Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Iceberg Overlook to Iceberg Lake- Day 5

Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Iceberg Overlook to Iceberg Lake

Total Mileage- 6.04 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 891 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 1889 feet

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Day 5 in Wrangell St. Elias National Park in southeast Alaska started with a day hike and ended with our trek to Iceberg Lake where the bush plane would be picking us up on day 7. Logistically there was a discussion on how we would play day five. From Iceberg Overlook (where our camp was set) we definitely wanted to do a day hike to find a hidden lake that had Patrick and Josh obsessed. But after the day hike, we discussed camping one additional night on Iceberg Overlook because it was just such a stinking great spot, likely one of my favorite campsites on any trip. But, with some rain likely late in the afternoon we decided to go ahead and make our break toward Iceberg Lake after the day hike.

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Our day hike took us north northeast away from Iceberg Lake and up about 900 feet. As is typical with Alaska, there were blueberries once again covering every step. I have to admit feeling guilty when backpacking Alaska, because you just can’t walk without stepping on blueberries! Our hiking time doubles because we can’t help but continually stop and forage. So much goodness and abundance. Not to mention that this was a STUNNING hike. The higher we ascended, the more ridiculous the panoramic views became. If you ever make it into this area of Wrangell, figure out a way to spend an entire down day hiking around and exploring. You will be better for it.

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Honestly, there isn’t much to say about this other than… wow wow wow. Out of every trip we have taken… THIS is the most beautiful spot I have ever stood. I could have stayed the entire week in this place.

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After we broke camp, we began our five mile jaunt to Iceberg Lake. This is where we were planning to camp on night five and day hike from on day six. That plan would change, but we still had to get to Iceberg Lake and find the landing strip. We headed down the gentle slopes of soft, spongy tundra laden with rocks and boulders and it was a pleasant, leisurely trek. That is until we got down to the braided glacial streams that reminded us that Alaska is never to be taken leisurely! While the streams look like you could just jump over them in the pictures, let me assure you that isn’t the case. They are deep and very fast moving. Admittedly, we waste a lot of time trying to find narrow portions that are easier to traverse, rather than just jumping in and going for it. I have said this about other trips, but I hate wet boots. I will jump in, but I always look for an option that keeps my boots dry. But as you soon figure out in the wilderness, you just have to suck it up and get across.

The only hiccup we had with the crossings was that Adam lost one trekking pole a couple of days earlier, which was going to decrease his stability in crossing. I would either lock arms with him on a crossing, or throw one of my poles to him after I had crossed. On this particular section there wasn’t anything that required anything more than trekking poles and a basic understanding of how to cross. The deepest we encountered was just above the knees.

One additional navigational point. As you are traveling south from Iceberg Overlook, I would recommend hugging a bit more toward the west. If you look at the very rough Google Map above, you will see that cutting too far east will get you into trouble, as the terrain gets very step and hard to traverse. Also, if you err toward the east, you will have an incredibly difficult time getting back to the airstrip because the crossings become too difficult. There isn’t any real way to tell you how to do it other than to stay away from the more eastern route.

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As is typical with difficult sections, I rarely take pictures. Sorry. It was cold and rainy and we were pretty wet from the crossings. After finishing the last portion of stream crossings and getting into the sand, we ducked into a small sand carve out to block the incessant and biting winds, and to also figure out our navigation points. It is at that point that we used the GPS device to check the weather. What we saw was that the rain was going to continue for the next day unabated at 100%. We debated what we ought to do, because the next day was to be a full day of day hikes. We decided to send a text to the bush plane company to see if they were going to be in the area the next day. As it turned out, they would be dropping a group at the exact spot where we would be camping. While it was unfortunate to bail one day early, none of us felt like getting hypothermia. We set our tents up in the sand while it poured rain (yup, nothing there but sand!). After getting off the cold, wet clothing and drying out the tent, I went to bed in my toasty sleeping bag.

The next morning was cold and rainy, as expected, but it wasn’t long before we could hear the low roar of our ride out. Wrangell St. Elias was everything and more and more and more. I absolutely cannot wait to go back there one day.

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Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Monahan Creek to Bremner Glacier Overlook- Day 2

Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Monahan Creek to Bremner Glacier Overlook

Total Mileage- 8.83 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1475 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 2350 feet

Day two in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park would take us from the Monahan Creek area to a beautiful overlook of the Bremner Glacier, which we would be tackling on Day three. The day started out in classic Alaskan style- gray skies, low hanging clouds, and rain. The goal for the morning was to stay above the brushy areas, but stay below the loose and steep scree areas. If this is done correctly it will be relatively easy trekking across some basketball-sized rocks. The key is to work your way down the valley with an eye toward the Monahan Creek junction and the saddle which you will be passing over. The best advice is to minimize areas of alder while working your way toward Monahan Creek. We had to search for a while to find a spot to cross over the creek, but eventually found some stepping stones that kept us from getting our boots wet. That was a huge win. But you have to keep your eyes open, because much of the area has steep walls to the creek or water moving too powerfully to cross.

