We recently spent about 9 days in New York City and Boston.  It was a lot of fun. I have included some pictures below…

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We planned a 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip for the Boy Scout troop for the weekend before Thanksgiving. We decided to hike the Eagle Rock Loop in central western Arkansas. This loop is 26.8 miles and made up of three trails: the Little Missouri, the Viles Branch, and the Athens Big Fork. We spaced two of our shuttle vehicles about 4 miles apart in order to give us two exit options on the trail. Three others had to come later, and planned to park outside the Albert Pike Recreation Area and meet us on the trail.

Day 1:

We left at 7 AM Saturday morning and drove over to leave shuttle vehicles and eat lunch at the Little Missouri Falls trailhead. There is a very nice pedestrian bridge over the Little Missouri River at that trailhead. We started hike right about 1 PM Saturday afternoon. Our plan was to hike beyond the Albert Pike campground for the first night, as there is not any overnight camping allowed in Albert Pike. A few photos of the Little Missouri Falls area are below.

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The trail follows the Little Missouri River, so there is not much elevation change on the way to Albert Pike. The USGS river gauge at Langley, AR showed the Little Missouri River level at about 3.5 feet, so although we had to make three wet crossings, they were not too bad. We pulled off shoes to cross the river in order to try to keep our feet dry this first day. River crossings did tend to slow down our pace. Here is a photo of one of our river crossings. We also took some time here to hydrate and eat a snack.

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We covered the 6.3 miles from the Little Missouri Falls to Albert Pike in about 4.5 hours. It was just starting to get dark, and the other three in our group did not appear to be at Albert Pike yet. We had to continue hiking in order to find a campsite.  I was in the back of the group, and just as I started to head up the hill, I looked back one last time and saw headlights. I decided to hold up just a minute, and the vehicle looked like it might be Paul’s truck. Doug had the group hold up, and I walked back down into the campground and tried to let Paul know I was there. He drove up to the trailhead, and his two kids got out and joined the group. I rode back to help him park, and we had to hike back and catch up with the rest of the group who had made it to a forest road crossing in the dark. Paul and I decided that God worked out his timing, as they were praying that they would find us, after several wrong turns driving over. If we had hiked much faster, we would have completely missed them. It also turned out on day 3 that we really needed Paul’s vehicle to be parked near Albert Pike. The topo map looked like there may be some campsites further on down, so we hiked a little further as a group in the dark to find a place to camp. We did find a nice campsite about 1.5 miles past Albert Pike next to a small creek. This put our total miles for the day to be about 8 miles. A picture of our first campsite is below.

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Day 2:

We got a little rain during the night, but not too much. We got up, packed up, ate breakfast, and were hiking this second day by about 9 AM. We quickly reached the Blaylock Creek crossing (another wet crossing), and then had two more wet crossings of the Little Missouri River within the first 3 miles of hiking that morning. A few pictures of our hike along the Little Missouri and one of the crossings are below.

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After the second crossing of the river for the day, we turned west to follow the Viles Branch Creek. This was also a nice level hike, and we were able to do the crossings of this creek dry without removing shoes. It was 3.5 miles of trail from the Little Missouri to the junction with the Athens – Big Fork trail. So far, everyone was doing well, and although cloudy, we had not seen any rain to cause us any problems.  At the Athens – Big Fork junction, the trail turns north and UP the ridge! It was a strenuous 0.6 mile climb up to the saddle, and some of our group took the side trails to the Eagle Rock Vista. Once over the saddle, we had about a mile descent to end up hiking along the Saline Creek. We looked a little further on, but the trail started back up and there did not appear to be any camping or water beyond the creek, without going another 1.5 miles. It was bout 4:30 PM, so we decided to setup camp for the night at a site near the creek. It was somewhat crowded, but we did manage to find enough room for our tents. This location would leave us with about 6.5 miles to the end of the Athens – Big Fork Trail and our closest shuttle vehicle. We setup tents in the remaining daylight and made dinner with our alcohol stoves (ramen noodles). Everyone was in their tents by about 7 PM that night. Around 9PM the first sprinkles of rain started, and the rain and thunder continued for most all of the night. It was difficult to sleep with the loud rain, and I also would move around occasionally to keep an eye on the nearby creeks – watching them rise.

Day 3:

Morning came, and all of the creeks nearby were rushing. It turns out that we had gotten about 4 inches of rain during the night! We tried to pack up camp during a break in the rain, but the break was short lived and the rain started up again. Several scouts had wet tents and sleeping bags, and the wet packs made the load considerably heavier. We had to hike up the next ridge from our camp, and we decided it would be impossible to keep our feet dry, so we just hiked through the creek at all of the crossings. We crossed Brush Heap Mountain, and descended down toward Blaylock Creek. We had to cross one side tributary that was rushing fast. We positioned all adults in the middle of the stream to help our youth cross safely. It was challenging, but safe. After a short distance further, we crossed FR 106 and came to Blaylock Creek. It was obvious that this crossing might be difficult. The creek level was up considerably from the day before when we crossed downstream. The water was rushing quickly and the crossing was about 30 feet across. Paul waded out a few feet, and the water was clearly too fast to cross safely. At this point, we backtracked to the forest road (FR 106). It was continuing to rain on us as well. We actually met two other scout leaders who had hiked ahead of their group, as they had met high water as well. We decided that the best course of action would be to send a few of our group ahead on the forest road back to Albert Pike. From there, we could take Paul’s truck (remember I said we would need it later ?) to the other shuttle vehicles, come back down the forest road, and get all of our group out. We found a stone house with a porch to offer some protection to our group, so we left two leaders behind with our youth, and three leaders, along with the two leaders from the other troop, left our packs behind to fast hike the 6 miles on the forest road back to Albert Pike. Water was running across the road at several places, and the water was actually running over the low water bridge at the Albert Pike campground. By the time we got back to the group with our trucks, they had eaten lunch, some had changed clothes, and were doing fine.

