail (and Joshua Tree altogether) in the summer months. Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must as the desert rock is reflective, only adding to the sun’s intensity.

Consider adding in some side hikes: The Boy Scout Trail itself is an 8 mile out-and-back, but a handful of side trails branch off from the main trail. Consider adding in some variety by including side routes like Willow Hole or the Big Pine trail.

Camp only in approved areas: Dispersed camping is allowed in Joshua Tree NP, but there are some areas that are off limits for conservation. Check before you go, but as of our trip, backpackers on the Boy Scout Trail were required to camp on the western side of the path.


Day One: Keys West Trailhead to Big Pine Trail via Indian Cove (16.5mi)

Sitting in the Keys West parking lot and arranging gear at 10:00am, the first thing we noticed was that it was already quite warm. By the time we finally ditched the car, lathered up with sunscreen, and hit the trail, the heat was even more intense. Despite planning a spring trip to Joshua Tree and being blessed with a cooler weekend, there was no escaping the Mojave sun. As a couple of Chicagoans on vacation however, we elected to embrace the warmth and spirits were high as desert sand replaced the parking lot beneath our feet.

Accustomed to steeper terrain, Emma and I felt as if we were flying over the gentle grades around Keys West. This, combined with fresh legs and a sense of wonder from walking amongst the Joshua Trees, yucca, and prickly pear propelled us to an early arrival at the Willow Hole junction. Impressed with how quickly we were covering ground, we disregarded our late start and decided to take the well-regarded detour towards Willow Hole. A hard right turn steered our course away from the endless flat path across the Mojave and toward the low ridges that dotted the horizon.

In no time, the trail brought us to a dried-up wash that steadily meandered its way through an opening in the rocky outcroppings. As the sand got finer beneath our feet, the ridges got higher on either side until we were surrounded by what would probably classify as a miniature mountain range. We’d later learn this area was called the “Wonderland of Rocks”. Just as we were discussing how it would be the perfect place to learn to boulder, a couple of dirty guys appeared with crash pads strapped to their backs and waved hello. About a half mile later, we came across a conspicuously green thicket of desert willows, indicating the trail’s terminus. Almost certain that the dense stand of trees was concealing an oasis, we charged ahead until we came out on the other side. Quiet and scenic, we chose this secluded spot to stop for a quick lunch break.

After lunch we did a little exploring, performing our best Bighorn Sheep impressions on the smooth rock. Once tired of climbing around, we retraced our steps all the way back to the junction. By this time, we were in the heat of the day and starting to sunburn despite the frequent re-application of sunscreen. As we walked, I realized my immense gratitude for both the flat terrain and my strategic decision a week prior to trade my man-bun in for a short fade. The flat path through the dispersed forest of Joshua Trees continued for a little over four miles, at which point, the outcroppings began to reappear.

Just like at Willow Hole, a wash emerged as we approached the rocks and gradually the outcroppings grew into mountains even larger than before. Soon we would find ourselves descending from the high plateau via a narrow canyon. The descent offered some impressive views of the distant Copper and Bullion mountains, and even more importantly it provided some occasional shade. After an hour of hiking and a few water breaks, we reached Indian Cove at the base of the mountain range. Here we were faced with a flat, barren valley dominated by dirt, prickly pear, and desert scrub. The remaining hike to the trailhead was unremarkable, especially since we knew we were turning right back around. Determined not to cheat the mileage however, we continued the whole way.

By the time we reached the trailhead, the sun was starting to get low. An anxious sense of urgency started to set in as we were still miles from where we intended to stop for the night. Quickly, we hopped back on the trail and into the mountains, following the Boy Scout all the way to its junction with the Big Pine Trail. At this point daylight was nearly gone, but the idea of covering some new ground beyond the Boy Scout was tempting. In the end, curiosity won the day and we took the detour, hiking another mile or so until it was too dark to continue. There was no shortage of flat, sandy ground, so after pitching the tent and devouring a dinner of packaged tuna, we settled into a comfortable sleep.


Day Two: Big Pine Trail to Keys West Trailhead (7.0mi)

At 2am, the jarring sound of a phone alarm signaled the beginning of our second day out on the Boy Scout Trail. Though we planned to get an early start, the purpose of the alarm was not to hike, but rather a reminder to check for stars. While alarms aren’t usually a necessity given the quality of sleep one gets on a thin camping mat, Joshua Tree was an International Dark Sky Park and after our experience in overnighting in Canyonlands we didn’t want to risk missing the display.

As the brain fog cleared and I was able to take stock of our surroundings, I was stunned. There were few stars, but the mountain range we were sleeping in was completely illuminated by an eerie glow. Without taking hardly any time for my eyes to adjust, I could see seemingly for miles from the threshold of my tent. Directly above, a new moon hung, casting a shadow-less radiance across the range. It felt as if I were looking through a telescope, the texture and impressions on the moon were clearly visible to the naked eye. Though it was far from what was expected, the alarm had proven to be well worth it, even if the concentrated moonlight made falling back asleep quite difficult.

Just a few hours after dozing off for the second time, we woke again. This time the sky was painted by a soft violet hue by the pre-dawn sun. Estimating that we were only a few tenths of a mile from the end of the Big Pine, we decided to hike the last bit without bringing packs or deconstructing camp. We figured the more arduous tasks could be saved until the sun was up and our blood was flowing. Sure enough, we reached the end of the trail within fifteen minutes. It was marked by a low, green pine that stood out against the brown and grey palettes of high desert rock. Just past the pine was a wide gulley that led to a view of the distant mountains and the valley of Twentynine Palms. At any other time of day, the vista would have resembled those we had seen the day prior. However, at the crack of dawn, it revealed a colorful sunrise that justified waking up for it. After enjoying the peaceful scene for a few minutes, we made our way back to camp, packed up our gear, and once again began following that narrow path across the wilderness.

Gradually, as if carried away by the cool morning breeze, our remaining mileage began to dwindle. Preoccupied by the sights and sound of a Mojave morning, we hardly spoke as made our way back towards the car. As advised, we kept a keen eye and ear out for the sign of a Bighorn Sheep or rare desert tortoise. We had been told they were most active during the mornings, but aside from the birds returning to the yucca and a lone black-tailed jackrabbit, the desert was still. No later than 24 hours after we had arrived the day prior, we found ourselves strolling back into the Keys West parking lot. After providing a quick trail report to those about to embark on their own adventure, we climbed back into the car and were off in search of a cold drink and much-needed shower.


Alternative Route

While we thoroughly enjoyed our experience on the Boy Scout Trail and were able to add in some variety with the Willow Hole and Big Pine extensions, I am a strong believer that loops or lollipop hikes are always preferable to an out-and-back. Unfortunately, it was not until after our adventure that I learned of an alternative route that can be created by stitching the Boy Scout Trail together with some of the other nearby trails.

If you only have one vehicle and want to avoid retracing your own steps, I would strongly consider testing out the following 14.2 mile route. It can be completed in either direction. The route does involve small sections of road walking and skips over the Indian Cove portion of the Boy Scout Trail, but in my opinion that was the least impressive section of our trek.

Sample itinerary:

  • Start: Keys West Parking Lot –> Big Pine Trail (still consider the Willow Hole extension)
  • Big Pine Trail –> Maze Loop Trailhead
  • Maze Loop Trailhead –> Bigfoot Trail
  • Bigfoot Trail –> Quail Springs Historical Trail
  • Quail Springs Historic Trail –> Quail Springs Recreation Area
  • End: Quail Springs Recreation –> Keys West Parking Lot (via road)

More details about the route can be found on its AllTrails page at this link.


Additional Sources

Standard Gear Packing List

Standard Gear Packing List

How to Use This List

If you really want to get a backpacker talking, ask them about their pack and what is in it. Perhaps no topic is more controversial in backpacking sub-culture than what you should carry on your trip. Check out any public forum and you are sure to encounter hundreds of unique responses . In reality, there is only one right answer: it depends. Since you are on this page however, I will provide a little insight into what I usually take with me, in hopes that it helps make your own planning a little easier.

Please don’t take this list as law. Before you go on any trip, ask yourself a few critical questions:

  • Where are you going (woods, mountains, desert, beach, etc.)?
  • What temperatures are you expecting? What is the coldest it could possibly go? What is the warmest it could be?
  • What are the chances of rain / snow / lightning?
  • How long will you be gone?
  • Will you need to resupply food / water? If so, how do you plan to resupply?

Once you have answered these, think about what adjustments you might want to make from this list. If you still aren’t sure, check out one of my other posts in the Gear Guide section of my website for a little extra direction.


The Big Ticket Essentials

These are the large, must have items that will probably eat up around ~70% of the space in your pack and ~70% of the dollars that you have invested in your loadout. While it’s hard to leave any of these items behind, be sure that you have done your research and have items that are a good fit your trip.

