Andy Zahn

Andy Zahn has 16 articles published.

Trip Report: Bench Lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains

in Trails by
Bench Lake

The fog lay over the lake like a downy blanket as I laced up my boots and quietly threw a few essentials into a rucksack. With the dim pre-dawn light to guide me, I made my way through the gloom to the trailhead. The sign showed four miles to Bench Lakes, and I had until 11 AM to get there and back again.

Grand Mogul and trail

The Sawtooth Mountains of Central Idaho are well-named, their jagged spires raking the sky. Among the ragged peaks and towers are a multitude of lakes, sprinkled like vivid blue confetti in the granite landscape. However, few trails are of short enough length for trail-hungry hikers with less than a day in the area, much less the scant 5 hours allotted to me for my morning jaunt from camp at Redfish Lake. I am not one for trail running, being more inclined to saunter, pause and linger, but that day I made an exception. Buoyed by enticing patches of blue sky in the thinning mist, and the prospect of an above-the-clouds view, I raced up the trail. It is a wide and gentle path, built for the clumsy hooves of horses through slopes of sagebrush and ponderosa.

Sawtooth Peaks

Heaving for air, I turned the final corner and found a junction; one fork plummeting down towards Redfish, the other ascending into the heavens, towards the higher lakes. I took the latter, pushing myself up through the last dregs of fog and into high gardens beneath the towers of Heyburn Mountain. The bulk of the Grand Mogul loomed across the valley, and the shimmering peaks of the White Cloud Range could be seen floating above the sea of fog that filled the plains and valleys bellow.

Mt. Heyburn

On I went, over hillocks and besides a burbling stream and once again back into dark woods before, with startling suddenness, the lake appeared through the foliage before me. I whipped out my camera and snapped my photos of the perfectly still waters with their reflection of the golden peaks beyond.

Bench Lake

That was it, my time here was spent. I hadn’t the time to go and ramble as I wished, ever higher to the upper lakes in the chain, ensconced as they are in chalices of chiseled granite. Back down I raced, dodging other hikers just now making the ascent. It was a different world I returned to, one of the noise and bustle of a popular campground, lodge, and lake – a far cry from the silent, still place I had departed that morning. It was with a glad heart and tired body that I departed, away from the grand peaks I had so shortly traversed. One day I will return again, and this time treat the Sawtooths with the lengthy trip they deserve.

Grand Mogul Mountain


Getting there: Drive Idaho State Highway 75 North from Sun Valley or South from Stanley, turning onto Redfish Lake road approximately 4 miles out of Stanley (55 miles from Sun Valley). Take the lodge turn-off and go straight then turn immediately right into the hiker parking. The Sawtooths are a remote area, and from the nearest city (Boise) it is at least a three hour drive.

Klymit Insulated Static V Lite Review

in Gear by
Klymit pad in use

Buying a camping pad is a complex gamble that will often take an avid backpacker years of expensive trial and error to win. Every pro has its con; foam pads are cheap, light and durable, but at the same time are bulky and are often uncomfortable. Inflatable pads are light, compact and can be extremely comfortable, but they are expensive, delicate and cold. Rarely do you find a pad that does everything right, yet does not cost the moon. In the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite, I have found that balance.

Klymit Pad with ferns

I am a restless sleeper, and there are few pads that can contain my thrashings. If I’m lucky, I’ll wake to find that only my head and shoulders remain padded. However, the Kylmit’s clever system of ridges does a marvelous job of cradling me in its center. I was also surprised by how warm it was, the insulation being good enough to keep my back from freezing too badly in the middle of a 15 degree night that left my tent coated in frost.

Klymit pad in tent

The Klymit is a cushy pad, despite its minute dimensions when packed. Lumps and bumps beneath me just disappeared. This is especially impressive considering the comparatively minimal amount of breath it takes to inflate it (a big deal to anyone who has had to inflate an oxygen greedy pad after a long day’s trek).

Klymit pad in forest 2

In the time I used it, I never experienced a puncture; the material seems hardy enough even when put to the test by my clumsy treatment. To test its durability, I tried sleeping on it on the floor in leiu of a mattress at home for almost a month. Not only did I sleep well, but I inflated and deflated it every day without any trouble. An included puncture repair kit means that you won’t lose the use of your pad mid-trip even if it does come into contact with the business end of a sharp stick.

Klymit pad in use

In all my time using the Static V Lite I couldn’t find a single thing to complain about. Even the list price of $100 is cheap in comparison with other high-end inflatable pads which can easily go for twice that sum. I can’t think of a pad that I could recommend more highly than this.

Klymit pad packed (1)

In conclusion, this is a fantastic pad in every way. Whether you’re on a budget or looking for high end comfort you can’t go far wrong with the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite.




Technical Details:

Weight: 19.6 oz

Inflated size: 72 X 23 X 2.5 in

Packed size: 5 X 8 in

Material: 30 D polyester fabric.

