Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Footcare basics for the Pacific Crest Trail

I am a Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador, and I wrote an article for the Gossamer Gear blog about Footcare basics for the Pacific Crest Trail.  I describe causes of common foot problems, and things you can do before you start the PCT and while you are on the trail to prevent and treat issues like blisters.  Click here to read the article.
Click the link to read this article.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A feel for the Ozark Highlands Trail

The Ozark Highlands National Recreation Trail (OHT) extends 218 miles through northwestern Arkansas through much of the Ozark National Forest.  I’ve had my eye on this trail for several years because it can be hiked in winter and because of its remote character.
Rocky outcrops and gorgeous streams on the Ozark Highlands Trail.
On my drive between Georgia and Colorado over Thanksgiving, I stopped by the OHT for a short hike and stayed the night at the campground at the trailhead.  I wanted to get a feel for the trail and area to find out if it might be worth a return visit for a thru hike. 

The view from the trailhead at the Fairview Campground provided a highly favorable first impression.  Rolling hills expanded in waves, and forested land had fewer signs of development than you’d think.  These weren’t high rugged mountains like you’d find out West.  These ancient mountains worn down by erosion into gentle curves had a special beauty.
I headed west on the OHT, descending past rocky outcrops and rock-hopping over a small stream until I reached a hollow and the tumbling waters of Hurricane Creek.  Water is one feature that makes this trail special. 
Unbelievably blue water of Hurricane Creek.
The thing that won me over though was something more subtle- the character of the trail.  Trails aren’t just about the scenery they pass through.  There is the element of how they get you from point A to point B.   Trails can highlight the special features by detouring over to an outcrop or routing you through a grove of witchhazel.  Hiking this trail, I got the impression that the trail builders really loved this area and wanted to provide a special experience for us hikers.

 Some parts of the trail were rugged and overgrown.  More like following a deer trail than following a well-beaten path.  It took a bit longer because I had to be careful about watching my footing with all the rocks and leaves.  But I love the feel of narrow trail because it make me feel like I’m on a bushwhacking adventure.

When the trail eventually joined an old road, there was lovely old stone bridge over the creek that made me think that I’d been brought to that place for a reason- so I could get a taste of the history of this region.
Old stone bridge.
Finally, I got to a deep blue swimming hole just as the light was beginning to fade.  It was too cold, even for me, to take a swim, but I hope that someday I’ll be able to return and be able to dip more than just my toes.
Dipping my toes along the Ozark Highlands Trail.
It was a very cold night back at the campground.  I would have preferred backpacking in a few miles and choosing a more sheltered campsite away from the road, but I was reluctant to leave my car overnight.  It was packed with boxes and boxes of my stuff that I’d picked up from storage, and my computer.  Still, I had an awesome view of the sunset from high on the ridge.  And fell asleep dreaming of future hikes along this wonderful trail.
Blazing sunset makes my hammock glow.
For more information
Ozark Highlands Trail Association  

Trail description and maps for the Ozone to Fairview section

GPS tracks download for the OHT

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dayhikes in the Colorado snow

Over Thanksgiving, I visited the Four Corners area, which is where Still Waters has recently taken a job.  The high peaks of the La Plata Mountains in southwestern Colorado were covered in snow, but the lower elevation trailheads in the Transfer Recreation Area, 11 miles northeast of Mancos, CO, were still accessible.
Still Waters on the Aspen loop (an ATV trail).
The Transfer Recreation Area has an incredible network of trails that allow lower-elevation loops as well as access into the high country, including linking to the Colorado Trail.  Still Waters drove us up to the Transfer Campground in her truck.  Following an ATV trail provided an easy option for one dayhike.
Snowy La Plata Mountains in the distance.
For my second dayhike, I parked lower down near the Doc Lowell Flat to avoid the snow and mud up at the Transfer Campground (since I drive a small civic and was going by myself this time).  I slogged on muddy ATV roads to the Box Canyon Trailhead (8900 feet).  From there, the Rim Trail, West Mancos Trail, and Transfer Trail form a nice little loop.  I descended into the canyon and then I turned onto the West Mancos Trail to follow along the river.  A left turn brought me back up the canyon onto the Rim Trail, and up to the Transfer Campground, with lovely view across the canyon to the 13,000 foot peaks of the La Plata Mountains.
Along the West Mancos Trail.
There is nothing like walking in snow.  It smells fresh and crisp on the breeze.  There is the crunch underfoot.  You can feel your core tighten and all the smaller muscles of your legs engage. 
Time for microspikes.
Increasing snow at higher elevations.
I longed to follow the path that led up to higher elevations, but I had reservations about going out past where the other footprints stopped when I was by myself.  Hopefully, some other time...

