Backpacking: Mount Whitney (14,505ft)

This August (2018) was probably my busiest month for adventure travel ever. I had plans to be out of town every single weekend and backpacking on every trip, and backpacking up Mount Whitney was the first trip to kick off the wild month.

The plan, fly in Vegas, meet my dad and brother at the airport, explore the Eastern Sierras for a couple days, backpack up Mount Whitney, catch sunrise from atop the highest mountain in the lower 48, and then explore Death Valley National Park on our way back to Vegas.

After a late 11:30p arrival in Vegas, I found my dad and brother at baggage claim and we started the long four hour drive to Big Pine, California to meet up with my uncle and cousin who should have already found a campsite in the Alabama Hills area. I almost booked a campsite for this first night, but knowing we wouldn’t arrive in Big Pine till about 4am, it hardly seemed worth it, considering all the dispersed camping options I found available in the Alabama Hills.

We made a quick stop at the Zabriskie Point parking lot in Death Valley in the middle of the night to relieve ourselves and attempt a few quick night shots. It was still about 95-degrees at 2:30a which was just completely absurd. Not since Key West had I experienced such a miserable nighttime temperature, but at least it was bearable without the humidity.

I had previously sent my cousin and uncle a potential camping location and just told them to pick a spot nearby if it was already occupied. We arrived in the Alabama Hills around 4:00a and found them at the second spot we went to. It hardly seemed worth the trouble to set up our tents, so we opted to just sleep in the car as best we could. I was only out for about an hour before my alarm sounded so I could get up to take some sunrise photos. I was totally blown away by the rocky Alabama Hills landscape that wasn’t immediately visible to us on the drive in.

After soaking in the sunrise and making a batch of coffee, we took off heading north. We would have the next two days to explore the Eastern Sierra Nevadas, so our first destination would be Devil’s Postpile National Monument. We knew there were plenty of fires in the Sierras at the moment, but I guess we weren’t aware of just how close we would end up being to a burn area. So close so that we were passing all the roads blocked off by the firefighters and visibility probably only a quarter mile or so.

After arriving at Devils Postpile National Monument, we were advised that we needed to drive back down to Mammoth Mountain (ski resort) and hop on a shuttle to the trailhead. I guess this is typical on busier days. We completed this quick hike the Devils Postpile and continued on to Rainbow Falls. This was only about five miles roundtrip and pretty much completely flat. The entire process of driving up and taking the shuttles and then hiking ended up consuming pretty much the entire day. We decided to enjoy our first post-hike dinner at The Yodeler right at the base of Mammoth Mountain and then headed to Big Pine Campground to set up camp for the night.

I originally planned to get up around 3am or so to make a solo hike out the the Big Pine Lakes. The lakes and the giants granite mountains towering over the turquoise water of the lakes looks unreal, but in the end I decided I didn’t want to leave the group waiting for me to get back and pack up before we could go explore more of the Eastern Sierras. In hindsight though, I really should have prioritized this hike more. I’m already looking to make a return trip just to go hike (and hopefully backpack) out to these lakes. But, oh well. As in most of my trips, now I know exactly where to spend more time the next time I’m in the area.

We all awoke around at sunrise, had a quick bite, packed up and hit the road. The first stop was Hot Creek Geological Site. I had seen some amazing captures of the site and wanted to try and get a few of my own.

The smoke was even more thick on the drive back up north this day. We parked and hit the trail making a loop to the far end. I found the exact spot I wanted a photo from and set up only to realize that the mountains were completely blanketed by wildfire smoke. I captured what I could while my dad flew his drone around for a bit and then we completed the loop back to the car.

On the walk back to the road though, the winds must have shifted and all of a sudden I was beginning to see mountains in the distance. I rushed back to the car, picked up the guys, and quickly went back to the spot I was just shooting at. Luckily, I was able to the the shot I was hoping for and felt satisfied to continue to the next destination.

Next stop was Mono Lake, a shallow salt-water lake, one of just eight in the country, distinguishable by the limestone towers that protrude above the surface. This unique lake provided a unique setting for my cousin Ed to just in and cool down. We walked the short loop trail around the limestone features while Ed swam a lap. Afterward, it was time to head back south so we could get up to Whitney Portal to set up camp and prepare our backpacking gear.

On the way to Whitney Portal, we made the short detour to the Mobius Arch trailhead which was no more than a quarter-mile from where we had camped the first night in the Alabama Hills area. The short loop leads through orange potato-shaped volcanic rock towers. These weathered sandstones are quite the site to see and the arch itself is only about six feet tall, but you can get same amazing photos looking through the arch at Mount Whitney.

The short arch hike was the perfect way to end the day of sightseeing before gearing up for Mount Whitney. We continued up the long gradual and occasionally winding road up to Whitney Portal. The views looking up toward Mount Whitney and back down toward the Alabama Hills were ever changing but always impressive.

I was able to secure a group campsite at Whitney Portal (it was the only site available) so we had more than enough room for our group’s four tents and my hammock. The group sites were significantly more open and offered great views up toward Whitney while also being right on the water. We gathered all our gear and did our own individual inventories while packing up for the early hike up, enjoyed our freeze-dried dinners and hit the hay.

We set out the next morning just after 5:00a. Even though we were only going six miles up to Trail Camp, we had ambitions to summit in time for sunrise the following morning. This meant we would likely be setting out for the summit around 2 or 3am, so we wanted to make sure we had more than enough time to reach Trail Camp and get as much rest as we could before making our late night/early morning summit push.