Upon the creek crossing we were on our way over the saddle that would lead to Bremner Glacier. We had to make a decision on how far we really wanted to go on this day. If we went too far, we would commit to several hours of dense alders that descended to the glacier. Did we really want to end the day with that kind of battle? If we went into the alder for the remaining part of the day, would there be anywhere to camp without having to commit to crossing the glacier in the same day? Committing close to nine untrailed, Alaskan miles before the alder and glacier seemed like enough for one day. So we knew that the next day was going to be the monster day- alder/glacier. At least we would have the evening and night to mentally prepare for it. Dense alder will make you wish you were back on the dirt trails in Indiana. I have yet to find a fan of alder bushwhacking. Nonetheless, the terrain for this portion of Day 2 was ideal for backpacking, but the boulders heading up to the saddle was a little work.

Once we hit the saddle we could see where the dense cloud cover was coming from- the glacier. And we saw for the first time… blue skies. As I mentioned in the previous post, the Bremner area from which we came seems as if it gets a lot of cloud cover and rain, likely due to the cold air coming from the glacier. Am I no meteorologist, so I am likely wrong, but on subsequent days we would look back and see gray skies and rain even though we were in clear skies. The green in front of us was a beautiful, but I am not sure how to classify it. It was a somewhat marshy area with a mixture of knee-high scrub, longish tussock, and scattered alder. The issue, as you can imagine, is where to set up a tent. If there was a spot clear enough for a tent…it was marshy. To be honest, even though it wasn’t a huge issue, I feel like finding spots to camp throughout the week took some work. It’s not like you can just pop a tent anywhere. Most areas were overgrown or rock strewn or not close to fresh water, etc. On this day we had to make due with a bit of an angle, which made for a cool pic below, but it was really the best we could do. I think the other guys got to the flat spot before us and we got the consolation angle. I slept well regardless.

The next day, Day 3, would take us through the alder and down to Bremner Glacier for one spectacular day.

Day 3- Bremner Glacier Overlook to Bremner Glacier

Preparing for a Wrangell-St. Elias Backpacking Trip

The average person has never heard of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in southeast Alaska, even though it is six times larger than Yellowstone National Park, sizing in at a mere 13 million acres. The sheer size of Wrangell-St. Elias makes it the largest national park in the United States and one of the most prized backpacking bucket list adventures in the world.

Preparing to backpack Wrangell-St. Elias can be daunting. The size, the remoteness, the logistics, and the unknown may be too much for a backpacker who is ready to take it up a level in epic backpacking. But let me assure you that, outside of the logistics of planning this multi-day adventure being a bit challenging, you can do a Wrangell trip with the right mindset going into it.

MINDSET

I feel like we had a bit of an advantage, having backpacked for a week in the backcountry of Denali a few years prior. Even though they were relatively different trips, we knew that Alaska could throw any and every challenge and obstacle at you throughout the week. Leading up to this trip I just kept saying, “Backpacking Alaska is 90% mental and 10% everything else.” It may be a little exaggerated, but trust me, you will do yourself a huge favor if you go in with the mindset that there will be times when you will be cold, wet, tired, sore, and frustrated (of course, everyone at different degrees), but you get the point. Go into Wrangell-St. Elias with the right mindset. This is the best advice anyone can give you. If you expect a difficult trip with obstacles, you have already taken a huge step.

LOGISTICS

Before you do anything else, go to the website of Wrangell Mountain Air. They offer a variety of services, but for our purposes, they fly backpackers into the Wrangell backcountry and drop them off at their specified drop point and then pick them up at their agreed upon end destination. Their website not only describes the different backcountry routes, it shows the areas where they have landing strips for the bush plane.  In essence, you will be backpacking from one landing zone to the next landing zone. You choose the route you will take and the number of days you are planning, just make sure you are at your pickup point on time.  After reading the description and discussing how many days we would be able spend in the backcountry, we chose the Seven Pass Route, which is listed as a trip from Iceberg to Bremner. After a bit of additional research, we decided to travel the opposite direction from Bremner to Iceberg. Once you agree upon the particular route you are going to take, I would suggest calling Wrangell Mountain Air and getting on the books for those dates, as it seems the activity in that area has been picking up over the last couple of years. It is an easy phone call. Just give them your info, your dates, and a 50% deposit and you are set. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park does not require any fees or permits. Yes, I know, that is amazing! But it’s true. All you have to worry about is getting there!

We flew into Anchorage, which was easy, but the real question is how to get to McCarthy, Alaska. It is a seven hour drive with the last hour or two on gravel road. I can tell you that after researching all of the options for getting to that area, the most flexible and cost-effective method is to just rent a vehicle, if you are cool with driving for seven hours. You will need to make sure that you rent an SUV with some heavy duty tires and a spare. I wouldn’t really anticipate any problems on the drive, as the roads (including the gravel) were actually pretty good. We didn’t have any situations over the seven hours in which we felt as if our tires would be compromised in any way. There are other ways of getting to the McCarthy area, but we found this to be the method that fit us the best. You may need to check with the rental company to make sure you can drive the vehicle on gravel roads, but we didn’t have any trouble getting a rental from National Car Rental.

