World’s Newest Long Trail: Cuba’s Ruta de la Revolución

See a Cuba tourists never see. Hike la Ruta de la Revolución trek which follows the historic route of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that started the Cuban Revolution—from landing in Cuba in a foundering boat to their famous hideout deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Walk for days on wooded trails and mountain roads—see no cars, only the occasional mule cart. Eat dinner by oil lamp with campesino families in remote rural villages. And finally, be one of the very first to do the La Ruta de la Revolución while it’s “undiscovered” and unspoiled. We didn’t see a non-Cuban until we reached Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

The following includes:

  1. A Trip Guide to La Ruta de la Revolución Trek (the only online or in print guide, even in Cuba)
  2. Detailed Route Description and Photo Essay since few non-Cubans have visited this area. It documents the people and places and should give you a good feel for what La Ruta is all about.
  3. Some Travel Tips for the Ruta including info on Cuban Visa
  4. And a List of the Gear we took, including some Insect and Disease Prevention Clothing and Tips
Ruta de la Revolución

View of the Sierra Maestra Mountains from near Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout and command center.

La Ruta de la Revolución Trek Highlights

  1. La Ruta de la Revolución is a new long trail for the world. As far we know, only four people have completed it in the last few years (and Alison, our guide and I are three). This is an exciting chance to do a trail while it’s undiscovered and unspoiled. [At writing, only one travel agency guides it.]
  2. It has history because it follows the trail that started the Cuban revolution. It follows the treacherous path that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara took from their secret boat landing on the coast (2 dec 1956) to the famous mountain hideout (La Comandancia de La Plata) where they planned/orchestrated the revolution. (Only 21 of the original 82 men made it.)
  3. You’ll see a Cuba that other tourists don’t see. This is not the touristy beaches, antique cars, and clubs of Havana. Instead you’ll walk woodland/jungle trails and remote rural roads often times accompanied by campesinos on foot or horseback as they go between small villages and the farms they work.
  4. Experience the people and homes of a remote and rural Cuba. You’ll stay with campesino families each night in their palm thatch roofed casas. Dinner is cooked over an open wood fire in an earth floored kitchen. You’ll share simple peasant food and conversation with the family in the light of an oil lamp. (For us, this was our favorite part of the trek.)
  5. Finally, you’ll climb through coffee plantations, cross mountain streams and walk through small villages into the refreshing cool air of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. On one side, you’ll have views across the Caribbean Sea and on the other, the vast expanse of Cuba stretching northward to the horizon.
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La Ruta de la Revolución (red rectangle) is located in a remote part of Cuba seldom visited by tourists. It goes through two huge National Parks comprising most of Cuba’s southernmost coast.

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[click on map to enlarge] La Ruta de la Revolución (BLUE line) starts in far western Granma Province in the small coastal village of Playa de Las Coloradas. It is here that Fidel Castro’s boat the Granma landed in 1956. The Ruta follows through Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It then climbs into the vast Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra, home to the highest mountains in Cuba and ends at Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout.

Top Things You Need to Know about La Ruta de la Revolución

LocationCuba’s Southwest Coast
ReferenceThis is the only guide online or in-print for La Ruta de la Revolución. For a good general Cuba guide we recommend Lonely Planet Cuba
SeasonAll year, but the weather is coolest in “winter,” November to February
Duration 6 to 8 days (it’s best to take more time, you’ll get more out of the trip)
Distance~150 kilometers on a combination of trails and rural roads.
(There is an option to split the route into half each about 3-4 days)
Navigation and mapsA far as we know, you are only allowed to do this trek with an “official” guide. And even if it was allowed un-guided, you’d be crazy to try it—even with excellent Spanish and good travel skills. This route is not mapped. And even Cuban maps of the area do not have some of the roads and trails you’ll use. [See Guiding Section in next table]
Physical intensityYou need moderate hiking fitness. The first half is mostly rolling terrain—rural roads and farm trails. At times it can be hot and humid with full sun (you are hiking in the Caribbean). The second half is cooler but on steeper mountain roads, ending up on very steep mountain trails.
GearTravel light! This is a List of the Gear that worked well for us. Given the warm climate and that you’re not carrying food, you might even get by with a daypack or  just about any 20 to 30 liter pack you have, e.g. REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack.
CameraBring a good one! Alan used a Sony a7R II with a Sony 28-70 F3.5-5.6 lens
Alison a Sony a6000 with a 18-105 f/4 lens.
See more about Selecting a Travel/Backpacking Camera here.
SleepingYou’ll stay most nights with campesino families. This will mean a rural home with very basic facilities—but lovely families and people! See more in our Detailed Section on Sleeping.
FoodThere are essentially no stores, and only a few meager “restaurants” along the route. Mostly you’ll eat whatever the local people cook for you in their homes. See more in our Detailed Section on Food.
WaterWe chemically treated all water on the trip. We like these simple and effective Katadyn or Portable Aqua treatment tablets—best travel water treatment going!  See more in our Detailed Section on Water.

 

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Rural Cuba is social. If people are going your direction, they will walk beside you and companionably chat. Along with locals we walked beside this mule team carrying coffee in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Arranging for Your Trek

Cost$1,280 USD for 2 people to do the trek in 8 days. Includes: transport from the airport to trek start, guiding, food and lodging along the route, and transport from the end of the trek back to the airport.
GuidingBayamo Travel Agent, based in Bayamo, Cuba offers the only guiding. The Ruta de la Revolución Trek is not listed on their site. You will need to email them to make arrangements. As of this writing, the only guiding language was Spanish, although Anley Rosales Benitez, the owner of Bayamo Travel speaks excellent English and could probably arrange for a translator.
Getting thereIts easiest and fastest to fly into the town of Holguin, Cuba. There are direct flights to the Holguin Airport (HOG) from the US. Your travel agent/driver will meet you there and transport you to the trip start. Flying into Bayamo would also be an option. Flying into Santiago de Cuba is your third option although it will take longer to get to the trek start.

 

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Trail to Che Guavara’s radio station (Radio Rebelde) the communications center for La Comendancia de la Plata. They would get warned by campesinsos when enemy planes were flying over the area and quickly pull the radio tower down. (Batista’s forces never found the Comendancia).

Most villages along the route are very small. Just a few homes and some farm building.

Most villages along the route are very small. Just a few homes and some farm buildings.

Shorter Route Options

This trip can be broken into two parts, each about 3-4 days:

  1. Option one, the first half is from Playa de Las Coloradas (in Desembarco del Granma) to the small village of Cinco Palmas. It was here that the revolutionaries re-grouped after being scattered into 27 separate groups after a disastrous first battle. In Cinco Palmas, you’ll find a bronze statue of campesinos who helped the revolutionaries on their trek.
  2. Alternatively, option two, if you are interested in a cooler (though more hilly) trek, you can start in Cinco Palmas and hike to the Comandancia de la Plata (Fidel’s hideout).
RouteDayskmele. gain metersele. loss mtotal ele. change
 Total Route6 to 8 1504200 3700 7900
 1st Half to Cinco Palmas3 to 4 7010009001900
 2nd Half Cinco Palmas to Comandancia3 to 4* 80320028006000

* Note: Given the 6000 m (20,000 ft) of elevation change, some hikers might consider 5 days for this half

We picked up a horseback rider as we passed a small panadaria (bakery). He rode with us for a few miles, chatted and gave us directions and information about upcoming villages.

We picked up a horseback rider as we passed a small panadaria (bakery). He rode with us for a few miles, chatted, gave us directions and information about upcoming villages, and where to get food.


Sleeping, Food, and Water

"The

Sleeping

You’ll stay most nights with a campesino family. Usually this is a rural home where three generations share two or three bedrooms. There will be a tiled floor family/eating room, and a dirt floor kitchen with an open fire. These homes, while extremely compact, are quite clean. They are inspected by the health department regularly (check the back of the front door for their last health inspection date). The dirt-floor in the kitchen is because there is open-fire cooking. They will probably throw a mattress on the floor in the common room for you to sleep on. [Your guide will take care of all sleeping arrangements and pay the family generously for your stay!]

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The casa we stayed in the first night. It’s a typical rural village home— plain wood walls, a corrugated steel roof, and glassless windows. There’s a tiled floor main room in the front with 2-3 bedrooms partitioned off to the left. In the back is a dirt floored room (man standing in it) that serves as a kitchen and storage room. This was the only home we saw with a television. In most homes, electricity is just a few fluorescent bulbs used from 7 to 10 pm.

An outhouse on the property will handle biological needs.  There is no running water in the homes so you’ll bathe in an outdoor area with a barrel and a dipper. We found it glorious after a long hot, sweaty day of hiking. We hand-washed our clothes in a laundry tub and hung them up to dry overnight.

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Most homes have 3 generations and up to 10 people. This girl is sleeping on the floor of the main room as there isn’t a bedroom for her.

Until the route becomes more established with set/pre-arranged places to stay each night there is a small possibility you’ll sleep outside in a tent or hammock. Either because you stop hiking for the day before you reach a suitable village, or because with three generations of people in their home there isn’t enough room for you to sleep. But you still will get dinner, breakfast and to bathe. We brought our own hammocks, but most people will likely be more comfortable with a a light backpacking see the List of the Gear we took.

Every home we stayed at kept, goats, chickens, and pigs. This casa at the base of the Sierra Maestra Mountains was the only place we stayed that had running water (piped from a mountain stream, see cistern in front).

Every home we stayed at kept, goats, chickens, and pigs. This casa at the base of the Sierra Maestra Mountains was the only place we stayed that had running water (piped from a mountain stream, see cistern in front).

Food and Water

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We shared a 5 liter bottle of treated water (left in photo) that would last us about 1/2 day until we had to refill it and chemically treat water again. Picture is the start of the trek through the wooded trails of Desembarco del Granma National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is one of the longest sections of the trek without water. It’s also one of the hottest sections.

Food

As of this writing, buying your own food along the route is not an option. There are essentially no stores, no towns and only a few meager “restaurants” along the route. You’ll eat whatever the local people cook for you in their homes. We had two meat dinners and one vegetarian dinner, based entirely on what our hosts had in their homes the day we arrived (unannounced and unplanned). We always ate a big dinner, and had some bread/butter for breakfast. For us, lunch was a catch as catch can. (But you should request with your travel agent/guide what meals you want.) Your final option, although a heavy one, is to buy food in a grocery store in Cuba before the trip and carry it with you. We did not do this, rather we carried about 5 energy bars each.

Ruta de la Revolución

Oil lamp lit dinner with a campesino host family. They moved the table to make room for our drying laundry which you can make out in the background. Simple food of rice, beans, yuca, yami (a type of sweet potato), bananas and a small amount of extremely cooked meat. In the morning, they refused payment from us saying that it was what they were supposed to do as good people. (They finally relented when we insisted they take the money, if not for themselves, then for their daughter.)

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This was the only bodega (small store) we saw on the route. It’s few goods are artfully arranged on the shelves to semi-disguise the reality that there’s little inventory. There’s no refrigeration and no perishable food. [That’s a working scale on the counter since most stuff rice, beans, sugar etc. are all weighed and sold in bulk.] There was nothing we wanted.

"We

Water

This route is in rural Cuba with lots of farm animals living around every home. We chemically treated all water on the trip. The “best” water you find (if not all) will be trucked into the village. With the number of farm animals everywhere, we stayed away from water in the streams. And in the hot weather, during the dry season, many streams may not be running. We also carefully treated all our water and ended up carrying more than we would of liked. Don’t assume water will be plentiful while hiking.

water-tablets

This route is usually hot and water sources are far apart so you’ll carry a fair amount of water. We shared a 5 liter bottle of treated water that lasted us about 1/2 day until we had to refill it and chemically treat water again. We like these fast, simple and effective Katadyn or Portable Aqua treatment tablets. You can also use these Aquamira Water Treatment Drops which are more economical but a bit more fussy to use.


Detailed Route Description and Photo Essay

Part 1 – Overview of the Route – A Walk Through Culture and History

Be sure to soak up all the history on this route. Every day has points of the interest from Fidel, Che and the revolutionaries long and dangerous trek to their final mountain retreat. So keep an eye out for markers, monuments, plaques, etc. We saw cleared farm areas (makeshift camp sites for the fighters), markers for various events and battles, and even Che’s command center in Minas Frias. Our guide was great at pointing these out to us and explaining as we went along. By the end of our trek, we found that we knew more about this historic trek than most Cubans.

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There are some strange historical markers/sites like this preserved section of a culvert marking the place where Fidel Castro crossed under a road to go undetected by Batista’s forces!

You’ll also walk though farmland and small villages, some with historical context, but all worth exploring. For us, the highlight was visiting and staying with the campesinos (rural farmworkers). We saw a way of life from almost hundred years ago in the U.S. They still use ox carts!

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Coffee is still carried from the mountains by mule.

The first half of the Ruta de la Revolución is mostly flat. It can be hot and humid as you have yet to climb into the cooler mountains. The trek starts by walking the length of Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a unique coastal karst (limestone) habitat. Much of the trail is lined by trees and there are numerous markers explaining the historical events that occurred the first three days of the revolutionaries trek. The first half of the trek ends in Cinco Palmas where it is possible to take a road out. The small village of Cinco Palmas is where the remaining revolutionaries re-grouped after their disastrous first battle scattered them into 27 separate groups. Here you’ll find a bronze statue of the local campesinos who helped the revolutionaries.

The gate into Minas del Frio.

The gate into Minas del Frio. This where Che Guevara had his secret command/training center during the revolution. Now it’s a mostly decommissioned military base deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. At this point, we are getting near la Comandancia de la Plata and our guide is asking military personnel about directions.

After Cinco Palmas the trek gets hillier but also a bit cooler. Expect plenty of ascending and descending each day. You’ll climb through coffee plantations, cross mountain streams and go through small villages up into the refreshing cool air of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. On one side, you’ll have views across the Caribbean Sea and the other, the vast expanse of Cuba stretching northward to the horizon. On your last day, you’ll culminate at the Comandancia de la Plata. The only way to get there is literally trekking through the jungle just like Fidel and the revolutionaries. Our last day on the trek had 3000 m (10,000 ft) of elevation change!

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Fidel Castro's house in La Comandancia de la Plata (mountain hideaway and command center).

Fidel Castro’s house in la Comandancia de la Plata (mountain hideaway and command center).

Note: Playa Los Coloradas is worth a day to explore before your trip. The Desembarco del Granma National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and worth investigating for it’s unique ecosystem, its hiking trails, and even a few archeological sites. There is also the Desembarco del Granma museum which has a full-sized replica of the Granma, the boat that carried 82 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba (the original boat is in Havana). There’s even a walkway through the mangroves to the very place the Granma ran aground.


Part 2 – Detailed Route Description

In our usual “get ‘er done in a hurry” style, we had only allowed 4, possibly 5 days to do the trek. Since the trek hadn’t been done in years, and the last person to do it took 8 days, we were unsure that we’d get done in time. We were even sure if we be able to follow the path correctly. As such we were in “hair on fire” mode from the get go. Most sane people will take longer to do the trek. Among other things you’ll want more time to visit with people along the way, explore the small farms and villages, enjoy the views and take lots of photographs.

Note: Our route description is for the 4 days it took us to do the route. Most trekkers will want to take 6-8 day to fully enjoy the Ruta.

Our Day 1

We had a 5:00 start in the dark to 1) get as many miles we could for the day, and 2) to get the most hiking time in the cool of the morning.

"Our

Day one is filled with Ruta markers highlighting various points of interest along the first three days of the rebels march inland.  The trek begins at Playa Los Coloradas, the beach where Fidel and his revolutionaries landed in Cuba. The boat, the Granma was a US built boat that sailed from Mexico. It was designed to carry 20 men but had 82. As such it was very slow, arriving two days late, and was at risk of sinking by the time it reached the Cuban shore.

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One of the may concrete route markers and explanatory plaques along the first 18 km of the route.

"The

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Monument at Alegria del Pio, the site of the first battle of the revolution. Batista troops ambushed Castro’s rebel forces 3 days after landing. It was disastrous for the rebels with about 1/3 killed, 1/3 lost and the rest dispersed into 27 groups. Only 21 of the original 82 made it to the Comandancia de la Plata. [this site is about 18 km from the trek start]

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We saw children eating helado (frozen treats on a sugar-cane stick) and followed it to the source. This woman on the right had a chest freezer and was running a small side business making popsicles in the bottoms of soda cans using sugar cane syrup.

Our Day 2

Day two begins with some rollers and by mid morning you are walking roads. You pass by the small town of Manteca pretty quickly, and just the other side is another camp where Fidel and the revolutionaries stayed (so you know you are still on the Ruta).

An open air dance hall the morning after Saturday night’s fiesta. The small store had only strong alcohol and no food. We managed to find maltados, a sweet non-alcoholic carbonated beverage flavored with malt.

An open air dance hall the morning after Saturday night’s fiesta. The small “Cafeteria” had only strong alcohol and no food. We managed to find Bucanero Maltas, a sweet non-alcoholic carbonated beverage flavored with malt. It was just OK, but something cold! the extra hydration was welcome.

Continuing on, you acquire a fairly major carretera (road) and walk it until the cut off to Cinco Palmas. Along the major road is a marker where Fidel crossed the road (see photo earlier in post).

The afternoon of the second day we arrived at the small village of Cinco Palmas. It was here that the revolutionaries finally managed to re-group after being scattered into 27 separate groups after a disastrous first battle at Alegria Del Pio. In Cinco Palmas, you’ll find a bronze statue of campesinos who helped the revolutionaries on their trek.

"Cuba’s

From here on the hiking gets progressively hillier and steeper for the rest of the Ruta.  Coffee plantations start as soon after you leave Cinco Palmas. Keep an eye out for coffee beans carried by mule, drying plants, and seedling coffee plants on the side of the road waiting to be planted.

This is how coffee was brewed at every home we stayed. You can see the open wood fire in back to boil the water. (The Sierra Maestra Mountains are the heart of coffee growing in Cuba. Just the right elevation for the best coffee.)

This is how coffee was brewed at every home we stayed. You can see the open wood fire in back to boil the water. (The Sierra Maestra Mountains are the heart of coffee growing in Cuba. Just the right elevation for the best coffee.)

Mother and daughter of our host family. Daughter is in school uniform and ready to head out.

Mother and daughter of our host family the second nite. Daughter is in her school uniform and ready to head out on mule, to her school.

Our Day 3

Day 3 started out with rolling hills, then flattened out a bit until hitting a huge hill. In 1980, the government paved the road on this hill because it was so steep that trucks frequently flipped over on it. It is a stiff climb up to the top at 850 meters.

A panadaria (bakery) in the middle of nowhere. It’s where our host of the `night before worked.

A panadaria (bakery) in the middle of nowhere. It’s where our host father of the night before worked. This is where we picked up the horseback rider as a walking companion.

