Backpacking Olympic National Park’s Rugged Wilderness Coast

The Olympic Coast

The Olympic Coast

Each summer, Jeff and a buddy embark on a backpacking trip in the western US. Each of these trips has been an adventure, and each one has traversed some spectacular backcountry — usually through a national park. But our backpacking trips along the Wilderness Coast of Washington’s Olympic National Park have perhaps been our most unique: most of the hike is along remote stretches of beach, and the remainder winds up and down the roadless headlands, offering dramatic views of the ocean below.

Tucked into the far northwest corner of the lower 48 US states, Olympic National Park is home to an extreme variety of landscapes: ocean beaches, temperate rainforest, snow-capped mountains, rivers, and lakes. After having to double back on our previous attempt to hike a remote stretch of the Wilderness Coast a few years ago, we returned to finish the job last summer, and we’re glad that we did.

Getting to the Wilderness Coast requires some determination, as it’s about a four-hour drive from Seattle and about six from Portland. We chose to make the Lost Resort at Ozette Lake our home base, staying in a rustic cabin the night before our hike, and eating a couple of meals at their cafe. It’s a stone’s throw from the Ozette Ranger Station, which was our eventual hiking destination.

We hired a shuttle to take us from the Ozette Ranger Station, where we parked our vehicle, to the Shi Shi Beach trailhead. Our friendly driver, John, was very knowledgeable about the area and shared some interesting local history. The parking lot at the trailhead offers pit toilets, and the trail wanders through coastal forest for about two miles before opening up onto a hilltop that sits about 200 feet (60 m) above Shi Shi Beach. A sandy trail zigzags down from the bluff to the beach. On our last visit, in 2010, the tidepools here were the most spectacular we’d seen — filled with sea stars and other creatures. In 2016, the sea stars were few and far between, further evidence of sea star wasting disease.

Sea Star comparison

Sea Star comparison

We explored the tidepools and had a picnic lunch on the beach before heading south along the beach toward our campsite. The park service requires a permit for camping on the beach, but there’s no limit on the number of permits issued. However, reservations are required for all backcountry camping south of Shi Shi.

Campsite on Shi Shi Beach

Campsite on Shi Shi Beach

For our “campsite,” we chose a spot on the sand well away from the surf, near the trees and a trickle of a creek just north of the Point of the Arches. A few pit toilets are hidden in the forest just above the beach; look for markers or ask neighboring campers for directions. Driftwood campfires are permitted, so we found an established fire ring and warmed up near the fire before calling it a night — a heavy mist was falling.

The stretch of beach between Shi Shi and Ozette requires rounding some headlands and fording some creeks at low tide. On our previous trip, we missed the tide and had to turn around. This time, we chose a campsite at the south end of Shi Shi Beach in order to get an early start around the Point of the Arches, the first of several stretches of trail that can only be traversed at low tide.

Despite foggy and soggy conditions, the hiking on Day Two was still great — traversing stretches of rocky beaches, watching Black Oystercatchers wandering across the rocks, and scaling the headlands with the help of NPS-provided ropes. The trail on the headlands wandered through rainforest, and the wet ferns and branches kept us pretty damp and glad that we had our waterproof backpack covers. In these slippery conditions, some of the rope ascents and descents were a little sporty, but they added to the adventure!

We made it to the point where, several years ago, we’d had to turn around due to the tide. This time, we arrived with plenty of time. We quickly learned that we’d made the right call to turn around, as the next stretch of the coast was an unmarked boulder scramble that required some route planning, scaling some boulders and sliding down some others, and crossing more slippery, algae-covered rocks. After about 30-40 minutes of scrambling, and realizing that the tide was starting to come in, I was convinced that we’d missed a trailhead that would’ve allowed us to bypass this sadistic stretch! (We hadn’t.)

Finally, we dropped from the boulders onto the algae-covered rocks and to the rocky beach. With the most difficult stretch of trail behind us, we were in good spirits — and the patches of blue sky poking through the interminable clouds didn’t hurt. We continued down the beach to Seafield Creek, where we camped in an established site that offered a rope to climb the bluff and access fresh water from the creek.

Day Three took us along the beach — no more headlands to clamber over — with only one more tide-related obstacle ahead: fording the Ozette River. The sandy beach near Seafield Creek quickly gave way to rocky beach, but the walking was relatively easy and it was easy to see that we were literally leaving the fog behind us and heading toward beautiful, cloudless blue sky. We came across a fantastic campsite on the north side of the river, and stopped for an early lunch while we waited for the tide to recede. A bald eagle, perched on a nearby tree, kept an eye on us while we ate.

Fording the Ozette River

Fording the Ozette River

Our concerns about fording the Ozette faded quickly, as it was pretty shallow. I tossed my boots across the river and forded it in my sandals; it was less than knee-deep. From here, there were no more tide worries all the way to Ozette Lake, although much of the hike took us across algae-covered rocks. I highly recommend using hiking poles — they saved me from slipping into the water more times than I can count.

Once we forded the Ozette River, we found ourselves encountering more and more people as we headed to Cape Alava. We’d seen only a handful of hikers and campers between the Point of the Arches and the Ozette River, but the parking lot at the Ozette Ranger Station is only three miles from Cape Alava, making it a popular hiking and camping spot for weekenders. Hiking from south to north, tides permitting, might be preferable for those looking to “escape” the crowds and wrap up their hike in relative solitude (although Shi Shi might seem equally busy on weekends).

We explored the beach, watched the sunset, and even were lucky enough to watch the Perseid meteor showers from the beach that night. Cape Alava has a dozen or so designated campsites just above the beach; although permits are required, sites are not assigned. Arrive early to get a choice of campsites. A nearby trickle of a creek provides a fresh water source, and there’s a pit toilet amidst the designated campsites.

