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Planning a Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip…

20140331-222151.jpgIn the middle of April a group of us will be hiking the 40-mile Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon.  Over 4 nights, 5 days we will descend over 5000 feet down Tanner Trail to the Colorado River and then hike along the unmarked Escalante Route from east to west, connecting to Tonto Trail and then Horseshoe Mesa along Grandview Trail.  Here is a more detailed summary and map of this route.

Planning a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon poses a few challenges, but nothing that experienced backpackers can’t easily handle.  Leading up to this trip there were three main challenges that we needed to spend some time discussing:  getting the backcountry permit, time of year to hike this route, and clean water sources.

Getting the Backcountry Permit

For some reason we had significant issues landing a Backcountry Permit for the Grand Canyon, although we did finally get one after several submissions.  Like most National Parks, permits are required for backcountry camping but each park has it’s own process for how that is done.  Most of the time it has to do with the volume of requests.  Being that there is a higher demand in Spring/Early Summer and Fall for backcountry permits in the Grand Canyon (because of more moderate temps), there is a four month window in which the backcountry permit application needs to be submitted for a random drawing.  For instance, if you are wanting to hike in April like us, the backcountry permit application needs to be submitted on December 1.  Once submitted, the random drawing and slotting begins.  The mistake I made on this particular application was that I only listed our preferred itinerary and one alternative itinerary.  From my research the Escalante Route does not have high demand so I thought we would be slotted easily.  My other mistake was that I thought the Backcountry Office would contact me and offer another suggestion if one of the campsites had already been taken.  Sure enough I received a DENIED email and letter.  Upon calling the office and asking why our application had been denied I was told that one of our requested sites had already been filled for that particular night.  I was very frustrated because every other NP I have ever worked with has been incredibly helpful with offering other options or suggestions.  The Backcountry Office at the Grand Canyon told me that they have too many applications each month to work with people.  Anyway, after three submissions we were FINALLY approved… even though it is over Easter weekend.  My suggestion is to do your research and know all of the backcountry camping spots that are available to you in each zone and the mileage between each.  Be prepared to submit your application with three separate itineraries to increase your odds of getting exactly what you want.  It appears that the spot that was the snag for us was Tanner Creek.  This must be a spot that overnight hikers compete for as well.

Time of Year

As I mentioned above, the best time during the year to hike the Grand Canyon is Spring/Early Summer and Fall.  Winter is an option as well, however icy conditions may make trails difficult and/or dangerous.  One thing to take into consideration is the change of temperature with altitude.  The Grand Canyon is a bit different than what you might expect.  The elevation at the North Rim is about 8000 feet and the South Rim is about 7000 feet.  As one descends, the temperature actually rises and can be up to 30-40 degrees warmer at the bottom.  This is significant and should be taken into account when planning the time of year that you want to go, the gear you should pack, and your strategy for water.

Clean Water

For our group this has been the most discussed topic.  On the Escalante Route there are few suitable drinking water options.  Now granted, we will not be hiking in the middle of the summer in which the canyon temperatures could reach up to 120F and necessitate significant water consumption… but for the elevation changes and the daily mileage we will cover we also do not want to carry large quantities of water.  Water weighs in at about 8 pounds per gallon and can easily become the heaviest single item in your pack.  There is at least one spring along this route near Horseshoe Mesa (Page/Miners Spring)… so utilizing the Colorado River is essential.  The greatest single threat for pumping and filtering out of the Colorado is fine silt, which can easily pass most pre-filters and damage the pump.  After considering several researched ideas we put together a few that should make for some fresh, clean water.  We are planning to bring a collapsable bucket so that we can scoop water out of the river.  By adding Aluminum Sulfate to the water, particulate begins to clump together and fall to the bottom of the container.  This will allow us to use our water filters without fear that the sediment will damage them.  Additionally, we are going to secure our pre-filters with coffee filters in order to add one more layer of filtration.  Overkill?  Always.

Once we return I will give a day-by-day account of the hike.

Have you hiked the Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon?  If so, tell me about your experience.

Brandon

 

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notice every detail of creation…

This excerpt is from the post Thanksgiving at my other blog brandonandress.com.  I thought this portion was a perfect perspective for those of us who love nature and the outdoors.

