Yesterday afternoon, I gave the From Adventure to Advent talk to a group in Richfield, Minnesota. After hearing how I walk solo and need that time to reconnect to myself and the spirit, a woman in the audience shared a personal story. She told us that she lost her husband when she was my age and was deeply lonely. In fact, she thought she would never be happy again.
At the time, she was living in Grand Marais, a city on Lake Superior’s North Shore where I thru-hiked last summer. A friend had planned a day hike with her, but when she prepared to go, her friend suddenly dropped out. Faced with being alone and not entirely sure what lay ahead, she chose to go anyway even when it felt scary.
What happened was something wondrous. That walk became the first steps into the rest of her life. Just the act of her body taking up a new and unfamiliar space opened up the possibility of self reliance, feeling safe and accessing joy again. When she arrived at the overlook high above the lake, the word she used to describe the moment was “exalted.”
People often ask me why I hike alone. It’s for many of the same reasons – to get grounded, to engage more deeply with the world around me and to do so at my own pace. When I backpack, I carry on a two-way conversation with the spirit. I call her “the goddess” who is, more than likely, the wiser part of myself. Still, I can hardly wait to get on trail again so we can pick up where we left off.
Being alone may seem dangerous or unconventional, and yet solitude in the wilderness has long been an ancient form of ceremonial initiation. Think of time spent in the wilderness by Moses and Jesus or the rite of passage of a vision quest. The practice forces a person to face their fear (and often temptations) as well as loneliness without outside help, ultimately leading to a discovery of inner strength and a sense of true identity.
In his classic study, The World of Silence, Max Picard describes the quiet we experience when alone as “an autonomous phenomenon [which is] not simply what happens when we stop talking [but] an independent whole, subsisting in and through itself.” When we remove the noise of life – the literal and the figurative – we can “hear” better and get closer to that exalted feeling the woman at my talk described yesterday.
Another phenomenon takes place when we’re alone in a natural setting: the level of risk rises. There’s no one to talk over plans with, no one to hold us back from plunging into a rushing river or making any number of bad choices, no one to unload bear spray when we’re being charged.
The smartest thing we can do before heading into a solitary experience is to properly prepare and develop a sense of presence in our space. That means making plans before we head out, like packing an insurance policy like the Ten Essentials, deciding what sorts of conditions will cause us to turn around and to stick with a plan to do so, and to use the most powerful bit of gear all of us are born with – our brains.
And, for the love of everything sacred, tell someone where you are going and when to expect your return. This is one of the simplest acts you can take to ensure your safety.
All this being said, you could never call me a risk-taker even if some say I’m “brave and courageous.” I am far more calculated about how much danger I want to expose myself to. For instance, on the Wind River High Route, I went with a trio of tough girls; in gale-force winds on Waiau Pass on Te Araroa, I linked up with fellow hikers; and when looking for a route through heavy mist in Scotland, I was happy to hook up with another bog trotter.
Still, aloneness in a vast space has the ability to induce a feeling that’s totally unique to us humans within all of the animal kingdom: awe. It’s what Emily Dickson demands our soul should stand ajar for – the ecstatic experience. And if getting there requires building skills, taking calculated risks and facing down loneliness and fear, it’s worth it.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
This Sunday marks the beginning of the season of Advent.
Advent is Latin meaning “to come to” – to be both awake and aware in the moment as well as full of joyful anticipation and hopeful preparation. Advent happens as the earth in the Northern hemisphere slides into its shortest days and longest nights. For many of us, December is hard because of the lack of light and the monochromatic landscape. The cold makes it difficult to go outside. Our moods change from optimism to anxiety.
Advent and the preparations for Christmas are cyclical events, ones that repeat. It’s as if we need to continually bring ourselves back to the beginning to see things from a new perspective. So the light shining in darkness that the prophet speaks of, gently guides us to dawn’s light and the hope that lives within its promise.
I left at dawn last winter to fly from Minneapolis to Arizona and begin walking the Arizona Trail. It’s an 800-mile National Scenic Trail from Mexico to the Utah border and surprisingly rocky, rugged and steep.
From 30,000 feet, I watched the colors change from frozen white to an arid tan. Mountains grew out of the dusty floor. Washes worked their fingers into a multitude of branches under cloud shadows. As the captain informed us we were beginning our descent, a snow capped mountain came into view.
I realized, that’s where I’ll walk.
From the temperature-controlled cabin, it was impossible to comprehend what that would be like. Is the snow deep? Is it cold? Will I get lost?!?
To start walking the Arizona Trail requires the hiker to return, to backtrack quite literally. At Coronado National Monument near the Mexico border, it’s a steep climb up to Montezuma Pass with views into a confluence of deserts – Madrean, Sonoran, Chihuhuan and Southern Rockies/Mogollan.
It’s a good perch for border patrol charged with apprehending migrants trying to cross into the US via one of the harshest landscapes imaginable. The border itself is far below, two-and-a-half steep miles and in the opposite direction.
I thought maybe I could just look down and let that be enough. But with this area having recently been damaged to build a small bit of the infamous wall, I felt I needed to take the time and see it on crumbly switchbacks that finally leveled off above a road scarring this beautiful landscape.
And then the wall appeared, foreboding, threatening, like a dorsal fin, the silver border marker placed here in 1855 behind barbed wire. No one was there so I had to snap selfies as the wind picked up something fierce.
I’m smiling in the picture, but a deep sadness overcame me. That was the start, mile 0 in a damaged, half-finished and lonely place. And the metaphor was not lost on me – I needed to go down to go up, I needed to meet the dark place to find the light.
The German Theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.
There’s a wisp of hope in those words. There’s light in the desert when we accept the fact that we’re often in the ‘desert of the soul,’ that we need the light being offered.
The wind howled and that was no place to linger and besides, it was back up crumbling rock, over Montezuma Pass and more aggressively to Miller Peak at 9,100 feet. The walk was rocky and aerie – the view so vast directly off to the side, it was as if I was flying. In all the places I’ve walked, I’ve never quite experienced that kind of vulnerability, that I was just a tiny dot in a tremendous expanse.
As I rounded the canyon I spied a jack pine above, mostly a ghostly trunk stripped of bark. It sat on a flat peninsula reaching out into the sky with just enough room for my tent. I hurried up to get there with just enough time to set as the sky turned a surreal blood orange, a sliver of silver moon above.
Advent teaches us about hope, about the light guiding us through the darkness, a kind of hope that Aristotle called a “waking dream.” It’s funny that from below that jack pine looked stripped of life, but when I got closer, I saw it had just the right number of branches to slow the wind for me to sleep deeply behind it.
Late fall. Brilliant color leads to subtle tones in brown. The wind is up and leaves detach, one-by-one, whirling as they float to the ground to join the crunchy carpet I walk along in these quiet hills dotted by lakes.
For one day and one night, I backpacked at Lake Maria State Park, about an hour northwest of my home in Saint Paul. I needed to field test a few pieces of gear and I’d assumed it would be cold by early November when I made my plans.
Instead, it was mid-70’s and warm enough to sit out on my private picnic table without a coat and watch the sun set and the stars fill the sky.
Lake Maria is well known for its beautiful backpacking sites (and remote cabins) a focus that makes this park such a gem. It also hosts one of the few remaining stands of old-growth oak, an island now but once blanketing southern Minnesota.
The woods were so thick, it’s been said, that sunlight couldn’t penetrate the forest floor. French explorers named this region “Bois Grand” or Big Woods.
Just because this is the Midwest, it’s not flat. Lake Maria lies at the center of the St. Croix Moraine, formed during the Wisconsin Glaciation. Granite forms the bedrock and is topped by several feet of debris left by a bulldozer of massive ice sheets.
Short, steep inclines lead to narrow catwalk ridges called eskers, hovering above myriad depressions or kettles scoured into the earth as the glaciers retreated.
Just one day and one night, the gear tested and my soul revived.
Sometimes, you just need to take advantage of a situation.
It was a significant drive from Saint Paul up to Lake Superior and the soulful Porcupine Mountains, where I’d set aside several days to walk a loop as fall was just beginning its audacious celebration of death. A place I’d always hoped to visit – and take my kayak – is only three hours drive from the State Park.
Three hours in the opposite direction from home!
Still, I asked several paddling friends if they might want to meet me there on a whim and with fingers tightly crossed we’d have no wind and few waves.
No one could go.
So, I stuffed the idea in the back of head and gave it little thought as I immersed myself in the emerging colors, the luminous light, and the intimate sounds of the Porkies. But, as has happened so often when I’m out in the field, on the next-to-last day I ran into another backpacker I’d met on day one. We took photos, shared stories and then she mentioned that she had worked at Pictured Rocks and I was not to miss it – especially the sunset cruise and Chapel Falls loop.
After checking in at home and with my clients, I was cleared to tack on a few more days to see this astonishing natural wonder, and walk a few more steps of the North Country Trail.
Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore hugs the northern coast of Lake Superior at its widest point. It’s named such because of dramatic 200-foot sandstone cliffs that are dramatically colored as if a painter spilled her pots down the side. The four pigments are from minerals leeching out of the rock – red iron, white limonite, blue copper and black manganese.