Overall, the Transfer Recreation Area was a lovely place and it'd be wonderful to explore the area more.

Trail and Route Information:

Guide to the Scenic Hiking Trails in Mesa Verde Country” - excellent brochure listing trail descriptions and with (rough) maps.

Trails Illustrated #144 Durango Cortez - topo map for the region.

Directions to the trailhead on the FS website

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Winter backpacking at FDR State Park

An overnight backpacking trip with the Trail Dames on the Pine Mountain Trail at FDR State Park in Georgia.
Lunch break on the Pine Mountain Trail.
The Pine Mountain Trail at FDR State Park is one of my go-to places during the winter because it doesn't tend to get as cold as the North Georgia mountains.  But that doesn't mean it's not cold.  Temperatures still dipped below freezing, and provided a good opportunity to test our winter gear.
A chilly morning. Photo by Jean.
 It was great seeing Jean and Kelly again- I've done previous Trail Dames trips with them and it was so nice to catch up with them.  It was the first time I'd met Tonya, and I was so glad she could join us for part of the time and I sure hope to see her again.
Tonya on the Pine Mountain Trail.
 Fall leaves were colorful.  We were delighted by a few late-season flowers.
Gentian still blooming.
Grass of Parnassus along a small creek.
Once again, so nice to spend the weekend with the Dames!
Having dinner at the Whiskey Still campsite. Photo by Jean.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Foothills Trail Thru Hike

While I’ve section hiked the Foothills Trail repeatedly, this was the first time I’ve completed the entire trail in one continuous trip.  I was thrilled to do this hike with my friend Susan (“Rewind”) who you might remember I started the PCT with (check out her blog here).  The really great thing about hiking with Susan is that she shares a fondness for the natural world and for plants in particular.  Perfect hiking partner for this trail with all the fall color!  We spent time examining colorful fall leaves, pulling apart seeds and fruits to figure out what they were, and lifting up rocks to look for salamanders.  This was quite a different mindset that I used to have on previous trips on the Foothills when I’d do over 25 mile days, back when I had something to prove.  But it was a fabulous way to enjoy this exceptionally beautiful trail.
Susan on the Foothills Trail.
Overview of the Foothills Trail
The Foothills National Recreation Trail extends 77 miles from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park along the South Carolina/ North Carolina border.  Highlights include the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, Gorges State Park, Lake Jocassee, Sassafras Mountain (the highest point in South Carolina at 3554 feet), and Whitewater Falls (second highest falls in the east). 
Whitewater Falls.  Photo by Susan.
Time of year
Our trip took place in mid-November, and we caught the BEST EVER fall leaf color.  I’ve section hiked the Foothills Trail pretty much all months of the year and do tend to like the spring flowers, but the leaf color made November a close contender for best time to hike.  The Foothills Trail stays at a lower in elevation than the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and North Carolina, so the weather remains relatively moderate during winter.  We had a few days warm enough to go swimming, but by the end of the trip a front came through that brought rain and then freezing temps.
Horsepasture River.
Trip duration and direction
I highly recommend allowing extra time to hike this trail.  We spent 5 nights which allowed for a very relaxed trip.  Sure we could have finished quicker (being the badass PCT hikers that we are- haha), but neither of were eager to get back to town.  So we dragged out our trip, exploring side trails that took us to additional waterfalls.  Because the days are short this time of year and evenings got cold, we also ended up going to bed quite early.  Like around 6 PM.  So even though we’d get hiking before the sunrise, we were glad to have planned extra days to account for these shorter days.  