Fidel's Comandancia de la Plata is somehwere out there in the distance. One of our first views of the heart of the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Fidel’s Comandancia de la Plata is somewhere out there in the distance. One of our first views of the heart of the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

This was the largest building we saw on the trek. It is the only building at the center of one of the largest towns, housing a pharmacy and a min-restaurant. Patriotic slogan, "you soy la revolución," means I am the revolution.

This was the largest building we saw on the trek. It is the only building at the center of one of the largest towns—on a dirt road of course. It houses a pharmacy and a mini-restaurant. The patriotic slogan, “yo soy la revolución,” means I am the revolution.

We chatted with these two young men for a bit but didn't ask what was in the bottle.

We chatted with these two young men for a bit but didn’t ask what was in the bottle (but had a good guess).

We stayed the night in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra in preparation for making the final ascent the next day into Fidel Castro’s Comandancia de La Plata hideout.

View from the front yard of our casa on day 3. Completw rooster and jury-rigged electrical pole.

View from the front yard of our casa on day 3. Complete with rooster and jury-rigged electrical pole.

The father of the family we stayed with was feeding his sick son small pieces of bread between his fingertips.

The father of the family we stayed with feeding his son small pieces of bread between his fingertips.

Our Day 4

Our Day 4 started out with a steep climb to la Comandancia de la Plata via Minas Frias. It’s an unrelenting climb up into to la Comandancia de la Plata. Our total elevation change for the day was 3000 meters or around 10,000 feet.

Sunrise start into the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Sunrise starts climbing over the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

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The historic Comandancia of Che Guevara is in Minas del Frio (Minas Frias). It was here he organized rebels while Fidel was in the nearby Comandancia de la Plata. Now the area around Che’s Comandancia is mostly an abandoned military base.

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Every child in Cuba goes to school, even in remote rural villages. This group of students, are from a school in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, not too far from la Comandancia de la Plata.

At some point, you turn off the road into a small side track and head into the mountain jungle. The trail gets difficult here—very steep uphills thru a narrow jungle path followed by steep downhills. This was easily the toughest part of the hike. Early on we acquired a second guide (a local campesino) who guided us through the jungle into the Comandancia. (Like Fidel 60 years earlier had a campesino guide them to the site!)

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At some point the maze of small mountain trails confused even our guide (left in photo). We ended up getting a local campesino from a banana farm (right) to guide us through the mountains to la Comandancia de la Plata. Picture is in front of the old Hospital for the Comandancia, which is now under reconstruction.

Signage near the La Comandancia de La Plata, Fidel Castro’s mountain command center. This is at the very end of our trek. But it’s what most tourists see getting out of their 4WD vehicle to hike to La Comandancia, or to Pico Turquino, the highest point in Cuba.

Signage near the La Comandancia de La Plata, Fidel Castro’s mountain command center. This is at the very end of our trek. But it’s what most tourists see getting out of their 4WD vehicle to hike the short 3k to La Comandancia. Having not trekked the 150 km Ruta from the coast, they miss much of the context of the Comandancia de la Plata.

The height of luxury. Breakfast at our casa particular (bed and breakfast) in Santo Domingo at the end of the trek.

The height of luxury. Breakfast at our casa particular (bed and breakfast) in Santo Domingo at the end of the trek.


Travel Tips

  • As of this writing, stand-alone GPS units (SPOT and inReach included) and Satellite Phones were not allowed into Cuba. To confirm, Cuban customs did indeed check our luggage with X-ray machines and also asked us if we were bringing a GPS into the Country. Be forewarned. Strangely, cell-phones with a working GPS are fine. Go figure!
  • Our US cell phones don’t work in rural Cuba (but this may change in the future). But your guide’s cell phone will likely work on some sections of the Ruta. In the bigger towns in Cuba, you can buy Internet cards. On the trek, you will not have this option.
  • We were able to recharge our cell phones at two out of the three houses we stayed in. Electricity will be scarce so don’t expect every house to have it.
  • US debit or credit cards don’t work with Cuban ATMs.
  • So for US Citizens, this is a cash-only country. US dollars will cost an extra 10% to exchange so Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds or any other currency is recommended.  That said, you can change US dollars if needed.
  • CUBAN VISA: US Citizens need a Cuban visa to get into Cuba. We went thru the Miami airport. At the boarding gate in Miami, a kiosk sold Cuban visas good for one visit, for $100/person. We assume this is the same at other airports in the US. Alternatively, you can get a visa through the Cuban consulate. It costs only $50/person however: you will need a passport photo, you’ll fill out forms, provide a copy of your passport and must hand it all to them in person (I provided all the same for my spouse, but it cost $75 since they weren’t there in person with me). A week later, you return to pick up your visa. The $100 airport visa is a much better deal.
  • US CATEGORIES (not really a visa): The US government has several categories of reasons allowing you to go to Cuba. The reason that people have started to go now is that in March, 2016, the US Gov’t added the category of “people-to-people” to their list. You can go to the State Department website to read more about what this means (https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/cuba.html) see “support for the Cuban people”. As long as you fall into one of these categories, you do not need a visa from the US to travel (but will still need a Cuban visa). We carried our itinerary with us upon returning to the US to prove we spent time with Cuban people, but were not asked for it or anything else at US customs.
  • Remember, you are in a very rural area. As such, we saw virtually no cars on the trek. Almost all transport is either by foot or by horse/mule. There may be options to rent horses/mules along some sections, but that needs to be well organized beforehand.
"Cuba Ready" kiosk at Miami Airport.

“Cuba Ready” kiosk at Miami Airport where you can get get a visa.

Gear for La Ruta de la Revolución Trek

Note: this is a excerpt from our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List which we use for worldwide trekking, including our recent trek into the Jungles of Columbia to  see La Cuidad Perdita (the Lost City). Depending on the time of year, temperatures on the Ruta can vary from the humid 80-90s °F with intense sun at lower elevations, to temperatures in the 40’s to 50’s°F on cool nights in the mountains. There is always a slight chance of rain even in the lowlands. The chance of rain increases when you get into the mountains as they have their own weather.

ItemDescriptionComments
Backpack for all your gear30 to 40+ liter backpackOsprey Exos 48 PackULAOhm 2.0 Pack great!, or Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400. See Recommended Lightweight Backpacks for other choices.
Day PackJust about any 20+ liter pack
REI Co-op Flash 22
Warm climate and not carrying food so you can also use a daypack. Alison used an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25
TentLight one e.g. Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 TentFor the slight chance you need to sleep outdoors.  REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent or for lighter options see: Recommended Tents and other Shelters
HammockGood for tropical climateTent alternative. Something like an Ultralite Backpacker Asym Zip or Hyperlite Asym Zip
QuiltFleece blanket or Sleeping BagOnly a light one is needed if at all. We didn’t use one.
Ground PadT-Rest NeoAir X-lite “Women’s”Perfect size for most. Warm. Super comfortable!
Dry bags These inexpensive dry bags Keep gear dry — especially, cameras, electronics & docs like your passport, etc. and these dry bags have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing
Clothing and insect repellentsSee Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing below for our clothing list and strategy for avoiding mosquito and other bug bites
Trek polesCascade Mountain Tech CarbonHelp on muddy/slippery trails. Pers. favorites. 1/3 price but equal to the best poles
Water bottleSoftBottle Water BottleNeed 2-3 liter capacity per person. Can use standard commercial bottle. Or  collapsable ones like these
 Water purify Chemicals light and effective Katadyn or Portable Aqua tablets or Aquamira Water Treatment Drops
CameraCamera Equipment You’ll want a good one. See Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras
EarplugsFoam Earplugs NRR 33If sensitive to noise. Tight sleeping quarters.
ChargingEasyAcc USB Battery (5.4)Charge iPhone 6s ~3x, iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6 ~2x (5,500 mAh, actual!)
ElectronicsAn excellent kit for travelSee “Best Lightweight Travel/Backpacking Electronics Gear” for both on and off trail use
HeadlampBlack Diamond Iota Weather sealed. Bright 150 lumens. Can be recharged in the field! E.g the EasyAcc battery pack. Reduce battery waste, and see better!
Toilet paperIn waterproof Ziplock bagTP not always at toilets in camp.
Hand sanitizerTravel Size For use when water/soap not available
SoapDr. Bronners Small 1 oz bottle
TowelPackTowl Personal TowelFast drying. Get one less than 100g (3 oz)
Sunscreensmall plastic tube about 1/2 fullfor face & hands: most of body covered—large hat
SunglassesNeeded!
Lip balmBert’s Bees or similarMinimal wt for dedicated lip balm
First Aid KitMeds, wound/injury, foot careA small personal kit see the one in my 9-lb Gear List
HeadnetSea to Summit Head Net (1.2)
Insect repell.Sawyer Picaridin for skin0.5 oz pump is airline OK small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion is the most effective on the market.
Knife/scissorsWescott blunt tip school scissorsMore useful than knife – OK for plane carryon
KnifeGerber L.S.T. Drop PointCan cut bread and salami – very light for 2.6″ blade (not carry on legal)
RepairTenacious patch, duct tape, glueAlso consider Aquaseal and a NeoAir patch kit

See our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List for a more complete list of gear.

Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing

This is tropical Caribbean trekking with possible exposure to bug transmitted and water/food transmitted diseases. The CDC recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines or medicines you may need. We got all our travel vaccines for water/food transmitted diseases. And we chemically treated all water along the route. We at well-cooked food as much as possible along the route. None of of us got sick.

A short list of Clothing and Bug Protection (a cool set that you won’t overheat in)

Note: this excerpted from a more detailed article. Best Ways to Protect Yourself Insect Diseases While Hiking some readers may want to investigate it in more detail.

Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme and Zika While Hiking

ItemDescriptionComments
AHat (repellent)Exofficio Bugsaway HatBug repellent for upper head area
 BShirt hiking*RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s OasisCool fabric, mesh side vents, sun protection, Lifetime insect repellent (vs. sprays 8-14 hrs)
Shirt (alt)Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’sAlso good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI. Lifetime insect repellent.
CPants hiking*ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’sAvailable in both Men’s and Women’s.  Light, cool, sun protection. Lifetime insect repellent.
Pants (alt)RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect ShieldRailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Lifetime insect repellent.
E GBug repellent on face neck handsSawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lasts 14 hrs! No odor. Won’t melt plastic. Small, pocketable, easily applied.
 DPhysical Prot. Tuck pants into socksPrevents tick entry into pants. Stops pants legs from “gapping” and exposing ankle to mosquitos
FPhysical Prot. Tuck shirt into PantsPrevents tick entry into pants and lower shirt area.
 HGaitersDirty Girl gaiters (fun colors!) or
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Seals pants against tick entry. No ankle gaps. Can be treated with permethrin spray.
HGaiter trap shoe
(optional)
Altra Lone Peak shoes or
Altra Superior shoes
Velcro “gaiter trap” permanently attached to heel of shoe. (adhesive ones that come with gaiters only work for a while)
Rain JacketOutdoor Research Helium IIor inexpensive REI Coop
 Fleece shirt North Face TKA 100 1/4-Zip Light and compact travel garment. For warmth in camp at night and sleeping. Good pillow!
 UnderwearPatagonia briefs Mens
Patagonia briefs Women’s
Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
 Bra Patagonia Active spots bra Alison’s favorite
Hat regularOutdoor Research Sun Runner HatRemovable sun cape. Adaptable to most situations
Shoes hiking Lightweight trail running shoesBoots not desirable! Most non-Goretex trail running shoes that fit. You probably own a pair.
Shoes sugg. Altra Superior Trail-Running
(or Lone Peaks)
Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!
Shoes sugg.Inov-8 ROCLITE 295 (20oz)Light, sticky rubber, durable.
Shoessugg.Brooks Cascadia (25 oz)Popular trail shoe, available many stores
camp footwear Sandals for showering/camp
SocksInexpensive cotton M’s and W’s
(bring 3 to 4 pairs)
Socks get dirty & stinky fast in hot climate. Best to wear cheap ones & use as rags after the trip. [Can treat with Permethrin if you want.]

* You can treat your own clothing with permethrin spray (Amazon) or REI. This lasts for up to 6 weeks or 6 washings. (For comparison: factory treated clothing is good for up to 70 washings, essentially “life-time” use). Both clothing treatments far exceed the 8-14 hours of skin applied repellents like Picaridin and DEET. And they don’t require the time/attention needed to properly apply repellents to large areas of skin each day.

Note: We took two set of insect repellent pants and shirts — one pair exclusively for hiking, and one pair reserved for dry/camp use only. The reason is that hiking clothes will get wet with rain and/or sweat during the day and will not dry completely overnight. In the morning we just put on our damp hiking clothes (they will be dry in 30-60 minutes from your body heat), and put our dry camp clothes back in our packs. That way we always had nice clean clothes to change into after washing up. A courtesy to the families we stayed with!

A Very Different High Route – Escalante Overland Route

The Escalante Overland Route is arguably the most exciting high route in the lower-48! It is certainly the most beautiful and challenging trip we’ve done. The beauty of its remote desert canyons and mesas are equal to the best the planet has to offer, Grand Canyon included. Breathtaking views of red rock and the southwestern desert appear around every bend of the Escalante River. 

The Escalante Overland Route (OLR) traverses the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, arguably the best, true wilderness in the lower 48. Compared to the millions who visit the Grand Canyon each year, the vast expanse of the Monument below Highway 12 has no trails and few people. Many of the canyons only see a few visitors a year, if any. You are unlikely to see another person on the route. It is the perfect setting for a bona fide adventure filled with jaw dropping beauty.

Just to be clear, this is Steve Allen’s route. He describes an “Overland Route” in a few terse paragraphs at the end of a 1997 guide book. He presents it more of a challenge than a guide. In the ensuing 20 years it’s remained off the radar, with almost no known completions. In this sense, the OLR is closer to a “revived” route than a new one. Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka and I hope that this trip report will inspire more people to experience the wonders of the Escalante.

Lead photo: Author on dawn climb to Scorpion Bench. Andrew Skurka is next up. (Photo Don Wilson)

Alan’s photos: Sony a6000 with various Sony lenses (more on my camera setup here)
Don’s photos: Canon 5d with Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens


What is the Escalante Overland Route?

Escalante Overland Route

While millions gawk a the Grand Canyon each year, only a fortunate few will see this dawn view from a remote side canyon on the Escalante Overland Route.

The Escalante Overland Route is a stunning,  “desert canyon high route.” In many ways, it is better or equal to the Grand Canyon and it certainly has fewer people. For about 100 miles, the OLR stays high above the Escalante River Canyon, holding close to the rim. And counterintuitively, following the rim above the canyon is far more challenging than walking down the canyon bottom. The upside is the amazing view when perched on the edge of the rim a thousand feet above the canyon.

The Escalante was the last river of its size to be discovered in the lower 48 states and the area was the last to be mapped in the lower 48. (So recent that the maps have a 1000 meter grid and UTM coordinates!) Today, only a few canyons such as Coyote Gulch and Neon Canyon see regular use. And some of the side canyons are so remote and inaccessible, that people only go there about once every 5 to 10 years.

Escalante Overland Route

What’s our next move? Don checking out maps high above the Escalante. Navigation is critical & at times beyond challenging.

Stats and Route Info

Escalante Overland Route

CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE: The 100 mile Escalante Overland Route Follows above the Escalante River all the way from the town of Escalante to where it enters Lake Powell. (The traditional OLR is in blue. The new addition is in Red.)

Location:Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in Utah
Season:Spring (April to mid-May) and Fall (mid-Sept thru mid-Nov)
Duration 7 to 12 days.
Distance:100 miles (including the new addition)

  • 80 miles Steve Allen’s traditional route (6 to 10 days)
  • +20 additional miles from town of Escalante to Allen’s route start (1.5 to 2 days)
Navigation:About as hard as it gets. It will confuse the heck out of you unless you are an expert navigating canyon country.  And even then…
Physical:Strenuous. No trails. Long walking on sand, uneven/broken terrain of all sorts, bushwhacking, unavoidable poison ivy, and a lot of scrambling/climbing. Expect low mileage days.
Technical:Semi-technical: For experienced canyoneers that are also rock climbers. Somebody needs to be capable of leading a few of the climbing sections without protection.
Gear:Sand-resistant shoes with tons of grip on rock. Lots of capacity to carry water. Climbing rope, harness, hardware and webbing to form anchors. (Depending on the time of year temperatures can vary from below freezing to 90s °F with intense sun.)
A light pack is key to moving quickly and safely: Here’s a list of the 9 lbs of gear I took
Reference:Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante. The Overland Route description starts on page 306.

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The Escalante Overland Route has risk. Some climbing is un-protectable on the smooth slick-rock. Author, free climbing in wet shoes over a pour-off (an overhanging cliff that blocks a canyon). A light pack is critical here! [photo Don Wilson]

Why is this a Trip Report and not a Comprehensive Guide?

While it’s exciting and beautiful, the Escalante Overland Route (OLR) may also be the most demanding high route in the lower-48.  You have to earn the views and the solitude. This challenging terrain demands 100% of your attention. It also requires your absolute best physical, navigational, and scrambling/climbing abilities. It is not a route to be taken lightly.

The original intent was to publish a Guide and Mapset for the Escalante Overland Route. In 2015, Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka and I did the first half of the OLR. In 2016, Don Wilson and I went back and completed the route (Andrew had a schedule conflict). Don and I also scouted the last difficult sections of the new addition—crossing Sandy Creek and Calf Creek.

But in the end Don, Andrew and I agree with Steve Allen. The route is too challenging and dangerous for us, in clear conscience, to publish a comprehensive guide. In fact, a guide would ruin the intent of the OLR—a challenging and complex route to be relished and puzzled out on your own. So we opted for this Trip Report and Photo Essay.

That being said, we certainly don’t want to deter competent canyoneers from doing all or part of the route. People who are interested should read through the Challenges and Cautions for the Route section to assess whether this is something they want to undertake. If not, consider the easier, Non-technical Canyon Backpacking option below. But by all means get out into the canyons!

An Easy Introduction to the Wonders of Canyoneering

Many beautiful canyons are low risk – One can simply walk in and walk out. So, if you are interested in canyoneering but don’t know how, you might want to read my Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – a how to guide for getting started. There are a number of spectacular, but not difficult canyon systems waiting for you to explore.


Dawn near scorpion Gulch.

Dawn near scorpion Gulch.

History of the Escalante Overland Route

The original “Overland Route” was proposed in 1997 by Steve Allen in a few terse paragraphs in the very back of his Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante. He does not say that he’s done the route in any intentional way, although he certainly could have. And it’s almost 100% certain that Steve has done all portions of the OLR at one time or another on various trips.