  1. Backpack: You can’t go backpacking without a pack but having the right one for your needs can make a world of difference. Size, weight, and personal fit should all be considered. I currently use an 80L Kelty Coyote for large loads and long distances.
  2. Tent: Your home away from home when on the trail. Tents come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, but in my experience almost any will do. One caveat is that not all tents are free standing, so if camping on surfaces where driving stakes in will be difficult, I would recommend one that is self-supporting. On solo adventures, I have been using the Flashlight 1 UL by Sierra Designs
  3. Sleeping bag: Critical to ensuring you are warm and cozy at night, a sleeping bag should be brought on all but the warmest of trips. Most bags come with a temperature rating, so make sure the one you carry is cut out for the most extreme weather you could conceivably face. I have been using the
  4. Sleeping mat: The item you will spend the most time on outside of your boots, check out my breakdown to learn more about how to pick the perfect mat. Recently, I have been sleeping on the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm.

Eating & Drinking

  1. Stove: Whether cooking an extravagant backcountry meal or just boiling water for morning coffee, an outdoor stove is a must for anywhere open fires are not allowed. And sadly, due to the severity of wildfires of late, that is most places. If carrying backpacking fuel, I bring along my miniature MSR PocketRocket. On international trips or those with lots of refueling, I opt for the trusty MSR Whisperlite Universal, which can process all types of fuel including “dirty gas” .
  2. Fuel / fuel canister: Most backpackers prefer the handy portable canisters optimized for popular stoves like the MSR or Jetboil models. If you need something with more versatile when there may not be an outdoor store on your route, you can buy a bottle designed for holding fuel.
  3. Matches / lighter: It’s difficult to use a stove or open fire without being able to light one, so unless you are a primitive survival expert, you’ll want to bring matches or a lighter. If going with matches, consider waterproof ones.
  4. Water treatment: It is never a good idea to drink water directly out of a source, no matter how pure it looks. In fact, many recommend using multiple methods of water treatment as different treatments are more effective at killing bacteria vs. viruses. I always carry a SteriPen in addition to a water filter.
  5. Pots / pans / mugs: Bring what you need and no more. Eating right out of the pot is a great way to save on space and weight in this department.
  6. Utensils: Every backpacker carries a good spork, potentially alongside other collapsible utensils.
  7. Water bottles: Staying hydrated should always be a priority on the trail, so always carry more water than you think you’ll need. If refill points are few and far between, look to additional containers like a HydraPak.

Other Must Haves

  1. Map & compass: Even if you have electronics to guide you, it’s always a good idea to have a map and compass just in case. Make sure you know how to use them (ever heard of declination?); if you don’t, REI and other outdoor shops often offer free classes
  2. GPS / PLB: On short trips, a map and compass may suffice, but if you plan on stepping far away from civilization you need a GPS or PLB (personal locator beacon). These devices will not just help you find your way but can alert authorities if something goes on. Please do not just rely on your phone, I would recommend products from a trusted brand like Garmin.
  3. First aid kit: Always prepare for the worst and hope for the best. You can buy compact kits designed for hiking and backpacking at most outdoor stores
  4. Headlamp: Backpacking overnight means finding your way in the dark. Hopefully you are all settled into camp before you take out your torch, but you will want to be prepared either way. I use a Black Diamond Spot, which allows me to power with standard AAA batteries or rechargeable ones.
  5. Multi-tool / knife: While you may be able to do without, you would be surprised how handy they can prove to be. I have used my Leatherman Squirt for everything from opening pesky food containers to fixing a broken stove and backpack.
  6. Toiletries: Bring what you need, but please be mindful of the environmental impacts. Nothing is worse than plopping down in a pristine campsite and then finding an exposed cache of toilet paper. If on longer trips where you will be doing your serious business outdoors, a trowel becomes a must have.
  7. Sunscreen and/or bug spray: Whether these are actually “must haves” depends on the locale, but if you need them you definitely won’t want to forget them. Pro tip, I find a bug net to be more comfortable than spray.

The Comfort Items (Non-Essentials)

  1. Hiking poles: Though poles are considered optional, I only leave them behind on the shortest of trips. They provide a lot of benefits in terms of stability on uneven surfaces, joint relief when moving downhill, and prevention against swelling in your hands. Savvy ultralighters often use them to replace tent stakes as well.
  2. Inflatable pillow: Maybe the ultimate comfort item. Expendable on treks where space will be an issue, but key to a good night’s sleep on short trips. If I have room, I tend to bring along my Klymit Luxe pillow.
  3. Microfiber towel: While not technically a necessity, I rarely camp without a mini towel. A quick face wash or sponge bath at the end of the day makes sleeping much more comfortable. They dry almost instantly in direct sun and can also be used to wipe down dishes and other items.
  4. Body glide: My secret weapon in the constant battle against chafing, I never go more than a few miles without my Body Glide balm. They also make Foot Glide for protecting against blisters.
  5. Biodegradable soaps: Handy for cleaning dishes and yourself, soap is usually an optional but nice to have item on the trail. Please protect your environment though and select biodegradable, non-scented products
  6. Solar charger: Nowadays, almost everyone hikes with some sort of electronics, whether it be a phone, camera, fitness monitor, or GPS. On longer journeys, these may require a solar charger from the likes of GoalZero or Anker to remain operational. Should you be reliant on a GPS for wayfinding, this may be a necessity.
  7. Solar lantern: As a total convenience, I often bring along my inflatable, solar powered Luci Mpowerd on short trips or group excursions. It is relatively compact, can hang from the top of a tent, and casts much broader light than a normal headlamp. It also allows you to look around at others without blinding them.

Clothing

  1. Hiking boots: The key to comfort on the trail is undoubtedly well-fitting boots (have you seen / read Wild?). I love my La Sportivas, but everyone’s feet are different so try before you buy and be sure to break them in before you embark on a long trek.
  2. 3x socks & underwear: Allow for an extra pair just in case “laundry” becomes a challenge. Wool socks are great as they minimize smell retention and prevent blistering. For underwear I prefer synthetic materials as they usually dry faster.
  3. 2x shirts: I tend to bring one short sleeve and one long sleeve. Dry-fit materials are my favorite, but I adjust based on the expected climate.
  4. 2x pants: Again, one short pair and one long. Zip offs are much loved by trekkers for a little extra versatility. If you are looking for a more premium pant, I love my Kuhl Radikls for flex comfort and my Fjallraven Vidda Pros for durability
  5. Warm layer: Wool or down are generally considered the best materials here. Down is usually lighter and more compact, but it cannot get wet.
  6. Wet layer: Rain layers typically double as a wind layer and thus are a good idea regardless of whether precipitation is expected. If you are anticipating very wet conditions, you may also want to consider rain pants.

Feedback

What did I miss? What are other “must haves” or “comfort items” are in your pack? Do you have any tips or tricks to maximizing utility and minimizing space? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Disclaimer: I do not receive any compensation for recommending these products and all opinions / recommendations are solely based on my own experiences

What is R-value? And picking the perfect sleeping mat

WHAT IS R-VALUE? And PICKing THE Perfect SLEEPING MAT

When I first started backpacking and was in the process of acquiring gear, only two things were on my mind: weight and cost. It was my goal then to start working towards some serious thru hikes and I knew that as the miles grew longer, every ounce in my pack would become more precious. I also knew the unfortunate truth that cost often begets quality when it comes to outdoor gear. Still, I was a student and working within a tight budget.

Fast forward one year, and there I was on the Drakensburg Grand Traverse in full fetal position, trying to get through a brutally cold night, wondering what it was that had gone wrong. I had been warned that temperatures may drop on the South African plateau, but I also believed I had come prepared. My sleeping bag was rated for cold temperatures and at its worst the cold snap never pushed temperatures below the low teens (about -12C).

For a few years I blamed my bag. It was real down and occasionally leaked feathers, so naturally I assumed it was partially defective. It wasn’t until my trusty sleeping mat sprung a leak and I was in the market for a new one that I realized I had the identified wrong culprit. In optimizing for lightweight and cheap I had selected a mat that provided almost no insulation and thus was causing me to lose valuable heat via contact with the cold ground.

All this goes to say, not all sleeping mats are the same, and picking the right one for your trip can mean the difference between a peaceful night outdoors and ascetic suffering. Below, I have done my best to share some valuable tips and tricks that may help you sort through the noise.


What is R-value?

One number that you are likely to see featured prominently on packaging or review sites for camping mats is ‘r-value‘. In short, r-value is a measure of “insulating power” that reflects an object’s ability to resist heat flow. This means that the higher an r-value is, the better a mat will be at keeping you warm.

How important is this you might ask? Well that depends on the conditions where you are camping, but if its chilly out, the answer is incredibly important. No matter how warm it is during the day, ground temperatures will always be lower than your body’s equilibrium temperature and thus draw heat from you. Also, since you are in direct contact with the ground, warmth will be lost much faster through conduction. Prolonged exposure to cold ground is actually much more dangerous than exposure to cold air.

Now as you may have surmised, your camping mat is not the only thing in your pack that provides critical insulation at night. Your sleeping bag, clothing, tarp and even tent can play a role. However, the following diagram can serve as a general guide to help you decide what type of sleeping mat will best suit your needs temperature-wise:

Note: The amount of insulation that one needs for comfort or survival will vary person to person, depending on a variety of factors such as age, sex, weight, metabolic rate, etc. If you “sleep cold”, you may want to err on the side of comfort and choose a mat with a higher r-value. Generally, men tend to sleep warmer (and thus require a lower r-value), while women usually sleep colder.