The Spirit cries out to me: See the wonder! See the glory! See the beauty! And move forward in awe!

Listen.

Smell.

Feel.

Take it all in and delight. Let the wind blow at your back and let the sun shine down on your face.

Listen to the conversations.
Joy in the laughter of your children.
Celebrate that you can give your baby a bath.
Delight in the songs of the birds and the rustling of the leaves.
Be enveloped by everything and everyone around you.
Count your blessings.

Smell the autumn fragrance.
Let the preparation of your meal be a prayer and a blessing.
Savor every bite as if it is your very first.
Feel the textures.
Let the work of your hands be praise.
Count your blessings.

Sit in the woods and notice every detail of creation.
Close your eyes and absorb every note and harmony.
Glory in every drop of your morning coffee.
Embrace the touch of another.
Join in the chorus of all creation in praise.
Count your blessings.

Can any one of us even utter a grumble…in the midst of creation’s immeasurable wonder?

It is good.
It is good.
It is good.

From the depths of my soul and with every breath…thank you God. I am an unworthy man.

North Circle Route (Glacier NP)- Day 8

Fifty Mountain to The Loop Parking Lot

Total Mileage-  13.0 miles

Total Elevation Gain- approximately 1000 feet

Total Elevation Loss- approximately 2500 feet

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Our final hiking day would take us from Fifty Mountain campsite to The Loop parking lot via Flattop Mountain Trail in Glacier National Park (Montana).

We knew this hike would involve significant distance and a ton of downhill with a big climb at the very end.  The only significant elevation, other than the end, was within the first hour of our hike and it was about 300 feet. The elevation gains and losses are estimates, as I had a hard time finding exact numbers online.  As you would imagine, this trail runs almost entirely along the top of Flattop Mountain and then gradually descends from it.

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We got up early to get a good jump on the day.  We were estimating the hike taking roughly 6.5 hours at 2mph.  As it turned out, we averaged about 3mph and finished in about 4.5 hours.  To the top of Flattop Mountain and along the top of it, it is… well.. flat (as it’s name suggests).  And the hiking is easy.  The trail was easy without any obstruction.  The only portion that begins to be obstructed is the descent, as the Thimbleberry plants choke the trail.

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I have to admit that this was my least favorite hike over the eight days.  There were a couple of reasons why.  First, about 90% of the hike was among the scorched pines.  There were two forest fires that ravaged the park a decade ago, burning a third of the park.  If I had to rethink the final leg of this hike I may have opted for Highline Trail.  Second, while even the beauty of my least favorite portion of the North Circle Route is greater than most places I have been in my life, compared to days one through seven Flattop Mountain Trail was definitely not an exclamation point at the end of the trip.

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Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful.  But it just didn’t measure up to the previous days.  I know I kind of sound like a trail snob, and I realize that Flattop Mountain Trail crushes anything in Indiana, but we had been spoiled up to this point.

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Once we were finished descending, the hike was still about two miles to the junction.  The junction sign will show Granite Park and Granite Park Chalet to the left.  If you parked in The Loop… this is your turn.  Let me say something about the final ascent.  It is approximately 700 feet and approximately a half-mile.  After hiking 12.5 miles, you may have a second wind as you think about getting into your air-conditioned vehicle.  But just be prepared for the climb.  It seems as if it goes up forever!

The North Circle Route was nothing short of spectacular.  As I mentioned early in this series of posts, it was rated by several blogs as one of the top 10 hikes in the world.  After hiking it I would have a hard time disagreeing.  I would, without question, recommend this hike to serious backpackers.  It is truly a trip of a lifetime.

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As a side note, Arvin’s boots made it.  After the soles breaking out on Day 2 and significant surgery on them throughout the trip… they reached their final destination:  the trash can.

Peace…

Brandon

North Circle Route (Glacier NP)- Day 7

Stoney Indian Lake to Fifty Mountain

Total Mileage- 8.3 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 2280 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 0 feet

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We had just finished a 33-hour marathon in our tents, as it rained non-stop at 45 degrees at Stoney Mountain Lake in Glacier National Park (Montana).