The hike up to Trail Camp was a fairly gradual incline much of the way up. We all watched in awe as the sun rose and was filtered out by the wildfire smoke. We were unable to see down into the Alabama Hills and kept peering back, anxiously waiting for the sun to peak above the film of smoke covering the valley below. It was a pretty straightforward hike through forests, over streams, and past a couple small alpine lakes. The trail was wide and pretty clear of rocks below the tree line. Above the tree line is where things really start getting interesting though.

As soon as you climb out of the last few trees and onto the rocks, you’ve rewarded with some wide open valley back down into the valley as well as a clear look up at Mount Whitney. You also start seeing a multitude of waterfalls and other flows of water trickling down from seemingly every direction. One waterfall was particular jaw-dropping as it funneled down impressively into a streams that continued down through the rocks and toward the valley below. At this point the trail was pretty much all rock all the way up to camp. At one point, you’re basically walking up a steps of rock with water flowing down the entirety of it—a waterfall staircase, if you will.

Reach Consultation Lake is the last make checkpoint before reaching Trail Camp. It’s a gorgeous vibrant high alpine lake just below Mount Whitney that many people mistake for being Trail Camp. I not sure if camping is technically permitted there, but it would certainly be a hell of a place to camp.

After six miles and 3,700ft of vert, we arrived at Trail Camp, located right at 12,000ft above sea level, at about 1:30pm. All the guys promptly took a nice flat plot right alongside the trail. But I, never content with the first campsite until I explore all the potential campsites, opted for the great spot up in the rocks that had handmade rock walls to block the wind and sprawling views of the lake and Mount Whitney. We had plenty of time to enjoy the long day and rest.

We had lunch and mulled over what time to start hiking the next morning. After about four hours, most the guys retreated to their sleeping quarters to nap or crash for the rest of the evening. After looking at our pace that day, I determined that the other guys would have to start at midnight if they wanted to have any shot at making summit in time for sunrise. I decided I would start with them, and then take off ahead for the summit after a couple hours to make sure I had time to summit and set up and take pictures.

We all went to bed in the daylight, but after the sun retreated and the skies darkened, that’s when things got really interesting.

Here’s an excerpt from my father’s write-up of the trip explaining what happened next.

Our alarms were set for 11:30pm. The primary goal was to make the summit, and secondary was the plan to reach the summit in time to see the sun rise over the neighboring mountains.

At 11:15pm, we were awakened by a man yelling out side our tents. “Is anyone in these tents?”, he yelled. “We need help. We are lost. We have someone with us who is sick. PLEASE HELP US!”

From inside my tent, I responded “YA”, but I needed to get dressed before exiting my tent to see what was going on. Eddie was also awakened and was partially dressed, so he exited his tent quickly and I could hear Eddie talking to the man, although with my terrible hearing, I couldn’t hear everything that was said. 

At this time, the temperature was about 45 degrees. I finished getting dressed and exited the tent to find Eddie talking with the man. There were three men and two woman total. The man who was doing all the talking explained that the three men were hiking and came across the two women who were dressed for the desert heat, and trembling in the cold darkness. 

The women attempted to do a hike to the summit and back in a day. They left the portal at 3:30AM and reached the summit, but stayed too long. As they descended, the sun went down, and they weren’t prepared for the cold, thin air at that altitude. One was freezing and sick while the other was freezing. 

The three men had problems of their own. They too, were also dressed for the desert heat, and had no idea how to navigate back to the portal in darkness. They were cold but were making due. They wanted to help the women so they told them to follow and they would find help.

We explored the idea of them going down to the next camp, where there was a ranger station and they could even life-flight the woman who was sick if necessary. That camp was 3 miles down, but the men were simply not able to navigate the trail in darkness.

By then, our 11:30 alarms were ringing, and I realized that we would be leaving, so I offered up my tent and sleeping bag to the 2 women. Eddie offered up his sleeping bag as well so they could get some warmth and sleep and in the morning, they could decide what they wanted to do. They graciously accepted and entered the tent after I emptied my belonging into Gary’s tent. Problem solved.

The men decided to attempt to get back to the portal. Within minutes after departing, we heard a voice from the darkness, “Can we sit outside your tent until morning?”, said the man who was doing all the talking in a sheepish voice. CJ responded, “You can stay in my tent”. CJ emptied the tent of his belongings into Eddie’s tent and the three men eagerly entered. Another problem solved.

We finished getting ready for our summit, making coffee and eating breakfast. We had barely enough rations for ourselves. I offered hot water or coffee to the men and women, but they declined. I noticed that I still had a ham sandwich that I planned on eating when returning from the summit, so I offered it to the women to split, and they accepted.

We finally got underway at 12:30AM.

Keep in mind that my tent was separated from the other guys, so I had no clue what was going on until I was packed up ready to go and went down to see if they were ready, only to find them boiling water and talking to a small group of guys wearing shorts who were clearly in trouble.

Thank goodness that my family members were camped out right on the trail and were basically already awake and willing to help this group of ill-prepared hikers. Who knows if anyone else would have woken up to provide them with the warmth and shelter they needed to survive the night. It’s really easy to look at the situation and quickly chastise both groups of hikers for not knowing the route, not having the proper clothing or supplies, not starting nearly as early as they needed to—the list goes on. But it was a teachable moment for everyone involved. I think everyone involved learn valuable lessons about how unforgiving the backcountry can be and just how important it is to be prepared for every situation when you’re so far from civilization and have no way to call for help when you need it.

Someone could have easily died on that mountain that night.

So yeah, it was a pretty wild way to start the day (at midnight, mind you). We finally departed and headed straight up the infamous ‘99 Switchbacks’ toward the summit. The [half] moon rose about halfway up the switchbacks to provide some much welcomed natural light. I was eagerly awaiting this and made a couple stops to set up a tripod and get some incredible night photos. I will say that hiking the switchbacks in the dark was way more enjoyable and way less monotonous than hiking down them in the daytime. It was a nice wide trail though with the exception of just one narrow crossing.