In addition to the cliffs, there are magnificent formations looming above remarkably clear water, in shapes that have acquired apt names like Miner’s Castle, Chapel Rock and Indian Head (Gitchee Gumee Manitou by the original people’s meaning “Great Spirit of the Big Water).
While it was a bummer to be without kayak – or any of my paddling gear – hiking above the cliffs offers striking vistas as well. In fact, 42 miles of the North Country Trail follows the length of the park with several developed (but primitive) backcountry sites.
I bolted to Munising, nabbing one of the last seats on the day’s final launch of Pictured Rocks Cruises. Funny how even when the weather turned blustery and cold with 5-7 foot waves, no one backed out. It helped that someone passed around Dramamine in line
Due to the waves, our trip was shortened, but thrilling. We all bonded in line then on the boat, “oohing and ahhing” at the spectacular scenery as the boat bounced and shook. I was terrified my phone would bounce right into the lake and held tightly to take photos, walking up and down the third deck even when warned to stay seated.
That night, I found a stellar little site right on the lake at Bay Furnace near Christmas, Michigan. Northern Lights were predicted, but I slept through it all – if it actually happened.
I had my eye on the brilliance promised the next day – a magical combo of crystal clear skies and fall leaves. Ernest Hemingway is long associated with Key West and yet he spent vacations in the UP (Upper Peninsula, Michigan) He said, “The best sky was in Italy or Spain and in Northern Michigan in the fall.” Ain’t that the truth.
My sky was cerulean and vied for attention with the equally dazzling water, more a a light azure in many shades, like an interior decorator’s paint-chips. It’s five miles from the county road on bumpy and rutted dirt to the trailhead. I chose to walk counter-clockwise and take in Chapel Falls first.
Chapel Falls is one of hundreds of falls in the “UP” (Upper Peninsula) of Michigan. Framed by hemlock and maple, fuzzy semi-circles cling to the exposed cliff as the water makes an 80-foot journey. I view it from all sides before I continue through the forest to the lake.
Here, I meet Chapel Rock, a remnant of Cambrian-age sandstone carved and eroded, leaving its lone white pine stranded except for one thick root reaching to the cliff behind it. I take a photo in the chilly shade and talk to the other hiker, a Japanese man teaching at a school in Southern Michigan.
At this point in my hike, I was starting to talk to myself and mull over my life, but Daiske crashed in and changed the tenor of the walk. “Let’s walk together!” he suggests and I say ok with laugh, as my day becomes a shared one, where silliness and playfulness infuse the walk.
It’s a very easy 10 miles, down to sandy Chapel Beach, skipping stones begging to be skipped and a sandy ledge calling to my Frankenstein post-holing. At Indian Head, we wonder at the views and snap photos of each other, stopping for a snack on an impossible precipice.
Daiske’s English, of course, if superb while I can only sputter out Kon’nichiwa to the amusement of passersby and a very formal Arigarogozaimashita when my picture is taken. Daiske will have none of this, chattering away in Japanese and hoping I pick up a few words, like my favorite, Sugoi – amaaaaazing!
As we walk in an out of yellowing Aspen, Daiske takes out his phone to write down the slang I use over and over. He tells me that his Judo pals in Southern Michigan say things like, “I gotta split,” or “I’m outta here!” when saying goodbye. I suggest using a phrase from the surfer community of yore, “Let’s blow this popsicle stand!” I’d love to be a fly on the wall when that comes out of his mouth!
A tour boat slowly follows the shoreline below us. It might have been a better day to see the cliffs from the water, but I loved last night’s bumpy ride in orange light. Kayakers skim by as do sailboats. One takes our picture as we climb steeply down to Lover’s Leap, warned not to leap as the water is only about six-feet deep.
Soon, we meet Mosquito Beach, where Sandstone erodes into flaky pancakes, crispy under our feet. A shelf underwater reveals ridges as if still in motion but now solid, formed by waves of another eon. People from a nearby campsite build tall, triangular cairns from flat rocks, dwindling in size from large to teeny.
We walk in the water to meet the trail out and say goodbye to this magical shoreline. The forest walk takes us past a few more falls, not as impressive, but rushing and musical. The forest itself begins to glow in the late afternoon light as if the air has also changed colors for the season.
I drive Daisuke back to his car, five miles out, then five miles back in on another rutted road. It seems he had a different hiking plan, but was having so much fun, he stuck with mine. I have a huge meal at the Bear Trap Inn, sampling local brew and yet, again, sharing my experience by inviting a couple to sit at my table. We all do “mystery shots” before I drive south and grab a campsite in the National Forest on Colwell Lake.
Only one other camper hunkers in the woods next to his fire and I turn in as the last of the light glows on the alicoop.
Affectionately known as the “Porkies,” this Lake Superior wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula boasts the largest primary stand of hemlock in the Great Lakes along with hundreds of cascades on volcanic rock.
I crawl into the alicoop – my tent – before it goes completely dark, watching the rays of sunlight pierce the thick forest, creeping slowly into open areas and leaving long shadows on a beaver pond reflecting the brilliant red of autumn. Squeaks and chirrups fill the canopy, ones I quickly learn may sound like birds but are actually chipmunks, busily collecting and stashing food before this brilliant Indian Summer gives way to a long, harsh winter.
They’ve become my companions on my three-day backpack trip in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, scurrying across the trail then stopping to give me a sidelong stare, their fleecy tails quivering before they dart away.
I wonder if my food bag is safely out of reach hanging from a metal bear pole. Couldn’t they just launch from the hemlock brushing its sleek side, grab the bag and begin chewing it open? Unlikely. What’s left of my food is wrapped in ziplocs, inside a thick odor-proof bag, and inside yet another bag with a weave like kevlar. Still, one fearless chipmunk poses on a nearby stump only a few feet from my head, his black lashed eyes looking deep into mine as if to say, C’mon, you know I’m cute and want to feed me.
Sorry, pal, all my food is hanging on that pole and besides, I’m laying down now at the end of a good, long day of walking and not about to get up. So he joins his friends who are joined by others as if to reprimand or entertain – a couple of howling wolves, a barred owl’s who cooks for you, who cooks for you-alllll, and what seems like non-stop slaps kersplash! from a set of hard-working beavers long after the stars come out, so bright I see their reflection on the water.
Sleep matters, but I love the show – and that’s precisely why I’m here.
The best sky was in Italy and Spain and Northern Michigan in the fall.
The Porcupine Mountains, affectionately knows as the “Porkies,” abut Lake Superior on the northwestern part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The park was established in 1945 to save the largest primary stand of hemlock and hardwood in the Great Lakes, 35,000 acres to be exact. Untouched virgin woodland is tucked deep under an escarpment of volcanic basalt that rises abruptly from the lake. It’s perfectly situated as if a viewing platform to this “forest museum,” one filled with an ecologically diverse system including gray wolf and coyote, beaver and otter, fisher, marten, and minks, bobcats, lynx and cougar, 200 black bears, and, of course, porcupines.
Environmentalist and conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, “The richest values of wilderness lie not in the days of Daniel Boone, nor even the present, but rather in the future.” He joined efforts underway to save this strikingly beautiful mountainous piece of land, the highest between the Alleghenies of West Virginia and South Dakota’s Black Hills. Retrieving it from timber and mining companies cost the state a million dollars, about $21-million in today’s dollars.
Nearly thirty years after the park was founded, the state of Michigan created a Wilderness Act that gave the park a new designation along with ninety miles of trails (part of which is shared with the North Country Trail), backcountry campsites and cabins along with interpretive centers and easy access to the highlights by road, including Lake of the Clouds and the Summit Peak Observation Tower.
For me, it was a chance to backpack close to home (a five-hour drive from Saint Paul) and take in fall in all of its heavenly beauty, enjoying forests and lakes as well as a feature I was unaware of before – hundreds of water falls and rapids made up of crystal clear water shooting down billion-year-old rock beneath piney boughs, a subtle and smaller-scale pleasure from the Rocky Mountains, Sierra or Alps but one that surprised and delighted me to my core.
I am not a person who meticulously plans every hike. Sure, I pull together maps, check the average temperatures and historic weather patterns, pack the right gear and food, consider escape routes, etc. so when I learned that I had to reserve specific campsites ahead of time for this backpack trip, I was slightly annoyed. I love the freedom of not knowing where I’ll stay each night, walking as far or as little as I want to go and letting the day unfold.
That was not to be the case this time around. Though it turns out for good reason. Overcrowding and campers definitely leaving a trace led the park supervisors to limit the number of hikers to designated campsites, no longer allowed “dispersed camping.” The good news is I’d know where I’d end up, have it all to myself and that there would be a flat spot to set the alicoop. The bad news is I had no idea where I wanted to go.
That’s when I decided to call the park and ask. And who would answer the phone but Katie Urban, Park Interpreter. Katie was amazing. She obviously loves the park and gave me good advice on how to create a hiking loop as well as listing some of her favorite sites (and those to avoid which included most of the lakefront due to deep mud) The most critical bit of information she shared was that, unlike national parks, the Porkies does not have a policy of holding back permits for walks-ups. Once a site is reserved, it’s gone, and while I was hiking mid-week, my trip was smack dab in the middle of “leaf peeping” season and the park could fill fast.
