John Muir Trail Solo Thru-Hike - September 2018

By Michelle Schroeder, President and Lead Backpacking Instructor at Backpack The Trails LLC

Peek through some JMT Favorites from Michelle’s September 2018 John Muir Trail thru-hike!

Even on day 18 of my 21-day hike along the John Muir Trail, I was never certain that I would finish my hike. Anything could happen, and it did.  I suddenly found myself in a tangled heap - poles, legs and backpack straps askew. Surrounded by breathtaking scenery, I assessed my new ankle injury as I lay in the middle of the trail, acutely aware of just how remote a place I was in. How would I get out if I had broken my ankle?

The John Muir Trail (JMT) is often recognized as one of the most beautiful trails in the world. The JMT runs along the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. It is stunning, whether you hike it in its entirety or just a segment. Its 211 miles traverse the high country between Yosemite National Park and Mt. Whitney. There are 11 passes and mountain lakes too numerous to mention. Not one road crosses the JMT, permits make for limited foot traffic, and there are ample resupply options.

The stunning view I was admiring when I tripped, landing in a heap.

The stunning view I was admiring when I tripped, landing in a heap.

Fortunately, I was able to finish out the remaining 3 days of my thru-hike, including a dreamlike summit of Mt. Whitney at sunrise, the highest point in the Lower 48.

Preparing to Hike the JMT

The JMT can be intimidating, as are most thru-hikes, and preparation is daunting. There is an extremely high demand for permits, with a 98% rejection rate. It is very confusing to decipher trailhead options and confidently establish an itinerary for 21 days in the wilderness. Some hikers will try to adhere to a solid itinerary, while others, like me, utilize the itinerary as a general guide. I like to go with the flow when interesting opportunities pop up.

While I found it comforting to pack trail-tested equipment, I also had to carve out time to research which solar and GPS devices to purchase, being versed in their use before hitting the trail. I also did not want to pay for a rental car for 21 days just to leave it at the starting trailhead, so I had to carefully pick my way through the byzantine transportation connections for both ends of the trail. Advanced reservations are advised and keep in mind that some options are very seasonal, so rigorously check schedules.

Because the trail is so long and rugged, I established exit plans ahead of time. Being out of state, this information is really hard to find. I made many calls to the Yosemite Backcountry Office for guidance and am grateful for the staff’s patience.

It took me 3 full days to pack and send resupplies, some of which needed to be sent 3 weeks in advance. I spent the full Summer season honing my physical preparedness and mental fortitude. For the rest, I had to put my faith in some good old guessing. It was impossible to fully know what to expect until I was actually doing it.  

Transit between San Francisco International airport to the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite, the traditional Northern terminus of the John Muir Trail.

New solar and battery pack, the Guthook navigation app, study materials and a rough itinerary

Common Sights Along the JMT

Resupply and Precious Comforts

Hikers can resupply roughly every 4 days, which makes hiking the trail manageable. Resupply locations are independently owned and each one offers different amenities, from a small grocery store to a full-service restaurant. Some offer a free lemonade to thru-hikers, while others offer free camping, paid showers and laundry.

I found out from others on the trail that the third resupply point, Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR), was featuring BBQ night. There are two ways to reach VVR, which is not technically located on the JMT. One option is to hike an additional 4.6 miles, the other is to take a ferry. I liked the idea of riding a ferry across mountain-rimmed Edison Lake. The view was stunning from the middle of the area’s largest lake.

A packed pontoon ferry ride to Vermillion Valley Resort for a well-needed shower, fresh laundry and homemade food

Inevitably, everyone sends more in their resupply than needed.  The legendary “Hiker Boxes” are packed with free items intentionally left behind for other hikers to claim.  Take a quick glance through to see if you can score gourmet chocolate or Baby Bel cheese, or even simply for edification on how the hard-core backpackers go about creating their own vacuum-sealed recipes.  

It’s worth mentioning that Pacific Crest Trail hikers also use these resupply locations, since the JMT and PCT intersect for 160 miles. It becomes quickly apparent combing through the Hiker Boxes that a person can go really deep into the sport, simply by looking at what people leave behind and how they prepared for their own trip. 

Tuolumne Meadows, in Yosemite National Park, has a seasonal (and colorful) post office, general store and popular restaurant. It's the only post office in the U.S. open on Labor Day.

I took every opportunity to resupply. The trail is much more doable and enjoyable, if a person resupplies every 4 or 5 days.

Hikers often leave behind excess resupply provisions and it may be worthwhile to quickly comb through the hiker boxes.

Above, the resupply at the Tuolumne Meadows Post Office - a happy hiker found Baby Bel cheese!

Below, the backpacker resupply at Muir Trail Ranch, a resort accessible only by horseback or on foot. Accommodations and a chef-driven restaurant are provided to paying guests only, with a 2-night minimum stay.