The views of the granite spires above us continued to get even more impressive the further we hiked as the moon and sun slowly brightened the landscape for us. We reached the top of the switchbacks, passed a sign notifying us that we had entered Sequoia National Park (which was a complete surprise to me), and traversed through the rocky cliffs dubbed “The Windows” en route to the summit.

At about 3:15a, I decided it was time to pull away from the group and speed up to “Randy Pace” to make my summit push in time for sunrise. Ed decided to endure some early morning suffering and joined me. I let him lead most the way up so I could see what his pace would be. If I felt like he wasn’t going fast enough, I could always step on his heels and pass him like any loving family member would do!

We easily made it to the summit about an hour before sunrise, which is exactly what I had planned on, but I wasn’t quite ready for how windy and cold it would be up there. I had my down jacket and hat and gloves, so it’s not like I was exactly prepared. But I quickly learned that I should have brought my heavy duty ski mittens up there. My light fleece gloves were no match for the cold wind, and my inability to stop taking pictures and adjusting camera settings left my gloved hands exposed and they froze to a point I don’t think I had ever experienced.

There is a small shelter atop Mount Whitney, and we found that a handful of people had bunkered down in there to sleep for the night. It got to a point where my hands were clearly on the brink of partial frostbite and I quickly retreated to the shelter and found a man with his camp stove running and he offered to keep it running for me so I could regain feeling in my hands. I really don’t think my hands have ever gotten that cold before. Lesson learned (I bring my mittens everywhere now).

At 7:05am, Ed and I enjoyed an amazing sunrise from 14,505 feet above sea level, the absolute highest point on land in the lower 48 states.

We found shelter from the wind in some lower hanging rocks and soaked in the heat from the sun. About 30 minutes after sunrise, I was certain I heard my name being hollered and popped my head up to find that my dad and brother had also made it to the summit. I was so relieved and proud to see they had made it to the summit. I knew they would. Two months prior they had both come to Colorado so I could prepare them for what to expect backpacking and hiking up a 14er. We backpacked up Mount Elbert, but on summit day we made it above 14,000 feet and the combination of fatigue and a poor weather forecast forced us to turn back just 400 feet from the summit. With a clear forecast and clear minds, I knew they wouldn’t let anything get in the way of them reaching the summit of Mount Whitney on this day.

Randy Johnson

Randy is a Cleveland native who has made Colorado his home for over 5 years. He eats scrambled eggs and bacon for every breakfast, has been to every MLB ballpark, and has no sense of smell.

Beginners Guide To Buying Tents

 

Tents

So, you want to get into camping but don't know where to start. A good place would be your bedroom. You're going to need a place to sleep out in the wilderness, and it doesn't have to break the bank. It's way more likely that you'll stick to "car camping" (driving right up to a campsite) than backpacking (hiking into the wilderness carrying all your gear on your shoulders), so you don't need a super small or ultralight tent when starting out. In fact, I would suggest getting a bigger tent just so you have plenty of room and are comfortable starting out. However, if you really want to take the plunge and invest in this new camping hobby of yours, you'll have much more versatility with an ultralight backpacking tent.

SIZE: If you're buying a tent primarily for car camping, buy a size up for space and comfort. A 2-person (2p) tent will certainly fit 2-people, but space will be extremely tight, especially if you have a dog or prefer to keep your backpacks or other gear in the tent with you. We always use a 3-person tent when we car camp so we have plenty of space for an air mattress , which you'll be thanking yourself for if it rains and you're bunkered down in it for hours on end.

SEASON: You'll notice pretty much all tents are either advertised as 3-season or 4-season tents (the 4th season being winter). Unless you plan on mountaineering and sleeping on the tops of mountains or camping in the winter a lot, stick with a 3-season tent. The main differences you get with a 4-season tent are stability and insulation from the thicker walls. And as long as you're not expecting heavy winds or heavy snow, a 3-season tent can be used all year long. 

FOOTPRINTS: Not all tents will come with footprints (the vinyl tarp that lies under your tent to protect it from rain, dirt, and rocks), but you definitely need one. Marmot and Coleman tents typically include the footprint, most other companies sell one separately that is specific to the tent and will clip in to securely attach it to the frame. You can use a generic tarp, but it will be heavier, clunkier, and not nearly as secure.  

Best Beginner Tents

COLEMAN SUNDOME SERIES

I bought my first tent on Amazon in September 2013 when it was on sale for $34. Seriously, just $34 got me my first tent--the Coleman Sundome 2-Person Tent. Must be a piece of junk, right? That's where you'd be wrong! This thing is thick, it's heavy, and because of that, it's pretty damn bombproof and get's the job done, especially for a beginner camper! The rain-fly looks worrisome because it seemingly barely covers up the mesh walls, but I can tell you that I've been in a complete downpour all night long and stayed completely dry. If there was a lot of wind, we may not have been as lucky, but who knows. This tent has already exceeded my expectations, and for just $34 I can tolerate A LOT!

My first out-of-state camping trip with my Coleman Sundome 2 in Moab, Utah.

My first out-of-state camping trip with my Coleman Sundome 2 in Moab, Utah.

So for a beginner tent, I fully endorse these Coleman Sundome tents. I think they're at a perfect price point for beginner campers and provide tremendous value. If you'd like to spend a little bit more for a beginner tent, look at all the tents by ALPS Mountaineering. The ALPS 2-person Taurus, Meramac, and Lynx tents all come in under $100. And if you want to spend a little bit more, definitely check out the REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent.

