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Trail Report: Wildcat Hollow Trail

Most backpacking in Ohio is fairly regimented. The trails are well marked, which is a good thing. Camp areas are typically laid out with a restroom or privy, set spots to camp and potable water nearby. Again, nice to have. However, there’s a more natural option; a trail where there is no restriction on where to camp, no restrooms and no potable water. For some, this type of backpacking seems better; less domesticated and more wild. In Ohio, a trail that fits that description is Wildcat Hollow.

Located in Wayne National Forest, the trail is near the town of Glouster and Burr Oak State Park. Its 15 mile length wanders through rolling hills and stream bottoms. A privy is located at the trailhead parking lot, but that is the extent of the amenities. If you want any other creature comforts, you need to bring them with you.

Here’s your water

I’ve backpacked several of Ohio’s loop offerings in the past with an old work colleague, Bill. Looking for a different challenge, we decided to give Wildcat Hollow a try. Looking at an early November weekend, the weather looked promising; no rain, not too cold, so we headed out on Friday.

Not wanting to shock the system too much, we eased into the experience with a big lunch at nearby Burr Oak Lodge. The food is great and, not that I would care, they have an extensive selection of beer on hand.

At the trailhead at 2:30, there were several other cars in the lot. The day was cloudy and cool, nearly perfect for hiking. We both shouldered relatively heavy packs containing 3+ liters of water and headed out. Almost immediately we came to a creek crossing. Recent rains had expanded the width of water a bit, but after a short search, a spot was found to cross while keeping my trail runners somewhat dry.

After a quarter mile the trail forks and we decided to walk the loop clockwise. In retrospect, the other direction might have been better. There were several creek crossings over the next mile or so that would have been easier (and dryer) had the streams been given another day to recover from the recent rains. The other direction on the loop quickly climbs out of that valley.

Regardless of the calendar, there was still some fall color

Despite slightly damp feet, the hike was pleasant. The trail was well designed and maintained and there was still some significant fall color to enjoy. Several nice campsites have been established by previous campers early on the trail and a couple of those were occupied. We met no other hikers actually on the trail however.

The trail includes a short road walk (1/4 mile) past an old abandoned one room schoolhouse before returning to the woods and major pine plantings. Other signs of past disturbance included multiple small oil wells along the path.

Night comes pretty early in November and a bit over 5 miles in, we spotted an established campsite near a small creek that would work for the evening. By 6 pm, the tents were up and my freeze dried entrée was history. I suppose the creek water could have been filtered, but we had packed in enough to avoid that decision. Plenty of downed wood was in the area so we had ample heat as the temperature dropped through the 40s.

Morning arrived clear and cool, perfect for hiking. The trail continued in the same manner with rolling hills and an occasional creek crossing. Apparently, in the summer months the creeks tend to be dry so don’t count on them for water. In addition, ongoing signs of previous mining and oil extraction would make me think twice about drinking even filtered water from the streams. The best bet is to bring all your own water and just enjoy the scenery. There are no major overlooks, but pleasant just the same. We only met two other folks that were hiking the entire route. They were two friends that met up every five years to hike the trail.

By afternoon, it had warmed up enough for cold blooded hikers

The day rolled by with more of the same, though fewer creek crossings. There were a number of great campsites and all of them more than a mile from the parking lot were empty. The sites among the pines looked especially inviting. Eventually, we dropped off a long ridge to the end of the loop and out to the parking lot. The original plan was to make the short walk over to Burr Oak State Park’s backpack trail and hike a few miles to one of the official park campsites. While a lake view, water hydrant and restroom were appealing. Its location right next to a parking lot was not.

Since I had stashed additional water in the truck, a change of plan was easy and obvious. We refilled our depleted water bottles (possibly also grabbing a few beers) and headed back into the wild, Wildcat Hollow, to camp among some towering pines.

Some items are worth the extra weight

Up and over forester pass

There was a dusting of snow above us, but camp was cold and dry when I awoke. I was a bit dizzy, but chalked the issue up to altitude. Richard and I were the first people moving, getting rolling about 7. It was a hard climb through rubble towards Forester, the highest pass of the entire trail. After 90 minutes or so, we met Sean and Melanie enjoying breakfast among the rock piles. They had actually camped there. According to Sean, they had spent nearly an hour rearranging rocks to create a spot flat enough to pitch their tent. That made no sense to me. Spending that hour walking would have put them over the pass and close to a flat spot with water. Apparently it’s hard to beat the comfort of an exposed semi-level bed of rocks. Maybe I’m missing out.