Other considerations

Material / typeThis is basically a choice between two styles of mat: foam vs. inflatable. A foam or “egg crate” mat is the original outdoor sleeping mat and many experienced hikers swear by their durability, versatility, and flash setup. Inflatable air mattresses, on the other hand, are a modern solution to reducing pack size and increasing comfort.
Size (unpacked) Some mats will come in different sizes (i.e., S / L / XL) that correspond to the length and width of the mat when unfolded / inflated. Prior to purchasing a mat, ensure that you have selected a size that will fit your own dimensions. If in search of supreme comfort, you may want to ensure you have budgeted a few extra inches to keep you from sliding off in the middle of the night.
Size (packed)Whether you subscribe to the principles of ultralight backpacking or are just looking for something to take on a weekend trip, smaller is always better. I tend to use a Nalgene water bottle as my gauge for a good compact size, while ultralight options may be ~50% smaller and extra-insulated expedition mats could be as much as 200% larger.
WeightAs with packed size, less is more when it comes to the weight of your outdoor gear. Mats are one of four large essentials items that most backpackers carry (along with their pack, tent, and bag) so it is great place to look to cut out some extra ounces. Most will be somewhere in the range of 8oz.- 2lbs.
ThicknessWhen it comes to mats, thickness is the closest proxy for comfort. In general, they may run as thin as ~0.5 inches or as thick as ~3 inches. If you are most concerned about a good night’s sleep, opt for more. However, it is worth noting textured mats with different air pockets may have thin spots that can prove uncomfortable if they hit in the wrong spots. Try before you buy.

Recommendations

Great for low cost: Klymit Static V (~$60)

My go-to option for years, the Klymit Static V is a dependable 3-season mat that, at ~$60, is a bargain in the world of outdoor gear. Packing down to about the size of a small water bottle and weighing in at no more than 1lb. 2oz., you can conveniently take it anywhere that it isn’t freezing (r-value: 1.3). The mat can be difficult to re-pack due to a compressed stuff sack and some newer models have a mouthpiece that is tedious, but as far as shortcomings go, the issues are small potatoes. While technically pricier than most foam mats, the extra padding offered as an inflatable makes the Static V a great entry-level mat for all but the most intrepid backpackers.


Great for ultralight: Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Uberlite (~$250)

As the featured ultralight line from a brand that specializes in sleeping gear, long-distance trekkers cognizant of base weight and pack size cannot go wrong with the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite. Despite weighing in at just 6 ounces and packing down to 6 x. 3.3in., the NeoAir UberLite has a generous thickness of 2.5in. and a suitable r-value of 2.3. Combine this with the quality of the brand and it’s lifetime warranty, and you have a premium sleeping mat ideal for those in search of a best-in class product for serious exploration.


Great for cold weather: Therm-a-Rest NEOAIR Xtherm (~$250)

The sister product of the UberLite, Therm-a-Rest’s NeoAir Xtherm is a similar camping mat intended for cold winter conditions. The primary difference between the two mats is that for the cost of few extra dollars and approximately 14 ounces of additional weight, the Xtherm offers a significantly higher r-value of 6.9. This is provided via a thin insulating layer that, much like a space blanket, blocks the transfer of body heat into the cold ground. For those who envision taking trips that involve camping in sub-freezing temperatures, the Xtherm is just one way to make your excursion a little more enjoyable.


Great for maximum comfort: Big Agnes Insulated Air Core (~$140)

When maximizing for comfort one should really be maximizing for thickness and there are few products on the market of reasonable weight, size, and cost that offer more thickness than the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core. The vertical “I-beam” design keeps one centered on the mat and helps ensure a good night’s sleep. Additionally, it comes with a handy inflation sack that makes the Big Agnes much easier to set up at night (especially given the extra air that is required). My only complaint is that it can be a little noisy as one shifts around on the mat. Though its size may not make the Air Core the best option for thru-hikes, it should be within the consideration set for light sleepers, short trips, and car camping.


Great for durability: Nemo Switchback (~$50)

As a leader in the foam mat space, Nemo’s Switchback is a reliable option for those seeking to optimize for durability and versatility in their mat. Though bulkier than inflatable options, foam pads can be strapped to the outside of backpacks without fear of damage, and thus may take up less valuable pack space than alternatives. The ability to fold the Switchback into an elevated seat, as well as its utility on rough, uneven surfaces make it a favorite of long-distance hikers and rugged expeditionists. Fair warning however, not all backpackers enjoy using foam and side-sleepers especially may prefer the extra thickness / clearance offered by inflatables. Generally all foam mats are can be considered similar, but as a reputable brand with slightly thicker foam than some leading competitors, I would recommend the Switchback.


Disclaimer: I do not receive any compensation for recommending these products and all opinions / recommendations are solely based on my own experiences

Druid Arch Loop

DRUID ARCH LOOP

Canyonlands Natl. Park (Needles District), Utah

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

Permits are 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.


Additional Sources

Teton Crest Trail

Teton Crest Trail

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

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

In summary: 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Alternate Itineraries

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Start at Granite Canyon / Rockefeller Visitor Center: A shorter, but much steeper, route that will connect to the Teton Crest via Granite Canyon Trail.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Additional Sources


Specimen Creek to High Lake Loop

Specimen Creek to High Lake Loop

Yellowstone National Park, Montana

Length: 22.5mi (36.2km)
Days: 2
Difficulty:
Moderate (well maintained, no facilities, moderate elevation gains, wildlife)
Gear: Standard
Completed: June 2021

In summary: A pleasant two-day lollipop tucked away near the northwest boundary of Yellowstone National Park, the Specimen Creek to High Lake Loop offers an abbreviated alternative to popular nearby treks like the Sky Rim Trail. The route takes hikers over rivers, meadows, and alpine ridges with great views of the expansive Yellowstone valley. It also showcases a pair of remote alpine lakes, complete with primitive campsites along their shores. While not one of Yellowstone’s crown jewels, this loop is a very accessible and enjoyable option for those looking to get in some fast mileage on a less populated trail.


Preparation / Know Before You Go

Book a campsite in advance: This can be said of all trips within Yellowstone National Park and neighboring Grand Teton, but if you have your heart set on a night under the stars, you need to plan ahead. Park visitation is at an all-time high, and the supply of wilderness campsites has not increased as rapidly. Our signature last minute, go-with-the-flow approach to trip planning left us scrambling to pin down logistics and secure permits for an open backcountry site. To make a backcountry reservation, call: 307-344-2860

Be bear aware: Yellowstone Park is a wonderful place for viewing wildlife, but all trekkers in this region should come prepared given the increased odds of an animal encounter. Campsites in Yellowstone do not offer bear bins, but rather rely on hanging food from tall structures provided in camp, so be sure to bring rope and a sack to store odors in. Bear spray is also strongly recommended. Our campsite on the bank of High Lake showed clear signs of grizzly activity, so this is not advice that should be taken lightly.

Bring bug spray: While we had little issues with bugs during our early September visit, hikers in other months have found them to be quite bothersome in this region.


Day One: Specimen Creek Trailhead to High Lake Camp (12.3mi)

An abrupt right turn into a discrete gravel parking lot just off US Hwy 191 served as the beginning of Yellowstone backpacking adventure. The nature of this maneuver required a quick assessment of our tired rental car, but after the Kia passed inspection, we located the nearby Specimen Creek Trailhead and began an eastward journey into the Montana’s slim slice of Yellowstone National Park. It seemed the perfect day for backpacking; the sun was high and the clouds were thin, which was to be expected given that it was no earlier than 11:00am. We had planned to get an early start, but these ambitions faded upon realization that we would have to source some rope from a local outdoors store beforehand.

The initial out-and-back section of the lollipop-shaped trail ran alongside the small, but mighty, Specimen Creek. The impact of this winding little waterway on the environment was quite apparent in our surroundings, and it seemed fitting as the titular feature of the hike. Not only did the creek paint a vibrant green vein through the dry, late-summer landscape, but it had also determined the fate of large swaths of forest that were either burned or spared by a 2007 fire. As we walked on the greener side of the river, we admired the patchwork of colors on the opposite hills and enjoyed the sound of rushing water. Hiking only a handful of miles away from the Gallatin Bear Management Area, we were admittedly a bit jumpy at the prospect of a wildlife encounter. My heart skipped a beat when startled by a harmless pair of ruffed grouse moving in the brush nearby, so the ambient noise of the creek proved to be quite soothing.

About 2 miles in, we reached the Specimen’s fork, which happened to correspond with where the trail became a loop. Opting to knock the climb out on day one, we made a left turn and continued our journey clockwise. Shortly after the junction, a gradual change in scenery was compounded by a portentous darkening of the sky. Our beloved flat path turned upward and the forest around us thickened. We were starting to work our way out of the valley and up towards the trail’s secluded alpine lakes. Over the next hour or so, the elevation increased and our steady climb turned into a undesirable, but perfectly manageable, set of switchbacks. Eventually, we reached a small ridge and found ourselves standing near the shore of Crescent Lake at backcountry site WE6. This constituted a beautiful spot for a late lunch. However, some damp winds and a glimpse at fast moving clouds in distance cautioned us not to stay too long.