R Value: 4.4

Blackrapid Sport (Camera Holster) Review

in Gear by

I’m a methodical photographer by nature. Sure, I may run wildly from place to place in order to get a shot, but for the most part I prefer to take it slow, use a tripod, and spend awhile with my subject in order to get the perfect shot. For me, the BlackRapid Sport camera strap required a complete overhaul of this slow and steady strategy. I literally had to learn to “shoot from the hip”!

Blackrapid Sport Camera Holster 4

The Sport attaches to your camera via the screw mount, and is designed to hang down by your side. The mount attaches to the strap via a system that allows it to slide smoothly up and down it between two adjustable clips that regulate just how far it can slide. This allows you to bring the camera up to your eye without hauling the entire length of the strap along with it.

Blackrapid Sport Camera Holster 3

One of the big problems with traditional camera straps is the strain they put on your neck, digging in and making them difficult to carry for long periods of time. The Sport solves this problem with a contoured pad that fits over your shoulder, and a strap that goes under your arm, thus spreading the weight of the camera out over a less sensitive area than the neck. The build quality of the Sport is undeniably excellent, and is sure to be more durable and longer lasting than the average, camera-brand strap.

Blackrapid Sport Camera Holster 2

Unfortunately, many photographers may find the innovative system that makes it great to be its biggest flaw. First of all, it’s so bulky that it takes up far too much room in a camera bag, so when you have it attached to your camera you are likely going to have to keep on wearing it whether you like it or not. This leads us to the second problem, the fact that I didn’t feel safe having the camera swinging around near my hip while walking around. I always felt that it was going to bump into something, and found the constant bouncing of my DSLR against my hip to be irritating. You can adjust the position of the camera on the strap, but I found that hanging it in any other way than at the hip made the entire system difficult to use. Another problem is that it doesn’t play well with a backpack. The shoulder pad sits right where the backpack strap goes over your shoulder on one side, and on the other the camera sits at your hip and bumps into the bottom of the backpack. This means that the Sport is really only useful for short trips where a pack isn’t needed.

Blackrapid Sport Camera Holster 1

I frequently use a tripod, and like to have the quick release plate permanently attached to my camera. The Blackrapid Sport, however, attaches to the camera via the same screw mount as the quick release plate. You can detach the Sport pretty easily, but detaching it, and attaching a quick release plate is time consuming, and often speedy tripod setup is necessary in order to get a particular shot.

Finally, the sport may be “cooler” looking than a traditional camera strap, but that sometimes is a disadvantage. Quite frankly, it looks like you are wearing a gun holster, and I may have imagined it, but I felt like I received more sidelong glances than usual. Even if people don’t think you’re packing, the fact is that the sport makes you more noticeable, which isn’t a good thing for any photographer who wants to be unobtrusive.


For photographers who regularly carry their cameras outside of a bag, don’t need a tripod, and aren’t too paranoid about the safety of their camera, the Sport is a wonderfully constructed, brilliant piece of engineering. It has its niche (though I’m not exactly sure which photographer occupy that niche), and though it may not be for me, those who are considering a camera carrying system of this type will not be disappointed with the Blackrapid Sport. Unfortunately, I most certainly don’t fit into the Sport’s target niche. After a long stretch of using the sport, my neck may have been free of strain, but I was still glad to go back to using my old, worn out Canon camera strap.


  • Length: 167cm
  • Width: 9.5cm
  • Topside material: Polyester with Ballistic Nylon
  • Underside Material: 1cm thick foam pad with knitted mesh
  • Price: 73.95$


Panorama 180 Backpack Review

in Gear by
Panorama 180 stock

Hiking gear problems have long been an obsession for me. Aching shoulders? Add some padding. Extra weight banging on the back of my pack? Get a bigger one and put everything inside. Everything soaked after a day of hiking in the rain? Carry a hiking umbrella. But one problem I hadn’t been able to solve was how to safely and comfortably carry my DSLR.

In my basement, I have a box of rejected camera bags. I have a sling bag that holds the camera gear, but little else. I have a small, over the shoulder bag that holds only the camera, but can be worn with a backpack on. It generally results in an aching neck after a day out hiking. I have tried hiking with this bag stuffed in a rucksack or backpack, but it is impossible to take it out for a quick shot. I kept imagining a bag that would ride comfortably on my back, with room for extra gear and somehow be easy to access, and thought I would never find one. Enter the Mindshift Panorama 180.

