Posts Tagged 'Hiking'

Here you go, Mom.

Lulu and I went for our first hike today. She’s finally big enough at 4 months to use the comfortable Ergo carrier and it was a brilliant fall day, sunny and clear and cool.

I realized there was nothing keeping us—now that she’s mostly over the phase in which she would only eat while lying on the floor next to me—from going out to enjoy the weather and get some exercise. So we drove to a local hill and went for a short hike.

Some stats on our little excursion:

  • Number of admiring comments on the trail: I’m not sure exactly, but a sufficiently gratifying amount. Yes, thank you, my baby is cute, and I am a can-do mom.
  • Number of alarmed looks: one or two. It was a bit slippery on the way down.
  • Number of ice-cold baby feet and hands: four. Sorry, my girl; lesson learned. Next time we’ll try something warmer than socks on your feet and nothing on your hands.
  • Number of elderly gentlemen and their small grandsons who witnessed me trying to breastfeed a crying baby in the front seat of my car in the trailhead parking lot: two.
  • Number of bloodcurdling screams from the backseat on the way home from the trail: approximately 700.
  • Number of Hello Kitty Jelly Bellies consumed in response to said screams: one small bag.

Overall, I’d call it a moderate success. It was nice to get out in the woods and get some exercise, and we both stayed relatively happy throughout (minus the screaming on the ride home). No one ended up covered in poop, starving, or even particularly cranky. But small successes like these sometime bring home how different my life has been since having a baby, and how life with her often feels like I’m learning how to do everything all over again.


Hiking California’s Lost Coast

On Friday, I drove from Seattle to the tiny town of Shelter Cove, California, to hike the Lost Coast trail with my sister and brother-in-law.

Before this trip, the furthest north I had been in California was San Francisco, and the furthest south I had been in Oregon was Portland.

That leaves more than 600 miles of uncharted territory in between, and the part that I saw turned out to be eminently likeable: dotted with charming little towns, pleasingly kitschy tourist attractions, towering redwoods, and rugged coastline.

The drive was uneventful, though near the California border I briefly considered picking up two hitchhikers. They looked so much like harmless hipster backpackers that I felt sure they wouldn’t murder me. Plus, dusk was falling and I would have liked company for the foggy, hilly roads I expected to encounter ahead, but the taboo against picking up hitchhikers as a woman driving alone was too strong and I drove by.

I met my hiking companions at the Inn at the Lost Coast in Shelter Cove, which was spacious, clean, comfortable, and affordable. Located on bluffs above the ocean, it has great views. As a bonus, it has a clean and fully functional hot tub and a cheerful espresso bar.

Our cell phones didn’t work in Shelter Cove or anywhere along the trail, though we were told that U.S. Cellular has service in the area.

Day 1: Mattole Beach to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse

We planned to hike the 24 or 25-mile trail from north to south, so we set off in the morning for Mattole Beach, about an hour and a half’s drive north over steep and winding roads. We stopped in tiny Petrolia to rent bear canisters and headed to the trailhead.

On the first day, it was foggy, with a strong wind blowing from the south. The forecast had called for rain the next day, but as it turned out, the rain came through earlier, in the middle of the night, and had cleared by morning. We enjoyed blue skies and sun for the rest of the trip, winding up with lopsided sunburns because the sun was mostly to our right as we headed south down the coast.

hiking to the lighthouse

We had only planned to go the Punta Gorda lighthouse, about three miles, the first day. I had thought the lighthouse itself might be a nice place to sleep, but it wasn’t especially inviting, though I could imagine it being a welcome shelter in really wet or windy weather. We decided to keep walking until we found a campsite we liked, which happened at the first creek past the Lighthouse. The tide was low, so we spent some time exploring the tide pools, and then set up camp in a driftwood shelter that nicely blocked the wind from the south.

drying out after night-time rain

Black bears are supposed to be common in the area; hence, the requirement of carrying bear canisters. My sister shares my fear of bears, so we set up our tents side by side, planning to sleep with our heads towards the shelter (our “bearicade,” tm my sister). This way, we reasoned, a bear would have to approach us from the foot-end of our tents, eliminating the most terrifying of bear-related possibilities: hearing a bear snuffle around your head in the middle of the night, or tearing into the tent to grab you by the shoulders.

In other bear-related precautions, we used our bear canisters scrupulously—putting everything scented into them and placing them a healthy distance from our tents both nights. We saw no signs of bears other than some old footprints and scat, but as we later found out, not everyone was so lucky.

The most excitement the first evening came when we saw three hikers start to climb uphill from the beach not far from our campsite. At first, we thought they were backpackers headed for a secret camp spot they knew of, but they seemed to be having trouble and were moving slowly. Examining them with our binoculars, we discovered that each had a rifle, and we eventually guessed that they were hunting deer, though we never saw them take a shot.