In spite of the encroaching weather system, the last half of our first half on the Specimen Creek Trail turned out to be quite enjoyable. We had approached our cruising altitude around Crescent Lake, and after a brief push to a scenic ridge that straddled the border of Yellowstone Park, the remainder of our day was characterized by a gentle traverse across the tops of various hills. The exposure atop many of these hills had left the hardy forests at the mercy of harsh winter weather, and as we worked our way around downed limbs we were treated to fantastic views of rolling forests and the expansive Gallatin Mountains in the distance.

As if the gnarled trees and great views had not provided us with enough excitement, we soon came across a huge pile of grizzly bear scat right in the middle of our trail. Ten minutes later we came across a second deposit, again right in the middle of the narrow dirt path as if marking the territory. Auspiciously, both were quite dry and made up almost entirely of pinecone flakes, so we confidently assured each other that equally hungry backpackers were probably not on the menu. From there on out, our quiet hike would be marred by a cacophony of whooping and intermittent shouts of ‘Hey Bear’.

With dusk and a rainstorm fast approaching, we finally made it to our destination of High Lake Camp. It was a great site, steps away from the glassy lake and protected by a stand of massive, old growth trees. We would have loved to dip our feet in and soak up the view, but the near certainty of rain infused a sense of brevity into our evening. Fortunately our luck from the day held, mother nature was courteous enough to let us pitch our tent and fire up the stove before treating us to a storm. Launching our sack of smelly supplies over the 25ft. tall crossbeam to protect it from bears turned out to be more effort than expected, but on the fourth try our site was secured and we were ready for bed. A reminder of our fecal findings from earlier in the day proved to be more than enough motivation for me to dig deep and perfect the throw.


Day Two: High Lake Camp to Specimen Creek Trailhead (12.2mi)

Following a peaceful night of listening to rain splash off our tent fly, we woke refreshed and ready for a downhill day. The first order of business of course was coffee and breakfast, which required us to lower the food bag from its rig on the bear pole. This was much easier than getting the bag up, but as I untied the rope I made an unsettling observation that I hadn’t the evening before. Each of the two tree trunks that served as support for the pole were covered in deep claw marks that stretched from the base of the tree to about 12ft. up. It appeared the primitive structure had thwarted a grizzly’s best efforts, though I couldn’t have imagined the fear that the nearby campers must have endured listening to a hungry bear trying to raid their food stash.

Once back on the trail, we reveled in a steady downhill grade that essentially carried us all the way back to the parking lot. The walking got even more enjoyable as the thing morning fog that had enveloped our lakeside camp started to burn off. Scenery-wise, most of the mileage alternated between thicker alpine forests and beautiful golden meadows. As it was late summer, most of the foliage outside of the pine trees had taken on brown hues that reflected a golden tone in the mid-morning sun. As pleasant as it was, we grew envious of those who must have experienced the trail during the colorful wildflower season.

The highlight of our homeward trek came about halfway through the day when we encountered a pair of massive Great Gray Owls, watching us inquisitively from their perch at the threshold of a large clearing. Had one not turned its head quickly to track our movements, we would have never noticed their presence. Unfortunately, the regal birds were quite camera-shy, gliding off into the forest as I crept in closer for a photo.

With roughly a mile to go until we reached the junction and the end of the lollipop loop, the forest canopy opened up and we found ourselves in the middle of the vast fire zone that we had been looking up at the day prior. It was quite a sight. Many of the resilient trees that had been around before the fire remained standing, like thousands of sentinels looking out over the valley below. They had been stripped of all their bark and limbs, then bleached from over a decade exposure to the sun. The myriad that hadn’t been so lucky and were felled by the fire lay shattered and stacked in piles below. Some remained charred, but a majority of the soot that you would expect to see after a wildfire had already been blanketed by an army of saplings and shrubs that had begun a race to replace the old forest.

Upon reaching the junction and turning back onto the trail we had trekked the day prior, we continued our record pace to the parking lot. Much remained the same, aside from the fact that we encountered two groups of eager backpackers heading out on the same adventure, doubling our total from the day before. It did give us some satisfaction to know however, that we had managed to get an faster start than some others on the first leg of our trip despite the delays. Fittingly, a cold beer and a quick soak in the frigid Specimen Creek concluded our short vacation in Yellowstone, though we made sure to stop by Old Faithful one last time on our way out.


Additional Sources

New River Gorge Traverse

New River Gorge Traverse

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

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…


Suggested Route

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)
    • Hike ~1.8mi.
  • Connect: Arbuckle Connector Trail from the Rend Trail
    • Hike ~0.3mi.
  • Connect: Southside Trail from the Arbuckle Connector Trail
    • Hike ~7.0mi.
  • Stop: Camp and recharge at the Brooklyn Campground
  • Connect: From the Brooklyn Campground, connect to the Cunard River Access Rd.
    • Hike ~1.5mi.
  • Connect: Kaymoor Trail from the trailhead along Cunard River Access Rd.
    • Hike ~6.6mi.
  • 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.)
    • Hike ~1.0mi
  • 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)
    • Hike ~3.9mi.
  • Connect: Bridge Trail from the Fayetteville Trail
    • Hike ~0.9mi.
  • 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.


Additional Sources

West Highland Way

West Highland Way

Milngavie, Scotland

Length: 96mi (154km)
Days: 5-7 days
Difficulty: Easy (well maintained trails, facilities present along the way)
Gear: Standard gear
Completed: July 2019

In summary: Regarded as perhaps the best hike in the United Kingdom, the West Highland Way allows for a humble, yet immersive journey across a timeless landscape. Choose your adventure: take part in the rich culture of the trail and indulge yourself with cozy trailside pubs and lodges, or embrace the independent nature of your inner Highlander and revel in the solitude of wild camps. Whichever you prefer, the blue lochs, conic hills, and rural farms of the Scottish Highlands will transport you to another time, when kilted warriors by the name of MacGregor or MacDonald fought for control over this rugged, but beautiful terrain.


Preparation / Know Before You Go

Pick your pace. The West Highland Way is a great trek for both beginners looking to soak up some time on the trail, as well as ultralighters hoping to zoom on by. The route is divided into 8 sections that can be conquered in any number of ways. The West Highland Way Trail Association has some suggested itineraries that I would recommend for your planning purposes. For the record, we opted for a slightly modified version of ‘WHW3’.

Bring bug spray and a head net. This is the golden rule for comfort along the WHW. Especially near the lochs and wetter sections of the trail, evening swarms of biting flies called ‘midges’ made setting up camp unbearable. These critters come out in the thousands and can fit through mesh head nets if standing still, so bring spray and work fast!

Bring a raincoat and duck’s back. Fog and rain are WHW staples and we certainly encountered this predictably unpredictable weather over the course of our journey. So bring proper rain gear, and be sure to store it top of pack!

Book lodging in advance. By no means do you need a hotel during this journey, but if your heart longs for a stay in a quaint B&B on the Scottish countryside, then get a reservation. Around 30,000 people will complete the full route every year, so you can imagine that all the boutique trekker’s hotels sell out quickly.

Buy a trail map. They can be purchased in most of the small outdoors or trinket shops in Milngavie. They make for great souvenirs and will point out side-attractions / points of interest that a GPS or phone map may not.


Day One: Milngavie to Drymen (11.8mi)

I cannot think of a more auspicious way to start a long hike than beginning in the town of Milngavie, Scotland. After disembarking our morning train from Glasgow, we instantly fell in love with the village that seemed to have sprung up around the trailhead. The town was cute and everybody around us wore a broad smile, offering up words of encouragement as our loaded backpacks gave clear indication of our intentions. We had made it no further than 30 yards down the red brick road when an elderly gentleman stopped us and demanded to take our photo underneath the ‘famous obelisk’, marking the origin of West Highland Way. After a quick pastry stop at a local bakery that was just too tempting, Annelise and I commenced our journey.

The first day on the Highland Way is a rather plain, but enjoyable necessity. Though on the fringe of the rugged highland wilderness, Milngavie is still connected to Glasgow metro, and as expected we had to work our way out of the inhabited areas. The day was perfect however, and with the sun shining bright even the journey across the transect was energizing. As the day drew on, sheep farms slowly replaced suburban homes, and soon we found ourselves out in the plains. What struck us immediately was the vibrant green hues of the local grasses. It felt as if we were viewing the world through a filter.

Around 4pm we stopped for a relaxing break along a scenic trailside river. The afternoon had proven to be rather hot, so a quick dip in the cool waters did us wonders. Fully refreshed, we tackled the final few miles in a single push. At Drymen, we ran across a backpackers campsite where, for a few pounds, we could enjoy a flat backyard spot with a shower, clean bathroom, and good company. We accepted the offer and spent an unusual night under the sun. Given our northerly position and proximity to the solstice, the sun would not set until 10pm., and then it would reappear promptly at 4am. This definitely took some getting used to.