Best Car-Camping Tents

MARMOT LIMELIGHT 3P

This thing is a beast. This has quickly become my favorite tent ever! The pre-bend frame pole design allows for an insane amount of headroom. The entire top half of the tent is mesh, which is a priority for me to have for stargazing on nice nights without the rain fly. Plenty of interior pockets and loops for hanging lights and storing gear. As usual it comes with the rainfly that creates a large vestibule on both side. One thing Marmot also does is include the much needed footprint, so make sure you factor that in when shopping around.

One side of the tent has a standard D-shaped door, but the other side has an absolutely massive double-door--easily my favorite feature of the tent. I mean just look at the view you can get with the door fully open!

The Marmot Limelight 3P's massive double-door is ideal for scenic views.

Best Backpacking Tents

The main differences with backpacking tents are weight and versatility. The lightest 2-person backpacking tents will come in between 2 and 3 pounds. Many of them also have an ultralight option, meaning that you can set up just the footprint and rainfly (yes, without actual the tent) for an ultralight backcountry shelter. 

REI QUARTER DOME SERIES

I didn't realize that REI manufactured some of their own in-house gear until I found their highly reviewed tents on their website. After some research and price comparisons, I settled on the REI Quarter Dome 1 that weighs in at just 2lbs 2oz with the rain-fly and footprint. It's been a great minimalist option for me in the backcountry and you can even use it just as the rain-fly and footprint (yes, without the tent!) if you want a real minimalist and lightweight option.

I liked the REI Quarter Dome 1 so much that I picked up a Quarter Dome 2 at one of REI's Garage Sale events (where they sell their returned products) so I would have a bigger backpacking tent to use if I was expecting rain and wanted more shelter or if I wanted to share a tent (snugly) with someone else. 

The REI Quarter Dome 1 is narrow and tight, but it's light as hell and perfect for backpacking.

I don't personally have experience with them, but the MSR Hubba Hubba NX is a favorite of backpacking tent used by at least four of my friends. I hear nothing but good things about many of the Big Agnes and Nemo backpacking tents as well. When backpacking, your number one priority should be weight. As long as you can fit yourself in the tent and your pack in the vestibule, that's really all you need for minimalist tent camping in the backcountry.

Happy trails!

 

Backpacking: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

 

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is tucked into the Sangre De Cristo mountain range in southern Colorado and features the tallest sand dunes in North America. 

The Plan:

Drive down to the Dunes from Denver in the early morning. Get an overnight permit at the Visitor Center, hike up to the summit of High Dune, hike to the summit of Star Dune, then head north until I either (1) get tired or sick of hiking, or (2) find a decent flat area to camp with amazing views of the dunes and mountains. Hike out in the morning either during or after sunrise. Take the long way home to stop and take a dip in Valley View Hot Springs to rinse and relax before the long drive home.

The Permit:

Overnight permits are free and only obtained from the Great Sand Dunes Visitors Center which is open every day year-round except winter holidays and the hours are 9:00a-4:30p Labor Day through Memorial Day Weekend and 8:30a-6:00p Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day.

The Route:

This is the easy part (sort of). There are no "trails" on the sand dunes. There are only dunes that have more footprints than others. You can go any which way that you like. From the parking lots, High Dune is literally just the highest dune you can see. And from the top of High Dune, the highest peak you can see continuing east is Star Dune. After that, I'm just going to follow the most interesting routes and ridges toward the most unique shapes and lines that I see.

The Trip:

After parking in the designated overnight lot, you'll make the short hike to the base of the dunes which requires crossing the Medano Creek flow. The depth and flow of the creek depends entirely on the melting snow runoff from the neighboring mountains. Both times I have crossed in the early spring months, I have been able to get about halfway across before opting to take off my boots and walk the rest of the way. Make sure you check the creek conditions before visiting, but you can expect to take your shoes off to avoid soaking your shoes and socks.

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I had only been to the Great Sand Dunes one other time previously and it happened to be my first hike after ACL/MCL reconstructive knee surgery, and I remember thinking: Wow, this isn't very difficult at all. Well, it turns out that was because it was a wet morning before sunrise and the sand was firm and easy to climb.

Getting started in the dunes mid-afternoon with a 35lbs pack is a totally different story. The trek up to the High Dune summit is short but taxing to say the least. Just follow everyone else and head toward the tallest dune you can spot from the parking lot. You are bound to run into at few steep sections that truly feel like you are hiking up a down-escalator. The sand can be brutal, especially in the hot summer months when it can reach 140-degrees.

Also keep in mind that you are fully exposed for your the entirety of your trip on the dunes. You'll want to cover up with clothes or sunscreen to avoid getting burnt to a crisp out there. I chose to wear high hiking boots, convertible hiking pants to go over my boots, a long sleeve shirt, and a hiking hat. This was both to avoid getting sunburnt as well as to keep the sand out of my boots.

After reaching the summit of High Dune, I headed north rather than making the hike out to Star Dune. From reviewing a topographical map, I knew Star Dune was particularly steep, and I wasn't particularly excited for more steeps. I saw some great untouched ridges and shapes that I wanted to explore and photograph, so I opted to continue my loop and find a cozy place to camp.

The late afternoon was extremely windy and made setting up the tent a real pain. Luckily I had some extra long stakes that I brought specifically for pitching in the sand. They proved invaluable, as they actually stuck pretty well after you pressed them in past about six inches of sand. Honestly, I don't know if I could have pitched my tent without them with the wind as bad as it was. 

Sunrise and sunset are the absolute best times in the dunes. The colors and more importantly the shadows are unrivaled. The views change by the minute so if you plan on photographing out there, make sure that you've scouted out your location, have the lens you need on the camera (you do NOT want to be changing lenses in the sand!), and you are ready to shoot!