Cape Alava trail

Cape Alava trail

Day Four consisted of a relatively short hike back through the forest to the Ozette Ranger Station. Much of the hike between Cape Alava and Ozette Lake was on a boardwalk, and a footbridge over the Ozette River marked the end of the trail — right at the parking lot, where our car awaited … and a hearty lunch and cold beer were just up the road at the Lost Resort!

We’re really glad that we finally finished what we’d set out to do a few years ago — the Wilderness Coast hike is definitely adventurous and unique. Although clouds, fog, and rain are the norm along the coast of the Olympic rainforest, with good weather, its scenery turns from impressive to spectacular. The solitude offered between Shi Shi Beach and the Ozette River is hard to come by on many national park hiking trails, and the difficulty of hiking that stretch certainly made the solitude understandable!

While it was a great adventure that I’m glad I did once, I can’t see returning to that stretch of the coast (the boulder scramble north of Seafield Creek is enough to deter me from a return visit). Still, the seals, Black Oystercatchers, Bald Eagle, sea stars, and other wildlife we saw, coupled with the rugged beauty of the coastline, made the trip well worth it.

What’s a hike you’ve done that left the crowds behind? Leave us a note in the comments. And enjoy your next backpacking adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

Backpacking Olympic National Park’s Spectacular Wilderness Coast

The Olympic Coast

The Olympic Coast

Each summer, Jeff and a buddy embark on a backpacking trip in the western US. Each of these trips has been an adventure, and each one has traversed some spectacular backcountry — usually through a national park. But our backpacking trip along the Wilderness Coast of Washington’s Olympic National Park was perhaps our most unique: most of the hike is along remote stretches of beach, and the remainder winds up and down the roadless headlands, offering dramatic views of the ocean below.

Tucked into the far northwest corner of the lower 48 US states, Olympic National Park is home to an extreme variety of landscapes: ocean beaches, temperate rainforest, snow-capped mountains, rivers, and lakes. Getting to the Wilderness Coast requires some determination, as it’s about a four-hour drive from Seattle. We chose to make the spartan Hobuck Beach Resort our home base, where the gals holed up in our friends’ RV while the guys headed out on their hiking adventure.

(Hobuck Beach itself turned out to be pretty amazing: Erin found hundreds of fully intact sand dollars washed up on the sand!)

Tidepool at Shi Shi Beach

Tidepool at Shi Shi Beach

The four of us drove to the Shi Shi Beach trailhead, where we paid a modest parking fee to the Makah Indian Reservation (the trailhead is situated on Makah land, just north of the NPS boundary). We set out on the trail, which wanders through coastal forest for about two miles before opening up onto a hilltop that sits about 200 feet (60 m) above Shi Shi Beach. A sandy trail zigzags down to the beach, which has some of the best tidepools we’ve ever seen!

We explored the tidepools for a while before the four of us had a picnic lunch on the beach. Then the ladies headed back up the trail to the car (and eventually to the cozy RV) while we headed south along the beach toward our campsite. The park service requires a permit for camping on the beach, but there’s no limit on the number of permits issued. However, reservations are required for all backcountry camping south of Shi Shi.

Camping ON Shi Shi Beach!

Camping ON Shi Shi Beach!

For our “campsite,” we chose a spot on the sand well away from the surf, near the trees and a meandering, freshwater creek. Driftwood campfires are permitted, so we found an established fire ring and warmed up near the fire before calling it a night.

Our plan was to hike south, camp two more nights, and then meet the gals at the north end of Ozette Lake on Day Four. However, the stretch of beach between Shi Shi and Ozette requires rounding some headlands and fording some creeks at low tide. We had a difficult time finding reliable tide tables for this remote stretch of the coast, and by extrapolating from the data we could find, we figured that if we rounded the second headland by 3:00 p.m., we’d be able to make it to our campsite at Seafield Creek on the second night.

We were wrong.

Despite foggy conditions, the hiking on Day Two was still great — traversing stretches of rocky beaches, watching Black Oystercatchers wandering across the rocks, and scaling the headlands with the help of NPS-provided ropes. We descended from the headland onto a steeply sloped, rocky beach just before 3:00 p.m. (apparently we’d been enjoying the scenery just a little too much). We started to round a blind point, but were having to scramble over rocks in the water as the tide was coming in. It was a little dicey since we couldn’t see around the point to tell if the beach was right there or if it was well inland. We could tell that the water was rising, and that the 10′ x  10′ swath of beach grass perched precariously at a 20° angle over our heads wouldn’t be a pleasant place to spend the night if we got stuck.

So we doubled back.

Getting back to the rocky beach we’d just left was also a bit dicey with the tide coming in, and it made us glad that we’d opted to play it safe. But … now we were off schedule, meaning that if we continued heading south in the morning (allowing for the low tide at both this blasted point and also at a stream crossing further south), we’d end up reaching Ozette Lake and our wives at least six hours late on Day Four of our trip. With no way to contact them, we knew that they’d have the Coast Guard out looking for us by then!

So we really doubled back.

We decided to spend Day Three hiking all the way back to Hobuck Beach, but that meant skirting the first headland after the tide had gone out. It also meant finding a place to camp on Day Two, as we were sandwiched in an area between two non-passable headlands with no designated campsites. The only flat piece of non-forested land we could find was atop a tiny tuft of an outcropping surrounded on three sides by 100′ dropoffs to the water below and connected to the headland by a wall-clinging trail. Unique but a bit unnerving!

Back to the starting point :(

Back to the starting point 😦

Day Three found us scrambling back down the ropes to the beach, waiting for the tide to go out to round the point back to Shi Shi Beach, and retracing our steps all the way to Hobuck Beach, where our wives were pretty surprised to see us! Still, this was a great adventure that we highly recommend and that we plan to finish this summer — leaving plenty of time for the tides!