But I’ve done a bunch of Google Searching and can find only a few mentions of using short sections of the OLR to connect-up a bit of terrain for another trip. As for the the complete OLR, I’ve found no records or trip reports or mentions, let alone a record or mention of someone successfully completing it. The only person I know who has done the complete OLR is Bill Wolverton and that was a number of years back. Bill recently retired, but he worked for the BLM in Escalante for many years. He is something of a local canyoneering expert and legend. According to Bill, he knows a few people who attempted the OLR, but is not aware of anybody completing it. They could have, but never reported back one way or the other.

midday-shade-1200

Water is scarce above the Escalante but sunlight and heat are plentiful. Don taking a break in the shade at a welcome opportunity to resupply our diminished water supply.

Brief Description

Allen’s Traditional Overland Route

The traditional 80 mile OLR (Steve Allen’s) starts on Route 12 near Calf Creek Falls and finally leaves the Escalante River Canyon just before Lake Powell. In between, it aggressively navigates across/around 10 major side canyons (and numerous smaller side canyons) as quickly as possible—many times with difficult-to-locate and challenging technical entrances and exits. It’s certainly the most difficult navigation that we’ve done.

New Extension – Start in the Town of Escalante

I’ve added a 20 mile extension to the traditional OLR. The extension starts on the historic Boulder Mail Trail (BMT) on the outskirts of the town of Escalante, Utah. This trail delivered mail by mule to Boulder, Utah until 1935—one of the last mule mail delivery routes in the US. The extension crosses the famous Box Death Hollow, before leaving the BMT to cross the major canyons of Sandy Creek, and Calf Creek. It joins Allen’s traditional OLR on Rt 12 about 2 miles south of the Calf Creek Falls Viewpoint. (Note: there are some more elegant and challenging ways to cross Box Death Hollow vs. the Boulder Mail Trail!)

Challenges and Cautions for the Route

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Andrew Skurka down climbs a 5th class section of the route. (We had lowered packs using our rope.) [photo Don Wilson]

Steve Allen, the originator of the Overland Route, may have ratings that some consider a bit conservative, but they still bear serious consideration for people contemplating the route. Allen describes the challenges of the “Overland Route” (OLR) as follows:

“It is not intended to be done in one push, although that would be an incredible accomplishment. [The Overland Route is] meant for those looking for remote and seldom-explored country… Most sections of the OLR are appropriate only for hardcore canyoneers that are also experienced rock climbers. Difficult climbing on steep walls, demanding route-finding problems, long distances between known water sources, and other assorted perils await the bold explorer…

The leader must be experienced with belay techniques and capable of leading the climbing sections without protection. Often the route descriptions are brief [or terse and vague to the point confusing and/or downright misleading]. You must be well versed in map reading and not be intimidated by long stretches of complex and convoluted terrain. You will not find the OLR marked on maps in this guide. The dedicated and adventurous will be forced to assemble the puzzle on their own… Warning: Do not take the OLR lightly. It is intricate, at times trying, and without a doubt dangerous.

What We Did

All that being said, we managed the route without a belay. We only used our rope once, and that that was to lower packs so we could do a 5th class down climb without them (photo above). Others might have a very different take on risk and what to do. But Allen is exactly right on on two points:

  1. There are sections where somebody is going to need to climb class 4+ or low 5th class slick-rock without protection. This is usually down climbing which is less pleasant.
  2. The navigation is exceptionally hard.

A Few Parting Photos from the Route

Here are a few more photos to give you an impression of the Escalante Overland Route

overlook-1600

What the world looks like from the rim of the canyon. To give you a sense of scale, those tiny green dots in the canyon bottom are full sized cottonwood trees.

A typical slick rock camp. This is an extermely remote canyon. (We just put quilts down on the slcikrock to sleep.)

Dinner at typical camp in an extremely remote canyon. Practicing leave not trace, we just put down quilts down on the slick rock to sleep. Nobody will ever know if we were there.

Even in the desert getting wet is sometimes unavoidable. Don in our final exit canyon from the Escalante River.

Even in the desert getting wet is sometimes unavoidable.

Tarps are perfect for the desert with its low chance of rain. They are a great way to save weight. Don and I only set ours up when there was a chance of rain, otherwise it stayed in the pack. See: Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

Dawn silhouette above the Escalante

Dawn silhouette above the Escalante.

Thanks

And of course many thanks and gratitude to Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka for being great partners in this adventure. -alan

Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry – No Car Needed

This Guide to the AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, is an installment of our no-car-needed, low carbon AT hiking Guides.  This beautiful section has the infamous roller coaster, along with great vistas like Raven Rock and Sky Meadows Park. It connects two popular AT trailheads—Shenandoah National Park (Front Royal, VA); and historic Harpers Ferry, WV. When combined with our Low Carbon Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry to Harrisburg PA , you have ~180 great miles of the AT easily accessible by public transportation. Hike green!

(lead photo: late afternoon at Raven Rocks overlook. Fall colors just starting)

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

The hike ends in historic Harpers Ferry, WV and it’s well worth an overnight stay and exploration. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

A Series of Guides to Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail

We are big fans of leaving the car at home when we go hiking. Because the AT goes through or near urban areas, it’s not difficult to section hike portions of the AT using only public transportation. Many of these are among the nicer sections of the AT. This guide is for an AT section hike that you can undertake solely using public transportation from Washington, DC. This 54 mile AT section could be done in one long weekend (3-4 days, e.g. an extended Memorial, or Labor Day weekend). It would also be a great hike for fall color viewing as it has somewhat less foot traffic than the adjacent Shenandoah Park.

Installment 1: Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA, 124 miles
Installment 2: This post – Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, 54 miles

Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…

AT Section Hike - Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry

“[You] MUST BE THIS TALL TO RIDE!”
The start of The Roller Coaster, an infamous section of the AT with over 10,000 feet of elevation change in only 13.5 miles! And that was only part of our FUN for the day. Alison’s face says it all.

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT

  1. Blue Ridge Vistas: This section of the AT is just gorgeous. There are numerous overlooks including the famous Raven Rocks, and the endless ridge top vistas from Sky Meadows Park. Because of the wonderful overlooks and clearings on this section, it would be a great hike for fall leaf viewing.
  2. Blackburn Trail Center: When you arrive at the Blackburn Trail Center, you are greeted by the trail boss and his wife. More often than not, trail magic will appear making the end of the roller coaster that much sweeter.
  3. Bears Den Hostel: This rustic stone building from the 1930’s is a gem on the AT. The hiker deal for $30 includes: bunk, shower, laundry, soda, pizza and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Our trip didn’t allow us to overnight there, but we did stop for the $0.50 Cokes out of the fridge and a lovely break on the lawn for a snack and rest at a covered picnic table.
  4. Ride the Roller Coaster: The world renown roller coaster is a 13.5 mile section of trail that closely resembles a roller coaster. Ok, not really. It’s really about 10,000 ft of elevation change in a very short distance that will keep you fully entertained.
  5. Harpers Ferry Overnight: Any hike that includes an overnight in Harper’s Ferry is a good hike. The town is so lovely, it is always a highlight.
AT Section Hike - Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry

Overview map of the 54 mile route.

Quick Trip Stats

  • The trip takes between 3-5 days
  • 0 mile – trip start, Shenandoah Park N Boundary near Front Royal, VA
  • 54 mile – trip end, Harpers Ferry, WV

Transportation Time

  • 2.5-3.0 hrs downtown Washington DC to trip start near Front Royal, VA (via commuter bus and Uber)
  • 2 hrs from trip end in Harper’s Ferry, WV to Washington Union Station (via train)
AT Section Hike - Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry

Beautiful mountain meadows and views: Alison hiking up to one of the many great vistas at Sky Meadows Park.


Overview – Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry – No Car Needed

This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,

  1. Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train and bus from much of Northeast US.
  2. Lighten your load: The GEAR (link) and  FOOD (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
  3. And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.

What’s in this Trip Guide

Waypoint and Mileage Table

The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet

Maps and Guides

The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”

We supplement it with the following AT  Pocket Profile Map(s):
Appalachian Trail Map AT-11 Front Royal VA – Harpers Ferry WV AT

This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

$13 Train: From tip end at Harpers Ferry, WV, it’s only an hour and $13 via train to our front door in Washington DC!

Logistics – Getting to and From the Hike

Trip Start

This hike begins at the northern end of Shenandoah National Park. You don’t need to enter the park, just begin on the outskirts of it on the more easily accessed AT crossing of US 522. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there was no public transportation directly to Front Royal from Washington DC. So we had to string together two transportation modes to get to the trip start at around 6:00 pm.

  • A Omniride commuter bus leaves from multiple locations in downtown DC and goes directly to a commuter parking lot in Gainesville, VA. Cost was $6.50 using SmarTrip card or $8.75 with cash. Heading out of the city, commuter buses only leave in the afternoon “after work.” First bus leaves DC at 3:30pm ish (depending on where you pick it up) putting you in Gainsville around 5:20pm.
  • From there, you can Uber (about 30 min) to the start of our trek. This Uber trip costs about $50. Not cheap, but worth not having to shuttle, thus allowing us to do a one-way trek while still going low carbon. And the train ride back is only $13.
  • Using public transportation, the earliest you can expect to arrive at the hike start will be around 6:00pm. You should still be able to reach the Jim & Molly denton shelter by dark. (See more options in description below.)

NOTE: The combination of Uber/Lyft with the train (or bus) is a game changer for low carbon hikers. The ability to hook into a scheduled train or Greyhound route makes what used to be a “close-but-no-cigar” hike, into something quite doable.

Trip End

The easiest thing is to overnight in Harper’s Ferry and catch an early morning MARC train (Brunswick Line) back into Washington DC’s Union Station (or a few Suburban Maryland stops before DC). The MARC trains are super early, but that’s OK as you’ll get back into DC in time to catch many of the early trains and commuter buses to your final destination.

Backpacking Skirt

A crisp fall morning on Day 2, perfect for some hiking on the AT!


Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay

The section between Shenandoah National Park and Harpers Ferry is a rather popular section hike. The multiple overlooks and great overnight camping options make it a very nice section the AT. It follows the Appalachian Ridge for 54 miles through the State of Virginia culminating in a breathtaking walk across the Shenandoah River Bridge into West Virginia and the city of Harper’s Ferry. There is only one park you walk thru, Sky Meadows State Park (which has its own stunning overlook). Otherwise, this section is a nicely challenging walk on the AT.

Relaxing at the recently constructed Jim and Molly Denton Shelter. It has a picnic pavilion and

Relaxing on an Adirondack “Bench” at the recently renovated Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. It has a covered picnic pavilion and a solar shower!

If you start hiking in the late afternoon/early evening, you will likely stay at the Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. It’s a straight 5 mile shot from the trip start at US 522. You’ll be rewarded with a newish shelter, a lovely picnic pavilion, and a solar shower! Overnighting in Front Royal is another option and there are several hostel/hotel options there as well. (Front Royal hotel owners are well acquainted with AT trekkers and often provide a ride to/from the trail.)

First Full Day

Your first full day (if you started hiking the nite before) will be lovely. Keep an eye out for great overlooks because you come upon them very quickly. Sky Meadows State Park, really does have superb mountain top meadows and views. It’s a great lunch spot. After that, you also get to cross the not-so-lovely, first of two death-defying major highways on this section (no bridge, no stop signs, just put your big boy pants on and run for your life) at John Marshall Highway (VA55). We ended our day at Rod Hollow Shelter in prep for roller coaster day. Several nice campsites and hammock hanging areas are available at this shelter.

hammock_dawn_at_blueridge_va-1200

Sunrise above our hammocks at the Blackburn Center.

Day 2

First thing up the next day is riding the roller coaster! As the AWOL in The A.T. Guide notes, it’s really “13.5 miles of tightly packed ascents and descents.” Besides an amusement park aspect, this day also contains the Bears Den Hostel (an overnight option). The Bears Den Hostel was our lunch spot and we enjoyed a covered picnic table, a few cokes, and some shade from the sun. Shortly after the Bears Den you cross your second death-defying major highway, Pine Grove Road (VA 7).

Lunch and snack at the shaded picnic table at the Bears Den.

Lunch and a feet-up rest at the shaded picnic table at the Bears Den. We grabbed a couple of 50 cent Cokes out of the fridge!

If you live after crossing VA7, you get the privilege of hiking up to see the spectacular Raven Rocks overlook (lead photo of the guide). If it’s a weekend get ready for invasion of the day-hikers. The good news is that you drop the day hikers with your first step past the Raven Rocks. We ended our day at Blackburn AT Center which was quite a treat. They have tent sites, and a smallish cabin for hikers to stay in (no shelter tho), picnic tables, and fresh water from a tap. The AT Center is the meeting place for trail workers so there is a lot of activity surrounding the facility. As a result, trail magic often happens here. (Note: the Blackburn Center is a significant drop down and ascent back up to the AT.)

Trail Magic! at the Blackburn Center.

Cold beer and chocolate cake trail magic at the Blackburn Center. Who knew these two food groups tasted so good together?

Into Harpers Ferry – The Final Day

Rt 340 Bridge across the Shenandoah River as you enter Harpers Ferry

Rt 340 Bridge across the Shenandoah River as you enter Harpers Ferry.

Our last day was a walk into Harper’s Ferry. We wanted to enjoy some time in Harper’s Ferry so organized our section hike to do so. After Blackburn AT Center, the last section is fairly flat and offered up a nice stretch for your legs post-roller coaster. Coming into Harper’s Ferry is quite majestic as you cross the Shenandoah River Bridge to enter into the city.

Rough Greensnake

We saw a number of these beautiful, and delicate Rough Greensnakes as we approached Harpers Ferry.

In Harpers Ferry we stayed overnight at the Econolodge as we had heard good things about it. We liked the location. Excellent WiFi and a box of trail magic available for the taking. Breakfast is always welcome and although they said it started at 6:30am, a full breakfast was out for the taking at 6:00am which helped us make our train. (If you arrive earlier or can stay a bit later in the morning, the nearby Guide Shack Cafe has the best coffee in town and serves light breakfast food.)

What to do in Harpers Ferry: Here’s a link to ideas about where to stay and what to do in Harpers Ferry

guide-shack-cafe-1200

Adventure Alan under the sign for Adventure and as always finding the best coffee in town! The Guide Shack Cafe is veteran owned, veteran operated and sources its coffee and food from veteran owned Co’s! It opens early for coffee/breakfast.

Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

Guide to Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek (Lost City)

It’s like Machu Picchu, but remote and not overrun by tourists. So definitely put La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) near the top of your travel list!  La Ciudad Perdida is a vast, ancient city in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada mountains on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It is believed to have been built by the Tairona culture around 800 CE, about 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu. Researchers estimate it housed between 2,000 to 8,000 people. La Ciudad Perdida can only be accessed via a two-day trek on foot into the coastal jungle of Colombia. As such, it has nowhere near the crowds, and “touristy feel” of Machu Picchu. The following is a Guide to Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek, which has all the information to plan a successful and rewarding trip to this incredible site.

Pictures with: Sony a6000 camera, Sony 10-18mm F4 OSS Lens & Sony 18-105mm f/4 G OSS Lens; iPhone 6+.

Top 5 Reasons to Go on Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek

  1. La Ciudad Perdida is on par with Machu Picchu, but without the mass of humanity. Alison and I were on the site for almost an hour before seeing another person.
  2. La Ciudad Perdida Trek is crazy cheap (only $230 USD for four days, food, accommodation, guiding and fees!) and faster/easier to access compared to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. And at only 1200 meters there are no altitude acclimatization issues.
  3. You are a guest in indigenous lands at their sacred site. You literally trek through indigenous villages and lands of the descendants who built and lived in the city. It’s far from an overrun tourist trap!
  4. The walk through the jungle is amazing— some of it is virgin jungle. We know of few multi-day treks in the jungle. Swimming in the cool jungle rivers was one of the trip highlights.
  5. A culturally sensitive eco tour. Our guiding company, Wiwa Tour is owned and operated by the Wiwa indigenous group, descendants of the Tairona who built the city. The Wiwa fought to protect the Ciudad Perdida historic site from mining and other commercial atrocities. In other words, your tourists dollars go to indigenous guides who contribute to preserving and protecting the Ciudad Perdida historic site and its indigenous communities against climate impacts, vegetation loss, neglect, looting, and unsustainable tourism.
Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

This is what a section of La Ciudad Perdida looks like in full sunlight. It’s perched at 1150 meters elevation on a ridge in the Sierra Nevada Mountains above the Buritaca River. (The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain range in the world.)

Note that the “Lost” City of the Teyuna was never actually lost. Local indigenous groups, descendants of the Tairona who built the city knew of the city and traveled through it. It was only “lost” to the outside/non-native world. It was “found” in the early 1970s by local treasure hunters/looters and artifacts started showing up on the black market. Since then, there have been great efforts to preserve and protect the site. La Ciudad Perdida consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. Archaeological work is still ongoing.

Table of Quick Links to Plan Your Lost City Trek

Quick Links to: A Step by Step Planner for Your La Ciudad Perdida Trek
Basic Trek Info (below)Top 5 Things to KnowPacking List, Gear for the Trek
Clothing for Insects & DiseaseWhat Camps Are Like (sleeping)Food and Water
Quick Links to General Information: Maps, Guides, and Transportation
Map, Daily Itineraries, Distances
(and Elevation Profiles)
Transportation, Getting to Trip StartGuiding Companies

Basic Trek Info

  • Time to go: Colombia is equatorial so you can do this trek year-round. The best time is December to March which is the dry season and a few degrees cooler. Even so, afternoon rain is common in the mountains and should be expected. People from northern climates may appreciate taking a warm weather trip in the middle of winter.
  • Guiding: You can only do the trek with a guiding company (remember: you are an invited guest into sacred tribal lands).
  • Climate: This is a hot and humid trek through tropical jungle, with all that it entails.
  • Difficulty: Moderate intensity hiking with some up and down on sometimes muddy/slippery jungle trails.
  • Distance: About 44 km (28 miles) out and back, with 2,700 m (9,000 ft) of elevation gain and loss.
  • Duration: The Trek is usually done in 4 days (a half-day, two full days, and a final half-day).
  • Altitude: Maximum elevation is at La Ciudad Perdida itself at 1,150 meters, around 3,800 feet. So you will have no altitude issues.
  • Safety: The area has been safe for over 10 years. The Colombian army actively patrols the area and you will be on a guided trip. In 2016, Colombia’s president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace agreement with leftist rebel groups.
La Ciudad Perdida is about 30 km from Columbia’s Caribbean Coast. Treks start in Santa Marta at your guiding companies offices. Most people will fly into Cartagena. From there it is 4 hour bus ride to Santa Marta. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

La Ciudad Perdida is about 30 km from Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. Treks start in Santa Marta at your guiding companies offices. Most people will fly into Cartagena. From there it is 4 hour bus ride to Santa Marta. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

Top 5 things to know

  1. Climate and terrain: This is the jungle. It is hot much of the time and humid all the time. It will likely rain. You will get wet and muddy either from the rain and/or your own sweat. Your clothes will not dry overnight. You need to dress and pack appropriately. See our Gear and Packing List…
  2. Accommodations: This is far from a luxury trip. Camps are minimal with open walled shelters–many with dirt floors. They have netted sleeping bunks (or hammocks), cold showers and flush toilets. Some camps have very limited electricity (lighting and a few outlets for the whole camp), while other camps have no electricity.
  3. Food: Simple, local food is served on the trek. You get breakfast, lunch and dinner in camps and there are two fruit/snack stops during the day. Portion sizes are about right. Food is prepared in a very basic, outdoor cooking area. We ate and drank what they gave us and did fine with no problems.
  4. Water: We did not need to treat water. There is free purified water in the camps. And between camps, if you run out of water there were stands at a few places along the route with snacks, beverages, and bottled water for sale. Even fresh squeezed orange juice if you are lucky!
  5. Insects and disease: This is third world, tropical trekking in the jungle. The US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines and/or medicines you may need. More on Disease Prevention, Insects & Clothing…
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You are a guest in indigenous lands at their sacred site. On your trek, you walk through indigenous villages and lands of the decedents of the people that built and lived in La Ciudad Perdida.