We choose to start at Oconee State Park so that we could do the part of the trail with the least amount of elevation change at the beginning of our trip when our packs were heaviest with food.  It also allowed us to save the dramatic views at Sassafras and Table Rock for the end.
Susan and I at the Oconee State Park Trailhead.
Wonderful waterfalls
What makes the Foothills Trail really stand out are the waterfalls- more waterfalls than I’ve ever seen anywhere else.  This is because the trail goes along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, which is the 2,000 foot drop-off between the higher Carolina Mountains and the lower Piedmont.  This is an area that gets more rainfall than most other places east of the Mississippi, and all that water flows down a series of gorges.
Virginia Hawkins Falls.
One of the distinguishing features of this trail are all the steps and bridges.  Big iron bridges, and wooden bridges of all shapes and sizes.
Over the Laurel Fork.
 Parts of the trail are along the fall-line, and steps lead steeply up and down, providing quite a stairmaster workout.  Footing is often technical, the trail being rocky and rooty, and we had to adjust our pace and ended up going slower than we would on the PCT.
Endless stairs.
Water is plentiful along the route.  The longest water carry is over Sassafras Mountain, which is also a steep section so watch out that you don’t get complacent expecting water every few miles and run out here.   Also while it may be tempting to camp along the gorgeous streams and rivers, in winter these areas turn especially cold and damp at night, and we stayed much warmer by camping up on the ridges where the views of the sunrises and sunsets were better anyway.

Flora and fauna
The Foothills Trail passes through many botanically rich areas and the wildflowers in April and May are exceptional.  One of the most exciting botanical highlights of the Foothills Trail are the endangered (but locally abundant) Oconee Bells, which are endemic to the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains.  They grow along streams, are related to the more common galax, and bloom in March and April (see my photos of them here).  The famous French botanist Andre Michaux collected the Oconee Bell in 1787 and the famous American botanist, Asa Gray, found Michaux’s record of the plant years later, and kicked off a several-decade long hunt for the plant which wasn’t rediscovered until 1877 (read the full story here).
Witchhazel blooms in November.
The Foothills Trail also has a fair amount of wildlife.  One evening, we got to see a small black bear scamper up the far hillside one after we’d set up camp.  Fortunately, it didn’t seem to be interested in us and didn’t return to our camp.
Susan hangs her bear bag.
Overall, this is a gem of a trail and fall is a great time to visit.
More information and Maps

Foothills Trail Conference- information and maps/ guidebooks.

Allen Easler- overview and more information on the waterfalls

The Foothills Trail Map (by the Foothills Trail Conference)
(Edit: the new 2014 map from the Foothills Trail Conference is suppose to be a big improvement- see comments section below)
Unfortunately, this is a very difficult map to read and use.  All the information you need is here, but it is not organized in a way that makes sense or that is standard for other long trails.  The use of a numbering system instead of place names is particularly confusing.  Distances between these numbered waypoints is given in a chart, but then you have to reference another chart explaining what the numbers mean.  The elevation profile doesn’t show mileages on the x-axis either.  I solved these problem by taking a perminant marker and writing mileages directly on the map and replacing the numbering systems with actual names of waypoints and trail junctions to make a functional map.  On the upside, sales of this map benefit the FTC and go towards trail maintenance and construction.  Some people like the FTC Guidebook, which has more detailed descriptions, but I’ve hiked the trail before so I didn’t find that information necessary.  The trail is very well signed, blazed, and generally easy to follow.

National Geographic Trail Illustrated Map #785 of the Nantahala and Cullasaja Gorges
If you are section hiking the Foothills Trail, the NatGeo map shows roads and is helpful for getting to the trailsheads.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Table Rock State Park with the Georgia and South Carolina Trail Dames

This post was originally published on the Trail Dames blog.