Katie gave me courage – and a nudge – to get my act together a few weeks before heading up. I found the reservation website manageable, but the cost a bit steep – $20 per night plus an $8 service charge. This trip was getting spendy! Even after I clicked purchase, my receipt was not a permit and required picking up at the Visitor Center where a ranger would presumably detail all regulations and requirements before I could start walking.
I took my time before pressing purchase, though, to be certain I made the best choices because there’s quite a complicated cancellation policy. I have gone ahead and included it below so you can share in the irritation amusement…
Customers may change or cancel a reservation through the reservation call center or online with a registered account. The reservation fee is non-refundable and additional cancel fees will apply. After the date a campsite reservation is created, it cannot be cancelled or modified more than 5 months prior to the arrival date. If a reservation is cancelled, or modified by shortening the stay, the following fees will be assessed:$10 cancel/modification fee, and, a percentage of the value of eligible unused camp night fees, based on number of months the reservation has been held, from 10% of the value of the eligible nights for reservations changed or cancelled within 2 months of the reservation creation date, up to 40% for reservations changed or cancelled more than 5 months after the reservation creation date. If cancelled on the day of arrival or later, the first night’s fee and the value of any additional past nights are forfeited. Reservations that are cancelled on the same day they are created will be assessed the $10 cancel/modification fee. Modifications to reservations that do not affect the length of stay, will only be assessed the $10 cancel/modification fee. Modifications to reservations that results in an increase in the length of stay, will NOT be charged a cancel/modification fee. No-Show Reservations are held until 3pm, two days after the scheduled arrival date. If not checked in, no-show reservations will be cancelled resulting in a loss of 2 nights fees. Any remaining unused nights will be eligible for refund less the percentage value indicated in the Cancellation/Modification Formula Chart. Once a booking has been checked in at the park, if a customer chooses to reduce their stay or check out early, the refund due will be the value of unused nights less the percentage value based on the original reservation creation date. A night is considered used if the check out occurs after 1pm on that date. Please check online for more information on reservation policies.
day one, Government Peak Trail Head to BC-3 – 6 miles
The Visitor Center is crowded, but Ranger Nickie gives me all the time I need for questions, underscoring the Artist-in-Residence program and my need to carry water on the escarpment since I won’t cross a stream for over nine miles.
I leave my car on the road finding the trailhead parking full and walk up a cobblestone path in a fresh, lake air-conditioned 46-degrees through a thick stained glass forest of crimson, amber and umber, chickadees clicking and shushing. A ruffed grouse, known also as a wood hen or partridge is in full camouflage making a racket as it squawk-flies through the thick understory.
It’s steep here and I use my poles to pull myself to my first view looking out across a tapestry of color. My feet move from crackling maple leaves to soft pine, even this close to the road, it’s silent except for the chips of a yellow-rumped warbler. The history of this place is all fire and ice, its geologic name of mid-continent drift seeming to portray a more casual leave-taking and nothing like the eruption of magma that occurred when the land was ripped in half.
Much of the Upper Great Lakes is tree-covered. Yes, there are millions of lakes including the Greats, and wisely the first peoples and subsequent trappers and traders used water as their super highways, avoiding the nearly impassable forests. Here, though, the rock of the Keewanawan Supergroup is exposed, and the edge, while steep, is easy to navigate opening to jaw-dropping views of a serpentine river feeding the lake beyond.
The trail rolls up and down following the ridge, sumac in a flaming crimson and low yellowing blueberry bushes free now of all fruit thicken the floor. Autumn is just starting to put on its finery in the North Woods, and random Sugar Maples stick out as if on fire, or maybe haphazardly painted a blinding red.
I meet a fellow backpacker named Tawnee carrying far too much but smiling just the same. Like me, she stops every few minutes to gawk and admire, taking picture after picture, trying to hold this moment forever. A pileated woodpecker, big and bold, its red cap vying for dominance in this red world, pushes itself off a tree trunk, laughs loudly then floats into the valley.
This is a good place to pause in the shade of white pine, clinging to the rock and bent by wind and weather. It’s cool out of the sun and everywhere is evidence of magma – rock full of holes breaking into geometric chunks. This is Lakeshore Traps Basalt, tilted bedrock above a shallow inland lake that gets its name from the fog blanketing it each morning. Now it’s a deep cobalt reflecting the nearly cloudless sky.
My walk today is short even if I get a late start – only six miles to my site with sunset around 8:00. Up and up I go high above, then down again meeting day hikers afraid to step on slippery dirt while descending. I reach out to help one like Katlyn helped me on the Wind River High Route and she smiles. “You’re sleeping out here tonight? How cool!”
More and more walkers pass coming from the parking lot nearby. A campsite sits close to the junction and I send a silent thank you to Katie for suggesting I camp further on. Here are stairs made of wood, making the walking easier and helping prevent erosion. It leads to a complex of decking allowing the scarred earth below from so many tourists to heal. Everyone is in a good mood, the warm air, the pungent, earthy smell and the soft colors a balm.
When I move on, a sign warns me again to ensure I have a permit to camp and that the trail ahead is rough. The last part is directed not so much at me, but at those wanting to venture on from the safety of the ADA compliant platform. It’s just a few more miles with views down to the outlet and more startlingly bright colors.
I meet a young backpacker planning to walk to his car and ask if he might share a bit of water since he’s headed out. I drink right from his bottle, squeezing river water into my mouth from the filter. I tell him i have enough, but a bit nervous with just the two liters. Truth is, I can’t comfortably carry much more, so try to “camel up” before walking. He assures me I have enough but is happy to share before racing on.
BC-1 has the camper directly on the ridge looking back at the lake. No wonder it was nabbed before I began planning. BC-2 sits back a bit with an apron of rock. When I reach mine, I see I’ll be setting inside the forest, but my site marks the end of the high trail with a long front deck looking deep into the forest, out towards the Big Lake and back.
The sun aims deeply into the woods, yellow and warm making long shadows. As I set, two Air National Guard jets fly over piercing the sky with an explosive boom. So much for wilderness. I set up my bear hang, then take dinner to my deck, white pine silhouetting the setting sun. I stay here as the sky becomes a watercolor of apricot and a silver sliver of moon peaks through wispy clouds.
Just then, a man crashes through the trees. He’s dressed in camo and tells me he lives in nearby Ontonagon. “I need to come out every week to see where the leaves have gotten to,” he tells me before loping back the way I came.
A barred owl’s call echoes below and a wolf barks low and long. Hermit thrushes chip as the magenta sky becomes a burnt sienna and the first star appears. I can’t leave as I think back on this day, the first where I’m still adjusting to what’s presented, not sure how fast to go or how long to stop. For a moment I feel uncertain in my choice of coming here even though I felt compelled to see what was so close to where I live and get inside it.
The wind picks up and the darkness deepens revealing the Milky Way. A tufted titmouse rasps his scrappy call as I crawl into bed unsure just how cold it could get tonight. I stuff my water filter and electronics inside my bag in case it freezes then lay back to sleep, tired from the long drive and walk.
Suddenly, I hear a crash. Hey! Silence. Then another crash, tentative and more like a rustling and crunching. Hey! Get outta here! I shine my light out onto an empty campsite, far too big for me alone. I find my food bag twisting solemnly in the breeze.
Another crash, and now it’s right at me. HEYYYY!
It’s an acorn. And then, another acorn. Let’s call it the attack of the killer acorns. OK, I think I can survive this war. Go to sleep, Blissful, you have another hiking day tomorrow.
day two, BC-3 to LC-7 – 14 miles
The acorns back off and let me sleep deeply before I crawl out to watch the sky turn orange – another tip from Katie, Park Interpreter that the sunrises are particularly special from up here. Feeling confident this will be an easy day of hiking, I crawl back in and fall asleep as the sun slowly filters in and I realize it’s a lot later than I thought.
Leaving the escarpment, I walk under 1,500-foot Cuyahoga Peak, a steep overhanging cliff of eroding talus bright in the sunlight. I enter my first Hemlock forest. The Eastern Hemlock or pruche du Canada is a long-living pine with gentle and soft needled branches gracefully fanning away from its giant trunk shedding tiny pine cones. Shade-tolerant and water-loving, they grow easily on slopes, straight up for 100 feet.
It feels primeval in here, the trees clearing the floor of most other plants except maidenhair ferns. It’s looks cultivated, though by the hands of a character from a fairy tale. The light filters differently from the hardwoods, the rays exposed in shafts of dust and mist. I walk on a shelf of land, flat and open. Squirrels chatter and a red tailed hawk shrieks. I am now in the forest museum, amongst its residents.
At the Visitor Center I’m told that the wolves living in the Porkies all immigrated here when the park was created, their very existence on the planet on the verge of being eradicated. I leave the talus and move deeper into the forest, my trees (I call them now) edging towards the trail where I can touch the delicate fringe of their branches.