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After some sunset shooting, I ate my dinner and took a nap while waiting for darkness. I knew the half-moon wouldn't rise till just after midnight, so I wanted to shoot in complete darkness, as the dunes are one of the darkest places in the entire country. Let me tell you, the stars did not disappoint. I'm treated to amazing night skies in the Rocky Mountains all the time, but when I woke up from my nap and opened my tent, I was absolutely blown away by how bright the stars were.

By 11:00p, the wind had disappeared completely. You could here a pin drop, and it remained that way all night. It was so quiet and peaceful for the first time all day. I was growing tired of my tent flapping in the wind and the rustling of the plastic bags I was using as sand bags. I just laid down on my back in the sand in amazement of the stars above and enjoyed my first slice of quiet time. This was probably my favorite part of the trip. I find that I rarely do this while camping in the mountains because the ground it muddy, wet, cold and I never have a towel or blanket to lay on. With the sand you can just lie down and quickly brush off the dry sand when you get up.

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Out of curiosity (and laziness), I decided I wouldn't bother blowing up my sleeping pad. I wondered if the sand would be cold and would suck the warmth out of me like the ground does when you're camping on land. I had my 0-degree down bag on me so I figured I would give it a shot and sleep directly on the floor of the tent. I gotta say, it was perfectly fine. The lows were in the 30's that night and I stayed plenty warm and comfortable. If I felt a small bump underneath me, I just reached down and patted it down.

I woke up at 5:00a to the brightness of the half-moon on my tent and decided to get up and shoot the dunes under illumination of the moon. It was almost quite literally night and day from when I was shooting earlier in the night. I could see all the dunes surrounding me perfectly and with there still no wind at all, I decided I would pack up and start my hike out as the sun rose. It was the perfect way to start the day and an amazing experience to say the least. 

I took the long route home so I could stop and check out the Valley View Hot Springs about an hour north of the sand dunes. Took a quick dip to rinse and relax before the long drive home. Great weekend solo trip all around!

The Love:

  • Sunrise and sunset shadows

  • Solitude. Complete and utter solitude

  • Form fitting sand to sleep on. No sleeping pad needed

  • Possibly the darkest sky and brightest stars in Colorado

  • No trails. Simply hike wherever you want and for however long

The Hate:

  • The wind

  • No water sources on the dunes

  • Easier to get lost/turned around

  • Moving extremely slow due to the sand

  • Sand get everywhere. I mean, EVERYWHERE

  • Taking your boots off at the beginning of the hike

The Takeaways:

Camping on sand is totally a love/hate situation. If it's even remotely windy, you're going to get filthy, you're going to be frustrated, and sand will get EVERYWHERE. Even without wind, sand manages to get absolutely everywhere. If you have any camping gear that you care about, LEAVE IT AT HOME! Sand will get in every button, zipper, switch, knob, toggle, and every crevice you can imagine. All that being said, it was an amazing and unique experience and one of the most remote and most comfortable places I have ever camped. If the dunes were closer and I could guarantee the absence of wind, I would do camp out there way more often. But I'll probably save the dunes for day hikes in the future and leave all the gear at home.

The Links

 

Hike: Alderfer/Three Sisters Park Loop

 

The Alderfer/Three Sisters Park Loop is a popular pieced-together route consisting of 3 different trails that cover 6.9 total miles of unique landscape throughout the entire park.

The Park:

The Alderfer/Three Sisters Park is a 1,127 acre open space in Jefferson County containing 15.3 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Most of the trails in the park are rated as easy or moderate with only a small section of a difficult trail. One of the most appealing features of the park is the abundance of connecting trails allowing you to map out your own hike at virtually whatever distance and difficulty you desire.

The Hike:

One of the more popular loops in the park starts is 6.9 miles starting from the east parking lot and follows the Sisters Trail up through this difficult rated section through larger boulders and switchbacks. After you muscle up that initial ascent, the trails are moderate or easier the rest of the way.

The loops follows the Sisters Trail under it dead ends into the Ponderosa Trail. After a short time, you’ll veer right onto the Silver Fox Trail bringing you a walkway through a wide open meadow that intersects with the historic Alderfer Ranch. Take a break here to learn about the Alderfer family and the park’s history or do so at the nearby picnic area and parking lot restrooms before continuing across the street to the Wild Iris Loop.

Follow the Wild Iris Loop until veering onto the Evergreen Mountain West Trail through long gradual incline switchbacks through dense timber and even more downed trees. The forest is occasionally thinned by the city to prevent tree growth competition and decrease wildfire hazard which also creates a much more open forest.

You will soon run into the fork that leads up Evergreen Mountain via Summit Trail. This brings you up to the loop around the summit and the parks highest point of 8,527 feet. Take a break and enjoy the open views of Evergreen and even Mount Evans to the west. Feel free to take the 0.1 miles out-and-back to the Scenic View area also for a different viewpoint looking northwest.

After the summit, it’s all downhill from there. Just under 3.5 miles and you’re back at the parking lot after a nice moderate 7-mile hike throughout the entire park!

The Good:

  • Great views of park and mountains

  • Good mix of smooth and rocky trail
  • Covers most areas of the park including summit
  • Tons of connecting trails to make your own route

The Bad:

  • No running water available
  • Parking can be sparse in warmer months
  • Heavily trafficked in the summer with hikers and mountain bikers

The Links:

The Park Map

The GPS Tracks (.gpx file) -- Covers

 

The Parking Lot & Trailhead:

 

Hike: Devil's Bridge

 

Devil's Bridge is a heavily trafficked out-and-back hike to a giant picturesque arch located in Sedona, AZ.