 Staying Clean (sort of) On Trail By Swimming A Lot ~ Thankfully, I Love to Swim!

I always know that I will get a better night of sleep if I can rinse off the day’s sweat.  With actual showers only every four or five days, swimming helped a lot to rinse off some of the grit and itchiness.  September and elevation mean frigid lakes and streams filled with the prior winter’s runoff.  I tried to ignore my body’s instinctual cold response when jumping into the icy water. I knew that my hyperventilating would finally pass after about 30 seconds or so and I would try to wait it out past that threshold. That’s when I can actually enjoy being in the water.

It is best to just jump in, rather than to go slowly.  No one can truly coax themselves into thinking that this is a good idea.  Every swim requires mental commitment as well as some level of deep denial, with a clear end goal in sight and a solid belief that you will feel better afterward.  Several people saw me swim and were inspired to do so themselves, incorporating it as part of their trip going forward.  Swimming is one of my favorite aspects of backpacking and I always feel like a million bucks after a quick daily dip.

Nothing quite like a bracing swim in ice water to make a person feel really clean, even if they're not.

This pristine water is around 34F. Very cold and very refreshing. But I swam more than 10 times on trail to try to rinse of some sweat and dirt.

My Favorite Stretch of Trail?

I was surprisingly unprepared the first time someone asked me which stretch of trail was my favorite. They would guess, “Evolution Valley?” “Silver Pass, right?” “I bet it’s Guitar Lake! or Rae Lakes!”

The trail is so beautiful and wildly varied that I found it impossible to choose just one stretch of trail. It felt like an injustice to the rest of the trail’s exquisite beauty.

I quickly realized that the stretches of trail I enjoyed most were sparkly bodies of crystal-clear water, found along the entire length of trail. Whether it was the wind caressing the top of a lake intermittently at just the right angle, or a cascading river catching the light just so, I found the shimmering water the most deeply compelling spaces on the trail.

JMT Basics:

  • 211 miles of endless scenery

  • No roads cross the JMT

  • Includes 11 high passes with sweeping views

  • Bear-proof food canisters are required

  • July-September is the typical season

  • Most of the JMT is above 8,000 feet

  • The southern third of the JMT is above 10,000 feet

  • North to South provides easier acclimatization to elevation

  • The complete traditional trail is Happy Isles (out of Yosemite N.P.) to Mt. Whitney’s summit

  • Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet, is the highest point in the Lower 48 States

  • Half Dome requires a separate permit (but I suggest Cloud’s Rest instead - see below)

  • The trail crosses Yosemite N.P., Ansel Adams Wilderness, John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park, and Sequoia National Park

  • The cat-hole method is mandatory as is hauling out all toilet paper

  • A Wag Bag (portable, plastic-bag toilet for #2) is mandatory between Crabtree Ranger Station and Whitney Portal and must be carried out

Half Dome was the scariest part of the entire trail and I flat-out discourage summiting it, for a variety of reasons, safety being the first. Clouds Rest, see below, is a better alternative to Half Dome.

Me, in my failed glory shot, getting down to crawl. Too much vertigo.

Me, in my failed glory shot, getting down to crawl. Too much vertigo.

Stan and I had to dig deep while descending terrifying Half Dome, which I will never do it again.

Clouds Rest is a much better alternative, with an additional 1,000 feet of elevation and uninterrupted views in all directions. Even Half Dome looks small from here. Clouds Rest draws fewer people, it does not require a special permit, and there are no horrific cables to climb.

Clouds Rest, photo used with permission by Fima Gelman, who waited 3 days to finally capture the right light

Clouds Rest, photo used with permission by Fima Gelman, who waited 3 days to finally capture the right light

September 14th became what I now call The Weirdest Day

The JMT is also an equestrian trail, but it is very rare to actually see any riders.  Much to my delight, my hike that day started with my second—and final—packhorse train, consisting of two young women and five horses for hauling clients in the day before.  I am always inspired when I see other women on trail and I wished that I had been courageous enough at their age to venture into the wilderness like that.   

Packhorse guides heading out in the morning after bringing in clients the previous day

But things turned scary after that bright start. Twenty minutes later, a young couple hiking toward me had to cut their trip short. She was holding her broken wrist all wrapped up in a first-aid splint.  I felt really sorry for them as they made their way to exit the nearby Bishop Pass trail.

Another twenty minutes in, a backpacker heading my way erupted around a tight corner, things clearly seriously wrong.  He was wearing his regular backpack, carrying a clear Bear Vault under one arm and a big daypack with his free hand.  That’s not how people do wilderness backpacking.

His friend’s backpack had been nabbed by a bear in the middle of the night, because of the scented items he had left in his pack.  These were the two clients hauled in the previous day by the packhorses.  A few minutes later, his friend appeared, carrying two folding lawn chairs. Again, not how people do wilderness backpacking. Those two guys were very flustered.