Richard at Sean and Melanie's campsite

Richard at Sean and Melanie’s campsite

A half hour later I was standing at 13,180 feet, the crest of Forester Pass. There was a bit of smoke in the air, but the view was still outstanding. The drop off the pass was pretty dramatic with some serious switchbacks, so it seemed like a good time for a break. Three ladies that worked for the National Park Service were also there cooking up breakfast and were a wealth of information. I found out just how close I could get to Mt. Whitney before I’d need to poop in a bag and carry it with me. (I was still worried about the learning curve of using a “wag bag.”)

Relaxing at Forester Pass

Relaxing at Forester Pass

In addition, they confirmed a rumor for us. Apparently it’s true that if a pack mule dies on the trail high up on a mountain, the corpse is dynamited. The thought process is: burial is impossible in the rocks, a large carcass would take forever to decompose in the dry alpine environment and eventually it would attract bears. Of course if a bear was squatting on a dead mule, that might close the trail for weeks at a time. By exploding the body, smaller predators can handle most of it and the rest can quickly decompose. I didn’t ask about humans. Hopefully, I can finish the trail in one piece.

After the initial drop, the trail leveled out somewhat, but generally dropped for the next 10 miles. I walked most of the stretch alone, enjoying the sights. The area was obviously very dry and there were few trees to block the views, or the sun. It reminded me somewhat of desert hikes I’ve taken in Arizona. Near the High Sierra Trail I got into some trees and took a break for a late lunch. Richard, Frick and Frack caught up to me and we walked together from there.

Frack grinding up the slope

Frack grinding up the slope

Despite the long drop the trail was still bouncing around 11,000 feet. Between the altitude and being tired from earlier climbs each uphill was pretty tough. Eventually the trail swung east, the Pacific Crest Trail split off and we were looking at a heck of a big mountain in front of us. From the size of it, we could only assume we were looking at Mount Whitney and the finish of the JMT.

Looks like Whitney ahead

Looks like Whitney ahead

Though it was only mid-afternoon, I was getting pretty worn out. It appeared everyone else was just as tired as I was ahead of the rest of the group. Clouds were building up around Whitney and it looked like I’d be getting wet in the not too distant future. Once the lightning started, I picked up the pace hoping to make it too a camping area before the storm cut loose.

The trail and I stayed right on the edge of the storm and dry for the next mile of so until I reached Crabtree Junction. There was a forest, pretty stream, plenty of places to camp and I was still dry. After covering 15 miles I was ready to stop. However, I was still 7 ½ tough miles from the top of Whitney and I felt I should get a little closer. To finish in a day I’d not only need to tackle that climb, but also walk another 10 ½ miles off the mountain to the trailhead at Whitney Portal. Once I sat down for a few minutes though, I knew it would be tough to go any further. Tomorrow might need to be a long day.

Richard, Frick and Frack rolled in about 30 minutes later. I asked if they wanted to hike some more and get a little closer to Whitney. “Hell no!” was the consensus and they began setting up camp around me. It turned out to be a great place to camp. Some deer walked by as I filtered water. The storm stayed up on the mountain and never reached us. There was even a toilet in the area. Not a latrine mind you, but a toilet with a view.

Hope you weren't looking for privacy

Hope you weren’t looking for privacy

After some heated discussion among themselves, Frick and Frack announced they were only going to hike to Guitar Lake in the morning. Generally this is where most people start the assault on Whitney. It’s about 2 ½ miles from where we were and 1,000 foot higher in elevation. Richard had a plane to catch and was heading for the finish. For better or worse, the closer I get to finishing a hike, the more I tend to push myself. In addition, we were near the end of hiking season and a big snow could hit the higher elevations at any time. Richard and I would get up around 4 am and make a run at it.

Cow Country

Day 21  was a long day.  After starting out clear, there was walking through multiple bouts of rain. Golden found a can of peaches along road and, forgetting green egg fiasco, ate them. We’ll see how that goes… Later that day she saw that someone had dumped some trail mix into the road’s cattle guard ditch and spent several minutes working on a plan to fish it out before being convinced to move on. I believe she needs to consider packing more food.