Crossing the the Buritaca River with the help of a steel cable.

Crossing the the Buritaca River with the help of a steel cable.

Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

After crossing the the Buritaca River you immediately ascend over 1350 stone stairs to La Ciudad Perdida. They can be quite slippery when wet. It’s a steep climb — about 300 meters vertical in 0.9 km (1000 ft in just 1/2 mile).

Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

Touring La Ciudad Perdida with our Wiwa guides in traditional white clothing. Our group had almost two hours on site without seeing another group. (There were 4 groups of around 12 people each, the day we went. But the guides coordinated visits so that groups did not overlap. Fantastic!)

Morning mist clearing in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This isolated mountain range separated from the Andes chain that runs through Colombia. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world's highest coastal range.

Morning mist clearing in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal range. (La Ciudad Perdida is nestled in its foothills at 1,150 meters.)

A boulder with carved markings, believed to be a map of the Tairona world.

A refreshing swim in a jungle river after a hot and humid hike.

A refreshing swim in a jungle river after a hot and humid hike was one of the trip highlights.

Drying laundry on the suspension bridge at Adan Camp and nativle commuinty looks like prayer flags.

Drying clothing on the suspension bridge at Adan Camp looks more like prayer flags than laundry.

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Our Wiwa guide, Celso, with his poporo, a gourd used for carrying crushed seashells (lime).

Abel, our Wiwa guide in traditional all-white, Wiwa clothing, including a white shoulder bag. He’s holding his poporo, a sacred gourd used for carrying lime which activates the cocoa leaves they chew.

Packing List for La Ciudad Perdida

  • A heavy pack will make uphill hiking hot and unpleasant. We recommend a small pack with minimal gear — less than 4 kilos (8 pounds) per person — under 3 kilos is even better.  See our gear packing list below for ideas to save weight.
  • It’s not advertised, but you can have gear carried between camps by mule. [All food and supplies go in and out on mule. So the mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!] It’s around 20,000 Colombia peso (COP) per bag for each leg (about $7 USD). Our strategy was to put most our gear (for the two of us) into a single pack to be carried on the mule. We then shared a single 20-liter pack between us to carry our minimal gear while trekking during the day.
  • A simple and inexpensive 10-20 liter daypack works just fine — you probably own one. A mesh/vented back panel is desirable as you’ll be sweating tons hiking uphill in the heat. While not cheap, we found our Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20, with its breathable mesh back and numerous pockets ideal.
  • We strongly recommend a few light dry bags to keep gear in your pack dry — especially, cameras, electronics and important documents like your passport, etc. And these dry bags should have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing.
  • Trekking poles make it much easier to negotiate sections of muddy/slippery trail and river crossings. They are far lighter and more functional than the single wooden staff most trekkers use. We took these inexpensive but excellent carbon fiber trekking poles. They are ideal for travel as they compact to fit into carry-on luggage.
  • You’ll want a good headlamp. It gets dark at 18:00 and most areas of camp are unlit.

Finally, this is a trip to take pictures!

  • If you are serious about photography, you’ll want to bring a very good camera, and have a strategy that allows you to shoot in light or intermittent rain.
Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

Hiking up the main road/path to the highest point in La Ciudad Perdida.

Gear for La Ciudad Perdida Trek

ItemDescriptionOzComments
Clothing and insect repellentsSee Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing below for our clothing list and strategy for avoiding mosquito and other bug bites
Day PackJust about any 10-20 liter packIf you are sending most of your gear on a mule: We shared an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20
Backpack for all your gear30 to 40+ liter backpackIf you are carrying ALL your gear (NO mule): See Recommended Lightweight Backpacks. Since food and bed are provided you can get by with a smaller/lighter pack.
Dry bags  These inexpensive dry bags to keep gear in your pack dry — especially, cameras, electronics and important documents like your passport, etc. and these dry bags have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing
Trek polesCascade Mountain Tech Carbon15.2Help on muddy/slippery trails. Pers favorites. 1/3 price but equal to the best poles
Water bottleSoftBottle Water BottleOne liter is fine. Can use standard commercial bottle. Or  collapsable ones like these
CameraCamera Equipment You’ll want a good one. See Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras
EarplugsFoam Earplugs NRR 33If sensitive to noise. Tight sleeping quarters.
ChargingEasyAcc USB Battery (5.4)Charge iPhone 6s ~3x, iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6 ~2x (5,500 mAh, actual!)
ElectronicsAn excellent kit for travelSee “Best Lightweight Travel/Backpacking Electronics Gear” for both on and off trail use
HeadlampBlack Diamond Ion (54g)1.9Light and bright. Use around camp and in unlit sleeping areas. It gets dark at 18:00.
HeadlampBlack Diamond Iota Weather sealed. Bright 150 lumens. Can be recharged in the field! E.g the EasyAcc battery pack. Reduce battery waste, and see better!
Toilet paperIn waterproof Ziplock bagTP not always at toilets in camp.
SanitizerTravel size alcohol sanitizerFor use when water/soap not available
SoapDr. Bronners0.5Dr. Bronner’s – repackaged into small bottle
TowelPackTowl Personal TowelFast drying. Get one less than 100g (3 oz)
Sunscreensmall plastic tube about 1/2 full0.5for face & hands: most of body covered—large hat
Sunglassesmostly not needed in shaded jungle
Lip balmBert’s Bees or similar0.2Minimal wt for dedicated lip balm
First Aid KitMeds, wound/injury, foot care3.0A small personal kit
HeadnetSea to Summit Head Net (1.2)Mosquito netting – don’t take on most trips
Insect repell.Sawyer Picaridin or DEET for skin0.5 oz pump is airline OK, small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion
Knife/scissorsWescott blunt tip school scissors0.9More useful than knife – OK for plane carryon
KnifeGerber L.S.T. Drop Point (1.2 oz)Can cut bread and salami – very light for 2.6″ blade
RepairTenacious patch, duct tape, glue 0.2Also consider Aquaseal and a NeoAir patch kit
All food and supplies go in and out on mule. There is an inexpensive option to have all your non-dayhiking gear transpoted to the next camp on a mule. The mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!

All food and supplies go in and out on mule. There is an inexpensive option to have all your non-day-hiking gear transported to the next camp on a mule. The mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!

Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing

This is third world trekking in the tropical jungle with possible exposure to a number of diseases.  The CDC recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines or medicines you may need. As of this writing the CDC was recommending for the La Ciudad Perdida area, vaccinations/medicines for Hepatitis A, Yellow Fever, Typhoid and Malaria, in addition to “routine travel vaccines.” (Zika is also present in Colombia. As of 2016, it cannot be prevented by medications or vaccines.)

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Our strategy for insect/disease protection: Long sleeve shirt and full-length pants (going down over shoes), both are factory-treated with insect repellent. Then insect repellent applied to the unprotected areas of hands, neck and face. Note that all the natives of the area always wear long sleeve shirt and full-length pants! [I removed my hat for the photo]

And this is the back of a group member that insisted on hiking uphill with his shirt off.

And this is the back of a group member that insisted on hiking uphill with his shirt off.

Your first and best strategy for not contracting insect transmitted diseases is not to get bitten in the first place

Per the CDC’s section for travelers onMaximizing protection from mosquitoes and ticks:”

  • We chose to wear long sleeve shirts and full-length pants factory-treated with insect repellent (permethrin). Pre treated clothing has near-permanent effectiveness (clothing  treated before purchase is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings). You can also treat your own clothing with a Permethrin spray (Sawyer)  which lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).
  • You’ll want a change of dry clothing reserved for camp use only*. We recommend long sleeve shirts and full-leg insect treated pants as insects are active in camp.
  • Some may also choose to wear insect repellent treated socks, altho in our case our pants draped sufficiently over our shoes.
  • To complete the insect repellent treatment for 100% of our body, we applied insect repellent to the unprotected areas of our hands, neck and face; DEET (or the newer  Picaridin which doesn’t degrade clothing or plastics).  We prefer airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, which are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field. And as always, follow the product’s directions!
  • Per the CDC apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent.
  • Washing clothes: There’s a great swimming hole at camp Wiwah. You don’t really need a swimsuit. Alan swam in his hiking shorts commando. Alison swam in her running bra and underwear (very close to matching). It was a great way to rise out/wash hiking clothes. It’s a great way to rinse sweat and salt off your body and out of your hiking clothes. Otherwise you can wash clothes in the camp in the evening.

* Note: We took two set of insect repellent pants and shirts — one pair exclusively for hiking, and one pair reserved for dry/camp use only. The reason is that hiking clothes will get wet with rain and/or sweat during the day and will not dry completely overnight. In the morning we just put on our damp hiking clothes (they will be dry in 30-60 minutes from your body heat), and put our dry camp clothes back in our packs. That way we always had dry camp clothes to change into. Bliss!

Clothing and Insect Protection (a light set that won’t weigh you down)

ItemDescriptionOzComments
Shirt hikingRailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s Oasis10.0Our favorite: Light, cool, sun protection AND continuous insect repellent. Nice pockets.
Shirt (camp)Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’sAlso good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI Continuous insect repellent.
Pants (hiking or camp)RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect Shield 10.0RailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Continuous insect repellent.
Pants hikingExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s16.0Avail in both M’s and W’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Continuous insect repellent.
Insect repellentSawyer Picaridin or DEET for skin0.5 oz pump is airline OK, small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion
Insect repellentSawyer Permethrin, treat clothingAllows you to treat your current clothing. Lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).
 Rain Jacket*Outdoor Research Helium II
or inexpensive REI Coop
 6.4Great for staying dry when in camp.  Likely too hot to wear hiking except downhill.
 Fleece shirtNorth Face TKA 100 1/4-Zip 7.9 Light and compact travel garment. For warmth in camp at night and sleeping. Good pillow!
UnderwearPatagonia briefs Mens
Patagonia briefs Women’s
2.0Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
BraPatagonia Active spots braAlison’s favorite
Hat insectExofficio Bugsaway HatSun and additional insect protection for head
Hat regularOutdoor Research Sun Runner Hat2.5Removable sun cape. Adaptable to most situations
Shoes hiking Lightweight trail running shoesBoots not desirable! Most non-Goretex trail running shoes that fit. You probably own a pair.
Shoes sugg. Altra Superior Trail-Running
(or Lone Peaks)
 18.0 Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!
Shoes sugg.Inov-8 ROCLITE 295 (20oz)Another favorite. Light, sticky rubber, durable.
Shoessugg.Brooks Cascadia (25 oz)Popular trail shoe, available many stores
camp footwear Sandals for showering/campPut insect repellent on your feet after showering or use with socks to wear around camp
SocksInexpensive cotton M’s and W’s
(bring 3 to 4 pairs)
Socks get dirty & stinky fast in the muddy jungle. Best to wear cheap ones & use as rags after the trip. [Can treat with Permethrin if you want.]
GaitersDirty Girl gaiters (1.2 oz) 1.2Optional, but does seal ankles against tick entry. Tucking pants into socks also works.
SwimsuitIf you don’t want to swim in your clothes. See washing clothes above.

*Note: You don’t absolutely need a rain jacket. But it’s nice for getting around camp when it’s raining. Or when you are hiking long downhills in torrential rain. Otherwise it’s too hot and the rain is refreshing.

View of the Sierra Nevada. The Lost City is perched on top of a ridge somewhere up “there.”

Guiding Options

As noted earlier we chose to go with an indigenous tour company. Our guiding company, Wiwa Tour is owned and operated by the Wiwa indigenous group, descendants of the Tairona who built the city. Other tour companies are below. All tour companies operate out of Santa Marta.

  1. Wiwa Tour
  2. Expotur-Eco
  3. Magic Tours
  4. Guias y Baquianos
  5. Turcol

Note that many of these tours will be in Spanish. You may need to make arrangement for an English language tour or an interpreter

Transportation, Getting to Trip Start

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La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is about 30 km from Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. Treks start in Santa Marta at your guiding companies offices. Most people will fly into Cartagena. From there it is 4-hour bus ride to Santa Marta. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

  • From the US, it’s easiest to fly into Cartagena.
  • At the airport (as long as it is before about 8:00pm), you can take a taxi to one of several buses that will take you to Santa Marta. The information desk at the airport can assist in getting a taxi to bus services. (Alternatively, stay a few days in Cartagena and get used to the hot weather.)
  • It’s about a 4-hour drive to Santa Marta and the roads can be busy at any time of day. You’ll go through the city of Barranquilla (Colombia’s 4th largest) and will experience heavy traffic there unless it’s off-peak.
  • The most attractive options we found were buses leaving from near the airport: Marsol for COP 30,000/pp and has a set schedule leaving about 5-6 times per day. Last bus at 4pm. Berlinas, which has good WiFi on-board (COP 40,000/pp) and seems to leave about every 30 minutes from 5am ish to 8pm ish–the Marbella Office is 10 minutes from the Airport.
  • If you go to the Main Bus Terminal in Cartagena, you will find the cheapest buses to Santa Marta. But it will take a lot more time to get to Santa Marta.  It’s a long way from the airport to the Main Terminal and the cheapest buses make more stops.
  • The trek starts in Santa Marta. Most treks start between 8-9am from the trekking company’s office.
  • At that point, any unpaid balance is paid and then trekkers are loaded up in the back of a jeep for a 3-hour drive. The jeep’s not very comfortable and packs go on top of the car (our driver covered packs with garbage bags when it started to rain).
  • The jeep then leaves the main road and begins an hour long ascent to El Mamey on a narrow and bumpy dirt road. At El Mamey, after lunch, the hike begins.
  • As noted, at this point if you’d like to use the mules to carry your gear, let the guides know and they can help to organize that for you (it was about $20,000 COP/day).
A typical 4wd vehicle used to transport up to 10 clients and their gear to the trip start.

A typical 4wd vehicle used to transport up to 10 clients and their gear to the trip start.

What Camps Are Like (sleeping)

This far from a luxury trip. Camps are minimal. Open walled shelters–many with dirt floors. Netted sleeping bunks (or hammocks). Cold showers and flush toilets. Some camps have very limited electricity (lighting and a few outlets for the whole camp), and other camps have no electricity. See Best Backpacking and Travel electronics Gear to keep your electronics charged and running whether there is electricity or not. Sleeping quarters are tight and you may want to wear earplugs at night.

Note: Although we did not have problems, we did hear a report of insect bites (fleas? bedbugs?) in the bunks at Camp 2 (Wiwa).

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Evening at Adán camp (first night on trek), which is also a small native community. Note the suspension bridge across the river.

Basic accommodations: bunks covered with mosquito netting.

Basic accommodations: bunks covered with mosquito netting. An open air shelter with dirt floors is common at most camps.

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Some camps have an option of sleeping in a hammock covered with mosquito netting. An open air shelter with dirt floors is common.

Some camps have an option of sleeping in a hammock covered with mosquito netting.

Food and Water

Simple, local food is served on the trek. You get breakfast, lunch and dinner in camps and there are two fruit/snack stops during the day. Portion sizes are about right. Food is prepared in a very basic, outdoor cooking area. We ate and drank what they gave us and did fine with no problems.

Typical outdoor eating area. And forget the bare skinned crazies posing as mosquito feeding stations!

Typical outdoor eating area. And please forget the bare skinned crazies posing as mosquito feeding stations! That is certainly not us.

food-1200

A typical plate of food [lunch on day 3].

We did not need to treat water. There is free purified water in all the camps housed in large containers (but ask before just to make sure it has been purified!).

cp-food-drink-stand-1200

Between camps, if you run out of water there were stands at a few places along the route with snacks, beverages, and bottled water for sale. Even fresh squeezed orange juice if you are lucky!

Detailed Daily Itinerary and Map (4 Day Tour)

The trail can be steep and deeply rutted in sections

The trail can be steep and deeply rutted in sections

The Trail

While daily hiking distances are modest, this is not a flat trek with easy trails. The tropical heat and humidity make the days seem longer and harder. Most folks in our group managed fine, but some sections of the trail are steeply up and down. Some sections are deeply eroded, rutted, and wet. There are more than a few muddy, slippery or rocky sections. There are a number of river crossings. And note that wet rocks (and stairs) can be insane slippery!

Note: Guides set the schedule of when you arrive and leave rest stops and camps. As such, your personal hiking speeds/times are likely not relevant. However, we did not hike as one group. The faster hikers arrived at the rest stops earlier, and left the rest stops before the slower hikers were ready to leave.

The Map

Overall of Ciudad Perdida Trek. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE AS A PDF.

Daily Itinerary for 4 Day Tour

Note 1: most days we woke before dawn, breakfasted and start hiking around daylight (about 6 am). This was to avoid hiking in the heat of the day and to hopefully arrive in camp before the afternoon/evening rain.

Note 2: Guides set the schedule of when you arrive and leave rest stops and camps. As such, your personal hiking speeds/times are likely not relevant. However, we did not hike as one group. The faster hikers arrived at the rest stops earlier, and left the rest stops before the slower hikers were ready to leave.

waterfall-1200

Waterfall on Day 2

Day 1 – ½ day hiking to Adán – 7.6 km (4.7 mi) 1,900 ft ascent, 900 ft descent

day1-profile

Text descriptions below are adapted from Wiwa Tour and we’ve left some obvious grammatical errors. Our notes/corrections are in [] brackets.