DISTANCE: 2.25 Mi one-way, 4.5 miles RT
START ELEVATION: 4,646 FT
MAX ELEVATION: 4,998 ft
Date Completed: April, 2, 2017
 

The Route:

There are three main routes to Devil's Bridge Trailhead. (map pictured). The most popular two are accessible from the paved parking lot at the Dry Creek Vista Trailhead. The other is from the dirt shoulder parking area at the Mescal Trailhead. The Dry Creek Vista is the only paved lot and only lot with restrooms. None of the lots offer running water so make sure you bring enough water! 

There are three options from the paved parking lot at the Dry Creek Vista Trailhead:

  1. Simply follow the 4x4 road 1.0 mile to the Devil's Bridge Trailhead
  2. Take the scenic route and hike 2.1 miles on the Chuck Wagon Trail all the way to the Devil's Bridge Trailhead.
  3. Take the Chuck Wagon Trail to where intersects with the 4x4 road and take that to the Devil's Bridge Trailhead (not pictured, but this was the route we took).

The other option is to park at the Mescal Trailhead which has room for about 20 cars to park right on the shoulder of the road. Then take the Chuck Wagon Connector Trail to the Chuck Wagon Trail (left fork) which will run into the Devil's Bridge Trailhead.

The Hike

The easy 1.0mi trek down the 4x4 road is the shortest and easiest route, but you'll be robbing yourself of some great views offered by the 2.1mi Chuck Wagon Trail. I would recommend taking the Chuck Wagon Trail all the way to the Devil's Bridge Trailhead, or just take it until it intersect with the 4x4 road and follow that.

Chuck Wagon is wide open and exposed for the first mile or so then winds through mostly covered areas of smaller trees and desert vegetation. All trails leading to the Devil's Bridge Trail are mostly flat and pretty easy. Just be sure to keep your ears open and head on a swivel for mountain bikers on the trail and vehicles on the 4x4 road.

Once you've reach the Devil's Bridge Trailhead, you begin the main ascent up. The gorgeous red/orange sand is still present, but the trail get considerably rockier as you continue to climb rock stairs etched into the landscape. You'll see a clear path veering to the left which leads to a viewing area of the Devil's Bridge arch from below. Save this for the way back and continue up the trail.

You'll run into the most difficult part of the hike as you come to multiple sections of steep rock staircases cut into the side of the mountain. Not only are they steep, but they are narrow and will typically be even more complicated due to the heavy hiker traffic on the trail. Take your time here and don't hesitate to ask for assistance!

You'll be rewarded with a great flat scenic viewpoint atop the last steep staircase. We were stunned by just how green the valley around the red rocks was. Just down the trail from there you'll be greeted with your first look at the infamous Devil's Bridge arch.

I was surprised to learn that we could walk right out onto it, as most the arches I've come across (mostly in Utah) have strict rules about not climbing/walking arches in order to protect them. But as long as no such rule exists, we gladly took advantage of getting our photo op! It looks pretty terrifying but it's pretty wide and not too scary to be on if you've got the courage. There will certainly be no shortage of frantic mothers and loved ones on the viewing platform taking pictures while hyperventilating, but don't let them scare you away it!

You'll notice multiple large boulders and viewpoints in the area that are easily accessible and perfect for photo ops, so be sure to check those out, especially if going on the arch is a little too nerve-wracking for you.

Bonus tip: At Devil's Arch, go around the bend as if you were going to go out onto the arch but continue straight past it. You'll see a footpath along the ridge that will bring you through some brush and out to a wide open area. It's a perfect place to relax, hydrate, and have your snack while being shielded completely from any noise from the crowds at Devil's Bridge.

The Good

  • Well developed trails & multiple routes
  • Access to many mountain climbing areas
  • Great views of mountains and desert valleys
  • A stunning arch that you can actually walk out on

The Bad

  • Heavily trafficked

  • No running water available

  • Many hikers as well as sharing trail with mountain bikers
  • Steep narrow stone staircases can be intimidating and difficult

The Parking Lot & Trailhead

Note: If you have 4x4, you can continue past the Dry Creek Vista paved parking lot straight to Devil's Bridge Trailhead, but be aware that the road is ROUGH and there is hardly any space for parking at the trailhead. I would recommend just parking in the paved lot and making the extra mile hike in. It's scenic and I promise you won't regret it!

 

Hike: Tom's Thumb

 

Tom’s Thumb is a heavily trafficked out-and-back hike located within the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve that is accessible between sunrise and sunset.

Distance: 4.3 miles RT, 2.15 miles one-way
Start Elevation: 2,792 ft
Max Elevation: 3,793 ft
Date Completed: April 1, 2017

The Preserve

The Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve was established in 1990 to protect the McDowell Mountains as well as the surrounding 34,000 acres of desert and provide public recreational opportunities for horseback riding, hiking, biking, and rock climbing. The Preserve is owned and operated by the City of Scottsdale in partnership with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy.

The Preserve’s rustic breezeway at the parking lot offers rock climbing rules and regulations, detailed trail maps, as well as information regarding local flora and fauna and historical formation of the mountains during the Volcanic Era. There are nice restrooms at the trailhead, but be aware that this is absolute no running water here, so be prepared!

The Hike

This moderate hike is smooth throughout and starts relatively flat for the first half mile before starting a steady climb of switchbacks toward the ridge. Throughout the next 0.75 miles up, you’ll notice a few short hills leading to scenic viewing points overlooking the McDowell Mountains and surrounding desert space--great spots to stop, catch your breath, and take it the views.

The hike levels out after the initial steep ascent up the ridge and you’ll continue through rolling hills of enormous boulders and cacti while passing many of the turnouts for rock climbing areas. No question, this is the most beautiful and scenic part of the hike as navigate through car-sized boulders and often feel like you’re on another planet.

