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We spent the week of July 4th in Idaho backpacking in the Sawtooth Mountains – at 6 days, it was our longest backpack ever. We covered about 50 miles with a lot of elevation gain and loss as we traversed over various passes and into valleys. The Sawtooths are full of alpine lakes and we saw our fair share, over 10 named lakes, each pristine and full of trout. Except for our last day as we hiked out on the Saturday of the July 4th weekend, we hardly saw more than a few people each day, which is why we came to the Sawtooths: stunning mountain scenery without the National Park crowd levels.

We were mostly lucky with weather the whole week – no rain, but it was much hotter than we expected. And we were not fully prepared for the vicious mosquitoes that seemed to get worse every night. By the last night, once the sun began to set, all we could do was hide in our tent and listen to the amazingly loud hum around us. We actually ran out of DEET on our second day, but lucked out with a bit of trail magic and found a bottle of picaradin-based repellent left on the trail, which wasn’t quite as effective, but far better than nothing. Without it, Nathan certainly would have come home with far more bites, and he got quite enough as it was.

Despite the bugs and the unexpected heat, we had a great trip! With some suggestions and help from local blogger Michael Lanza of The Big Outside, we put together a nice itinerary hitting the best of the Sawtooths. Our plan for the second day ended up being a bit over-zealous, in part because the trail was quite overgrown, so we had to stop early and camp along a stream instead of at Baron Lakes. But we were able to make up most of the distance the next day and get back on track.

Our first night at Sawtooth Lake was our favorite with a beautiful sunset and moonlight.


The views from the ridge lines and mountain passes were amazing.


We had a great spontaneous swim break at Hidden Lake one afternoon. Katharine swam out to this rocky island.



The mosquitoes limited our fishing time, but we had some success a couple mornings.


We used rocks, dams, and logs for numerous water crossings.  Some were more stable than others.


The wildflowers were at their peak.


The scenery of the Sawtooths was truly stunning – it was a great week in the wilderness!


If you’re curious, this was our itinerary:

Day 1: Iron Creek Trailhead to Sawtooth Lake

Day 2: Hiked along North fork of Baron Creek to Baron Creek, camped along Baron Creek below the final climb to Baron Lakes

Day 3: To Cramer Lakes via Baron Lakes and Alpine Lake

Day 4: To Edna Lake via Hidden Lake

Day 5: To Twin Lakes via Toxaway Lake

Day 6: To our car at Tin Cup trailhead (Petit Lake Campground) via Alice Lake, Petit Lake

We used Sawtooth Transportation to shuttle us to the trailhead.


More photos:

We had an incredible 2 week trip to Patagonia in mid-February.  It’s taken us the last month to get through the 2,241 photos! Here’s a look at the first part of our trip, backpacking in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.

2/7-2/9 Arriving in Chile

We took 3 planes and about 24 hours to reach Punta Arenas, Chile near the southern tip of South America. The only Spanish we knew was what Nathan could remember from high school and what Katharine learned from an app in 2 weeks.  We then took a bus to a smaller city, Natales (Puerto Natales), which is the town closest to Torres del Paine.  It is common to see people walking the streets with their backpacking gear, and the restaurants are filled with young people trading stories about their latest adventures.

View of Natales from a Hilltop Near the Bus Station

We saw tons of guanaco in the pampas (plains), while riding on the buses throughout the trip.

Small Groups of Guanaco

We attended a free info seminar at the Erratic Rock hostel, which made us feel a lot more comfortable about what to expect on the backpack and provided a lot of good, detailed information (plus some that we found not so accurate) and it gave us a chance to ask some logistical questions which was a relief.  We spent the rest of the day buying dried fruit, nuts, and other backpacking food at the local markets and stores since Chile is really strict about bringing food into the country.

2/10 Refugio Paine Grande

We decided to do the W-Circuit from left to right, in 4 days and 3 nights.  First we took a bus from Natales to Torres del Paine, which takes about 4 hours. Then we took the ferry across Lago Pehoe to Refugio Paine Grande.  Normally this ferry only makes one trip across the lake, but the bus companies sold more tickets that people could fit on the one ferry.  We had to wait for the ferry to make a round trip and comeback and pick up about 50 more people.  This set us back a few hours.

This is all the backpacks piled up on the ferry.  Keep in mind this ferry was only half full and the pile is still 15 feet deep.

Torres del Paine has numerous refugios (transl: shelter or refuge) along the trail, which are essentially privately-run hotels/hostels in the wilderness.  They provide beds, showers, toilets, and a hot dinner, but reservations can be hard to come by in the high season.  We had decided not to stay in the Refugios and just camp, but we quickly realized backpacking in Torres del Paine does not really feel like the wilderness camping we are used to, more like pitching a tent on a hotel lawn.

Our first night was at Paine Grande, which was windy…really really windy, so everyone sets up their tents near the hillside and really close together.

Refugio Paine Grande

Once we finally got off the ferry, we quickly registered and set up our tent. We had been stuck on airplanes and buses for what seemed like forever and had no desire to hangout with the crowds of campers, so we quickly headed out on a day hike to Glacier Grey.  It is recommended to allow 7 hours round trip for this hike so we knew we wouldn’t be able to make it to the glacier with the ferry delay, but we thought we could get close enough to get a good view of it.  We quickly realized the “wind” symbol on the map is no joke.

Katharine Fighting the Wind

Despite the hundreds of people at the refugio, the trail was not crowded at all, so we finally felt like we were out in the wilderness and could enjoy the views. After an hour and a half we reached a great view point of Glacier Grey and Grey Lake.  We fought the incredible wind for a few minutes to take some photos, then realized a rainstorm was coming off the glacier and decided to head back.

Glacier Grey

During our hike we came across some brilliantly colored flowers in a glen.  The combination of the purple and white varieties was striking.

Foxglove, Digitalis Purpurea

As we headed back on the trail, a vibrant rainbow appeared in front of us, appearing to end right at our campsite!


Although we encountered some rain and extreme wind it was nice to be on the trail and away from all the crowds. We made it back to camp with plenty of daylight to cook dinner and relax a bit before bed, but the wind and rain kept us hiding in our tent for most of it.

2/11 Campamento Italiano

On our second day we planned to hike to Italiano, set-up camp, then day hike to Mirador Britanico (Viewpoint). We hiked 2 hours to Italiano mostly in the rain watching the wind whip up the water from the lake and pound the shore.

Map Displays Along the Trail (Not always to be trusted)


Italiano is just a campground and doesn’t have a refugio.  Luckily this campsite was amongst the trees, which helped shelter us from the wind and rain.  It was also really crowded (since it’s one of the few free campsites) so we quickly setup camp and left the crowds to hike to Mirador Britanico.

Sierra Finches

The trail wasn’t too muddy since it was mostly covered by short twisted forests that sheltered us from the rain and wind.


Some portions of the forest were wiped out by a rockslide creating a desolate scree wind tunnel.  You could watch other hikers make attempts to run across the rocks and become overcome by the wind and hide behind boulders.  When we sensed a lull in the gusts we made a run for it, passing the pinned down hikers, then diving into the trees as the roar of the next gust swept over the trees.  The trees were dense, so the scree gave us a first glimpse of the mountains that were surrounding us.


After 2.5 hours of hiking through rain, wind, and fog we reached the mirador.

Foggy Look Out


The mirador was exposed to hail and cold wind sweeping off the glaciers, so after 20 minutes waiting for the clouds to clear we decided to head back.


2/12 Campamento Chileno

The hike from Italiano to Chileno is about 14 miles and was the longest camp to camp stretch we had. Chileno has a restaurant, refugio, and offers mule rides from/to the Hosteria Las Torres (Hotel accessible via car/bus).  Campamento Torres is 3 miles beyond Chileno and provides a good base camp to then day hike to the Torres (Towers).

We finally got some good weather and we could see numerous mountain ranges towering over us and off in the distance.


 Cordillera del Paine

The first 10 miles of the day was relatively flat and took us along the Lago Nordenskjold.




One thing we really appreciated in Patagonia is that the water is safe to drink without filtering, which is pretty much no longer true anywhere in the US.  We quickly took to using the small waterfalls and streams as our new drinking fountains.