We arrived into McCarthy one day before our trip was to start, which meant that we needed to have overnight accommodations. I highly, highly, highly recommend McCarthy Bed and Breakfast. We loved this place so much, we stayed another night after we finished the trip. This husband and wife team have a variety of little cabins that he built himself. For the four of us, we stayed in a two room, four bed cabin. The location was perfect, as well, as it was a ten minute walk to where we would be picked up by Wrangell Mountain Air the next day. Additionally, the bed and breakfast has an AMAZING breakfast consisting of homemade muffins (try the blueberry muffins!!!), greek yogurt, fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs, granola, cereal, good coffee, etc. It was the PERFECT pre-backpacking breakfast. All four of us highly recommend this B & B.

McCarthy is a very, very, very small community, consisting of no more than 50-70 people depending on the time of year. It is a simple, single dirt street with a variety of businesses lining the street. We recommend eating at a restaurant called Potato. I think we ate there two or three times. Make sure you order the Rosemary Garlic Fries!

The last logistical element that you need to consider is fuel canisters and bear spray. Being that you can not fly with either on commercial airlines, you will need to figure out how to secure them once in Alaska. To be honest, this was the hardest logistical task for us. We arrived in Anchorage and secured the rental vehicle about three hours before the REI in Anchorage opened and we did not want to waste time waiting for it to open. If you arrive in Anchorage during normal business hours, you can just go to REI. If you end up in a situation like us, you will need to do one of two things. Either order online ahead of time or buy the stuff in McCarthy. BUT I need to tell you that I would not wait until you arrive in McCarthy to but these items. I called a couple of the stores a couple of months in advance and they told me that they did not have fuel canisters or bear spray. But when we got to McCarthy one of the stores did have them. BUT I would NOT depend on them having what you need. Did I mention how small McCarthy is? If I understood correctly, the only have a supply plane bring in goods twice a week… and it isn’t guaranteed that they will have specifically what you need.

We ended up ordering both items online, which was tricky as well.  The ONLY online retailer who would ship fuel canisters and bear spray was walmart.com. Other online retailers would not ship combustible items to Alaska (maybe because they would have to be flown?).  Anyway, we asked Wrangell Mountain Air if we could have the items shipped to them and they agreed. The items arrived there about a month before. It worked perfectly.

GEAR

If you are planning for this trip to Wrangell-St. Elias, you should already be well-versed in how to pack for a trip with variable weather conditions, so I won’t go through the entire list. Here are a few things that you may just want to consider. If your trip, like ours, involves glacier crossings, you may want to consider getting some Katoolah micro-spikes. We did not end up using them, but I also slip one time and bruised up my ribs, so it is up to you. The glacier we crossed was non-technical so it didn’t involve any technical gear. If you are close to needing a new pair of boots, I would recommend going ahead getting new boots in advance and breaking them in before this trip. I had about 600 miles on my boots and the lugs were not as grippy as I would have liked for this trip. The terrain is tough and you really need to have a pair of boots that are dialed in and up to the challenge. Once we finished our trip, I retired my boots and bought some new ones. I can’t think of anything else that really stood out from a gear perspective. Maybe just make sure you have some lightweight dry bags in your pack with a dry pair of socks and thermal layer. If you get cold and everything else is weight, at least you will have some dry, warm gear. We also took an emergency satellite beacon that would check the weather, mark our route online for family, and text out if we needed to communicate. That came in handy for our trip, but more on that in a later post.

Those are the biggies, I think. If you have specific questions, just comment below and I will answer them the best I can. You will not regret this trip. It was definitely one of the top trips we have ever taken.

Here is the details and review of each day from Bremner to Iceberg Lake.

Day 1- Bremner to Monahan Creek

Day 2- Monahan Creek to Bremner Glacier Overlook

Day 3- Bremner Glacier Overlook to Bremner Glacier

Day 4- Bremner Glacier to Iceberg Overlook

Day 5- Iceberg Overlook to Iceberg Lake

Brandon

Wyoming: Wind River Range- Peak Lake to Titcomb Lakes- Day 3

Wyoming: Wind River Range- Peak Lake to Titcomb Lakes

Total Mileage- 7.42 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 2165 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 2205 feet

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At 2am into our third day there was a sound as if someone was taking their hands and hitting our 2-man tent violently.  We awakened perplexed as to what the sound could be.  We were not underneath of trees.  It sounded more violent than wind.  I looked out the window and saw massive amounts of snow falling from the sky.  Our three season tent (not winter) was beginning to sag from the weight and accumulation of snow.  We knocked it off from inside.  We were not expecting snow.  Sure there is always a chance, especially at higher altitudes, but we thought we had another couple of weeks before this area would see snow.  For a moment I was a bit nervous about our situation.  I didn’t know how much snow would accumulate and knew that both routes forward and backward would be completely treacherous and dangerous if the snow was too deep.  The boulder field was a difficult traverse without snow and ice. And going forward off-trail to hit two passes in one day in the 12,000-13,000 range would be even more difficult.  We stayed awake until it stopped snowing after about 30 minutes.  We reached out through the tent vestibule and noticed that it was only about four or five inches.  That’s doable.  We put our heads down to go back to sleep, but heard a lot of commotion and saw a lot of headlamp movement coming from the other three-man tent.  We thought they were just acting silly because of the snow.  We went back to sleep.

