Tag Archives: Thru-hiking

Trail Report: The Foothills Trail

With the COVID-19 issue making a long thru-hike impossible at this time, I thought it might be nice to look at a possible, shorter option to consider once restrictions are lifted. The scenery is reminiscent of the southern AT, but with the lower elevations, the hike is possible at any time of the year. Between the climate, a distance that doesn’t require a resupply and no shelters to congregate in, this trail would be a good, possibly “safer” choice, no matter when life starts getting back to normal.

The Foothills Trail runs from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park, both in South Carolina. In between, the path meanders through Sumter National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, land protected by Duke Energy Corporation, and Gorges State Park in North Carolina. While the “hills” aren’t as high as some of the Appalachian Mountains, they are often just as steep. The elevations encountered run from just over 1,000 feet to the highest point in South Carolina, the peak of Mount Sassafras at 3,554 feet.

Every year thousands of people start hiking north from Springer Mountain with every intention of walking to Maine. Sadly, most do not make it. Amazingly, a significant portion quit the trail in the first 100 miles. Some were woefully unprepared and some didn’t realize that thru-hiker life just wasn’t for them. For these folks, a solid “shakedown” hike may have saved their AT attempt or, at least given them the knowledge to not disrupt their life for a walk in the woods that only lasted a week or so.

Part of my background involves being certified as both a personal trainer and a running coach. One of the more useful concepts I took away from that education was the Specificity Principle. Basically, the concept is that the most useful training is directly tied to your goals. Do you want to be a marathon runner? Your base training should be mostly running long. Want to be a better hitter in baseball? Worry less about lifting weights and spend more time in the batting cage. It’s a pretty simple concept but one that best prepares both your body and mind for your goal task.

Based on this principle, what would be the best training for a long backpacking trip on the AT? Why that would be a not quite so long backpacking trip. Specifically, what type of backpacking trip? Why one that in many ways mimics the AT. To that end, I would suggest trying the Foothills Trail that runs mostly in South Carolina with some time spent in North Carolina.

Why Hike the Foothills Trail?

The Foothills Trail is a great hike for a number of reasons. The southern Appalachians are scenic, with plenty of rivers, waterfalls, and some great views. In many regards, much of the hiking is indeed reminiscent of the southern AT. This shorter hike can very much help prepare you for the conditions to come on the AT and let you see what the challenges are, before making that life changing commitment to thru-hike. The 77-mile length is a great test that took me five days to complete, hiking in late February/early March.

Terrain

Do not let the lower elevations fool you; this trail is not easy. Per my GPS watch, I covered a total of 78.8 miles between the trail, a short detour, and wandering around campsites. Walking from Oconee to Table Rock State Parks, elevation gain was 15,433 feet and loss was 14,913. This worked out to an average change in elevation of 385 feet/mile. The AT, as a whole, averages a change of 237 feet/mile. At one point “Heartbreak Hill” climbed at a rate of 1,600 feet/mile. For me, the real heartbreak was giving all that climb back over the next half mile, then doing it all again. That is some great training for the PUDS (pointless up and downs) on the AT.

The footpath itself is well constructed and well maintained. The occasional flattish stretches are a joy to walk, but there is no getting around the power of gravity on the hills.

Even in the damp spring, I was able to rock hop any creek that wasn’t already bridged.

Getting There

The trail can be hiked in either direction, though starting at Oconee State Park puts off the biggest and steepest hills until the food bag has lost much of its weight.

Oconee State Park from Atlanta: take I-85N to US 76W to US 28W to State Park Road.

Table Rock State Park from Ashville: take I-26S to US 25S to SC-11S to park entrance.

Shuttles can be arranged through both local outfitters and a list of volunteer drivers. Both can be found at the Foothills Trail website. Overnight parking is available at either end by paying a $5/night parking fee.

Water

Like much of the southern AT, water is plentiful. There are numerous streams, impressive waterfalls and a large lake along the route. The Foothills Trail Guidebook points out all water options and I rarely carried more than a liter at a time. As always, filter any water before drinking it.

Climate and Weather

First wildflower of the season – March 2.

The Foothills Trail is not significantly farther north and generally stays 1,000 feet or more lower than the AT does through Georgia. Nearby Pickens, South Carolina, averages a low of 30 and high of 52 in January. By watching the weather, the trail can be hiked in late fall, early spring and even through the winter; perfect for that decision-making tune-up hike. Rainfall totals 53 inches annually and is spread evenly through the year. Snow is rare and typically doesn’t last. Even on Mount Sassafras, less than 9 inches of snow falls in a typical winter.