After a couple hours of hiking we stopped at Refugio y Campamento Los Cuernos and watched the condors circle the Cuerrno Este peak, which was about 6,000′ above us!  The Andean Condors can soar at altitudes of 18,000 feet!


Los Cuernos Restaurant

Los Cuernos Cabins

The southern tip of South America has a thinner ozone due to CFC usage.  Even though we were at the equivalent latitude as Calgary, Canada we could feel the intense sun during our hike around the lake that had little shade.

Nearing mid afternoon we made the turn towards Campamento Chileno, which climbs about 1,500 feet and then drops into the camp on the banks of the Rio Ascencio.

Nathan had injured his knee on the previous day hiking down from Britanico Mirador and it started to slow us down on the steep incline.  We opted to stay the night at Chileno instead of pushing on to Camp Torres.

2/13 Torres del Paine – The Torres Mirador

The hike to the famous view point (mirador) is about 2.5 hours along a river and then a steep climb up a rocky scree.  Many people recommend getting to the view point for sunrise, but since we opted to spend the night at Chileno instead of Camp Torres, we would have had to start hiking by 3:30 am, which felt too early. We still started hiking pretty early, doing the first mile by head lamp.  We made it to the top around 8:00 and the sun was high in the sky, but the sky was clear.  Even though we didn’t make it for sunrise, we considered ourselves lucky to have clear skies to see the Torres (towers).


The lake in front of the towers was like a mirror.  There wasn’t any wind or breeze, which felt very strange since we had been fighting it for the last 3 days.




After taking a ton of photos, we knew we had to leave and start the long hike down to catch the bus at the Hosteria Las Torres.  We hiked down the rocky mountain and back to Chileno Refugio and picked up our backpacks we had stashed under our tent platform.  We grabbed some water and started the 2 hour hike down to the hotel, which is completely exposed to the sun. Luckily we were hiking down hill – the day hikers coming up the valley from the hotel looked miserable in the hot sun.

We waited for the bus with the other 50+ backpackers that we had been hiking along side and camping with for the last 4 days.  Because almost everyone you see is hiking in the same direction and doing the same W-circuit, it often feels like you are hiking with a group of 50 backpackers from 10 different countries. We would even see some of the same people later on in our trip in Argentina hiking around Fitz Roy.

Waiting for the busses


Torres del Paine was a fun start to the trip, completing our first international backpacking trip!


Check out some of the other photos from our Torres del Paine adventure.

In August after visiting Mammoth Cave, we headed to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  We purposefully didn’t visit this park on our cross country trip since we knew it was a destination we would visit once we lived on the East Coast.  The park is located along the Tennessee and North Carolina border and straddles the Appalachian Mountains.  It is one of the most visited national parks with ~20 million visitors in 2010 – twice that of the Grand Canyon!


We spent 4 days in the park and packed in as many sights as we could.  We drove Cades Cove Loop Road and saw a mother black bear and her cub in a tree, which halted traffic as everyone tried to catch a glimpse.  We also drove to Clingmans Dome twice, but were socked in by the “smoky” fog.  We also did a short 1.3 mile hike on asphalt to Laurel Falls, one of the most accessible and visited falls in the park, but also quite impressive.


But the majority of our time was spent on two back-to-back backpacking trips!

Spence Field Backpack

The first trip started near the the Cades Cove campground.  We backpacked 3.5 miles up Anthony Creek Trail to Bote Mountain Trail.  Then we continued 1.7 miles to the AT (Appalachian Trail) and the Spence Field Shelter.

We noticed the lush and dense east coast forests,

the bright white AT blazes,

and some unusual bugs! Katharine was brave enough to lend her hand as a scale.


Spence Field Shelter

Not sure why it wasn’t more crowded in August, but we shared the shelter with only one other adventurer, Linda and her pack mule.  She was a more seasoned Tennessee resident and had many stories to tell.  For whatever reason it was comforting having another person and a mule to keep us company in the open air shelter.  We weren’t visited by any bears, but could see the mice scurry along the rafters. A ranger called us a couple days later though because someone had to use his bear spray at that shelter the next day, and they were considering closing it.

The next morning we set out in the early morning fog.

We hiked an additional 2.9 miles down the AT to Russell Field junction.

Russell Field Shelter

Then we turned and headed 3.5 miles down Russell Field Trail and back to Anthony Creek Trail returning to our car.  We didn’t see many hikers or wildlife and our view was always blocked by the thick forest.  We didn’t take many photos on the return hike and were while we appreciated the greenery, we miss the above tree line views of the western US.

Wildlife! (Newt)

Dense Forest

So that ended the first 2-day backpack after 13.2 miles with 2,800 feet of elevation gain, which was probably more than enough for two out-of-shape backpackers.  In an ideal world, we would have ended the day and regrouped for the next adventure, but time was short so we drove 2 hours to Big Creek campground in North Carolina (on the far other side of the park).

Mount Sterling Backpack

Already feeling pretty tired from backpacking 8 miles down 2,800 feet that morning we hit the trail again late in the afternoon starting at Big Creek Campground. We hiked to Backcountry Campsite 37, (5.1 miles, 1,000′) along Big Creek Trail.  Postcard waterfalls and babbling creeks crisscrossed the Big Creek Trail.

We arrived with about 10 minutes to setup our tent, hang our packs, and then the summer rain came…

When it rains, it pours! We were instantly drenched while we waited for our Mountain House dinner to cook.  We watched as the ground failed to absorb the down pour and water began pooling under our tent.  After a couple hours of rain we passed out, fingers crossed our tent material would keep the water from soaking our down sleeping bags.

We awoke with dry sleeping bags and began drying out our clothes and rainfly.  We had a short 5.4 miles and 3,000′ to Mount Sterling so we thought we would wait as long as we could before packing the wet rainfly.  To our surprise, the humidity was so high the rainfly wouldn’t dry even after being stretched out and hung in the sun for a couple hours. 

We packed our wet gear and headed up the Swallow Fork Trail to Benton MacKaye Trail and found Backcountry Campsite 38 on top of Mount Sterling (5,842′).  Along the way we saw only a couple other young backpacking families and just a few small animals and colorful plants.  

Even though we were hiking along a mountain ridge the tall dense trees blocked our view of the surrounding mountain ridges.  It wasn’t until we climbed the 60 foot tall fire tower atop Mount Sterling that we got a sense for the vast Appalachian Mountain Range.

The next day we hiked out 6 miles and 3,500 feet down Baxter Creek Trail to Big Creek Campground.  Again we were treated to occasional streams and waterfalls in the lush forest, but no sweeping viewpoints.

Backcountry Faucet

This 3-day backpacking trip totaled 16.1 miles with 4,200 feet of elevation gain.  When we finished, the sun was shining, so we celebrated with a much needed dip/bath in the frigid Big Creek before heading to a nearby campground for the night.

We also found these strange hitchhikers on our tires.  Anyone know what they are?


We roasted marshmallows and reminisced about our last 4 days in the Smoky Mountain backcountry covering 29.3 miles and 7,000 feet of elevation.  It turned out to be more challenging than we expected (mostly due to being a little over zealous trying to fit too much in to too little time), but we definitely got a good taste of backpacking on the East Coast – a lot more rain and trees than we are used to!


Check out all of our trip photos:

Day 61-63: Havasupai, AZ (10/3-10/5)

We saved an amazing experience for the last backpack of our Epic Trip. Havasu Canyon, a part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, is known for its remarkable blue-green water and beautiful waterfalls. We had seen pictures of it before our trip and couldn’t believe the water really is that color, but it really is that blue! It did not disappoint, it’s an amazing place that we highly recommend.

The trip does require permits for camping overnight which can be hard to get in the peak season (particularly long weekends like Memorial Day), and sometimes it can be difficult to reach the Havasupai Tribe’s tourist office on the phone, but back in May Katharine was able to get permits for October. We decided to reserve 2 nights so that we would have plenty of time to explore the canyon. After we finished the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim earlier than expected, we were even able to move our reservations up by a couple days, so apparently they weren’t totally sold out. In the end, that worked out great for us because we hiked out on Saturday, which allowed us to avoid the apparent weekend crowds.

Since the government shutdown was still in full-force, we were very glad that this amazing place was on tribal lands and still accessible. It is possible to hike to the Colorado River and enter Grand Canyon National Park, and while we considered doing it just to be in the park briefly during the shutdown, we decided it wasn’t worth the extra 8 miles of hiking. Instead we enjoyed a very leisurely 3 day backpack.