All around me are fallen trees, left (mostly) where they fell to act as hosts for new life in the form of bugs and fungi. So many fungi in reds and yellows, orange, brown and white. Gardens spring up and nurse logs sprout infant trees. Soon, I reach the Big Carp River, secreted in a blaze of red and yellow leaves. I’m temporarily blinded by diamonds of light on the water as I navigate to a crossing and plunge into its bracing coolness. A golden crowned kinglet solos in a high coloratura above the burbling water.
I move up and down on high banks above the water, the rushing never far from earshot and begin seeing backpackers. Most are older and carrying too much. I think it’s safe to say this is a beginner backpacker’s paradise. Not too hard, but still remote and full of surprises like this wondrous forest and the birds and animals I mostly hear but never see.
Trees along the ridge are so uniform they appear planted and then come upon the biggest surprise of the day. It’s here I meet the Big Carp River and its series of falls. Flying down shapely rock called Porcupine Volcanics Andesite, there’s usually not more than 5-10 feet of drop, yet in this intimate setting of pine boughs as curtains, the effect on me is more powerful than Niagara.
Silvery cascades of cold clear water dance beneath ancient hemlock in a wonderland of sound, rushing toward Lake Superior. But not before pausing briefly in deep pools where moss clings to the stair-stepping rock in hushed shadow. Shining Cloud, Big Carp and Bathtub Falls blend together in a chain of froth, fervent and relentlessly carving the stone to a smooth slide.
As if in a trance, I walk on a beach of river-smoothed rocks, the place all to myself and wonder if tonight I’ll have a campsite near something as glorious as this. A chickadee swishes at me, Yesiree, yesireeee-ee-ee!
The many falls on Big Carp River were a highlight of my backpack trip.
Leaving the river to climb high again, I use my hands on exposed to roots to pull myself up and over towards Lake Superior. The Ojibwe named it Gitchee Gumee, which simply means Big Water. I sing Neil Diamond’s nonsense lyrics from a song of the same name as I descend to a cabin at the shore, waves lapping at a sand-bar of tumbled pebbles.
I meet a boardwalk and move down the shore through a muddy swamp of thimbleberry and aspen. Many sites appear right on a stony beach under shapely cedar. Backpackers have been hard at work building wind breaks out of driftwood. I can’t imagine staying here during black fly hatch. Every site stands empty except for one at the junction where the occupants hang clothes in every reachable branch.
A posse of three generations passes, the youngest proudly carrying bear spray and, in an earnest voice tells me he hopes never to have to use it. Much space was devoted at the Visitor Center educating us on black bears like the fact that they’re are about 20,000 living in the Upper Peninsula alone and bears have a sense of smell 2,100 times stronger than our own. As well, the now obvious plea not to feed or approach bears sits right next to a picture from the early days of the park where a mother and two cubs peer into a car window awaiting a reward.
I don’t see any trace of bears and I’m not letting them have any of my food.
The forest continues in hardwoods turning yellow, the light golden. I join the Little Carp River which also promises a trio of falls and I’m not disappointed with Traders, Explorers and Trappers one after another. Small islands of Copper Harbor Conglomerate peak out as if someone dropped a bag of rocks into concrete. Andesite wears into hexagonal and moss-festooned stairs.
I’m tired and look for my site, but briefly leave the river after a small dammed section where a great blue heron slowly flaps his majestic wings to move out of my way. The hemlock return along with miniature cones and a needle carpet. Three sites appear in a row and I wonder if it will get loud tonight.
But no one comes and I claim a soulful spot near a small falls for the night, eating dinner against a rock as the lemon-yellow leaves brighten in their reflection, charging the air with color so intense, it hums.
day three, LC-7 to GP-6 – 14 miles
I lie in my nest watching sunlight climb slowly up the tree trunks before breaking camp and heading off into a forest of yellowing aspen. My steps are soft on an esker avenue of hemlock. Cedar line this part of the river and I the timbre changes as I walk up the cascades. Red leaves so bright they strain the eyes are scattered along the path.
People’s voices catch me from another cabin and I ask if they might have a beer to sell. Sadly, one’s at the car. It’s too early anyway and I march on along a boardwalk crushed by ferns to Overlooked Falls, a perfect chute over a block of stone so uniform he might have worn braces in his youth.
Back in the forest, maples tower above, their yellow leaves nearly out of site. The bark peels in large folds that I could lose an arm in. A dark eyed junko snaps at me while a quarrel of white throated sparrows jabber in popcorn staccato. A downy woodpecker gives a high-pitched laugh answered by the coach’s whistle of a golden crowned kinglet.
It’s blue on blue here fringed in kodachrome. Two snakes slither away from my step but pause to take my measure, lips parted. Lily Pond appears next to another cabin, empty and locked. I stop for water at a beaver dam with its own small falls and sit near dragonflies parked on the wooden steps.
It’s a short walk now through a magical forest of stained glass color towards another parking lot and hordes of tourists heading up to Summit Peak. Made of Volcanic Rhyolite it’s the highest point in the park at 1,958 feet, made higher by a wooden lookout. Most of the way is easy on wooden stairs and platform and it’s here I run into Tawnee again.
She looks well, but tells me she gave up her hike after falling twice on the steep section at the start. Still, she met a man who snaps our picture and they both tell me I need to visit Pictured Rocks National Seashore after I finish giving me all sorts of beta on camping, trails and the sunset cruise.
After we say goodbye and wish each other luck, I climb the tower and look out towards what I’ve walked. All I can see from here is the rocky crag of Cuyahoga Peak and a ring of fiery maples hiding Lake of the Clouds. It’s a steep descent to more forest, then another short mile of birds and luminous light before reaching glorious Mirror Lake.
Again, I feel fortunate Katie dissuaded me from staying. Not that it’s not splendid, but it’s crowded with three cabins and seven campsites, all taken. I can hear laughter and men’s voices yelling, likely at other men standing right next to them.
It’s a boardwalk through exploding cattails and loud frogs back into deep woods where I meet many backpackers preparing for their weekend with heavy packs and slow paces. I snag some water at a muddy stream which filters to clear, crisp liquid then search out my site.
It’s perfect. Reached by a short spur, it’s a private beaver pond surrounded by a cacophony of animals. I eat leaning on a rock couch before turning in early and reading late into the night, my friends unwilling to let me sleep peacefully until the stars glow bright, reflecting back to the dark velvety sky from the still water.
day four, GP-6 to Government Peak Trailhead – 6 miles
I lie in my sweet nest next to a private beaver pond and watch the sun catch the cardinal-red leaves at the shore’s edge. Three ducks splash into the water then cruise silently into its red and yellow middle, tipping over with butts in the air to feed.
I barely got any sleep, but what I did was delicious. It’s a climb to the top of Government Peak where two sites await their campers. The view is obscured, but I can just make out the sea of fall color reaching up and over the escarpment to the inland sea of blue.
Trap Falls is a large triangular spray to a large pool, but I’m mostly taken with the rapids after that rush along a flat slab of sandstone, taking a U-turn into a dark cavernous overhang of rock before slaloming toward a series of leaf-strewn basins.
There’s something about fall that touches every sense, reminding me of the brevity of life in its audacious celebration of death. I breathe it in, take pictures, touch, see, taste and listen.
Another beaver pond, the thick forest and then, I’m out.
epilogue and tips
What a trip! I got to the Porkies at the best time just as the leaves started changing and the air was still warm, the sun making everything glow. It’s not easy to find precisely the right time to visit, but I can’t imagine walking through in rain or slapping away mosquitos while savoring the waterfalls. That being said, if it was a bit warmer, I would have been in those falls and planned a far leisurely time to do so.
Here are a few tips to plan your trip:
location: Upper Peninsula, Michigan
distance: 90 miles of trail
best time to go: late summer (to avoid black flies) and fall but the trails are hiked all year round
highest point: 1,958 feet on Summit Peak
lowest: Lake Superior
type of travel: foot traffic only
dogs: must be leashed at all times
camping: 65 sites and 16 rustic cabins plus numerous car camping sites, more here
cell service: spotty
permits: All backcountry campers are required to carry and display a permit and it’s best to reserve ahead of time although you will have to pick up the actual permit at the Visitor Center, open 8am – 8pm, May 15-Oct 14. Disperse camping is prohibited.
water: There are many water sources except on the escarpment, so plan accordingly and always filter before drinking.
bears: While I never saw a bear, there are plenty of them unperturbed by human presence as well as all manner of clever “mini-bears’ (squirrels, chipmunks, etc). Not every site has a bear pole, so be sure to take some paracord to hang your food out of reach, ten feet high and ten feet away from a tree.
Exhausted and dirty with swollen legs, blistered lips and starved for anything besides bars and jerky, Katlyn and I stop at the hippest laundromat just off Pinedale, Wyoming’s main drag. Here, we put every bit of gear through the hottest available cycle while stuffed moose, elk and pronghorn loom above.
After finishing the Wind River High Route, we needed to help Katlyn retrieve her car. But this required a long bumpy exit from the Big Sandy Trailhead, an hour along the very range we just crossed and another tedious rock-filled back road to our start a week ago at Green River Lakes.