A little further along, I came across the abandoned campsite where they had left behind their water filter and second Bear Vault, clothes hanging up on a post, with a freshly-prepared Mountain House meal sitting on the ground, sealed, with a spork nearby.  Their vacation had been ruined. I hoped that these two would calm down and realize that they would still need to be safe about getting off the trail. They had a hefty distance ahead of themselves, especially without proper backpacks, and would spend at least one more night in the wilderness before getting out. They needed to grab essentials, like the water filter, leaving the lawn chairs behind instead.

A half-hour later, not even 10 am, I met two hikers heading northbound and told them about my strange morning.  Other than the pack train, everyone I met so far was having a serious issue. I was stunned when one of these guys replied that they had their own issue as well, having “lost their third person,” and were en route to the Bishop Ranger Station to file a missing-person report. 

None of them carried methods for outside communication, so they could not locate one another in the backcountry after splitting up the previous day.  I recorded all of their names, a physical description of the missing friend, what he was wearing, pack color, and contact info.

Fortunately, Rangers found their friend intact the next day and he had chosen to continue on with his own trip after failing to meet up with his friends, saying that this was their original Plan B, if they lost one another on trail.

Fortunately, these two eventually made contact with the friend that they had lost on trail (the friend was fine). There is always a risk to splitting up on trail, especially with no means to communicate.

Heavy, dark clouds had been swirling around all morning, which was unusual for that time of day. Clouds usually gather over the passes in the afternoon. Experienced hikers stage their campsites so that they can get up and over the passes early in the day before any potential storms hit.

Things continued to feel very ominous.  I was really hoping that I was just having a backpacking nightmare and would wake up shortly.  

About 15 minutes later, I hesitated when I saw 9 hikers headed my way, wondering which strange issue they might be having, considering everyone else I’d met on trail that morning.  Alas, that group had things under control, and everyone was enjoying a really fine trip.  My day took a 180-degree turn from that point on, ending with a fabulous evening at Upper Palisade Lake.

Late afternoon approach between Lower and Upper Palisade Lakes

Late afternoon approach between Lower and Upper Palisade Lakes

 My JMT Family

I am generally pretty social on trail and it would be incredibly difficult for anyone to truly “solo” the JMT.  After about 3 days, I got my trail legs, and bonded with other social hikers. At one point, the group expanded to 10 people and Aayla, a sweet Australian Shepherd.  Some JMT family members were paired up, but most were solo hikers, four of whom were women.  Some would hike ahead and others might take a more leisurely day or two, often rolling into camp later that evening or the next. 

Chris became my most steadfast trail friend, and dinner was usually at Chris’s house or mine.  He is the most generous and thoughtful person I have ever met.  

Chris tried his hand for the first time ever at fly fishing, doubling his hiking pole as a fishing pole. Thanks to his boundless energy and big heart, he shared all of his fresh rainbow trout.  I certainly didn’t imagine I would be eating fresh rainbow trout on the JMT, let alone four times.  True trail magic. 

Chris slept without his rainfly at Reds Meadow Resort, where we stopped for resupply. He woke up to a damp sleeping bag from dew. This is his new sleeping bag drying method.

Aayla, the adorable Australian Shepherd, was the star of our JMT family, carrying her own little pack. Before I started my trip, I didn’t expect to see many people on the trail, but my JMT family was vast: Chris, the best Trail Angel anyone could ever have; Stan, the Medical Resident, who struggled just as much as I did descending Half Dome; sweet couple Darci and Steve, who helped me rescue 6 unprepared hikers in the dark; Uliy, a fellow solo hiker and fellow Farkle player; Sarah, the fitness instructor who went on after the JMT to fulfill a life-goal of working as a ghoul for a haunted house, and then segued to being a fitness instructor on a cruise ship in Hawaii; super-fit and elegant Sarka from the Czech Republic with whom I woke at 12:45 am to summit Mt. Whitney at sunrise; Gregg, the Pulmonary Physician, and his pal Gedeon, the retired architect; ambitious Rich and Megan, both Optometrists from Madison, who did the trail in 11 days; Nutrition and Health Coach Danielle, who generously gave me 1/4th of her hanky at the beginning of my trip (thank you, Danielle!); crazy Robert, who dove into icy water headfirst; the Paul-Randy-Paul trio; Mike, the Clinical Psychologist who headed off cross-country into the wilderness; and Caiti, Aayla’s mom and a Wrangler, to name a few.

Met my new campsite neighbors at the Half Dome summit earlier in the day and was later recruited to play a Farkle dice game at Little Yosemite Valley campground my first night on trail.