We start from the oldest city in Colombia, Santa Marta at 8:30 am in a heated [I think they mean air conditioned] van to the sector Aguacatera, there perform transshipment to a 4 × 4 vehicle [No transfer. We took a single 4×4 vehicle all the way from Santa Marta to El Mamey. No A/C in the vehicle but not really needed.] that will lead us towards the sector mamey (Machete Pelao) in there we will have lunch. After lunch we start a walk of 7.6 km to the first camp (Adan hut, peasant community) where we spend the night. We will also make a stop in a crystal clear river for a refreshing bath. Some people complete the walk in 3 hours, others in 5, all depends on your physical condition. During the night, the Indian guide will talk about the history and customs of their community and the region.

[It is full sun and can be very hot hiking steeply uphill in the first afternoon. But there is strong sun is only the first ½ day and last ½ day (Mamey to Adan section). Otherwise you are in the jungle and could get by without a hat or sunglasses depending on your preference.]

It can rain very hard at times flooding the trail and making for slow/slippery going.

It can rain very hard at times flooding the trail and making for slow/slippery going.

Day 2 – to Paradise Camp – 14.7 km (9.1 mi)  3500 ft ascent, 2000 ft descent

day2-profile-copy

Begin a walk of about 8 hours, halfway visit the indigenous community of Mutanzhi and we interact with them, then get to the cabin 3. (Paradise cabin Teyuna, indigenous community). Located at an altitude of 830 meters above sea level, here we are at the foot of Teizhuna (Teyuna), the holy city of the Tayrona. On this tour we will appreciate much of the fauna and flora of our Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. In the afternoon we can relax and take a bath in the river. At night the guide will tell you more about Lost City and its sacred meaning for the natives of the Sierra.

Some sections of the trail are quite muddy, although you can usually find a path around to miss most of it.

Some sections of the trail are quite muddy, although you can usually find a path around to miss most of it.

Day 3 – to the Lost City, then return to Wiwa camp – 12 km (7.5 miles) 1800 ft ascent, 3500 ft descent

day3-profile

After breakfast we depart at 7 a.m. to Lost City. To reach the holy city will go up by 1200 steps built by the ancient Tayrona. After about an hour we reach the city and take a journey through the different sacred sites of this. There, the Mamo (Indian spiritual leader) sacred stories tell us and give us advice for life. At 11 a.m. back to the cabin 3 for lunch. After lunch we start down 5 to 6 hours to camp 2 (cabin Mumake, indigenous community [actually Camp Wiwa]) where we spend the night.

Day 4 – ½ day hiking to El Mamey, Return to Santa Marta – 12.7 km (7.9 mi) 2200 ft ascent, 3000 ft descent

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In hours of the morning to the Mamey (Machete Pelao), in the way we visit a small natural waterfall to freshen up and take a bath. Arriving at the mamey take lunch, then we collect the vehicle that will take us to the avocado industry [no avocado tour], we will take a heated van that will take us back to Santa Marta. arrival at approximately 4:00 pm.

La Ciudad Perdida site consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

La Ciudad Perdida site consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. CLICK ON SITE MAP TO ENLARGE

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Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA

Take the train to the AT—low carbon, low stress. No car, no complicated shuttles. Just great hiking! This AT section hike has it all—an ideal blend of natural beauty, history, small towns, great local parks, and meeting interesting people. It’s a perfect example of what makes hiking on the AT a unique and special experience—why people come from all over the world to hike the trail.

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Route Overview Map: click image for larger view

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT

  1. The variety of hiking:  A mix of everything — high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, rolling farm fields and wildflowers. And in the summer it’s cool & shaded; 90% of the time no hats /sunglasses needed.
  2. Lots of History: Harpers Ferry (historic town & national park), the C&O Canal, Mason Dixon Line, Galthand, Washington Monument, Pine Grove Furnace, the Cumberland Valley and the historic towns of Boiling Springs and Duncannon PA on the shore of the Susquehanna River.
  3. Hike in 4 of the 13 original states
  4. Some of the nicest shelters on the AT: Well-maintained, many with nice camping options around them. E.g. the new, two-story Raven Rock  Shelter, Quarry Gap Shelters, & Tumbling Run Shelters.
  5. Pennsylvania State Parks: Pennsylvania spent the time and money to do their state parks right. In picturesque settings with lovely shaded picnic areas, good camping, (food in season), lakes to swim in, nice bathrooms, and even some free showers. Pine Grove Furnace and Caledonia State Parks are standouts among a number of great parks.
Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

The hike starts in historic Harpers Ferry, WV and it’s well worth an overnight stay and exploration before hiking. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

Note this is installment one of a series of Low Carbon Section Hikes

Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…

Reduce the Carbon – Take the Train

This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

$13 Train: This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

Overview

This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,

  1. Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train from much of the Northeast US.
  2. Lighten your load: The gear (link) and  food (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
  3. And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.

Make your trip even more enjoyable…

Our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List will lighten your load and put a spring in your step. So if you want a light pack but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further. You’ll be safe, warm and comfortable. This list has served Alison and I admirably on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and on our trips world-wide. It works!

Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge.Light pack & easy hiking: Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge from White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain.

 

What’s in this Trip Guide

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After many miles hiking along ridges and through woods you break out into the idyllic farmlands of the Cumberland Valley. Alison is carrying less than 10 pounds on her back. Using this Gear our light packs made hiking a breeze.


Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train

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Mountain laurels along the trail near Raven Rock, the highest point of the AT in Maryland.


Guide Resources

Stats – Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train

The trip takes between 5 to 9 days

  • 0 mile – trip start in historic Harpers Ferry, WV
  • 98 miles to first logical exit, historic mill town of Boiling Springs, PA
  • 124 miles to trip end in Duncannon, PA, near Harrisburg PA

Transportation Time

  • 1.5 hrs from Washington Union Station to start in historic Harper’s Ferry VA (via train)
  • 4-5 hrs from trip end in Duncannon PA back to Washington Union Station (via Uber/Taxi and train)
    and shorter if you are just heading to Philadelphia, PA – Amtrak 30th Street Station (PHL)

Waypoint and Mileage Table

The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet

Maps and Guides

The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”

We supplement it with the following Appalachian Trail Pocket Profile Maps

The recently renovated main hall of Union Station in Washington DC. It's a one hour train ride form here to the trip start in Harpers Ferry WV.

Trip Start: The recently renovated main hall of Union Station in Washington DC. It’s a one hour train ride from here to Harpers Ferry WV. [We just walked on to the train in our hiking clothes and with our backpacks on.]

Options for Trip Start in Harpers Ferry WV

  1. You can walk right off the train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill).
  2. Or, you can stay overnight in a B&B, get a nice dinner and enjoy Harpers Ferry for the evening. Then you can get up bright and early the next morning for breakfast and start your hike.
  3. If you have the time, consider spending a day or 1/2 day exploring the historic town and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. For a stunning view we highly recommend the hike to Maryland Heights. (The lead picture for this article was taken from Maryland Heights.)
  4. If you want to make this a 4 state trip by adding a short side trip to Virginia see Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights for more detail.
  5. For those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast the veteran owned Guide Shack Cafe opens at 5:00 am and has the best coffee in town.

Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay

This section hike has it all—high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, historic towns and parks, and rolling farmlands. Between Harpers Ferry WV and Harrisburg PA, it follows the Appalachian Ridge for over 100 miles going through over dozen parks, vast forests, and other public lands. In all, it travels through four states (if you take a short side trip to Virginia).

The trip starts in Harpers Ferry, WV where it crosses over the Potomac River to Maryland and covers all 41 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in MD. In Pennsylvania it continues another 83 miles on the AT, much of it in the vast Michaux Forest. It ends at the mighty Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, PA.

On a historic note, the hike crosses the Mason Dixon Line, two historic and one actual midpoint markers of the Appalachian Trail, and a number of historic places like Washington Monument PA, Pine Grove Furnace, the old mill town of Boiling Springs, the rolling farmlands of the Cumberland Valley, and the historic river town of Duncannon PA on the banks of the Susquehanna.

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John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (NHP) is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

The trip starts as you pass by John Brown’s Fort (click for precise map) to pickup the Appalachian Trail at the WV side of the footbridge crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Once in Maryland the AT turns right and heads east along the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park).

Note: You can walk right off the early evening train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill). Or, and the option many will choose, is to stay overnight and enjoy Harpers Ferry. If you start early the next morning you can make it to Crampton Gap (10 miles) or Rocky Run Shelters (16 miles)

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Footpath along the railroad bridge that crosses the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry WV into Maryland and to the towpath on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park)

Make it a 4 state trip!

Note: If you want to make this a four state trip (fun!), you’ll want to make a brief side-trip into Virginia. Hike west on the AT to the 340 bridge and follow the AT across the bridge south onto the Virginia bank of the Shenandoah River. Link to Map showing both trip start across the Potomac River into Maryland to the C&O Canal towpath, and the side trip into Virginia across the Rt. 340 bridge.

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Turtles in the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The canal goes 184 miles from Washington DC to Cumberland Maryland.

After about 3 miles of fast and level walking on the C&O Canal Towpath, the AT turns left, crosses the train tracks and heads steeply uphill to the Junction with the side trail to the Ed Garvey Shelter.

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Crampton Gap Shelter and Gathland State Park

Gathland State Park is a good place to collect some spigot water and use a restroom. The spring at Crampton Gap shelter is intermittent (worst mid-summer).

Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park are worth at least a brief look. Built in the late 1800’s, Gathland was the mountain home of George Alfred Townsend, a Civil War journalist. A few of this unique collection buildings and structures, designed and constructed by Townsend, were partially restored in the 1950’s.

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Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park: The War Correspondents Memorial Arch, constructed in 1896, is a National historic monument. Photo by By Antony-22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge.

View from the White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain – mile 11 – between Crampton Gap and Rock Run Shelters.

Washington Monument State Park

Washington Monument State Park is a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table and use a restroom. The Monument is worth visiting both for its history and for a great view of the Cumberland Valley.

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Washington Monument State Park: The original 1827 tower was the first monument dedicated to George Washington. The more famous Washington Monument in the District of Columbia was not completed until 1885, over 50 years later!

View from the top of the Washington Monument, looking west across the cumberland valley and the Potomac River.

View from the top of the Washington Monument, looking west across the Cumberland Valley and the Potomac River.

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The impressive and functional, if not aesthetic footbridge across I-70. It gets the job done!

Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell Shelters

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The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it.

The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it. There are some large campsites near the shelter. To regain the AT northbound take the shortcut (rather than retracing your steps).

Good water source between Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell shelters:
There’s a nice piped spring a few 100 yds west of the AT (downhill) from Pogo Memorial Campsite.

If possible, avoid camping at Ensign Crowell Shelter. It’s not the nicest shelter. It’s very near a road, often crowded, and has an iffy water source mid-summer.

“The Rocks of Pennsylvania”

The rocky trails of PA, while not a huge problem, will definitely slow your walking pace to a crawl in sections.

The rocky trails of PA, while not a huge safety issue, will definitely slow your walking pace in sections.

This section of intermittently rocky trail actually starts in Maryland about 5-10 miles before you enter Pennsylvania. “The Rocks of Pennsylvania” are not as bad their reputation. Care and patience will get the job safely done. The hardest and rockiest section of trail is on the descent off the ridge down to Pen Mar County Park near the MD/PA border.

Raven Rock Shelter

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The new 2-story Raven Rock shelter replaces the old Devil’s Racecourse shelter (many guides still refer to the older shelter). The flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. Photo: HIKERS OF TWC

Raven Rock Shelter (mile 36) is one of the nicer shelters of the trip. In addition, the flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. The only downside is that there’s no water at Raven Rock Shelter. It’s a fairly long round trip downhill get water. (Alternatively you can collect water from the stream at MD 491/Raven Rock Hollow, before hiking about 1 mile uphill to the shelter).

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Pen Mar County Park and Mason Dixon Line

Pen Mar County Park has nice views. It’s a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table/pavilion and use a restroom. There are vending services in season. Just a few minutes past the park is marker for where the AT crosses the historic Mason Dixon Line.

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The AT where it crossed the Mason Dixon line.

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The AT crosses a few farm fields before ascending back up to the Appalachian ridge in the distance.

Deerlick Shelters are nothing to get excited about. But there’s a a really nice spring about 0.2 miles walk from the shelters. And there are some nice campsites along the trail to the spring (and at a comfortable/quit distance from the shelters).

Tumbling Run Shelter to Caledonia State Park

This is one of the nicer portions of the hike. But it is rocky and has a fair amount of elevation change. At 10 miles long it is also a dry and long section. Best to fill up on water from the nice piped spring across the creek from the Tumbling Run shelters. And the shelters have nice shaded picnic tables.

The only water mid-route is at Rocky Mountain shelters. Unfortunately, they are a 1 mile round trip downhill from the ridge. Unless you are camping there, you might not want to walk all the way down just for water.

Caledonia State Park is an unqualified delight. We arrived at the Park in the late afternoon, overheated, grimy and sweaty from a very long day hiking on an unusually hot and humid spring day. We had an ice cream sandwich and a large cold drink from the snack bar, then followed that with a sublime dip in the vast and cold outdoor swimming pool. We emerged an hour later, freshly showered and blessedly cool and comfortable. Needless to say, it was one of highlights of the trip. In addition to the snack bar and pool, the park has a beautiful stream running through it, large shaded picnic areas with many pavilions, and excellent bathrooms.

From Caledonia State Park, it’s only a 30-45 minute walk uphill to Quarry Gap Shelters. These shelters are new and carefully tended and maintained. The picnic shelter had flower pots hanging from the eaves. There was a camp host to guide hikers to camping areas and otherwise help out and make things run smoothly.

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In season, make sure you take a sublimely cooling dip in the vast outdoor public pool at Caledonia State Park. [also in season, there’s food and ice cream at the pool’s concession]

Quarry Run Shelters

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Rhododendron tunnel on the way to Quarry Run Shelters.

Birch Run Shelter

Birch Run is a nice shelter with grassy camping around it. There is small stream in front of the shelter and the larger stream, Birch Run itself, is only a few hundred feet further down trail. There is also a nice camp on the other side of Birch Run.

Appalachian Trail Midpoint(s)

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The historic or traditional mid-point on the AT is just a few miles before you enter Pine Grove Furnace.

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The exact mid-point of the AT varies from year to year due to re-routing and other trail changes. You need to pay attention to not miss this much smaller sign. (It’s generally south of the historic marker in the photo above.)

Pine Grove Furnace

The Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

The Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. It’s in a 200 year old grist mill.

Pine Grove Furnace is an excellent stopping point on the AT. It has:

  • The Pine Grove Furnace General Store, which has limited food, groceries & camping supplies; and a short-order counter serving hamburgers, sandwiches, ice-cream, shakes, etc.
  • The store is where thru-hikers traditionally celebrate “1/2 and 1/2,” reaching the halfway point on the AT and by attempting to eat a half gallon of ice cream.
  • Lodging at the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel
  • A pleasant campground (fee) with excellent facilities
  • A public swimming lake (in season) with free showers.
  • Historic site/remains of the Pine Grove Iron Works/Pine Grove Furnace. In operation 1764 to 1895.
  • The Appalachian Trail Museum housed in a 200 year old grist mill.

James Fry Shelter

Cozily hanging in out in our hammocks with light rain pattering on our huge hex tarps. Waiting for the full force tropical storm Bonnie to hit sometime overnight. We woke up happy and dry the next morning.=!

The James Fry Shelter located between Pine Grove Furnace and the Cumberland Valley: Cozily hanging out in our hammocks with light rain pattering on our huge hex tarps. The full force of tropical storm Bonnie would hit sometime overnight. We woke up happy and dry the next morning

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The start of two fun “rock mazes” along the ridges just before you drop into the Cumberland Valley.

Entering the Cumberland Valley

Note: After the Alec Kennedy Shelter there are no official AT Shelters until the Darlington Shelter 18 miles down the trail.

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After after almost 100 miles hiking along ridges and through woods you break out into the idyllic farmlands of the Cumberland Valley.

Boiling Springs PA – 1st option to uber to train

Boiling Springs is a lovely, historic mill town surrounding a large mill pond (now “Children’s Lake”). At mile 98 it is the first obvious opportunity to take an Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. Cost of ride is approx. $25 to $35 and around 30 minutes.

There are a number of lodgings, a couple of food stores and a few restaurants in Boiling Springs. There is also a free campground. There’s a nice public pool in town with showers (get $3 off admission at the ATC HQ Office).

The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is along the shore of the lake. It’s definitely worth a visit—it has a lovely porch for sitting in the shade, trail needs, maps, and fuel.

The AT goes over this bridge into the historic mill town of Boiling Springs.

The AT crosses over this bridge into the historic mill town of Boiling Springs.

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The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is a great place to stop and rest on their shaded porch. There’s water and a nice store inside.

Crossing the Cumberland Valley

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The fertile farmlands of the Cumberland Valley run along both sides of the AT.

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There are a number of fun fence stiles like this in the Cumberland Valley.

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

Pre-civil war graveyard alongside the AT in the Cumberland Valley. Many where buried 20-30 years before the Gettysburg campaign.

Leaving the Cumberland Valley to Trip End in Duncannon PA

This section Starts with lots of walking through bucolic farm fields and hedge rows. Then you exit the valley by climbing the two ridges of Blue Mountain and Cove Mountain before dropping into Duncannon PA.

  • From Boilings Springs to Duncannon PA, pretty much every crossing of a major road is a potential place to Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. See trip logistics section.
  • There is no camping along the AT for this section.
  • Spring water is much harder to find. And we were less happy about getting water from streams running through farmland and moderately populated areas. Altho there are some options to get spigot water along the way.
  • Darlington and Cove Mountain Shelters are the last two AT Shelters of the trip: These shelters are respectively at the top of the last two ridges of the trip, Blue and Cove Mountains.

Hawk Rock

This rocky promontory offers superb views of the Duncannon area.  It’s a stop on the Audubon’s Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail, and a famous rest stop for hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Duncannon PA – the end of the trip

Uber to the Harrisburg Train Station is approx. $20-$30 and about 20 minutes. Duncannon PA is a very hiker friendly town. Their is a riverfront campground in Duncannon for a modest cost. There are also number of lodging options, food stores, restaurants and even an ice cream store.

Note: Duncannon is a historic river town on the Banks of the Susquehanna River just outside the Harrisburg metropolitan area. Duncannon is just downstream from the Juniatta-Susquehanna River confluence at Clarks Ferry and sits below the impressive the Kittatinny Ridge.  The town had historic impact as a trading crossroads in Pennsylvania’s colonial era.  From Conestoga freight wagons to canals, railroads, and highways, the Duncannon was a major influence on the region’s transportation.