Richard was happy to help out, but that required staying close since the ”Green Emerald” (her Chevy convertible) was only moving in second gear. It was a late night, flashers-running trip but finally, while the clothes were spinning, we learn all that was needed was for lines to be drained. That’s when Katlyn suggested we drive to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and give another high route a try.
Andrew Skurka is a legend in backpacking circles. A National Geographic Explorer of the Year, he took what was more of an idea for an 80-mile line following the highest bits of the Divide in Colorado’s Front Range, and hammered it into a traversable reality featuring extensive off-trail travel and substantial vertical gain and loss, just like we did in the Winds.
Katlyn and I feel fit and experienced, if tired, after our most recent high route and find we both have the time. Besides, Colorado is (kind of) on the way home, so it’s only natural to head right back out on another high route.
Details, details: The Pfiffner passes through Rocky Mountain National Park, Indian Peaks and James Peak Wilderness, requiring permits to camp. A phone call inquiry got me to Trevor who both discouraged a ’last minute’ plan while also vague on closures.
We manage to nab the only remaininv tent site at gorgeous Moraine Park Campground in Estes Park, waking before sunrise to be first in line at the permit office. The afternoon before, we met Katlyn atop Berthoud Pass to arrange a car drop at our exit, but her car barely ground up the switchbacks and needed a tow.
No way our hike was getting stopped by a ‘minor inconvenience’ like lack of transportation. Still, we’re unsure how permitting would transpire. It must be Trevor’s day off and we’re greeted by friendly, helpful – and most important – knowledgable Sarah, who informs us much of the northern part of the park is closed to cross country travel due to fire damage.
Still, she picks an entry point through Wild Basin on the eastern side of the divide, and, in spite of the fact it’s Labor Day weekend and nearly sold out, locates a couple of sites we’ll use as we climb over a magnificent pass to join the ‘Primary Pfiffner Route.’
I hug Richard goodbye after a big breakfast and a nosy ranger asking if we’d camped in the lot overnight – sheesh, they must get a lot of rule breakers – then head back up fully loaded on easy trail, slowly climbing into the bowl that begins the meat of our second adventure.
Trails like this through pine forest along a stream of gentle falls and building views are filled with hikers, many camping yet even more day hiking. An older woman led by a you a REI guide asks if we have maps. This combination of crowds and more new hikers on trail during covid has contributed to an increase in bear visitations. When ’rewarded’ with food, they’ve increasingly come to associate backpackers with easy meals.
So, a hard-sided bear resistant container is required for overnight travel in Rocky Mountain National Park. Katlyn carries her food inside her pack and straps a nearly empty container on top to use at night. We’re also required to follow Leave No Trace principles, and Sarah slips us a couple a Wag Bag portable toilets.
We’re in camp around 10,700 feet early, flat and tucked in the woods. Woodpeckers, noisy Clarks Nutcrackers and friendly Red Breasted Nuthatches fill the air. The lake is close and we start lunch just as a storm builds and thunder booms in the aptly named Thunder Lake. I head back and sleep away the afternoon, waking only for an eerie orange glow as the sun sets before getting the best sleep of the trip.
Boulder Grand Pass rises like an impermeable rock face above the talus bowl of Lake-of-Many-Winds, 12,000 feet high under lapis skies. A well-used trail rises through heart leaf arnica and hot pink mountain paintbrush, only one bit of rock climb to advance as water rushes down and crickets hop out of our way.
I lead strong on inclines, glad I have something to contribute as my legs wobble on talus. We’re used to it now, seeing a flat expanse with no trace of a trail and simply getting ourselves on it. I see a cairn at the top of a chute, one filled with slippery and dusty glacial til, stones rolling down as I step up.
There has to be a better way! But this mess appears the most used and in a little way, I come to solid rock acting as more of a handrail than a route. My trekking poles are shoved from side to side as I reach and pull or press down to push myself higher.
Truth be told, it’s not hard or technical, just exhausting – and dirty. My freshly laundered clothes stink now. But it’s a half hour of exertion and we’re up and out on a leaning football field of tundra and rocky ramps as if oozing out of the ground. Behind us is the keyhole hook of Longs Peak, the park’s largest fourteener. Ahead, a necklace of lapis lakes tucked into pointy pines.
The most direct route is straight down to the trees, then a sharp left up towards a final lake and another pass. But we have a better idea.
Perhaps we can sidle this deep valley and follow the U around, skipping what will inevitably be a blowdown nightmare through an uncharted forest. But exactly where is there cliff band to follow and cliff edge to avoid?
Mountains rise above us, most notably The Cleaver, reminding me mountains can care less what we choose to do out here, just two tiny specks in a vast wilderness. We choose a route carefully, thrashing through willow and ensuring any move won’t leave us stranded.
I am slightly behind Katlyn, following a small shelf of grass when suddenly I hear a bang.
The bear canister on her pack somehow wiggled out of its tether and flies down the cliff. We reach out our hands as if to command a stop, mouths open with not a word coming out. It slides, bounces, bangs and somersaults before coming to rest in a small pile of talus.
Getting down requires some scrambling, me mostly on from a sitting position But we kept our eyes on that box – an expensive and necessary piece of gear, storing a stove, a jar of peanut butter and gas. Oh, no! What exactly happens with that kind of impact, anyway?
Katlyn is worried. What if the canister blows up? She hides behind a rock touching it with her trekking pole. I keep my distance and suggest she put on her sun glasses.
Nothing blows up when she removes the lid, but the peanut butter jar ejected its sticky contents on everything a a bear-proof canister has instantly become a bear-attractant.
All we can do now is focus on sidling forward out of this cliffy-ness and towards Fifth Lake. Something strange happens in that moment. It’s as if the bear canister led us through its wild trajectory, right to s path. It’s not a proper hiking path, but one beaten down by elk hooves, avoiding fallen trees, staying on an even line and leading right over avalanche paths towards a pristine lake and shaded lunch spot.
Isolation Peak Pass is next, beautiful and almost cliche as Moomaw Glacier clings to the side of the peak and it’s more heavy breathing up steep meadow and into a hanging glacier before another rise past East Inlet and up the precipitous col.
The passes are straightforward and easy going even hovering around 12,000 feet. Perhaps we’re lulled into thinking it will be all easy going ahead. I should point out that route finding and cross country traversing are slow and tiring. You can’t simply zone out like on trail, even if the way is obvious. The ground is uneven and many micro-calculations are made along the way to avoid water, steep sections, rock or just tussock you’d prefer not to have to negotiate.
The reward is not seeing any trace of people so ferns and flowers remain intact, alpine tundra plants like mosses with tiny white flowers are abundant and deep purple mountain marsh gentian open up like champagne flutes in wind-waving bunches.
It’s a fairyland of tarns and mountains, the final push a gateway into a special place also beautifully named – Paradise Park Research Natural Area. There are dozens of these pieces of land set aside for scientific study, left alone to simply let nature do its thing. We’re welcome to explore, but not allowed to camp.
Clouds build fast as we pass tarns spilling down the hillside and rock seemingly growing out of tundra. It’s steep down on stair step tussock into the woods, spotted coral root and common fireweed brightening our descent.
Thunder rumbles, long and ominous, turning the forest into a dark and mysterious place. There is no ’way’ through, just to reach a blond meadow that will lead to another pass. Paradise is very much in its natural state, one of blowdowns. It’s tedious in the gloom, but lucky for me, most are only one tree high and an easy stride over.
A few drops of rain splat on my arm, but not enough to take out rain gear as we leap over the last tree and join a meadow like a carpet rolled out to the mountain bowl. We still need to watch our footing over elk trails and deep streams hidden by grass, ones we shout out in warning as “meadow holes!”
Fir and rock fringe the meadow, a warmup act gor the smooth, steep slide of pass we’ll catch tomorrow. We cut off slightly up and over another stream flowing out of a no-name tarn. It’s a magnificent bowl carved beneath Watango and Hiamovi Mountains exfoliating truck-sized boulders into the still water.
Katlyn announces when we leave the research area and arrive at a thin strip of national park. There are no ’durable surfaces’ here for camping and we set on soft grass, lovely as a bed, but destined to leave our tents a dewy mess by morning.
Still, it’s glorious in our bowl, water gurgling nearby and the light turning the crags a deep shade of gold high above. I lay down to eat, tired and happy, while Katlyn carefully cleans peanut butter off the bear can.
As expected, we’re soaked in the morning. Sleeping bags now have a protective fabric, so a damp bag does not mean I’m damp, only that we’ll need to find a sunny spot to dry things as the day progresses.
I’m awaked by cracking branches and peer out on a mighty elk running in to check us out. He bounces as he moves, elegant and athletic. We pack wet and begin sidling towards the pass.
It’s grassy steps, mostly, and easy to avoid rocks, then straight up to the pass. The lake sits below, deep and dark then disappears behind rock. Paradise Creek snakes through the meadow. We’re tired, but it’s again like climbing a ladder.
The top leads into Hell Canyon, an easy descent of rocky ramps like tongues down into willow-enveloped wetlands. And what is that ahead? A kind of roller coaster of talus spitting straight down into a slide of green. Steep, straight down, relentless.
