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Trail Report: Walking the West Highland Way

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The West Highland Way is a marked walking trail that extends 154 kilometres (96 miles) from Glasgow to Fort William in Scotland.

The Route
The Way was established in 1980 and sees 15,000 walkers completing it annually. The well-marked path makes use of old footpaths, military roads, abandoned railway lines and trade routes through the highlands and, as a result, is graded in most sections with the possible except of the route along the banks of Loch Lomond. Walking from Glasgow to Fort William is most typical with the Way rising day over day and becoming more and more wild as it approaches Fort William.

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Notable hills include Conic Hill just before Balmaha, the Devil’s Staircase in Glencoe, the seemingly endless descent into Kinlochleven and the final mountain road descent into Fort William. Along the route are many historical ruins as well as mountain bothies for use by climbers and walkers.

The Way breaks down well into sections. Typically the choice is between 5 and 8 days. I chose to complete it over 6 days.
My stopping points with daily distances (kilometres/miles) were:

Day 1: Milngavie to Balmaha (Oak Tree Inn) – 32/20

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A relatively simple start on footpaths, lanes and an old railway sees you to Drymen, your first town for resupply. Rising past Drymen the Way enters the Garadhban forest before eventually going over Conic Hill with fabulous views of Loch Lomond and Balmaha. I was fortunate to walk this entire section in brilliant sunshine and receive the rarest of things, a sunburn in Scotland!

Day 2: Balmaha to Inversnaid (Inversnaid Bunkhouse) – 22/14

This section closely follows the shore of Loch Lomond, the largest body of inland water in Britain. The roughest section of the way, this part climbs and descends numerous streams flowing down into the Loch and, on many occasions, employs bridges and ladders to traverse the rocky shoreline. This portion is within the no-camping zone on the Loch (other than designated campgrounds), a requirement caused by past overuse in the area. I had a strenuous rainy day ending in Inversnaid at the Inversnaid Hotel where I was picked up for the ride uphill to the Bunkhouse located in a converted church.

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Day 3: Inversnaid to Crianlarich (Scottish Youth Hostel) – 21/13

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Up and out in the rain again to walk the remaining portion of Loch Lomond over the same rough terrain as the previous day. The Way leaves the Loch at Inverarnan and climbs up the stunning Glen Falloch River with its many waterfalls and rapids then over a low pass to Crianlarich. The section is marked by many sheep and cattle farms and the classic and ever present highland stone walls which, in some instances stretch for many kilometers beside the way. The Scottish Youth Hostel in Crianlarich is downhill from the Way on a near four kilometre spur route. A well-equipped grocery store provided dinner to be cooked at the hostel as well as a few beverages pre-dinner.
Day 4: Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy (Bridge of Orchy Hotel) – 21/13

In contrast to the previous two days, this portion was both rain free and generally easy going. The Way here winds over good paths and tracks through the valley running west from Crianlarich with a few ascents and descents and a welcome lunch break in Tyndrum at the Green Wellie Stop. Along the Way I explored the ruins of St. Fillan’s Chapel which was funded as a priory by Robert the Bruce in 1318 (after St. Fillan’s relics assisted him in his win over King Edward at Bannockburn in 1314) and which represented an important religious centre at the time. Past Tyndrum Robert the Bruce’s presence is felt again as the Battle of Dalrigh and the Legend of the Lost Sword are commemorated along the Way. I arrived at the Bridge of Orchy late afternoon and enjoyed their pub and then a gourmet meal in their restaurant. Camping is also available just over the Bridge near the river.
Day 5: Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven (Blackwater Hostel) – 34/21 + 5K!

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I was up early for the long day over Rannoch Moor to Kinlochleven. As is common in most accommodation, packed lunches are available if ordered the night before. This section, and also the next ending in Fort William, lacks any amenities other than Kingshouse in Glencoe and so I opted for the two sandwich lunch and packed extra food. Using old military roads built in 1752 and little changed since then the Way rises up then dips down to Inveroran and a small snug Hotel right on the Way at a location it has held for over two centuries before rising again to the western edge of Rannoch Moor on the edge of Loch Tulla. With an early start and pursued by midges across the vast exposed reach of the Moor over 10 kilometres I reached Kingshouse under the watchful eye of the instantly recognizable mountain at the head of Glencoe, Buachaille Etive Mor (the Great Herdsmen). A steak and ale pie and a pint were my reward for a 19 km morning which put me within easy striking distance (or so I thought) of Kinlochleven.