A view from Hualapai Hilltop, the start of the trail to Supai

This adventure starts by driving down the remote Indian Road 18 to a parking lot with a helipad in the middle of the desert on Hualapai Hilltop.  The only way to the Supai village is hiking or riding a mule 8 miles through a canyon or via helicopter. All supplies and everything needed in the village are transported one of those ways.

The trail descends about 2,000 feet to the canyon floor, most of which is in the first couple miles.  The canyon walls were the traditional red sandstone, but after backpacking Zion and Grand Canyon we weren’t as impressed.  We only took a few photos of the hike to the village, which definitely improved our hiking time.


There were a few differences we noticed from hiking in the Grand Canyon and other National Parks.  For example, the mule trains supplying the village were much larger and the mules were loose, relying on herding techniques. Of course the canyon walls do much of the herding, but there are several areas where the canyon is rather wide and there are multiple different paths to follow, so sometimes the gear-laden mules would split up and the herder on horseback would go one way and rely on his dog to go the other. This was fun to watch, but did force us to take cover behind rocks or climb up a small ledge to get out of the way. This is not a trail to put on headphones while you hike… you need to be alert!

We noticed that backpackers were in the minority here… while we only saw a few people riding mules, most people used the mules to transport their gear. Given that it’s a pretty long hike for most people (10 miles to the campground) with a lot of elevation loss/gain (depending on your direction), we totally understand why most people use the mules to transport their packs.



After 8 miles (which felt longer since there was a lot of sand to hike through), we reached the village of Supai, where we checked in at the tourist office to get our wristbands and permit tag for our tent. The village was tough to walk through because although it is located in an internationally-renowned hiking destination, it is also a grim reminder of the poverty and remoteness of the village.  We didn’t take any photos in the village because many of the conditions were so poor, and we felt it would be disrespectful. Mostly there was a lot of trash, but we also saw malnourished horses and many wild (but mostly friendly) dogs roaming the dirt roads hoping for food hand outs. On the other hand, the school building was very well maintained and the grocery store had a lot of postings for community events. We couldn’t imagine living in such a remote community.

The last 2 miles from the village to the campground seemed like they took forever, but we were encouraged by the blue water of Havasu creek and finally knew we were close when we came to Havasu Falls. The turquoise water pouring over the cliff into a beautiful deep pool was as amazing as all the pictures show it. We decided to leave exploring the falls for the next day since the sun was setting behind them, so we continued on to the campground.

Havasu Falls

At the campground, there were some obvious differences between the National Park and the tribal lands. Here there were no assigned campsites, and a recent flash flood had completely reshaped the area and left many picnic tables stranded in the river. We were amazed how many picnic tables they had made or transported down there, and the campground was clearly meant to hold hundreds of people, which was definitely more than the NPS would have allowed, but certainly makes getting permits easier. Limiting access to protect a place like this is such a tough trade-off, especially when tourism is the main source of income for the tribe. Unfortunately there was quite a bit of trash left by all the campers, which is always such a shame to see. On the other hand, the tribe had an impressive number of solar toilets that were quite good shape and we noticed they were serviced every day. They also did check permits on every tent to make sure that everyone had checked in. As rule-followers ourselves, we like to see permits enforced because there are plenty of people who ignore the system on the chance they won’t get caught. We’ve only had our permit checked in a National Park/Forest once in all our years of backpacking (it was in the Grand Canyon actually).


Picnic bench washed away during a flash flood

Lasting effects of the flash flood

The campground was also different because there were lots of dogs roaming from campsite to campsite begging for food. We didn’t feed the dogs, but others did which would cause more dogs to gather at their campsite and sometimes break out in small skirmishes over food. Luckily though they didn’t seem too aggressive, and there were plenty of people, so if you didn’t give them attention they left pretty quickly.


We had the entire next day we to explore Havasu Falls and dayhike to Mooney and Beaver Falls (8 mile round trip).  The water in Havasu Creek percolates through layers of limestone picking up high concentrations of magnesium and calcium carbonate, which gives the water an unusual blue color and builds striking travertine dams.  The 100 ft Havasu Falls is quite a sight, and we were glad to return to explore it a little more, but the 190 ft high Mooney Falls was even more impressive. The surrounding walls are minerals built up over many years and the water changing its flow around the walls.  The falls were named after a miner who fell to his death on the falls in 1882.  They were never able to retrieve his body, and it is now encased in the walls.

Mooney Falls

Reaching the bottom of Mooney Falls is actually quite a challenge, especially for those with a fear of heights. It requires climbing down the walls through a series of tunnels, chains, and wooden ladders, all of which were cold and slippery due to spray from the waterfall.  Once again we were reminded that this is not a National Park, and the maintenance and safety of the trails are not guaranteed. All hiking beyond the campground is at your own risk.



The narrow tunnels and ladders can get crowded and we watched as many people became stranded in the cold spray from the falls.  Keep in mind, most people are headed down in the morning and up in the afternoon.  Trying to go up in the morning will be nearly impossible.


But once you get to the bottom, you realize the climb was well worth the wait and effort.


We ate a quick lunch and switched to our water shoes to hike to Beaver Falls.



The creek flow and depth varies and some areas are easily traversed while others are quite deep.  Our Zion backpacking trained us quite well to identify deep pools and find unique routes around them.



The trail is unique since it crosses the small water fall travertines, fields of vine-like bushes, makeshift bridges, and ladders.





After hours of photography and hiking we reached Beaver Falls in the afternoon.


It’s almost impossible to get lost because you are just following a canyon, but you can get on the wrong side of a deep pool or waterfall making it more difficult to continue on to Beaver Falls.  One of the only directions we heard was to look for a single palm tree.  You want to make sure you hike on the side with the tree and at that point you’re getting close to the falls.

The single palm tree

We saw a lot of people turn around before reaching the falls, and by the time we reached the falls many people had left and we had them all to ourselves! Unlike Havasu and Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls is more of a series of smaller falls, which makes it easier to explore and get up close.

The view from above Beaver Falls

Many people also just enjoy the view from above Beaver Falls, but we hiked down to the bottom then back up the travertines.

Yes, we hiked with our tripod and remote!

As the sunset behind the canyon walls we made the lonely hike back to the campground.

Keeping with our desert hiking tradition, we also saw a snake.  It wasn’t a rattlesnake this time, but still startling.

After our long 8 mile day hike, we made it back to the campground and enjoyed some local fry bread!  The local vendors are just outside the campground and are very friendly.  To our surprise, the young locals we talked to had never been past Mooney Falls!  We were shocked that you could listen to thousands of people from around the world rave about the creek and falls and never go explore them in your backyard.  We were also surprised to find the two fry bread vendors were quite competitive and did not work together to fix prices… the stand we went to was relatively new and had driven prices down. The fresh fry bread was less than $5 and tasted amazing after a full day of hiking!

We left early on a Saturday morning passing almost a hundred college-age kids backpacking down the canyon.  It definitely seemed like the campground would feel very crowded that night, so we were glad to be on our way out. The hike out wasn’t too bad, but it definitely got hot once the shade disappeared.

When we got back to our car, we found a tribe member sleeping in the shadow of our car, apparently waiting for someone/something!  Nathan gently woke him up and pointed him toward the next shady spot, which he crawled to and went back to sleep.  Just another reminder this was a different world!

We highly recommend visiting Havasupai… and since the mules can carry you and/or your stuff, it’s quite accessible for anyone. They even have a lodge in the village if you aren’t up for camping.

Although we were sad that this was our last time camping as part of our Epic Trip, taking us to a total of 33 nights in a tent, this was definitely a great place to finish it off! And we were still excited for the final leg of our trip, taking 6 days to make the remainder of the drive from AZ to PA.

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 63
  • Nights in a tent: 33
  • Miles driven: 7,475
  • Photos taken:  11,834
  • Miles Hiked: 237
  • Water crossings: countless

Check out some more photos of this amazing place! 

Day 55-58: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ (9/27-9/30)

We are starting to build a pretty extensive hiking/ backpacking resume since we started about 3 years ago, and one thing we were very excited to add was hiking across the Grand Canyon. There are a lot of different itineraries/schedules that people follow (including many who hike it in a day), but since we aren’t speedy hikers and we like camping in the backcountry, we decided to do it as a leisurely 3 day / 2 night backpack.