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It was really cold the next morning and there wasn’t much urgency getting out into it.  There are many difficult things about backpacking, but I would say that the most difficult for me is unzipping my warm and cozy sleeping bag and getting out of it when the temps are freezing.  Maybe you already do this, but I usually grab the clothes I will be putting on and stick them in my sleeping bag with me to warm up before dressing.  Anyway, we got up retrieved our bear cans for breakfast.  As we all began to circle up, we heard what all of the commotion was about the previous night from the other tent.  The other tent began to sag significantly from the weight of the snow.  The three guys woke up and began to knock it off.  Sometime during the activity Patrick began to feel nauseous, likely from a mild bit of altitude sickness, and tried to open the tent but struggled with zipper.  Before they knew it he had thrown up in the tent on his sleeping bag.  That is the commotion that we heard.  He stepped out into the frigid 20-degree air with accumulating (only wearing his boxers) on to clean off his sleeping bag.  With him still feeling under the weather at breakfast and the fact that our route was now covered in ice and snow… we had to figure out a plan.  This particular day was supposed to be our biggest day with two passes, one of which was the steep Bonney Pass that would take us into The High Route.  With the weather at higher elevations now unpredictable, we were concerned that if we punched up to 13,000 feet we could put ourselves into a situation in which we could not get out.  Ever cautious and conservative in our planning, we already knew that hitting The High Route (the crown jewel of our hike) was not likely to happen.  But we had one immediate decision- do we backtrack to get out or do we at least hit the first pass and then evaluate our situation?  We decided that backtracking was way too precarious through the now icy boulderfield.  With 40 pounds on our backs we did not need to snap a leg.  We were going to press forward and make the pass between Twin Peaks and Winifred Peaks, which was about a 1600 foot climb, and then descend the steep and broken rock that runs parallel to Twins Glacier.

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Even without a trail and with accumulated snow, the first mile was really pretty easy.  It was the next two and a half miles that would really slow us down.  As you can see from the map at the very top of this post, the route for this day was mostly green.  It was only our ascent and descent to and from the pass that was in the red, or was significantly slower.  The hardest part on either side of the pass was our footing.  Without a trail we were obviously making our own route.  With each step up we had to make sure that the rocks under our feet were not loose or wobbly, because we could not see the rocks.  This was a painstaking process, but it wasn’t the end of the world.  It just took time.

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We were sucking wind going up to 12,200.  Because we thought that the previous days would gradually acclimate us, we didn’t take any Diamox for this trip to speed the process.  While we had gradually increased our elevation over the previous days, these Indiana boys live at 650 feet above sea level.  Once we hit the pass I didn’t take any pictures going down Knapsack.  It was too steep and treacherous.  We heavily relied on our trekking poles for stability.  I think I fell a couple of times due to loose rocks.  It was certainly more difficult going down than going up.  So the next pictures you see are at the bottom of Knapsack where we had to make a decision about our route.  Would we try to hit Bonney or take an alternate route?

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We stopped for lunch to put together a plan.  The most unfortunate part was that we were already into the early afternoon, which meant that a Bonney Pass attempt likely would not be wise for the time it would take.  Another factor that weighed heavily was the possibility of more intense inclement weather at 13,000, if we went ahead and hit The High Route.  The last thing that any of us wanted was to get into a situation in which the weather worsened at higher elevations and necessitated a rescue.  Maybe that wasn’t likely, but we don’t know the area that well.  We actually thought the snow window may have opened a couple weeks after our trip, but it didn’t.  So who knew what we may have been getting ourselves in to.  The third factor was that one of the guys was still not feeling well.  That made our decision really quite easy.  With Bonney Pass looking really gnarly, steep, and slick, the unpredictable weather at higher elevations, and a person possibly suffering from mild altitude sickness… we decided to take a twenty mile exit through Titcomb Basin and out.  Of course this was disheartening because it wasn’t our original plan, but it was the wise decision.

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Our plan was to get to the second of two Titcomb Lakes and set up camp.  The weather, as we dropped elevation, was magnificent.  While we initially believed that Titcomb Basin would be a sorry consolation prize, it ended up being one of the most glorious and beautiful places we have ever hiked.  It was certainly no consolation prize.

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The day ended with a super sweet spot to camp with unbelievable 360-degree views.  As unpredictably as the day started, it ended as one of the most memorable and one of the most majestic.  Our next day would take us out of Titcomb Basin… over an hour away from our vehicle… which means that the adventure is really only just beginning.

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Arizona: Grand Canyon- South Kaibab Trail- South Rim to Cedar Ridge

South Kaibab Trail- South Rim to Cedar Ridge

Total Mileage- 3.8 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1307 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 1307 feet

Grand Canyon- South Kaibab RouteSouth Kaibab Trail

In the last three years I have been to the Grand Canyon four times and hiked each time I have been there.

The most extensive hike was the famed Escalante Route, a 33-mile backcountry bucket list trip that we did over 3 nights and four days, in 2014.  I have also been able to swing up to the Grand Canyon each of the last three years as I finished some house building missions in Mexico.

Last year my oldest daughter and I hiked from Grandview Point to Horseshoe Mesa and back, which was also the last leg of the Escalante Route trek.

This year as we left Mexico my two daughter along with three other adults and three kids made our way to Grand Canyon National Park to do a day hike from the South Rim along South Kaibab Trail down 1300 feet to Cedar Grove and then back out.