Day Two: Drymen to Rowardennen (14.9mi)

We were fortunate to begin our second day on the trail much like we did the first, in gorgeous morning sun. Though that sun rose before it was welcomed, the warmth we felt at 7am made packing up early much more achievable than on prior trips. The hiking picked up right where we had left off the evening prior, making our way across rural sheep farms. What was interesting to us was that in order to traverse each farm, we would have to pass through a series of private iron gates to ensure no animals broke free of their expansive pens. It was a unique set up, but it was inspiring to see such a healthy partnership between the trail association, hikers, and local farmers.

A few hours into the morning we passed through the final rusty gate, and found ourselves staring down a scenic expanse of low grassy hills. It appeared we were moving further from civilization and closer to the heart of the highlands. After steadily moving over and around the series of hills, we reached a viewpoint from which we could see the shining blue waters of Loch Lomond below. Energized, we made for the shores, which we reached in about 45min.

Where the trail met the loch, we ran into a small town called Balmaha, that was evidently a popular jumping off point for tourists moving deeper into the Trossachs National Park. We stopped for a moment to watch dinghies, ducklings, and kayaks move lazily in and out of the town’s tiny bay before continuing the WHW along the Loch’s shore. The rest of the day was quite crowded, but enjoyable all the same. We never strayed far from the shore over the final 6-7 miles and the views were great. It was tempting to join the vacationers, soaking up the afternoon sun on pebbled beaches, but we were on a mission. Eventually we reached Rowardennen, where we camped in a shaded site not far from a backpacker’s youth hostel. A consuming swarm of biting midges put the only damper on the day as it limited bathing / cooking options, but before long we were comfy and cozy within the safety of our tent.


Day Three: Rowardennen to Inverarnan (14.0mi)

The third day on the trail was a tale of two halves, though unfortunately our slow start in the morning meant that we would complete a majority of our hiking during the less pleasant second half. We woke late to the sun shining off the calm surface of Loch Lomond, and then packed up quickly to minimize bites from the ever-present midges. The hiking for the day was straightforward, a direct path along the shore of the 24 mile long loch.

Probably around noon, a thick fog started to roll in over the surrounding hills, providing an ominous setting to go along with the eerie silence of the great loch. We had the trail to ourselves, but the atmosphere inexplicably compelled Annelise and I to speak in hushed tones so as not to disturb the fragile peace. A few hours in, we came across a set of landmarks that added some intrigue to the days walking. The first was a batch of moss covered stone ruins that we later learned were likely the remnants of a illicit 18th century whisky distillery. The second was a sign indicating the presence of Scottish outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor’s cave. As alleged descendants of the MacGregor clan and Rob Roy himself, we looked hard for the cave, but were not able to spot it via the short side hike. Still, coming to wander the lands of our ancestors and getting to sit steps from where Rob Roy hid out from the Duke of Montrose was a meaningful and unforgettable experience.

The latter portion of the day was a little bit of a blur as the fog turned into a downpour and sullied the mood. Despite an attempt to wait out the storm in a cozy backpackers room at the Inversnaid Inn, we ran out of time and were forced to continue with our rain jackets and duck’s backs drawn tight. The dark clouds and distorted sunlight made for some great photographs and the rain helped us comprehend the region’s vibrant green character, but otherwise we moved as quickly as possible. By mid-evening we reached the northern terminus of the Lomond, paused for a minute to take the view in, and continued to Inverarnan. There we were pleased to find a local pub and large campground, near full up. We paid a small rental fee for one of the last spots, grabbed a drink, then enjoyed a good night’s sleep.


Day Four: Inverarnan to Tyndrum (12.0mi)

Once again, we were slow to leave camp in the morning. The exposure to the elements from the day prior had left us tired, and the general lack of a proper night made it difficult to wake at a true dawn. Unfortunately, if was clear from when we did wake up that we had another wet day ahead off us. Nonetheless, having left Loch Lomond, we were in for a change of scenery and that made the walking quite enjoyable.

We began the day following the River Falloch, which was among largest of Lomond’s countless tributaries. This path led us north and further into the green moors so well associated with Scotland’s highlands. Every once in a while we would pass a small village or lone farmhouse, and many times the trail would take us right through some accommodating local’s property. Occasionally our paths would cross that of sheep, horses, and best of all burnt orange Highland cows with their U-shaped horns and comical bangs. Sadly, none of the cows were very photogenic.

Ancient history lessons were a notable feature of the day as well. Nearing a spot on our map marked as the ‘Kirkton Farmhouse,’ we came across a sign alerting us to a medieval cemetery nearby. As my sister walked ahead, I poked around, astonished to find that some of the burial stones dated back to the 7th and 8th centuries. The cemetery would not be our only discovery of the day however. Nearing our destination of Tyndrum, we crossed through a park known to be a battleground in which Robert the Bruce (King of Scots), narrowly escaped death at the hands of the famed MacGregor clan. In that park we came upon a lochan (pond) where legend has it, the future king threw his heavy sword in order to flee the scene faster. Many have tried searching lochan, but still none have located the lost sword.

After a full and wet day of walking, we reached the small roadside town of Tyndrum. Thoroughly soaked and quite cold, we decided it would be the perfect place to splurge on a hotel room and recuperate before our longest day on the trail. We made do with the last room available at the quaint Tyndrum Inn and relished the luxury of a warm bed.


Day Five: Tyndrum to Kingshouse (19.0mi)

Waking up on a mattress after a few long days of hiking can work wonders for morale, and after a classic Scottish breakfast of porridge, toast and black pudding (personally not a fan) in the adjacent pub, we were ready to conquer the long day ahead. After leaving Tyndrum, we quickly found ourselves back in the open countryside. The small rolling hills we had grown accustomed to were also steadily getting larger and steeper. Some had reached grades at which the all encompassing green grass could no longer grow on the slopes, and I would have ventured to classify them as mountains or ‘beinns’ in Gaelic. The fact that we had left earlier than other days also meant that the day’s walking would be a more social experience. Trekkers always tend to be a morning crowd, so we ran into a few small groups on the trail, chatted them up, and asked for photos when we could.

Around noon or so, we reached tiny riverside town Bridge of Orchy. Clouds had been threatening us with rain all morning, but since they had so far held up we decided to push onwards and defer our break until we reached Inveroran about two miles further. Fortunately, our gamble paid off and we reached the classic Inveroran hotel just as the rain finally broke through. We spent a long afternoon break in the inn’s rustic pub. I enjoyed some pints and talked another WHW couple while Annelise, who was feeling a little under the weather, slept in the booth. Once sufficiently warm, we strapped up and continued along the way.

The latter portion of the day was long and lonely, but fortunately very flat. Though still early afternoon, clouds had blanketed the sky and I believe convinced many of our fellow hikers to hunker down at the trailside inns. Remarkably, as Annelise and I traversed the Highlands for another 10 miles or so, we were spared any serious rain until the last half mile. The air was misty and the ground wet, but it was more than we could ask for. Until we made made camp mid-evening, we enjoyed fast-paced walking, beautiful scenery, and complete solitude. Nothing moved on the moorland aside from tall grass blowing in the wind.


Day Six: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven (9.0mi)

Though slated to be our shortest day on the West Highland Way, we were under no impression that Day 6 would be our easiest. As we sat in our tent and examined the map, the words ‘Devil’s Staircase’ jumped off the page, surely indicative of a formidable climb. Nevertheless, we emerged to a beautiful campsite (perhaps my favorite of the trip), packed up our things, and seized the day.

The morning’s hiking began in the shadow of the prominent Buachaille Mor (or ‘Stob Dierg’), a mountain that when viewed from the east resembled a perfect pyramid, with its bare rock peak protruding from the green valley floor. As we made our way through the valley and around the mountain, the view slowly changed and passable climbing routes emerged on the back side. Before long, we arrived at the Altnafeadh car park, where we joined a set of enterprising day hikers who had journeyed across the highlands with the sole purpose of conquering ‘The Devil’s Staircase’. As expected, the journey to the top of the staircase was arduous. The path consisted of a long set of switchbacks that were deceptively steep. The only thing the climb had going for it was that the zenith was clear and no false peaks stood in the way of our eventual success. After a 45 minutes or so of hard work, we reached the top of the staircase and stopped for lunch in a windy spot with panoramic views of the surrounding moors and mountains.

After eating, we descended the saddle of the mountain on the following side and made our way downhill towards Kinlochleven. Immediately after crossing over the Devil’s Staircase, we could see our environment starting to change. Large conic peaks still dominated the horizon, but the bare green moors we had grown accustomed to were soon substituted for equally green forests that thickened as we approached the valley town. Making quick work of the favorable decline, we arrived just before dinner. It was the perfect place for us to spend our penultimate evening on the trail. The old mining town appeared to be right out of a postcard. Antique smelting furnaces juxtaposed against bright colored row houses with well-manicured lawns and garden gnome collections. Eventually we located our campsite, a riverside inn with an attached pub, just steps away from where the trail resumed once more.


Day Seven: Kinlochleven to Fort William (14.9mi)

On the morning of Day 7, an unusually high amount of condensation and relative lack of daylight signalled to us from inside the tent that that some adverse weather had overtaken our beautiful little valley overnight. We were relieved to emerge and find that it was just an episode of particularly thick, oppressive fog. Still, as is the norm on the last day of a long journey, we ate breakfast quickly and were roaring to go. The density of the fog was such that water accumulated on our clothes just moving around outside, but beyond the five extra minutes we spent waterproofing our supplies, it did nothing to slow us down.