From Kingshouse the Way works down the Glencoe Valley then bears west up and over the Devil’s Staircase, at 550 meters, the highest point on the Way. Approaching Kinlochleven you pass the Blackwater Hydroelectric Dam which powered the aluminum smelter in Kinlochleven vital to the British WW2 war effort. A seemingly endless downhill road walk from the dam into town (with Kinlochleven visible far away) became longer when the Way left the road but I didn’t. Several kilometres downhill I was forced to retrace my route back to where the trail diverted, adding 5 extra kilometres to an already 34 kilometre day. Thankfully I had booked at the Blackwater Hostel right on the Way and had secured one of their Micro lodges which were two bed barrel shaped accommodations complete with refrigerator, microwave, TV and kettle! I picked up dinner and cooked at the hostel and went to bed early after a long day.
Day 6: Kinlochleven to Fort William (West End Hotel) – 24/16

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My final day saw more rain and a steady climb out of Kinlochleven over the Lairigmor and then another up and over Glen Nevis. The views of Ben Nevis were partially obscured by the increasing cloud accompanied by high winds. After another extremely steep dirt road descent and the approach to Fort William on public roads to the former end of the Way just before the town and then into town for the official end point, I posed for the classic end photo and then retreated to the West End Hotel to dry out and celebrate.
When estimating my day’s walk I found that my average speed broke down to slightly better than 4 kilometres per hour with most days walking ranging around 9-10 hours with breaks. The latitude of Scotland caused long summer days with the sun setting very late, permitting long trail days without worry of being caught out in the dark.
Logistics

Getting to and from the Way

Glasgow is the usual arrival point by air with local trains running several times per hour from Glasgow’s Central and Queen Street train stations to Milngavie which is about 30 minutes away. If you arrive by air you can purchase a combined shuttle ticket to the train station and the Glasgow – Milngavie ticket at a discount from the machines in the airport. If you plan to travel in Scotland after your walk you can leave luggage at the airport or, for a more reasonable rate, at the Central train station. Milngavie is a full service town with accommodation and stores to purchase supplies including camping supplies such as cooking fuel. The West Highland Line has train stations near or on the Way up to the Bridge of Orchy (where it swings away and goes on to Fort William) which could be used for an abbreviated trip or in the event of an emergency enroute.
Accommodation and Baggage services

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Users can choose to either camp along the Way or make use of a full range of accommodations. My original plan was to backpack and camp the route however, as a result of an accident shortly before the trip, I opted to carry only what was necessary to permit me to overnight in accommodations which ranged from hostels to hotels.
There are numerous baggage carrying services that will pick up your kit daily and drop it off for you at the end of the day, permitting you to travel light with only your lunch and waterproofs. I didn’t opt for this service and chose to carry my end of day clothing, a week worth of snack food and other essentials in a 25 litre day pack.
An official pocket companion is published each year which details all services along the Way from food and resupply, travel providers, baggage transfer, banking and accommodation.

Gear

Footwear: the Way is quite well groomed and, with resupply easily available enroute to lighten your load, heavy boots are not necessary in my opinion. It is likely that you will end up with wet feet due to the weather and the many wet spots and so foot wear that can dry more easily at the end of the day is preferable. I wore lightweight synthetic boots and, with judicious taping at the beginning of each day (Leukotape), I had no issues.
Trekking poles: in some parts, most notably on the shore of Loch Lomond and on the rocky up and downhill portions, trekking poles were invaluable. If you fly, be sure to put your poles in your checked luggage as there have been reported instances of poles not being permitted as carry on. I typically collapse them and wrap the sharp tips in duct tape for flights.
Waterproofs: it is the Highlands. It will rain at least once each day and, on one occasion, several times alternating with sunshine in a single hour. Combined in many instances with a bit of wind it pays to have a waterproof jacket in an outside pocket along with a brimmed hat (more on that when we get to midges!). I opted not to take waterproof pants as the temperature was warm enough to wear synthetic pants (in my case zip offs) which got wet then dried quickly. Between the midges and the cooler rainy days I only wore them as shorts on one of the six days. Be sure to have a pack cover also. All of the hotels and hostels I stayed in had drying rooms for gear which permitted at least a dry start to each day.
Resupply

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When originally planning my camping walk I looked at resupply options and decided to pack breakfasts and two dinners for 6 days and go heavy on the snack food. When I was forced to switch to roofed accommodation at night I dropped my cooking plan and went exclusively with purchased food other than a large bag of mixed energy bars and trail mix.
I found that there are sufficient places to purchase food along or just off the Way in all but the last portion from Kinlochleven to Fort William that, with a bit of planning, my original 2 dinner plan would have been sufficient. Using accommodation I was able to buy a big breakfast (a full Scottish breakfast is very substantial), in some cases buy a boxed lunch from the place I stayed and then eat my snack food as I went with dinner at my new accommodation at the end of the day.

I cooked twice in the kitchens at the hostels in Crianlarich and Kinlochleven by buying food at the local grocery store and in the other three hotels/bunkhouses I bought my dinner (and a beer or two at the pub!). The hotels and bunkhouses had full dinners to buy (Scottish smoked salmon starter along with haggis, neeps and tatties at the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha is highly recommended!).