Have you turned back from a big adventure in the name of safety? Leave us a note in the comments. And enjoy (all of) your next backpacking adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

Backpacking Mt. Rainier National Park’s Wonderland Trail

Mt. Rainier NP

Along Mt. Rainier National Park’s Wonderland Trail

Each summer, I head out on a backpacking adventure with a buddy, usually to a US national park. One of my favorite trips was along Mt. Rainier National Park’s Wonderland Trail in Washington. While some hikers opt to complete the 93-mile loop trail in one shot (in as few as five or as many as 15 days), we chose to explore a 30-mile stretch of the trail in the park’s northwest corner over four days.

Since the Wonderland Trail makes so many “best backpacking trail” lists, it can be difficult to secure a backcountry permit. We planned our trip well in advance and reserved our permits months before we hit the trail. The park begins accepting reservation requests on March 15th, and receives around 1,400 requests before they start processing them on April 1. Don’t panic if you didn’t plan ahead — Mt. Rainier sets aside about 30% of the permits for distribution on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of (or the day before) your hike.

Mt. Rainier NPWe set out from the Sunrise Visitor Center, where our wives parked the car and hiked in a ways with us before they looped back to Sunrise. Unfortunately, our first day was overcast with a light, misty rain. The views of the mountain from this area are probably spectacular, but our views were limited to the scree slopes and hillsides around us. Still, we had some dramatic views, especially back to the east. We also saw quite a few marmots playing amongst the rocks!

About 5.2 miles from the trailhead, we made our first campsite at Granite Creek. Sites here are fairly isolated from each other, tucked into a dense forest along a creek. The sites included posts for hanging our backpacks on, keeping them off of the ground (and, in turn, keeping critters out from them!). The sound of rushing water made up for the lack of a view from camp, and the blue sky the next morning made us eager to hit the trail!

Day two took us from Granite Creek to Mystic Lake. The 5.5-mile trail meandered through dense forest, but through the trees, it offered great views of Mt. Rainier to the south. A highlight of this stretch of the Wonderland Trail is the massive Winthrop Glacier. The trail skirts the terminus of the glacier and offers great, up-closer views of this canyon-carving wonder. From the glacier, the trail follows the West Fork of the White River to Mystic Camp, about 0.2 miles from picturesque Mystic Lake. Too shallow for a swim, the lake offered a great spot to soak our tired feet.

While we really enjoyed our first two days on the trail, the third day was spectacular — one of my favorite days of hiking, ever. The trail left Mystic Camp and wandered past meadow-lined lakes, through forests, and past an active ranger cabin with an amazing view of the mountain (where we stopped to watch rockslides high atop the mountain with the rangers and some fellow hikers). Sunbathing marmots greeted us in wildflower-filled meadows, the impressive Carbon Glacier sent a torrent of water down the mountain, a suspension bridge crossed the Carbon River, fantastic views of the mountain abounded, and several rushing waterfalls capped off an amazing day of hiking. And did I mention the wild mountain blueberries? Yum!

At Carbon River, the Spray Park Trail forks from the Wonderland. Rather than follow the river valleys to the north, we decided to head south and camp at Cataract Valley, about 6.5 miles from Mystic Camp. This campground was tucked into the forest, and offered not only a small creek for drinking water, but a “real” toilet (well, as real as they get in the backcountry … of the composting variety).

We left Cataract Valley camp the morning of our 6.5-mile day four and headed south-southwest into Spray Park. The Spray Park Trail eventually climbs above the timberline, but not before meandering through  beautiful wildflower- and waterfall-filled meadows. Eventually, the trail leaves the trees and meadows and traverses the scree slopes on its way to year-round snowfields! After descending from the snowfields, a short 0.1-mile spur trail heads over to aptly-named Spray Falls, where we met our lovely (and noticeably more hygenic) wives, who’d hiked the two miles in from the Mowich Lake parking lot, where we all had lunch before heading out.

The Wonderland Trail is famous for its up-and-down terrain, ever-changing views of Mt. Rainier, and wide variety of landscapes. This 30-mile stretch of the trail gave us tastes of each, and left us looking forward to a return trip to the park to explore another chunk of the trail!

What’s your favorite backpacking trail? Leave us a note in the comments below. Enjoy your next backpacking adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

Backpacking the Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Intrepid hikers ready to hit yet another trail! Our 11th backpacking trip together.

Every summer I venture out on a backpacking adventure, usually in a national park in the western US. This summer was no exception. My hiking buddy Marv has a great book that details some of the best backpacking trips in the world. One that has caught our eye for years is the Virgin River Narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park. This unique hike takes hikers 16 miles through the Virgin River valley and slot canyons known as the Narrows.

Since this is a one-way hike, transportation is required to get to the trailhead unless you can leave one car at the top and another at the bottom. We opted for a shuttle that dropped us off in the area known as Chamberlain’s Ranch. Although on private property, it’s the trailhead for the Virgin River Narrows hike. Complete with an outhouse (the last toilet you’ll see until returning to Zion Canyon at the end of the hike!). The trailhead is the starting point for both day hikers, doing all 16 miles in one day, and overnighters like us. The Park Service requires permits to camp overnight in the canyon. About half the permits are available  in advance and the others on a first come, first served walk-up basis. Permits are released a month at a time approximately three months in advance. We reserved ours in advance on the first day they became available. Judging from availability on the website, nearly all permits were snatched up within minutes of becoming available, so be sure to plan ahead.

Several outfitters provide shuttle service to the trailhead as well as gear to make your hike in the river easier. Dry bags, river shoes & socks, and hiking poles can be rented from a variety of outfitters in Springdale. We opted to wear our own hiking boots, carry our own hiking poles, and simply insert a rented drybag into our own backpacks to keep food, clothes, sleeping bags, and valuables dry.