That’s right though, we were getting into cattle country, mostly rolling land that had been leased out for grazing. The travel was a bit easier, and we covered 22 miles that day; over 300 total.

Day 22 was clear in the morning.  As mentioned, we got into cow country yesterday, with much more of it today.  Rolling hills, going through gates on a regular basis, plenty of cow pies all over.   I wasn’t in a big rush to drink water from creek surrounded by cow crap, but was starting to run low. Then a huge bit of trail “magic.” At around three miles into the day’s hike through a long stretch with no shade is a silver dome and a horse trailer. They were set up by a trail angel called Apple. The horse trailer was set up for sheltered sleeping and the dome had coolers full of ice cold pop, Gatorade and water. Coffee and a gas stove to heat water was there too. Quite the treat. I dumped out the cow poop water I already had and filled up with clean stuff.

White Pine by Apple's Trail Magic

White Pine by Apple’s Trail Magic

Just after lunch we were at the start of a 2 1/2 mile long open valley when the afternoon thunderstorm decided to unload on us. There was some fear about lightening but I stated there was no way the lightning would bypass the mountaintops and strike us. I actually told Golden, a former lifeguard, that she was more likely to fall in the nearby creek and drown than be hit by lightning.  Amazing how when you say something with confidence, people will believe it. Tough stretch for Golden as she is afraid not only of being killed by lightning, but also being trampled by cows, and we had to split a herd to get up the valley. Even had to walk around a dead cow. Luckily, it didn’t appear to have been hit by lightning, or I’d have lost all credibility. 

Walking into a thunderstorm

Walking into a thunderstorm

At the end of the valley, the bridge over the Cochetopa Creek was out and I got to use my sandals I’ve carried for 300 miles. Creek crossings are just one area that the trail is amazingly well designed and maintained. After crossing literally dozens of creeks and streams of all sizes, mostly swelled by snowmelt, this was the first crossing that I had to get my feet wet.

We ended up walking 20 miles and cows and cow pies were with us nearly the whole way. It was even in the La Garita Wilderness area, which was a sad surprise. However considering the steepness of the trail, I have a new respect for a cow’s balance and hiking ability. We eventually got clear of the cow area and camped in a beautiful spot about 26 miles from lake city. I was able to make my water last till then. I only had to worry about elk and beaver poop again.

The Family is set to break up, however. White Pine is shooting to climb a 14,000 ft mountain in the morning (San Luis Peak), then head into Creede for a resupply. Golden and Wildflower are ready to walk some huge miles in an effort the get to Lake City for their own resupply as they are nearly out of food. There just haven’t been enough canned goods lying along the road to fulfill their needs. Just before the big breakup though, we received our Second trail magic in one day.

As we walked by one of the trail’s access points, we met a woman who was cutting her thru hike attempt short. Her family was picking her up and we stopped to chat.  Suddenly they began pulling her unused trail food and insisting we take it. There was enough for everyone to make it to Lake City without huge miles or swinging into Creede.  Happily, the Family would stay together a while longer. Yet another 20 mile day.

The Family on the Continental Divide

The Family on the Continental Divide

7/13 started clear and cold. Long walk up a beautiful valley. Got an early start due to much of the day being above tree line and the recent daily thunderstorms. The three previous big mileage days have taken their toll on me and I’m dragging a bit from the get go. The morning consists of just one hill, but it’s over 7 miles long and tops out near 13,000 feet. Before the day is over we will have dropped and climbed three more times. The hills are killing me and I feel I may be holding the others back. Gets me wondering about The Family staying together. I enjoy the company immensely but may need to hike at a slower pace. Will see how things go as we approach town, but I’m thinking I may be better off setting off on my own after Lake City.

As I struggle up to the Continental Divide, I mention that when people over 55 die walking to the fridge, it’s no longer considered medically untimely. Golden nicely tells me I have a long time before I need to worry about that. I mention that I’m 56. She asked that her last statement be stricken from the record.

After 15 tough miles, we are in camp early where I did a little laundry and wash up in the creek; then it began to hail. Don’t think the clothes will be dry in the morning.