My schedule allowed me to eat a full lunch on two memorable occasions in Tyndrum at the Green Wellie Stop where I had a great bowl of Cullen Skink (smoked haddock soup)

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and at Kingshouse in Glencoe where a pint and a steak and ale pie made a 35 km day much more enjoyable. Finally, carry cash as cash machines are infrequent and not all places accept credit cards especially for small purchases such as the stellar bacon butty and tea I had unexpectedly one morning at a small campsite canteen.

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Midges
The Highland Midge (Culicoides impunctatus). Wikipedia notes that “They are generally regarded as pests”. I can attest to that. Single midges are nearly invisible at 1 millimeter which is this size → ● A swarm can inflict 3000 itchy bites in an hour from 40,000 landings. They are most vicious at dawn and dusk and on any low light intensity day that is overcast following a light rain – in effect, all of the time in the Highlands. The worst months are June – August. I used a combination of a bug net, brimmed hat, long sleeves and long pants and a few insect repellent wipes. Those I encountered who did not have protection seemed frantic and kept running away mid-sentence as the swarm descends when you stand still. My day crossing Rannoch Moor was the worst but the protection I had seemed to work. Smidgeup.com (Smidge is a local Scottish repellent) maintains an updated midge forecast website for those who favour a technical heads up.

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Part 2 – Tami Asars PCT Experience in Her Own Words

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Tami Asars
Hiker on the PCT enjoys the view above Joe Lake north of Snoqualmie Pass. Photo by Tami Asars.

Last week we introduced a two-part interview with guidebook writer and photographer Tami Asars.  This week we complete the series with Tami Asars giving us expert advice for trekking Washington’s PCT.  From shoes to pastries, Tami Asars tells us what we need to know to make the most of our own PCT experience.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about doing the Washington part of the PCT?  If someone is stage hiking is there a “must do” section?

As I always say, that the feather in your cap is not that you hiked X amount of miles along the PCT, but rather that you experienced the wild backcountry with the muscle and mental power of your beautiful, human self.

Every single section of the PCT has something to see.  Near the Columbia River the landscape occasionally echoes our east coast neighbors with deciduous trees, riparian brush, quiet forests, dribbling creeks and view of Mount Adams and Mount Hood.

As you head north the trail curves around the broad shoulders of the giant Mount Adams and truly introduces “purple mountain majesty” with meadows of lupine and aster lining the rocky soil. Volcanic views make you realize just how tiny you are in the grand scheme of the universe.

From there, it’s up and over to Goat Rocks Wilderness where an ancient strata volcano guides hikers into subalpine meadows, spectacular views and alpine landscapes before crossing one of the most exhilarating and somewhat nerve wracking stretches on the entire Pacific Crest Trail- the Goat Rocks Knife Edge or The Spine. The cliffs below you drop off into valleys up to 3,000 feet below the trail.  Goat herds click and clack along the exposed rocks while grassy meadows below the trail offer rich grazing grounds for elk and deer. This view will knock off your socks and maybe even your boots.

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Dramatic open views are provided at Cispus Basin in Goat Rocks Wilderness. Photo by Tami Asars.

North of White Pass the grade is gentle to moderate and lakes and tarns abound.  There are so many in fact, that you might lose count of how many you’ve passed.  The peacefulness of the place attracts visitors who wish to saturate themselves in backcountry magic on the many shorelines of this tranquil landscape.

Rumors you may have heard about the trail between Chinook Pass and Snoqualmie Pass being all clear cuts is just not true. Sure there are a few here and there, but the trail also crosses the grand backcountry near Crystal Mountain ski area and the beautiful meadows and historic cabin near Government Meadow. When clear cuts present themselves, there are often herds of elk grazing on the young, green shoots.

Snoqualmie Pass to Steven Pass is one of the most popular sections for a reason!  The vast views of jagged peaks such as Mount Daniel, Bears Breast, and Cathedral Rock will have you reaching for your camera over and over again. Tranquil lakes, green meadows and running rivers provide hikers a brilliant opportunity to metaphorically take a load off.

From Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass the countryside looms large, rugged and breathtaking. From the high country of Glacier Peak Wilderness to the rumbling, deep valleys there is something for everyone, provided you are motivated, as this is the longest section in the guide. The tiny town of Stehekin is in the mix of this stretch, giving hikers an opportunity for a side trip.  The ponderosa pines of the east side of the Cascade Crest make more of an appearance and at times you feel like someone has dropped you into the set of a John Wayne movie.

North of Rainy Pass the trail hits one of the most majestic stretches of the North Cascades- the vast area known as Cutthroat Pass with sweeping views of mountains as far as the eye can see. Staying on the eastern side of the crest, the trail eventually meets up with the car camping area of Harts Pass, a popular access spot for those looking to sync up with friends.  From there, it’s more peaks and valleys until you arrive at Monument 78, also known as the wide swath of cleared land differentiating the US and Canadian borders. Folks looking to travel into Canada and end up in Manning Park, B. C. must have appropriate paperwork arranged in advance. With that in hand, you’ll sleep like a baby once you reach the cozy Manning Park Lodge off Highway 3, the final destination for many weary hikers.