Zion National Park

First crossing

Three shuttles converged on the trailhead at approximately 8:15 a.m. After queuing up for the outhouse and slathering on sunscreen, we hit the trail. The trail immediately fords the Virgin River, dunking your hiking boots and setting the tone for the rest of the hike. The trail starts out as a gravel road that meanders near the Virgin River in its somewhat wide meadow-filled valley.

This part of the trail is an easy stroll, passing a deserted historic cabin before catching up to the river again. Here, the trail ends, the road ends, and the hike truly enters the river. From here on out, the hike spends more time in the river than out of it. The National Park Service describes it as walking on slippery bowling balls, and we found this to be not too far from the truth, as my swollen ankles will attest.

By this point, the day hikers had left us behind, unburdened by heavy backpacks and needing to get the 12.5-hour hike underway so they could finish before dark. Note to day hikers: the shuttle driver asked each group of day hikers if they had a flashlight! Not a bad plan considering that the route was tricky at times and slow. However, I would not want to have to hike any of this in the dark, flashlight or no!

As the hike continues, the valley narrows and the canyon walls rise. With the day hikers well ahead of the overnighters, and few overnighters on the trail, there’s lots of solitude to be had, especially given the many twists and turns on the trail.  Occasional side canyons offer chances to explore and get out of the water, whether it be for a rest or a snack or a photo opportunity.

Zion National Park

Some log scrambling was required

Most spots on the trail require walking in ankle- or knee-deep water, but a few spots are waist- and even chest-deep. It’s possible to walk on the banks at times, but the few social trails that exist along the banks are quite rocky and uneven and often require boulder scrambles or scrambling over downed trees. I preferred staying in the water while my hiking partner preferred walking on the banks when possible.

At one point the canyon narrows and the river plunges over a 20 foot waterfall. Luckily, nature has provided a split in the rocks just to the left of the waterfall and a steep downward scramble connects the upper river valley with the lower. Unfortunately there’s no easy way to see the waterfall from below without getting into some deep water. We opted to continue on.

Zion National Park

Waterfall from the top

The backcountry ranger recommended not using the water from the upper Virgin River for drinking, as it passes through ranchland prior to entering the canyon. We filled up our water bottles at our hotel before taking the shuttle, and had plenty of water to get us through the day.

Below the waterfall, Deep Creek merges with the Virgin River. The backcountry ranger correctly said that water flowing from Deep Creek was much cleaner than water coming from the Virgin River, so we stopped there to fill up our water bottles before heading to our campsite. We used our Vapur microfilters to fill up our Nalgenes, Platypus, and Vapur anti-bottles in a white sandy spot between the two rivers.

Zion National Park

Our campsite on the bluff

Campsite number one is across the river from where Deep Creek merges into the river and is perhaps the nicest location of all the campsites we saw. The dozen or so campsites are spread out along the river, each one being about a 10 or 15 minute walk from the next. Staying at campsite number one would make the second day of the hike much longer. We had campsite number three, which was perched on a wooded bluff above a bend in the river.

Our campsite had a nice flat spot for a tent as well as some logs and rocks to sit on and use as tables. As for bathroom facilities, the Park Service requests that you pee in the river and use a wag bag for pooping, and they provide the bag along with your permit. While pooping in a bag may be a turn-off for some backpackers, considering how many poop holes would be dug within walking distance of your campsite over the course of the summer is perhaps more disgusting. In reality, the wag bags are a brilliant design. Complete with a drawstring bag, enzymes to break down the waste, a strong mylar design, a Ziploc-type seal, and its own carry bag, it’s a go-and-forget-about-it deal.

The second day of the hike took us through the most spectacular part of the Narrows. The canyon walls rose and rose hundreds of feet on either side of the river and narrowed so that there was no bank on either side for extended periods of time. The first landmark we passed was Big Spring, a beautiful set of waterfalls cascading down one side of the canyon and adding more water to the flow of the river. It was also the first point where we encountered day hikers coming up from Zion Canyon. From here, the river traffic really increased. We encountered groups of scouts, youth groups, and lots of day hikers coming up from Zion Canyon to explore the Narrows. While our solitude factor decreased, the scenery factor increased.

Zion National Park

Hoisting the pack for our deepest crossing

The point at which most day hikers stop to turn around and go back to Zion Canyon was a narrow point in the river which required us to take off our packs, hold them above our heads, and wade through nearly shoulder deep water. The Narrows continued to Orderville Canyon, a side canyon that is navigable in both directions, but requires some climbing skills over a dry waterfall. I had explored Orderville Canyon on previous day hikes up from Zion Canyon, so we opted to continue directly to the trailhead.

The canyon widens a bit as you near the Temple of Sinawava, and the number of day hikers increases exponentially. It’s still a fun, beautiful hike, and the swift current of the river offers several opportunities for jumping in for a swim or and or a quick float down parts of the river. Just before the trailhead is the Weeping Wall. A cascade of water trickles down a rock face covered with many bright green plants. Along the last stretch of the trail, many of the day hikers asked us about our overnight adventure — always a little bit of encouragement to get you to the end of the trail.

Zion National Park

A well-deserved reward at the end of the hike.

This was the most beautiful scenery of any of the backpacking trips I have done, and although it was only a two day hike, it was still very challenging. My ankles were definitely ready for a rest by the end! If you have a chance to do this hike, take it. It’s well deserving of that spot in the best backpacking trips in the world book.

Enjoy your next hiking adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend — and whatever well-deserved reward you earn at trail’s end!

Six Backcountry Drinking Water Options for Hiking, Camping, & Backpacking

Water, water everywhere…and not a drop to drink (without filtering!)