We entered the permit lottery a few months before the trip, but were not lucky enough to get a permit, so we left plenty of extra days in our itinerary to make sure we’d be able to get a walk-up permit.  For some reason, after going back and forth with the rangers on the south rim they gave us a permit on the first day we arrived!  Although we were excited and relieved to get a permit, especially with the impending government shutdown, we were surprised and weren’t really prepared to start the next morning. Our feet were still tired from hiking the Zion Narrows the day before and our gear was in disarray. So we spent the night preparing everything in freezing temperatures at night by head lamp.  While packing we met a new friend, Karen, who was also doing rim to rim in a couple days.  We stood around her campfire warming our hands and sharing adventure stories.

The next morning we parked our car near the Bright Angel Lodge, walked through a small group of elk in rut (and past a park employee who was pretty scared of the elk), then boarded our shuttle/ van for a 4 hour drive to the North Rim.  There were 9 others in the van and we listened to the driver ramble on and on about random stories as if silence was forbidden.  Most of the other people in the van had just finished the Rim to Rim and were taking the shuttle back to their cars. We could definitely tell who took 5 days and who did it in 1!  The couple who day hiked across were young and fit, but they were slow to walk as their muscles and feet were extremely sore.  This confirmed our choice to take 3 days and 2 nights to traverse down the North Kaibab Trail (8,241 feet, 14 miles) then up the Bright Angel Trail (6,850 feet, 9.9 miles) totaling 23.9 miles!

We reached the trail head just after 12:00.  As we tightened our boots and checked our gear we were surprised by three young guys staggering up the trail, stopping their stop watches, then collapsing around the drinking fountain.  They had just ran across the Grand Canyon in just over 4 hours!!  This is one of those times when you think you’re crazy, but are inevitably upstaged by someone else.  Just as we were about to head into the canyon, the three runners abruptly got up and took off down the canyon… that’s right, they were running rim-to-rim-to-rim in one day! (total ~50 miles)  We laughed as we slowly trekked down the switchbacks as we could see them hundreds of feet below us already weaving around other hikers.


Our goal for the first day was to reach Cottonwood Campground 6.8 miles down trail descending 4,000+ feet.  As the sun began to set behind the canyon walls the massive walls glowed red and orange



Since it was the weekend and the temperatures were mild, we actually came across a lot of people day hiking rim to rim south to north.  We came across many exhausted hikers eager to know how much further.  Some people were a part of large groups all wearing the same t-shirt others had a different type of uniform…


As you can see this girl had a tutu on because her group had all picked Disney characters.  Minnie Mouse had just passed us and we later saw a few characters from Peter Pan, Brave, and Alice and Wonderland.  I’m not sure what drives people to hike almost 24 miles across the largest canyon, but to do it in costume just boggles our minds.  It did bring a smile to our face every time we saw a costume hiker and it did seem like they were enjoying themselves, so to each their own.

We reached Cottonwood after 3 hours of hiking down a well maintained downhill trail.  The campground was small, simple, and most people went to sleep pretty early.  The next morning we got a later start, but knew we had time to spare hiking to Bright Angel Campground just 7.2 miles and dropping another 1,600 feet.


It was near freezing at the top at night, but down in the canyon it was much warmer, probably close to 70 or 75 degrees during the day.  We were happy to have time to make a side trip to Ribbon Falls, which is a strange but beautiful waterfall.



To be honest, when hiking in the canyon, the views weren’t as incredible as we expected.  The stereotypical Grand Canyon views are from the rim or Plateau Point.  As you can imagine, you can only see the two massive rock walls on either side of you, but it doesn’t have the narrow slot canyon feel of the Zion Narrows.  On the other hand, that could have just been our jaded feeling as we approached the end of our trip. Either way, we didn’t take too many photos on the second day.


After 5 hours of hiking we reached Phantom Ranch around 2 pm, and the temperatures had risen significantly.  Many people ride mules from the south rim to Phantom Ranch, where there is a restaurant and small cabins.  For non-hikers, it definitely sounds like a great way to experience the Grand Canyon, but you have to plan ahead since they take reservations up to 13 months in advance and they sell out immediately.



We setup our camp in the crowded Bright Angel Campground. It is a far cry from the secluded backcountry wilderness that we typically seek out when backpacking. They even had flushing toilets! But it was well-run and clean, and we were happy to have a nice place to set up our tent.



Then we spent the afternoon exploring the black bridge and the banks of the Colorado River.



Cooling off in the cold (but brown) water of the Colorado River


While making dinner at our campsite we noticed a critter trying to get under our tent!


Not really the type of visitor we wanted crawling around our camp.  After we gently encouraged the tarantula to leave our campsite, kids hovered around as it creepily walked across the sand.


Just after sunset we went to hear a ranger give a talk on the stars above the canyon. He was very knowledgeable and entertaining as he told us about the stars and the park.  During his talk he mentioned that people could stay after for a scorpion hunt.  I think most people thought he was joking (Katharine included), but we had to find out.  We headed to the empty mule corral where the ranger scanned the rock pillars with a black light.  Within minutes we were staring at a glowing scorpion.  These scorpions glow bright green under UV light which helps them stay out of the sun during the day.  We found 8 scorpions that night and were shocked at the ability to find them, but were now a bit scared to crawl in our sleeping bags.  We also shook out our boots really well in the morning!

We had been mentally and physically preparing for the last day for a while, expecting the 9.5 miles and 4,380 feet of gain from Bright Angel Campground to the south rim to be really challenging, especially considering the likely heat. Despite all our experience hiking in SoCal, we do not do well in the heat.  So based on recommendations and research, we packed up our gear very early in the morning and hit the trail to beat the rising sun and heat.  By 6:20 am we were crossing the Colorado River on the silver bridge.


Even with our full packs we found ourselves racing up the canyon.  The trail was well maintained and had lots of switchbacks, making it an easy grade (designed for mules).  We were also surprised by the number of bathrooms and water refill stations along the trail, they were nicely spaced out and made for great mini-goals and rest spots.  We were worried about dealing with a lot of mule trains headed down, but we only saw a few and they were quite small and very calm.



As we climbed up closer to the South Rim, the views kept getting more and more amazing. It felt incredible to look back and see the bottom, knowing that we were just there earlier that morning.


We reached the rim around 12:15 feeling great, very proud, and a little surprised that we had just climbed 9.5 miles out of the Grand Canyon in under 6 hours with fully loaded backpacks!  Keeping with tradition, we treated ourselves to a nice dinner and watched the sunset over the canyon, then treated ourselves to a night in .  It was quite accomplishment and will be something we think back on for many years to come.



Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 58
  • Nights in a tent: 31
  • Miles driven: 7,283
  • Photos taken:  11,164
  • National Parks: 14
  • Miles Hiked: 206
  • Scorpions in our boots: 0 (thank goodness!)

Check out the rest of the photos!

Our goal for the end of 2013 is to finish off our Epic Trip posts. Not sure we’ll succeed since there aren’t many days left in 2013, but at least we’re getting back into it after too long of a break! So here is a look back at the Zion Narrows, which we hiked in September.

Day 52-54: Zion National Park, UT (9/24-9/26)

Back in April 2011 we visited Zion and spent a whole week exploring the park.  We backpacked the East Rim to the canyon floor, climbed to the top of Angel’s landing, and explored a couple side canyons, so we felt like we got a really good overview of the whole park.  But the Narrows was closed due to flooding, leaving us eager to return during a drier season to hike the most famous part of Zion NP.  The Narrows is a beautiful portion of a slot canyon where the Virgin River has cut through the sandstone before eventually opening up to Zion Canyon. So this year, we were excited to get permits reserved for a 2 day backpack of the entire length. And we were even more excited when we got to Zion and the weather forecast and water levels were looking good! (If you are interested in doing the Narrows, check out our tips at the bottom of this post.)

Our top-down backpack started near Chamberlain’s Ranch and our campsite was #7, almost 10 miles down river.  We got a late start due to some hikers getting on the wrong shuttle, so we were a little nervous about getting to our campsite before dark, but we figured since there’s no uphill, we could keep a steady pace.