Panorama 180 with tripod

The Panorama 180 can carry plenty of camera equipment, as well as an adequate amount of hiking gear for a day hike. It is comfortable, and has a remarkable way to access my camera. It accomplishes this through a brilliant, if simple, feat of engineering. The hipbelt of the backpack is attached to the camera bag, which, when not in use, stays safely within the base of the pack. It is secured by a magnetic clip that can quickly and easily be undone so that the camera pouch can swivel around to the front for easy access. The backpack remains on my back, and I can easily bring the camera around while on the move. After snapping a picture, I return the camera to its pouch, swivel it back, and it is once again safely and comfortably part of a backpack, and my hands are free for climbing.  If I have a large backpack for an overnight trip, I can take only the camera compartment and carry it around my waist.

Panorama 180 photo insert

The camera compartment holds a DSLR, with room for an extra lens and filters. The upper part of the pack has three zipper pockets, one in the top flap, one in the side, and the main interior chamber, in addition to a water bottle holder on the side. There is a special pull – out holster on the back of the pack for putting the legs of a tripod in, so that a tripod can be safely, and easily strapped to the back. If extra camera gear is carried in the main compartment, there will still be room for a lunch and outer garment, but the pockets are not expandable, and this will relegate the backpack to being useful only for day hiking.

Panorama 180 3

The Panorama 180 is exceedingly comfortable. It has a well- padded back with an internal frame so that it keeps its shape, and it holds up well for long hikes. With the camera secure in the bottom of the pack, the overall comfort of carrying a large camera is greatly increased. I have not had any problems with durability in the course of its use. I did attempt to take it on an extended backpacking trip, strapping the upper portion of the backpack onto my overnight pack for use on day hikes out of camp. Since this is a stiff pack, it was not easy to carry along in my larger pack, and was not worth the extra weight. Instead, I would recommend only carrying the waist pack with the camera in it for overnight trips.

This isn’t just a pack for photographers. Hikers without DSLRs will find the easily accessible pouch useful for grabbing things out of the pack while on the go. However, the pack is obviously aimed at photographers who will get the most out of its many features, and who will be less likely to balk at its $200 price tag.

Panorama 180 2


  • I had the opportunity to try out two accessories for the Panorama 180: The first was an optional rain cover, which I found to be quite effective, though fitting the entire ensemble together with rain covers both on the pack and on the camera pouch is somewhat tricky and can be time consuming on the trail. When stopping to rest on a soggy hike, it helps to be able to keep the bag under its rain cover. I hiked for several hours on a drizzly day, and my equipment stayed dry. I also left it out overnight in the rain, and the bag remained dry inside.
  • I also used the photo insert, which allows you to transform the interior of the pack into another camera bag so that you can take along extra lenses. I would recommend the photo insert for anyone planning to use the pack with more than one or two lenses, flashes, or other specialized gear. The caveat is that this insert, if filled with photo-gear, would leave little room for anything other than photo-gear. The rain cover is priced slightly high at $20, as is the photo insert at $50, but I found the rain cover to be invaluable. I would recommend the photo insert for the serious photographer who carries plenty of equipment.
  • Other accessories I did not test include a tripod suspension system and a lens switch case that clips onto the hip belt.

Panorama 180 stock

Bottom Line

I have often wondered if it was worth carrying a DSLR, when I pass a lightly loaded hiker snapping photos on a cell phone as I lug twenty pounds of camera around my neck up the trail. But I love photography as an art and a science, and can’t imagine being without my camera. In fact, it is at the top of my “ten essentials” list.  Now I don’t notice the extra weight, and don’t need to envy cell phone users. This is one bag that won’t end up in a box in my basement.

Tech Specs

  • Backpack exterior: 9.8” W x 19.7” H x 8.3” L
  • Beltpack interior: 9.4” W x 7.5” H x 4.7” L
  • Beltpack exterior: 9.8” W x 8.2” H x 5.1” L


  • Backpack: 2 lbs
  • Beltpack: 0.9 lbs
  • Total: 2.9 lbs


  • Backpack: 16.6 L
  • Beltpack: 5.4 L
  • Total: 22 L

Price: $200


YKK zippers, 420D velocity nylon, 420D high density nylon, 210D velocity nylon, ultra-stretch fabric, 350G air-mesh, 3-ply bonded nylon thread. Water repellant coating on outside of fabric, polyurethane coating on interior. Interior is lined with 200D polyester, belly-o mesh pockets, closed-cell antilon foam, and 3-ply bonded nylon thread.

Mt. Rainier’s Northern Traverse

in Trails by
Eleanor Creek Trailhead
Looking Down into the White River
Looking Down into the White River

Standing high above the White River, I gazed up at the looming heights of the Willis Wall, a vast snow encrusted cliff of black rock towering over verdant mountain slopes. Every now and again, a stream of ice would come tumbling down its flanks, adding to the frozen river that is the Carbon Glacier. Despite the magnificence of our location, the view was not so lovely as to lessen the trepidation brought on by the lateness of the hour and the length we had yet to go to reach that night’s camp. That our campsite was visible, only a few miles’ distance as the crow flies, did not lift our weary hearts. For though the waters of Lake James sparkled tantalizingly in the distance, between us and its azure surface lay the shadowy depths of the valley below.

