Who pooped in the van?
Never ever is that a question you want to have to ask.
I parked at the last picnic spot above the lake, layered up, and hopped out. And then immediately jumped back in. Definitely gonna need my vest out there!
I hopped out for attempt #2. Better.
And oh golly were the hounds excited!
For a long time New Mexico was simply a state I had to pass through going to and from Minnesota/Arizona. It did not impress me. Sure, there were a few nice views from I-40 on the western side of the state, but nothing that really called to me to explore. I’d also experienced some pretty freaky weather cruising across the state: sudden snow, torrential rains and wind, and the thickest fog I’ve ever driven through. Oye. This latest trip through, however, changed the vibe for me.
At our last gas station stop in Arizona I opened Google Maps and scanned New Mexico for traces of green within an inch of I-40 (meaning park or forest areas where we wouldn’t have to detour too far off our route). All sorts of options showed up.
Bluewater State Park was the winner. It was a 10-15 minute drive off the freeway and totally worth it. The place was empty -- understandably considering it was below freezing and there were those previously mentioned torrential winds blazing across the landscape. But I owed the hounds a solid bout of exploring.
Despite the cold, the place was beautiful. Deep green pines, red-tinged dirt, and a wind-blown, ice-rimmed lake. Skittering down the rocky hill brought us to a sandy beach. Not exactly the best weather for a romantic beach walk, but it worked for us.
Right before we left a band of wild horses meandered out of the trees across the way (the tiny black dots at the far side of the lake). Magical. Once they spotted us, I took that as our cue to head back up to the car. No sense in disturbing their peaceful vibes with a couple of manic hounds wanting get a sniff up close and personal.
Valley of the Gods was beckoning. The red desert. The open sky. A call I cannot resist.
I made plans. Rearranged them. Then altered them once more. There is always a detour somewhere, so I knew these plans were in no way solidified.
I used to get thrown off by changes and alterations, but at some point, after finding myself exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmed for the umpteenth time, I learned to let it go. Embrace it. Run with it. Use it as a launching point for the next moment of adventure. I was, after all, out and about with my hounds, which is ultimately my end goal in every situation.
Thus I found myself on the road a day ahead of schedule, making my way north to VOTG
After six hours and one million dog hairs floating around my car, we arrived. Seventeen miles of dusty red dirt. Camping pull-offs every half-mile or so. The valley was our oyster.
The red dirt greeted us with a dusty coating. The sun welcomed our faces with warm, outstretched rays. The hounds immediately took to sniffing out the best spots...to pee. Everyone has their own priorities, I guess.
Our home base was tucked away down a side road -- a dirt road off another dirt road. There wasn’t much traffic on the main road, but this gave us an extra layer of privacy and seclusion. Keeps the hounds at a medium level of overexcitement.
Herc likes to gets huffy and puffy when other folks pass by: Hey! Hey you! Who are you?! What are you doing so close my mom? Why are you somewhere close enough that I can see you?! Move along! Scram! Skedaddle! Aroooo!
Cool Whip, on the other hand, just wants to know if they brought snacks to share: Hellooo! I see you are a human. Humans have snacks. What snacks do you have to share with me?! Hey, you get back here and give me your snacks!!
I set up camp facing my favorite group of monuments. A perfect view from the tent and the big rock I intended to use as the kitchen area. With evening fast approaching, we spent the last bits of daylight exploring our road and the local ravine.
The subtle hustle and bustle of the valley dropped to almost imperceptible hum. The breeze slowed. No other vehicles passed by. Essentially all I could hear when listening hard with the blood rushing through my ears. I imagined everyone else in the area was in a similar situation: silently staring up into the sparkling night sky. Heaven.
As dawn began sprawling across the land, the hounds started rustling about in the mess of blankets and sleeping pads. The usual start to our morning routines. I layered on everything I can find and we bustled out into the brisk morning air. Our breath puffs floated around us. Herc snorted about, checking for any traces of midnight visitors. Cool Whip sought out the closest bathroom bush, knowing that breakfast preparations start as soon as all potty pit-stops are complete.
Coffee is delicious. Coffee in the outdoors is a little extra delicious. Coffee in the outdoors on a crisp morning is the most delicious. The coffee that morning did not disappoint. In a classic Kris-type move, I had stopped at REI less than 24 hours before departure to gather the remaining “necessities.” This particular cache contained a new drip filter for my morning brew. Easy, lightweight, and small -- win!
Filled with adventure fuel, we set out to explore. We roamed and rambled. Stopping anywhere that called to us.
And that became our routine: Adventure and explore, soak it all in, refuel, adventure and explore more.