The first 3 miles were easy and mostly just required walking through cow pastures and on the banks of the river.  There were a few places you had to cross, but we were able to keep a brisk pace as long as we weren’t shuffling through the river.


After 4 hours and 5 miles we entered the Upper Narrows where the canyon walls start to close in and it starts feeling like a slot canyon.


We stopped to take an arm shot, but soon felt dirt falling on us from the cliffs above.  In fear of larger rocks falling, we ran as fast as we could in the 6 inch deep water with 30 pound backpacks.  The camera continued taking photos capturing blurry images of us running for cover.  It was just another reminder how dangerous slot canyons are as the walls are continued to be eroded.  Luckily the small dirt and rocks didn’t turn into boulders or sheets of rock.


At this point the river spans the canyon, but was pretty shallow and slow moving.


Sometimes you had to get creative and climb around log jams or down rocky side canyons to avoid deep pools.


The bad news is GPS doesn’t work in the canyon, but the good thing is its hard to get lost since the walls are hundreds of feet high without any exit.  We relied on the Zion Adventure Company map which has mileage, landmarks, and general campsite locations.

The “12 foot falls” is around 8.5 miles in and should take about 4.5 hours to reach according to the map.  Since there isn’t any landmarks between the Upper Narrows (~5.75 miles) and the 12 foot falls (~8.5 miles) we were relieved when we finally came around the corner to see the falls.  We were right on schedule according to the map, but that made us worried since that put us at our campsite around 6:30 pm.  The canyon gets really dark as the sun starts setting, and even at 4:30 pm, we found the canyon was getting pretty dark and our cameras were almost useless.


So we put our cameras away and focused on our footing in the dimming light.  If you think it’s hard to hike at twilight, try doing it in a flowing river with a rocky bottom.  We finally made it to our campsite exhausted and sore from 10 miles of wet feet and cobblestone terrain.


Luckily we took full camelbacks and had plenty of water to cook dinner, drink, and make breakfast.  You wouldn’t think water would be an issue considering you’re walking in it all day, but the NPS encourages hikers to go to the bathroom in the river along with the hundreds of cattle upstream.  According to the NPS you should filter out of a side creek or spring that feeds the river because the Virgin River is so contaminated. Even though we think a good quality water filter would be able to handle the bacteria, we didn’t want to take any chances, so we were glad to have plenty of water on hand.

The next morning we started just after 8:00 and were more confident since we had the entire day and only 6 miles to hike.  The first goal for the day was to find Big Springs to filter water.  After what seemed to be the longest 1.25 miles we came across a welcome sight.

Big Springs

The last 5 miles are littered with landmarks on the map for the bottom-up day hikers (since a huge majority just hike up a ways and back in a day).  The last 5 miles are also most impressive of the 16 total since the walls are most narrow there.  When we weren’t staring up at the walls we kept ourselves entertained looking for Sipping Turtle and Hiccup Springs, just a couple of the things to look for (or listen for) along the hike.

The morning sun exposed the various canyon wall layers forcing you to stop and just stare in awe.

Along with the incredible walls rising above us the water also began getting deeper as more creeks and springs fed into the river and the canyon got narrower.  There were some really deep pools probably 5+ feet, but we always tried to find a shallower route or climbed over some boulders to avoid getting too wet.  The first day we rarely went in over our knees, but the second day we had to go almost waist deep.

After 2.5 miles we made it to Wall Street, the most impressive section with massive walls and rushing water spanning wall to wall.

Yes, we are crazy enough to pack a tripod and setup our cameras in the middle of a rushing river!

This place is so incredible, there are no words to describe it.  After almost 2 months of exploring some of the most beautiful places in the western US we still found ourselves smiling ear to ear in disbelief of the view.

Right when you think you’ve seen it all there is something more incredible around the next turn.

Floating Rock- 3 miles in if you hike up from the bottom.

We made it through Wall Street around 1:30 pm, which meant it took us over 5 hours to go less than 4 miles (because we were taking so many photos and hiking in a river is slow). But we knew we had plenty of time to complete the last 2.5 miles so we decided to take a detour down Orderville Canyon.  The thing with this detour is it required us to climb a 7 foot wall, which normally wouldn’t be too hard with some team work, but this wall had a 4 foot pool of water at its base!

The water was quite chilly (60F), and even though the air temperature was close to 70F, the breeze racing through the canyon in the shade made it a chilly obstacle.  We took turns carrying the packs through the water and passing them to each other over the wall.

Of course the deepest part was right at the base of the rock where the waterfall had eroded the sandy bottom.

We definitely felt tough while people watched us wade into the cold water.  The side canyon was very secluded since only a couple of people were crazy enough to get really wet.  After 15 minutes of shivering we also questioned our detour.  Luckily we had lots of dry shirts and jackets in our packs and spent the rest of the day in our fleeces.

Orderville Canyon

After making it back over/through the obstacle to get back to the main canyon, we quickly hiked the 1.5 miles to the start of the paved Riverside Walk trail, and then finished the last mile quickly thinking about the hot dinner and warm bed waiting for us.

Hiking the Narrows was an amazing experience, and we consider it one of the top 3 things we did on our trip. We think there is something just so incredible about slot canyons in general, (like when we did Buckskin Gulch, an even longer and narrower one) but there is something about the Zion Narrows that makes it special. Maybe it is the right balance of narrowness, but still allowing sunlight in to illuminate the walls. Or maybe it’s the Virgin River flowing wall to wall with deep turquoise pools. Whatever it is, it is absolutely worth the hike. If you ever find yourself in Zion when the river flow rate is low, you should definitely try hiking up river even just a few miles. You don’t need a permit to do that, and you still get to see some of the best parts!

We couldn’t include all the photos in the post so please click on the photos in the gallery and check them out in full screen.

Details for Trip Planning

Most river or slot canyon backpacking trips require permits because the environment can’t handle being overrun by hundreds of people a day.  The Narrows permits become available a few months ahead of your planned trip dates, but are reserved quickly!  Make sure to be on the website at the correct time and day since all the campsites will be reserved within 30 minutes of availability.  But about half the permits are reserved for walk-ups the day before, so don’t despair if you can’t reserve one. The top-down backpacking is a thru-hike and requires a shuttle or two cars.  Once you have locked in the permit, make sure to reserve a shuttle.

Selecting a campsite might just come down to what’s available, but if you have a choice of sites, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is drinking water. The National Park Service encourages all hikers to urinate in the river and there is a lot of cattle upstream of the Narrows. (Yes you heard right, this is one of those rare occurrences that they want you to go in the river! And to answer your next question, WAG bags are provided for everything else 🙂 So since lots of livestock and people use the river as a bathroom, the NPS does not recommend using the Virgin river water for drinking (even with filtration and/or treatment). Instead, they recommend you use the side creeks and springs, so if you can pick a campsite near one of those water sources, you will be better off.

The next thing to consider is how to split up the 16 mile backpack over two days.  From a photography stand point our last 6 miles from campsite #7 were better than the first 10 miles.  We took 190 photos the first day (10 miles) and 433 photos the second day (6 miles).  So if you get an early shuttle, you might want to try to get close to #9 or #10 to leave a lot of time to enjoy the 2nd day. On the other hand, walking through the river was much slower than we expected, and we (and other groups that started with us) found the hiking times on the map to underestimate it. Keep in mind it will most likely take you ~8 hours to hike 10.5 miles to sites #9/10 and your feet will most likely hate you at the end of the 1st day, but that would allow you to really take your time on the second day.

Most people actually day hike the Narrows, starting at the bottom, hiking upstream and returning the way they came. If you do it this way, you can go as far as Big Springs before you have to turn back (which at 10 miles roundtrip is all you’d probably want to do in a day). We really enjoyed backpacking it and spending a night in the canyon, which allowed us to have more solitude in the morning, but day hiking is a really great option and you still get to see the best parts. So if you aren’t up to backpacking or can’t get a permit, the day hike is a great back up.

Whether you backpack or day hike, we highly recommend renting water socks, shoes, and waterproof camera cases (we got ours from ZAC).  The water didn’t get too deep so our dry bags didn’t get used, but they did provide peace of mind, and the water depth can get much deeper depending on the rain that year. We did use our trekking poles the entire time and were so glad to have them for stability since it’s often hard to see the rocky bottom of the river clearly.  If you don’t have trekking poles or don’t want to use them in sandy water, take the rental company’s wooden staff.