Our 15mi. push for the day began as we reluctantly trudged up the nearby hillside and out of the secluded Kinlochleven valley. Before long however, the road leveled and we were in the base of a new alpine valley, following a channel that had been carved by millennia of runoff. Over the course of the day, we would alternate between untamed moorland and rural pasture, every once in a while passing near a ruined homestead. The solemn tone set by the fog added to the imagery, and gave the impression of travelling through time over an ancient land once traversed by my ancestors. This feeling was only amplified as the day went on and we approached the open green hills that had served as the natural set for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

Around early afternoon, the fog finally abated enough to reveal two great sights. One being the nearby peak of the formidable Ben Nevis mountain, the tallest in the United Kingdom. The other being the outskirts of Fort William in the valley below. After a quick side trek out the the ruins of an iron age fort called Dun Deardail (would not recommend as little could be seen of the yet un-excavated fort) , we caught our second wind and pushed on at an anxious pace. Before long, we had fully descended from the mountains and found ourselves road walking through the charming maritime town. A mile or so later we passed mile marker 96, entered the iconic Gordon Square, and then snapped a few photos before plopping down on the commemorative hiker’s bench nearby. It was the perfect end to an imperfect, yet unforgettable highland adventure. A glass scotch from a local distillery over dinner would then round out our authentic Scottish journey across the famed West Highland Way.


Additional Sources

Drakensberg Grand Traverse

Drakensberg Grand Traverse

Giant’s Castle Game Reserve, South Africa

Length: 147mi (237km)
Days: 12-14 days
Difficulty: Expert (no maintained trail, potential for extreme weather, limited support / rescue options)
Gear: Standard gear, consider a 4-season sleeping bag
Completed: May 2019

In summary: I have had the fortune of trekking a few of the world’s best backpacking routes and I can definitively say the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, or DGT as it is colloquially known, has been the most difficult I have ever been on. There is no better way to earn your thru-hiking stripes than battling rough terrain, extreme weather, altitude, and the infamous chain ladders in one of the most remote places left on earth. All great things in life are earned however, and the chance to experience a sunrise while camping along the “edge of heaven” is well worth it.


Preparation / Know Before You Go

Bring a GPS & PLB: The DGT is unmarked and unmaintained so a GPS is required. There is no set route for the trail, so the journey may vary significantly depending on where you source your coordinates. Shoot me a message through the contact form on this blog and I will happily send the ones that we used for a 12-14 day adventure. I would also recommend bringing a personal locator beacon (PLB) if your GPS doesn’t have one, as rescue in the case of emergency is difficult.

Bring appropriate gear for the elements: Technically, the DGT can be done year round. That being said, the trail is subject to extreme weather in all seasons. As moist air comes in from the ocean and runs into a 3,000ft. wall of rock along the escarpment, weather patterns can change rapidly and become quite dangerous. May through June is generally regarded as the sweet spot for trekking. You can go earlier when it is warmer, but precipitation levels tend to be much higher and you are at risk of getting caught in what I have been told are spectacular lightning storms. July & August are still considered to be part of the high trekking season, but always check the weather in advance because occasional blizzards from June – September can be severe. The good news is that these snowstorms tend to be quite predictable.

Exercise caution when passing through Basotho settlements: Getting to witness the lifestyle of these herdsmen is a highlight of the DGT, and most versions of the trail will bring you by some of their primitive huts and peat farms. As these isolated encampments are not occupied year round, most we passed through were empty. When they were in use however, many were guarded by loyal dogs. As herd theft is apparently quite common amongst the tribesmen, these dogs are trained to keep suspicious passersby at bay. We never had any issues ourselves, but I would recommend keeping some distance between yourself and the huts if you notice they are being occupied.

Keep boots in your tent: All of the Basotho herdsmen we encountered on our two day journey were genuinely friendly and curious people. Many paid us no mind after quickly passing to ask if we had and cigarettes or marijuana. In preparing for the trip however, I read a few accounts of petty boot theft. These accounts were corroborated by the only other backpackers we encountered on the trip, who were Drakensberg veterans. As a precaution, I would recommend bringing your boots inside at night.

Filter your water: This advice is not as obvious as it should be on almost all other treks. Lesotho is actually touted as touted as having some of the purest, safest water in the world, and by most accounts it is safe to drink without treating. I still believe this to be true, but anecdotally I wound up very sick with a viral infection days after returning to the United States from South Africa. It is far more likely that I picked up the illness in Johannesburg, but if I were to trek the DGT again I would not risk it.

Pronunciation: If you want to fit in with the locals, you should know it is pronounced ‘d-rah-kens-burg’ not ‘drake-ens-burg’.


Day One: Sentinel Car Park to Kubedu River (9.0mi)

The first day of our adventure along the border of South Africa and Lesotho began with an unexpected van ride from the quaint Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge to the trailhead at the Sentinel Car Park. The night before we had attempted to reach the car park in an Uber from Johannesburg, only to get stuck in a large pothole on an unpaved road. After a substantial bit of work in the dark, we were able to free the poor driver’s car from the ditch and reverse it back to the pavement. Stranded and still a few miles from where we intended to camp, we set our course for the nearby lodge. Fortunately, once there, we were able to convince the exceptionally kind and motherly night manager to let us pitch our tents near the maintenance shed for just a few rand. In the morning, we would catch a shuttle to the trailhead with handful of other guests who had come to explore the Royal Natal National Park.

Upon arrival at the park, our frustrations from the evening prior melted away as we stood in the shadow of the grand Sentinel Peak. Filled with anticipation, we paid our park entry fee, and took off for the escarpment. From below, the massive rock formation looked like something out of a fairytale. A natural castle wall, protecting the mysterious kingdom of Lesotho from the wild lands below. After a massive set of switchbacks, we stood at the base of sheer cliff face, with the route’s infamous chain ladder before us. Nervously, we strapped all our gear in tightly and began the lengthy two-part climb to safety at the top of the escarpment. Most of the way up, I was torn between pausing to soak in the experience and just wanting to get myself and my pack to stable ground. Once at the top, we paused to acknowledge the insanity of the experience and to gaze out at the incredible view from the escarpment. We were in a new world, a rocky scrubland seemingly miles above the rolling green hills below.

Continuing on, we knew we were likely to fall far short of Rat Hole, where we had intended to camp night one. The debacle from the previous night and the time intensive chain ladders had put us well behind schedule. Still, we were positive and moved as quickly as possible across the top of the plateau, guided by our GPS. The land was desolate and we enjoyed the solitude. From the ladders to camp, our only companions were a set of baboons, wild horses and a lone jackal, far in the distance, who fled as soon as he sensed our presence. About 3.5mi from our intended destination, we elected to stop as daylight started to wane. We camped near a scenic river and went to bed anticipating a long attempt to make up for lost time the following day.


Day Two: Kubedu River to North Peak (13.8mi)

In all my days of backpacking I am not sure I have ever woken up so ready to get moving again. The night was miserable. Soon after we fell asleep, the temperatures outside plunged and everything froze. I hadn’t worn all of my layers, given it was well above the freezing point when we went to sleep, and I woke up around 1:30am shivering uncontrollably. The rest of the night was spent curled in fetal position, trying to get warm enough to fall asleep again. As we investigated the situation in the morning light, we found that both the insides and outsides of our tents were coated in a layer of frost. Our water bottles and filters had turned into bricks as well. We packed up quickly and set off at a quick pace in order to get the blood flowing again.

As the day drew on and our bodies warmed up, we started to better appreciate the scenery around us. For miles, all we could see were beautifully pristine rolling grasslands. When the sun finally breached the smooth peaks to the east, the plateau was bathed in a soft light that highlighted the thin blue streams cutting across the terrain. Eventually, the temperature rose to a point that we felt comfortable shedding our layers. By 11:30am, we reached Rat Hole. This validated our decision to stop short the night before. Even from our vantage point at the top of a hill, the waymarked cave that we were supposed to sleep in was nowhere to be seen.

After Rat Hole, we didn’t stop again until we reached the edge of the escarpment. There we sat for a long lunch while taking in expansive views of the South African wilderness below. The second half of our day was a relative blur. Post lunch, we made our best attempt to get back on schedule by pushing as quickly was possible. This goal was hindered by the relative instability of the terrain however. Over time, the rocks and lumpy scrub brush blanketing the floor took a toll on our ankles and lessened our pace. Approximately two miles from our intended campsite we decided to call it a day. Dusk was fast approaching, and we had just found the first instance of suitable terrain that we’d seen for miles. After quickly pitching my tent, I wandered to the top of a nearby hill where I could sit and take in an ethereal sunset. The sun disappears so fast in Lesotho, but not before briefly illuminating the entire cloudscape in a vibrant mix of red and orange tones.


Day Three: North Peak to Ndumeni Cave (13.8mi)

In order to try and get ourselves back on schedule, Ben and I agreed that it would be prudent to get an extra early start to day. This made for a real grind, but fortunately we had gotten some much needed rest the night before and were up for a challenge. We walked from before dawn till after dusk. This afforded us the chance to really experience the beauty of the untouched landscape in all lights of the day. The dramatic shadows cast by the escarpment and surrounding peaks offered a type of eerie setting that I had never experienced before. It reminded me of the iconic “everything the light touches” scene from Disney’s Lion King.