Eleanor Creek Trailhead
Eleanor Creek Trailhead

The Wonderland Trail is world-famous – a glorious, symphonic meld of deep jungle and high meadows. What the throngs of hikers on that trail do not realize is that there is another trail, the Northern Traverse, hidden among the crags of Mt. Rainier’s Northern Wilderness. Here, one may stroll into the ranger’s station at the White River entrance and obtain a permit on the day of departure and not worry much about reserving campsites along the way. This is a far cry from the Wonderland Trail for which reservations must be made months in advance! The Northern Traverse is difficult, wild, beautiful, and, above all, a lonely trek.

Backpacking through Grand Park
Backpacking through Grand Park

Finding the trailhead is an adventure in itself – it’s not officially acknowledged by the park, and is marked only by a bullet-riddled sign on which may vaguely be read the words “Eleanor Creek.” From this elusive trailhead, the trail skulks from dark forest to woodsy Lake Eleanor, to the great, flat expanse of Grand Park. Aptly named, the meadows here seem to extend to the horizon, upon which Rainier floats like a great cloud. All too soon this gentle stroll ends, and one is faced with a great chasm. Thousands of feet of precious elevation are lost in the descent to the river – thousands of feet that must be instantly and painfully regained to reach the safe haven of marshy Lake James.

Lake James
Lake James

There are no good designated campsites along this trail; each is sunk deep in dark woods, where the sites have been hacked from the temperate jungle. Spend your time exploring finer places and relegate the campsites to sleeping only.

Beyond Lake James, the trail climbs a rambling series of switchbacks and stairs to the lofty and rarely seen gardens of Windy Gap. Linger, if you have the time, by the numerous heather-rimmed tarns beneath crags and wooded hillocks. Venture north along a high ridge to a natural arch hidden in the cliffs high above Lake James. Unfortunately, you will soon have to leave this paradise for yet another long plunge to the valley below, and yet another campsite shrouded in forest gloom; though this location is mitigated by the presence of a nearby waterfall.

Windy Gap
Windy Gap

On the last day, you must once again make a wearying climb to the fabled fields of Seattle Park and Spray Park. Here, as at Windy Gap, you must control the impulse to linger amidst tarns and flower-filled meadows if you are to reach Mowich Lake before dark. By evening, the trail will dip down into the forest, with the ephemeral cascades of Mist Falls and the final vista at Eagle Rock being your penultimate farewell to the wonderland that isn’t.

Spray Park Tarn
Spray Park Tarn

I am a great believer in taking the road less traveled, and such a road is often fraught with difficulties. Perhaps if one of my companions hadn’t developed back problems that caused me to have to carry her pack in addition to my own, the valleys and ridges of the Northern Traverse would have seemed less pronounced, and I would have had more time to enjoy the quiet beauty of this lesser known side of Mt. Rainier.

Someday I hope to return, to perhaps hike the “Northern Loop,” which begins at Sunrise and combines both part of the route I have described and the Wonderland Trail. I might also go to explore even more remote and trackless places: Crescent Lake, Chenuis Mountain, Old Desolate and the Elysian Fields. To the intrepid explorer, the wilderness beckons, and none more strongly and strangely than that which is most difficult to achieve.


Spray Park
Spray Park

Vivobarefoot Trail Freak Shoes Review

in Gear by
Trail Freak 1

Trail Freak

Upon initial inspection, the Vivobarefoot Trail Freak looks like just a water shoe; colorful, flexible and breathable – unlike any hiking shoe I’ve ever worn. When first trying them out, I felt as though I was walking around with nothing but thick socks on my feet! The Trail Freak is truly fundamentally different from what many of us have come to expect in a shoe.

I have often heard people espouse the benefits of hiking sans footwear, yet never could bear the thought of having to subject my feet to the sharp stones and poking sticks of your average trail. “Barefoot” shoes such as the Trail Freak offer an attractive middle ground between the cushioning and support of normal shoes and the “feeling-the-trail” attraction of hiking hobbit-style.

The Trail Freak takes some getting used to if you have never worn a “barefoot” shoe; I had to shake the feeling that I wasn’t actually wearing shoes at all! My muscles also seemed to need to do some adjusting, since without any arch support, my feet and legs had to get used to a different type of motion. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, since my foot felt unsupported and flat. Once that weirdness subsided, I could begin to appreciate the novelty and sense of freedom that comes from not having my feet encased in the confines of a comparatively bulky, traditional shoe. It began to feel reminiscent of my younger days, when summer was spent in barefoot bliss.