Hiking a trail with a specific route and checkpoints to reach has its appeal for sure. There is a definite point of completion and success. But there is something equally enticing about having the freedom to roam. Success is obtained by simply being there.
By the time we arrived at the Shadow Lake campsites I was hungry and tired. Add in lacking signage for tent sites and bear hangs (which we later realized was due to the direction we arrived from), and water that required boiling for consumption…I was grumpy as heck.
Thankfully for my adventure companions, I just needed a little food to calm me down. But that didn’t solve our minor annoyance with having to boil water. Horribly rough lives we lead out in the woods (insert overly exaggerated eye roll). With no easy access to the lake or streams from the campsites, we were left with the spigot available for backpackers (a sign indicated boiling before consumption).
The guys went exploring around the Shadow Lake cabins nearby. We couldn’t imagine they boiled all of the water needed for guests – there had to be another way to access drinking water. Luckily a friendly employee clued the guys in on a drinking water spigot along the side of one of the cabins. Woo! A nice bonus to help us set out on the right foot in the morning.
Back at Egypt Lake we had chatted with Sam, a solo hiker taking the same route we were following. He left Egypt Lake camp in the morning before our group got rolling, but it was nice to connect with him again at the Shadow Lake camp. He fit in well with our crew, sharing ridiculous stories over dinner and around the "campfire". (No fires allowed, but we still wound up sitting in a circle as though there was one!)
We set out as a group on Day 3, climbing up and out of the woods. At 7,500 feet we reached Gibson Pass. A solid hike pleasantly rewarded by stunning views (as if there is any other sort of view out there?!).
The downward trek from Gibson Pass was dotted with three groups hiking up – two on foot and one on horseback. We connected with the horse crew right as we came upon a large fallen tree blocking the path. It would have been quite tricky but doable for us to shimmy over. The horses, on the other hand, seemed stuck…until one of the men hopped off his horse and appeared at the tree with a saw. Ha! Perfectly prepared!
Another highlight from the passing groups was receiving a suggestion for stopping at Upper Twin Lake. “Right before you cross the bridge, take a small path to the left along the shoreline. You’ll wind up in a perfect location for lunch.”
And perfect it was. We settled in for a couple hours of relaxation. Sam decided he was going to finish his hike out to the road that afternoon. He'd gotten somewhat serious cut on his hand and he was ready for a real shower -- understandable. We said our goodbyes and then we set out for camp shortly after.
As it turned out, Lower Twin Lake was equally as perfect as Upper. It had just one slight advantage: it was our campsite for our final night!
TW7 was easily THE best camp of our trip. Tent sites set back in the trees. A dining area snuggled up to the shoreline. And this view...oh what a place of wonder!
We soaked up every last ounce of sun and wild we could experience.
After a quick pack-up of campsites, we meandered along the short hike to Egypt Lake for breakfast with a view. The water was pristinely calm, showcasing a flawless reflection of the mountains surrounding the lake. And what glorious mountains they were! The peace and calm offered a meditation of sorts, a chance to shake off the prior day and start anew.
It was going to be a 10-mile day. After leaving Egypt Lake, the trail almost immediately started going uphill. The ascent of Day 2 was more of a stair climb compared to the gradual ramp up of Day 1. I was partial to the stairs, the definite motion of going up. It gave me a straightforward sense of accomplishment.
Creeping down the rockpile, however, felt like an eternity! Testing the larger rocks for stability and trying to not slide on smaller crumbles and sand – it was a slow and steady journey to the base. After focusing so intently on my small steps down, I didn’t take in the magnitude of this rockpile. Not until I reached the base and turned around. Eyes went wide; mouth opened in awe. This is what I was out here to see.
Leaving the rocks, the trail took us back down into the the trees toward Haiduk Lake. Two-thirds of the way in we saw our first sign of bears: several piles of bear scat along the trail. I tried to reassure myself by noting that none of the piles was ultra fresh, but I still caught myself looking behind me more than I care to admit.
Bears were instantly forgotten though the moment the view opened up to the glacial waterfalls filling Haiduk.
In our awe-induced stupor, we lost track of the trail and opted to follow the lakeshore until we were back on track. Two steps into the chest-high brush was the exact moment we remembered the bear scat. Singing and overly vocalized chatter immediately commenced.
As we tumbled out onto the trail our singing abruptly ended at the sight of seemingly fresh bear tracks in the mud. Excitement. Awe. Wariness.
"Wow, fresh tracks!" "Whoa, look at the size of that print!" "It may be heading away from us, but we should probably still skedaddle on out of here..."