I really love the North Cascades from Rainy Pass to Manning Park, B. C.! That stretch is extremely panoramic and, if you can wait until fall, you’ll be in the thick of yellow larch trees and fewer people in the backcountry.  When you get closer to the Canadian Border, the only evidence of people is the trail you are following. Simply put, it’s undisturbed serenity.

How did your experience guiding the Wonderland help with this project?

I actually guided on the Northern Loop Trail in Mount Rainier National Park which connects in with the Wonderland. During that experience, I saw people with a variety of athletic abilities carrying a pack, many for the first time, over challenging terrain. I made a few notes of ways to make this guidebook extremely useful.

  1. Water sources. Folks new to backpacking will often carry way too much water, fearing that they may not find more up ahead. Carrying too much heavy water can weigh the most athletic hikers down to a snail’s pace and create potential for injuries. A good guidebook, like my PCT guide, will have information on where water sources are found and can be a tremendous asset in your planning. When you are training, learn your body’s hydration needs and carry only the amount you require until your next water source. Also, when you get to your water source, fill a bottle and drink it before you leave. As a guide, we helped people do the delicate dance between carrying too much water and carrying too little.
  1. Camping challenges. While the Northern Loop and Wonderland Trails have prearranged designated camps, the PCT does not.  In the beating heart of the summer, on some of the most popular PCT sections, camps get very full. When this happens, section hikers have no idea how far they need to keep hiking on tired feet and sore shoulders until they reach the next viable flat spot to call home for the night. I spent two years documenting all the camps along the trail including them in the guide’s elevation profile, maps and trail descriptions so that folks know exactly how far it is from one to the next. There is even a camp to camp distance chart at the end of each leg to further help those folks who want hard numbers.

Are there any pieces of gear you would recommend as a “must have?”

There are many, but if I had to pick one, I’d say my Altra Lone Peak trail running shoes.  Years ago everyone wore heavy backpacking boots, but these days it’s much more common to see folks traipsing down the trail wearing a lightweight, sneaker-style shoes designed to handle off- road terrain with reinforced foot protection and more aggressive stability.

The trail shoes were a game changer with respects to foot and leg fatigue and allowed me to cover much more ground than traditional hiking boots. Not only are they lighter, but the wide toe box provides plenty of room for my swollen, weary feet to spread-out without rubbing, pinching or impeding in anyway. Since I’ve started wearing them, I’ve gone from 15 mile days to over 20 with very little foot pain or exhaustion and for a professional hiker like myself, those are precious, deadline miles!

Any places off the trail (towns, restaurants, coffee shops, post offices) that you would recommend?

Don’t even think of missing the town of Stehekin! It’s one of the most amazing micro-towns you’ll ever get the chance to visit. There is so much to see and do in this historic villa located at the northern tip of Lake Chelan. Waterfalls, a historic one-room school house, a rustic bakery serving mouthwatering pies and cinnamon rolls, a gorgeous garden selling local produce, cheese and honey, bicycle rentals, kayak rentals, petroglyphs, fly-fishing adventures, and a handful of salt-of-the-earth residents are just a few reasons to visit! My new guidebook has contact information for a variety of lodging and activities you may want to enjoy.

 

 

Tami AsarsGuide book writer Tami Asars on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tami’s new guide book will be out in September 2016 in a full color coffee-table style edition.  An e-reader version is available for those that want to take the book with them on the trail.  Tami Asars says that her book is one in a series of PCT guide books that will be out this fall, other books will cover the California and Oregon sections of the PCT.  For details about where Tami Asars will be signing books and talking about her adventures go to her website at www.tamiasars.com

Trip Report: Bench Lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains

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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.

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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.

Trip Report: New Hampshire’s Pemi Loop

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31.5 miles, 18,000 feet of elevation change, 12 – 4000+ footers, White Mountain Guide book time: 20 hours and 17 minutes. The Pemigewasset Wilderness in New Hampshire’s White Mountains is a granite spined labyrinth of dense forest, steep slopes and sweeping views from high above the tree line. The Pemi Loop circles the western half of the wilderness on a chain of mountains which has, at its center, the wooded summit of Owls Head.

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You won’t find the Pemi Loop in the most recent 29th edition of the White Mountain Guide as it represents a near mythical combination of six trails (clockwise – Lincoln Woods, Osseo, Franconia Ridge, Garfield Ridge, Twinway and Bondcliff, Lincoln Woods) which, if hiked together, produce a loop trail over some of the most beautiful sections of trail in the area.  Buy a copy of the guide with all four maps of the Whites or rely on the Franconia-Pemigawasset map which is available separately in a waterproof version (this proved useful during my trip).