Water, water everywhere…

Every summer, I embark on at least one backpacking adventure. Hiking and camping in the backcountry for several nights means having to find water along the trail — and I’ve learned (and taught!) enough biology to know that a handful of water scooped up from a seemingly refreshing trailside stream has a pretty good chance of sporting some protozoa or bacteria that could make the rest of the hike pretty miserable. So, in the name of leaving the Imodium in the bottom of your pack, here are six options for making non-potable water potable while you’re on the trail, including my new favorite, the Vapur Microfilter!

1. Carry your own clean water. Day hikers routinely toss a water bottle or two into their packs and don’t think twice about water after that. It’s a great option if you’re doing a short out-and-back trail hike, but I’ve seen lots of thirsty hikers on lots of different trails. We’ve also been on plenty of day hikes where it would’ve been nice to have a bit more water than we brought along. And carrying enough water for multiple days — at 8 lb/gal (1 kg/L) — is out of the question for me.

Hiking Zion National Park's Virgin River Narrows

Hiking Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows

2. Boil the water you find along the trail. Boiling water effectively destroys protozoa, bacteria, and viruses, with the added bonus of separating out most sediment. But, it requires carrying a container to boil it in and either building a fire — not an option in many backcountry areas — or carrying a stove and fuel. While I’ve carried a stove & fuel on many backpacking adventures, the idea of collecting, boiling, and waiting for water to cool before drinking has never appealed to me.

3. Add disinfecting tablets to the water you’ve put in your bottles. Many backpackers use disinfecting tablets to purify water from streams, lakes, and rivers. The iodine-based tablets kill both protozoa and bacteria, and are one of the few ways to destroy viruses that may be present in water due to animal fecal waste. Still, I’ve shied away from these types of tablets due to their taste, opting instead for other options and seeking water sources with a low likelihood of containing animal fecal waste. Unfortunately, without any filtration, options #2 and #3 don’t remove any turbidity from the water before drinking it.

Pumping water in Kings Canyon National Park

My backpacking buddy Marv pumping water in Kings Canyon National Park

4. Use a pump-style filter with a hose to pull water right from the source. Filtering minimizes turbidity and cloudiness, along with removing protozoa and bacteria. A pump draws water directly from a freshwater source (stream, river, or lake), attaches directly to a water bottle, and filters the water before filling the bottle. The MSR pump I’ve carried for years advertises a 1 L/min pump rate, which in practice seems optimistic. It’s easy — and important — to clean the filter regularly, as a clogged filter really slows down the filtration rate. Until my most recent backpacking trip, this was my go-to filtration system, as it attached to my Nalgene-style water bottles and allowed me to carry as much filtered water as my shoulders would allow.

5. Use a suction-style filter to filter water as you drink it. Relatively new to the filtration game, a Vapur Microfilter combines the Vapur Anti-Bottle (a collapsible, reusable water bottle) with a straw-type filter. Simply fill the bottle with freshwater from any source and screw in the Microfilter. Suck the water through the filter and mouthpiece and you’re all set — no tablets, no pumping, no boiling, no carrying pounds of extra water. Its filtration efficiency exactly matches that of the MSR pump, and I find it very easy to use. I even use it as a pump to fill my Nalgene, Platypus, and additional Vapur Anti-Bottles — filling it with stream water and then squeezing the water out through the filter/straw/mouthpiece so that I can carry more filtered water without having to stop and refill.

6. Use ultraviolet radiation to purify the water in your bottles. UV radiation can destroy viruses and kill both protozoa and bacteria, and devices like the SteriPen Adventurer Opti can be placed directly into a water bottle to zap any undesirables (1 L of water per 90 seconds, reportedly). I haven’t tried this option, so I’m reserving judgment for now. Its upside appears to be virus removal and the flexibility to use it with a variety of containers, while its downside — along with options #2 and #3 — is its lack of filtration.

When it comes right down to it, how we backpackers treat our water is a matter of personal preference. Some opt for the most lightweight option (tablets), while others opt for the heavier options (boiling or carrying). Boiling, UV, and tablets are more effective at removing viruses, but don’t remove any particles like filters do. A combination of methods (filtration and UV, for example) may be the most prudent option, but since backpackers have been known to saw toothbrushes in half in the name of cutting weight, the extra weight involved in carrying two systems may be a dealbreaker.

For now, I’ll stick to using a suction-style filter such as the Vapur Microfilter. While it doesn’t remove viruses (just as my trusty pump filter didn’t — and I’ve never had any issues), its ease of use, light weight, and versatility (including the ability to use it to fill other containers) put it at the top of my list for my next backpacking adventure. After using it on a recent backpacking trip through the Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park, I can’t see myself carrying a pump-style filter again.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Are you a backpacker? Day hiker? How do you stay hydrated on the trail? Let us know in the comments, and enjoy some clean, refreshing water on your next travel adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

Disclosure: Vapur provided us with two Microfilters in exchange for this review. However, all opinions are our own.

Backpacking the US National Parks: 8 Great Parks for Backcountry Hiking

Backpacking Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

We’re on a quest to visit all 59 US national parks. (42 down, 17 to go.) We do have our favorites, but even the ones that we visited primarily to check off of our list have been pleasant surprises. With all of this national park travel  under our belts, we’re sometimes asked by national park neophytes: just what do you DO at a national park?

The great thing about our national parks is that there’s so much TO do! Snorkeling, hiking, swimming, skiing, birding, photography, bicycling, canoeing, wildlife watching, boat tours, camping, rafting, kayaking, fishing, rock climbing, horseback riding, and more. One of Jeff’s favorite things to do in our national parks is backpacking. Most US national parks are quite rural, containing wilderness areas far from the nearest road, and backpacking offers access to magnificent vistas that simply cannot be seen from a car.