Though we later learned that it was probably perfectly legal, it was a bit unnerving to have three men with rifles positioned on a hill above our campsite, occasionally scoping us out with their binoculars in return for our scrutiny. Plus, I was a little nervous about what would happen if they shot something—would they take the head and leave the body for bears or mountain lions to come investigate during the night? So, we were glad when darkness—it was almost a new moon—finally forced them to retreat the way they had come.

Day 2: Punta Gorda Lighthouse to Big Flat

The wind blew and the rain fell hard during the night, but it was calm by 7:00 the next morning, and sunny weather was pushing out the fog and clouds.

We packed up and hiked about a mile on overland trails amid humid clouds of lemony scent from some unfamiliar plant, before hitting the first section of trail marked on our map as impassable at high tide.

hiking during the outgoing tide

About 30 minutes after high tide we set out, occasionally dodging waves and timing a dash around a big rock. Seemingly curious sea lions stared at us from the surf and appeared to follow along as we picked our way down the shore. About a mile or so in, we reached a particularly hairy point where we waited another 20 or 30 minutes for the tide to retreat and chatted with three older fellows from Oregon doing the same trip at a more leisurely pace.

We stopped for lunch at Randall Creek, which looked like a lovely spot to camp (Spanish Creek, further along, also looked nice), and crossed Spanish Flat. Here, we had our best wildlife sighting: a playful family of otters that appeared to be living in a large metal drum that had washed up on the shore.


We considered camping at Big Creek but decided to push on, walking three more miles, mostly over meadow, until we came to the next running creek at Big Flat.

The sun was setting by the time we had set up camp in another driftwood shelter, and shortly after it set, sand fleas began to plague us. They flung themselves in hordes at our lantern and cookstove, piling up curled-up, reddish, and dead. I found three at the bottom of my pre-dinner cup of miso soup and I may have eaten some. It was disgusting, but they eventually subsided, and we enjoyed the spectacularly starry moonless night before hitting our tents.

Big Flat in the morning

Day 3: Big Flat to Shelter Cove

We had another leisurely morning the next day because we had to wait again for the tide to go out.

The first bit of the trail when leaving Big Flat turned out to be the most problematic tide-wise; after a couple of miles, we found ourselves on wide beach all the way to Shelter Cove.

waiting for the tide

The last few miles, slogging down the beach on shifting sand, were a challenge, but some interesting encounters broke up the monotony.

First, we passed a dead octopus. Then, ran into the hitchhikers I had passed by two nights before in southern Oregon. They explained that they had been hiking the PCT but quit in Washington when the weather turned cold and rainy and headed south instead to do the Lost Coast trail. They complained about their map, and, possibly feeling bad about not giving them a ride, I suggested that we give them our better map, which we did. In the process, we may unfortunately have given them my sister’s driver’s license, because it was later missing and was in the same bag as the map. No doubt, it was my fault; karma at work.

Finally, we passed a surfer headed to camp at Big Flat and catch a coming swell, who told us he had been camping there two nights before when a bear ripped into his tent while he was sleeping and proceeded to eat all his food and trash his gear. My sister and I pretended we hadn’t heard him.

When we finally and gratefully made it off the beach and on to solid ground, we had to hike another mile or more over a big hill, cursing the lack of foresight that had led us to leave our car in the hotel’s parking lot instead of at the trailhead.

We planned to stay at the Shelter Cove RV and Campground, but when we remembered that the hotel had a hot tub we opted for luxury instead. We watched a lovely sunset from the hot tub, and, after showers all around, walked across the street to have dinner at the surprisingly delightful Chart House.

The Chart House is run by proprietors Jonathan and Ann Burke, aka Cap’n John and Tugboat Annie. It’s a small place and appeared to be unexpectedly busy on the night we dined. They had clearly called a friend in to help out, and they were running out of silverware and dishes. Our expectations for the food were low, but everything turned out to be delicious.

My drive home was as uneventful as the drive down, though there was a field mouse in my car when I first got in it (my brother-in-law confirmed this with an independent sighting) and I am not sure if it left. Thus, I steeled myself for the possibility that it would jump on my shoulder or run across my foot while I was driving and I would face the greatest challenge of my life so far in not swerving off the road or into another car. Thankfully, if it is still in my car, it has been discreet; I’ve seen no further signs of it.

Distance aside, I think I’d be more likely to return to the Olympic Coast, where I hiked earlier this summer. In my opinion it has better scenery and tidepool-life: we didn’t see the kind of colorful anemones and sea stars that abound on the Olympic Coast. But, the weather is probably better on the Lost Coast, at least in the summer and fall (it was a nice change to camp without freezing), and there is no denying that it is a scenic and interesting part of the country and worth a visit.