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Access to the trail is through the Lincoln Woods Visitors Center on the Kancamagus Highway five miles east of Lincoln N.H. There are many USFS campgrounds immediately around the visitor’s center (Big Rock and Hancock campgrounds on the Kancamagus) which would permit you to camp out and get an early start.  I chose to stay overnight in Lincoln, 15 minutes from the trailhead, setting me up for an 8 AM start. Overnight parking is available at the rate of $3 per day, payable through a self-service station.  Backcountry camping is permitted in either of two ways: by self-selection following the USFS rules, or at the designated campsites.

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The USFS rules for the White Mountains: no camping (i) within 1/4 mile of any hut, shelter, campsite or trailhead; (ii) above tree line; (iii) within 200 feet of any trail; (iv) within 1/4 mile of the Pemigewasset River.

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These rules, along with the general shortage of water and the steep terrain, means you either carry water and camp or descend to find water to camp near. Given the already significant elevation gain, this supports the use of the designated campsites.

There are three such campsites on the loop: Liberty Spring, Garfield Ridge and Guyot.  Additionally, Galehead Hut with full bunkhouse and meals at the mid-point is available through pre-booking. Off trail, 1.1 miles down a steep descent, Greenleaf Hut is also available when pre-booked.  The campsites have available water, tent platforms and seasonal caretakers. They are not reservable and operate on a first come, first serve basis with overflow available during the busy season.  Campsite fees are $8 per night per person.

Plan to carry water as the ridges are dry and represent a large percentage of the trail.  Water is available at the campsites, Galehead Hut and at Garfield Pond after the descent off Mt. Lafayette. The 0.3 mile descent to Liberty Springs Campsite steep and time consuming even without a pack, but does permit you to carry water to that point and then replenish before the remainder of Franconia Ridge.

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I chose to complete the loop in three days in a clockwise circuit, the most typical direction. The plan for the first day can be difficult. You can choose a short or part day to Liberty Spring Campsite, a long day to Garfield or a pre-booking at Greenleaf Hut off trail.  After that, Guyot Campsite evenly splits the remaining miles.

Each end of the trail is on an abandoned railroad bed which means a fast easy grade for the first and last few miles. After walking the old rail line I turned up the Osseo Trail and began the ascent up Mt. Flume through the trees to the start of Franconia Ridge. On the ridge above the tree line, weather plays a large role as you’re exposed to the elements for over five miles; wind proofs are greatly appreciated. On my first day I was in and out of the clouds with full or partial views into the Wilderness and outward to the rest of the Presidential Range.

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I had originally planned to go to Garfield Ridge Campsite on day one, but even with an 8 AM start I found myself in the clouds and high winds on top of Mt. Lafayette (5700’) at 5 PM which was too late to descend two hours and then ascend Garfield Ridge to the campsite before dark. At 7 PM, after eleven hours of hiking, I arrived at Garfield Pond where, with a bit of bushwhacking, I was able to find enough level ground for my tent before dark. Seth and Ben, who I met earlier on Mt. Liberty (Seth had suggested Garfield Pond as an option) chose to hammock at the pond rather than face Mt. Garfield in the dark.

On day two, an early morning and clear, cool weather made the climb up Garfield and the descent to Galehead Hut very picturesque.

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Galehead Hut (est. 1932 and rebuilt after a fire in 2000) is located on the trail between Mt. Garfield and South Twin Mountain. It’s worth setting some time aside for.  Snacks and hot drinks can be purchased and water bottles filled up.

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I was lucky enough to run into some AT Thru-hikers enroute to Maine at Galehead. They were aiming for a finish in approximately three weeks or mid-October. They were already feeling the end of their trail which had started in late March or early April. Talking to them brought back memories of my 1986 north to south thru hike.

Leaving Galehead Hut puts you immediately on the Twinway Trail up South Twin Mountain. It’s a knee-busting 0.8 mile section of trail rising on classic White Mountain granite steps 1,200 feet to the summit. I topped out early afternoon and then descended to Guyot Campsite for a 4 PM finish to the day.

Guyot was busy, but I was able to get one of the last double tent platforms, sharing with three other tents.  Guyot has four single platforms, two doubles, an Adirondack-style shelter which sleeps 12 as well as overflow sites.  The platforms are preferable as the water source is central to the platforms, but they’re well down the slope from the overflow sites, making water carrying necessary.

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Rain began overnight and turned into drizzle for the final day as I ascended the Bonds on the Bondcliff Trail.  This portion has a significant part above the tree line which made for spectacular views, even with limit visibility.  The final portion of the trail is a steady descent to the Lincoln Woods Trail, approximately three miles of generally level rail trail. I was out of the woods at two in the afternoon.