We were loaded and on the road by about 2:30PM, which was still close to our original plan. The group, consisting of 5 leaders and 9 youth, had hiked 18 miles during the trip. I hope that this was a learning experience for all of the youth. We made a plan, but safety was more important, and that should be a good lesson for all of them. This loop is a beautiful hike, and I suspect that we will be back again in an attempt to complete this challenging hike. One more photo showing some of the beauty of the Eagle Rock Loop. For your reference, here is a PDF on the Eagle Rock Loop. Happy trails!

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In January, we were in the Phoenix area for several days and decided to hike the Ballentine Trail in the Four Peaks Wilderness.  This trail is northeast of Phoenix, Arizona.

The trailhead is just past milepost 210 on Arizona 87, about 21 miles north of the intersection of Shea Boulevard and Fountain Hills. It is marked, but you will need to be watching for the small signs.

The start of the trail can be done in a loop, as you will see on the GPS track at the bottom of the photos below.

Water can obviously be scarce, since you are hiking in a Sonoran Desert – notice the Saguaro Cacti along the trail. We went back into the wilderness about 5 miles to an old corral.  There was a flowing stream there, but I would not count on it much of the year.

We only saw a few people on the trail near the start, and nobody further back into the wilderness. Our total round trip distance was 10.2 miles in about 6 hours.

It was a great hike, and I will let some of our photos describe it for you. Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Happy Trails,

Shawn

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Appalachian Trail Trip
Georgia Section
May 2010

I had been dreaming of hiking the Appalachian Trail for some time. Even as a youth in Boy Scouts, I knew of the AT and thought it would be great to hike some portion of it. Finally, I was able to spend a week on the trail and cover the first 85 miles or so. I am certainly ready to do more in the future if possible. For this trip, it was Jana and I and our son, Nate. In the future, we may take the whole family!

After much anticipation and planning, we met Ron and Meriam, who would shuttle us to Springer Mountain. Ron has been a great friend for many years, and graciously agreed to give up most of his day to get us to the start of the AT. We drove to where USFS 42 crosses the AT at mile 0.9. We were dropped off about 5 PM on Monday the 24th and started hiking to the official start of the AT. We enjoyed the view from the top of Springer, took some photos, and turned around to start our 85 mile section hike. The trail was in good shape, and we had a good pace. Those first few miles had a good grade with few rocks. I ate a Coffee House bar as part of my BackpackGearTest.org testing sequence of the Olympic Granola bars. We stopped at mile 5.1 to see Long Creek Falls at around 7:50 PM, having covered a total of 6 miles in about 3 hours. We decided to camp not far from the falls. We decided to take the Tarptent, since it would hold all 3 of us on the trip. I was also testing a ULA Ohm backpack and Bridgedale bamboo socks. We had Ramen noodles for dinner, which rehydrate rather quickly. Although it had rained hard when driving to the trail, we did not get any rain while hiking or during the night. We camped by ourselves among the giant hemlock trees. I have read a lot about the AT, so I did have some idea of the level of difficulty. Here on day 1, it was actually easier than I had expected, but I knew the trail would not be this easy for long.

 

 

 

We awoke the next morning, Tuesday May 25th, at about 6:15 AM. The temperature was as low as 60 that night. I ate a Honey Almond bar for breakfast, along with our Starbucks Via coffee – great stuff for backpacking. We packed up and left by 7:50 PM. We visited Hawk Mountain Shelter for a quick picture, and then continued hiking. We also ran across an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake that morning as it was crossing the trail. We had lunch at Justus Creek, and enjoyed nice views from Ramrock Mountain. We crossed the highway at Woody Gap and took a quick break there. We filled up on water and there were some decent bathrooms at the highway crossing. We started our steep climb up and over Big Cedar Mountain. We took a blue blaze trail to a fantastic overlook with a large rock area, a fire ring, and plenty of grass for a tent site. Side trails from the AT are marked with blue blazes, while the AT itself it marked with white blazes. It did not appear that this area had gotten much use, even though it was not far from the main trail. We arrived at the overlook about 6:30 PM around mile 21.3 and decided that was enough for the day, having hike 16.2 miles. We saw about 10 people that day. Most would briefly say hello as we passed, but a few would stop for a moment to chat. There was nearly a full moon, giving us wonderful light for the evening. Most interesting however, was the arrival of two dogs, both spaniels. They ran around camp and checked us out. One wore a collar, but neither had tags. We kept expecting an owner to arrive to claim them, but they seemed content to stay at our campsite. The were well-mannered, and laid down in the grass near our tent to sleep for the night. Sometime during the night, the dogs awoke and started barking. They seemed to chase after something in the woods, and the next morning, both were gone, perhaps having protected us from some unknown animal.