Being that this particular group ranged in age from 8 to 42 and also had a variety of strength, stamina, and hiking experience, we pretty much allotted five hours for the trek. While I started the GPS at the very beginning of the South Kaibab Trail, we parked at the Visitor’s Center and walked to the trailhead which was about 2.5 miles one way on the Greenway Trail. By the end of our time we had hiked about eight miles total (5 from Visitor Center to South Kaibab Trailhead and back and then Trailhead to Cedar Grove and back). If you want to take a nice stroll along the south rim I would suggest parking at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center and following the Greenway Trail to the trailhead. It has really nice views and provides a leisurely walk over paved trail. Of course I always recommend going beyond the rim. Rim shots are nice but there is nothing like jumping into the canyon.

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The late March weather was perfect. At the rim it was about 55 degrees F and only got up to just above 60 degrees at Cedar Ridge. The skies were crystal clear and magnificent blue. With us being between 7200 feet and 5900 feet, the UV radiation levels were higher than what we are accustomed to in Indiana. I have read reports that indicate for every 3000 feet of elevation change there is a little over 10% gain in UV radiation. That put us at about 20% more than what we are used to and, as a result, several of us ended up with red ears, noses, and faces. Note to self, remember the sunscreen next time. img_0548

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The trail itself is fine and powdery with a lot of wear.  Compared to Grandview Trail, South Kaibab is significantly more friendly to the casual hiker and for younger kids.  This trail should be no problem for younger kids or older adults, just have a pace that works for you, take plenty of breaks, and drink plenty of water.  Also, if you attempt any trail in the Grand Canyon, please understand that in the summer months the temperatures can be sweltering.  You can expect that for every 1000 feet you descend, the temperature will increase about 5 degree F.  Make sure you take plenty of water with you, but don’t be tempted to drink the majority of it on the way down because you will need it more on the way up.

When weighing whether we should hike South Kaibab or Bright Angel we decided that, while Bright Angel was a bit more shaded, South Kaibab had better views.  It was a great trade-off because we started early enough that our entire trek down the switchbacks was in the shade.  Even at that, I still recommend using some sunscreen.  The two most notable spots on South Kaibab is Ooh-Aah Point and Cedar Ridge.  The hike one-way to Ooh-Aah point and Cedar Ridge is 0.9 miles and 1.5 miles, respectively.

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Ooh-Aah Point is the point along South Kaibab where you get your first wide view of the canyon and it is spectacular.  It certainly beats the views from the road.  Even if you have no intention on going further into the canyon, it would be worth your while to at least hike down to this point for the view.

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Cedar Ridge, for me, is a point along Kaibab where I feel like you are starting to get into the heart of the canyon.  The most prominent landmark feature in this area is O’Neill Butte.  After taking restroom breaks we hiked to a wonder point where we sat down for about 45 minutes and had a snack and a great view of the Butte.  There were quite a few people in the Cedar Ridge area, as this is a relatively easy hike for casual and day hikers, but most of the day hikers, it seemed, stayed closer to the restrooms and Cedar Ridge signage, which allowed us to have a bit more solitude while taking in the view.   If you had a late start or if you are hiking in the summer, an attempt to the river and back out is not advised.  The Cedar Ridge area also has toilet facilities.

The hike out for us went extraordinarily well.  We averaged 1.7 mph on our way down, and a shocking 1.9 mph on the way out.  The kids completely rocked it!  With that being said, don’t plan on the hike out being easy.  If you are a beginner or casual hiker, I would plan twice as much time for coming out as I had for going in.  So if it took you 1.5 hours to get to Cedar Ridge, I would plan 3 hours to get out.  This is a really, really liberal number… but I really think you should take it seriously.  Understand that you will be between 5900 and 7200 feet above sea level and the oxygen level is about a quarter less than at sea level.  You will be out of breath hiking out and you will stop frequently to catch your breath and take a water break.  But listen, it is worth it!  You get a chance to hike INTO THE GRAND CANYON!  And 99% of people NEVER take the opportunity to do that.  So embrace it and enjoy it!

California: John Muir Trail- Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal- Day 8

John Muir Trail- Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal

Mileage- 14.0 miles

Elevation Gain- 4022 feet

Elevation Loss- 7159 feet

Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit 1Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit

Our eighth, and last, day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from Guitar Lake to the Mt. Whitney Summit and then to a Whitney Portal exit… and this day was nothing short of a MONSTER. We knew this day was going to be long and grueling. Mentally we had been preparing for days, but I had never put in 14 miles with a pack nor had I ever tackled over 4000 feet of elevation (especially at the altitude…remember I am from 650 feet above sea level in INDIANA!) in a single hike. I am in above average physical condition and in pretty good hiking shape, but I am also over 40 and I recognize that 40 is a bit different than my 20’s and 30’s. I knew that I would be able pull of this day with no problem, but in the back of my mind I wondered how long it might take me. Once we had our gear prepped and everything in it’s place, we went to bed. We wouldn’t be summiting Whitney early enough to see the sunrise (and we were all cool with that), but we were awake and geared up before sunrise using our headlamps to guide our path.