At 7am the rain finally subsided. We immediately began to break down the tents and pack up all of our gear. By 8am we were ready to begin our hike to Fifty Mountain, which would be all uphill. As we were waiting for a couple of the guys to tie up some loose ends… it began to rain. And then it began to pour again. We had no choice but to begin hiking… praying for some sun along the way.

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Only about an hour into the hike we saw a small shack (probably used by the Park Rangers), but it was all locked up. We stood on the covered porch, ate a small snack, and watched it rain. Would it ever stop raining?

We continued traveling south on Waterton Valley Trail. It was a gradual ascent and not very taxing. The trail had a significant overgrowth of thimbleberry plants. Yes, we loved eating them but the plants were closing in on us, hugging our upper arms. In one sense it was humorous, but in another sense it was a bit overwhelming- pouring rain and overgrowth closing in on us. At one point I remember stopping and just laughing at how comical it all was. Sure we were “waterproof” but “waterproof” is relative. When you are hiking and moving around in a torrential storm… you are going to get soaked. And we were soaked.

After four hours of hiking through thimbleberries and pine trees we could see light at the end of the tunnel. Our view, which had been significantly limited by the wooded area and overgrowth, opened up into a beautiful alpine panorama. Welcoming us was a cloud covering that slowly began to open, teasing us with a few rays of light. While we were excited to see the sun attempting to break through, we were even more excited that the rain stopped. We approached what looked like an old stone foundation and began to shed our wet gear. We were beyond excited with the rain stopping and the sun breaking through, while standing in one of the most beautiful areas of the trip.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur stop at the stone foundation lasted about an hour and a half… and we dried out as much as we could. I even stripped down behind the stone wall to dry out. The good news was that we were only about a half mile from our camp at Fifty Mountain. And the way the weather was changing, it looked as if we would have the best day yet.

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The hike to Fifty Mountain campsite was a real treat, especially with blue skies making their appearance behind the retreating clouds. This is what we had been waiting for after 37 hours of rain. And it was the perfect place to have a beautiful day.

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IMG_6778The Fifty Mountain campsite has the same three main areas as the other backcountry campsites: tent areas, food eating and storage area, and a single outhouse. You can begin to see some of the aftermath of the two forest fires that devastated Glacier a decade ago. This became even more evident on Day 8 as we hiked out of the park. You could tell that the undergrowth was rebounding but the pines looked like skeletons.

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That evening we hiked into the open meadow area and sat on a large boulder and just took in the experience. After about thirty minutes we hiked up a small hill that presented the greatest 360 degree panorama that I have ever seen in my life. Pictures do not do it justice. If you are ever at Fifty Mountain do some short hikes and look for views. For the most epic view, take a hike up Mount Kipp for an experience you will never forget.

In the next post I will be detailing the final leg of our hike from Fifty Mountain along Flattop Mountain Trail to the parking lot at The Loop.

Peace…

Brandon

North Circle Route (Glacier NP)- Day 6

We did not hike on Day 6.  We were stuck at Stoney Indian Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana.  Here is the story.

We went to bed at Stoney Indian Lake around 10pm and that is when it began to rain.  We could tell by looking at the sky that evening that something was brewing.  But without any sort of communication or the ability to check on our iPhones, we didn’t know if/when it would come or how long it would last.

It poured all night long.  And the temperature bottomed out around 45 degrees.

At around 7am I could tell that water was pooling outside of our three-man tent.  Sure enough we set the tent up in somewhat of a depression where water would run and collect.  There was probably an inch and a half of water around the tent.  We quickly exited the tent and relocated it atop a large rock that drained quite well.  Unfortunately during the relocation we got soaked and cold.  We hopped into the tent fully clothed with boots and sat patiently waiting for the storm to pass.

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But it didn’t.  It continued to pour.

Fortunately for the guys in the other tent, they were on higher ground, which meant (for the time being) they were dry and content staying in their tent.

After a couple of hours sitting uncomfortably in my tent, I suggested to the other two guys that we should probably plan for an extended stay.  So to that end, we began to clean the tent, set up our sleeping pads and sleeping bags, and organize our wet stuff.  At least this way we would be able to lie in our sleeping bags and warm up, which we did.