 

 

Our plan for Wednesday May 26th was to hike to Neels Gap. We had arranged for a cabin there, knowing that we could easily cover the 30 or so miles from Springer in just over two days. It was a great night last night, with the temperature down to about 60 degrees. We stopped at Jarrard Gap for water at a spring. No camping was allowed in the area from Jarrard to Neels Gaps due to bear activity. It was a big climb up Blood Mountain, but we were treated to a lot of rhododendrons that still had some blooms on them. We enjoyed fabulous views from a large rock on top of Blood Mountain where we also ate lunch. We pulled out our map and compass and were pretty sure that we could identify Springer in the distance. We arrived at Neels Gap about 1:40 PM after hiking the 9.4 miles from our last camp, having left at 7:30 AM. My snacks today were Lemon Chamomile and Mocha Mint granola bars. We took the trail from near the Mountain Crossings parking lot through the woods to Blood Mountain Cabins. We rented the chipmunk cabin that had two beds, a bathroom, and a kitchen. We walked back to the Walasi-Yi at Mountain Crossings to resupply our food and for ice cream! It was good stuff, especially after the 80 degree day. We walked back to the cabins to purchase soda, snacks, and frozen pizza for dinner that night. The food and shower were very refreshing.

 

 

We left Blood Mountain Cabins on Thursday morning May 27th around 6:45 AM. We knew this would be a longer day, so we started early. We finished off our cold pizza for breakfast on the way back to the AT. We passed a couple of tents at Bull Gap, and had a good pace starting out that morning. We ate lunch at Low Gap Shelter around 12:45 PM, and had more good hiking after lunch. The trail was a bit more rocky as we neared Blue Mountain. We had planned to camp beyond Unicoi Gap, but did not see any mention of decent campsites close by. We called the Best Western in Helen, which was listed in the AT Companion as possibly having a free shuttle. They quoted a $45 / night hiker rate along with a free shuttle, so we opted to do that. We arrived at the highway at 5:50 PM, having covered 20.2 miles that day. We were picked up at Unicoi Gap – watch out crossing the highway there, it can be dangerous! Carol even brought us bottles of water when she came to pick us up. The room and motel were very nice. We showered, washed clothes, and Nate enjoyed the pool. We went ahead and made our Ramen noodle dinner in the hotel microwave, since we had carried the food with us. We walked around town for German food and chocolate. Helen is a Bavarian style town, and is certainly reminiscent of a town in the Alps. It turns out that the town was not German styled at all until the late 60s or so, when the town voted to change their entire look in order to attract tourism and business. It seems to have worked for them.

Friday was a leisurely morning. Carol could not take us back to the trail until 10:30 or so. We decided not to get a taxi and just wait for her to be available. We were back on the trail around 10:45 AM. We passed a ‘ridgerunner’ who told us to avoid Tray Mountain shelter due to a moocher he had run into earlier. From the AT Conservancy website: “Ridgerunners and caretakers are generally seasonal employees assigned to hike and camp along high-use sections of the A.T. or to remain at heavily used overnight sites. The ridgerunner and caretaker program helps promote a quality recreational trail experience by talking to visitors about the A.T. and its intended primitive experience, its location, regulations, and traditions, as well as ways they can minimize their impact on the Trail.” Tray Mountain was quite overgrown and not what we expected. We did have lunch up on Tray Mountain, just past the summit. The views there were minimal. Our knees were feeling weary, probably due to the big miles and climbs of the day before. It was a tough day emotionally as well, but those are to be expected on an extended hike. We passed about 12 boys and a few adult leaders near Dicks Creek Gap. We stopped around 7:15 PM for the night near Moreland Gap. We covered 15.4 miles in about 8.5 hours. There was some lightning to the east, but nothing too close yet. There were a lot of fireflies out for the first time on our trip, and they were very enjoyable to watch as it got dark.

 

We woke up Saturday, May 29th to a temperature of about 58 degrees. This was going to be our last day of hiking, as Ron would pick us up at Deep Gap later today. We did get some rain the previous night, but it was no longer raining when we got up at 6 AM. We were packed and gone by 7:05, even after breakfast and coffee, so we were getting quicker. I used a light load towel to dry the tent before packing it away, and this worked quite well. It was foggy and damp when we left. We filled up with water at a stream just below our camp on the AT. I had a Coffee Mocha bar for my morning snack. We crossed US 76 at Dicks Creek, and there were a lot of cars there in the parking lot already. The skies did start to clear as we hiked that morning. We crossed the NC/GA state line and continued on to Bly Gap for lunch. We had lunch near the gnarled oak tree – you will know it when you see it. We did pass a scout troop from Georgia that were out hiking to get ready for Philmont. The climb north out of Bly Gap was very tough, perhaps the toughest climb so far on the trail. It was also a tougher afternoon than we had expected, as the trail was very rocky for much of the time. We met Ron at Deep Gap at 4:35 PM, which was still about on schedule. We covered  17 miles this last day in about 9 hours – still a good pace for us.

We made a stop on the way back to Knoxville for dinner, and enjoyed visiting with Ron and family during the couple of hours driving back. We all did well, although it was painful at times on the legs and knees. A very big thank you to my wonderful wife Jana, who was such a good sport in coming along for this AT hike. She is awesome!

I would like to return to the trail in the future. As long as we avoid 20+ mile days, at least on these shorter trips, I think we would be less fatigued. The trail was similar to what I had expected. After hiking the Ouachita and Ozark mountains in Arkansas, we had a good feel for what the trail would be like. Although the climbs were sometimes longer on the AT, the vistas and trail quality were quite similar. I did enjoy the fact that nearly every stream had a log or bridge to cross on, unlike the Arkansas trails. This kept us from having to take off shoes or get them wet when crossing.  For more information on the trail, visit the AT Conservancy website.

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Backpacking trip report from Boy Scout Troop 100 trip to backpack in Arkansas. Several family members accompanied the scouts during the trip in late May.