After hours of tiptoeing the edge of the escarpment, dancing along the naturally imposed border between South Africa and Lesotho, we reached Ndumeni Cave. Once again, the cave was nowhere to be found. We never seemed to have much luck finding the caves on the grand traverse, but we were more than content pitching our tents on the flat land near our GPS waymark. Dinner was a little bit of a challenge as we struggled to get our stove hot enough to cook our rice and soup, but eventually we worked it out. As I sat at the threshold of my tent in the consuming darkness, I couldn’t help but wonder at the constellation of lights from distant farmhouses miles beneath us. It was humbling to think of the thousands of people going on with their evenings as usual, as we sat perched, thousands of feet above them, in perfect solitude.


Day Four: Ndumeni Cave to Nkosazana (14.1mi)

Day four on the Drakensberg was a day of firsts. Notably, it was the first day in which we were hiking according to our original itinerary. This was welcomed, but by no means signalled an easy day ahead. We began our morning by hiking along a thin ridge for about 300m. with a slick rock face on our right and the precipice of the escarpment on the left. It was a nerve-wracking and tedious portion of the trail, as one misstep would clearly result in your demise a couple thousand feet below. On the bright side, the views were incredible from our precarious position.

After clearing the ridgeline and returning to the rolling highland terrain, we had our second first of the day. After walking along the banks of a small stream for a mile or so we noticed our first (and last) Lesothan tree! For a few days we had been discussing theories of why the landscape was so devoid of trees, but this observation shifted the conversation to questioning how this lone tree had gotten there and managed to survive clinging to the edge of the eroded riverbank. This did last long however, because in no time we were out of breath, struggling to finish our second 2,000ft. climb of the day.

The last significant first of the day was our first human encounter. Some time in the early afternoon after finishing a steep climb and subsequent descent, we paused to refill our water and rest at a crystal clear stream near a flock of sheep. We were not there long before two young Basotho herdsmen with their dogs came out of nowhere to greet us and ask if we had any sweets. We told them we didn’t and after that they just sat nearby, observing us while we filtered our water. They were dressed in tribal garb that you would expect to see on the cover of a National Geographic magazine. Each of them had rust colored robes, wool blankets draped around their shoulders, and loincloths. They also wore heavy white rubber boots that stood out amongst the more modest attire. After 20 minutes or so of sitting in silence, they hailed their dogs, bid us farewell, and left to move closer to the sheep herd.

We were certain that would be a our last encounter of the day, but ultimately we were wrong. After setting up our camp in a shallow valley under the cover of nightfall, I took my lantern to a nearby stream to get some water for cooking. When I turned to navigate back, I saw two faint lights on the hillside. Disoriented, I moved towards the one that didn’t happen to be Ben’s. As I crept closer, I heard voices coming from inside a small cave and so I decided to announce my presence. To my surprise, I was greeted with an enthusiastic reply in English. Inside, I met two South Africans, one 25 and the other 50-something, who would be among the most interesting trekkers I have ever met. It turned out they were DGT regulars, drawn to the emptiness and lawlessness of Lesotho. After Ben joined, we sat for dinner with them while the older fellow regaled us with incredible stories of lightning storms, the herdsmen, and other misfortunes on the trail. A favorite was his tale of getting into a stone throwing match with a group of Basotho herdsmen who had been on their way to raid another tribe. We also learned about the co-dependence between the herdsmen and their dogs, who were used to protect herds from troublesome jackals. Everytime our new friend would get to the climax of a story or deliver the punchline to a joke, he would let out a loud “YOPE” which was a trademark expression of his. I’d been reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road while hiking, and couldn’t help but draw parallels to the character of Dean Moriarty.


Day Five: Nkosazana to Injisuthi (12.0mi)

We awoke on day five both refreshed, as a result of our great evening the night before, and with a little sense of dread. They day would start and finish with two ascents, each over 1,500ft. To make matters a little worse, my feet had become infected as a result of the damp conditions. The night before, in an attempt to cope with the intense cold, I made the mistake of putting socks on at night while my feet were still damp from fording small rivers. I went to sleep with standard blisters on my toes, but woke up with a bloody infection that had spread to the arches of my feet as well. From this point on, I made a point to air them out whenever possible.

Unexpectedly, I found our first early morning summit to the top of Champagne castle, at almost 11,000ft. to be welcome. The huffing and puffing got the blood flowing and was instrumental in shaking off the effects of another frigid morning. At the top, we again were blessed with a fantastic panorama of the escarpment. To our left, we could see the shadowy peaks and ridges from where we had come, while to our right, we gazed upon the pronounced and seemingly untouched terrain we were about to traverse. Lesotho and the highlands it shares with South Africa may be one dimensional, but the landscape truly is unlike anything I can imagine seeing elsewhere in the world.

The rest of the day’s walking was expectedly difficult, but we did survive. Every time we passed evidence of Basotho micro-villages and huts, I would think back to the remarkable things we had learned in the cave the night before. As our own Dean Moriarty had put it, travelling through this part of Lesotho was truly like traveling back in time 500 years. Our final campsite at Injasuthi left much to be desired as it was uneven, rocky, and constantly exposed to what felt like hurricane force winds. Tired enough, we settled down nonetheless. I guess that is just the price you pay for 270 degree views and the ability to sleep steps from the edge of the world.


Day Six: Injisuthi to Langalibalele (11.8mi)

On day six, we woke ready for what was projected to be an easier day on the trail and it was glorious. We had weathered the windstorm from the night before and left camp excitedly knowing that we had no steep sections between us and Langalibelele. The GPS path took us along some lazily winding rivers and we made quick work of the section given the relatively smooth terrain. The views were more of the same, but it was sunny out and probably somewhere in the 60’s (fahrenheit) which felt comparatively amazing. The warmth and the easier walking gave us a chance to talk and really soak in the beauty around us.

We stopped for lunch at a great riverside spot, sitting before shimmering set of reflective pools. As we ate and washed our clothes, we were joined by friendly tribesman who sat on a small ledge just above us, peacefully weaving a basket and observing our movements. He beamed a smile every time one of us would look up and acknowledge him, but was otherwise silent.

Due to the long lunch break, we still came into camp around dusk and set up at Langalibelele not too far from the escarpment. A strange weather pattern was doing unique things to the clouds along the edge of the cliffs, so after pitching, I laid down my pack and went to check it out. The sight was unbelievable. The wind coming heavily off the Lesothan highlands were suppressing the rise of thick clouds making their way in from the lowlands. The effect made it so that we were sitting above the cloud cover, only 100ft. from where the miles long layer began. I ended up scaling a nearby peak to get an even better view and snap photos. From my new vantage point, I could take in the contrast of the soupy storm clouds before me, and the perfectly clear sunset behind. As darkness started to fall, I euphorically scampered back to camp to eat dinner. Within 30 minutes, the black sky was illuminated by a stunning display of bright stars. It was the perfect end to a perfect day in the Drakensbergs.


Day Seven: Langalibalele to Loteni Camp (11.5mi)

Restoring balance to what was a perfect night before, the temperature plunged shortly after we fell asleep and this made rising at 6:00am near impossible. On the bright side, the infection in my feet appeared to be subsiding. They still were bloody and painful, but the receding infection gave peace of mind that I was not in any serious trouble. The first section of the day was tough. We started by crossing directly over a sizeable hill where the shrubs had grown high enough that some bush-whacking was required. Once we descended down the ridge on the opposite side however, it was mostly smooth sailing.

The true distance between the two camps turned out to quite minimal, and by lunch we were actually almost done with the progress that we had to make. The GPS had us taking a 3.5 mile out and back journey to the tip of a thin promontory ridge that jutted far beyond the escarpment. We decided to take this detour, but not before stashing our packs in a suitable hiding spot underneath some large boulders. Even without the extra weight, the climb was tough, but the view from Giant’s Castle as it was called, was well worth it. We sat for an hour or so, catching our breath, talking, and looking out at how the evening sun cast its long shadows on the national park below. Eventually, we hustled back to our gear and set up camp at Loteni just before dark. We had another two hours or so of magnificent stargazing before the waning moon rose and cast its light across the sky. As long as we had been out on the DGT, the moon had been close to full and intensely bright. At times, it would give the uncanny impression of a flashlight being shined on the tent.


Day Eight: Loteni Camp to Mkomhazi Camp (15.3mi)

Knowing we had one of our longest DGT days ahead of us, we were relieved to look over the topographic map on the Garmin and find that there would be no major altitude changes on the way to Mkomhazi. The terrain turned out to be solid too, and that buoyed our spirits. While hiking the backcountry of the ground traverse, we often found ourselves following along animal trails. These narrow paths were a godsend, as they would save our knees and ankles from having to deal with the toll of moving over the uneven yet rock hard lumps hiding beneath the tall grasses and shrubs. At times, it would appear the GPS coordinates were mapped with the intention of following a particularly well worn horse path. Still caution was necessary, follow the path too long and you would end up way off course. The riverside walk to Mkomhazi appeared to be a more populated section of the plateau, and as a result there was a tangled mess of sheep trails that we could take advantage of.