Logistics – getting to and from trip start and trip end

Trip Start: getting to Harpers Ferry, WV from Washington, DC

Harpers Ferry is easily accessed from Union Station in Washington DC. The first train of the day arrives in Harpers Ferry just after 5:00 pm. The $13 Amtrak 29 Capitol Limited: 4:05 pm “Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)” to 5:16 pm “Harpers Ferry, WV (HFY).” Other options are the MARC Brunswick Line commuter trains arriving at 6:05pm, 7:18pm, and 7:54pm, and 9:00pm (weekdays only), see MARC train schedule.

Need to Start from another city in the North East or Mid-Atlantic?

Amtrak’s DC Union Stations is accessible by train from most of the East Coast. See Amtrak trip planner.

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Rail yard at Washington DC Union Station

Trip End: from Boiling Springs, PA or Duncannon, PA back to Washington DC

Trip end to the Harrisburg, PA Amtrak Train Station (HAR)

To Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)

Bording the train in Harrisburg PA. It's a xx hour ride to the NE train hub of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.

Bording the train in Harrisburg PA. It’s a short 1.5 hour ride to the Northeast train hub of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.


Lodging in Harpers Ferry

If you decide to stay overnight in Harpers Ferry, it’s best to book well ahead. Trip Advisor is a good place find a room. The historic town and National Historical Park are popular destinations. Even for mid-week reservations many B&Bs are booked weeks, even a month or more in advance (many with 2 night minimums on weekends).

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The lower, historic section of Harpers Ferry. The upper portion of the town is up and to the right of the train station (lower right of the photo at the end of the train trestle). This view is from Maryland Heights. The hike up here is highly recommended.

The Lower and Upper Sections of Harpers Ferry

The town of Harpers Ferry is in two sections. 1) The small lower historic section by the river and the National Historical Park and 2) the larger upper section, about 10-20 minutes walk uphill. In the lower section, lodging is limited and competitive. There are a just few nice B&Bs in the lower section and they tend to be fully booked weeks or even month’s in advance. The Town’s Inn is a traditional place for Appalachian Trail hikers to stay. In addition to rooms, it has a small hostel, a cafe, a bistro and a small store with a good selection of trail food and supplies. Be forewarned, it was recently featured in the reality TV series, Hotel Hell (an amusing watch).

Rocking chair on the porch of the Town's Inn, in the historic lower section of Harper's Ferry.

Rocking chair on the porch of the Town’s Inn, in the historic lower section of Harpers Ferry.

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The Town’s Inn (featured on Hotel Hell) in Harpers Ferry has a good supply of food for hiker re-supply, a few camping supplies, and a cafe.

Lodging options are more plentiful in the upper section of the town, but there are fewer attractions and restaurants—altho the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters are here and also the best coffee shop in town, the Guide Shack Cafe which opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start with coffee/breakfast. Many lodgings in the upper section provide free shuttle to and from the lower section. Some will even meet your train. We stayed at the Jackson Rose Bed & Breakfast and enjoyed it.

The Jackson Rose B&B is one of many nice lodging options in the upper xx

The Jackson Rose B&B is one of many nice lodging options in the upper section of town.


Fun things to do in Harpers Ferry besides the National Park

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Adventure Alan under the sign for Adventure and as always finding the best coffee in town! The Guide Shack Cafe is veteran owned, veteran operated and sources it’s coffee and food from veteran owned Co’s! It opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast.

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Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters is a fun place to stop. There’s a great relief map of the entire AT, a well stocked bookstore, some camping supplies, an AT hiker lounge where you can check Web/email. There’s friendly and helpful staff and of course, AT hikers milling around.

10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

That’s the total weight of everything in my backpack—gear, food, water, and stove fuel. I used that 10 pound backpack to hike 100 miles (plus a few more) of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in 3 days. No fair weather hiking, it was more late winter than early spring conditions—rain, sleet, light snow and hard freezes at night. I think I am very close to dialing in a Light Pack that is also supremely efficient at covering long trail miles*.

But more important, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was warm, happy and comfortably cruising along one of the most spectacular ridge lines on the east. The kooky weather made for great entertainment and some spectacular views. (Scan through the photos below for a few of them.)

* Anyone can adopt the techniques I used to reduce wasted time and become a more efficient hiker. Even if long trail miles is not your goal, this gives you more time to enjoy the great views, take photographs, fish, or get some extra swimming in a lake rather than fiddling with your gear.

 

And just to be clear: My 34 miles/day average on the AT through Shenandoah National Park is far from super speedy. The fabulous Heather (Anish) Anderson averaged 42 miles per day on her record setting, unsupported AT through-hike last year. And my guess is that each year, more than a few hardy through-hikers cover the Park in 3 days as well. Nonetheless, I’m happy with my hike given the unusually cool and wet weather and short daylight hours of early April.

This a three part series:

  1. My 2007 attempt to section hike the 102 miles of the AT Trail through Shenandoah National Park in three days (I came up short)
  2. My March 2016 plans: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail to use better gear and techniques
  3. And this April 2016 report of my successful completion of the 102 miles of the AT in SNP in three days.
10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

Lots of kooky weather created some spectacular views. That’s the Shenandoah Valley almost 3,000 feet below me.

Why it Worked this Time – 10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

In previous posts, I’ve discussed coming up short in my 2007 attempt to section hike the 102 miles and 22,000 feet of elevation gain of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in 3 days. So what were the keys to succeed this time even though the weather was more challenging:

  • Focus on efficiency—no wasting time: Running out of daylight was the major reason why I came up short in 2007. Minutes matter. Less wasted time equals more time to hike in the limited daylight of early spring. Just a few minutes wasted per hour adds up to 10 miles over 3 days.
  • Gear: I chose practical but light gear, with a focus on zero fiddle-factor (= no time wasting).
    For a full discussion of this as well as the gear list see: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail
  • In this post I discuss two major gear choices, my 11 oz backpack and my 2.8 lb sleep system, and how they contributed to the efficiency (lack of time wasting) of my hike.
  • Adjustments for crap weather: As they say, “when we make plans Nature laughs.” Here’s the last minute gear adjustments I made for unusually wet and cold trip weather: Major Adjustments for Cold Weather
  • Shakedown trip: Two weekends prior, Alison and I did a 3 day Early Spring Backpacking Trip in cold and wet conditions with the gear I intended to use on the hike. On that trip we put in a hard and fast 22 mile day. In addition, in previous winters I tested my very cold weather hammock gear at 12°F (-11°C) so I had a tried and true light winter hammock quilt system ready to go.
  • Food: I used my usual 3-day-trip strategy—bring a small amount of very high calorie and nutritious food. I ate a huge breakfast before I started hiking on day 1, and a huge dinner when I came out on day 3. To save time, I ate much of my food while walking. See: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly
  • Water: I drank when thirsty following current advice from experts in the field of sports hydration. The AT with its frequent springs and streams lends itself to a drink at source and not carry water strategy. I was not thirsty between water sources. But more important, I spent less time collecting/purifying water and making fewer side trips to springs (= more time to hike). I felt healthy and fine and woke each day ready to hike another 34 miles. See: Drink When Thirsty – Myths and Facts about Hydration.
  • Training: Listed next to last, but certainly among the most important contributors to trip success. It was critical to be in good hiking shape from the get-go; I didn’t have the luxury of hiking 850 trail miles to season-up, like North Bound through-hikers that started at Springer Mountain, GA.  I followed my own 2 day a week training schedule, Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking. I couldn’t, in training, match my longest expected day (36 miles with 15,000 feet of elevation change). I did my best with a a few fast and hilly 20+ mile hikes pre trip.
  • Fun: And last but certainly most important is enjoying the trip. Yes, I had fun. Sometimes more “fun” than I wanted, but for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The Blue Ridge put on a spectacular show with weather fronts rolling through. With more time, I would have happily picked up food in Waynesboro and kept on heading south.
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Rain sometimes brings dramatic views. A late evening squall passes over me, heading east towards Washington DC. It’s nowhere near as warm as it looks. Much of the squall was horizontal sleet.

Efficiency – No Time Wasting

Running out of daylight was the major reason why I came up short in 2007. While you can hike in the dark under headlamp it is neither as fast nor as efficient as hiking in daylight. Rather, you have to slow down to miss rocks and other irregularities in the trail. In addition, it is much harder to follow the trail after dark. It is also easy to loose the trail—and re-finding the trail is a huge loss of time. That’s why all the speed records on the AT are done in the middle of the summer with the most daylight.

Minutes matter. This overarching goal trumps everything else. Less wasted time equals more time to hike in the limited daylight of early spring. Just a few minutes wasted per hour can add up to 10 miles over 3 days. So I did whatever I could do with gear choices and technique to be hiking as much as possible during each hour, and spending the least amount of time stopped or fiddling with things.

Note: time wasting has far more universal impacts than just trying to make trail miles. For instance, if you’ve just spent a lot of money and your precious vacation time to take a big trip, wouldn’t you rather spend your time enjoying the great views, taking photographs, fishing, or getting some extra swimming in a lake rather than fiddling with your gear? I will cover this topic, “Backpacking Time Wasters and Time Savers” in an upcoming post.

10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

Gear – 10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

This is not a fringe gear list. I want to be safe. I hate being wet, cold and uncomfortable. I want a good night’s sleep. This gear list does all of that. In fact I’d wager that I am warmer, more comfortable, have more living area, and sleep better than most campers. For a complete discussion on gear selection and a Complete Gear List see my previous post: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail.

Each minute of daylight hiking time is precious and once squandered cannot be recovered. As such I chose practical but light gear, with a focus on zero fiddle-factor (time wasting). If gear was lighter but took away from my hiking time (or sleeping time) it was out. I’ll use my backpack and sleep system selection rationale as examples.

Backpack

  • The Mountain Laurel Designs Burn Backpack’s Cuben Fiber construction is plenty durable. I don’t have to waste time trying to handle it gently, or to not scrape it against brush or rocks. (vs. the single rear pocket, no hipbelt, 3.8 ounce spinnaker fabric pack I used in 2007)
  • The Burn’s numerous pockets save time as I rarely need to take the pack off to get what I need. Most often, I can do this while continuing to walk. From the two side pockets and two shoulder strap pockets, I can instantly access my most-used-gear and all of my day’s food. Rainwear is in the rear pocket and accessible in less than 10 seconds. Most days I don’t need to go into the main pack-bag during the day—which is good since that’s a lot of time wasted.
  • The Cuben Fiber main pack-bag with a roll top closure is virtually waterproof. Combine that with stowing my quilts and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks and I don’t need to do anything different when it rains, just keep hiking. So my backpack is always packed the same, regardless of weather. No messing around taking on and off pack covers (imperfect rain protection anyway) or fussing with pack liners, both of which are a pain and waste time.
  • It has a simple and light hipbelt capable of supporting at least 15 to 20 pounds.
10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

Fortunately, in previous winter trips I had tested my very cold weather hammock gear down to 12°F (-11°C). So I had a solid and very light winter hammock quilt system ready to go. One I had complete confidence would give me a great night’s sleep.

Sleeping System

  • Getting a good night’s sleep was essential to putting in back to back long days on the trail. My body needed rest to recover and get up and do it all over again the next day. Any impediment to getting my recovery was “time wasted.” This was arguably more important than wasted hiking time.
  • I need a light sleep system that I know will give me great sleep every night! One that I will relax and start to doze off minutes after I lie down and know that I will sleep soundly for the rest of the night.
  • For me on the AT this is clearly an 8 oz hammock paired with warm down quilts and a cuben fiber tarp. Read more here: Hammock camping article. Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems
  • Another advantage of a hammock on the AT, hammock camping equates to more miles hiked at the end of the day vs. sleeping on the ground.
  • Why? Sleeping in a hammock dramatically increases suitable campsites on the AT. With a hammock all I need to camp is two trees—the ground below is largely irrelevant. That means I can hike until dusk without the risk of being in un-campable terrain. (Since much of the AT is sloped and rocky it’s not suitable for ground camping.)
  • So if I were ground sleeping I would likely need to stop hiking sooner than dusk to camp. I.e. I need to stop at the last shelter or campground that I could comfortably make before dark. Thus I might miss an hour or more of available daylight to hike.
Blue rRdge at dawn. The name is self-explanatory.

Blue Ridge at dawn

Adjustments for Challenging Weather – when we make plans Nature laughs

I was hoping for pleasant spring conditions—sunny and in the 60s during the day with crisp sleeping temps in the 40s at night. Unfortunately, this was the weather I got. It would be even colder than this at higher elevations along the Blue Ridge in the park with temperatures likely dropping into the low 20s and rain becoming wind-blown sleet. Life is like that sometimes.

Wx report-600

My major changes were:

  1. do the hike in 3 vs. 4 days
  2. take warmer, +20F hammock quilts but with trimmer dimensions to save weight
  3. take a bit warmer clothes; a down jacket vs. down vest, and to add a light fleece shirt that I wore the whole  hike.

Click here to see Major Changes for Winter Wx full page, as a Google Sheet

5lb-lightweight-winter-change-AT

Click on table image above to see it full page with working links.

Mostly rain and mist all day along the ridge

Mostly rain and mist all day along the ridge

Original (non winter modified) Practical Light Gear List

For a complete discussion on gear selection and a Complete Gear List see my previous post: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail.

Original (non winter modified)5 Pound Practical Light Gear List
Click here see it full page, as a Google Sheet

5-lb-practical lighweight

. Click on gear list table image to see full gear list sheet

Another stunning sunrise on the Blue Ridge

Another stunning sunrise on the Blue Ridge.

Water – Drink to Thirst

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Drink to Thirst: Collecting water from springs right by the trail saves time. Drinking at the source with a Sawyer Filter means that I don’t have to carry water. I found I could easily hike to the next trailside water source without becoming thirsty.

Shakedown Trip – test out gear and legs

Shakedown trip: Two weekends before Alison and I did a 3 day trip in cold and wet spring conditions with the gear I intended to use on the hike. We got 35 degree rain, and hard freezes at night. My gear performed well and I made only a few adjustment prior to the Shenandoah. We also did one hard and fast 22 mile day to see test fitness, leg strength and endurance.

Backpacking Spring Training

Gear testing on a shakedown trip: Warm and snug in our hammocks sheltered in grove of pines. It was 35 degrees spitting rain when we went to bed and dropped to 25 degrees by the next morning. My hammock setup is on the left: Dutchware Netless Hammock with Dutchware suspension/hardware, Hammock Gear (HG) top & bottom quilts, and HG Cuben Hex Tarp.

Parting Shot – 10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

And yes, there was some sunshine on this trip.

And yes, there was sunshine on this trip.

Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking

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Introduction to Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking

Each year Alison and I look forward to our early spring backpacking trip. Usually a 3-day weekend in early spring, this trip is a key element for the success of our upcoming backpacking trips for the year. We thought others might be interested in the Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking, and possibly to incorporate some version of it into their own backpacking routine.

[Lead photo above: Alison overlooking an entirely misted-in Canaan Valley on a frosty spring morning.]

For us, early spring is the perfect time to get out for a shakedown trip in preparation for the upcoming year of backpacking. The primary Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking:

Benefits Early Spring Backpacking

See the AT Section Hike gear I was evaluating: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail

  1. Evaluate our physical conditioning to hike long back-to-back days. We planned to cover 40-45 miles with at least one 20-25 mile day. See the training schedule we follow: Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking
  2. Evaluate new gear we intend to use on upcoming trips. In this case, Alan was evaluating gear for an upcoming 100-mile section hike of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. See: the Light gear he was evaluating
  3. Other benefits: Shake he winter blues, lack of crowds & cool temperatures make great hiking (& sleeping) conditions; spring wildflowers, no bugs, great views with leaves off trees.

Lack of crowds is a definite advantage to early spring trips: This lovely waterfall in Dolly Sods is by an extremely popular backcountry campsite. In high season it can be hard to find a place to pitch a tent. In early spring, this campsite area (day 2 of our trip) was nearly deserted and we got the best campsite in the place with this view!

Challenges of spring camping, at least on the east coast, include a higher probability of cold rain (we had 35 degree rain the first afternoon/evening), wet and muddy trails, and the possibility of quite cold nights (it went down to 20F our second night out). We managed all of these with the right gear and technique.

Our Early Spring Backpacking Trip Report

Living on the East Coast, many people think there are limited options for hiking. Not so! See: AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide To 30 Of The Best Multiday Trips From New York To Virginia. Although we don’t have the famous places like Yosemite or Yellowstone, there are plenty of options for a good weekend outing. This year, we chose one of our favorites, Dolly Sods Wilderness Area for our early spring backpacking trip. Even though we’ve been to the Sods (or “the Sogs” as this wet area is affectionally known) for over a dozen years. But there is always something new and different for us to explore. This year, not only did we discover a new trail with spectacular views (lead photo for this post), but we’ve never quite had such a magically misty morning like the one that greet us our second day out. It was a welcome antidote to sleeping in a 25-degree pine grove with the weather spitting on us most of the night.

Day 1 Friday – a 1/2 day to backpack about 10 miles

Day 1 was more late winter than early spring. This was a 1/2 day as we both worked in the morning. We arrived at Trail Head at 2:00 pm. By early evening it was 35 degrees, spitting rain, and skies were ominously dark while ridges and high meadows were shrouded in mist. The Dunkenbarger Trail, notoriously wet in normal times, was more lake/mud river than trail due to rain storm the night before. About 70% of the Dunkenbarger Trail was 6-18 inches deep in near freezing water and mud. Sections of other trails were only marginally better. We arrived in camp with soaking wet shoes and socks, and pants bottoms covered in mud up to the knee. We quickly got into all the down we could muster and hung our hammocks in a sheltered grove of pine trees.

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Downside of spring camping, at least on the east coast, is higher probability of wet and muddy trails. While moderately unpleasant on a sunny 60 degree day, hiking on a “trail” like this in 35 degree rain can be near misery (as was our hike along the Dunkebarger Trail on Day 1).

Backpacking Spring Training

Warm and snug in our hammocks sheltered in grove of pines. It was spitting rain when we went to bed and dropped to 25 degrees by the next morning. Alan was evaluating a very light hammock system for his upcoming Appalachian Trail Section Hike. [Alan on left: Dutchware Netless Hammock with Dutchware suspension/hardware, Hammock Gear (HG) top & bottom quilts, and HG Cuben Hex Tarp Alison on right: Hammeck Envy hammock, HG top & bottom quilts, and Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Hex Tarp] We both stayed warm, dry and happy in our hammocks.

Day 2 Saturday – our long mileage day

The day started cold. Temps were in the mid 20’s and there is no joy quite like putting on frozen shoes and socks onto already cold feet. It was cold enough that we had our tea and coffee while packing up but left without eating breakfast. Still wearing our down jackets we quickly hammered out some fast trail miles to warm up those frozen toes.

We hoped to hike around 25 miles on Day 2 since this trip was training for upcoming backpacking trips (based on our Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking). Getting the miles in was going to be a challenge with most trails either muddy or running small streams. But the sunny day semi-dried up the Sogs, and by noon the trails were in better condition than Day 1. We carefully chained together “drier” trails in the northern sections of the Sods, and managed to get 25 miles in before hitting camp that evening.