We hiked north to south, but based on the scenery alone, I think it might be better the other way; it felt more varied on the northern half of the trail, and I would prefer to get the several-mile unbroken beach slog out of the way at the beginning instead of leaving it until the end. Finally, be sure to bring a bear canister (it’s not only required but apparently a good idea to ensure a restful night), a tide chart, and a map showing which parts of the trail are impassable at high tide.

Seven reasons to go backpacking.

I go backpacking a lot, but sometimes I wonder why. It involves a number of things that aren’t fun or pleasant, including boredom, discomfort, dirt, exhaustion, and fear.

On a typical weekend trip, we wake up early Saturday morning. We start by walking up a hill for hours with heavy backpacks on. Even the most comfortable pack is uncomfortable compared to no pack. My back is sweaty, my collarbones hurt where the shoulder straps rest, and the waist strap pushes my pants down and makes my shirt bunch up.

Walking uphill with a pack sometimes just sucks, especially at the beginning of the season. A mile and a half or two in I demand that we go home, because I’m not having fun. My husband pretends to agree, and I keep going.

I’m often worried (because worrying is my specialty) that all of the good campsites will be taken due to our late start when we reach our destination. Don’t even get me started on the one time this was kind of true, resulting with a mild altercation with some other campers in which we were most definitely in the right. That’s a story for another post.

There’s snow and mud. There are also bugs, though in Washington bugs are less of an issue than in warmer climes. I can only recall one time when the bugs were stay-in-the-tent-and-cover-every-inch-of-bare-skin unbearable. By the time we reach our destination, I’m sweaty and dirty.

The food is awful. At home, we eat like the most decadent of Roman patricians, aside from the vomiting. We live within 10 blocks of every type of food you could imagine, and I’m an excellent cook, if I do say so myself. But when we are backpacking, we eat freeze-dried food, trail mix, dried fruit, and energy bars—all decidedly boring and unsatisfying.

It’s cold. Year round. Even in August, when I’m camping in the mountains I end up wearing long underwear, a wool hat, and a down jacket.

Sleeping is really just taking a series of unsatisfying naps. I’m unduly scared of bears, so I tend to spend a lot of time listening for them. I find myself getting annoyed that my husband is sleeping and I have to be the one listening for danger all night long. This is ridiculous because a) there is no danger; b) he is probably awake too; and c) I’m not very good at it—the last time we went backpacking, he informed me in the morning that a mountain goat had spent much of the night licking up the urine I had deposited earlier just outside the tent. I had no idea, and he didn’t tell me, knowing it would make me nervous. After years of sleepless vigilance, all I have saved us from is one mouse that was burrowing into our food bag, and some waves on the shore of a lake that sounded a little like a bear.

Even without listening for camp intruders, it’s difficult to sleep. The ground is hard, and if it is below 35 degrees out I’m too cold to sleep well even in my warmest sleeping bag. I have to put my whole head inside the bag to stay warm, which makes me suffocate, at which point I take my face back out and get cold. It’s an annoying cycle that lasts all night long.

So we wake up with gritty eyes and aching heads, down some instant coffee, pack up our camp, put on our packs, and walk some more. Now it’s downhill, which is easier on the lungs but rougher on the knees and feet.

So, why do I go back again and again? Why do I spend March daydreaming about walking along snow-free ridges, and anxiously watch the weather in October to see if I’ll be able to squeeze in a last weekend before snow starts to fall?

 1. It makes small pleasures shine. Like a shower, or a cup of bitter but hot instant coffee, or the faint lightening of the air that signals dawn. One summer, I lived in a tent in Alaska. It was a fancy tent, but I had to walk a few hundred yards to get to the bathroom. When I was nearing the time when I would go back to living in a house, I was deeply excited about the fact that there would soon be a bathroom just across the hall from where I slept. I’m pretty lucky: comfort, pleasure, and entertainment are easy to come by in my life. It’s somehow reassuring to know that even simple things can still, at times, make me really happy. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and I’m so jaded that I need to purposely deprive myself to really enjoy anything.

 2. Even backpacking food tastes amazing when you’ve been hiking all day. Maybe not energy bars. But cheese? A tortilla and peanut butter? Dried cherries? Jelly beans? As delicious as a Don Juan breakfast taco in Austin, Texas after a night of drinking. Nothing in my life has ever tasted so good as the Gatorade and bag of potato chips I consumed at the end of a five-day backpacking trip, standing in a creek, underneath a bridge, in my underwear.