During my hike, there was a cold snap that brought nighttime temperatures down near 20. Even with that, the days were pleasant.

On the other hand, summer hiking can be hot, humid, and buggy.

Camping

Overlooking the upper reaches of Lake Jocassee.

This is one area where the Foothills Trail and the AT differ significantly. There are 262 shelters on the AT. Other than one small “emergency” cave, there are none on the Foothills Trail. Bring the tent or hammock. There are a number of great spots to camp, though, many designed and built as Eagle Scout projects. Nearly all have flat spots for tents, a fire ring, and a nearby water source. Quite a few have benches and provisions to bear bag your food. I hit the jackpot camping along Lake Jocassee. Gorges State Park maintains campsites with sand tent pads, grills, and picnic tables. Within the national forests, camping is permitted throughout and there were no fees at any of the locations I camped.

The other main difference is that in early spring the Foothills Trail is not crowded with campers. I camped alone at 3 of 4 locations and actually went two full days without seeing another person.

Resupply Options

As a training hike, be prepared to carry all the food needed for the trip. It is possible to cache supplies near a road crossing, but it complicates logistics significantly. Think of the trail as a “short” 100-Mile Wilderness.

Summary

If you’re not sure if you really want to hike the AT, consider the Foothills Trail as a test. If you want to train for an upcoming AT attempt, keep the principle of specificity in mind and try a training hike on the Foothills Trail. Or, if you just want to get out in a beautiful natural area for an early or late season hike you can complete in a week, try the Foothills Trail.

Plan on spending 4-7 days on a well-designed, well-maintained, well-marked trail through some gorgeous, yet challenging terrain. The hike is not unlike the southern AT. The difficulty is similar. The surrounding forests and streams will seem familiar. The white blazes are typically easy to follow. The main difference I found was the lack of other hikers. If you finish this trail wanting more, there’s a good chance a successful AT thru-hike could be in your future.

Of course, for me, the best part of the trail was the seclusion and lack of shelters, so I’ll continue to hold off on the AT for now.

For additional planning information, check out the Foothills Trail Conservancy. In addition to a helpful website, they have created the official map of the Foothills Trail and a Foothills guidebook. At 7 ounces, the guidebook is a tad heavy, but includes maps and turn-by-turn directions in both directions.

Feeling Safe Again While Backpacking

The recent murder on the Appalachian Trail of Ronald Sanchez has shattered many people’s confidence in their personal safety while on the trail. Unfortunately, the problems in society sometimes violently intrude even on special places such as the AT. As stated by Suzanne Dixon, President of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “The Appalachian Trail is a relatively safe environment, a refuge that welcomes more than three million users a year. Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, the trail is not absolutely safe.” 

Statistically speaking, the trail is still very safe. With the millions of trail users per year, there have been 12 homicides over the last 50 years. The US as a whole has a murder rate of five per 100,000 annually. Many major cities have homicide rates up to ten times that overall average. Admittedly, this is an apples/oranges comparison, but the reason the recent terrible incident received so much news coverage was precisely because it was so rare.

Regardless of how safe the trail is for hikers, it can always be safer. In the 40 years since my first solo trip, I’ve considered and practiced a number of techniques to improve my safety. In addition, I’ve recently spoke on the subject with Howard Rahtz, a retired Cincinnati Police Captain. He’s written multiple books on community policing/safety, was the head of the city’s Police Academy and served as a Defensive Tactics Instructor and SWAT Negotiator. He’s also my brother. Hopefully, our joint experience can provide some advice on staying safer on the trail which then can provide some additional peace of mind for hikers, their friends and family.

Before sharing our conversation, I need to say the following: It is not my intention to second guess the actions of those victimized during the recent attack and should not be the interpretation of this article. I was not there and in circumstances such as these, decisions have to made quickly, under extreme duress. My intention is to provide my general thoughts based upon years of backpacking, often alone, and the advice of an expert in the field of community safety.

Keep in mind that these are general recommendations and not guarantees of safety. Each situation is different and there are countless variables that have to be considered as a situation unfolds, whether on the trail or at the local mall parking lot.

Jim: The AT is safer than most American neighborhoods, but reading about this attack was unsettlingly, to say the least. Also, if you are a victim, statistics don’t matter at all. Given that these kinds of incidents are statistically unlikely, what are your thoughts on what hikers can do to reduce the odds of being attacked. And if we are attacked, are there some steps to help us not only survive but to better get through the encounter?