Be aware that the sign leading to Tom’s Thumb is labeled as a “Rock Climbing Access Route” for Tom’s Thumb and Gardener’s Wall. There were more than a few hikers that confusedly continued past the sign.

From the Tom’s Thumb & Gardener’s Wall sign, the route isn’t well-marked but is still easy to follow. By now you’ll clearly see the giant granite slab that is Tom’s Thumb and just need to keep heading up toward it. Take note that there are a few spots that require some agility and light scrambling. Kids should have some fun with this part and anyone should be able to make it with some assistance.

You’ll soon reach the prolific granite slab that is Tom’s Thumb. Pull out your snack and water and take a load off while enjoying the sights and sounds before heading back down.

The north side of Tom’s Thumb was closed due to the local falcons nesting in the areas and signs advised all visitors to keep their voices down.  

The Good

  • Dog-friendly on leash
  • Well developed smooth trail
  • Great views of moutains and desert
  • Plenty of paved parking spots available
  • Great views of mountains and desert area

The Bad

  • No running water available
  • Requires some simple scrambling

The Parking Lot & Trailhead

 

Why Did I Create Outdoor Detour

 

Let's take a quick minute to admire the picture above. I used it because it's from my very first hike in Colorado six weeks after I moved here. I mean, I'm wearing friggen jeans, clogs, and a heavy cotton tee shirt. The only things I had right were the fleece and backpack. It's comical to look back at it now. This bright-eyed kid fresh out of college that finally made the move out west. I didn't know where to start, except that I wanted to be in the mountains and start living the Colorado lifestyle.

But anyhow, thank you so much for stopping by and checking out the site. It's not much of anything yet, and it will take time before it evolves into what I want it to be. But you've managed to find yourself here either by chance or because you have the slightest interest in what I'm up to, and for that, I can't thank you enough.

So what is this? Why does Outdoor Detour need to exist? What should you expect?

Let me start with some quick background...

I've been skiing all my life and that's pretty much what brought me out to Colorado. When I moved here, I quickly found that the opportunities to get outside and stay active were endless.

Then I tore my ACL, MCL, meniscus, and rotator cuff in a freak ski fall and all of a sudden my options were limited.

I consider myself lucky I made it to 29 before having a ski injury.

I consider myself lucky I made it to 29 before having a ski injury.

Post-surgery x-ray of my new hardware.

Post-surgery x-ray of my new hardware.

I had feared this moment for many years. I couldn't imagine a winter in Colorado without skiing. It seemed inevitable though--I ski hard and I ski fast, like, as fast as possible. But I remained confident as I stayed in shape and limited my recklessness and the risks I took. I dreaded missing summer because of volleyball and softball, and I dreaded missing winter because skiing was everything. Now I was forced to miss out on both as I rehabbed. No softball, no volleyball, no skiing, and worst of all, no hiking.

So I camped.

And I camped some more. Before I knew it, I had camped at least one night for 15 weeks straight--basically the entire summer. Many trips were by myself, and it was exactly the kind of relief and reflection I needed during that time when I was struggling to keep my mind active when my body couldn't be.

Just outside of Zion National Park.

Just outside of Zion National Park.

That stretch of camping really got me exploring again. Every week I was plotting out potential camping spots on a Colorado map in new areas I had never been. It was a part of me that I felt like I had lost a bit when I went to college. I got caught up in the big city lifestyle and didn't have a car that would allow me to go out and explore the surrounding areas. I worked my butt off when I was in school and I rarely left the city during my years there.

Now I understand exactly what John Muir was talking about.
The mountains were calling, and I felt I must go.

So now I'm in Colorado, I've amassed all the outdoor gear I could possibly need, and I'm in full-on adventure mode. And look, I've traveled a lot since college as a single guy with no pets or obligations keeping me in one place. I always thought I should have somewhere to document my travel. I'm just a little late to the game and eager to use this site as an outlet to catch up!

Outdoor Detour will be a place where I can document and share my travels and experiences and provide some insight that will hopefully allow you to get out there and do some exploring of your own and create your own adventures.

You can expect adventure reports, gear reviews, beginner guides, travel/adventure recommendations, and a lot of pictures documenting everything along the way. I know that sounds pretty standard for an outdoor blog, and, frankly, it absolutely is. But this is all new territory for me, and I don't know what this site is or what it might become, but I do know that this is a good way for me to hit the ground running.

Thanks again for stopping by. I'm going to make it my job to get outside and continue exploring in hopes that it will make it a little easier for you to get out there and do the same. 

Much appreciated,
-Randy Johnson

 

 

Backpacking: Ski Tour To Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park

 

The Itinerary:

  • Friday

    • Fly into San Francisco and arrive at 7:30p.

    • Drive to the nearest REI to buy stove fuel before they close.

    • Drive out to Merced and sleep at booked AirBnB.

  • Saturday

  • Sunday

    • Make breakfast and pack up.

    • Ski down 10.5 miles and promptly slam a beer.

    • Quick drive through Yosemite Valley, stop at Village Store to get food and clean up.

    • Drive 4 hours back to SFO airport and fly home.

Easy enough, right?!

The Trek:

10.5 miles out-and-back on skis up Glacier Point Road (groomed).
21 miles round trip.

Ascent Elevation Chart
Descent Elevation Chart
Glacier Point Road Winter Trail Maps

The Permit:

You must obtain an overnight permit if you are planning on camping up on Glacier Point. You can pick one up at the Badger Pass Ranger Station located at Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area. When you arrive, they have a few 15-minute parking spots out front that are perfect to run in and get permits. You must go to the ranger station located in the A-Frame building right of the chairlifts. Just walk out onto the snow toward the chairlifts, look to your right, and you can't miss it. The rangers can answer any questions you have, and will provide you with an overnight camping permit, a parking pass to leave on your dashboard, and they'll direct you to the overnight parking spaces around the corner.