The first half mile from Guitar Lake is harmless; it’s just positioning you for a series of twelve-ish switchbacks over a couple of miles. While the cool morning air at altitude was crisp and refreshing, it didn’t take long for the perspiration to make it’s first appearance. To be really honest, I don’t like elevation to start my day (hahaha). I prefer to have my morning coffee, which I didn’t get to have on this morning, and to begin with a nice leisurely hike. Anyway, this is not leisurely. It’s five miles of up. Five miles of up to the highest point in the lower 48, at that. But man, the views as the sun came up were something else. It was cool to look down on Guitar Lake and see how it got it’s name. The skies, again, were clear and a marvelous blue.

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At the top of the switchbacks is Discovery Pinnacle, which is the highest rock formation above the switchbacks.  It is close to this location where one can drop some gear and begin the final 1.9 mile climb to Whitney summit.  I took a few heavier items out of my pack (i.e. bear can, etc.) and left them at this location.  I still carried my pack with everything else in it.  I didn’t feel comfortable leaving all of my gear and pack at this location.  There were just so many people passing that a person could potentially pick through your pack.  I didn’t think, however, that they would be interested in my heavier junk so I left that stuff there.  The trail hugs a ridge line with impressive views both eastward and westward.  The jutting rocks formations and the perfectly placed Tetris rocks were equally awe inspiring.

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It is a beautiful sight when the Survey Hut comes into view. This is where you can sign the Mt. Whitney trail registry. The other guys were ahead of us and Ryan and I were a bit winded. We decided to chuck the packs at this point behind some rocks. Our logic was that if someone wanted to steal our heavy packs and lug them all the way out, they could have them. We picked up the pace and headed to the top. My watch had been calculating the oxygen level throughout the previous days and I was really curious to see how it would register as we approached 14,500. You can see the picture below… 57% of the oxygen level that a person would have at sea level. I could feel it for sure.

When I got to the top it was a really emotional experience that I am not sure I can adequately put into words. All of the months of days prepping, studying, and working out. The long, strenuous days that tried us physically, mentally, and emotionally. The inability to see or speak to our families for eight days. The beauty of this glorious creation day after day that left me in awe and completely speechless. The accomplishment, the achievement, of fighting through adversity to top Mt. Whitney. The view from the highest point in the lower 48 with great friends. And then for my phone to hit a signal… and texts and voicemails from my family to begin pouring in… telling me that they miss me… and love me. My God, it all came together and I cried. What a beautiful, wonderful life. I don’t take any of it for granted.

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And as much as I wish our trip ended on top of Mt. Whitney, the reality was that we had close to ten more miles of hiking down over 7100 feet. Did you get that? Do you understand that? 7100 feet! When we hiked Grand Canyon… that was close to a mile (5200 feet) down. This was a gargantuan dive. In fact, there is a series of switchbacks that I called “Death by a Million Switchbacks,” because they never end. I promise you have never done that many switchbacks in your life. All I can tell you is that we got in a zone and just went for it. I took a few pictures, but I was so focused on getting to the parking lot at Whitney Portal I didn’t take any time for anything (except pumping water one time where the trail crosses Lone Pine Creek). If you don’t have an opportunity to hike the entire John Muir Trail, let me recommend this eight or nine day hike from Bishop to LeConte to Whitney Summit. Make it a bucket list trip and resolve to do it while you have the legs. You won’t regret it.

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California: John Muir Trail- Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake- Day 7

John Muir Trail- Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake

Mileage- 10.7 miles

Elevation Gain- 2477 feet

Elevation Loss- 2036 feet

Tyndall Creek to Guitar LakeTyndall Creek to Guitar Lake Elevation

Our seventh day on the John Muir Trail in California was supposed to be our “light” day, as our itinerary had us traveling from Tyndall Creek to Crabtree Meadow and only covering 8.6 miles and just under 1600 feet of elevation. But, ever the group to ALWAYS finish our trips a day (or two) early, we recalculated and decided to make our final destination for the day Guitar Lake. By going to Guitar Lake we were making the decision to summit Whitney the next morning and hike out in the same day, which would make our last day close to sixteen miles. But we were feeling grizzled and chiseled and felt confident in our ability to travel 27 miles and conquer 6500 feet of altitude two days! Ha! There were certainly many pros and cons to this idea, but as a group we believed the pros certainly outweighed the cons. And it is a really funny thing how not being able to talk to family for eight days motivates a person. We each had tried throughout the previous week to get a signal, but we never could get one. I believe that each of us just wanted to phone home and let everyone know that we were all doing great and to let them know that we love them. So we pressed on to Guitar Lake this day… and it was a glorious day.
IMG_1614IMG_1620IMG_1621IMG_1625I know I regularly make this claim and I feel like I really mean it when I say it, but this next section of trail is one of my favorites of any trip.  Of course at the very top of my list are Fifty Mountain in Glacier, this sweet spot on the Escalante Route before Hance Creek in the Grand Canyon, a day hike spot on a mountain in Denali, and Mt. Eielson summit in Denali, but I have to add this section to the list.  After climbing out of the boulders and sequoias and passing Tawny Point to the east, the Bighorn Plateau is a very special place.  It has the appearance of a desert with yellow scrub that almost perfectly matches the ground beneath it, all perfectly complementing the spacious blue skies.  I stopped in this vast, open area and just took it all in.  There was this tiny little pond completely out of place, but adding perfectly to the completeness of the area.  I loved this area for many reasons, most of them aesthetic, but there were so many subjective reasons I loved it as well.  I could stand in a single spot, turn 360 degrees, and it was perfect all the way around.  You can even see Whitney towering above everything else in the distance. This is one spot where I shot some video as well.
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From Bighorn Plateau the trail descends below the treeline, where there are some pretty magnificent Sequoias, and makes it’s way down to the junction with the High Sierra Trail. It’s at this point where the High Sierra Trail joins the John Muir Trail to the top of Whitney. It is also at this point where you will be at the lowest elevation (10,435) before summiting Mt. Whitney. It’s all pretty much up from here.IMG_1638 IMG_1650IMG_1649IMG_1647IMG_1675The remaining trail to Guitar Lake took us over diverse terrain and a series of ups and downs.  Even seven days into this hike we are still captivated by the beauty of the Sierras.  Any direction we look could easily be a masterpiece hanging on a wall.  It’s funny as this particular day wore on how we kind of fell into this “hiker’s delusion,” that every turn we would make or every ridge we would approach had Guitar Lake on the other side of it.  Maybe we were tired and just ready to set up camp and get on with our evening routines.  Or, maybe it was our anticipation of summiting Whitney early the next morning.  Either way we just wanted to be at Guitar Lake.  With everything we heard about it and everything we read about it, we were excited to see this lake sitting at 11,500 feet.  It certainly did not let us down.  I included some video below that I took while lying on the grass by the lake.  I think I may have fallen asleep there after I shot the video.IMG_1660IMG_1670IMG_1676IMG_1689
The next day would be our eighth and biggest day… summiting Mt. Whitney and exiting at Whitney Portal.