Howard: Criminal acts on the AT are indeed rare, and it is discouraging to even have to discuss this. There are two important factors in avoiding victimization, and they are no different on the AT than they are on the streets of Chicago.

The first is to look and act like a difficult target. Criminals are looking for easy victims. When we look as though we’d be a “handful” for any attacker, the odds of being targeted go down. We can stand tall, speak loudly and look confident. Facial expression, voice control and a calm demeanor carry more weight than physical size. Potential attackers are sizing you up. You want them to look, and decide to move on.

Second, listen to that little voice inside that tells you when things are not right. Author Gavin DeBecker refers to this as the “gift of fear,” our intuition warning us of danger. I’ve spoken to a multitude of crime victims who say, “I knew something was not right.” When the hair on our neck stands up, the hollow in our stomach opens, the beginnings of panic floods our senses — we ignore those warnings at our peril.

Jim: Absolutely, listen to that inner voice. If a situation doesn’t seem right, get yourself out of it. Make up a reason, be rude, whatever it takes to separate yourself from that person or situation.

What about weapons? I get asked all the time if I carry a gun on the trail.

Howard: While it is a personal choice, carrying a gun can be a complicated matter. The requirements for concealed carry vary widely from state to state and not all states recognize another’s permit. In addition, most of us are good people who would find it extremely difficult to shoot another human being, even if the action was necessary for our own safety.

Jim: And there’s the extra weight of the gun itself and the weight of responsibility of bringing a deadly weapon on the trail where it can’t be locked away. You’d have to keep control if it every minute on the trail, a tall order. It just never seemed like a good idea to me.

Howard: On the other hand, I think pepper spray is great tool. It works really well on almost everybody. It is easy to use, causes no permanent damage and some brands even leave an ultraviolent trail that can assist in identification of a suspect. It can be used from a distance of 10-15 feet.

The key factors are to keep the spray readily accessible. Also, practice spraying a few times to avoid dosing yourself. When you need it is not the time to be reading the instructions.

Jim: I agree with that. I’ve backpacked, often solo, for decades now and have never had a problem. I’m also 6’ 3”, weigh 180 and, to put it politely, don’t look like a victim. However, I always carry a small container of pepper spray. It weighs 2 ounces, is legal (per the Pepper Spray Store) to carry anywhere on the AT and will work on a threatening black bear, dog or human. I think of it like a seatbelt. I’ll probably never need it, but if I do, I’ll be very glad I have it.

Anything else you can suggest?

Howard: Studies show people will fight harder for family members and those they care about than they will to save their own lives. We had police officers keep pictures of family members and those they loved in their hats or attached to the dash of the patrol car. When someone tries to hurt you, they are attacking the people who love you. Those pictures are a reminder of what is at stake.

Lastly, mental rehearsal. Think of situations that may arise. Picture yourself responding forcefully and effectively. Imagine it in as much detail as possible. When a crisis situation arrives, you’ll have the benefit of mental planning to help you overcome.

Jim: There are also a number of things hikers can do on a daily basis to increase their safety. For example, keep a charge in your phone. No matter how great the episode is, don’t use the last 10% of battery power listening to Backpacker Radio. If nothing else, you might need the battery power to order a pizza.

Howard: Also with phones, don’t hike with both ear buds in. Keep one ear available to hear what’s going on around you; situational awareness. Plus, to a predator, both ear buds in signal that you can’t hear, making you look like an easier target.

Jim: Concerning electronics; I also carry a Spot Satellite Tracker when I hike alone. There’s not always a cell signal on the trail so it’s great to send messages back home for peace of mind. And, if something ever happens such as a broken leg, I can let first responders know my exact location. That way, the search part of “search and rescue” is eliminated. At 5 ounces, it seems like cheap insurance to me.

There’s also non-electronics; the shelter register. If anything strange is happening in the area, odds are good someone wrote about it in the register. It’s a good idea to look over recent entries.

Howard: Getting on and off the trail is another area where it pays to be cautious. I’m not a big fan of hitchhiking. I’d look to use shuttle services and established trail angels whenever possible.

Jim: True, but sometimes the only feasible way to resupply is to hitch. For some hikers, meeting these new people is a positive part of the thru-hike experience that they don’t want to give up. Keeping a few items in mind can make hitchhiking safer though.
• Hitch with another hiker, or as part of a group.
• If you are hiking alone, don’t share that information.
• Keep your phone out and visible while in the car.
• As mentioned before, trust your gut. If you walk up to a ride and something just doesn’t seem right, don’t get in the car. Have an excuse in mind (I forgot my food bag.) to easily decline the ride and wait for one that seems better.