In addition to some spectacular state parks and national forests, I’ve backpacked in these US national parks:

Lassen Volcanic NP

Lassen Volcanic NP

It’s impossible to choose a favorite from the list. Channel Islands and Olympic offered unique settings: the first atop an island with panoramic ocean views, the second walking in the sand on the beach. Grand Canyon offered perhaps the greatest sense of accomplishment: traversing the canyon from the North Rim to the South Rim. Sequoia, Lassen, and North Cascades offered alpine lakes and minimal crowds. Kings Canyon and Mt. Rainier offered mountain views and diverse topography. Each park has its own charms, but every one offers wilderness, solitude, and spectacular scenery.

I’m still contemplating where to backpack in 2015. The Appalachian Trail has been calling my name ever since I read Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, and part of that trail snakes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you have any suggestions for national parks with great backpacking trips or questions about trips I’ve done, leave a note in the comments, and enjoy your week or your weekend on the trail!

Backpacking the Mineral King Area of Sequoia National Park

Hiking in the Mineral King wilderness

Hiking in the Mineral King wilderness

This summer, my college roommate and I decided to embark on a backpacking adventure. He’s from Wisconsin and I’m from Oregon, so we decided on an area that was new to both of us. My requirement: available water. His requirement: mountains! After much deliberation, we decided on the gorgeous, high-altitude, alpine, lake-strewn, forested, and little-traveled Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park.

To say that the Mineral King area of Sequoia is off the beaten path would be an understatement. The Generals Highway section of the park, with its big trees, campgrounds, and tourist amenities, receives the bulk of Sequoia’s visitors. Visiting the Mineral King area is not for the faint-of-heart. The one-lane, dead-end unpaved road to Mineral King takes about 90 minutes to traverse despite its 25-mile length.

Dozens of rustic family-owned cabins, including several that predate the park itself, are nestled in the forest near the Mineral King Ranger Station. Providing a spot of civilization, along with cabins for rent, a pay phone, a small shop, and a restaurant famous for its delicious slices of pie, is the Silver City Mountain Resort. After registering for our hike at the ranger station, we spent the night in one of its rustic cabins so that we could hit the trail bright & early the next morning.

Franklin Lakes campsite

Franklin Lakes campsite

The trail begins where the road ends, at a parking lot in which marmots, according to the NPS, sometimes enjoy feasting on radiator hoses and car wiring. We parked, slung on our packs, and noted our elevation: about 7,700′ (2,350 m). We were immediately greeted by several mule deer that were grazing on tall trailside grasses. Our route took us through green valleys up to Franklin Lakes, at about 10,000′ (3,050 m). On a tip from a park ranger, we crossed the dam at the base of the lake and camped on the rocky slope just above it. The site offered a panoramic view of the mountains around us, and a great sunset view down the valley to the west.

Day 2 took us up over Franklin Pass, at 11,600′ (3,540 m). The saddle atop the pass had fantastic views in all directions, flat boulders perfect for a rest or lunch stop, and a boulder-secluded area that could be used as a shelter in a pinch. From the pass, the trail bounded rapidly downhill through scree and switchbacks, eventually flattening out along a branch of wooded Rattlesnake Creek. A swim in Forester Lake cooled us off before a last up and down section of trail took us to picturesque Little Claire Lake, where we camped for the night at 10,500′ (3,200 m).

Little Claire Lake in Sequoia's backcountry

Little Claire Lake in Sequoia’s backcountry

Little Claire Lake’s flat, gravelly shore extended for 100 yards into the trees, providing a fantastic tent site. A brisk evening wind whipped up some waves, but the lake was calm as glass the next morning. Day 3 took us down a series of switchbacks to Soda Creek. The trail followed Soda Creek to Lost Creek at 8,600′ (2,620 m), where we turned west and made camp in a great site complete with fire pit just above the creek. A handful of raindrops made us wonder about the next day’s weather atop Sawtooth Pass, but we awoke to some blue sky the next morning.

The plan for Day 4 was to hike past Columbine Lake, climb up and over Sawtooth Pass, and camp at Monarch Lakes. The trail along Lost Creek began as a gradual climb through the trees, and continued above the treeline in a beautiful wildflower-filled meadow. The trail continued to the base of the cirque, and then switchbacked up to rocky Columbine Lake, just below 11,000′ (3,350 m). By this time, clouds had rolled in from the east and the wind had picked up. The Park Service doesn’t maintain the trail above Columbine Lake, but a social trail continues up to Sawtooth Pass. Finding it from the shore of the lake was a bit tricky. Once we found it, it was at times boulder scramble or scree switchbacks and always steep.

Sketchy weather atop Sawtooth Pass

Sketchy weather atop Sawtooth Pass

We contemplated lunch with a view atop Sawtooth Pass at 11,700′ (3,560 m), but the weather had turned: wind, rain, and a bit of hail got us moving downhill quickly. To the south, Monarch Lakes were clearly visible although still several miles away. The official trail doesn’t begin again until Monarch Lakes, and social trails crisscross the scree descending from Sawtooth Pass. About a third of the way down, we managed to lose the trail, turning the next third of the trek into a boulder scramble. Luckily, Monarch Lakes (and the trail leading to them!) were always visible in the distance below. The weather cleared enough for a lunch stop amidst the rocks, and we caught up with the trail after a bit of off-trail adventure.

Once we reached Monarch Lakes at 10,400′ (3,170 m), the weather atop the pass still looked ominous. The campsites at Monarch Lakes are rocky and exposed (still well above treeline), and the prospect of spending the next 16 hours in a wet tent wasn’t too inviting, so we decided to continue hiking to the trailhead. Monarch Lakes are beautiful, with a waterfall cascading down from the upper lake to the lower lake aside the campsites. From Monarch Lakes, the trail cuts across a steep scree slope before beginning a long series of switchbacks across the wooded slope.