California: John Muir Trail- Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek- Day 6

John Muir Trail- Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek

Mileage- 12.7 miles

Elevation Gain- 4246 feet

Elevation Loss- 2755 feet
Bubbs Creek to Tyndall CreekBubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek Elevation

Our sixth day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from Bubbs Creek over the monster Forester Pass to Tyndall Creek. On this day we would travel 12.6 miles and conquer over 4200 feet of elevation. And our ascent would be 7.5 miles to Forester Pass. That is a long, long ascent. It feels as if it never ends. But more on that later.  The morning sun brought out the glowing, northeastern face of the East Vidette peak and the southwestern facing  Kearsarge Pinnacles.

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Our trek from Bubbs Creek toward Forester led us through the lodgepole pines and whitebark pines in the sub-alpine region and into areas with decreasing vegetation and significant and increasing piles of talus.  At about the five mile mark it actually looks as if you have made significant progress, as you have now left the trees behind and you now only see a trail amidst the broken and fragmented rocks.  But, the final two and a half miles to Forester Pass climbs an aggressive 2000 feet.  The map at the top of this post indicates my pace slowed significantly, as the red line represents a slower pace.  This was definitely my slowest pace throughout the entire trip.  It is hard to believe that the low oxygen level has such a profound effect.  While I will discuss this again on our Whitney summit day, the percent oxygen level going up to Forester was a little more than 65%.

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The benefit of stopping frequently to catch my breath was the opportunity to take pictures and savor the views, which were nothing short of astounding. Maybe I should have said breath-taking, literally (haha). The sloping talus piles of small, crumbly rock turned into massive broken boulders. The trail skillfully navigated through it all. And then there was a pristine lake just above 12,000 feet with the triangular Junction Peak towering in the background.  The epic views lead to a series of seemingly unending switchbacks amidst the scree with Forester at the top.  If you look closely you will see one of our guys at Forester Pass with the rest of our group scattered throughout the scree field heading up.  As a side note, if you happen to use the National Geographic Topographic Map for the John Muir Trail there is an error on the trail profile on page 16.  It shows a significant dip at the 12,200 mark and looks as if you have to go down a couple of hundred feet before going back up.  Well, the dip does not exist.  The trail goes up the entire way without any dip.  Anyway, just thought you may want to know that.

IMG_1556IMG_1552IMG_1551IMG_1554IMG_1555IMG_1556IMG_1558IMG_1561The view at the top of Forester was the best yet. It was expansive and massive with beautiful blue skies holding the billows of white clouds. This is the point at which one exits Kings Canyon National Park and enters Sequoia National Park. This is also the highest elevation of the trail before summiting Mt. Whitney. We took a much needed break at the top and posed for a few pics.
IMG_1570IMG_1564IMG_1569IMG_3565IMG_1576 The descent from Forester Pass has an aggressive descent down through a series of switchbacks down to an unnamed lake (as far as I know). Patrick was the first one down to it, so I will refer to it as Patrick Lake. Patrick Lake is a real stunner. After taking close to an hour break at the pass, we were FORCED to take another break at the lake because it was just that beautiful. We washed up, lied down on the grass, and just stared at the gorgeousness. Our numbers are probably off, but we tried to figure out how many people actually see this lake each year. We estimated a little over 300 people. Even if we are a bit off, the percentage of the U.S. population that gets to see this lake each year is a infinitesimally minuscule .000086% of the population. I don’t take any of this for granted. IMG_3575IMG_1583IMG_1593 With close to two hours of breaks, we still had between four to five miles before Tyndall Creek. The trail opens up into this wide expanse that we spied from Forester. No matter which direction we looked, it was special. As we pressed on throughout the afternoon, the cloud cover enveloped us. A few times we even felt a sprinkle of rain, but we knew the chances of rain were extraordinarily slim, even though the parks were praying for rain to slow down Rough Fire. Once we settled into our campsite near Tyndall Frog Ponds, the haze of Rough Fire greeted us. IMG_1605IMG_1609 The next day we would leave Tyndall and trek all the way to Guitar Lake, where we would camp, in preparation for our Whitney Summit.