As a reminder, Report any incidents by calling 911 for emergencies, as well as the National Park Service 24-hour dispatch at 1-866-677-6677

All in all, hiking the AT is a nearly always a positive experience that can change your life for the better. A little preparation and awareness of the (unlikely) problems that can occur will improve your safety, your confidence as you hike and the peace of mind of the folks back home.

Trail Report: The John Muir Trail

Summary

Length: 211 miles
Location: The trail runs from Yosemite National Park to the peak of Mt Whitney
Trail Type: Shuttle
Scenery: Postcard views of the Sierra Nevada with beautiful streams, lakes and significant wildlife

Trail Overview

Cathedral Peak

(This article first appeared in thetrek.co) 

Named after the first President of the Sierra Club, the “JMT” winds from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, through three National Parks and two Wilderness Areas before ending at the top of Mt Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. Sharing 170 miles with the PCT, the path is well constructed with grades that can be handled by mules. However, that does not mean it’s an easy stroll. It crosses eight passes near or over 11,000 feet including Forrester Pass, the highest point on the entire PCT.

Huge vistas, beautiful mountain lakes, plentiful wildlife and a taste of wilderness travel place the JMT on many people’s hiking bucket list. With good reason; the stark beauty of the Sierra Nevada is hard to beat anywhere in the world.

Terrain

Nevada Falls and some really old granite

One hundred million year old granite uplifted into mountains and shaped by glaciers results in some incredible sights, and also a trail that is challenging. While located and graded very well, nothing changes the fact that there are tremendous elevation changes. The vast majority of hikers begin at the northern terminus, (Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park) which sits at 4,000 feet. Twelve miles later, hikers are already near 10,000 feet.

If that first climb doesn’t leave you breathless, the scenery will. Iconic views such as Nevada Falls and Half Dome are just the start of a daily parade of incredible vistas. The climbs and drops, along with accompanying views, continue along the length of the trail.

The most difficult climb is saved for the end however. From a “low” point of 10,700 feet, the trail begins the assault on the southern terminus of the trail, Mt Whitney’s peak. Over 7 miles the path climbs nearly 5,000 feet through broken granite. The fact that there is only about 60% of the oxygen available at sea level doesn’t help either. The effort is worth it though. You’ve finished the trail and are at 14,505 feet, the highest point in the continental US. Take some time to enjoy the views and your accomplishment.

Although you are done with the trail at this point, there’s no shuttle standing by. There’s still a bit of hiking to do. The closest road (Whitney Portal) is 10 miles and 6,600 vertical feet away.

Getting There

Most thru-hikers hike from North to South. The northern terminus is at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley inside Yosemite National Park. From the San Francisco/San Jose area, CA-120 East get you close enough to follow the signs to the park. In addition, there are public transportation options  to the park and free bus service throughout the park. There is also public transportation between Yosemite and Lone Pine, the town closest to Mt Whitney.

Why hike this trail

Think about all those inspirational quotes from John Muir. Most of them were written about this very area. There are “take your breath away” vistas on a daily basis. The iconic views are just one of many reasons to hike this classic trail though.

The distance (211 miles, plus another 10 to get to a paved road) is short enough to be doable for most hikers with a two week vacation, but is packed with challenges and wilderness experiences. The last 150+ miles are nowhere near a road.

With the entire trail within a national park or wilderness area, wildlife is plentiful. The change in elevation brings a variety of both flora and fauna to experience. I saw a variety of wildlife but was struck by the large predators that roam this complete ecosystem. Bear, bobcat and coyote shared the spotlight with deer, marmot, pika and more. Not seen by me, but in the park are beaver, bighorn sheep and mountain lion.

Climate and Weather

Normally pleasant, but not always

John Muir called the Sierra’s the “gentle wilderness” and summer/early fall weather lives up to that name; being typically sunny and dry. There is all that pesky winter snow to consider however. Depending on the year, snow can remain deep on the higher passes into July. That snowmelt can also mean difficult stream crossings and plenty of mosquitoes through early summer. The best time to hike is generally July through September with my personal preference towards the September end. This period is typically dry and pleasant, though thunderstorms and/or snow at higher elevations can happen at any time.

I hiked the trail beginning just after Labor Day. Most hiking was done in shorts and a t-shirt but I was glad to have brought a hat and gloves for one snowy pass. I used a 20 degree bag and needed all the insulation on a couple higher camps.