Skurka jubilantly points out that Cooper Peak Pass is 1,100 feet over a 1/4 vertical mile, ending with a bolded exclamation point. How can someone be this excited about a long, hard, straight-up, non-stop, calf-burning pass?!
Truth is, I don’t know most of this at the time as we send ourselves through lush tundra, still filled with flowers. We hear voices wondering if yet again, a coupla of ‘splainers are on the way.
But no! It’s four women heading up the pass and asking for beta on the blowdowns. This canyon is accessible by easy trail and many hikers use it for a loop. But when we point to Cooper Pass that we’ll be on in a moment, they freak.
That cannot be climbed!
Then one remembers seeing a man come down it with goats. Well, ok, then. If it can be descended with a herd, we’ve got this!
Admittedly, we’ve got an optical illusion on our hands. It appears a 90-degree angle, but there’s some slope, some tufts of grass to grip onto. But what about the talus above? Well, that’s way down the line.
We wish the quartet good luck and again sidle the cliff to get into position. Small drops, meadow holes and lumpy tussock slow us down. Below, a dog barks. It’s still shady where we walk, but sun covers a flat spot by the lake where campers dry their tents – a task we’ll catch up on later.
As we reach the band of vomited tussock, an avalanche path we have to climb, we hear cheering. For us? You bet, and we’re going to play this up. The grass makes thin shelves to hang onto, but there’s no stopping here. My legs are on fire and the land is disintegrating under my feet.
Katlyn finds a line to the right which looks steeper to me, while mine finds the rocky stream and holds for a few dozen feet before fading into disintegrating scree. “Move right!” Katlyn offers, but it requires superhuman strength to power past.
I’m on all fours not so much because my pack pulls me backwards and the height is dizzying, but I spend less time placing all my weight on individual bits of earth.
About 700 feet above the lake, I no longer hear the cheers and shimmy up to a boulder which appears solid. I need a break and can hardly believe how far I’ve come. Katlyn catches me breathing heavy and wild eyed by the scale of our ascent.
And that’s only halfway through.
Katlyn points out Cooper Peak Pass, an avalanche slide of never ending climbing.
These high route projects have brought out a new appreciation for talus, especially on slopes. Here, it’s steep up to the horizon where the sun begins to peak out, glaringly blinding. It’s mostly solid but hard to keep lifting my body up and on and the pass feels just there.
But like a dream, I move in slow mo and cannot believe this height. I only look back to check that Katlyn’s progressing but fear snapping a picture and my phone popping out of my hands to the bottom for a rerun of this climb. I admit little technique is involved besides brute force and determination. Still it’s a haul and feels like rock climbing.
When we finally pop over, it’s into a talus-filled bowl, one lone lake below, cold and remote. It’s not quite the drop, but dizzyingly steep and hard to grab hold. To get purchase I sit and reach for anything solid. How do runners throw their bodies down these ball bearings?
I have to admit this is dreadful and I’m completely out of water.
A more stable line of cliff appears and I stabilize using my hands as the slope eases and we reach the first lake. Below is another with an island, a partial rock bridge jutting out as if ruins of a castle. We navigate still more talus which leads to cliffs. Worn out, we decide to simply downclimb and splash through the water.
My knees hurt, my thighs, my feet. I’m dead tired pulling into a grassy stretch surrounded by krumholz. The sun is hot and the sliver of shade is delicious. The sky and lake both are deep blue, a gentle breeze cools my wet feet and I crash.
Have I ever been this tired? I wonder, not wanting to move. Talus gives way to ramps, drops, gullies and another magic lake seemingly floating above distant mountains. A chipmunk zooms up a vertical face like an Alex Honnold of the animal kingdom and we watch, transfixed. Gourd Lake glistens, pristine in this high valley.
It’s hard to go when we meet trail, gently switchbacking 1,000 feet to Buchanan Creek, peaks disappearing as we drop. It’s less than a mile to Thunderbolt Creek, fish darting from our shadow as the water winds through a side valley of meadow leading towards a steep pass below tall spires.
Exhausted now, we set camp and turn in hoping to be refreshed by morning. But it’s not meant to be. Too much work, too far, too hard, all of it takes the will and strength from us and Katlyn makes the call to save the final passes for another time.
Superb trail maintenance is a must after a catastrophic windstorm.
I dream of inviting old boyfriends to a dance, the kind I like the best where everyone just grooves as a group and I feel ok saying goodbye until next season, grooving to the beat I’ve been given today.
We still have miles and miles to walk on the Continental Divide Trail, up and over Mount Adams (with minimal views) past Junco Trailhead where a volunteer remarks on the growing size of backpacks over the years, through a burn area and finally to a tiny camp spot next to a babbling brook where the sunset turns surrounding peaks a deep mauve.
We talk all day, on and on about our lives, hikes we’ve done, people we know and hope to keep our pace and maybe rejoin the Pfiffner. Snapping twigs wake us and we later spy the culprit – a lovely young moose with long, shapely legs and a soft, boxy snout.
She watches us climb through a spectacular blowdown which stretches for miles up a canyon and into the Devil’s Thumb. Without trail crews clearing a path, these pick-up-sticks of fully mature trees were surely impassable.
The trail climb higher and higher, a giant’s front lawn close to 12,000 feet rolling above ski hills and towns. Sadly, smoke from California wildfires settles in the valleys and obscures the view. It also begins to affect my breathing.
I make my best effort, cruising on brightly colored tundra with mountain lakes winking from below. I drink and eat, even scoring a beer from a friendly tourist at Rollins Pass, but my mind gets foggy and it’s clear I can’t keep going.
Trail magic appears in the form of a road nearby. We descend overland and meet a couple, Chuck and Karen, happy to get me down as quickly as possible on a dirt road filled with basketball-sized rocks.
They must have taken pity on my sorry state because they drive out of their way to deliver us over the pass to another town where my friend, also Karen, picks us up and gets us cleaned up, fed and watered.
It’s an odd and sudden way to end, but we both felt sick from the exertion and an overland high route is nowhere to make a mistake. Katlyn leaves by bus to retrieve her car after a good rest and I stay longer, talking and laughing with my friend a filling up on fur therapy from her dogs before I too need to head home.
The project is not finished and more is still to come, but we both agree more rest time might be in order for a trail of this magnitude. It’s harder in some ways from the Winds – messier with more altitude gain and loss. Plus Colorado is hotter with longer water carries and seemed to sap my strength faster.
I’ll return to finish but got now feel pride jumping right in on another high route, challenging my mind and spirit and savoring the emptiness and vastness in less explored reaches of the backcountry.
The day opens with a bright pink sky. Oh no, rain coming? So far just windy and gray. The towers still in place and impressive as ever. As we ascend it becomes obvious we may the perfect choice to camp at the view. It’s beautiful, but wild and barren. Trees give way to rock and tussock, the trail thankfully still well worn.
We pass Billy and Barren Lake and curl around the towers in stair steps of hanging valleys towards the final lake, Texas under its eponymous pass. Camping here is possible, but it is rocky and cold with views mostly to the wall that must be climbed.
We’re pros now and when one asks if anyone wants to stop for a rest, we shake our heads and plunge ahead. Steep? Yep. Slippery? Sure. Difficult? Nah, there’s a trail!
At the top, a sign flat on the ground and seemingly crushed by years of harsh winters, informs us we’ve entered the Shoshone National Forest. Over that rise and down a ramp opens up a view to one of the most sensational sites in the world.
The Cirque is a semi-circle of fifteen, 12,000 foot granite crags, the most spectacular, the jutting Pingora looking smooth and solid from our vantage, though considered one of the best climbing walls in the world.
We clown around on the massive slab ramps, taking pictures and stopping to admire this unreal setting. Again, our choices are rewarded as the sun shines directly on the mountains and we spy climbers already scaling the biggest.
On the descent, we meet a lone hiker from Israel who takes my photo. It’s surprisingly devoid of many people even though the trail is rutted. Most consider the arduous Jackass Pass, which we see far across the valley, enough and skip this high altitude view.
Down and down we go, watching Pingora appear to grow. Superlatives fall flat when describing this place – glorious, grand, awe-inspiring, spectacular, magnificent – and there’s all the time in the world.
It’s steep on eroding trail to Lonesome Lake where we find sitting spots for a snack and check on the climbers. Nearby, campers seem to be calling to them or commenting. Still, the place feels surprisingly empty.
We round the lake then climb steeply up Jackass Pass. The views back reveal individual peaks at new angles – Lizard’s and Wolf’s Heads, Shark’s Nose, and Warbonnet.
Our last pass complete, I adopt a nonchalant attitude figuring it’s all downhill from here.
The trail is steep into a bowl where yet another magnificent tower looms, Warrior Peak. I snap pictures of its magnificence happily marching along until I see ole Warrior is shedding its bulk right across the trail.
At first, I follow a cairned trail straight up believing it will take me over the worst of the talus, but the girls yell back to follow cairns which guide me past yet one more pile of rock. I misjudge and go low requiring a few moves to shimmy back to a more doable route.