We started at the Ozone Trailhead (Mile 86) Friday afternoon around 2:40 PM. We hiked to Owen Creek that afternoon – covering about 6 miles in 3 hours. We had dinner at camp, and were in our tents by about 9 PM. I was testing Olympic Granola bars and had a Honey Almond bar for an afternoon snack. My pack start weight was 17 lb in the ULA Ohm. Jana and all three kids were on this trip as well. The high temperature today was around 85 degrees.

We awoke Saturday morning about 6:30 AM. The low the previous night was about 57 degrees. We broke camp about 8 AM, and crossed Owen Creek at Mile 90.9. We hiked up Lick Creek looking for waterfalls and found slot rock. We could not find Sunset or Discovery Falls, and it appeared that they must be dry. This was about a 2 mile side trip. I ate a Chocolate Peanut bar for my morning snack. We ate lunch at Hobo Falls East (27 feet tall) on our way to Cedar Creek. We found the large emerald pool on Cedar Creek, and the boys spent about 45 minutes swimming in the creek and pool, even though the water was quite cold. We continued hiking toward Gee Creek, and did not find any camping areas until we were at the creek crossing. We camped at Mile 102.3 just before the crossing. Our total for the day was about 15 miles including the side hike. The high temperature today was about 80 degrees.

We were up about 6:30 AM again on Sunday morning.  The low last night was about 65 degrees. We ate breakfast in camp, crossed Gee Creek, and headed down the trail. We hiked to Haw Creek Campground and visited Haw Creek Falls. We continued hiking past the campground to the parking area, and were at our vehicles by 11:15 AM, covering about 3.2 miles this morning.

We had shuttled pickup vehicles to the end point, so we did have to drive the forest roads back to our starting trailhead. After a good meal in town, everyone was doing great.

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We have created a map set and trail guide for the McGee Creek Natural Scenic Recreation Area that is now available in our store.

We are excited to offer our Trail Guide for the McGee Creek Natural Scenic Recreation Area (NSRA) in southern Oklahoma. We have hiked every trail (many more than once), and created a GPS track of all trails in the area. We then created a topographic map, and a satellite map with the trails shown. We also wrote a 15 page booklet about the area, regulations, camping areas, trails, and more. You will receive the trail guide, and both 8.5 x 11 maps. Examples of the maps are shown below. The cost is only $5.99 plus shipping.

Visit our Store

McGee Creek Trail Guide Cover

McGee Creek Topo Map with GPS Tracks

McGee Creek Satellite Map with GPS Tracks

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Well, with a week off for spring break, we decided to take our older two kids out for an extended backpacking trip. Nate also needed a 30+ mile hike for his Boy Scout Backpacking Merit Badge. The Ozark Highlands Trail is only about four hours away, so it seemed like a great choice for a multi-day trip with the kids. Jana and I had last hiked sections 1 and 2, so we had considered hiking sections 3 and 4. However, a shuttle was not available on the day we needed it, and we did not really want to drive two vehicles, so we opted for an out and back hike of section 3. Remember, you can click any picture below to enlarge it. Our condensed backpack trip report follows. We used the OHT Trail Guide by Tim Ernst in preparing for this backpacking trip.

On the way to the trail head, we stopped by the Turner Bend Store for a couple of fantastic sandwiches, as we did the last time we were through here. We left our vehicle at the Cherry Bend parking area on Highway 23 north of Cass, checked in at the trail register, and headed out around 5:30 PM. We were hoping to get to Hare Mountain, as we knew there was a lot of camping available up there. It was cloudy, breezy, and about 55 degrees when we started out.

We passed a group of about 10 or so scouts and leaders that were setup between mile 38 and 39. We made it to Hare Mountain around 8 PM, and it was already dark. There seemed to be a large group of campers on the mountain and many were even camped down near the start of the spur trail toward the top. It would be difficult to find a camping spot in the dark with so many others, so we decided to move on in search of a less crowded location. We hiked about another mile in the dark with flashlights and came to an area with a lot of pine trees near a logging road – around mile 43.5. We followed the old road away from the trail looking for a place to pitch the tent. A thick layer of pine needles is a great place to sleep, so we found a relatively level spot among the trees and setup the Tarptent. Nate and I planned to sleep under a tarp, while the girls used the tent. But since it was dark and we were not sure where we could setup the tarp in addition to the tent, we all squeezed into the Tarptent, which was supposed to hold three people! The location turned out to be a good choice. We were down off of Hare Mountain and out of the wind. The pine needles made for a soft bed, and the wind through the pine trees was quite soothing. We had covered about 7 miles this first day. The temperature dropped to only about 44 degrees during the night.

We slept in a bit past sunrise, but did get packed up and hiking again around 8:50 AM after we had breakfast. We hiked part way to Spy Rock, but decided to do this on the return trip, so we turned around and continued on the OHT. We stopped about 11:30 at a waterfall near Herrods Creek near mile 47.3. It was a wonderful waterfall in a secluded area, and we ate lunch and rested while we were there.

After lunch we continued on to Briar Branch (mile 53.7) and arrived around 3:30 PM. We had passed Williams Falls, Herrian Mountain, and Indian Creek along the trail today. There was a good campsite near Briar Branch with a nice fire ring. We setup the tarp and Tarptent, and then hiked through the Marinoni Scenic Area and to the jeep road at 54.4. This was a beautiful area with bluffs, waterfalls, moss covered rocks, and lots of beech trees. Nate even climbed out on a natural rock bridge. We returned back to camp and boiled water for our lasagna dinner. The kids played catch with a stuff football we brought. The weather for this day was great – 65 degrees and mostly sunny. The girls were in the Tarptent, and Nate and I were under the tarp. The sky was clear, the stars were out, and the sounds of the stream next to us lulled us to sleep. We had covered about 12.5 miles this second day.