Camping

Note the bear canister

With the number of hikers restricted by the permit process, there is no issue finding a spot to camp. I used both the JMT Pocket Atlas (Blackwoods Press) and the Guthook phone app and either reliably showed where camping options were located. There were sometimes other campers in the areas, but I never felt crowded.

Bring a tent. There are no shelters and with long stretches at high elevation, there will be times when there’ll be no trees to hang a hammock from. Bearbagging your food is not good enough. Bring or rent a bear canister.

Water Sources

Deer in a reflective mood along Lyell Fork

One of the beauties of the JMT is all the lakes and streams along the way. Despite hiking late in the season, and during a drought, water was never an issue. The guides mentioned above both listed water options and I never carried over 2 liters. While much of the water appears crystal clear at high elevations, I filtered all my water. It just seems like cheap insurance to  avoid marmot poo.

Resupply Options

Resupply options are interesting, to say the least. They start easy and get progressively more difficult as you travel north to south. Twenty miles in, there is a post office at Tuolumne Meadows. At sixty one miles, Red’s Meadow Resort is just off the trail. They will hold packages for a fee and also have a grocery on site.

At around 90 miles, the Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) is an option. It is either a 7+ mile hike off the JMT or a shorter hike and a boat ride. Take the boat. They hold packages for a fee, have a small grocery and with a restaurant, laundry and hotel, provide a nice spot to spend the night. This was my last resupply stop. It took a bit of work to fit 130 miles worth of food into my bear canister, but by standing on the lid, I made it happen.

At 110 miles, Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) is another resupply option. They offer overnight accommodations and will hold a resupply, but I did not use them for a few reasons. For 2018, their cost to hold a resupply bucket is $80. The charge to stay in their tent cabins is $170/person/night. Despite the costs, they were actually booked solid when I was in the area. In addition, they closed for the season on the day after I planned to be passing through, too close for comfort. Everything at MTR must be hauled in well beyond any roads so I understand the prices. It doesn’t mean I have to pay them however.

Someone ordered a very expensive resupply

Beyond MTR the options get difficult or significantly more expensive. There are either long walks down side trails or rendezvous with a pack animal at a premium price.

Permits

Perhaps the biggest challenge with the JMT is just scoring a permit. If you want to start in Yosemite, plan on faxing in an application 24 weeks before your planned start date. By the end of the day, you will find out if you were successful. You probably were not. Apparently, there is such demand that well over 90% of all applications are denied. One hiker I met on the trail had been denied 22 times before she received a permit to start at Happy Isles Trailhead.
The National Park Service is in a difficult position. They have a legal duty to protect the wilderness from overuse and want to provide access to a true wilderness for those that do receive a permit. Based on my hike, the existing quota system seemed to result in a quality experience. While I was not always alone, the trail was not crowded and I always found a good spot to camp. That does not makes getting the permit any easier, however. You’ll need to plan ahead, yet be very flexible.
BTW –The permit comes with a special bag to carry in case the need arises on Mt Whitney itself. Apparently the mountain is a “no poop zone.” I don’t know if there’s much of a learning curve to using the bag, but thankfully I didn’t have to find out.

Closing Thoughts

McClure Meadow, Evolution Creek

If there was ever a “bucket list” trail, this is it. It is hard to imagine jaw dropping views, numerous wildlife sightings, a complete thru-hike and reaching the high point of the lower 48 states, all in one 200+ mile package, but here it is.

All this hiking goodness does come at a cost though. Permit aggravations, carrying the weight of a bear canister over big climbs and through thin air just add to the satisfaction you’ll feel at the finish though. Is the JMT worth the trouble? You bet it is.

Start planning your hike waaay in advance by going to the National Park Services website. My JMT Pocket Atlas is one of “Erik the Black’s Ultralight Trail Guides. The Guthook phone app will be in your App Store. If you’re interested in what my hike was like, along with hikes of the Colorado Trail and Long Trail; there’s a book about it.

Not sure whether to hike this trail? Perhaps a few quotes from John Muir himself will help you decide.

The coniferous forests of the Yosemite Park, and of the Sierra in general, surpass all others of their kind in America, or indeed the world, not only in the size and beauty of the trees, but in the number of species assembled together, and the grandeur of the mountains they are growing on

All the world lies warm in one heart, yet the Sierra seems to get more light than other mountains. The weather is mostly sunshine embellished with magnificent storms, and nearly everything shines from base to summit – the rocks, streams, lakes, glaciers, irised falls, and the forests of silver fir and silver pine.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean

The mountains are calling and I must go.

And my personal favorite: Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.

View from the top of Whitney