Pole Creek Trail started as an easy but steady climb. Climb being a bit of an aggressive term as it was a wide, well-worn path. It felt like we were on a casual stroll through a wooded park, going uphill ever so slightly.
I journeyed back to our backpacking trip in Banff the year prior, where the trail was most decisive in its choice to start with some solid elevation gain. No meandering casualness about it. A precursor to the trail and days to come.
Regardless of the start, Banff was epic and I had no doubt our adventure Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Range would be as well.
We had arrived at Trails End Campground Sunday afternoon to snag a good campsite so we’d have minimal travel Monday morning to start our hike. Campsites were first come, first served. But we need not have worried as it seemed like no one else was around, despite two marginally full parking lots.
Each of the 8 sites housed a fire ring, picnic table, and bear locker. The pits toilets were well-maintained, and there was a water spigot at the Elkhart Park - Pole Creek Trailhead (right next to the campground). Unfortunately for us, the spigot was not working at the time of our adventure, but in theory, it would be a convenient feature.
Throughout the evening and into the night, more adventure seekers wandered in. I was glad we’d nabbed a spot early; the campground was full when we rose Monday morning.
Our rough goal for the first day of backpacking was to reach Hobbs Lake at roughly 7.5 miles. Up in Banff, we realized we preferred the days with moderate hiking that allowed more time for relaxed exploring (i.e., enjoying time without packs on our backs). This adventure to Titcomb Basin wasn’t meant to be a sufferfest.
On the way up it seemed as though we saw just as many horse prints (and poo!) as we saw human tracks. From the trailhead to Hobbs it seemed like we saw more people than we did during our entire trip in Banff. A fair bit of that traffic included day hikers heading to Photographers Point, 4.5 miles up the Pole Creek Trail. We stopped here for lunch because, as the name implies, it is a great spot to take in the view.
While the foot traffic died down after that point, we did stop to chat with one pair trekking homeward who recommended we stop at Eklund Lake for our final night. This would put us just 5 miles from the car, which would make for an easy final day. We tucked that tidbit away for later in the week.
At Eklund Lake, we took the Seneca Lake Trail to continue our route. You can continue on Pole Creek to hit the Highline Trail as an alternate route to Titcomb Basin, but that was more mileage than we wanted for this trip.
Upon reaching Hobbs around 3 pm and found a grand set of campsites, four of them clustered together—perfect for our crew. The made for an easy decision to stay the night here versus continuing to Seneca Lake or Little Seneca Lake. We were halfway to Titcomb Basin. Shortly after we set up camp, the clouds started sputtering raindrops, a perfectly timed cue to enjoy a nap before dinner. Everyone dispersed and zipped into their tents just as the clouds really let loose.
It poured. A heavy, drowning rain perfectly enhanced by swift blasts of wind. This had not been in my forecast for the week. Not until possibly our last day or two. But, as we all learned later, the Winds have their own weather routine once you wander far enough into their domain.
One should generally assume there will be an afternoon storm every day around 3 pm, give or take a bit, depending on the mood of the skies. We survived with just minor leakage in one tent and a renewed respect for the epic power this landscape held.
Dinner was devoured under blue skies.
Overnight rain left us with damp rain flies the next morning, but we only had about 5 miles to cover so there’d be time for them to dry out at Island Lake. Even with the afternoon storms.
Trekking up to Seneca Lake and then on to Island Lake brought more elevation than the prior day. This is what we’d been expecting; I was happy to labor up. The views were outstanding, especially following the trail along a granite cliff overlooking Seneca Lake.
However, my favorite portion of the trail was between Little Seneca Lake and Island Lake. It was nice to head out of the woods and see more of the wide-open views. Plus: Wildflowers!
And then we crested our final ridge until our hike into Titcomb Basin and caught our first glimpse of Island Lake—what a stunner!
We rambled down the valley, dotted with pine trees and boulders until we happened upon a good campsite where two men looked to be just finishing their packing. They highly recommended the spot and we enjoyed a lively chat until they headed out. The best part was learning that they’d been friends for 38 years! Goals!
We set up just in time for the afternoon rain (much less tumultuous than the prior day) then spend the rest of the day exploring the valley and Island Lake.