When a person is enclosed in a tent for hours, wide-awake, there is plenty to talk about.  And so we talked.

What is the plan?  Do we pack up in the pouring rain and hike to our next destination?  Do we stay put until it stops raining?  Will it ever stop raining?

We surmised that the safest plan was to stay in the tent where we knew, at least, we were warm and dry.

Setting out to another destination on a cold, rainy day was a little risky.  Sure, as a casual observer you may say, “Are you afraid of a little cold and a little rain?”  And I can understand that perspective.  But there were several factors that we consider before making our decision:

We had no way of checking to see how long the storm was going to last, so we continued to wait to see if it would finally break.  As a result, we waited until mid-afternoon… and it was still pouring.  At that point, if you begin to hike you will, no doubt get soaked, but also arrive at the next destination in the late evening when the temps have dropped again.  Being that we were not allowed to build a fire in the backcountry, one has to consider how to get dry and warm in such a situation.  All of our gear would likely be soaked from a four to five hour hike in the pouring rain even with waterproofing (yes, it was coming down that hard).  In our minds it was too much of a gamble to risk hypothermia by attempting the hike.  If one of us got hurt or exhibited the signs of hypothermia… how would we call for help?  We couldn’t.  We didn’t have any cellular signal and the closest emergency help was a 15 to 20 mile hike away (a 7.5 to 10 hour hike).  For proper perspective, we were far in the backcountry close to the Canadian border in Montana.  In our minds, the most logical and conservative decision was to stay another night at Stoney Indian Lake.

We discussed it with the guys in the other tent and they agreed.  They had war-gamed the same scenario.

And it turned out to be the correct call.  At about eight o’clock that night a hiker approached our tent and asked, “Do any of you know the signs of hypothermia?”  We said that we did.  He went on to tell us that his fellow hiker was coming down from the pass as we spoke and was potentially exhibiting the signs of hypothermia.

This is exactly why playing it safe is so important.

We went to sleep the next night hoping and praying that the rain would break during the night and that the sun would be nice and warm the next morning.

At 7am we looked outside of our tents and saw that it had indeed stopped raining.  We quickly began breaking camp and packing up the wet gear as quickly as we could.  When we were packed and just waiting on a couple of guys to finish a quick breakfast… it began to rain.

And so it rained and poured.  From 8am until noon, we hiked to our Day 7 destination.

But as it would turn out, our incessant prayers were being answered.  Not only did the rain stop when we reached the mountaintop… the sun began to break through the clouds and the wind began to blow.  It was the perfect opportunity to lay out ALL of our gear to dry.  As it turned out, Day 7 would be the most epic day of all.

Day 6 was a real challenge in many ways… but the biggest challenge was the loss of control.  Many times when we go on our backcountry trips, we have researched and researched and planned and planned… so much so that there is very little we haven’t considered.  In many ways we always feel as if we have everything in our control.  When the temps dropped and it began to rain, I realized that I had very little control over the situation.  The only thing we could really control was staying in the tent.  At least there we could control staying warm and dry.

So what did we do for 33 hours in a tent?  Sleep and talk and sleep.  What would you do?

IMG_6662 IMG_6663In the next post I will detail our hike from Stoney Indian Lake to Fifty Mountain.

Peace…

Brandon

North Circle Route (Glacier NP)- Day 5

Mokowanis Junction to Stoney Indian Lake

Total Mileage- 5.7 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 2410 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 1000 feet

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Our hike for the day was from Mokowanis Junction to Stoney Indian Lake, which included a significant ascent to Stoney Indian Pass and then down to the beautiful lakeside camp at Stoney Indian. While the morning began with sunshine and clear skies, the evening would bring an overcast sky setting up for 38 hours of rain.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_6595 IMG_6599The trek from Mokowanis took us passed some magnificent waterfalls, hillsides of wildflowers, and a spectacular view of the valley looking to the northeast.

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Did I mention the ridiculous waterfalls?

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It seemed as if the more elevation that we covered… the more beautiful it became. We got to the point on this trip that we stopped using adjectives to describe how “beautiful” or “amazing” a view was. It is almost as if we cheapened it by speaking. So when we would stop and stare at a view, we would just stand there in awe… looking at each other and shaking our heads. It is hard to imagine a more glorious place for a weeklong hike.