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In terms of gear, in general I took my lightest gear because of the elevation change and the need to carry water.  For example, I treated water with tablets rather than a filter to save weight, and I had no issues. I took into account the elevation, weather, temperature (low 50s) and exposure and carried shell layers which are perhaps more important than insulating layers. I made sure that I waterproofed my pack and bedding. Lunch lounging was not an option because of the exposure, so I took snacks for the day and made sure that I ate regularly given the temperature and strenuous trail.  Having containers to carry water is a must, and my Platypus containers allowed me to carry up to 4 litres. This was useful in camp. Putting a warm layer in a waterproof bag on the outside of my pack for breaks was handy. I chose a synthetic fill jacket as it gradually got wet over several days but still remained warm.

The trail can be accessed from other points around its perimeter, so an entirely different hike could be planned based upon those optional trailheads. An example would be starting at the Liberty Spring trailhead, hiking up to the campsite and then on to the loop. The Garfield Ridge Trail is another example, as is the route up through Greenleaf Hut. As well, the trail has side routes to four other 4000 footers which can be added as side trips.

The next day I wrapped the trip up by taking the Mt. Washington Cog Railway to the summit and experienced the 75 mile per hour gusts without having to hike up and down – a decision I was very happy about!

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I stayed overnight in Lincoln pre-trip, the White Mountain Hostel in Conway post trip (which I highly recommend) and Gorham, a classic AT trail town, on the way home.

I’m hooked and will definitely be back to hike the loop again.

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Andrew Grieve is a commercial lawyer by trade and an avid backpacker and endurance athlete by choice. From the Boy Scouts in eastern Canada through an Appalachian Trail end to end hike and Mt. McKinley’s West Buttress he has been on most eastern trails and mountains in winter and summer. When not beer drinking with his photo group he can be found at home in Toronto with his awesome family dehydrating food, making lists and planning his next adventure.

Trip Report: Lake Ann

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Follow a well-worn and rocky trail through forest, meadow and talus to a beautiful lake perched above a deep glacial valley. But the lake is not the biggest draw to this trail, that credit would go to the mighty Mt Shuksan and the lower Curtis Glacier in North Cascades National Park that will capture your attention and may even draw you in for a closer view. Make a weekend of it and enjoy all the adventure that this area has to offer.

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Views of Mount Baker abound on the rocky trail to Lake Ann.

The trail begins along the Mt Baker highway from the trailhead on the left just before Artist Point. There is limited parking at the trailhead, so arrive early. The four mile long trail immediately drops into an alpine forest before flattening in a boggy meadow. Cross Swift Creek here and admire the wildflowers. Mt Baker makes some sneaky appearances through the trees, but don’t worry, the lovely white stratovolcano will soon dominate your views.

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Lake Ann is often ice bound into late summer and fall.

The trail begins to climb steadily through talus slopes sprinkled with wildflowers toward a saddle. This part of the trail can be dangerous in the early season when snow is present. Continue up until cresting at a saddle. Stop to catch your breath while taking in the views of Mt Shuksan which finally makes an appearance. The jagged peak, one of the most beautiful in the North Cascades, towers above the crackling ice of the Lower Curtis glacier.

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Mt Shuksan looms above the fall color of the blueberry bushes.

You will have to tear your eyes away from Mt Shuksan to notice the humble lake nestled below. It’s edges appear to plunge into the valley below like an infinity pool. There are some campsites around the lake and up above a rocky slope. We set up camp right on some flat rocks on the far shore of the lake. The views from the tent door were spectacular and we had a front row view of the sunset’s alpenglow. Once and a while we heard the crack of the glacier and tumbling of ice and rocks.

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Heading back to Lake Ann from the Lower Curtis Glacier.

After establishing camp, we decided to check out the Lower Curtis Glacier. We headed back toward the saddle and found the trail heading along the slopes toward Mt Shuksan. This rough climbers’ path is cut out of a steep slope and should only be traveled when there is no snow lingering. We didn’t get far before our fingers were blue from all the blueberries we were picking. We had our fill like gluttonous bears and then continued on our way.

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Getting a closer look at the Lower Curtis Glacier.

The incredible size of the glacier begins to reveal itself as you get closer and closer. The edges of the dark crevasses become sharper with alternating thin stripes of ice blue and brown lining the inside of them. We chatted with some climbers making their way up the seemingly impossible-to-climb mountain and wished them luck. On our way back to the lake I thought about how lucky we were to get an up close view of this beautiful and sadly, shrinking, glacier.

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The Lower Curtis glacier crumbling into the deep valley below.

The journey to Lake Ann is one filled with amazing scenery and views and the short trek to the glacier makes this hike even more spectacular. It’s the cherry (or should I say blueberry) on top of an already incredible hike and the perfect excuse to make this trip an overnight one. A visit in fall makes it even better with the promise of blazing foliage and delicious berries.