Mike was heading off-trail at this point to continue his trek cross-country. Clearly familiar with the area, he shared where we could find the 3 lakes named after John Muir's daughters (Wanda, Helen and Martha) as Chris and I approached Muir Pass.

Chris is one of the most-skilled backpackers I've ever met, with a rule that everything in his pack should serve two purposes. Here he uses an emergency blanket as the footprint for his tent. Never one to miss an opportunity to play a joke, he crouches into "Rescue Mode."

News travels quickly on trail.  We always knew where the members of our JMT family could be found or where they were intending to camp, whether they were struggling and needed help, or when we would gather at resupply locations. 

We got football scores from hikers heading the opposite way.  And we all knew that the random howl off in the distance during daylight was actually Chris trying to locate us, and that his appearance was imminent.  We would howl in response so that he would know he was close. 

At one stop, with five of us and a dog howling back to Chris as loud as we could, we unwittingly startled another backpacker heading toward us whose view was obscured by the rocky terrain.  He said we sounded pretty legitimate and it gave him pause. I suppose it helped having a dog in the group howling along with us. The relatability of his honest fear was perhaps the funniest moment on the entire trail.

We always knew Chris would find us with his trademark howl. “Awooooooooooooo!”

Soloing and Its Advantages

Soloing is the by far the most flexible way to backpack.  A person can opt in to a variety of different plans.  Or not.  Everyone has his or her own style.  I generally like hiking alone during the day, because I like snapping photos and devoting all of my attention to my surroundings, stopping to take it all in whenever I wish.  But I truly relish the social aspect of camp in the evenings and adore everyone eating dinner together surrounded by various cooking contraptions and food.  Evenings are also a great time to learn different tips and tricks from other backpackers, as technology continues to evolve and improve the outdoor gear world.  Plus, backpackers are creative, often crafting interesting recipes as a solid reward at day’s end.

 After crossing Muir Pass, Chris decided to hang back in the afternoon to wait for Sarah, disheartened after having left her battery pack at VVR.  Ever-helpful Chris was lending his charging device to her and needed to retrieve it to charge his own GPS device.  

A short while later as I hiked along, I noticed someone hanging out of the infamous JMT Rock Monster’s mouth and knew that had I found even more kindred spirits.  Megan and Rich, ambitious optometrists from Madison and my newest trail friends, had slated to finish the trail in 11 days and were falling behind. Megan said she was in tears the previous night from the physical duress and feelings of potential failure.   

Megan being consumed by the infamous Rock Monster

Megan being consumed by the infamous Rock Monster

The following day, I caught up with them again just above The Golden Staircase, having a snack.  Moments later, Chris came cruising through with his shirt off and hat flapping in the wind, and joined us.  I was hoping those three would have an opportunity to meet and, as I suspected, it was an instant connection.  

Mather Pass was within view and Megan and Rich wanted to cross it that evening, but the menacing clouds hugging Mather Pass, backed by an icy wind, reminded us all of how small we are and that it’s more important to make smart decisions in the wilderness. I promised them during dinner at my house that evening that if we turned in early, would could get up at 4:30 am and cover both Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass the next day. 

We started hiking in the dark, arriving at Mather Pass right as the sun rose, bathing us in lusciously warm sunlight.  Megan and Rich were back on track, blasting ahead after crossing Pinchot Pass later that day.  They were able to finish their trip in the originally-planned 11 days.  I hope to see them on trail again someday.

Mather Pass and Glen Pass are both very narrow, knife’s-edge passes, and remarkably beautiful. Fun to share the former with Megan and Rich.

Windiest morning so far - Upper Basin just after crossing Mather Pass

Worries About Soloing?

As a 51-year old female soloing, was I ever scared on trail?  I was apprehensive when my San Francisco flight flew over the Sierra Nevada, knowing that my future would be swallowed by that vast wilderness for the coming weeks. 

Flying over the Sierra Nevada was quite humbling, knowing that I would be testing my backpacking skills harder than ever before.

The most common fear-inducing topic of conversation is about mountain lions, and there are plenty of visible warnings about not hiking alone, especially at night.  Whenever I was hiking alone, I often looked behind myself to ensure I was not being stalked.  When I hiked in the dark, I would pan my headlamp around occasionally to search for glowing eyes.  

I intentionally tested my mettle a few nights and camped away from the group after eating dinner together.  I was never afraid of anyone else on the trail, only potential animal encounters, which is why I always make sure to include all scented items in my bear-proof canister.  Injuries or getting lost were also a minor concern, which is why I carried a SPOT Gen3 beacon locator, in case I needed to trigger an evacuation or a search and rescue. 

Wildfire was perhaps my biggest concern.  We all saw heartbreaking footage of the tragic California wildfires this past Summer and Fall.  My trip dovetailed in between all of them, but the potential for wildfire was never far from my mind.  It was so excruciatingly dry that if felt like if I looked at anything for too long, it would instantly combust.  During the entire 21-day trip, I experienced only one hour of light rain culminating in small hail.  