Whether hiking on paved roads, dirt trails or off-trail, the Trail Freaks were up to the task. I wore them daily, walking the dog on the road, on dirt and gravel trails, as well as scrambling about on rocks. They excel in situations where you need a lot of traction, and, despite their somewhat fragile appearance, they are surprisingly durable. I have yet to see any significant signs of wear anywhere on the shoe after six weeks of daily wear. They are not only rugged, but are also designed to be light and breathable for fast, hot ascents. However, the caveat is that their minimalistic design works the other way. While spending a day out hiking in intense sunshine, the heat beating down on my nearly-bare feet was occasionally uncomfortable and the heat from the ground could penetrate the soles of the shoe. If you are hiking on scree slopes, there won’t be any ankle support here. On the other hand, after six hours of trail hiking, I expected the soles of my feet to be aching from the pounding, and this was not the case.

Trail Freak

Instead of traditional laces, the Trail Freak is equipped with a draw-string style system that is both easy to use and effective, and eliminates the possibility of your shoes becoming untied.

The Trail Freak comes in two color combinations: Lime-Orange and Sea-Green, both of which are extremely vibrant. This may be either desirable or off-putting, depending on your personal preference, and such unusual colors may make them potentially unsuitable for wearing around town. That said, I personally love my vibrant Lime-Orange pair.

I found it somewhat tricky to find the right size of shoe for me; I’m usually a size 12, but found that size of the Trail Freak much too small, and had to exchange it for a size 13. It is recommended that you wear socks with the Trail Freak to prevent blisters, but they can also be worn without socks.

Bottom Line:

After an initial period of adjustment, I found the Vivobarefoot Trail Freak to be a pleasantly unorthodox approach to footwear that really brings you closer to the trail.

Tech Specs:

Availability: Available now

MSRP: $110.00

Colors: Lime/Orange, Navy/Orange

Materials: Due 3M mesh, Dri-lex lining, lycra collar

Wildflowers and Waterfalls in the Columbia Gorge

in Trails by

Columbia Gorge

I’m an impatient hiker; I don’t care for the long wait till the snow melts and flowers bloom in the high country. When the first warm sunlight of spring breaks through the rain clouds of winter, I want to hit the trail, and not the dim forest paths to which I have been restricted throughout the winter. To get my fix of open air, wide views, flowers, falls and bright sunshine there is but one destination that beckons: the Columbia Gorge.

Columbia Gorge
The towering mass of the Coyote Wall as seen from the trailhead

The great flower gardens of the gorge begin with the imposing Coyote Wall, an immense palisade of black basalt. Despite its grim and impassable appearance, the ascent to the flower strewn prairies atop it is amazingly relaxed. From the clearly marked Coyote Wall trailhead located along Courtney road just off Highway 14 a few miles east of White Salmon, an abandoned stretch of the old highway rises above Look Lake where osprey fish to feed their offspring waiting on a nearby power pole. Hanging gardens and trees hide among the cliffs above as you navigate through fallen rocks and encroaching plants where nature is inexorably reclaiming the old road. The cliffs are eventually left behind and an open gate in an ancient, rusted fence line beckons you into the meadows. Now a dizzying array of trails confront you, tempting you at every junction. None are marked and no marking is needed; this is a landscape that encourages you to follow your feet without need for a definite destination.

Columbia GorgeThis is a country shaped by the wind. Atop the Coyote Wall, the trees are bent and twisted from the whistling gales that are funneled and concentrated to howling fury by the gorge. Below, parasailers skirt the water as the wind hurries them along. Above, birds of prey ride the updrafts that swirl from the pockets, folds and cliffs, swooping so low that you can almost reach out and touch them.

As you start up the trail, the Coyote Wall is to the left. To the right is the “Little Maui” trail, which ascends through fragrant gardens and small copses of oak and maple trees. Halfway up, it passes tiny Maui Falls after intersecting a path to the labyrinth. This is a less discernible trail, and is more difficult to reach, yet worth the effort as it winds its way through lumpy hills of volcanic debris.

These trails can loop together or can link further east to the Catherine Creek trail. Catherine Creek is perhaps a more well-known trailhead here, with an astonishing variety of spring wildflowers. On a weekend in May, the number of wild flowers may only be outdone by the number of people viewing them! An early morning start is practically a requirement. As with the Coyote Wall, Catherine Creek offers a similarly confounding trail system to the casual wayfarer, but no particular destination is needed. One trail may contain rock formations, such as a natural arch that is located in a canyon wall on the eastern side of the preserve. Another might display a greater variety of wildflowers, with dry meadows full of Balsamroot alternating with small bogs where Mimulus and Camas grow. A long 8 mile loop can be made connecting both Catherine Creek and the Coyote Wall.

Across the gorge from this desert Eden, the fir covered slopes hide their own dramatic and entrancing treasures – a seemingly endless string of waterfalls, each with their own personality.