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IMG_6636Before reaching the pass there was a debate as to where to eat lunch. Patrick went high and everyone else stayed low. Let’s be honest… you couldn’t go wrong at either spot!

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We reached the pass and stood there for a while looking at the crystal blue Stoney Indian Lake. The only thing in between us and our camping spot for the night was a 1000 foot drop via switchbacks down the mountainside.

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Once you reach the lake it is a short hike around the lake to the campsites. There are about four spots to camp at Stoney Indian Lake. Based upon experience, which I will detail in my Day 6 post, make sure that you do not set your tent in an area that may potentially pool water when it rains.

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There are really great spots to do some cliff jumping into Stoney Indian Lake. The lake is very deep in many area but make sure you get in the water first to check it out before jumping. Only one in our contingency jumped because the water was so cold and they air temperature was dropping.

Also, a bear walked through our camp right passed us. No joke… within 10-15 feet. We cleared the area and watched as the bear circled through the camp. We all had our bear spray handy but this incident underscores the importance of NOT HAVING FOOD OUT IN THE OPEN. A couple of young ladies arrived at the camp only 30 minutes prior and had the equipment and food strewn about. The bear likely smelled it and came to investigate. While the bear didn’t get any of the food… they promptly stored their food in the metal food storage area. Bears are no joke. Take them very seriously.

In the next post I will be detailing our 33 hours in our tent at Stoney Indian Camp.

peace…

brandon

North Circle Route (Glacier NP)- Day 4

Elizabeth Lake FT to Mokowanis Junction

Total Mileage- 8.7 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 298 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 290 feet

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Elizabeth Lake was something special. We spent hours on the finely crushed rock beach just looking at the lake and at the stars. Even the next morning we moved all of our gear to the beach to dry off the morning dew. It was great to have such a warm and clear morning. This was just a foretaste of our 8.7 mile hike from Elizabeth Lake to Mokowanis Junction. We didn’t have any significant elevation between the two locations and so we planned to have a leisurely stroll. Our route began with Ptarmigan Trail and then connected with Stoney Indian Pass Trail, which we followed southwest to Mokowanis.

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IMG_6548This final portion of Ptarmigan Trail is a dirt path and takes you gently among the pines. This is the kind of trail that you just have to stop occasionally, close your eyes, and breathe deep. If this doesn’t recharge your batteries and stir your soul… you aren’t human. Dawn Mist Falls will be on your right when you have traveled about a mile from camp. Drop your packs and hit the side hike to see the base of the falls.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_6555 IMG_6558 As you approach the junction with Indian Pass Trail be prepared for some of the most glorious views on earth. Cosley Lake comes into view on your left… and you have to take some pictures. You will see a guide line stretched from your side to the beach on the other side. The stream that pours into Cosley isn’t very fast moving but it was about knee deep. I tied my boots onto a carabiner on the back of my pack and put on my Merrell Barefoots and crossed. What a stunningly beautiful place.

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We decided to take a break for lunch another mile down Stoney Indian Pass Trail. There is a really nice beach area at one of the campsites at the head of Glenns Lake. If you are going to take your lunch break here make sure that you eat in the designated food area… and then enjoy a swim in the crystal blue waters of Glacier National Park.

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Indian Pass Trail hugs Glenns Lake until you reach Mokowanis Junction. Along this route it opens up a few times for some great shots of the lake, takes you across a few creeks, and introduces you for the first time to the Thimbleberry plant (edible by the way).

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Mokowanis Junction campsite is in the woods with no water view. It was likely our least favorite spot to camp BUT every single spot in this park is incredible… so it is relative. Once you set up camp and get your food secured… take a hike down toward Mokowanis Lake. You will cross a creek that pours into Glenns Lake. Continue on the trail and you will see Pyramid Peak directly in front of you. Another half-mile and Mokowanis Lake and Mokowanis campsite comes into view. If you head right off of the trail there is an amazing ledge that overlooks the lake with an amazing falls on the other side. Don’t miss this. It is amazing.

In the next post I will be detailing our hike from Mokowanis Junction to Stoney Indian Lake.

Peace…

Brandon