The Highest Trail on Earth

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Great Himalayan Trail
Great Himalayan Trail
The 4,500km Great Himalayan Trail is the adventure of a lifetime, if you are physically and mentally ready to pay the price to trek the highest trail on earth. Source: redbull.com

Robin Boustead is mapping the Great Himalayan Trail that spans roughly 4,500km through the mountainous regions of Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Tibet. The trial is not only rugged, remote, and long – it also has the dubious honor of being the highest trail on earth with an elevation gain and loss of over 150,000m. The highest point on the trail is 6,200m.

Great Himalayan Trail
Even an experienced trekker needs a rest on the 4,500km Himalayan Trail. Robin Boustead takes on the adventure of a life-time to map the entire remote route. Source: Redbull.com

Boustead started the mapping expedition in 2008 after decades of trekking the Himalayas with inadequate maps. “I was unimpressed with the maps of the Himalayas and I thought ‘why not try and improve them,’” Boustead told reporters. The latest earthquake in Nepal caused variations in the current map that Boustead vows to try to correct next year.

Great Himalayan Trail
The trail ranges from tropical ecosystems to rugged alpine environments. Source: worldexpeditions.com
Great Himalayan Trail
The trail will test your navigation and mountaineering skills says Boustead. Source: sudouest.fr

One of the biggest problems Boustead has encountered is the dramatic changes in climate and ecosystems found in the Himalayan region. Boustead warns that a trekker will experience everything from tropical to alpine conditions; testing both mountaineering experience and determination. According to Boustead the trail ranges from 400m above sea level at its lowest point to 6200m at the highest point. Depending on the exact route selected, trekkers could experience 3000m ascents and descents on multiple days. “No matter how tough you think it’s going to be, it will be tougher! But it is a great, life changing experience – you genuinely don’t come back the same person,” said Boustead.

Highest Trail on Earth
“No matter how tough you think it’s going to be, it will be tougher! But it is a great, life changing experience – you genuinely don’t come back the same person,” said Boustead.  Source: tourism.wildasia.org

Tuck and Robin Lakes

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Robin Lakes, with gem-colored sparkling water and towering, white granite mountains, is often referred to as the “Little Enchantments.” Much like the Enchantments, you will have to work very hard to get to this little slice of heaven. But without the protective permit system of the Enchantments, you will likely also have to share it with many others. It’s 14 miles round trip to Robin Lakes with 3000 feet of elevation gain, and it makes a great overnight destination – or you could spend several days exploring all the lakes and wonders of the trail.

The way starts out from the popular Deception Pass trailhead and is nice and flat for about 3 miles as you walk through meadows with views of the iconic Cathedral Rock. Soon you will reach the expansive and tranquil Hyas Lake. This is a great option for families, as camping spots abound on this mile-long stretch of the trail along the lake.

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Hyas Lake

But don’t get too comfortable on the flat land. After passing Hyas Lake, the trail begins to climb to a junction at 4.5 miles. The trail to the left goes to Deception Pass; head right to begin the climb to Tuck Lake. For some reason Tuck and Robin Lakes, with all their beauty, were not found worthy of the Norse God status of the Enchantments. In fact, an official trail was never built to the lakes – supposedly to discourage visitors. Well, the secret has long been out, but the trail has little improved from its old fireman’s trail status. The way is obvious here, but it’s steep, rocky and rooty – the kind of trail where you need only lean back slightly toward the slopes to find a nice reclining position for a snack.

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Tuck Lake

Finally at 6 miles, you reach Tuck Lake with its charming rock island. You can camp here, but there are very limited spots and it’s often quite crowded. It makes a better lunch spot to refuel for the last push up to Robin Lakes. From here the way is a little less obvious with many social paths leading away from Tuck Lake. But generally, you head straight up and over the granite boulders. There were a few spots along this stretch where we had to help our dog up the big rocks.

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Tuck Lake below the way to Robin Lakes

This section of the hike is where you will begin to see the resemblance to the Enchantments. Tuck Lake glimmers below, and Mt. Daniel, with its impressive glacier, emerges as you climb seemingly impossible granite boulders. The cairns will show you the way to the top of the ridge if you can take your eyes off the views. When you crest the ridge, the lakes come into view in all their glory. Drop down into the basin for a closer look.

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Robin Lakes

There are many places to camp in the flat basin along the lower lake. For more privacy, head up the arm between the two lakes or to the far side of the upper lake. To beat the crowds, go late in the season. We did this hike over Labor Day weekend and there were only a handful of parties at the lakes. However, always be prepared for any kind of weather conditions in this area, especially in late summer. We were surprised to find a few inches of snow on the ground around our tents in the morning.

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Snowy camp the next morning

If you are feeling adventurous, Trico and Granite Mountains, which make a lovely backdrop to the lakes, are also non-technical climbs. The lakes are also a great place to just relax and take in the beauty of this beloved area. You will likely even see some mountain goats. But please step lightly and be kind to this highly trafficked area. As the late Harvey Manning says in his guidebook, 100 Classic Hikes in Washington,” camp in this neighborhood of heaven only when essential to your soul, and not too often; don’t be a hog.”