Columbia Gorge
Wahkeena Falls
Columbia Gorge
Upper Oneonta Falls

Around the great torrent that is Multnomah Falls are found many miles of trails leading to high cliffs, hidden forests, round deep gorges and, of course, to the feet of the numerous falls that tumble from the plateau above. Like the flower trails to the north and east, many loops of varying lengths can be made here. Some of these falls are famous and familiar, such as Eagle Creek (east of Multnomah, near Cascade Locks), where crazy thrill seekers run up the cliffside trail with kayaks slung over their shoulders. I’m not so adventurous, so stopping at the overlook to watch kayakers tumble headfirst over the falls is exciting enough.

I even enjoy some of the most accessible and heavily traveled portions of the trails. The engineering of many of these pathways dates back to the CCC days. The stone buildings near the trailheads and the stone walls of the trails are impressive reminders of the glory days of trail building. Within a mile or so of Multnomah Falls, no less than ten cascades are found and numerous airy ledges and lofty peaks lend glimpses and panoramas of the Columbia River.

Columbia Gorge

If you spend a day at the falls and a day in the flowers, you’ll need a place to camp. The two closest campgrounds are the Eagle Creek Campground on the Oregon side and the Beacon Rock Campground on the Washington side. Both have hiking trails that lead right out of camp. About your only option for real backpacking in the Gorge is also in Eagle Creek. Though mostly unconnected by trail, it’s only a short drive from the Multnomah area. The best campsites (there are only a few enough along the trail, which is reasonable given the remarkable scarcity of anything resembling flat ground) are found near the final waterfall – the aptly named Tunnel Falls – which is bypassed by a trail running through a tunnel behind the falls.

With such a wealth and variety of natural riches available on either side of the river, it’s often difficult to decide just where to go in the Gorge.

Columbia Gorge
Little Maui Trail

For me, the weather may dictate my decision; a day of exceptionally strong wind, clouds and possible rain may be unpleasant to spend in the open fields of Catherine Creek and the Coyote Wall. Under the canopy of tall trees along Eagle Creek or about Multnomah Falls, bad weather is more bearable. On sunny days, it’s hard to choose the dark woods over the bright and open prairies. Wherever you hike in the Gorge, you will not be disappointed – just let your feet find the path and draw you onwards through the flowers, cliffs and waterfalls.

Columbia Gorge
Ponytail Falls

Hike Saddle Mountain

in Trails by
Saddle Mountain and Astoria

Hike Saddle MountainIf you have ever driven to Astoria across the Columbia River upon the great length of the Megler Bridge – its far end lost in haze and sea spray to Astoria – and seen looming above this white city on the river a massive triple-peaked mountain, you have no doubt wondered as to what its name may be.

Crowning the Oregon Coast range, Saddle Mountain is an anomaly in this otherwise somewhat drab line of nondescript hills and ridges that extend from California to the Columbia River. ThisHike Saddle Mountain peak has seen many ages come and go, from ancient lava flows to sheets of glacial ice, to dense forests of giant trees that rolled in an unbroken sea from the Pacific to the Cascade Mountains, before all were felled when settlers crossed the land and sea to colonize this wild region. Now Saddle Mountain occupies a small state park just large enough to contain its bulk, the edges of the park sharply defined by ragged clearcuts. Despite the visual blight of this industrial forest land, the views from the top are amazing, unequaled in their breadth and singular nature. From how many other peaks might one’s gaze follow a mighty river from the snow-clad volcanoes of the Cascades through the hills and farmland to the Pacific Ocean?

Hike Saddle MountainTo reach the foot of Saddle Mountain is an adventure in itself. Whether from Portland, Astoria, Longview or the Oregon Coast, you have to drive long circuitous highways to a narrow side road that strikes out in a higgledy-piggledy tangle of curves winding through a narrow corridor of parkland, occasionally blighted by views into adjacent clearcuts. Just when you think this drive might be endless, the mountain looms before you, intimidating in its appearance, yet just begging to be climbed.

The trail dates back to the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) era and is as impressive as all such trails and other constructs of the CCC are. The climb to the peak is 2.6 miles and is popular, so don’t expect solitude. There is a long ascent through trees with meadows, views and precipices ever increasing in size and number as you climb. Hike Saddle MountainEventually, the trail breaks out into a vast alpine prairie, perched precariously atop basalt cliffs. This is a rare remnant of the prairies that crowned all of the peaks in the coast range following the retreating glaciers of the last ice age, and all but a few of which have been swallowed up in the encroaching forests. Rare plants, such as the Saddle Mountain Buttercress, and chocolate lilies, as well as endangered butterflies, such as the Oregon Silverspot butterfly, grace these delicate fields, some hovering on the brink of extinction. Tread with care.

The final section of the trail may bring on a case of vertigo as it traverses the massive mound of basalt, where winding switch backs are situated above yawning voids. This harrowing stretch yields the greatest reward, with a wide summit replete with the aforementioned stunning views a hundred miles wide. Not only will you have attained the highest point in the Coast Range, but the hike will also bring home the power and scope of the ancient Columbia River basalt floods, which have influenced the topography of much of the Pacific Northwest.