Ok all that being said this was an amazing trip and we recommend it as a place to visit whether you backpack top-down or day hike bottom-up.


Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 54
  • Nights in a tent: 28
  • Miles driven: 6,672
  • Photos taken:  10,430
  • National Parks: 13
  • Miles Hiked: 182


Day 44-47: Grand Teton National Park, WY (9/16-9/19)


Of all the backpacking trips we’ve done over the years this was our longest and most adventurous backpacking trip ever!  This is a long trip report, but it covers 4 days of some exciting backpacking through 40 miles of the Teton Range.

Day 1

Rendezvous Peak to South Fork Granite Camping Zone (~4.9 miles)

We waved goodbye to Katharine’s family as they drove away to the airport, then with our fully loaded packs we walked through Teton Village to the aerial tram.


We gladly took the ski lift, which lifted us up 4,139 feet in elevation to Rendezvous Peak (10,450 feet).  We stood at the top of the tram and watched the paragliders circling to the valley below.   After a short rest to catch our breath from the rapid elevation change we hit the trail toward our first campsite.



Our first day was pretty easy so we took our time, but to be honest, the hike from Rendezvous Peak to the South fork Granite campground wasn’t too impressive, at least not after everything we’d been seeing for the past month or so.  We spent most of the time switchbacking up and over small ridge lines with scattered trees without many overlook viewpoints.  But the campsite we settled at in the late afternoon was idyllic, looking over a small valley with a beautiful meandering stream.


The week before our backpacking trip it had been partly cloudy and rainy in the valley, and the peaks of the Tetons were clouded most of the time, but there was no snow.  Although the forecast looked promising for our backpacking trip, already on the first afternoon, the clouds did not. Two hours after we reached our campsite, the clouds moved in and it abruptly started hailing!  It was small pea size hail, but it lasted for 30 minutes, leaving a white layer of dip-and-dots on the ground.



Luckily the storm ended as quickly as it came, and after it passed, the lingering clouds were illuminated by the setting sun turning brilliant yellows and oranges.

 Looking South

Looking West into the Sunset

After a hearty meal of freeze dried Mountain House we went to sleep for an early start the next morning. At some point in the middle of the night, we were woken up by lightning flashing overhead and thunder echoing off the mountains.  We are no strangers to thunderstorms, but we had never experienced a thunderstorm like this while backpacking.  With our eyes closed we were still blinded by the flashes of lightning and could barely start a countdown before the sky exploded with thunder so loud we couldn’t hear each other swearing in shock.  There was one specific moment where the flash and the boom were instantaneous and you could feel the thunder in your chest.  After 30 minutes we started to get a little bit used to it and forced ourselves to sleep with the tent glowing from lighting, thunder rumbling, and rain/hail pitter-pattering on the rainfly.

Day 2

South Fork Granite Camping Zone to Sunset Lake (~10.5 miles)

The next day we woke up to beautiful views of the valley with blue skies and puffy white clouds. We were glad to see the storm had moved on, which let us dry off our rain fly in the morning sun before we packed up and started hiking for the day.

 Looking back toward our campsite

As we headed toward Marion Lake, the clouds to our south turned gray and were rapidly approaching.  We reached Marion Lake by briskly hiking the last quarter mile with a curtain of rain chasing us.  We took refuge in some trees and put on rain pants, jackets, and pack covers.  We had gotten fishing licenses for our trip so that we could fish in a few of the lakes, and Marion lake was one of the few opportunities so we couldn’t pass it up. In the pouring rain we tied a fly on our Tenkara fly rod, and Katharine stood on the bank and casted the fly on to the dancing lake surface.

After about 10 minutes, the rain turned to hail and we decided it was going to be impossible for the fish to see the fly while the surface of the water was being pelted with ice, so we packed it up and continued on the trail.

After 3 miles of hiking we reached Fox Creek Pass and another storm cell was approaching behind us from the south.  A young couple came up fast behind us and said they weren’t prepared for the weather so they were headed down Death Canyon.  We silently agreed since the guy had only a ripped trash bag on his backpack for rain protection and he was wearing shorts.

Death Canyon

Between storms we could see the Teton peaks across the Death Canyon Shelf.  It was an amazing view, but the realization that we had to hike 7+ more miles, and it was already 2:00 PM was a bit daunting.

The Tetons

We passed and were passed by several more groups of backpackers, but they were all setting up camp on the Death Canyon Shelf. So as we continued toward the Alaska Basin, we were all alone with no one visible in front of or behind us for miles.  The wind picked up and we started pointing out sheltered landmarks as goals to reach and duck behind to get out of the wind and rain.  After many small breaks and Clif bars we reached the Sheep Steps that descend into the Alaska Basin around 4:30 PM with 3 miles to go.

 Sheep Steps

We quickly navigated the Sheep Step switchbacks since the rock wall sheltered us from the wind.  The Alaska Basin was drastically different terrain than the Death Canyon Shelf above.  The ground was mainly rock that had been smoothed over by rain or other flowing water.  Occasionally there was a shallow lake with a few trees around the edges.  We took shelter behind some rocks as we watched the waves of rain being blown across the landscape.

Alaska Basin Lakes

The original plan was to camp in the basin, but we had a couple hours of daylight and we had a little more gas in the tank.  If we could climb up 500′ and another 1.5 miles, we would reach Sunset Lake.  This would help us tomorrow and as a bonus, we would be near a lake with trout for some possible morning fishing.  (The Alaska Basin lakes are so small/shallow that they often freeze completely in the winters, so the fish can’t survive.)  During a break between storms we looked at the clouds to predict if we would be setting our tent up in the rain.


The wind had shifted to west to east and we found ourselves flanked by two rain clouds.  We thought we might be lucky enough to hike 1.5 miles and setup our camp as the clouds pass us on either side.

Looking back down the Alaska Basin


We hiked up the short switchbacks as the sun started setting. We could just see the sun breaking through the low clouds as we reached the saddle overlooking Sunset Lake.  We could see 5 or 6 colorful tents setup in the trees around the lake. The weather was cooperating, so we took about 10 minutes trying to find a flat spot for our tent overlooking the lake, but finally decided most of the suitable sites were closer to the lake, and even if we were closer to other backpackers, it would be better to be on flat ground.

 Approaching Storm from the West

We looked up and noticed the wind had shifted and the dark clouds were now headed west to east, straight towards us!  It was clear that this storm wasn’t going to wait for us to find the perfect campsite, so we rushed down the hill toward the lake hoping we could get there in time and cursing ourselves for wasting so many precious minutes earlier. Just as we found a spot that seemed flat enough and dropped our packs to unpack our tent, the sky opened up…

Of course this rain was the worst we had experienced all day.  It was that fat rain that can soak your shirt in just 10 seconds.  It was combined with a strong cold wind that blew our tent and rain fly around as we tried to set it up.  The wind was so loud we could barely hear each other yelling just a few feet away. Luckily we’ve set this tent up many times and we know what we each have to do to get it done efficiently. Our tent is designed so that you can set up the footprint, poles, and rain fly, and then set up the tent itself under the protection of the rain fly. When the sales guy at REI showed us this months ago, it sounded like a good idea, but we had no idea how important it was going to be for us. With the rain falling and the wind blowing so hard, it definitely wasn’t easy to get it all set up, but we managed to do it quickly and keep things relatively dry, so we considered it a success. Then again, if only we had gotten there 10 minutes earlier, we could have set it up in dry weather. Oh well, live and learn! Before we knew it, we were sitting in our dry tent looking at each other thinking, ‘what are we doing here?!’

It was dark by the time the rain had slowed so Nathan huddled under some trees outside the tent to cook our dinner.  Lightning lit up the valley around us and thunder rumbled echoing off the mountains.  It must have rained 1/2″+ in an hour and we could see puddles of water forming around our tent a couple inches deep.  Although our tent is designed like a bathtub and shouldn’t allow water in through the bottom, we were still concerned about making sure our sleeping bags stayed dry through the night.  We ate our hot dinner quickly and tried to get to sleep knowing tomorrow was another long day and the weather was uncertain.