3. It’s good exercise. And exercise is healthy, and makes you live longer, and all of that. I also like to get plenty of exercise so that I can continue to eat all of the food I like to eat without having to invest in a new wardrobe. And, I want to stay fit so that if I get dragged into an Indiana Jones-style adventure, I will be prepared.

 4. It’s cheap. Once you have the gear you need, all backpacking costs is gas to take you to the trailhead and a forest or park permit. It’s much cheaper than going to visit a different city for the weekend, or even staying home. There are no $12 cocktails, fancy restaurants, or spa treatments available in the mountains.

5. It’s beautiful. The mountains, the water, the sunsets, the snow: seeing all that beauty just suffuses me with joy. I literally get choked up sometimes when I’m hiking. I can’t explain why this is a good thing, I just believe it is. There is this idea of flow: the state of being absorbed in and wholly focused on an activity, so that you lose track of time and yourself. Many people believe that spending more time in a state of flow makes you happier. I think experiencing the natural beauty of the world can be a shortcut to the same state, even if only briefly. It’s a way to let go of yourself and, for a moment, be immersed in something big and amazing.

 6. It’s fun to make a home in the wilderness. My favorite part of backpacking is finding a campsite. It’s fun to assess the options and thrilling to find a real gem: a comfortable spot with shelter from the wind, a convenient water source, good places to sit, and a view. Then, with just the pack on your back, you make a temporary home. You are a pioneer or a character in a fantasy novel. It’s greatly satisfying, and, as I’ve written about before, I think it speaks to some kind of primal instinct, developed when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers.

 7. The thrill of discovery. This is the best of all. You’ve been walking for hours, you’re tired and muddy, your pack is uncomfortable, and you were ready for dinner two hours ago. But it’s time to climb the final ridge on your journey, and you scramble to the top in a last burst of energy. Then, like

Stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 —you get to see what is on the other side. Maybe it’s a lake, or a pass with mountains ranged before you. Maybe it is awesome, maybe disappointing, but it is worth all the discomfort just to find out. Even if thousands of other people have been there before you, it feels like your own discovery.

Marmot Pass

We went up to Marmot Pass for one night of backpacking this weekend. Neither I nor my husband had been there before, and it was great. This is one reason I love living in Washington: it is chock-full of amazing places to go hiking and backpacking. After five summers of exploring, I keep discovering mind-blowing new spots. Where else can you find that in the U.S., except Colorado, Alaska, or Montana? And we have fewer grizzly bears than Alaska or Montana (though apparently at least one), and more ocean than Colorado.

wildflowers on the trail

Marmot Pass was breathtakingly beautiful. It also possesses the advantages of being relatively close to Seattle, good for a day hike as well as an overnight, and sunnier and drier than surrounding areas. This weekend, it was almost snow-free, in contrast to many other parts of the state that are still covered in snow above 4,500 feet.

The hike to the pass is a mellow 5.3 miles and 3,500 feet elevation gain. For the first few miles the trail passes through forest. At about 4.5 miles, there is a collection of campsites known as Camp Mystery. The sites are close together and in the trees, and this weekend it was crowded. We filled up our water containers, having read that there was no water above Camp Mystery, and continued up the trail, hoping to find a nice campsite with a view up higher.

Marmot Pass from above

Just before the pass lies a wide meadow-y bowl. By the end of the evening, a few groups had set up camp in different spots throughout the bowl.

The views from the pass are great, but there is enticing ridge-walking to either side. We turned left at the pass and headed up a footpath on the ridge to the south. Two or three hundred feet up, the ridge flattened out and we found two established campsites, of which we chose the first and set up camp. We had 360 degree views and a nice flat area, dotted with wildflowers, to explore. A goat wandered through our campsite but we didn’t see any other wildlife. We enjoyed mostly sunny skies, though clouds had set in in the valley we had come from and gathered in the mountains (Deception, the Needles, Mystery) to the west and south.


In the morning, our campsite and Marmot Pass remained in a pocket of blue sky and sun. We packed up and headed down to the pass, where we ditched our packs for a walk up Buckhorn Mountain, about 1,000 feet above. The trail begins with a steep uphill climb but then levels out to an easy walk along a high ridge with great views all around. Reaching the summit requires a bit of easy scrambling. The same mountain goat that had walked through our camp the night before followed us nearly all the way to the summit before it finally found a shady place under some rocks to rest.

partial view from Buckhorn summit

We went back down to the pass, donning our packs and tackling the 5.3-mile walk to the car. As we descended, the sun became fog and mist, which then became heavy drizzle.

Here is the Washington Trail Association’s description of the hike, including directions. A tip on getting there: several miles in, Forest Road 27 takes a sharp left, while a dirt road continues straight uphill. That way lies only confusion and, on Saturday, unnerving swarms of bees. Turn left and stick to the paved road.

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