Hike Saddle Mountain

Other nearby hikes include trails in Oswald West State Park, the Banks-Vernonia Rail trail, Neahkahnie Mountain, as well as numerous smaller parks and points of interest such as Fishhawk Falls in Lee Wooden County Park. A weekend in Northwest Oregon, whether spent strolling through alpine prairies filled with spring flowers, or poking about the sea-mist haunted forests of the coast is a tonic for cabin fever while the high country is still blanketed in snow and slush.

Hike Saddle Mountain

Silver Falls State Park

in Trails by

Silver Falls State ParkThis is the time of year when most residents of the Pacific Northwest turn their minds towards escape. The damp, dreary months of winter bring thoughts of trips to Hawaii to the minds of cabin fevered lovers of the great outdoors. But I say, rather than run from the precipitation exuding from the sky and the land all around us, it’s time to embrace it. Resist the tourist covered sunny beaches, and head for the solitude of the rain forest. Forget an afternoon sunset watching ocean waves, and slip behind the cascading sheets of a raging waterfall. Abandon the glamour of a glitzy, full service, wallet-draining hotel, and discover the joy of a rustic log cabin with reduced rates and a tiny electric heater that feels better than all the sunshine in Hawaii after a day spent hiking in the drenching rain.

Silver Falls State Park – the largest State Park in Oregon – is a rainforest paradise nestled among the bucolic fields of the Willamette Valley. One minute you’re driving past the umpteenth family farm, the next you’re transported to a land of dark forests, swirling mists and the roar of towering waterfalls tumbling from cliffs of ancient basalt. The scenic highway gives the casual motorist a respectable tour of the parks attractions, rich with easily accessible viewpoints of waterfalls. However, to truly experience this park, one must dive headlong into the torrential rain of winter and the drenching spray of the falls.Silver Falls State Park

Although there are plenty of great trails within the park, you can see the best of the waterfalls all in one particular hike: the Trail of Ten Falls. Starting from the large parking area near South Falls, the trail descends into the canyon, looping behind the pounding torrent of water that is South Falls. Silver Falls State ParkThe trail meanders along the creek before passing behind yet another waterfall (Lower South Falls). Just past the base of the falls, you can shorten the loop by taking the Maple Ridge trail back to the trailhead for a total of 2 ½ miles. For more falls, continue on up the north fork of Silver Creek, passing pleasant Lower North Falls and, shortly thereafter, the short side trail to the ethereal Double Falls, followed by small Drake Falls. The best falls of all is next. Middle North Falls is a wide, crystalline sheet of water, behind which runs a trail leading to an epic view of the falls and canyon atop a mist-drenched cliff. Twin and Winter Falls are found soon after, and the trail culminates in one last rain fueled cascade, North Falls, and yet another behind-the-falls walk. Before returning to the trailhead via the Rim Trail, there’s an option to visit another waterfall half a mile up the creek, its name – Upper North Falls – sharing a similar amount of originality with the rest of the falls in the park. Naming these various falls after the cardinal directions makes them seem somewhat blasé, but each has its own personality, and still provokes a feeling of awe as it comes into site around a bend in the trail.

Silver Falls State ParkOf course, those not blessed with the time or energy necessary for this loop of nearly 9 miles can easily see the best the park has to offer in a series of short hikes – most of the falls can be reached in less than a mile each. There are over 25 miles of trails traversing 9,000 acres, and especially in the gray days of winter, you can find solitude on the twisting forest paths that traverse the rambling ridges and verdant valleys of the Eastern Park. A trip in early spring will bring contrast to the gray of winter as trillium, orchids and flowering currant adorn the valleys and hillsides.

Normally, I’m a tent camper, whether high in the mountains or in a campground, but after a day of driving and hiking in the pouring rain, crawling into a damp bag in a drippy tent is not terribly appealing. Much more desirable are the park cabins, cheaper and easier to reserve in the off season. With a covered porch and plenty of bunkbeds, it feels like luxury, especially while playing cards at the table inside with the rain pounding on the roof and damp clothes steaming near the heaters.

Silver Falls may be a long drive for some – around six hours from Seattle – but it’s a great destination for a few days of rainforest exploration. Also, it makes an ideal stopover on the way to central Oregon or Northern California. Combine the trip with a visit to Smith Rock, the lava fields of Bend, the painted hills or with a trip to the Redwoods and a tour of the Oregon Coast.

Between rain-soaked sojourns amid loud falls and quiet woods, and the tempting possibilities for adventure beyond the borders of this beautiful park, few will visit Silver Falls and leave with their cabin fever intact.