Of course, our decision to bypass camping at Monarch Lakes turned two five-mile days into one ten-mile day. Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted by the time we got off the trail. (No marmot damage to the rental car, though!) Cold beverages and a slice of pie at the Silver City Mountain Resort hit the spot, as did a pizza and a dip in the motel pool in nearby Three Rivers!

Getting off the trail a day early gave us the added bonus of being able to spend the next day in the “big trees” section of Sequoia — much of it in the car instead of on foot, but a lot of fun nonetheless. All in all, getting off the beaten path in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park was well worth it. We saw very few other hikers each day while enjoying spectacular mountain vistas and pristine alpine lakes.

What are your favorite off the beaten path backpacking hikes? Wherever they are, enjoy your next trail adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!

Thanks to Nick Meier for the inspiration for our trail route. His 2011 trek is described in detail on his blog.

Backpacking Channel Islands National Park

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Every summer, my buddy Marv and I lace up our hiking boots and head out on a four-day backpack trip, usually to a national park. In 2012, our tenth annual trip took us to Channel Islands National Park off of the southern California coast.

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Normally, our wives drop us off at the trailhead and meet us (with shower gear and clean clothes) at the trail’s end four days later, but considering that our chosen island, Santa Cruz, is about 25 miles offshore, we had to change our M.O. All four of us took an Island Packers boat out of Ventura Harbor, and the gals spent the day hiking with us before they headed back to the mainland.

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The campground was far from the backcountry campsites we’re used to — these were more of a cross between backcountry camping (carrying your gear in) and car camping (carrying a LOT of gear in – our neighbors had four coolers!). We were definitely the lightest packers in the 25-site campground, which was complete with a water tap (no need to pump water from a stream, which was a good thing considering that there were no streams on island!), animal-proof food storage boxes, copious shade from 100-year old eucalyptus trees, picnic tables, and bathrooms with pit toilets and hand sanitizer!

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We set up camp and had our traditional dinner of freeze-dried entrees (just add boiling water!). A game of chess (travel size) took until well after dark, when we took advantage of the amazing night sky for a peek at the Perseid meteor shower, which delivered a handful of bright shooting stars before we called it a night. The Milky Way was easy to see — hard to believe since we were only 50 miles or so from LA!

Backpacking on an island gave us the unique opportunity to use Scorpion campground as a base camp, which gave us two distinct advantages over traditional backpacking: not having to carry all of our 35 or so pounds of gear on our backs every day, and not having to break down camp every morning & set up camp every night.

On day two, this allowed us to sleep in a bit later than usual. After a breakfast of instant oatmeal, we hiked through the upper part of the campground, which was in a wider, less forested part of Scorpion Canyon.

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Knowing we wouldn’t have to set up camp tonight, we took our time and did some birding along the way, spotting flocks of house finches along with song sparrows, ravens, horned larks, kestrels, Hutton’s vireos, and the endemic island scrub jay, which lives only on Santa Cruz Island. The jay is larger and much brighter blue than its mainland relative. Our best “bird nerd” moment was getting buzzed by a startled barn owl!

Our hike continued up (a recurring theme) along a trail that was definitely NOT designed as a hiking trail. No switchbacks, lots of rocks, and steeeeeeep. After climbing above the valley, we figured out that the “trail” was actually an old road to an exploratory oil well!

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Atlantic Richfield used it to look for oil in 1966, drilled up only water, and left it to rust (during pre-national park days). We explored it, used it for a bit of much-needed shade (another recurring theme), and then followed the old farming road down to Smugglers Cove.

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Smugglers Cove, like Scorpion, was the site of an old ranch and offered lots of shade under almond and eucalyptus trees. Picnic tables on the beach offered a great snack & rest spot, and a small sandy section of the otherwise rocky beach provided a great place to take a cooling afternoon swim! The hike back up from Smugglers was hot but provided great ocean views (another recurring theme).

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It was awesome to come back to camp a bit later than normal and not have to do the usual backpackers’ routine of finding a flat spot for the tent, setting up the tent, pumping a few liters of water through a filter, and using rope to hang the food bag high in a tree. Instead, we busted out a flask and added some schnapps to our hot chocolate – extra weight we’d have left behind on a normal backpack trip!

The next day, our final hike took us to the highest point on the island – Montañon Peak, about 2000 feet above Scorpion.

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This was a steep, hot hike — absolutely no shade to be found — but we were rewarded with amazing Pacific Ocean views for nearly its entirety. Montañon Peak afforded a 360-degree view of the island and about 270-degrees of ocean view, including neighboring Anacapa Island and the distant California coastline.

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Throughout our stay, we saw the endemic island fox, a smaller version of its mainland cousins and squirrel-like in its behavior around the campsites. These cute opportunists poked around other campers’ open food storage boxes while the campers ate nearby and even left two dusty paw prints on the side of our tent one night!

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On our final morning, we took our time breaking down camp before walking a few minutes to the boat dock for the ride back to Ventura and civilization. En route, a group of common dolphins swam alongside the boat, and we spotted a sea lion in the open ocean.

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Reentering civilization (complete with ice in its beverages, noise, and higher standards of personal hygiene) after a few days in the wilderness is always an interesting adjustment. But a hug from Erin, a hot shower, a cold beer, and a good night’s sleep a few feet above ground always soften the blow.

Backpacking has given me the opportunity to see some of the most spectacular scenery America affords – and almost none of what I’ve seen can be seen from a road. That, coupled with the chance to spend some uninterrupted time with a good friend, increased self-reliance, solitude, wildlife sightings, and an occasional refreshing dip in an otherwise inaccessible beach or mountain lake make the trail dust and sore muscles more than worthwhile.

Enjoy your week or your weekend out on the trail!

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Happy Travels in 2018!

trip planning

Trip planning gone crazy (NOT a staged photo!)