From Haiduk, the trail took us into a mossy floored pine forest and eventually followed along the river leading to Shadow Lake. Along the way we passed the Ball Pass Junction Campsite, which was still closed due to the fires. It had a bit of an eerie feel to it, and whether that was due to the knowledge of it being closed, or because it was seeming out in the middle of nowhere, I'm not sure. I just know I was quite pleased to leave it behind us and I made a mental note to skip that site if I return to this trail again.
Shadow Lake almost felt like a false summit to me. Only in that I was exhausted, hungry, and ready to ditch my pack for the evening. As much as I wanted to sit on the bridge admiring the view for more than a short break, I was definitely antsy to reach camp. One more mile to go...
We rolled up to Sunshine Village and I was filled with antsy enthusiasm. The type that makes you continually feel like you're about to pee your pants. Even after you just peed twice to make sure you really didn't have to pee. Am I nervous? Am I excited? Do I really just need to pee??
All of the other hikers pulling up seemed to be taking the shuttle bus up to the top of the gondola. I started to second guess our plans to start our hike directly from the parking lot.
Two of us wandered up to the ticket desk for a local opinion of our plans.
Them: "We highly recommend taking the shuttle up."
I felt like I had to pee again.
Us: "Okay, we'll hike up."
Flashback to the two weeks leading up to our trip when I felt like my life was going to hell:
Cool Whip had surgery to remove skin cancer tumors and wasn't healing well. My car (our road trip vehicle!) was in the shop and they couldn't get it to run. Our backpacking route was closed due to the wildfires. Add in that I'm not a people person (I'll choose my dogs over humans any day) but I was about to spend a week with four people who I sort of knew but who didn't know each other…it all sounded like torture!
I confided to my mom that I didn't want to go.
Mom: But Banff is your happy place!!
Me: I know, but everything is just hitting so hard all at once!
Mom: Go. Or you'll always regret it.
So of course I went, cuz moms are always right.
And of course we did indeed choose to start our hike directly from the parking lot. Because that's the type of group we were becoming. Go big or go home. And obviously none of us had decided to stay home.
The hike was tough for us, not gonna lie. Not difficult like it was tricky footing or scrambling across rockslides, but some folks were new to backpacking, and some were new to the elevation (not even counting the elevation we were gaining during the hike). We started later than planned, and no matter how close we seemed to be getting to the top, it always seemed to be just over the next crest, just out of reach. It felt like a long day.
By the time we rolled into the Egypt Lake Campground, we were beat.
But we had made it.
We roamed through the campsites looking for three that were positioned near each other for our little caravan and dropped our packs as fast as we could shake them off.
As we sat by the river, refilling our hydration packs before dinner, we finally had a chance to sit back to take it all in -- the calm but epic beauty surrounding us.
Last year the hounds and I catapulted into camping and hiking with a trip to Banff National Park, Canada.
I was instantly obsessed with all of the above and knew I couldn't stay away.
Despite preferring the company of my dogs over humans, my desire to explore more of Banff -- especially the backcountry where dogs are not encouraged to go -- prompted me plan a group backpacking trip.
I started reading about this hike and that hike and those other hikes. Then what about this one or that one? Oh wait, here's another one! Wowza, options galore!
And yet, I kept coming back to Egypt Lake. I felt like I had to include that area in our wanderings. After reviewing a few route variations, I went with a point-to-point option from Sunshine Village to the Vista Lake Trailhead.
Plans: Park Car A at Vista Lake Trailhead. Drive Car B and the crew to Sunshine Village. Hike up Healy Pass to Egypt Lake Campground (E13) for Night 1. Hike Whistling Pass to Shadow Lake Campground (Re14) for Night 2. Hike Gibson Pass to Twin Lakes Campground (Tw7) for Night 3. Hike out to Car A the next morning and pick up Car B.
Backcountry permits and campsite reservations are mandatory for overnights in the Banff National Park backcountry. Sites are available for reservation up to three months in advance, and the park posts a vacancy report that is updated every few days -- which is extra awesome for last-minute plans!
A backcountry site in Banff is enough room for one 3- or 4-person backpacking tent. I don't know the exact dimensions, but I do know one site can perfectly fit a 2-person Big Agnes backpacking tent and a 1-person Big Agnes backpacking tent.
At the end of June I called the listed number and left a message with our requested sites, dates, and quantity of people. Within a day they called back to confirm details and collect the fees. Easy-peasy!
My spare bedroom soon became a disaster zone as I laid out gear to assess options and gaps. No matter how much gear I have, I always seem to need (want!) something new for each trip. Anyone else like that?!