Silver Falls State Park

SOL Escape Lite Bivvy Review

in Gear by
Sol Bivvy in use

SOL Escape Lite Bivvy

As the ice crinkled on my bag and water melted from around my face and dripped into my eyes, I pondered on the fantastic claims many gear manufacturers make about their excellent products.

The great paradox of backpacking gear has always been the balance between weight, comfort and durability; comfort and durability often equal bulk and weight, while a lack of weight and bulk often result in the sacrifice of comfort and durability. As I settled into the SOL (Survive Outdoors Longer) Escape Lite Bivvy, I hoped that, here, I would find an ideal balance of the three, but it turns out that – at least in this case – you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

The SOL Escape Lite Bivvy is meant to function as either a liner to enhance the warmth of a sleeping bag, as an ultralight summer sleeping bag, or as an emergency shelter. It weighs only 5.5 oz and squishes down small enough to fit into a large coat pocket. The bivvy’s proprietary “Escape” fabric is breathable, weather resistant and reflectively coated on the inside to retain body heat. It is 32” wide by 82” long – large enough to fit you plus a sleeping bag.

SOL Escape Lite Bivvy

On paper, it sounds ideal, but major issues become apparent quickly. The stuff sack is the first problem; it’s so small that every attempt to return the bivvy to it is an epic struggle, a fact which is not helped by the nature of the stuff stack’s materiel, which leads us to the gravest issue of all. The “escape” fabric, responsible for the many miraculous qualities the bivvy is said to have (lightweight, breathable, etc.) is very delicate, so much so that the seams began to rip the first time I crawled into it. This is a major concern in a bivvy sack marketed as a survival shelter; in a survival situation you might very well be forced to shelter in an area with many sharp or abrasive rocks, sticks, pine cones and such. In those conditions, you don’t want to have your shelter rip apart in the middle of the night!


Test 1: Survival

For this test, I braved a late fall rainstorm in the bivvy with nothing more than my clothes and a hooded sweater – standard hiking gear for me. I was unable to pull my head under the bivvy, and the rain seeped in under the upper layer. I might have been warm enough in the high 40s temperatures alone, but after an  hour of constant rain, I could feel the damp and the chill setting in, and after about three hours, I bailed (somewhat literally).

Test 2: Cold Weather Liner

For this test I picked a cold, clear night in early November, using the bivvy as a liner for my summer sleeping bag – rated at 32ºF (the liner is advertised as being able to increase a sleeping bags ratings by 15º). Ice formed on the outside of the bivvy, which tells me that there was some insulation going on there, but the ice around the upper edge melted onto my face and head. I made it to dawn, shivering through temperatures that plunged to 22ºF and below. It wasn’t fun, but I believe it was the bivvy that made the cold survivable.

SOL Escape Lite Bivvy

Test 3: Hammock/Sleeping Bag Liner

I started using a hammock for camping last summer, which I found to be colder than sleeping on the ground. I had tried using a space blanket as a liner, but the condensation was such that I woke up soaked. The Escape Lite Bivy sounded like the ideal solution, since it is both insulating and breathable. It performed its job admirably, but was a bit too breathable when a strong night wind kicked up, bringing with it a wind chill of at least 15º below freezing. As this frigid wind whistled around my hammock, I imagined that this must be how a popsicle feels when it is converted from liquid syrup to frozen treat. I was sure that the local bear population would come upon my frigid, immovable body and start munching! In warm summer weather, this bivvy might be very effective as a hammock liner, but it offers little protection from arctic winds.

Test 4: Ultralight Summer Sleeping Bag Simulation

I finally gave up on cold weather survival, and my final test occurred in my basement, which stays an even 52º; a fair estimation of summer nights in the high mountains. With my only protection other than the bivvy bag being a light sweater and my clothing, I was able to keep from getting too cold, though even at this temperature, it was far from comfortable. If you really want to go super, super light, and if you don’t care at all about being wet, cold, and uncomfortable, the Escape Lite Bivvy might be a possible alternative to a traditional sleeping bag.

SOL Escape Lite Bivvy


Bottom Line:

In conclusion, the SOL escape Lite Bivvy doesn’t live up to its potential. It is not rugged, waterproof, or warm enough to be used for many of its intended purposes. That said, it is not totally useless. It packs down so small and light that it can easily be thrown into a day pack as an emergency shelter. And despite my many complaints, I will likely get some use out of the Escape Lite Bivy as a sleeping bag liner. It is a fine replacement for the large trash sacks I had used previously to keep dirt and moisture off of my sleeping bag. However, $40 is a lot to ask for an emergency bivvy sack or even an ultralight sleeping bag liner that rips as easily as this.

Tech Specs:
Price: $40.00
Item #: 0140-1227
Materiel: Escape fabric
Weight: 5.5oz
Dimensions: 32” X 82”

Usability: 4

Fit: 6

Packability: 9

Go to Top