Day 3

Sunset Lake to North Fork Cascade Camping Zone (~9.0 miles)

Through the night we could hear the rain hitting the tent and flashes of lightning blinding our eyes through our eyelids.  It was hard to sleep with spontaneous cracks of thunder overhead and the thought of impending flooding in the tent.  We didn’t think the thunder could be louder than the first night, but we were wrong… this storm was pretty epic. Nathan woke up at 2:00 AM to check the tent and could see the rain had stopped, and was replaced by hail.  There was about a 1/2″ of solid hail building around our tent.  The good thing was the tent wasn’t going to flood, but when was the hail going to stop?

Nathan, as usual an early riser, woke up at sunrise and discovered the hail had turned to heavy wet snow at some point and the tent was now an igloo!


 Our Igloo

Outside the tent everything was a winter wonderland, covered in a few inches of snow and the skies were covered in dark clouds.  As he started taking photos of our igloo a group of concerned campers approached him and asked, “what’s your plan?”  Nathan was so excited by the snow he was caught off guard by their seriousness.  The other groups were concerned that the weather wasn’t looking any better and the trail was covered in snow, making it difficult to follow and easy to slip and fall, especially on steep inclines. We all had planned to continue on the Crest trail over Hurricane Pass, but the pass was almost 1,000′ above our camp, and a group that had done it the day before said it was extremely windy with steep drop offs on either side. After 15 minutes of discussion about alternative exit routes, one group decided to head back to Death Canyon and exit there because they knew the trail, but it was going to be a very long hike, probably requiring another night at high elevation. Another group was from Georgia and didn’t have much experience with alpine backpacking, especially in bad weather, so they decided to take the most direct exit route, which was the trail along the South Fork of Teton Creek to the Idaho side of the Tetons. This did seem to be the easiest exit, but would require a long and expensive taxi ride from Idaho around the Tetons back to their car on the Wyoming side.

 Small Group headed out to Idaho

We took a little longer packing up our camp and found our hands and feet wet and numb with no place to unthaw, which was concerning. We realized that this was one of those situations that could turn into a disaster story “how to survive in the Tetons” found in some backpacker magazine.  We really wanted to continue on our route as planned and finish the rest of the Crest Trail, but we also didn’t want to become a survival story, so we methodically went through the risks and how prepared we were for these new weather conditions.  We had a lot of warm clothes and our sleeping bags were still dry, and we had even brought our MicroSpikes which would help us keep our traction in snow/ice.  But because of our wet and extremely cold hands and feet, the continuing bad weather, the low visibility and dense clouds, and the unknown of the trail covered in snow, we decided it was probably smartest to follow the other group out to Idaho.  We climbed up the hill to the saddle overlooking the Alaska Basin and we could see that just below the clouds there was green!  The snow line was only a thousand feet in elevation below us.  This gave us some hope that we could make it over Hurricane Pass and drop low enough to get to warmer temperatures pretty quickly, and we knew we could camp at a lower elevation that night.  We also found the 10 minute hike up the hill had completely warmed our feet and hands, which was very encouraging even though our boots were still pretty wet.  We re-evaluated our situation and gear and decided to turn back toward Hurricane Pass and continue our adventure as planned!

It was a tough 1,000 feet gain and long mile to Hurricane Pass, but it wasn’t as bad as we had expected. The trail was mostly visible and there were two hikers who had left an hour or so ahead of us, so we could see their footprints most of the time. In some sections, the wind had drifted snow over the trail, but we would quickly pick it up again. Soon we we were just about 100 feet below the pass and feeling good. But once we cleared the tree line and reached the saddle of the pass, we were completely unprotected from the wind and the conditions changed drastically. The wind was blowing so hard, it felt like it was blowing us around, and we had to yell at the top of our voices just to hear each other.  With the falling snow, blowing snow, and fog/clouds hanging over us, we found ourselves in near white-out conditions.  You can faintly see the Hurricane Pass sign just 50 feet ahead.

 Whiteout conditions as we approached Hurricane Pass

We don’t have a lot of photos going over the pass because we had packed our cameras to protect them from the weather, so we were just using our iPhones (which also required removing our gloves). In any case, there wasn’t much to see besides snow.

Hurricane Pass lived up to its name!  The wind coming through the area is focused by the surrounding mountains through this tiny pass/saddle.  This was the strongest wind either of us had experienced.  There was no way to stand up straight, so we used our micro spikes on our boots to dig into the snow and rock and our trekking poles extended out at a 30 degree angle propping our bodies against the handles.  We shuffled sideways with our backs to the wind just a few feet at a time.  The wind was also carrying small pieces of snow and ice scratching our exposed faces.  We tried to time our movements between gusts of wind and would have to yell GO! even though we were standing just a couple feet from each other.  At one point even the yelling wasn’t enough and we just had to point and go.  The wind was so strong at one point that we even considered crawling to get through the most narrow part of the trail, but with the sharp rocks, it didn’t feel any better and would just have gotten us wet.

It took 10 minutes or so to traverse just 30 feet and get over the pass.  We thought the by getting on the other side of the pass we would be protected by the western wind, but we were just slammed by the eastern wind.  Small twisters of snow and ice formed at the saddle leaving no safe direction protected from the wind.  We shuffled down the trail on the other side of the pass, finding ourselves often in one foot deep snow drifts.  It was hard to make out the snow filled switchbacks, but after descending 200′ the wind calmed down and we were able to rest and laugh about our newest accomplishment.



If there hadn’t been a snow storm, we would have realized we were standing at the foot of the three main Teton peaks (South, Middle, and Grand Teton) and the view from Hurricane Pass would have been amazing (like this).  These peaks extended about 2-3k feet above where we stood at 10,200′.  Unfortunately we hiked several miles along side the peaks without seeing them at all through the cloud cover.

Looking toward South Teton



The decent down along the South Fork of Cascade Canyon was long and arduous since we had to watch our footing with the ice, snow, and wet rocks, but our MicroSpikes helped to keep us from slipping too much. Finally around 1:30 PM we reached snow line at about 8,750′ and were able to increase our pace. It was still probably 40 degrees, but it was nice not to traverse through ice and snow.  We were also pleasantly surprised to find a bull moose resting in the willows.  Nathan had carried his 70-300mm L telephoto lens this entire time in case of a situation like this.  Finally carrying an extra 2.3 pounds paid off!


We were exhausted when we reached the trail split for the North Fork of Cascade Canyon after hiking just over 6 miles and dropping ~2,500 feet from Hurricane Pass. We had another 3 miles and 1,000 feet of gain to reach the northern most campsite in the North Fork Cascade camping zone.  It was a tough climb, but the clouds cleared just long enough for us to get a couple shots of the Tetons.

Tetons Hidden in the Clouds

We didn’t see any other backpackers staying in the North Fork Cascade Canyon camping zone that night.  We just saw a few day hikers returning to Jenny Lake and a backpacker who had just come over Paintbrush Divide and was not happy with the surprise snow and cold temperatures. He was headed down to lower elevation for warmer temperatures.  We set up camp, ate dinner and noticed the temperatures were dropping even faster than last night.  We were about 500 feet lower than the night before and were right around our estimated snow line, but our thermometer read 30 degrees as soon as the sun set.  We were glad this would be our last night sleeping below freezing.  We were wishing we had our snow covered tent from last night to help insulate us from the rapid dropping temperatures. We learned to be careful what we wish for…

Day 4

North Fork Cascade Camping Zone to String Lake Trailhead (~11 miles)

Nathan woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and found the tent covered in snow again!  We got our ‘wish’- a 1″ thick blanket of fresh powder covered the landscape and was still falling.  After shaking off our tent in the morning we took some tent photos which makes a nice landscape comparison to the evening before.



Katharine’s expressions show the evolution of our emotions in the cold early morning hours.

Way Too Cold, So Many Miles to Go, but We’re on Vacation!

We had a hot breakfast and packed up camp for our long exit day.


This day was special because the first part of our route was the hike up to Lake Solitude, a place we had visited 3 years earlier with Katharine’s family just after our engagement.  It was there that Katharine decided we would hike the Teton Crest Trail at some point!

Lake Solitude August 20, 2010

Katharine’s Parents at Lake Solitude (2010)

Lake solitude was a few hundred feet higher than where we camped and we could tell the snow was getting deeper the higher we went.  We arrived at a much different scene than we did 3 years ago.  A fog had set in and hid the small islands and surrounding mountains.