 

Well, it was clear overnight, and the temperature dropped to 36 degrees. The girls got a bit cold, but mostly due to the down in the quilt shifting to the edges instead of being right over them while they slept. We fixed that for the third night ;-) We had our breakfast and coffee and were on the trail by 8:20. This was the turn around point for the out and back hike, so we headed back west toward Herrods Creek when we left camp. We saw two deer not far off the trail – right after Micah asked why we had not seen much wildlife! They were too quick to get their picture. We continued past Indian Creek toward the Spy Rock spur. On this return trip, we intended to take the Spy Rock / Redding Campground loop trail. Our timing worked out great again, because we were able to eat lunch at the waterfall near Herrods Creek near mile 47.3. After lunch, we took the turn toward Spy Rock and hiked to that overlook for a short break.

The views over the hills and into the valley from Spy Rock were great. After Spy Rock, we hiked the east side of the loop down to Redding Campground and arrived about 4 PM. Redding Campground is on the Mulberry River. Each campsite is primitive, but they did have a central bathroom with showers and toilets. We gladly paid the $10 camping fee, and most of us had a shower that night. There was also a group of Boy Scouts there for an annual backpacking event where they hike into Redding Campground. They had a campfire that night at the waterfront area, so we joined them to watch the skits and see awards handed out for scout skill competitions. We had Chili Mac for dinner and covered about 13.5 miles this third day. The first full day (yesterday) was a bit tough on the kids, but they had done just fine today.

We woke up feeling quite rested, and we all slept better last night than the previous two nights. It was only 45 degrees last night, so everyone stayed warm enough. The clouds had moved in, and it was overcast and misting. I met John, who had hiked all of the Appalachian Trail (AT) over 11 years with his two boys. He was about 60, and had finished the last of it the previous year. He loved to talk about backpacking, as do I, so we visited several times that morning. He gave me his card, and offered to send me information via email that might be helpful for the AT hike Jana and I are planning for this summer. We had breakfast, packed up, and were hiking again this morning by around 8:45 AM. Our plan was to hike about 12 miles to mile 39 or so, spend the night, and hike the last few miles out in the morning. We hiked the west side of the Redding Campground loop this time on our way back to the OHT. It never warmed up, and stayed cloudy, windy, and sprinkled some on us all morning. We stopped in a pine forest, as Micah calls them, for lunch. We also took the spur trail to the top of Hare Mountain to see it during the daylight. There were many good tent sites, and we found the hand dug well that was up there. Our hiking pace was very good, and our loads were much lighter with just a few meals of food left, so we decided to hike all the way out today. The weather continued to be cold, damp, and cloudy, so this seemed like a good decision. Everyone hiked well on this last day, and we reached Cherry Bend about 5 PM. We covered about 14.5 miles on this last day, and about 47.5 miles total for the trip. The kids did great and hiked at a good pace for most all of the trip.

Here is an overview of the route. We collected the GPS track with a data logger (Holux M-241). Click to enlarge.

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NEW… We have created a map set and trail guide for the McGee Creek Natural Scenic Recreation Area that is now available in our Store

The McGee Creek Natural Scenic Recreation Area (NSRA) in southeastern Oklahoma is a very convenient place for us to hike, since it is not far from where we live. The NSRA is located near Atoka and Antlers in Oklahoma, and it offers backpacking, hiking, and equestrian camping opportunities with many miles of trails.

I am working on developing a trail guide for the area, since little information is available. The brief trail map offered at the trail head is generally accurate as far as the trail location, but many of the distances are incorrect. I use a GPS data logger as I hike to correctly measure position and distance along each trail.

When doing a short hike with our kids back in December, the map at the permit station indicated that two new trails had been opened. We were anxious to try them out, and this holiday gave us that chance.

For this hike, it was just Jana and I with a light day pack. Temperatures was 45 to 60 degrees, and it was partly cloudy, which provided very good hiking conditions. From the trail head, we hiked north and then took the South Rim trail.

Before we reached Box Spring camp (near the junction of South Rim and Bog Spring trails), a new trail left toward the east. I will call it the Bog Spring trail, although no name is listed at the permit station. This trail provides much easier access to the east side of the McGee Creek NSRA, which had been a long hike north and around to a couple of camp areas on the southeast corner in the NSRA. The Bog Spring trail was in good condition, and allowed us to hike side by side for much of the trail. This new trail connects to roughly the middle point of the Hog Camp trail, near the equestrian camp E2.

We turned north onto the Hog Camp trail and followed it up until it came to a junction with the Hunters Cabin trail and short trail to the east which went to the east boundary. The boundary trail now is also open around the northeast corner of the NSRA boundary. We did not take this boundary trail, but it looks to be in decent shape and well blazed.

From the junction, we followed the Hunters Cabin trail toward the northwest. You will notice on our map a very small spur trail we took near the middle of the Hunters Cabin trail. This used to go to an old hunting cabin and outhouse. However, the cabin and outhouse have been demolished and removed. The area is now cleared, with two picnic tables and charcoal grills. I wonder if there are plans to put another equestrian camp here, but no information was available. The Hunters Cabin trail was in good shape, mostly double track, and nice hiking.

We continued on the Hunters Cabin trail until we came to the junction with the Coon’s Way Trail. This trail leads to the northern boundary of the NSRA, and it also connects with another trail called Wolf Creek as indicated on the state of Oklahoma map. However, as we hiked the Coon’s Way trail, there were no indications of the Wolf Creek trail, so it apparently is no longer marked or used. After reaching the northern boundary, we returned south on Coon’s Way, back to the Hunters Cabin trail and continued west on it.