Benefits

Then the Spring Magic started to happen. We took an innocuous and faint tread of a trail to the top of a ridge and got a spectacular view of the Canaan Valley spread out below us filled with morning mists. It was a perfect spot to sit and watch the mists while we ate our breakfast on the frost covered hill side. Our REI Sahara Convertible Pants seem to go on just about every trip in every weather.

By the time we were done with breakfast, the mists were gone. It never ceases to amaze us how a trip can change from slogging along in near misery, to near bliss in just a few hours. Spring backpacking is like that.

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Mid-morning the grass is still covered in frost, and Alison is still hiking in her fleece and down jacket to stay warm. The mist is almost gone from the Canaan Valley.

Spring arrived around 11 am with sunshine, blue skies and temps nearing the 60s, just as the national Wx service had forecast—and the reason we had headed out this weekend.

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By mid-afternoon we came by this day-hiking couple eating apples under this tree. As far cry, from wearing a down jacket while hiking just a few hours earlier.

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Snuggled into our hammocks and warm down quilts for a great sleep on a cold night (20 degrees). No tarps needed as it was clear skies and we wanted to stargaze. Again, Alan was evaluating a very light hammock system for his upcoming Appalachian Trail Section Hike. [Alan’s hammock in front: Dutchware Netless Hammock with Dutchware suspension/hardware, Hammock Gear (HG) top & bottom quilts. Alison on right: Hammeck Envy hammock, HG top & bottom quilts. Both hammock systems performed flawlessly on two nights, both in the 20s.

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Our Day 2 campsite is one of our all-time favorites with a great view of one of the nicest waterfalls in the Sods.

Backpacking Spring Training

It froze hard overnight, registering 20F on my thermometer. In the morning our socks where frozen stiff as boards as were our shoes (since we were walking out that morning, we transformed our “sleeping” socks into trail socks and started walking. Our shoes un-froze and our feet were warm in a few minutes).

Day 3 Sunday – quick hike out – brunch – home in time for an evening play

We did a quick 6-7 miles back to the car and our early spring camping trip was done and dusted. In keeping with a Dolly Sods traditiona, we stopped for brunch at a favorite local haunt, Cristina’s Cafe – Strasburg, VA, for whole grain, sourdough french toast topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, and excellent, just-brewed coffee. Highly recommended! We were back in DC in time to unload gear out of the car, shower, take a quick nap, have dinner and easily make our evening play. That’s what we call a full and fun weekend!

-Alan & Alison

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Drying out all our damp gear from a couple of cold and wet nights. Actually, the down jackets and quilts were spread out in the back of our wagon and already drying on the way home.

Wind River High Route – A Guide

The Wind River High Route is in our opinion, mile for mile, the finest non-technical Alpine route in North America. It stays close to the crest of the Continental Divide in one of the most rugged and glaciated mountain ranges in the lower 48. The route is thrilling and the scenery spectacular.
by Alan Dixon and Don Wilson

Revised Jan 2016:

  1. The WRHR is a solid route after two seasons of successful trips.
    Nonetheless, I’ve added new field data on variants to the route (some easier).
  2. A fully revised Gear List, and
  3. A cool Google Earth Flyover Video of the route (Thanks Erin!).

A Wind River High Route Virtual FLYOVER Tour courtesy of Erin Saver of “Walking with Wired

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Click on image to play flyover video in a new tab

Wind River High Route — Overview

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Click on image to play a trip highlights video in a new tab

Alan hiking up to Knapsack Col carrying all his junk in a trim ULA Ohm 2.0 Pack.

The Wind River High Route (WRHR) is similar in concept to the Sierra High Route (SHR) but Don and I feel that the WRHR is more spectacular and thrilling. Just as the SHR loosely follows the famous John Muir Trail (JMT) but spends much of its time off-trail, more closely following the Sierra crest, the WRHR in a comparable manner loosely follows the Highline Trail, many times going off-trail to stay higher and closer to the Continental Divide—a more elegant line in high glaciated terrain. When the WRHR uses trails they are higher trails, closer to the crest. It is a more challenging and more rewarding route than the Highline Trail.

The WRHR starts in the north at the Green River Lakes Trailhead and the headwaters of the Green River. It heads generally southeast to follow the Continental Divide, crossing it four times. After passing through the legendary Cirque of the Towers, it ends at the Big Sandy Trailhead. The WRHR is approximately 80 miles of off-trail and on-trail travel with about 20,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. There are nine passes between 12,200 ft and 11,500 ft—six off-trail and three on-trail. Some of the off-trail passes have a fair amount of talus. There are few short sections of Class 3/4 travel and one glacier crossing. The recommended hiking season is late summer. This gives time for the high snowfields to melt out and reduces mosquito pressure. By mid September their is a decent chance of snow.

Our Criteria for Planning the Wind River High Route

  • An elegant line closely following the crest of the Continental Divide along the finest section of the Wind River Range.
  • A fit hiker should be able to do the route in seven hiking days (we did it in 5½ days). This allows busy people to fit it into a standard “one-week” vacation including travel days (two weekends
    and the five weekdays in between = 9 days total).
  • A non-technical hiking route. No class 5 terrain. Short sections of class 3/4 terrain ok. Don and Alan did the trip in trail running shoes and trekking poles. [Late season only. Early season snow would significantly change the technical nature of the trip.]
  • Route stays high but without being inefficient, or taking unnecessary risks to force a higher line.
  • Uses convenient trail heads with an easy shuttle.

Resources for the Wind River High Route

Route Description – Wind River High Route

The impressive Mt. Bonneville. A massive talus field is spread out below. This is fairly typical terrain for off-trail passes along the route.

Section 1: Green River Lakes Trailhead to Upper Indian Basin

Trail along the eastern shore of the turquoise colored Green River Lakes.

Trail along the eastern shore of the turquoise colored Green River Lakes.

The hike starts with the gentlest of introductions. A mellow wander up the flat and scenic drainage of the Green River for the first few hours, with excellent views of Squaretop Mountain. From the Green River Lakes trailhead, take the trail that heads along the eastern shore of the two turquoise colored Green River Lakes. This trail is marked as both the Highline Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. After passing the two lakes, the trail begins a very gradual climb toward Three Forks Park, which is reached after several hours of hiking. At Three Forks Park the trail turns abruptly west and you begin your ascent into the high country, climbing to just above 10000 feet and over Vista Pass. A slight drop and then a climb into a rocky basin towards Cube Rock Pass will bring you above 10000 feet once again. The High Route will stay above 10000 feet for the next 5 or 6 days, not dropping below this barrier until the final hike out to the car, just a few miles from the Big Sandy Trailhead.

 

Wildflowers on the trail to Cube Rock Pass

Wildflowers on the trail to Cube Rock Pass

From Cube Rock Pass continue on the trail toward Peak Lake. There is decent camping on the west side of Peak Lake, but even better camping in the basin just east of the lake. From the outlet of Peak Lake, curve around its north shore, passing through a large talus slide that drops all the way to the shore. Then wander east toward Knapsack Col. Use trails can be found sporadically along parts of this valley. As you near the Col, look for use trails that descend directly down from the pass. High on the south side of the basin as you approach the pass is the Stroud Glacier. This glacier is commonly identified as the source of one of the largest rivers in the western United States, the Green River. The river drops north out of the Wind River range, then turns south and winds its way through Wyoming and Utah, traversing some of the finest canyons in the world. Eventually it merges with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, before heading onward through the Grand Canyon and down to Mexico.

Unusual red alpenglow at our camp near Peak Lake

Unusual red alpenglow at our camp near Peak Lake

 

The approach to Knapsack Col from the west

The approach to Knapsack Col from the west

 

Alan descending the east side of Knapsack Col

Alan descending the east side of Knapsack Col

 

Alan descending from Knapsack Col, looking into the upper Titcomb Basin. The lower portion of the Twins Glacier can be seen on the right. Considerable ice lies hidden below the talus and made the lower portion of this descent more interesting than we expected.

Alan descending from Knapsack Col, looking into the upper Titcomb Basin. The lower portion of the Twins Glacier can be seen on the right. Considerable ice lies hidden below the talus and made the lower portion of this descent more interesting than we expected.

From Knapsack Col (about 12200 feet) you are treated to one of the finest views on the entire Wind River High Route. The alpine cirque at the head of Titcomb Basin becomes suddenly visible to the east, while the view to the west reveals the far off ranges of western Wyoming.

The east side of Knapsack Col holds far more snow than the west side, and in most years the descent down the east side will require crossing moderate snow slopes. On our recent hike in the late summer of 2013, we were able to descend directly down the east side, crossing only a few small snow and ice patches. Leaving the pass going east, if you see snow below head off to the left, avoiding the steep slope directly below the pass. Continue down and left across talus and then head back to the right as you near the bottom of the initial headwall about 250 vertical feet below the pass.

Wildflowers in upper Indian Basin.

Wildflowers in upper Indian Basin.

Descend the obvious drainage just north of the Twins Glacier, dropping over its terminal moraine to the bottom of the Titcomb Basin. Turn south toward the highest of the Titcomb Lakes, where you will join a trail that traverses the eastern shore of the Titcomb Lakes. Easy hiking along this trail will take you in a couple of hours to the junction with the Indian Pass trail. Turn east at this junction and climb up into beautiful alpine terrain in Indian Basin, where there is excellent camping and good views of the southwest slopes of massive Fremont Peak. At 11500 feet you will encounter a flat basin holding the last small lakes before Indian Pass. There is good camping here just below the final climb to Indian Pass. [We chose to cook a pleasant late afternoon dinner here and rest a bit. We then headed over Indian Pass and crossed Knife Point Glacier while it was still sun-warmed and soft allowing us better traction for our crampon-less trail runners.]

Section 2: Indian Pass to Golden Lake

The route from Indian Pass to Camp Lake is the highlight of the trip. It passes through the most rugged and impressive terrain of our Wind River High Route. It traverses across the massive Knife Point Glacier, the southernmost glacier in of a chain of glaciers on the east side of the Divide extending all the way from Gannet Peak (WY highpoint) and the enormous Dinwoody Glaciers that surround the peak.

This section also contains the most challenging navigation of the trip and the only class 3/4 terrain (although it may be possible with a bit of extra trekking and scouting to avoid anything over class 2). This entire section may be avoided with an alternate off-trail route*.

Starting from the small lakes at the end of Indian Basin ascend a use trail east towards Indian Pass. We lost the trail a few times but the Pass is obvious. The view from the Pass is stunning. Rugged and seldom visited canyons of the eastern range spread out before you. To the north extends crest of the continental divide with a chain of glaciers flanking its eastern slope. This is an excellent spot for lunch or a snack break. Looking east you can see the obvious saddle of Alpine Lakes Pass above the easternmost extension of Knifepoint Glacier.

To gain access to the flatter and more walkable portion of Knife Point Glacier, descend NNE from the Pass and along the right base of the 11,840 promontory just west of “Point” on the map. Some of the talus dropping down to the glacier is a bit unstable. Actually much of the talus adjacent to the glacier is unstable due to climate change. This talus was until very recently part of the glacier and covered with ice. Since being exposed it has not had time to adequately settle, lock-up and become the usual more stable version of talus. So, beware of your footing on any talus near the glacier.

Once on the glacier, traverse SE on the flatter area of the glacier between the 11,720 and 11,600 contours to stay above the steeper terminal slope. (By August on our trip the glacier had receded to around 11,560-11,520). The goal is to attain a lower angle rock strewn ramp of the glacier at around 11,660, NE of ‘G’ of Glacier. We descended off the glacier at this point using the rocks for traction. Head NE across a talus field (quite unstable in sections) to the base of Alpine Col. The only place to camp in this area are two man-cleared bivy sites as noted on the map and in the waypoints table. Bivy sacks only. Do not expect to pitch a tarp or tent here. There is small lakelet with good water.

Approaching Knife Point Glacier from below Indian Pass. Our bivy site noted in the photo.

Approaching Knife Point Glacier from below Indian Pass. Our bivy site noted in the photo.

Approaching Knife Point Glacier from below Indian Pass. Our bivy site noted in the photo.

Approaching Knife Point Glacier from below Indian Pass. Our bivy site noted in the photo.

Camp in the talus below Knife Point Glacier. Indian Pass lies in the obvious notch left of the setting sun.

The ascent of the north side of Alpine Lakes Pass is straightforward. Good views from the top show the talus strewn, cliffy and deeply glacier-scoured valley that holds the brilliant gems of the Alpine Lakes. Be prepared for slow going in the Alpine Lakes Basin. It is filled with large and plentiful talus and the hiking involves negotiating around cliffs that drop directly into lakes and other route challenges will make for tedious progress in sections.

Dawn, Alpine Lakes Pass. Smoke from a small forest fire in the northern part of the range adds some color to the sunrise.

Dawn, Alpine Lakes Pass. Smoke from a small forest fire in the northern part of the range adds some color to the sunrise.

Descending the south side of Alpine Lakes Pass. 2013 was a very low snow year. You can expect this pass to contain considerably more snow than shown here.

Descending the south side of Alpine Lakes Pass. 2013 was a very low snow year. You can expect this pass to contain considerably more snow than shown here.

Hike along the west shore of Lake 11,335, staying above the shore initially along talus filled ridges. The cliffs about 2/3 of the way along the shore appear impassable but “go.” Not visible from a distance is a short class 3 ramp system (climb up and down) near the lakeshore that allows passage to a flatter section near the outlet.

Easy walking takes you down to the middle Alpine Lake (Lake 10,988), where you will have a pleasant stroll along its west side and down more talus to Lake 10,895. Here you will face a decision. We passed Lake 10,895 on the north side. It is plain sailing along the shore until you are almost to the outlet where a 50-100 foot section of cliffs ruin the party. We climbed a class 3/4 crack system above a stand of white pines (handing packs up in a few places) for approximately 75 feet to gain flatter ground above the cliffs. We then descended gentle ramps to the outlet. Views from outlet of this lake are stupendous. It would make an excellent lunch spot or campsite.

Alpine Lakes Basin and the middle Alpine Lake (Lake 10,988). We saw no one as we passed by the upper and middle Alpine Lakes.

Alpine Lakes Basin and the middle Alpine Lake (Lake 10,988). We saw no one as we passed by the upper and middle Alpine Lakes.

Revised 2016: Your alternative route is along the south shore of Lake 10,895. While longer and more time consuming, this would probably be a class 2 route to the outlet. In fact, Henry Shires (and others who have hiked the route) confirm that the south shore of Lake 10895 is the safer option. This avoids the Class 4 exit crack on the north shore near the outlet.

Henry writes "I concur that the south end of the lowest Alpine Lake is the way to go. I posted a small section of map with the regular (red) route and the alternate (green) route we took here. Much safer and easier route."

Henry writes: “I concur that the south end of the lowest Alpine Lake is the way to go. I posted a small section of map with the regular (red) route and the alternate (green) route we took here. Much safer and easier route.”

From the furthest east projection of Lake 10,895 we headed ESE and dropped into a shallow drainage that feeds an unnamed lake adjacent and south of Lake 10,239. Use ramps and gullies to make your way between cliff bands and steeper rock on the approach to the lake. There is a use trail from this unnamed lake to Camp Lake although it is easy to lose. The marked trail from Camp Lake to Lake 10,787 is not frequently traveled and is no more than a use trail in sections. We lost it a few times but easily re-found it. The route to Lake 10,787 is obvious, but the trail when you can find it is faster and is less effort. The trail from Lake 10,787 to Golden Lake is more established. For the most part it is easy to follow although it can braid into multiple trails around the Golden Lakes.

Revised 2016: Shortcut from Lake 10895 south to Lake 10787: The pass between “Peak 12314” and Douglas Peak goes. You can regain the trail to Golden Lakes on the south side of Lake 10787.

Camp-lake-bypass

Camp Lake Bypass: The pass between “Peak 12314” and Douglas Peak goes for a slightly more elegant line

* Section 2 can be completely bypassed by skipping Indian Basin in one of two ways. Caveat Emptor: Neither of us have traveled either of these alternate routes but have been told by two experienced Wind River hikers and climbers that they “work without serious difficulty.”

  1. Heading to Island Lake and then to Wall Lake and over the divide east of Tiny Glacier and down to Upper Golden Trout Lake.
  2. Revised 2016: Brendan Leonard of www.semi-rad.com hiked the Angel Pass Variant to bypass Indian Basin/Knifepoint Glacier: It goes from Island Lake to Wall Lake then heads south from Wall Lake to Dennis Lake via Angel Pass. He provides the following along with the route track below “we pretty much followed your blue line [PDF map of WRHR] for the alternate route, going north of Spider Lake, then up a right-angling gully, cutting back left to ramps over Angel Pass. On the other side of the pass, we went north of the first lake (seemed easier). Then getting down to Dennis Lake wasn’t that straightforward—we avoided following the drainage straight down to the lake, and traversed north, but finally realized we were going to get cliffed out, so cut back south and found a passage with one 3rd/4th class downclimb move to get us down to a gully that led to the trail around Dennis Lake.”
Click on image to enlarge:

Click on map image to enlarge: Brendan Leonard of www.semi-rad.com hiked the Angel Pass route variant and provides this route info map.

Section 3: Golden Lake to Lee Lake

Alan enjoys dinner along the shore of Golden Lake before the climb to Hay Pass.

Alan enjoys dinner along the shore of Golden Lake before the climb to Hay Pass.

At the southern tip of Golden Lake a small inlet stream is the last good water source before Hay Pass. We ate dinner here on the shady, cool gravel next to the lake. A bald eagle soared over the water that evening, scouring for trout. Ascend the trail to shallow and picturesque Hay Pass, crossing to the west side of the continental divide. From the pass, a trail descends gradually to the west, passing along the eastern side of Lake 10,756. At about 10,600 feet leave the trail and head toward the obvious basin to the southeast. After arriving at the first major lake in this basin, continue along a very flat and grassy (and frequently boggy) valley floor toward the southwest shore of Lake 10555. We found a poor campsite in the low pines along this shore. Camp somewhere else if your schedule allows. The warm water from this lake tasted distinctly unpleasant and tannic.

 

hay pass south

Hiking toward Lake 10555 near sunset, with Hay Pass and the Continental Divide in the background.

The basin will likely continue to be and boggy wet until you begin to rise toward a low pass before Lake 10,683 (sometimes called Long Lake). Hike along the eastern shore of this remote lake. The going gets rougher as you get near the west end of the lake, where you negotiate a few ramps and plenty of talus without significant difficulty. Continue over a small rise and drop into isolated Europe Canyon. Here you will join a trail and head southwest for a short while (probably less than a half mile, depending on where you merge with the trail) until you can cut directly to the eastern shore of Lake 10,542. This easily passible shoreline takes the most direct line to a slope on the far side of the lake. Climb about 300 feet over a small pass, and along the north side of Lake 10,806.