I made a list. I checked it twice. I went online to order a few items...and got sucked into the black hole that is the internet. Aside from purchasing more than I needed, I saw that the Verdant Creek Wildfire was spreading and had caused restrictions and closures in the Egypt Lake area! Eek!
Hold on Kristen, calm down, the trip is a month away -- it should be under control by then.
One week passed.
Three...no restrictions lifted.
The weekend before our trip I gave in to the realization that Egypt Lake would have to wait. Somewhat deflated, I called the backcountry reservation office Saturday morning to alter our plans. Of course they called back while I was in the shower! I left another message that afternoon and waited for the call back on Sunday morning.
Sunday morning arrived and suddenly Egypt Lake was back open!! Wahoo!! Ten minutes after I saw the announcement, Banff Backcountry Reservations called me back! Ha! The gal confirmed we were safe to proceed with our plans! !!!So!!Many!!Exclamation!!Points!!!
I’d categorize Utah is my freshy fresh 2017 love interest (the Supes are my local love and Canada is my big love). Utah caught my eye sometime late last year and has been on my mind ever since. It is the area of the map I’ve been searching as I make plans for new adventures.
There are wonderful national parks in the state, but I’ve found that national parks only seem to have one or two relatively short trails that dogs are allowed to hike. National forests, on the other hand are prime time adventure dog real estate! For this trip my eyes were on Dixie National Forest in the southeast corner of the state – Whipple Trail in the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, to be exact.
There is something to be said for planning ahead…we’ll just get that statement out of the way right now.
A week before we rolled out is when I decided we’d be rolling out. The plan was to leave work early on Friday to drive the 7 hours to the Pine Valley Recreation Area where the Whipple Trailhead is located. We’d camp at a designated campsite and start hiking right away Saturday morning, sleep in Whipple Valley, hike down Sunday afternoon to spend the night at the campsite again, and then head home early Monday morning.
Not a bad plan for a regular weekend, but a horrible one plan for Memorial Day weekend when everyone and their uncle’s cat decides to go camping and you’re trying to stay at a first-come-first-served campsite and work gets busy so you can’t leave until Saturday morning.
We still had a grand adventure!
We arrived in Pine Valley around 2:30pm. As expected, no campsite available. Luckily you can park for free at the trailheads if you’re just hiking for the day or doing overnights on the trails.
A three-person family was gearing up as I pulled into a parking spot. We compared notes on what we knew about the trail – rangers had yet to clear it, downed trees across the trail, potential snow at higher elevation on north facing areas.
The weather was warm and the elevation hit me a little harder than expected, but it was a beautiful hike with spectacular views and just enough shade to even out the warmth. The hounds were on their best behavior – or maybe the elevation was hitting them a bit as well. ;)
There was no water on the trail until we hit a few streams halfway up, which is also where we ran into our second human encounter. A couple was setting up camp and reported that they’d only gone halfway up the remainder of the trail before they turned back because it was harder than the first portion. Suuuuper!
I kept on trekking, taking breaks often, thinking about how easy it would be to turn back or just set up camp at any of the other sites we came upon after that point. We reach the first pocket of snow tucked up under some pines. Then a patch, closer to the trail. Another blob covering half the trail. Just as we came upon the next set of campers, snow covered the remainder of the trail as it headed from the summit area of the trail down to where the trail spilled out into the valley.
We hopped and slid down to the green space ahead – I stared in awe as we stepped from the trees into the grassy valley that opened up ahead. Green grass, little spring flowers, a stream down the center. There was still snow tucked away in the shadows of the tree line, rumpled up dirt where the snow pack had moved along, and water simply flowing out of the ground from the thawing process.
We located a narrow portion of the stream to cross and set up camp across the way. I could see two other campsites when we explored a bit more and saw the family of three arrive a short time later. We wound down with a beautiful sunset and retired for the evening.
The houndy hounds were a bit chilly at night (it dropped down below 40) because someone forgot their winter jackets – no names mentioned – okay it was me!! <insert multiple crying emojis> I covered them in every extra piece of clothing or fabric I had, but I was still thankful for the morning sunrays that were a toasty piece of heaven.
We explored the valley for a while before making our way back down the trail. Greeted by a dead car battery, I was grateful for friendly hikers willing to give me a jump and for my dad for making me carry jumper cables in my car at all times because the other hikers didn't have any. If you take anything away from this post, take that -- always carry jumper cables in your car!!
Even with a few detours to the original plans I'd cooked up at the last minute, I loved every second of our adventure and can’t wait to get back to Utah for another one.