Maybe that’s the last for this trip. And it is so, except around another lake, it’s all up and down on rocky ramps. A bit more work requiring a change in attitude that this is not simply an easy downhill.
But how lovely it all is as the humongous, seemingly impossible peaks recede and give way to a final lake and a long walk through deep woods following a crashing stream.
We share one last rock couch, a last fill up on water from the giant jug and scrounge for the last of our snacks before marching out to a very full parking lot and waiting partners. Richard even brings chips and beer and we clink cans (with Kelly’s kombucha) to a route well walked.
Parting words? The Dixon Route for the Wind River Range thru-hike is a stupendous walk with plenty of challenge, variation, and thrills. We easily found good camping although some rocky areas would be less ideal without a bivy. In fact, a tent is not really necessary when a tarp will do.
Kelly suggested our start date of August 22 which turned out to be ideal for warm days and few bugs. I suggested seven days, but it could be walked in six even at our pace although I found a week just right. At the very least, pack traction for the shoes to avoid a slip and take all the time you need on talus. This might be hardest for thru-hikers wanting to ’crush miles’ but why would anyone rush through this wondrous country?
It’s possible to get off trail and resupply in Pinedale, but it’s best to stay on trail in my opinion. The couple we met on Knapsack Col was carrying ten days food, so a longer trip is possible, just heavier.
We all walked well in trail runners wearing long pants and layers including rain gear. Temperatures never dropped below freezing. We used Alan Dixon’s maps as well Backcountry Banter’s on the Gaia app and had no trouble finding our way.
I believe an experienced and fit hiker can accomplish the high route though best to walk with friends and carry a gps with SOS capability due to the high risk of injury.
All this bring said, my favorite part of all was how a route changes the way I hike. Every muscle is used for such a wide set of needs – talus, snow, scree fields, tussocky meadows, bogs – and I never slipped into the mind numbing quest for miles. In fact so much of the route felt like I was playing at a jungle gym and trying to solve problems. I was happiest when letting myself simply be in the problem at hand and figure it out piece by piece.
It’s windy, cold and – praise the goddess – dry. My black bear bag is twirling in the air on a branch. No visitors.
I burned my lower lip and it’s swollen. I wear lip balm all day but heavy breathing must leave it exposed. The hike will soon be over and I’m sad, but I am really beaten up. I can’t walk so well just yet.
And all those bad dreams! Why does anxiety follow me here? We’re all a bit keyed up and start walking with little discussion, first losing the use path, then heading in exactly the wrong direction. I notice it when we stop for a break and see Dragonshead and Pronghorn Peaks from behind.
And we were having such a great conversation too.
Katlyn calls it a “three hour tour” and I suggest we stop talking altogether. The steep climb takes care of that, but at a bench, Kelly begins descending towards sage-covered flatlands.
Wait! We need to be to the other side of Raider Peak!
I guess we were all kind of ready to head down. I lead up practically vertical now on rock and into a bowl filled with talus and snow. Tired and cranky, we pop over without a word into another deep valley, a wall of impossibly angular peaks in a long line. An enormous jagged black dike intrudes through the slabs.
It’s stunning and imposing but after our detour, I’m distracted and weary. And to get down, once again, is a talus slope if monstrous proportions.
We begin on benches with a trail appearing now and again, then buried under an SUV of rock. I try to stay balanced, often sit and use my hands or slide. But just when I get going, obstacles appear that require negotiation – too steep, too pointy, too big a gap.
It takes an hour at least to cross as I swear, cry, laugh, scream, cheer myself on and fall twice ripping off a some skin. But all my self talk and noisiness moves me along, albeit slowly, and my falls don’t shatter bones.
The girls wait and tell me I’m doing great as I cry in frustration. I guess so. I don’t have as much bounce in the joints or balance, but I’m still standing. Shaken and tired, we meet grass just as two men cone up.
Uh-oh, they’ve got immaculate, brand new white packs, clompy hiking boots and all smug striding along without trekking poles. Ugh. Just what I need right now – a coupla man-splaining types right after a breakdown
I say hi and the lead splainer gives us directions on the descent, as if we don’t have eyes. He then stares at our packs. “Ice axes? Wow!”
“Yes, well we used them to cross a glacier,” I offer.
“Where?” he asks as if he doesn’t believe us. I tell him Knifepoint, then change the subject to ask for beta on our next pass.
“Oh, we didn’t do that pass. We’re walking the – high – route,” that last part emphasized as if talking to a very small – somewhat dense – child.
“Ah-ha, we just finished walking the high – route,” I say with equal emphasis before turning to go. Man Splainer One gives us a look of shock and wonder.
That’s right, smarty pants! Good luck in those clodhopper boots and overstuffed packs without poles, fellas!
Aw, geez, I need a bitch session. Kelly wisely reminds us all that we’re tired and ready to get down so we need to stay focused or could get injured. Katlyn immediately trips over a rock as if on cue and takes a classy fall (on grass)
I find a large rock facing the impossibly giant slabs of rock, sunny and out of the wind and we eat and talk. I bitch about talus and getting old. Katlyn bitches about the men talking down to us about carrying axes like we’re idiots. Kelly has hit her limit with the wind.
But after talking we all feel better walking a long way along a ridge with stupendous views before the long drop to Pyramid and Maes Lake under a triangular shaped mountain. The Towers are in the distance.
I forgot to mention we meet trail – really good, eroded, braided, overused trail, but trail nonetheless which lets us move fast and fluidly. It’s always a whoop session when we come to anything resembling trail but after talus nightmare, this is smooth sailing. We meet backpackers at Skull Lake and one says Texas Pass is steep and loose, never mentioning talus. I think people generally choose to avoid talus.
At Washakie Creek, more backpackers, many carrying fishing poles, seem to appear out of nowhere. We’re back out of high country or at least the remote country. At a creek, we meet more and take a sharp left towards the Pass and the famous towers.
The air is delicious, dry, cool and less windy than the pass. In a few miles, we round a corner and we’re looking directly at the backside of the towers. The sun is setting and clouds move past creating glorious shadows at the aptly named Shadow Lake. It is one of the most stunning scenes I’ve seen in my life.
But our goal is up and over the pass. If we hadn’t taken that three hour tour of a side trip going the wrong way (to lovely Surprise Lake, surprise!) we would be up and over by now.
But hold on. It’s beautiful right here, right now. And the sun is angled just so as if flood lights on these towers. 5:00 may be early for stopping, but a campsite is open with the best seat in the house.
We consider our timing and know we’ll still have Texas Pass plus Jackass Pass tomorrow. We have the time, and starting in the morning will offer up time to linger as we descend into the Cirque.
Once the decision is made it’s as though our bodies give up and it takes extra long to set. I ensure a perfect view and watch the towers supine before venturing out as they turn magenta while the sun sets.
It’s 5:20 when the wind picks up. It doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. More like everywhere, gusting and slamming the alicoop. Did I put the stakes in deep enough? I unzip to reach out and pull the guy-lines tighter just as the rain starts lashing down.
I lay there waiting and planning. If it crashes in, what do I do? I’m warm and dry in my sleeping bag but I really ought to put on my rain gear.
Like a child king having a tantrum, the wind seems to die only to slam again harder and more fierce. Off with their heads! And those other guys too!
But we’re lucky because it lets up just when it’s the actual time to wake up. I make a move to pack when a hand reaches in and delivers my bear bag. Lower in these trees, we tightly tied and hung our Ursacks in trees. Not high enough to ward off a bear, but to keep out mini-bears like picas.
I’m so grateful for the delivery and eat my cold cereal and drink a shake before venturing out. Today is bogs which we locate immediately in this long river valley. I see why Alan called their camp “crap” without a dry or non-lumpy spot around. We scored in our bowl.
And this bog here is amateur league. The girls hop over deep trap doors and wet pools while I splash through, highly experienced after Scotland.
It’s an odd place with mystery of its own in the slowly lightening sky, a remote wasteland with only stunted trees. More gulleys and ramps on talus take us up and over a small pass on soft grass.
Now it’s a maze of rock around Long Lake our intended camp for last night. As the sun brightens the sky, we approach a small peninsula fit for a castle – for our child tyrant maybe?
The lake leads beyond peaks appearing to drop off to nothing at the end of the horizon. I almost expect falls into space. It’s steep climbs with more ramps and gullies on rock to avoid a cliff. I lead up the final push to another grassy meadow, shallow tarns dotting the landscape.
We arrive at Europe Valley where a lake nestles in crumbling talus. It reminds me of England’s Lake District and I expect Wordsworth to meet us on the path. From above, the talus looked challenging, but we find it’s relatively easy for these experts and hop across while large fish swim up from the depths for a peak and a merganser waddles off shore. Thousands of fat black spiders build webs between the rocks and I carefully step around.
It’s another 300 foot climb on tussock to more tarns and erratics, an array of pointy mountains in the distance. Are those the Cirque of the Towers?! Katlyn find a surfboard boulder and each of climb up for our portrait.