Coming out Kearsarge Pass for a resupply, we noticed several firemen rushing down the end of the trail to their firetruck, assessing a fire that had popped up about 15 miles north of where we had just been the day before.  That was a chilling moment.

Typical Trail Vibes

In contrast to any fear about soloing the JMT, the trail is actually covered with love.  I met a young couple and their dog when I hiked out Kearsarge Pass for my final resupply.  The next morning, as I headed back up to the JMT, we crossed paths again and she immediately held up the back of her left hand, excitedly showing me her new diamond. He had proposed to her (and she accepted) at beautiful Heart Lake.  Another couple was celebrating their 1-year anniversary, and yet another couple was 2 days into their honeymoon.  Friends were bringing in resupplies for them as their wedding gift!

I, too, fell in love every day, with both the profound wilderness and the beautiful people I was so privileged to meet.  I saw all sorts of crazy stuff out there. SanDiegoMitch (on Instagram), a Type 1 diabetic, ran the entire JMT in 4 days and 15 hours! Likely a record-breaking diabetic JMTer.

A couple of guys hiked together in Jesus sandals, another in a kilt was planning to take his mother to the John Muir Trail in Scotland, and one couple was crafting fabulous memories for their child, while yet another guy brought his favorite lawn chair. I met three amazing California women who spend almost every day playing outside, as well as a grubby solo PCTer who had already seen three mountain lions on his journey. I fully realize my rare fortune and will never be able to recreate this experience as long as I live.  

A beautiful morning crossing paths with an extended family of hikers just after my Reds Meadow Resort resupply

Wildlife

Wild animals crashed through the woods at the edge of my campsite at Upper Palisade Lake just as I was preparing to set out on my hike. At first, I couldn’t tell what it was. Soon, out popped a lovely doe and her two adorable fawns, pausing a moment to make sure I was not a threat. Nice way to start Day 3!

The happiest Marmot I saw on the entire JMT cruising Guitar Lake at the end of my trip. It was using its animated tail like a rudder.

As one would expect in an alpine environment, I saw a few Marmots throughout my trip, but the happiest one I saw was at the very end, cruising around Guitar Lake searching for something to eat. I never knew that Marmots could use their tails so rigorously.

The JMT’s Magic

Class-Act Strider, quintessential Trail Angel and a former runway model, greets guests at Mt. Williamson Motel, the final resupply point before the JMT's Southern terminus. This is truly full-service hospitality. They wash your clothing, lending out clean clothes and flip-flops in the interim, and the private rooms are very tidy with welcome air conditioning to ward off the hot desert heat. Strider generously gifts female backpackers with Swarovski crystal necklaces that she makes as an amulet of safety. She also advocates for environmental preservation, especially on the JMT.


As I stood in the desert heat after checking in to the beloved Mt. Williamson Motel in the one-restaurant town of Independence, the final and most far-flung, but entirely worthwhile, resupply on the entire JMT, I looked Westward at the looming Sierra Nevada. I realized that I will never see a mountain range the same way ever again.  

Yes, my heart was beating in my chest, but I could feel that my heart was actually living up there in those mountains.  I was elated to know that I had four more days to spend on the JMT!

Christmas at Mt. Williamson Motel - as posted on their FB page

Christmas at Mt. Williamson Motel - as posted on their FB page

Check out our upcoming trips offered this hiking season.  If those dates do not work for you, we have flexibility and can create additional trips to accommodate your schedule.  Please check us out, and feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.  

~Happy Trails

First-Time Backpacking Trip - Superior Hiking Trail - July 13-15, 2018

Wondering what to expect on a Beginner Backpacking Trip?  Our July 13-15, 2018 trip recap is a perfect example of what a new backpacker might anticipate, especially when the weather and bugs cooperate as well as they did on this trip.

Happy Camper Sarah on Wildflower Hill with a sweeping Lake Superior backdrop.

Happy Camper Sarah on Wildflower Hill with a sweeping Lake Superior backdrop.

Sarah wanted to refresh her backpacking skills.  Inspired by her now-adult children, both of whom possess significant outdoor skills, she decided to brush off the dust and set herself up for future trips with family. It quickly became very clear that Sarah is an incredibly strong, fit woman, easing back into the sport of backpacking as though her prior trip was yesterday, rather than many years ago.  

Ubiquitous Canada Dwarf-Dogwood

Ubiquitous Canada Dwarf-Dogwood

Our trip meet-up was at Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais, where we did a final backpack and gear-list shakedown.  Sarah remembered all of the personal items that were designated as her responsibility on the packing list.  We provided the rest of the items for her, including backpack, tent and sleeping bag, as well as other key essentials.   She had to supplement her pack with only additional insect repellant and two pocket maps.