Day three held our only day hike. The actual hike into Titcomb Basin. It felt luxurious to be able to have a base camp and leave the tents in the same spot for more than one night. We enjoyed a lazy morning and set out for Titcomb Basin around 10 am, packing lunch and rain jackets, just in case. The morning had been chilly, but as the sun came out and the hike warmed us up, soon it was t-shirts and tank tops.
Titcomb Basin was quite rad between the lakes and the peaks that tower behind and around them. There were very few people hiking up there even though tents and backpackers heavily speckled the Island Lake valley. It was like we had Titcomb Basin to ourselves.
That was until we ran into several gentlemen at the base of the last lake. They were coming down from the peaks and had all sorts of crazy stories about the weather and conditions. Unfortunately, the start of the afternoon rains cut our socializing short. So, we pulled out the rain gear and hiked our way back.
The rains cleared by the time we returned to Island Lake so we spent the remainder of the day exploring the waterfall that emptied into the lake. This is what made the trip to Titcomb Basin 100% worth everything for me. Even considering the thunder, lightning, sleet, and snow that filled our evening later.
In the morning we shook off the snow, packed up with frozen fingers and feet, and hustled up out of the valley. As we stopped for lunch, tired and damp, we decided to power through the remainder of the miles (12.1 total) to Elkhart Park Trailhead so we could get hotels and hot showers that evening. We also stopped at Wind River Brewing in Pinedale WY for a celebratory burger and beer, which I’d highly recommend.
I’d only found out there was backcountry camping in Petrified Forest National Park one month prior to our excursion. I instantly began looking up any bits of information I could find. Are dogs allowed? What trails are available? When is the best time to go? What is the permit situation?
National Parks aren’t known for being dog friendly, but PFNP is the most dog friendly national park I’ve come across. Pups are welcome (on leash) on all of the trails along the 20-mile drive through the park as well as anywhere in the backcountry wilderness.
And by anywhere, I truly mean anywhere. In this backcountry, there are no trails. No trails as in you can go anywhere you want to go as long as you camp at least one mile from the trailhead.
The catch? No access to water. I'd have to pack in all that I needed. Not horrible, but not awesome, considering I’d be packing water for myself and two 70-lb dogs. With no access to water and no landscape features to offer shade, I definitely had to be extra cautious of the weather for the hounds.
I was running out of time for the cooler temps of spring, so I thought I’d have to wait until late fall when the highs would dip back under 80. But wait! What is this little gem in the forecast?! 78 degrees on Saturday?! Gasp! That’s in three days! Oh boy, a last minute adventure! This has my name written all over it. I checked the weather in disbelief three times a day until I arrived at the park Saturday morning. The only thing that changed was the addition of an extreme wind warning. Oh joy.
Backcountry permits are free, but visitors have to register at one of the visitor centers so the park is aware of your general location. There are five zones available in the backcountry: four in the northern end of the park and one in the southern end. I acquired a permit and was assigned Zone 2, which is where the Onyx Bridge is located and the location of the route I’d found from Backpacker magazine.
To hike in the northern zones, most backpackers park at the Painted Desert Inn, which is on the edge of a cliff overlooking the painted desert. The trail starts just to the left of the Inn, easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.
The hounds and I cruised down the trail, switchbacking to the valley floor, a route I knew I’d enjoy slightly less on the way back up. Before us was an immense spread of reds, oranges, grays, and browns, colors I would not have appreciated earlier in my life. But here and now I was in awe, even with the bold sunlight bleaching out the view.
CW and Herc were antsy to explore, so off we went. We hustled across a somewhat grassy expanse to Lithodendron Wash, a broad, meandering path of sand, silt, and debris that could be tricky (sticky!) to cross after a good bit of rain. The hounds sniffed and snorted up, down, and around the various hills and mesas while I sought out a refuge from the wind for our home base. Even though it didn’t feel overly hot, I wanted to set up the tent in order to provide shade for the remainder of the afternoon.
After 4 miles of exploring, I found a secluded nook tucked in the hills. The hounds napped and I read. Closer to sunset we emerged for more adventures. I set a GPS point for the tent to ensure I could find it again, then we explored until the sun disappeared. The world was silent. No coyotes yipping, no birds calling out. But the colors from the setting sun made the land seem alive.
Petrified Forest National Park
Entrance fee: $20
Dog friendly: On leash, all trails
Backcountry access: Free permit, no trails, camp 1 mile from trailhead, no water access
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.