Alpine Lakes Wilderness Hike (Trout and Boulder Lakes)

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I recently had the opportunity to explore the Alpine Lakes Wilderness hike off HWY 2 just past Skykomish and was amazed at the abundance of food, medicine, and beauty in this place. I have not explored much of the Cascades because, for some reason, I had this image of desolate, cold and snowy mountains. But during the summer months, this is not the case at all.

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Old growth Cedar tree

After a short drive down the gravel road off HWY 2, we arrived at the Boulder Lake trailhead. Here we started our Alpine Wilderness hike. We double-checked our gear, quick stretch and in we went. Very quickly into the hike, we discovered an abundance of Twisted Stalk berries and Oval Leaf blueberries along the trail to snack on. As we explored further, we found a few ancient, giant, old growth Douglas Fir and Cedar trees. The Douglas Fir was one of the biggest trees I had ever seen. Would have needed at least 10 people to give it a solid hug. Just beside it was some Wild Ginger. After properly identifying it with its beautiful flowers growing below the heart shaped leaves, I added a bit to my water bottle.

trout lake
Trout Lake

After about 45 minutes, we arrived at Trout Lake. A lovely stop to rest, grab a snack and take a swim. Some of our friends decided since they had to leave early the next day, they would stay and camp here. The rest of us continued deeper into the mountains.

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Yarrow flowers

It’s a solid climb from here up to Boulder Lake. There are several switchbacks into the open hillside where the sun beat down on us with just a few shady spots to rest in. The views from here are amazing. You can see mountainsides all across the way with their dry channels where the snow melt would create seasonal streams. Also, looking up, you can see the waterfall flowing out of Boulder Lake. As we ventured up, we discovered many more useful plants such as Pearly Everlasting, Yarrow, and Mugwort. By the time we reached the top, I had tasted 9 different kinds of edible berries!! (Thimbleberry, Gooseberry, Trailing Currants, Oval Leaf Blueberry, Trailing Blackberry, Twisted Stalk, Salmonberry, Red Huckleberry, and Black Huckleberry)

boulder lake
Boulder Lake

We reached the top, crossed the stream and made our way around to where we could see the lake. Wow! Standing on berry covered, stoney cliffs, I gazed across the deep blue water reflecting the talus covered hillside of scattered trees and tiny patches of snow, before my eyes reached the peak of Boulder Lake Mountain.

I quickly dropped my pack and jumped into the clear, cold, refreshing water. Exploring the stories of large boulders and trees that lay on the bottom of the lake … what an enlivening feeling!

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Boulder Lake shore

We set up camp nearby in a stand of large firs and hemlocks. Then back to the lake for more swimming. We perched high up on a rock cliff to watch the day transform into night. There is this magical point when the trees become darker than the sky. Then as the light fades, we watched the shades of blue grow ever deeper and darker until, one by one, the stars appeared as if a hummingbird was slowly poking holes in the night sky.

Mt. Rainier’s Northern Traverse

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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

Nonstop Hike from Montana to the Pacific Ocean Coming Soon

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Nonstop Hike from Montana to the Pacific Ocean
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the formation of an advisory panel that will advise on the final corridor of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail. Source: pinterest.com

Lace up your hiking boots and grab your backpack, the 1,200 mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail from Glacier National Park to the Washington Coast is one step closer to completion. Friday U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the formation of an advisory panel that will advise on the final corridor of the trail.

According to the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, the rugged trail is not for the beginning hiker. The route will take adventurers over the Rocky Mountains, Selkirk Mountains, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascade Mountains, and the Olympic Mountains to Washington’s Wilderness Coast. The trail crosses three National Parks and seven National Forests and thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss. Currently there are several gaps in the trail that require hikers to find their own path through some difficult terrain. The panel will advise on the best way to close those gaps and formalize the trail.

Nonstop Hike from Montana to the Pacific Ocean
The Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail spans three National Parks, seven National Forests, and three mountain ranges on its way from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean. Source: pnt.org

The nonstop hike from Montana to the Pacific Ocean begins near the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park and travels west through Montana, Idaho, and Washington before reaching the Pacific Ocean near Cape Alava and is one of the National Geographic top 100 hikes. Currently only a few dozen intrepid hikers a year attempt the entire length. Supporters hope to bring more hikers to the trail once it is formally completed citing the increased numbers of endurance trekkers and popularity of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.

Nonstop Hike from Montana to the Pacific Ocean
The 1,200 mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail is one of the National Geographic top 100 hikes offering dramatic views and breathtaking climbs. Source: nationaltrailsguide.com

While the trail can be a physical challenge, it runs close to many scenic mountain towns making resupply and a good meal closer than on some other trails. The Pacific Northwest Trail Association offers a detailed Re-Supply List – Towns and Resources map. Local businesses are hoping to see a boost from the increased interest and traffic on the trail in the next few years.

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