Sarah - Trip Launch.jpg

Sarah - Ready to go!

Trip Launch

I have a tradition of grabbing a photo of clients once they are fully suited up, wearing their pack with poles in hand and the car locked, the moment we leave civilization behind.  It’s a pretty sweet moment, as you can tell by Sarah's expression.  The very next step is literally onto the trail, commencing the trip into days of wilderness and our own tenacity.

Crossing the beautiful Kadunce River after only 20 minutes on trail.

Crossing the beautiful Kadunce River after only 20 minutes on trail.

Our trip started at the beautiful Kadunce River, just north of Grand Marais, which quickly transitions into the Kadunce Canyon, a shallow canyon, beautiful at all times of year.  Be sure to take advantage of the various non-official overlooks as you make your way along the spur trail to the main Superior Hiking Trail.  

The first day, we covered 6.2 miles through deep forest, crossing beautiful Crow Creek and stunning Kimball Creek, which has one of my favorite sites on the entire trail.  The trail then follows the western ridge of Kimball Creek for over a mile, its cascading waters serenely coaxing us through the forest.   We took another snack break at lovely Cliff Creek and, having seen only one other backpacker the entire day, we finally landed at Durfee Creek campsite, having the small wooded site all to ourselves.  While surrounded by verdant wilderness, the site also renders a challenging, muddy, downhill hike each time we needed to retrieve water – our hiking poles definitely came in handy.  The small swimming holes (more aptly called sitting holes, rather than swimming holes) at Durfee Creek were so refreshing after a hot, humid day hauling a pack through the woods.  

We each pitched our solo tents and were able to sleep without using a rainfly.  All through the night, we had a lovely breeze in the treetops keeping us company, with hundreds of bright stars piercing the crystal-clear black sky – absolutely breathtaking.

Popular W Devil Track River - Gorgeous weather meant no rainfly over our tents and millions of stars above.

Popular W Devil Track River - Gorgeous weather meant no rainfly over our tents and millions of stars above.

We were incredibly fortunate on this trip, with very few insects.  And, thankfully, the fickle North Shore weather did not deviate from the stellar forecast.   It is always cold along the shoreline, but the Superior Hiking Trail is back far enough from the lake effect that we had temperatures in the low 80s with high humidity, a quintessential Summer weekend.  This meant lots of invigorating swimming in gorgeous cascading rivers that transect Northern Minnesota's ancient Sawtooth Mountains (yes, we have mountains; they are just really old, so the peaks have worn down after millennia).  

When it’s hot like it was, and you know the weather will hold, it’s advisable to find ways to help your body cool off, one of the best of which is to get your hair wet as well as your quick-dry shirt and hat, and to do so every time you reach a water source. Make sure to drink plenty of water with electrolytes so that you replace your critical body salts, too.  It is a great reset and boosts your energy, giving your body a break from having to work so hard.

Sarah - selfies with wet hair to manage the heat.jpg

Wet hair to manage hot days

If it's hot and you know that the weather will hold, get your hair wet at every creek crossing to help relieve stress on you body

~Wildflower Hill

The second day, we covered around 5.5 miles to the coveted West Devil Track River campsite.  Once we reached the site, we met two adorable Australian Sheepherder Dogs who, like most trail dogs, carry their own little packs. They had all stopped for a quick swim so, much to our surprise, we ended up having the large group campsite to ourselves, even on a Saturday night!  

Look who we ran into at the W. Devil Track River campsite on the Superior Hiking Trail: CUTE Australian Sheepherders who loved carrying their own packs.

We arrived early in the afternoon on Saturday, so we had time to luxuriously explore the Devil Track River and its myriad waterfalls, finding a couple of perfect swimming holes and napping spots.

Wait for it! A perfect Summer afternoon with a perfect napping spot.

En route to this campsite, we traversed Wildflower Hill and its sweeping views of Lake Superior.  In Spring, Wildflower Hill is blanketed with every Minnesota wildflower imaginable, as the landscape gently slopes toward Lake Superior.  

Backpacking along Woods Creek's Eastern flank, we could hear its rushing waters for a full mile before we crossed it.  Almost immediately, we then found ourselves paralleling Devil Track Canyon, the deepest natural canyon in Minnesota, a popular attraction for day-hikers.  This section also crosses County Road 58 and the nearby public parking lot makes it easy to explore one of Minnesota’s intriguing natural attractions.

The well-established section of trail winds along the eastern edge of Devil Track Canyon hundreds of feet above Devil Track River, through stunning Red Pine groves where we stopped for lunch under dappled sunlight while listening to the breeze through the tops of the pines and the river below.  We enjoyed bison embedded with cranberries and a little bit of spice, aged gouda, 4 different types of crackers and dried peas, a very satisfying lunch.