Katharine’s Return (September 19, 2013)


Three years earlier we had watched hungry trout rising, trying to eating anything that landed on the surface of the water, but we didn’t bring our rods.  This time we were prepared and spent the next hour catching several nice sized trout from the shore.  We did catch and release since we didn’t have the time to clean, cook and eat trout for lunch that day. It was nice to successfully make use of our fishing gear we lugged the whole way!




It was hard to pack up our gear and start the hike up the long switchbacks to Paintbrush Divide (10,720′), 1,700 feet above Lake Solitude, but time was passing and we had a lot of miles ahead of us.

You can just see a thin line (trail) climbing from left to right at a slight slope.

By the time we left Lake Solitude the clouds had cleared giving us spectacular views of the canyons below.

 Looking Toward Grand Teton

 Looking Northwest Toward Mink Lake

Being on the south facing canyon side with clear skies, the sun began melting the snow up to Lake Solitude.  We generated so much heat climbing the divide we stripped down to our t-shirts as we hiked through 6 inch deep snow.


Once we crested the ridge we were met by the brisk wind from the north and we bundled back up in our down jackets.  The view from the Paintbrush Divide is incredible since you can see down multiple canyons and lakes.



Mt Woodring

The drifts were deep on the northeast side of the divide, and we found ourselves post-holing sometimes past our knees.  The trail became hard to see at times and a couple rockslides had taken out part of the trail completely.  We bounded down the mountain like astronauts on the moon since the snow reduced the impact on our feet and we took exaggerated steps to clear the high snow.


The trail was pretty empty and we had hiked over the pass and down the steep switchbacks before we saw another person.  We did however see footprints in the snow which had turned back including some messages written in the snow exclaiming it was too cold to go any further.  We chuckled since we had been camping in the snow for the last 2 nights and were glad to be on the homestretch of our trip.  We found it to be quite the accomplishment to be the first people over the pass that day, and it was fun to trailblazer through fresh powder for miles and miles.


Snow would naturally roll down the mountain creating softball size snowballs

Soon we found ourselves in clear meadows with just a dusting of snow.


There was a slight overlook above Holly Lake, but being late afternoon and 4 more miles to go we raced on taking little photos or breaks.

Leigh Lake

Near the end of the trail, Katharine did spot a elk cow in the forest, and we could hear the bull bugling nearby, but we were tired and it was getting late, so we didn’t stay any longer to catch a glimpse of the bull in rut.

String Lake Trailhead (we don’t look too bad for living in the backcountry for 4 days!)

We finished by hiking around String Lake and back to our car at the trailhead where we had left it four days ago.  The 4 days, ~35 miles, freezing nights, rain, hail, snow, wind, and countless times we chose to continue when others didn’t made this one of the most memorable backpacking adventures we have ever had. Still, we’re thinking we’d like to do it again in mid August, hopefully when the flowers are blooming and there is less chance of snow!


Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 47
  • Nights in a tent: 25
  • Miles driven: 5189
  • Miles hiked: 163
  • Hours spent below freezing (32F): 28
  • Fish caught: 8
  • Photos taken: 8,457
  • Grizzly bears seen: 0


We’re back in Jackson Hole spending sometime exploring the valley with Katharine’s family.


Epic Trip Day 22-24: Olympic National Park (8/25-8/27)


After our 3 days in Rainier, we stayed in a hotel in Hoquiam, WA near the southwestern entrance of Olympic National Park. We were glad to have a shower and chance to reorganize our gear and packs for backpacking. Olympic National Park is pretty large spanning several different climate zones so we planned to visit the Hoh rainforest as a day hike, then backpack Shi Shi Beach in the far NW corner, then head into the mountains (Grand Valley) near Hurricane Ridge.

The rainforest was mossy and incredibly lush as expected.  The moss and other air plants covered the trees and ground.


There were many rows of trees with exposed roots due to a fallen tree which then became a nurse tree providing nutrients for the next generation of trees.


After our day hike we drove to Shi Shi beach trailhead.  The trailhead is located in the Makah Reservation and there isn’t any official overnight parking provided by the park service so you have to pay a family to park in their front yard.  The hike into Shi Shi beach is a muddy 2 mile long trail weaving through a dense forest.


The hike through the mud is slow and dirty, but once you emerge from the forest and onto the sandy beach the view is well worth the hike.


We took off our boots and cooled our feet off in the surf.



We enjoyed our last unimpeded sunset over the pacific ocean.

Once the stars came out we took some awesome star/sunset photos with our tent on the beach.  It was a coordinated effort with Katharine painting the inside of the tent with a headlamp while Nathan adjusted the camera settings.

24mm, f/4, ISO 400, 30 seconds [Click to enlarge and see the stars]

The next morning we hiked a mile down the beach to Point of Arches.  It was a long walk down the beach, and we started to doubt our secluded camping location but as we approached the Point and saw how many people were camping in the area, we decided the solitude was worth the long walk.  We spent an hour exploring the rocks and tide pools.


We then packed up camp, hiked 2 miles back through the mud and then drove inland to the Grand Valley trailhead to start our next backpack.  As we opened the doors to get our packs, it was quickly apparent that we were not at the beach anymore.  It was raining, windy and in the low 40’s. We had gotten a later start from Shi Shi and the drive took longer than we expected, so it was late in the afternoon and we still had about 5 miles of hiking to reach our campsite.  It started raining harder as we finalized organizing our packs and we realized that we were not really all that prepared for backpacking in the rain (mentally or gear-wise). Given that it was 42 degrees and quite late in the day, we decided it wasn’t the right situation to try rainy backpacking for the first time, so we instead drove down the mountain to a warmer and dryer car camping site.

The next day we did our intended backpacking trip as a 10 mile day hike.  When we started the hike the weather was still miserable and the treeless ridge line left us exposed in the cold wind.


After a couple miles we felt confident about our decision to forgo the backpack.  The gray clouds hiding the Olympic Mts and the lack of marmots and other animals made the valley seem a bit desolate and unfriendly even when we reached the lakes at the bottom.


We saw hundreds of marmot holes, many in the middle of the trail, but not one marmot! We did see a couple deer and this intriguing looking frog.


As we headed back up out of the valley, it had warmed up quite a bit, even allowing us to wear t-shirts. The hike back up felt tougher than we expected, but gave us a sense of accomplishment. As we reached the top and looked down at Badger Valley, we definitely saw the potential of the area and hoped we’d have another chance to see it in better weather conditions.





Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 24
  • Nights in a tent: 18
  • Miles driven: 3357
  • Miles hiked: 106
  • National Parks: 7
  • Nights camping in the rain: 2


We are currently enjoying the lush forests in Redwood National and State Parks in the far northern area of California. But here is a look back at our last days in Yosemite.

Day 5-7: Yosemite National Park, Backpacking (8/8-8/10)

The major highlight of our time in Yosemite was the three day backpacking trip we did from Cathedral Lakes to the valley floor via Clouds Rest and Half Dome. It was definitely a tough three days of hiking about 30 miles, and if we had been in better hiking shape, we probably would have enjoyed the last few miles a bit more, but it was absolutely worth it.

Our first day was a long 10 mile hike from Cathedral Lakes trailhead to Sunrise Lakes. We had a decent amount of elevation gain (2400′), but it was split up into various ups and downs, so it didn’t feel quite so bad.  We took our first break at Cathedral Lakes, which was a nice alpine lake, but the wind made it really cold, so we didn’t stay too long.


The trail passed through several beautiful meadows, and it was interesting to see how well-worn the trail was. We were traveling on an early section of the John Muir Trail, so it must see a lot of hiker traffic, but we were actually surprised how few people we saw all day. We realized the crowds of Yosemite don’t seem to venture much into the backcountry.



Finally, just before sunset we made it to our camp for the night at Sunrise Lakes. There were a couple other groups camping there and doing a little fishing, but we were so tired we just ate a quick dinner and pretty much collapsed.



The next morning we got a pretty early start and started the climb to Clouds Rest, one of the best viewpoints in Yosemite at 9,926 feet. The trail to the top wasn’t as hard as we expected because it was nicely switchbacked and not too steep, so we had some extra time to soak in the views and watch the chipmunks beg for food. We were also able to see Half Dome from the side where the cables go up, which made us only slightly more nervous for our climb the next day.