Hunters Cabin connects to the northern end of the South Rim trail, and there are good backpacking camping areas there as well (B5 on the state map). We took the South Rim trail south to return us back to the parking area. The South Rim trail is also in good shape, with easy double track hiking through pine trees. The trees at the edge of the Bugaboo Canyon were too tall to see much from the overlook, but it was still very enjoyable as we made good time along the trail.

There had been some rain the previous week, so most of the creeks and streams were flowing, which is somewhat unusual for this area. Water sources are often limited to the lake on the west side of the NSRA, the Box Spring near Box Spring Camp, or the permit station at the trail head.

Our overall hike was 12 miles. We saw a few horses near the trail head, but once on the trail, we did not see anyone at all. Another great feature of the NSRA is the wooded environment. The tree cover helps to keep the hot sun off of you when hiking in the warmer months. The NSRA also does not have large elevation changes, so hiking with your family or kids would be an option as well.

Click on either graphic below to see a larger overview of our route on either a topographical or satellite map.

Happy Trails,

Shawn

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What do you do when the temperature in Oklahoma drops to below freezing for days on end?  Well, if you happened to get some great airline ticket pricing several months ago, you head for sunny Phoenix, Arizona.  We had planned to go visit our good friend Bob of Click and Learn Software in early January, and the weather could not have been nicer.  It was sunny and about 70 degrees every day of our trip to the Phoenix area.

We decided to take advantage of the trip out and the great weather to get in some good hiking in the Phoenix area. First, we stopped by the Arizona Hiking Shack. The helpful folks there provided some great advice. They also sell maps and other hiking and adventure gear. The Shack is well worth a stop when in Phoenix.

Our first hike was at the Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation Area. We wanted to get high enough for some great views of the area, so the Summit Trail to Piestewa Peak (formerly Squaw Peak) was our trail of choice. This 1.1 mile (one way) trail from the parking area to the summit at 2608 feet was steep but manageable. We saw people of all ages hiking up and down from the summit. As you can see in our photos, the view from the summit was great!

For our second hike that day, we chose a trail with less elevation change, but very representative of the desert environment and landscape. The North Mountain Preserve area offers some trails to higher peaks, but many of the trails are fairly level. This allows hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers of all ages to enjoy the desert surroundings. We hiked portions of a few trails resulting in a 2.35 mile outing in this park.

Between the previous two hikes, we stopped by REI for some quick bargain hunting (I’m in the market for new trail runners). The next morning, we headed to the west side of Phoenix. White Tank Mountain Regional Park on the west side of Phoenix offers 25 miles of trails ranging from less than a mile to about 8 miles in length. The nearly 30,000 acres include peaks rising to about 4000 feet from the desert below. We would have loved to hike some of the longer trails in the White Tanks, but due to time restraints could not do lot of hiking that morning. We decided to try out the Mesquite Canyon trail. Although the trail can be hiked for many miles, we ended up doing a 2.1 mile round trip hike. The morning air was cool, and the sun was shining. Once we started up the canyon, it felt like civilization was far away.

We had a great few days in the Phoenix area, and we would love to have had more time for hiking and shopping ;-) We discovered Trader Joe’s food store, and we ended up buying a bag to carry back some of the items we purchased there! We bought a daypack by ChicoBag. It is a uniquely designed daypack made of 89% recycled content, and it weighs less than 6 oz. Not far from Phoenix, Arizona are many other hiking opportunities including the Prescott National Forest and Coconino National Forests north toward Sedona and the Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix.

Happy Trials,

Shawn

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With Jana and I both being off for Thanksgiving, we wanted to try to get in a few nights of backpacking during the week. Due to other plans, the Ozark Highlands Trail was close enough to fit the bill. We have hiked part of the trail, but had not been on the OHT since the new section starting at the new Lake Fort Smith State Park was opened. We decided to hike sections 1 and 2 of the OHT for our 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip.

As with many longer trails, if you are not backtracking or hiking a loop, then some sort of shuttle or extra vehicle is necessary to return to the starting point. We did not want to backtrack or drive two vehicles, so we researched our shuttle options. I contacted both Paula White at White Rock Mountain and the Turner Bend store. Paula was available, so we had her reserve a slot to shuttle us on Saturday, November 21, 2009. Her shuttle pricing is one dollar per mile driven. We also called Paula the day before to make sure that all was in order for the next day.

We left our vehicle at the Cherry Bend parking area on Highway 23 just north of Cass, Arkansas. Coming from I-40, the Turner Bend store was on our way to the parking area, so we stopped and had a couple of wonderful home made sandwiches there Saturday about noon. The Turner Bend store has been open for many years, and only closes on Christmas. We highly recommend a stop there when traveling Highway 23. Paula met us at the Cherry Bend parking area and shuttled us back to the Lake Fort Smith State Park visitor center. The Ozark Highlands Trail starts behind the visitor center, and it was well marked with a sign next to the visitor center. We had a nice visit with Paula during the drive of more than an hour. She has been running the White Rock Mountain area for 19 years now. On several occasions, she has been iced in or lost power up there for weeks at a time!