Lunch! Aged Gouda, bison with cranberries, crackers, and dried peas. For dinner, we enjoyed Thai Curry.

Lunch! Aged Gouda, bison with cranberries, crackers, and dried peas. For dinner, we enjoyed Thai Curry.

Back at the West Devil Track River campsite, I was charmed by some of the comments memorialized by other backpackers in the 3-ring spiral notebook tucked into one of the rare trail boxes peppered along the Superior Hiking Trail.  The last comment logged was also my favorite comment, “Is this the Sierras?” (Thank you, Dillon!)  Sarah had also commented that evening as we ate our dinner on the bridge with our feet swinging high over the river, “I am amazed at how much beauty is here as well as the extent of the wilderness.  And it’s so accessible.”  We were again able to sleep through the night without using a rainfly under soothing, star-filled skies.

Sunday morning, Sarah indulged in an early swim at 6:30 am, just as she had vowed to do the night before. We opted for a quick coffee and Cliff Bar for breakfast, skipping the more time-consuming, filling oatmeal.  We covered a short 3.5 miles our final day, dropping our packs briefly at the spur trail to Pincushion Mountain to take in the unbelievable views. 

Be forewarned that the trail gets a little confusing at this point, as it braids with cross-country and mountain biking trails, criss-crossing every so often.  Look for the infamous Superior Hiking Trail blue blazes on the trees after crossing each intersection to ensure you are heading the right direction. Our goal was the Pincushion Mountain parking lot, high above Grand Marais, where we had parked Sarah’s vehicle.  

We took one last gigantic view of Lake Superior, surrounded by wild daisies and one woman harvesting June Berries.   That parking lot is a popular nexus for nature-lovers seeking a variety of outdoor activities.  Inevitably, I always notice the other backpackers also wrapping up, just as we were, as well as the fresh backpackers launching the start of their own trips.  With so many backpackers, it’s enough to give anyone backpacking fever.

Plan to spend some time exploring Grand Marais, which in 2017 was designated “Best Midwestern Small Town” by the StarTribune.  A favorite stop in this charming, bustling town sprinkled with many independently-owned, tasty restaurants, is The World’s Best Donuts.  And don’t let the plain cake donut fool you.  Everything there is tasty and civilized, both in size and price.  My absolute favorite restaurant in town, though, is The Angry Trout Café, especially for a healthy, well-balanced celebratory meal after a weekend on trail.  Its large windows seem to land right on top of the water and afford rare views of the beautiful harbor, sometimes with otters at play mere feet away.

This is so charming! Thank you for a great trip, Sarah!

Would you like to learn how to backpack, too?  We have more First-Time Backpacking trips available this hiking season.  If those dates do not work for you, we have flexibility and can create additional trips to accommodate your schedule.  Please check us out, and feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.  

~Happy Trails

Isle Royale - June 12-17

Isle Royale is truly spectacular! Friend, well-seasoned backpacker and Grand Canyon guide, Eddie Quinn, and I scouted the island for trips to offer in 2019.  Read more for a description of our memorable trip, but first, check out the moose dunking for food.  Can you see both moose?

Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, between Minnesota and Michigan.  It is a rugged 45 miles long and 9 miles wide.  Logistics and a list of available amenities can be confusing or hard to determine beforehand.  All 36 campsites are accessible only by watercraft or on foot.  Some also have screened-in shelters, which are a sight for sore eyes when it starts to rain.  To get to and from the island, there are ferries and floatplanes from both Michigan and Minnesota. 

We had a tremendous bird’s-eye view over stunning Lake Superior and lovely Isle Royale from the windows of our tiny amphibious Cessna floatplane out of Minnesota through Isle Royale Seaplanes, flying over retired lighthouses and historic shipwrecks, visible from the air.  Once we landed at 9:30 am, we got our permit at the Ranger Station and bought cooking fuel at the Windigo General Store, and immediately started our 5-day traverse of the island, logging 54 stunning miles of wilderness.

The start to our beautiful Isle Royale trail scouting trip!

Backpackers also need to check in at the Ranger Stations at the start of a trip for permits, to log an itinerary and to cover leave-no-trace basics.  Based on Eddie’s and my experience, we were encouraged by both our pilot and the ranger to opt for the toughest and more remote trail, the Minong Ridge Trail. 

On our first night, after almost 13 miles through flower-filled wetlands and forest, and on sketchy trails over tremendously long beaver dams, the payoff was worth it:  We had the entire North Lake Desor campsite (3 tent pads) to ourselves, but only after we saw our first moose (there are 1,500 moose on the Island).  As many as 10 Loons called as we arrived, continuing that haunting call throughout the night.