We walk abreast now across meadows, following one set of prints through a dry pond. Mountains loom above us like ramparts as black clouds move in. Alan directs us to a lake and a tough navigation through willows at the outlet. I suggest an alternate which sends us past a basalt uplift deeply pocked and scarred.
But soon we get off course and follow elk paths up and down on repeat through trees, dry lakes, and willows. At a cliff we come out onto a view straight down to huge Middle Fork Lake and jagged Nylon, Dragonhead and Pronghorn peaks.
We navigate through lakelets and bogs, willows and pines, bright flowers still in bloom. Thunder courses through the valley, a few icy splats land on my arms and I wonder if a big pass is a good idea.
But everything changes out here and the rain passes by, leaving us looking for shade and water before climbing. A use trail makes the going fast and we find a stream to fill up while our gear dries in the sun.
The use trail continues past this lake and up to Lee nestled directly under the huge triangular monolith of Dragonhead, pointy and seemingly ready to breathe fire at a moment’s notice.
And that’s the end of any sort of trail. The direction now is up; up through willow and rock, making things up as we go. It always amazes me how fast I climb, at least in how the terrain changes with the mountains appearing to come down to my level.
Before being completely swallowed by willow, we find an opening up a nose of grass just as the wind begins to howl. At a shallow bowl filled with talus, I fear spending too much time mid air on each step that the wind will smack me down. We all stow our hats.
Above a bench, it’s loose scree to Lake Donna swallowed in gargantuan rock slabs leaning forward as if peering into her depths.
Up some more and we reach a T-intersection, the way down obscured. Again , it’s s ramp system on shelves of grass like tiny mountain terrace gardens. It’s not exactly easy walking, but we progress faster than on the XL talus surrounding the first of the Bonneville Lakes.
The wind is relentless cutting through to the bone. A short bit of grass delivers us to more giant talus and Katlyn remarks that even she, the talus skipper, is sick of it.
The outlet takes us on rock ramps and more grass terrace ramps past a waterfall pouring out of a cliff with blocky crystal structure. It’s steep on ball bearings and we’re all tired. Maybe this meadow will work, but it’s full of trap door water courses, so we climb up on granite slabs which lead to an apron directly on the lake. A wee spot opens up sheltered by pines and big enough for three.
The wind won’t let up but I sit on our rock verandah looking towards rocky islands as the sky turns orange then pink, purple and finally a deep indigo.
Light, tinkly, pitter-pattering rain relaxes me – and the muscles – to sleep. It’s when it builds and lashes the tent while the sky lightens that I realize I’ll be packing up in this.
The sound of rustling from my neighbors means no sleeping in, so I put on the rain gear and push out just as the rain pauses. Everything is Scotland loch-esque especially now as ‘weather’ pushes in. We were warned Thursday would be the bad day.
Fog floats over Alpine Pass (How the hell does it look so close? We killedourselves to get here) Do I need to point out that this trio is made up of some bad ass chicks? They’re packed before me and I’m even considered a morning person.
On the border of Bridger and Fitzpatrick Wildernesses, this stunning meadow has – in the words of Stefan) everything: glacier, waterfall, randomly strewn boulders, a loch (lake) towering pointy mountains and an air of mystery.
Richard messages me on the GPS a new term: URS, unstable rocky shit. That is so yesterday. Today is just regular rocky shit. Within a football pitch heading down to the outflow, a carpet of boulders greet us.
You have to understand, we need to find a path through. Up, down, slanty, wobbly, damp, sharp corned, these rocks could care less about our progress. Their sheer size creates trap doors where a fall might mean a broken leg, followed by a concussed brain on the way down as an ice ax slices an essential vein.
Thanks, I’ll pass.
Katlyn moves fluidly like a cat and Kelly skims over, albeit a bit more warily. I whine and sit on my butt at any whiff of fear. I’d be happy for any solid structural mountain boulder leading deep into the recesses of this now black lake, one I can spend the rest of today sitting on.
This is all about balance. I trust the stickiness and stop entertaining retiring to this lonely lake and continue my spider-like walk.
The good thing is wet makes no difference to staying upright as the
rain falls in earnest and we dive under a rock ledge cracking our axes against the wall. Snacking, shivering, finding yet another rock couch we wonder aloud if this will be an all day thing.
The rain lets up as we peak out, following a third lake under the towering Fortress. We choose counterclockwise since Alan warns of a class 3/4 exit crack on the other side of the lake. He offers it as a choice since except for that awfulness, the walking is much easier over there.
We look longingly as we scramble on wet rock, pealing off for an arduous up and over, past more lakes (water is never a problem out here, had I mentioned?) The sun comes out in a burst of heat and off goes the rain gear.
Ahhh, warm and dry and now meadows with boulder erratics ‘outstanding in their field.’ As we cross above, we see white pines climbing up the valley. Even here, we squish through marshy patches filled with bright flowers.
The rock seems to flow out of the mountains as if melting wax. A cascade jettisons from our class 3/4 crack lake and we come to the edge looking for the secret slab ramp to take us down into the trees.
All of us make a few interesting butt moves on what Alan calls a ‘system of ramps and gulleys’ before Katlyn picks through the brush to out exit.
And it’s so much fun!
The granite is pink and exfoliating but mostly in one long gentle incline, my feet clinging effortlessly even on such a grade.
Coming around a corner, we bump into a couple. Katlyn tries a “hi” three times, but they’re snobby and unfriendly, pissed off about the rain because they had to skip a pass – although that may be more because they hadn’t done their homework.
From the other way, we could have chosen the pass, but it frankly looked like a giant scree pile from hell. They continue to speak of their high route as the real route, the man adding Green River Lakes will be their day five.
Good for you! I say continuing my downward journey to piney aroma, butterflies and birds. Slightly annoyed we miss a clear path and dive straight into a boulder field. I blame it on gorgeous Camp Lake luring us like a siren to our doom.
Well, just ten minutes really of balancey trickiness with added tree branch interaction to a shaded spot next to a falls replete with three rock couches.
I don’t know what motivates people to brag on the difficulty of their chosen route. Although maybe it’s sheer disbelief and an underestimation of our doggedness. Katlyn carries a gallon-sized milk jug with its top sliced strapped to the top of her pack. She uses it for scooping water, rinsing clothes, sponge baths and right now, to hold chips. Kelly wears a turquoise wide brimmed visor more appropriate for the tennis court. And me? My pants are a few sizes too big and my hoodie makes me look like a muppet. Maybe it’s hard to believe we’re actually pretty tough.
Lovely trail follows this gorgeous lake protected by sharp mountains though we lose it in bog and huckleberry bushes filled with succulent red juiciness. We’re warned to find that trail or it will be horrible on yet another unnamed pass of 500 feet or so.
We start anyway on rock strewn mountain and scream ‘trail!’ when meeting it. After talus boulders it’s a joy to rise on a bona fide footpath even if I’m short on breath. The views are gorgeous back to these gem-like lakes tucked in trees and meadows. Does the other high route skip such loveliness?
While contemplating, I enter another glacial lake in a deep bowl of rock. For a moment, panic tightens my throat. I have a case of talus PTSD. Overcoming my fear, I look for a route until Kelly spies a trail beyond a tiny snow field.
It’s up and up, revealing the backside of the missed pass near massive Douglas Peak but ahead another chain of deep blue lakes appear. So many lakes. Upper Golden is our first, surrounded by grass, trees and birdsong. Then Louise and Golden where we fill up on water before yet another pass.
And then we hit a new obstacle. The willows. These willows are less tree and more hardy shrub with thick, solid branches. I hesitate and Katlyn crashes ahead, even in shorts. I guess that’s the way. Kelly and I follow pushing back at leaves and branches threatening to engulf and right in front of us is beautiful trail!
How do these trails get here? They’re minimally maintained but cairned and obvious making a climb far easier – I mean, you don’t have to think or decide.
The lake chain is revealed behind us, as stunning from this side with peaks reach high beyond. It’s not like I can see to where we started, but it is a massive expanse.
Dennis Lake opens up far below in a derp bowl though still a high hanging valley above the Goldens, fed by falls loud all the way over here on a ridge. It’s mysterious, empty, tundra-like with no trees but also few rocks.
Hay Pass opens up above another glacially scooped valley as the wind picks up. We had planned to camp much further today, buy talus and pass upon pass slows the walker. We sit down on the pass and just contemplate.
A lake lies ahead and we could set there plus one beyond still on trail before we cut off overland into bog and risk ending up where Alan camped at what he called ‘crap camp.’
The wind is chilly and the sun is making long shadows so down we go taking it as it comes. We skip the lake to cut off near a stream and a grassy bit with stunted trees and shapely clouds. Maybe right here is just the spot? It’s not entirely out of the wind, but low enough to feel some protection. Again the grass is soft on our feet and water is nearby.
I’m so tired I can barely move but rehydrated chickpeas and mayo revive. We set in a circle, wrap in our bags eating, talking and laughing as the clouds turn pink.
I love this hike maybe especially because it’s hard. The Talus Hopper the Cairn Whisperer and me, the Trouper who moves slowly and often awkwardly, but keeps up are seeing some of the wildest alpine country ever and going to sleep in the middle of it.