Long Lake (Lake 10,683). The route follows the shore and slope on the left (eastern) side of the lake. The going gets harder at the far end of the lake.

Long Lake (Lake 10,683). The route follows the shore and slope on the left (eastern) side of the lake. The going gets harder at the far end of the lake.

Now begins an intricate traverse toward the outlet stream on the southwest side of enormous Hall’s Lake. Expect plenty of zig zagging through brush and trees, and many small drops, climbs, bogs, and lakelets. Finally arriving at Hall’s Lake, turn to the south and pass a couple of small lakes. Continue to the south around Peak 11586. As you pass this peak, head east toward your next landmark, the outlet of Middle Fork Lake. This section is marked by beautiful and pleasant walking past many small ponds filled with plenty of big fish.

Lakelet and bog between Hall's Lake and Middle Fork Lake.

Lakelet and bog between Hall’s Lake and Middle Fork Lake.

Section 4: Lee Lake to Texas Lake

Looking north toward Lee Lake and Middle Fork Lake from near the base of Pronghorn Peak.

Looking north toward Lee Lake and Middle Fork Lake from near the base of Pronghorn Peak.

Moonrise over our campsite at Bonneville Lakes.

Your next goal is the pass between Mount Bonneville and Raid Peak. From Lake 10,521 do not ascend directly up the steep and heinous route up the lake’s inlet stream on the SE corner of the lake. Instead, follow a lower gradient route SW of the inlet stream. Don’t turn left and up into the shallower portion of the inlet stream drainage basin until you have reached flatter terrain (just above the red ‘2’ on the map). The ascent to the pass is straightforward. To confuse things, there are numerous use and game trails that seem appear and disappear without reason.

Alan gazes at impressive Mount Bonneville before beginning the descent through the massive talus field below the pass.

Looking into the East Fork Valley and the rising sun from the pass between Mount Bonneville and Raid Peak

Looking into the East Fork Valley and the rising sun from the pass between Mount Bonneville and Raid Peak

There is a long stretch of size Large to XL talus as you descend the east side of the pass and make your way to small lake directly east and above Lake 10,566. To avoid the steep terrain north of Lake 10,566, head east or southeast towards the prominent south-pointing nose of the 11,000 ft contour. Use a small ramp system just southeast of the nose to reach flatter terrain below 11,000. The outlet of the small lake makes an excellent rest stop with good water and superb views.

Don descending below Raid Peak

Don descending below Raid Peak

Early morning snack stop overlooking Lake 10,566 and the extensive ridgeline extending south from Raid Peak.

Early morning snack stop overlooking Lake 10,566 and the extensive ridgeline extending south from Raid Peak.

From the lake take a leisurely a stroll along the excellent bench that contours at 10,800 ft. Hang a left for Pyramid Lake around the south shore of a small lake north of peak 11,172. Go to the lake’s outlet to pick up a well-used trail. [Alternatively you can stay off trail for a bit longer. Drop down to Lake 10,566 and follow the East Fork River and pick up the same trail (from Pyramid Lake) further down at Skull Lake.]

The route from here is straightforward trail walking to Texas Lake. Hike the trail from Pyramid Lake to Washakie Creek. Cross to the south side of the creek and head upstream (east) towards Shadow Lake. Here there are superb views of the backside of the ridge forming the Cirque of the towers. It is an excellent spot for lunch.

Shadow Lake: Storm clouds brewing over the backside of the Cirque of the Towers. This storm shut us down for the day before we could cross Texas Pass and make our way into the Cirque of the Towers.

Shadow Lake: Storm clouds brewing over the backside of the Cirque of the Towers. This storm shut us down for the day before we could cross Texas Pass and make our way into the Cirque of the Towers.

Follow a use trail (we lost it a few times) to the small lake below Texas Pass (the pass between peak 11,925 and peak 12,537). This lake is locally known as Texas Lake. There is excellent camping in the meadow on the west side of the lake.

A long and violent afternoon T-storm with wind, hail and sleet forced us to hunker down in the late afternoon on the shores of Texas Lake. We waited out periods of sleet sliding in large sheets off of our Cuben Tarp (our only shelter for the trip). By dusk the storm had not sufficiently cleared. We gave up on our plans to camp in the Cirque of the Towers and settled down for the night. There are much worse places to camp!

Storm showing signs of clearing in the late evening below the north side of Texas Pass.

The trip over Texas Pass and into the Cirque of the Towers is second in splendour only to the Indian Pass to Camp Lake Section. Needless to say the Cirque is legendary for both its stunning beauty and as hallowed ground for some of the best alpine rock climbing in North America. It should be on every backpacker’s bucket list.

While there is no official trail over Texas Pass the use trail was in better condition and easier to follow than some of the official “trails” we traveled in less visited portions of the Range—it’s a veritable “use-trail freeway.” The trail starts from the SE corner of Texas Lake and ascends on mostly solid ground between scree and talus. The views are sublime as you descend form the pass in to the Cirque and Lonesome Lake. A quintessential “Sound of Music walk.”

The view into the Cirque of the Towers from near the top of Texas Pass.

The view into the Cirque of the Towers from near the top of Texas Pass.

From the Texas Pass the use trail loosely follows the NE branch of the inlet stream for Lonesome Lake, passing through a stand of pines around 10,400 before reaching the grassy lakeside. We had a cup of morning coffee on the lakeshore while watching climbers ascend Pingora. Alan got his rod out, selected a beautiful native cutthroat trout, landed it and gently put it back. Sated with the beauty and serenity of the Cirque, we felt it was time to leave.

Lonesome Lake and Pingora in the Cirque of the Towers.

Lonesome Lake and Pingora in the Cirque of the Towers.

If you plan to stay the night in the Cirque: There is excellent camping in the basin below Pylon Peaks and Warrior Peaks.

We traversed off-trail around the eastern side of Lonesome Lake and acquired the official trail to Jackass pass around 10,400 ft. The route out to Big Sandy Campground from Jackass pass is a major trail with tons of traffic and the usual deeply eroded and braided trail sections. Nonetheless, Big Sandy Lake is a gem and a lunch or snack stop on its shores is a must. And on the final leg of the trip don’t forget to look back now and then to appreciate the lovely Big Sandy River and the mountains behind.

Big Sandy River below Big Sandy Lake

Big Sandy River below Big Sandy Lake

Parting Shot

Until our next adventure...

Until our next adventure…

Resources for the Wind River High Route

Recommended season

Late Summer. Gives time for high snow fields to melt out. Less mosquito pressure. By mid-Sept there’s a chance of early snowstorms. See Climbing and Hiking the Wind River Mountains, by Joe Kelsey for more information on weather and other objective hazards in the Wind River Range.

Detailed Mapset of the Wind River High Route

maps thumb
Detailed MapSet of the Wind River High Route. [PDF – Eight 11×17 sheets + one overview sheet]

Notes about maps

  • There are a few alternate routes on the maps in addition to our main route. They are colored blue.
  • The most difficult section of the WRHR, Indian Pass, Knifepoint Glacier, and Alpine Lakes can be bypassed by an easier but still off-trail section. While we have been assured by at least two people knowledgeable about the Wind River that this route does go and is easier, Don and Alan have not hiked this route and cannot guarantee the accuracy of the route or its level of
    difficulty.

Hiking Times and Waypoints Table

The following table should be of use to estimate hiking times for the route. Obviously you’ll need to calibrate your personal hiking pace to the speed that Don and I walked. The table also includes the location of a few tricky sections of the route. It should save you some scouting time and/or prevent you from hiking a long ways along a bad route choice. Finally, the table does not include hiking mileage, since for the most part it is not a relevant piece of information. For some hikers, a few sections like Alpine Lakes Basin may require a two hours or more to cover a mile.

mileage table
Hiking Times and Waypoints Table [PDF]

A few notes about the table

  • The route is approximately 80+ miles of on-trail and off-trail travel with about 20,000 ft of vertical gain.
  • Times are for Alan and Don who are reasonably fit hikers. You will need to estimate your pace from our hiking times.
  • We are not G-d’s gift to high speed through hiking. We are over 50 years old, and did no altitude acclimatization before the trip. At trip start we went from sea level to over 12,000 ft in about 24 hours.
  • While we traveled light, we weren’t super light. Alan’s pack was 27 pounds with a small camera, a SPOT and Satphone and Don’s was 30 pounds with a Canon 5D full-sized DSLR carried for HQ photos & video.
  • Daily time is the total time from leaving camp in the morning to arriving at our next camp in the evening. This includes all stopped time, e.g. for lunch, rests at scenic spots, complicated route finding and scouting forays, longer photo/video sessions, a late afternoon dinner and rest before hiking a few more hours in the early evening
  • Even though the goal was to hike at a steady but sane pace, for a long time, with a limited number of stops, we still ended up with 1 to 2 hours per day of non-moving time.
  • *Hours (hiking times between points) is just that—hiking/moving time only. These times include only short stopped tasks like tying a shoelace, putting on a rain jacket, or filling a water bottle. We carried a SPOT tracker for the trip, and any stopped time over 5-10minutes was not included in hiking time.

Car Shuttle

A local shop in Pinedale, The Great Outdoors, will shuttle your car from one trailhead to another. Their service was excellent and the convenience of a shuttle made the logistics of the trip much easier.

Gear for the Wind River High Route

Revised 2016: Below is a comprehensive list of Gear for the WRHR.

My pack was 27 pounds with food, a small camera (Sony a6000 kit 1.8 pounds), a SPOT (now I would take the far better inReach SE 6.9 oz), and an Iridium 9555 SatPhone 9.7 oz. Obviously I could have saved a few pounds with less camera and electronics (but we were intent on fully documenting the trip).

I took most of the gear on the list except as noted:

Gear List for the Wind River High Route 

Or to see the full gear can click on this link: 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List (original table).

9-lb-gear

Click on image of table to see full gear list

Food List for Wind River High Route (Alan’s)

food list thumb
Detailed FOOD list for the Wind River Hight Route. [PDF file]

Other Published References

Books. If you don’t have a copy of Climbing and Hiking the Wind River Mountains, by Joe Kelsey, you simply must get a copy. The book is an obvious labor of love, and has a ton of great information.

Wind River Trail Maps. Earthwalk Press publishes two Wind River Range overview maps (one for the northern part of the range, and another for the southern portion). These are handy for seeing the entire range, possible alternate routes or emergency exit points.

Some Potential Additions to the Route

  • Our route skips Gannet Peak & the Dinwoody Glaciers. A superb addition if you want. But difficult, time consuming, and potentially technical, requiring at a minimum ice axes and crampons. And for all but the fittest alpine travelers, adding this section would put the route beyond a weeks vacation. Less convenient trail heads? No easy shuttle?
  • One could go higher and stay closer to the divide in some sections. E.g. the alpine lakes section detours around douglass peak via Camp Lake and the route also skirts around Mt Bonneville.


Technical Peak Climbing Yosemite Backcountry Part 1

Technical Peak Climbing Yosemite Backcountry

Technical Peak Climbing Yosemite Backcountry: Mt. Conness – West Ridge. The third peak of our trip and one of the finest alpine routes in the Sierra Backcountry. The route follows the obvious ridge which forms the sun/shade line.

Technical Peak Climbing Yosemite Backcountry Part 1

The first of a three part series – Alan Dixon and Don Wilson

This summer, after years of “no-rope trips” together, we switched gears to do some technical alpine climbs in the Yosemite Backcountry. We decided to do two Tuolumne alpine classics, the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak and the West Ridge of Mt. Conness. Our last alpine summit was Mt. Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park (more later on the reasons for choosing Mt. Lyell).

Fun: All of these peaks are moderate technical climbs. Our goal was to not stress out—just enjoy being in the Sierras on some of the finest alpine climbing in the world!

Three part series

This trip report of our climb of the Cathedral Peak’s Southeast Buttress, is the first of the series.

  1. Cathedral Peak – Southeast Buttress. “One of the [finest] most aesthetic routes in Tuolumne.”A Sierra backcountry classic on “an outstanding granite pinnacle”
  2. Mt. Lyell. Highest Peak in Yosemite. It “stands at the triple divide between two great Sierra rivers (the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers) and Rush Creek (which feeds Mono Lake).”
  3. Mt. Conness – West Ridge. “Peter Croft called it the best route he had done in the Sierra backcountry…” “perhaps the best moderate alpine climb in Tuolumne.” “great fun, like two Cathedral Peaks stacked on top of each other.”
cathedral-a01

Summit view from Cathedral Peak. Beautiful yes. But that’s also incoming weather…

We had a simple plan for each peak

  • Stage each trip out of the Tuolumne Meadows campground
  • One day approach hike in to the base of the peak
    Assess the route that evening and prep for the climb
  • Next day a pre-dawn summit attempt to avoid nasty, unstable and violent weather in the area
  • Hike out the same day as the climb
Technical Peak Climbing Yosemite Backcountry

It’s good to switch it up. Do different things. Take an alternate approach. After years of traversing the Sierras without a rope, Don and I carried some hardware with us to so some technical climbing. Fun!

Jump to: Gear We Used on this Trip

Unstable weather

lyell-bad-summit-wx-1200

Weather was a major success factor for all our climbs. A storm could (and did) blow in anytime day or night. [Mountain Laurel Designs Supermid shelter mid-afternoon, base of Mt Lyell]

Weather was a major factor for all our climbs. The Sierras had entered into a long-term pattern of unstable and violent weather a few weeks prior to our trip. Rain was so heavy the week before that a huge landslide closed one of the major roads into Yosemite. Almost 3 weeks later, it had yet to be dug out.

hail

When you get hail this big pinging off your helmet you know you are in for some serious sh-t!

Part 1 – Cathedral Peak

Jump to: Gear We Used on this Trip

Cathedral - 1

Alan on our evening approach to Cathedral Peak. Humping everything in a 28 oz Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400 pack. The forecast called for strong storms starting very early the next day, so we planned to bivy at the base of the route and try to complete the route before 8 am, when storms were predicted. [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

We already had cloudy skies and spitting rain the afternoon we hiked in to Cathedral Peak. The serious rain was supposed to start around daylight the morning of our climb. We did everything we could to get started as early as we could and summit as fast as we could. That evening we climbed the first pitch before dark and fixed a rope.

cathedral-a03

A look up at the bottom face of Cathedral Peak. That evening we climbed the first pitch before dark and fixed a rope to make a faster start the next morning.

We settled into our bivy sacks a bit after dark. We slept fitfully worrying about the weather. During the night the sky continued to get darker and more threatening. About 4am raindrops on our face woke us—a light rain shower passing over. We looked at each other and said “Screw this! lets get go climb.” It only took us about 10 minutes to suit up, pack up, and hang our backpacks in the trees away from marmots (no food in our packs!).

cathedral-a02-2

Little room on a ledge below the climb. Getting ready for a cramped and rocky bivy. All our gear is laid out to put on in the dark. We both used MLD Superlight Bivy sacks, I used a Hammock Gear Burrow +30 Quilt. And we both shared a MLD Grace Duo Tarp in Cuben Fiber in case of overnight rain.

We were grateful for a fast start after fixing the first pitch the evening before. We quickly hit a rhythm, and climbing in the dark under headlamps knocked off the first 2 pitches before light began to seep through the clouds. As stated above, the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak is an incredibly classic line.  Perfect rock, good protection, moderate 5.6-5.7 climbing, face, cracks, chimneys – it’s got it all.

Cathedral - 3

Alan following the 4th pitch after exiting a short chimney and getting onto the beautiful upper part of the buttress. The weather looked dicey, so we moved as quickly as we could. [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

Cathedral - 9

Incoming weather as forecast. Time to pick up the pace! [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

Cathedral - 7

Alan celebrates arrival on the exposed summit ridge. Photo taken from atop the summit block. We reached the summit soon after 7 am. [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

Cathedral - 5

Mission accomplished: We had a crap-load of fun on a beautiful climb! [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

As with many alpine climbs, an early start paid off. It started to rain as we descended off the peak. At the base of the climb we met another party sheltered under some pines. That had humped all their stuff in early in the morning. And unfortunately, they were getting ready to hump it all back out without climbing.

cathedral-a04

Alan just below the summit at the beginning of the descent. Gorgeous Eichorn Pinnacle and Lower Cathedral Lake in the background. As we descended, the storm enveloped the peak.  We met a couple of other climbers huddled at the base, defeated by the weather. Chalk one up for an early start. We packed up and headed back to the campground for eggs and muffins and best of all, hot coffee.

Gear Used

Most of the gear used for the trip is in my Standard Gear List

Select gear variations for this trip

ItemOzComments
Main PackHyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400
 (some may prefer larger 3400)
 28.0Used this pack to haul everything to all 3 climbs.
Light, super durable, (waterproof, seam sealed bag), great frame/carrying capacity, good pockets.
Climbing pack I used on tripBlack Diamond Shot (discont.)
Black Diamond Bullet (current)
14Like the low weight and low cost of BD Shot. A bit too small and got shredded a some climbing in chimneys.
Climbing pack I wish I hadHyperlite Mountain Gear Daybreak Pack19Larger and more durable than the BD shot pack. (Pack not yet released when I was climbing)
 Warm JacketSierra Designs Elite DriDown Hooded Jacket 10.0Given the wet weather all trip. I wanted a jacket with water resistant down and a very water resistant shell.
Tent/ShelterMLD Grace Duo Tarp Silnylon (15) Cuben (7.8) 7.8Shared tarp at bivy site in case of rain. Huge coverage. Low weight. Great ventilation and views.
Sleeping bag or QuiltHammock Gear Burrow Quilt “+30” 14.9Pers fave. Great value! (with 2 oz over fill = “+30F”)
BivyMLD Superlight Bivy (7.0)Perfect for bivying on a ledge. Protection from light rain gives time to setup tarp.
Bear canisterBear Vault BV500 (41) or Wild-Ideas Weekender (31)(Alan used) Wild-Ideas lighter but pricy
Bear Vault is a better value (Don used)

Old Trip Reports – 2008 to 2000

Old Trip Reports Archives

Old trip reports, Scotland 2008: sudden opening in the clouds illuminates a lone tree and a small outcrop overlooking Loch Marie in Wester Ross. The summit of Slioch (left) is still shrouded in mist at midday. [Handheld with Olympus E-520 and stock 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED Zoom lens.]

Looking for old trip reports? They’re likely here.
We just launched an entirely new site. Most of the older trip reports (2008 and earlier) haven’t made it over yet. Scan through the list below and what you were looking for is probably there.

And if you opened this post out of curiosity.
Take a peek at some of these old trip reports. There are some great trips in there!

Old Trip Reports Archives