Day 2 of the Minong Ridge, we spent most of the 12.5 miles that day on open ridgeline with absolutely breathtaking views of Canada, especially Pie Island and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park as they majestically rose above the cold blue water of Lake Superior.  This overgrown section of trail is known for being difficult to find.  Look for the rock cairns on the ridgeline!

We dropped our packs at the spur trail for Little Todd where we ate lunch on the campsite’s small Lake Superior beach, eventually returning to our packs and continuing our hike to Todd Harbor where we saw our first shelter, which was already occupied.  It was a gorgeous night and we were happy to tent it.  The small path from our secluded campsite lead out to the beach where we swam, ate dinner and enjoyed a beautiful sunset.  We had the incredible fortune earlier that day to see the rare and lovely Ram's Head Lady's Slipper orchid.  

Swam every day, even in cold Lake Superior. McCargoe Cove was very refreshing!

Yes, I said we swam.  In Lake Superior and Lake Desor.  Each evening as we reached camp, we swam to rinse off the sweat, which always makes for a better night of sleep.  The sleeping bag feels better, the merino wool feels better.  Not being covered in itchy, dried sweat just feels better.  But swimming in Lake Superior is no joke.  It is COLD!  But so refreshing!  And bring a swim suit (I forgot mine).

New friends at McCargoe Cove sharing trail stories about moose cruising through camp.

The next two days were shorter, 8.3 miles to McCargoe Cove and 8.4 to Moskey Basin, where we managed to score shelters with fabulous views.  McCargoe Cove was a really social campsite where we met a lot of new friends from around the country with fun stories of their prior annual trips to Isle Royale.  The site was also laden with wildlife:  One person dubbed it a turtle maternity ward (the Painted Turtles were laying eggs all over the rock shelf jutting into the Cove), and at dusk we saw a moose swim across the Cove and a beaver quietly paddling along.  Eddie and I backtracked earlier that afternoon to investigate the Minong Mine and learn more about the island's mining history (highly recommend!).

We had a rainy morning en route to Moskey Basin, and passing along the shores of Chickenbone Lake, we saw two bull moose.  The highlight of the trip for me was the completely submerged moose nearest us (see top video above!).  His head would surface unfazed, with water running off his giant antlers, while he chewed what he had just pulled up from the bottom, and then he would go back under for more!

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Moskey Basin Sunset

  View from Shelter 8

Our new friends from McCargoe Cove recommended shelter 8 at Moskey Basin.  It was perfect.  Being a shorter day, we had time to relax and observe our surroundings.  Shelter 8 is at the end of the line of the shelters and overlooks a secluded section of the basin that reminded me of Wild Kingdom, with so much beautiful waterfowl flying in and out of and over that end of the basin, and Sandhill Cranes calling in the distance.

Our last day was another long one, covering 12 miles.  We left Moskey and at Daisy Farm, headed up to the fire tower at Mt. Ojibwe, getting caught in some thunder on the Greenstone Ridge to Mt. Franklin.  The rain stopped just long enough for us to have lunch and take in the spectacular view.  

Our last day on trail was hot and sunny, then stormy after the breathtaking fire tower views, turning into a bitingly cold, foggy evening. Pack for ALL weather!

We opted to approach Rock Harbor via the Tobin Harbor Trail, which is notably easier than walking along the rocky beach of the Rock Harbor Trail.  The last half of the day, we were enveloped by bone-chilling, dense fog.  We were thrilled when backpackers heading toward us mentioned that we would soon have access to hot showers at Rock Harbor!  Given the weather, all of the camping shelters at Rock Harbor were occupied, and rightfully so.  We were the only backpackers sleeping in a tent that evening, but our high-quality gear kept us warm and dry.  

Rock Harbor has a lot of amenities that, other than at Windigo, do not exist on the rest of the island:  Rock Harbor has a gift store, another Ranger Station, a rustic lodge, a cute restaurant and the many docks are filled with myriad watercraft, including the passenger ferries to and from Michigan and Minnesota.  Did I already say that it also has hot showers?  Both "towns" on the Island have a seaplane landing dock.

We were fogged in the morning of our return flight from Rock Harbor, but Pilot Tomas heroically extricated us later that afternoon.  Halfway back to Minnesota, Tomas chose to turn back to Windigo to wait out a storm as it made its way across Grand Marais.  So, we took off twice that day!   

From start to finish, we met great people on our trip.  On our 4-seat, outbound flight, in addition to our remarkable pilot Tomas, we met two teachers from remote Alaska, one of whom had always wanted to experience Isle Royale.  He brought his girlfriend for her first backpacking trip ever and she loved it.  On our return flight, our co-passengers were a friendly disabled vet and his sweet, furry, charming service dog, Copper, a beautiful, lovable Golden Retriever.

Some of our fellow passengers!

What a place!!  **Look for upcoming trips on our site soon**