Despite hearing bells from grazing herds in the distance and passing by a number of huts, we didn’t see our first Basotho until the early afternoon, and when we did, they didn’t fit the profile of our past encounters. As the South Africans in the cave had told us, most tribesman we would meet were young boys (ages 15-25) sent to care for the flocks in winter while the adults retreat to milder climates in the northwest. The men we ran into on day eight, however, were in their 50s, carrying large backpacks, and without the typical attire or dogs of the herdsmen. Immediately, we recognized them as ‘dagga’ (marijuana) smugglers, who are known for carrying large loads down hidden passes in the escarpment to South Africa below. It was quite a sight, but the men gave us no trouble (they are not known to be an issue), passing by with a broad smile and enthusiastic wave.

The rest of the day we continued our flat walk across the plateau, distancing ourselves from the nearby escarpment. We passed by a couple more sets of herdsmen, and for the first time saw a girl amongst them, but nothing else was particularly notable. Aided by the flat terrain, we knocked the mileage out in record pace and for the first time were able to set up camp and relax before dusk. The night was passed as usual, troubleshooting the stove, cooking, reading, journaling, stargazing and just trying to stay warm.


Day Nine: Mkomhazi Camp to Sehong Hong (5.2mi)

Today was slated to be a pretty brutal day, combining a long trek with a trip to the summit of the tallest peak in southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana at 14,424ft. (3,480m.) Since we had one day of slack built into our schedule, and were nearing the end of our journey, we decided to treat ourselves to some rest and recovery by splitting the day into two. It was a wonderful decision. Ben was dealing with some stomach issues likely related to our super-fiber diet of oatmeal, rice, and lentils, while the blistering on my feet was spreading despite the infection abating.

Undeterred by our minor ailments, we were up and out at the crack of dawn. Before we even had a chance to get our bearings and settle into another days walking, we were faced with an immediate ascent straight to the top of Thabana Ntlenyana. The 2,000 foot climb took a grueling two hours on the way up, and another 45min. down. While the incline was not nearly as severe as what we had encountered in places like the Annapurna, the steady grade actually just prolonged the struggle. The views from the top of “The Beautiful Little Mountain” as it is called in Sesotho, were great, but the high winds were not, so before long we were back around ~12,000ft. where we decided to pull up and call it a day in a picture perfect spot steps away from a miniature stream.


Day Ten: Sehong Hong to Sani Pass (8.3mi)

We slept in through a chilly night, not waking until around 7:15am and it was wonderful! Every day prior, had risen just before the sunup and would be forced to start the breakfast making and camp teardown process in the frost. Though the morning was far from a warm start to the day, by the time Ben’s alarm went off the worst of the cold and ice had disappeared.

The days hiking began with a quick climb out of our idyllic little valley. When we reached the saddle of the ridge we were crossing, we could see Highway A14 in the distance, our first true sign of civilization since the faraway diamond mine we spotted a week or so ago. We came down a steep hill that turned out to be more treacherous than expected, and then commenced a long, flat walk along the highway to Sani Pass.

Sani, as a town, was not what we expected. It was constituted by 40-50 closely grouped stone huts, 3 tiny craft/souvenir stands, a rundown looking backpackers lodge plus poolhall, and then a fancy hillside lodge charging hundreds of rand per night for rooms. In need of a substantial meal, we beelined for the Sani Pass lodge where we found a bustling pub. It was the perfect place to kill the afternoon and evening. We purchased some large Lesothan beers, ordered double helpings of food, watched rugby, and chatted with a smattering of visitors from around the world. It was a great time and we were reluctant to leave. When we did, our new friends were grimacing as the cautioned us about going back into the cold. The inn was full however, and apparently you are charged to pitch a tent around the town, so we had no choice. After walking about a kilometer to a clearing at the edge of the escarpment, we set up and went to sleep totally refreshed.


Day Eleven: Sani Pass to Moon Camp (10.9mi)

The sausage platter, beers, and dose of company we had enjoyed the day prior left us feeling recharged as we got off to our usual early start. Additionally, our hiking had returned us to the escarpment after two and a half days spent more inland, so we did our best to soak up the spectacular views on our second to last day in the Drakensberg. Otherwise, the walking for the day was typical of the traverse. This region of Lesotho proved to be much more mountainous than where we had started in the east, so the day involved a lot of ups and downs. Fortunately, none of the altitude changes were of the 2,000ft. magnitude that we had experienced one too many times already.

We stopped for lunch atop a prominent ridge and ate slowly while admiring the panoramic views. As we were enjoying ourselves and only had three miles left, we debated passing most of the day there, but eventually some strong winds forced us to move on. About a mile or so into the final push, we came across a lone herdsman who greeted us with a very friendly hello as he passed by. As Ben had given up on his oatmeal, he decided to offer it to the young boy. As we caught up to him and passed off the food, we learned that he spoke some elementary English. It turned out he was the youngest boy in his family and had the privilege of attending school in Maseru for a few years. After his brother died however, he was forced to drop out and take responsibility for the sheep herd in the south. Life sounded tough on the plateau. He mentioned constantly having to protect the herd from jackals, and told us a story about having some sheep stolen by other herdsmen who shot rifles at his hut to keep him scared and inside. It was fascinating.

After a half hour or so, the conversation wore out so we thanked him for his company and bid him farewell. By the time we continued on and tackled our last couple miles, it was near dusk in camp. We were positioned in a sheltered bowl, sloping down from a drawn out hill, and the waymarker on our Garmin pointed us to precisely the only spot flat enough to pitch our tents. Once I was set up, I fell asleep immediately and Ben had to wake me for dinner. It appeared that despite my relative comfort towards the end of the journey, I was still just as exhausted.


Day Twelve: Moon Camp to Mzimude Cave (9.6mi)

Though our second to last night felt warmer than usual, I still woke to a frost lining on both the inside and outside of my tent. As I stood shaking it out, I joked with Ben about whether it was actually getting warmer or if we had just frozen all of our nerve endings off over the past two weeks. Spirits were very high as we commenced our final full day in the beautiful, but trying Drakensberg mountains. In true DGT fashion, it would be a tough day of walking.

Much like the day prior, we started with a big ascent and continued bobbing up and down for the remainder of the way. Nonetheless, the anticipation of reaching camp and prepping for a descent into South Africa carried us through. Around 10:45am, we stopped for our first break after stumbling upon a tiny waterfall and a picturesque little pond. Given the great progress we had made, we decided to roll the break into lunch and lounged until about 2:00pm just napping, eating, and washing clothes. Eventually, we mustered up the courage to attack our final 1,000+ft. climb of the trip. As we neared the end of our ascent close to an hour later, we were puzzled by what seemed like an impassable rock wall at the top of the ridge. By putting faith in our GPS however, we were eventually led to a small gap where we were able to climb through to a secluded valley on the other side. It was the perfect setting for a wild camp.

Despite the name Mzimude Cave, we didn’t locate the small cave burrowed into the edge of the escarpment until we were already pitched and 400ft. above it in elevation. Regardless, we were happy with our spot which offered more fantastic views of the land below. As night fell, we could see a cluster of twinkling lights below that we speculated were from Bushman’s Nek. Being able to see the finish line only elevated our excitement. I knew I would miss the rugged beauty of Lesotho dearly, but proper food, company, and a shower were calling.


Day Thirteen: Mzimude Cave to Bushman’s Nek (12.0mi)

We woke on day thirteen feeling an immense sense of accomplishment, despite still having a 5,000ft. descent between us and Bushman’s Nek. To further commemorate the moment and prepare for the day, we helped ourselves to a double breakfast by eating through the reserve rations. Though I savored the excess calories, I couldn’t help but note that it would be the last time that I’d be eating oatmeal for a long while.

As expected, the Drakensberg Grand Traverse forced us to earn our way out of Lesotho. After a mini-climb out of our secret valley, we were faced with a harrowingly steep and unstable trek down a hillside and into a cramped valley that would show us out of the mountains. Despite a couple stumbles, we eventually made it, and began a more level walk along a river. This continued for a few miles. Despite carefully tracking our GPS, we were certain that every time we finished working around the base of a prominent hill, it would be our last. Each time our hopes were dashed as another came into view. Finally, we reached a large clearing, where our GPS indicated a sharp left turn, and escorted us to the rim of the escarpment. We paused a minute to take in the bittersweet moment, then plunged over the edge and down a narrow hillside sheep trail.

The path down was steep, and once off the escarpment, we were through into a new environment with a new weather pattern. In no time, we found ourselves enveloped by a thick fog and were forced to put on rain jackets. This soupy fog would eventually turn into a storm, but we couldn’t have cared less. We were happy to have survived thirteen days in wild Africa, completely unsupported. It wasn’t easy, but it was certainly worth it. As we descended the last miles in the rain, we recalled the highs and lows of our adventure, jogging memories before we would attempt to call our folks later that evening. Soon, we reached the South African border post and an exit sign indicating the border of Drakensberg National Park. Triumphantly, we posed for a few photos, and then took off in search of a celebratory meal.


Additional Sources