We started hiking about 2:30 PM, hoping to get well past the north end of the lake by dark. The weather was overcast, but around 60 F, so it turned out to be wonderful hiking weather for the afternoon. The original start of the trail was at the old Lake Fort Smith State Park site, so not a lot of information was available about this new route. The trail runs north along the lake to the north end of the lake, where it crosses Frog Bayou. Since it is not very far from the lake, the elevation change is minimal for these first several miles. We passed two old rock chimneys fro

m old homesteads within the first two miles of the beginning. We passed a couple of day hikers on this stretch, and almost thought that their large black dog was a bear when we first saw it from a distance! The crossing at Frog Bayou (about 2.5 miles in) was wide, but not too deep. The water was quite cold – somewhat expected for late November. This would be a difficult or impossible crossing if the water was very high. The trail then turns south and follows the lake shore again, but not as close this time. Before long, the trail turned back east and left the lake. We did enjoy seeing a beautiful sky and sunset as we hiked into the Jack Creek drainage.

There were not any mileposts after mile 3, so it was hard to know exactly how far we had gone. We hiked until just after dark, hoping to find a good camping location. We boiled water on the alcohol stove for our dehydrated meal, and then setup the tent while the meal cooked.

Once inside the tent, we made notes about the day and looked at the maps and trail guide again. We were using the OHT Guide edition #5 by Tim Ernst. This guide is a must have for anyone hiking the trail. Both Tim’s guide and a few other things I found indicated that the new start of the trail was about a mile shorter than the original trail start. Based on the guide, our topographical map, and looking at the terrain around us, we estimated that we made it to about milepost 7.5 – or about 6.5 miles of hiking. Once back at home, the GPS track we took showed 6.43 miles of hiking this first day in about 3 hours – not a bad pace. Since it was dark so early, we turned in about 8 PM to try to go to sleep.

It was not hard to wake up early the next morning, having gone to bed so early the night before. It had gotten down to 39 F last night, but we stayed pretty warm under the Jacks R Better down quilt. We had also purchased two ¼” insulating pads from Gossamer Gear that we used under the Therm-A-Rest Neo Air pads to insulate us from the cold ground. We started to pack up about 6 AM, while it was still dark. I boiled some water for hot chocolate, while Jana packed up what she could in the tent. There was some condensation on the inside and outside of the tent, so I shook the water off as much as possible and stuffed it into the stuff sack for travelling. We finally got back on the trail at 6:50 AM, and it was getting fairly light. The clouds lifted during the night, and it was now clear this morning. Our plan was to hike nearly 17 miles to camp at Spirits Creek for the second night. We were not sure we could cover that distance with the short amount of daylight we have in November.

Soon after starting, we passed milepost 8, indicating that we had camped near milepost 7.8 the night before. So, it appears the new trail start is a little more than a mile shorter than the original route. All future milepost references will be relative to the trail markers, not our actual distance travelled, which will be slightly shorter. We were able to cross Jack Creek dry by rock hopping at milepost 9.4. We met a father and two sons who had camped there the night before. There were a few nice tent spots near the creek. From Jack Creek, the trail climbs about 500 feet in the next mile or so to cross FR 1007 near Dockerys Gap. There is a small parking area here if needed to access the trail. The trail immediately drops off the ridge again, losing the 500 feet over the next mile or less to reach Hurricane Creek. We met two other backpackers at Hurricane Creek that had camped there the night before after hiking down from White Rock Mountain. We managed to cross dry here as well on some rocks, and we started the 1000 foot climb over the next 2 miles on our way to White Rock Mountain. We definitely had to slow our pace for this climb, as many short sections were quite steep. Once we had reached an elevation near 2200 feet, the trail continued to have short up and down sections as it worked its way around the south side of White Rock Mountain. We stopped at milepost 17 for lunch that day. We could see the bluffs, still high above us, through the trees that had lost their leaves. Although the leaves were gone, and there was not much fall color, the leaf off did provide nice views out across many valleys and hillsides.

After lunch, we continued down the trail, encountering a Boy Scout group of about six people near milepost 18. They had stopped for lunch, so we talked to them briefly. They were here from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The day had warmed up nicely, and it was 60 to 65 F and sunny for much of the afternoon. We did not need to actually hike up the spur trail to the White Rock Mountain campground, so we continued on the OHT at the spur trail and headed downhill toward Salt Fork Creek. We are now on section 2 of the OHT, as described in Tim Ernst’s guide. The trail descends about 1200 feet over less than 2 miles to the crossing at Salt Fork Creek.

This was a wet crossing, so we removed our socks and insoles to keep them dry. We refilled water, which had been exhausted by now, and started up toward Potato Knob Mountain. This is a climb of about 1100 feet in 2 miles to the crossing of FR 1510. After a break here at the top, we started our descent back down toward Spirits Creek. It was on this section of trail about 18 months ago that we saw a black bear cub in a tree and heard the mother in the bushes below!

We did not see any bears, or other large wildlife for that matter, on this trip. In fact, with so many leaves on the ground, I am sure that animals could hear us from a mile away. It was also deer gun season in Arkansas, so we wore blaze orange while hiking, just to be safe.

The trail down to Spirits Creek was not too difficult, and we arrived at the creek crossing at milepost 24.6 at 4:45 PM – so it was still light this time! We found an established campsite not far from the crossing with a rock fire ring, so we setup camp there. This is a wonderful area with the creek down in a small valley, and many rock ledges and shelves all around. Many of them had water trickling over them, which then fell ten or twenty feet into the creek below. If the water had been higher, there are several waterfalls nearby, but this area had not had much rain in the last week or more, so the waterfalls we had seen were barely running.

We boiled water for our dehydrated meal, and I started a fire in the fire ring to dry out our damp socks and shoes. It also was nice to have the fire going while we ate dinner and took care of our tasks around camp. According the GPS track, we had covered 16.6 miles today in 10 hours of hiking. Jana’s knees were feeling much better after this day than they did on the Ouachita Trail last spring. We had been more diligent about taking glucosamine for several weeks before this trip, and we were taking ibuprofen at our meals as well. We went to bed again about 8 PM, with plans to get up at 5:40 AM and be on the trail the next morning at 6:30 AM.