California: John Muir Trail- Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek- Day 5

John Muir Trail- Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek

Mileage- 12.6 miles

Elevation Gain- 4440 feet

Elevation Loss- 3487 feet

Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek 1Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek

Our fifth day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from Woods Creek over Glen Pass to Bubbs Creek.  This was our first of three monster days that had significant mileage and significant total elevation gain.  The total distance was 12.6 miles and the total elevation gain was close to 4500 feet.  I was sitting here somewhat shocked to see our total trip time clock in at nine hours and fifteen minutes, but as I thought of how much down time we had taking pictures and swimming, it made complete sense.  From Woods Creek to the top of Glen Pass is one of the greatest and most beautiful 8.5 mile stretches I have ever seen.  As proof, this post has more pictures than any other post!  We knew that we needed to get an early start because the day was going to be long, but we also wanted to try to get the majority of our hiking done before the smoke of Rough Fire rolled in in the afternoon.  I am super glad that we got an early start!

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We began to climb out of the lower grassy and piney areas into the classic and picturesque Sierra Nevada landscapes- sparse vegetation, big time pale granite mountains set against rich blue skies, and high altitude, crystal clear lakes.  After about four miles of gradual incline we hit Dollar Lake and Arrowhead Lake. The trail snakes in between these these lakes and it’s from these lakes where we got our first glimpse of Fin Dome, which is really easy to spot.  In fact, the trail works it’s way even closer to Fin and provides a ridiculous number of opportunities for stunning photos.

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It is from Dollar and Arrowhead Lakes to Rae Lakes where your heart begins to beat out of your chest because it is just SO BEAUTIFUL. Off topic a little here, but I remember a family vacation we took about ten years ago. It was with my two daughters (6 and 3 at the time), my wife, and I. It was the first time I had been to Colorado and we were in Rocky Mountain National Park driving Trail Ridge Road from the entrance to the top of the mountains and then back down. At one point we pulled off the road and there was a clearing that climbed about 150 feet up to some huge rocks. We got out of the car and hiked up to those massive rocks and jumped up on them and took pictures of ourselves. I had not done any backpacking in my life up to that point and I just remember the freedom I felt running into nature and into something not so domesticated and structured. That was the first day I had this deep longing to get away and go to places and experience this amazing freedom and beauty. I mention that story for two reasons. The first is that I did not grow up backpacking. I didn’t start with extensive experience or great insight. I just had an insatiable hunger TO GO and EXPLORE. I am not joking when I say that anyone, with the right mindset and dedication, can do things you would never imagine you could do. The second reason for this story is that this portion of the JMT reminded me why I first decided to start backpacking in the first place. Despite the rigorous training, difficult situations and terrain, the smoke from Rough Fire, and missing my family… seeing this land… preserved in it’s full glory… and being a small part of it… makes all the rigors and pain worth it.

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We took our lunch break at Rae Lakes. If you get the opportunity to take a break here… DO IT! The trail passes on a ford the separates the lake in two. For some reason half of us stopped at the first portion of the lake and the other half of us went to the second portion of the lake. We were out of view from each other but only 20 to 25 feet from each other. We took some time to pump and eat. Someone asked me if I was going to get in the water. I said no. The truth was that I was going to, but I wanted to catch everyone off guard. So as everyone ate I began to slip off my clothes down to my underwear undetected. And without warning I ran and jumped with the biggest cannonball ever. The sudden explosion caught everyone off guard and within ten minutes everyone (I think) jumped in. The water was so so so so ridiculously cold, but man it was great. While half of us got in the south part of the most northern lake, the other guys got in the northern part of the most southern lake. I actually think that was the better of the two, because it was more like “cliff jumping,” but not quite that high. Either way, it was a great place to have an absolute blast.

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We had taken way too much time with pictures and playing.  We still had to conquer Glen Pass and a total of another seven or so miles.  Glen Pass an easy ascent to 11,926.  We were refreshed and running full of energy from all of the beauty around us.  From Glen Pass we had a little more than three miles down to Bubbs Creek.  I am so thankful that we were able to go from Woods to Glen Pass without any smoke from Rough Fire, but our trek down to Bubbs would be smoky.  I admit that I didn’t take many pictures once the smoke rolled in.  Maybe I didn’t want to remember it.

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There were several spots to camp within a mile of passing the Kearsarge Pass Trail junction.  This junction is really your only option to get off the JMT before Whitney and Whitney Portal.  I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really, really have to get off the trail.  To Onion Valley it is a little over six miles and involves crossing Kearsarge Pass at 11,823.  But anyway, there are several spots to camp after the junction but I would recommend camping closer to Vidette Meadow.  There are several spots to camp in the Meadow and Bubbs Creek is easily accessible for water.  Also, there is a metal bear box nearby for your bear cans at night.

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Our sixth day on the John Muir Trail would take us from Bubbs Creek, over the massive 13,160 foot Forester Pass, and down to Tyndall Creek.