The Gear:

We were backpacking and camping up to the top so we brought all of our typical camping gear, plus a shovel, some waterproof layers, and fuel to melt snow so we didn't have to carry too much water.

I'm an alpine skier and just getting into Alpine Touring (AT) and skinning, so I brought my new AT setup to use. I can imagine that skins would probably be helpful in the colder months but it was so warm when were were there March 11-12 that we were in shorts and short sleeves the entire trips up and down. Because of that, the snow was so soft that the skins weren't necessary and only slowed me down by prohibiting glide.

My friend Matt is a boarder and he had planned to snowshoe and either carry or tow his board, boots, and pack. After talking it over with the rangers though, he opted to rent a proper cross-country ski setup. There's a separate Nordic Center building across from the main lodge of the Yosemite Ski Area if you want to rent cross-country skis or snowshoes. His cross-country ski rental was between $40-50. He had never once cross-country skied and I was impressed at how well he did, especially while carrying a 35-40lbs backpack.

Word to the wise: Leave the AT setup at home and either snowshoe or cross-country ski. The AT setup with your standard AT ski boots is way too heavy and uncomfortable to justify lugging it all the way up and down. 

The Trail:

The trail itself isn't the most scenic but does travel through a heavily wooded area with enormous trees and a few open meadows. There are also cross-country ski tracks on both sides of the road for most of the 10.5 miles (pictured below).

Within the first half mile I knew my feet were in serious trouble. I had some new AT ski boots that I haven't had fitted yet and my feet had way too much room to move around within the boots. They got chewed up the entire way up and down, so for me this trip was more mentally exhausting in trying to manage the pain than anything else. It's been almost two weeks since this trip, and I'm still limping around trying to heal all the blisters.

The trail starts with a quick uphill and gradual downhill over the first 3.5 miles and 400 vertical feet. After that, you start the long trek uphill which covers every bit of the next 5 miles and 500 vertical feet. I feel like it is worth nothing again that all the slopes of this trek are moderate at worst. There are really no steep sections at all (basically climbing 100 vertical feet over every mile).

We also didn't carry much water because we had planned to melt snow and filter it. Big mistake, but only because we planned poorly and didn't bring enough fuel and ran out after making breakfast. I ended up chomping on snow and taking small sips of my water the entire trip.

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Mile 8 is where the trek plateaus around an elevation of 7,800ft. The next 1-2 miles is relatively flat and offers some slightly downhill relief. You'll have to go back uphill immediately following that, but the last mile is the steepest part of the hike dropping you 500 vertical feet downhill. It's the first time you'll actually gain enough speed to get some turns in.

I was absolutely giddy that I was finally skiing downhill after five hours of painful uphill skiing. As if the cool wind in my face wasn't enough to get me excited, I then turned a corner and was treated to this absolutely stunning view of Half Dome.

The elevation at the top is only about 50 feet higher than the trailhead elevation, but who cares?! We made it! We then picked out a proper camping area away from the lodge and RELAXED! By the time we caught our breath and got our tents set up, the sun was just setting in the west while the full moon was rising in the east (pictured below). This was an awe-inspiring view that I truly felt like we earned.

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The full moon provided enough light to make headlamps optional around the campsite and we made the short hike to the proper Glacier Point viewing area so we could see and take pictures on Yosemite Falls and the valley perfectly illuminated by the full moon.

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After a good night's sleep, we awoke for sunrise which was an hour later than the day before thanks to Daylight Savings. After a hardy scrambled eggs and bacon breakfast, we used the last of our fuel to melt some snow and we packed up and hit the trail. 

It took us roughly 6 hours up and 4 hours down, and then a 4.5 hour drive back to the San Fran airport. Oh, and even after getting to the bottom, quickly driving through Yosemite Valley and straight to the airport, we STILL missed our 9:00pm flight. So if you're doing a crazy quick trip like this, plan accordingly! Lucky for us, we were able to jump on the first flight out the next morning at no additional charge and we were back in Denver and at work by 11am Monday morning.

The Good:

  • Gradual slopes throughout

  • Free camping at Glacier Point

  • Four bathrooms along the way

  • Absolutely unbelievable views to wake up to

  • Not crowded. Even fewer people make it all the way to the top

  • Virtually unlimited spots to camp with wide open Half Dome views

  • Most people at the top are either day-hiking or staying in the lodge

The Bad:

  • A long trek (21 miles RT)

  • Not many accessible water sources

  • Ups and downs. Only about 50 feet net elevation gain

  • Coming back down, the last 3.5 miles uphill will wear you out

  • Long drive from San Fran. Took 4.5 hours to get back to SFO airport

  • Not as scenic (except the top) as you might expect from a Yosemite hike

The Outcome:

After our first few hours on the trail carrying our packs on skis for the first time ever, it was clear that we were overly ambitious about this adventure. I would absolutely recommend this trip, but only for those experienced in ski touring or backpacking on snowshoes over long distances. Day-hiking to Glacier Point can be easily handled by anyone as long as you get an early start. 

Physically, it's not all too strenuous of a trip, but it's a long ways to go with a full 30-40-pound pack on your shoulders. Whether as a day-hike or a backpacking trip, everyone should make it a point to trek up to Glacier Point during the winter months. This long gradual hike that will reward you with the iconic panoramic views of Yosemite Valley without the crowds you're accustomed to during the warmer seasons.