Now that we've established I'm a weenie when it comes to worrying about bears... ;)
Back to the list of things to be sure of:
#2 of 2 – Know that your dogs are comfortable sleeping in your new tent.
Seems obvious, right? Right.
I thought I knew this. Or at least kind of sort of maybe. :P They loved the tent we’d used up in Canada and had seemed cool with this one when I tried the initial setup in the backyard. Apparently all of that goes out the window in a new location.
We reached Horton Springs Trailhead with plenty of time left to hike and set up camp. We hiked and then set up camp across the creek where there are two wooden “tepees” in a clearing and several fancy “couches” made from stones circling the fire ring. I'd missed seeing this on a group hike I'd done here a few weeks prior (even though we'd been on the lookout for it), so it seemed like the perfect spot to set up camp this time around.
While exploring the site I noticed banana peels left in the fire ring and a half eaten banana on one of the stone seats. Who leaves food sitting out in the woods?! Are you trying to draw in pesky wildlife?! (Just to be clear, I love seeing wildlife, but I don’t want it lured into camp.) I planned to burn it in the campfire later or move it outside the immediate campsite area. We continued exploring the area and eventually set up the tent along the edge of the clearing.
Returning to the fire ring later, I noticed the banana on the seat was gone. I’d made a point to keep the dogs away so they wouldn’t eat it, so what did eat it?! Eek! Ummmm….okay.... time for a distraction! More exploring and playing in the creek!
As the pups started to slow down I decided it was time to hang out in the tent a bit. <insert sound of everything coming to a screeching halt> The dogs weren’t having it. And not because they weren’t tired or ready to relax – they were definitely worn out. Herc was trying to push through the tent walls and Cool Whip was trying to pry open the doors that I couldn’t close fast enough – it was mayhem.
Options? Hope that if I try again later they won’t completely destroy the tent or pack up and head home for the night? I really wanted to spend the night and I really wanted to try again with the tent, but it was nearing dusk and the day had already been weird enough that I figured better safe than sorry (“sorry” being a second round of mayhem at bedtime, a torn tent, and hiking back in the dark).
I packed in a hustle and we set out for the car. Back home I decided to set up the tent in the backyard (in the dark :P) to see if the pups would do okay with it in a familiar setting. Cool Whip claimed the top, widest portion (of course, such a princess). Herc got the middle, half on the blanket and half on my sleeping pad (always the sneaky fella). And me? I curled up in a fetal position in the lower, skinnier half of the tent. Not ideal, but doable. ;)
I’ll try this another time or two to ensure they’re comfortable in here, but I’ll still keep an eye out for a proper 2-person (aka 1 human and 2 large dogs) backpacking tent just in case. Because all bets are off when Herc decides to stretch out and roll onto your head in the middle of the night…
Talking again about how life isn’t always 100% sunshine and rainbows.
Most of the time it is, but not always.
We tried to do an overnight backpacking adventure. It did not go as planned.
Two things to be sure of next time:
#1 – Know what bear scat looks like. Or that of any predatory animal in the area I suppose. Know what is out there that could kill or seriously harm you. Know how to identify if it is nearby.
I thought I knew this. Or at least kind of sort of maybe. Until we ran across scat on the trail that resembled what I thought bear scat looked like. Uuggghhh. It was dried though, so we kept hiking.
A few minutes later we came across a second pile. Then a third. This was starting to get out of hand.
Upon finding a fourth pile which was somewhat fresh – not steaming, but definitely from that morning – I decided to assess the situation. Was my fear of bears taking over or was this something I should actually consider?
Regardless, if the farther we went and the higher we climbed equaled increasingly fresh bear(?) scat, then it seemed like a good indication we should head the opposite direction.
Eventually we returned to the trailhead, explored a little more, then headed to a backup destination. Knowing what type of scat that was would have either solidified my decision to turn back or given me confidence to move forward. I felt like I'd let my fear win, but was happy that at least it wasn't an overwhelming win since we were going to fit in more explorations. With a second trail in the plans for the remainder of the day, we could still log about 10 miles of hiking. AND we're enjoying an excellent day outside, which is most important.
This area was quite amazing. Completely different from the eastern side of the Superstition Mountains that I usually see. So many trees and the stream was flowing much more than I expected!
This loading chute is at the trailhead, along with several pens to hold livestock and a house. Elsewhere in the area are other old remnants of people living out here such as building foundations and walls, and even an old bed spring out in the woods. Wild! ;)
I love the Superstition Wilderness for its history and its beauty!
#2 in the next post.