Happy New Year! We’re looking forward to more travel adventures in 2018. Since we’re still plotting out our upcoming  summer trip to Asia, we thought we’d share a few of our travel planning strategies again. They apply not only to extended trips but to weeklong vacations and weekend getaways alike. Here are five tips that will help you nail down your itinerary once you’ve settled on a destination — and they just might lead to tweaking that destination a bit, too!

1. Decide on the things you definitely want to do during your trip. Once they’re decided, build your itinerary around them. We love snorkeling and birding, so we definitely built in time to do those activities. We really like to do day hikes, and love national parks, backpacking, and photography. Discovering some of an area’s cultural elements and connecting with locals is always fun, too. Other travellers may savor history, adventure, or local cuisine. Whatever your travel goals are, prioritize your favorite travel experiences when planning for travel to maximize your enjoyment. Traveling with kids? Involving them in the travel planning can really pay off.

Bali resort

It’s gorgeous, but do we need the ultra fancy resort?

2. Think about your budget. While it’s a bit tough to nail down a precise budget well in advance of a long trip, consider whether you want to go low-budget and spend as little as possible, perhaps in the name of extending your trip or saving for the next one; go middle of the road with a few splurges built into your budget; or, if the sky’s the limit, choose all of the destinations and activities you don’t want to miss. Creating a fairly specific travel budget as soon as possible allows you to begin saving for that next trip as soon as possible. And saving each month for an upcoming trip increases the likelihood of making all of the items on that itinerary possible!

3. Talk to other people who’ve traveled to where you’re going. If you’re lucky, people will just start giving you unsolicited advice (and please, leave some for us in the comments if you’ve been to Bali, Sumatra, Myanmar, Kuala Lumpur, or the Perhentian Islands!), but if not, seek people out. Someone you know probably knows someone who’s been there, and getting first-hand information from people who’ve been there can be really valuable. If nothing else, it will get you excited about your adventures!

SE Asia, travel planning

Travel guidebooks – not just for whetting your travel appetite

4. Read, read, read. Our trip to Asia is six months away, and our guidebooks are already getting dog-eared. We’ve been burning up the wi-fi doing online reading as well. We’ve read travel blogs, tourism websites, the US Department of State travel website (as well as their Canadian and Kiwi counterparts), the CDC website, and tour operators’ websites. Even if booking a tour is not in your travel future, ideas gleaned from tour operators’ published itineraries can be very helpful for planning independent travel!

5. Keep an open mind.  Before we started, we had a pretty firm plan of where we wanted to go in southeast Asia, but due to many, many factors, and after many, many hours of research and discussion, we’ve scrapped a bunch of that original plan in favor of some different destinations. And I’m totally fine with it. In fact, we’re excited about where we’re going, and we know we’re going to have amazing adventures!

Do you any travel planning trips to share? Leave us a note in the comments. And enjoy planning for your 2018 travel adventures, whether they’re for a week or a weekend!

Tips for Planning Your Next Travel Adventure

trip planning

Trip planning gone crazy (NOT a staged photo!)

We have been busy, busy, busy planning our summer 2018 trip to Asia, so we thought we’d share a few of our travel planning strategies this week. These strategies apply not only to extended trips but to weeklong vacations and weekend getaways alike. Here are five tips that will help you nail down your itinerary once you’ve settled on a destination — and they just might lead to tweaking that destination a bit, too!

1. Decide on the things you definitely want to do during your trip. Once they’re decided, build your itinerary around them. We love snorkeling and birding, so we definitely build in time to do those activities. We really like to do day hikes, and love national parks, backpacking, and photography. Discovering some of an area’s cultural elements and connecting with locals is always fun, too. Other travellers may savor history, adventure, or local cuisine. Whatever your travel goals are, prioritize your favorite travel experiences when planning for travel to maximize your enjoyment. Traveling with kids? Involving them in the travel planning can really pay off.

Bali resort

It’s gorgeous, but do we need the ultra fancy resort?

2. Think about your budget. While it’s a bit tough to nail down a precise budget well in advance of a long trip, consider whether you want to go low-budget and spend as little as possible, perhaps in the name of extending your trip or saving for the next one; go middle of the road with a few splurges built into your budget; or, if the sky’s the limit, choose all of the destinations and activities you don’t want to miss. Creating a fairly specific travel budget as soon as possible means starting to save for that next trip as soon as possible. And saving each month for an upcoming trip increases the likelihood of making all of the items on that itinerary possible!

3. Talk to other people who’ve traveled to where you’re going. If you’re lucky, people will just start giving you unsolicited advice (and please, leave some for us in the comments if you’ve been to Bali, Sumatra, Myanmar, Kuala Lampur, or the Perhentian Islands!), but if not, seek people out. Someone you know probably knows someone who’s been there, and getting first-hand information from people who’ve been there can be really valuable. If nothing else, it will get you excited about your adventures!

SE Asia, travel planning

Travel guidebooks – not just for whetting your travel appetite

4. Read, read, read. Our trip to Asia is a  year away, and our guidebooks are already getting dog-eared. We’ve been burning up the wi-fi doing online reading as well. We’ve read travel blogs, tourism websites, the US Department of State travel website (as well as their Canadian and Kiwi counterparts), the CDC website, and tour operators’ websites. Even if booking a tour is not in your travel future, ideas gleaned from tour operators’ published itineraries can be very helpful for planning independent travel!

5. Keep an open mind.  Before we started, I had a pretty firm plan of where I wanted to go in southeast Asia, but due to many, many factors, and after many, many hours of research and discussion, we’ve scrapped a bunch of that original plan in favor of some different destinations. And I’m totally fine with it. In fact, I’m excited about where we’re going, and I know we’re going to have amazing adventures!

Do you any travel planning trips to share? Leave us a note in the comments. And enjoy planning for your next travel adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!