We slept better this second night, and got up fairly easily at 5:30 AM or so. The temperature only dropped to 49 F last night, since clouds had moved in during the night. As a result, we did not have any condensation on the tent in the morning. I again boiled water for hot chocolate, and we started packing up gear from the tent. However, with the cloud cover and being in the valley, it was not light enough to start hiking at 6:30 AM. We waited a little longer, and were able to see well enough to hike by 6:50 AM. We would have to cover approximately 12.5 miles in order to reach our vehicle at the Cherry Bend parking area.

From Spirits Creek, we had to climb again up, but only about

600 feet this time to FR 1509 (Ragtown Road).  A few miles later we are at the start of my favorite trail section so far – and not just because it is flat and level. At milepost 27.2, we are at the start of a section of trail on old railroad bed. Yes, I said railroad bed – even in the middle of the Ozark Mountains! Back in 1915 or so, there was a Cass to Combs railroad spur. This was a narrow gauge railroad line that was used for logging in this area in the early 1900s. The rails are gone, and the ties have been removed or have rotted, but you can clearly see how the railroad bed was built up or cut down through the hills. At milepost 27.2 where the trail joins the railroad bed, there is a wonderful rock retaining wall, and many concrete piers and large bolts from the trestle bridge, which are still visible as you hike around a ravine to join the railroad bed. We follow this old bed for more than 2.5 miles, leaving it occasionally to go around an area that used to have a trestle bridge.

The hiking is still pretty good after leaving the railroad bed, but does work its way downhill and a good pace sometimes on the way to Fane Creek. At mile 31.6, we came to Fane Creek. We did look around for rocks to cross on, but even when low, this creek turned out to be a wet crossing. Where the trail meets the creek, there are large slabs of flat rock. So, we decide to just cross barefoot on this flat rock, rather than get our shoes wet. We wanted to keep them dry for the big climb coming up later in the day. We did take a short break here to enjoy the creek, refill water bottles, and snack on trail mix.

Soon after leaving the creek, we cross FR 1520, and begin the 1500 foot climb up Whiting Mountain. It turns out that this climb is broken into two parts. After about 700 feet of climbing, the trail does run generally level for about a mile, before turning up again for the last 800 feet of elevation gain. We stopped for lunch at milepost 33, which was in this generally level area. While enjoying our tuna on crackers, we did encounter another day hiker and his beagle. He said he would drive his truck out and park at a trail access point, and then he would hike out so far and turn around and return. He had done several portions of the trail this way.

We finished lunch and headed off again – dreaming of a fresh sandwich from Turner Bend! The additional climb this afternoon was strenuous,

but manageable. However, there was one area of the trail, near mile 34 to 35, that was very overgrown and in worse shape. There is an area that I would definitely not want to hike in the summer when the weeds were growing well! By mile 35 the trail had improved. It was obvious that some major work had been done to trim things back. Before long, we could hear Highway 23 in the distance.

Our last interesting landmark was a rock house shelter at mile 36.7. This is a large overhanging rock shelf that had been enclosed by loggers in the 1920s to serve as some sort of shelter.

Soon after this pause, we arrived at the spur trail to the Cherry Bend parking area. We were at the truck at 2:30 PM, exactly 48 hours after we started! This last day turned out to be 12.11 miles from Spirit Creek back to our vehicle. Very soon, we were stopping again at the Turner Bend store for bottles of soda pop and a turkey sandwich. We were tired, but not exhausted – success!

I always like to take a look at our hiking speed, including breaks, as this allows for better planning on the next trip. I compiled the table below to summarize our three days.

Day

Distance

Time

Speed

Nov 21 6.43 miles 3:00 hours 2.14 mph
Nov 22 16.6 miles 9:55 hours 1.67 mph
Nov 23 12.11 miles 7:40 hours 1.58 mph
Combined 35.14 miles 20:35 hours 1.71 mph

 

I am a tester for backpackgeartest.org, so I took a few items on this trip that were being tested. These were the PROBAR fruition bars and the Montbell Extremely Light Down Vest. See the link above for more information on those tests.

After the trip on the Ouachita Trail last spring, Jana was not sure how she would do on these long backpacking trips. Our first day last spring was very hard on her knees, so there was some concern about this trip. However, it seems that the glucosamine and ibuprofen help tremendously, and we both did very well regarding our knees and legs. I also wanted to reward her for her willingness to travel with me, so I arranged for a night at the Beland Manor Inn Bed and Breakfast in Fort Smith. I knew that a shower and hot bath soon after leaving the trail would help both of us to feel much better. This was a great alternative to just jumping in the car and driving for several hours after hiking. For those of you with a spouse that may not be as enthusiastic about backpacking, consider a night at a hotel or bed and breakfast after leaving the trail.

Mike and Suzy at the Beland Manor Inn were wonderful hosts and very understanding of hikers. Mike told of some other great hiking locations in Arkansas that we plan to check out when we can. Suzy made a wonderful breakfast with fresh fruit, sausage, and French toast with homemade bread, maple glaze, and pecans. Delicious!

If you are considering a hike on the Ozark Highlands Trail, I can certainly recommend it as a beautiful hiking destination – after all, the journey is the destination. In fact, we are planning a hike with the whole family, kids and all, on the OHT early next spring. Maybe we will see you in the woods sometime!

Happy Trails,

Shawn

PS: Topo and satellite maps follow for those interested ;-)

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