Women from both the Georgia and South Carolina chapters of Trail Dames met on a chilly fall weekend for camping, hiking, and bluegrass music at Table Rock State Park in South Carolina.  It was the first joint trip between these two chapters, and it was so much fun I’m sure there will be more in the future.
Dames goofing off. Photo by Wendy.
 Wendy and Julie, who founded the South Carolina Trail Dames chapter at the beginning of this year, greeted everyone in the parking area.  They direct us to the Owl Tree group campsite, only 1/4 mile down the trail and with a lovely view of the lake through the trees.
Jules and Donna show off their winter hammock setups.
 After settling in, the sun set early, as it does this time of year, and we came together around the campfire.  Women who have been with the Georgia Trail Dames chapter since its beginning (7 years ago!) were joined by a few who were brand new to the Dames.  As happens so easily in the outdoors, everyone started sharing stories, exchanging tips, and telling about our past adventures.  Laughter and conversations filled the night air, warming our hearts, even if our backsides remained chilly. 
Around the campfire.
 As the sun came up the next morning, women slowly emerged from tents and hammocks.  The freezing temperatures had provided quite a challenge during the night.  Some had stayed warm, but others hadn’t fared as well. 
Fall color.
We began the day with a 1.8 mile hike on the Carrick Creek Trail.  The fall colors were incredible!  Waterfalls cascaded over rocks covered in brightly colored leaves.  Fallen leaves crunched beneath our feet as we hiked. 
Hopping across the rocks during the hike.
 After the hike, some decided to go out to eat, while others grabbed a picnic lunch and then went to listen to traditional bluegrass music at the lodge in the park.  A few Dames joined in the dancing in the aisles.  What an (interesting cultural) experience! 
Local musicians playing bluegrass music.
Our second morning, the early risers in the group took Pam’s suggestion to watch the sunrise over the lake.  Morning fog rose dramatically over the water and provided a picturesque ending to a fun-filled weekend. 
Donna, Brenda, Joan, Leah, Julie, and Kathy. Photo by Wendy.
On a more personal note...
 I was so glad to spend a wonderful weekend with the Trail Dames. I definitely missed hanging out with these gals.  Some of these women have known me since even before I learned to backpack, and have given me so much support in hiking the PCT.  It was so cool how they'd read my PCT blog and asked me so many questions about my adventures.  Spending time with them out in the woods reminded me just how much they've taught me- especially about how to laugh about everything and how to slow down.  Sure love the Dames!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Food for the PCT

I got a request to write about my food for my 2014 hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, so here I describe my strategy for resupply, menu planning, my favorite meals and snacks.  All my food was no-cook/ stoveless, which is how I've been eating on the trail for a long time.  I prefer the simplicity and it saves me time.  Enjoy!

Maildrops vs. Buying in town
There are two general strategies for resupplying food on the Pacific Crest Trail.  You can mail yourself food (or really have your friend or family member mail it to you) or you can buy food in towns as you go.  I didn't know which I would prefer, so I planned a hybrid approach, preparing and dehydrating meals for about half of my stops, and figuring I could buy food in town the rest of the time.
Buying food in town.
This hybrid strategy turned out well for the first 940 miles before I had to get off the trail for the stress fracture.  They say sending yourself food works best for those with specific food requirements, and that's the case for me- I am hypoglycemic so that means I need more protein and fats with every meal and I'll crash if I get too much sugar.  The boxes of food that Still Waters and my parents sent me were filled with all sorts of delicious snacks from Trader Joe's, and whole-foods-type stores or International Markets, and dehydrated meals that I made from recipes I'd developed over the years.  More veggies, more nutrient-packed foods, less sugar.   So I found that I ate much better from my boxes than when I shopped in town where the choices were more limited. 

When I bought all my food in town, I found I had less variety, since there were fewer options in the small towns.  I mostly ate fresh foods like tortillas and cheese, but did pack out more veggies which was great.  But I had less energy when I ate the sugary foods common in convenience stores like pop tarts, hostess cakes, and candy bars.  It was a nice change once in a while, but I looked forward to my resupply boxes when I could get more variety.
Fresh tomatoes and green peppers taste delicious on tortillas.
Preparing and dehydrating meals for the trail
Last winter, I dehydrated many of my favorite winter meals.  These tasted great on the PCT.

When I was healing from the stress fracture, I prepared trail food for the second half of my hike while I was at Steph's house (Thanks again Steph!).  I had the advantage of knowing exactly what foods I wanted, and I could incorporate what I'd learned from the first 940 miles into my menu planning.  What I had learned was that I wanted to eat food that had flavors like I normally eat at home.  I also learned that the food I could make or buy myself was so much better than what I could find in towns.

I made meals by dehydrated a few ingredients and combining them with other ingredients that I ordered online.  I generally followed several recipes found on the Backpacking Chef website.  (Note: Below I only list ingredients, not amounts, because I didn't measure anything.  If you need a recipe, check out that website.)

I dehydrated rice that I'd flavored before dehydrating (see below) and also creamed corn to make corn bark.  I also dehydrated shrimp and deli ham.

I ordered pre-made dehydrated veggies (from Harmony House), freeze dried cheese, and freeze dried meat online to add to what I made.   
Mixing up dried veggies with other ingredients.
My favorite meals
The key thing was thinking up what dishes I like to eat at home, and then figuring out how to mimic those on the trail.  I love Indian, Mexican, and Asian food, so I took those as inspiration to create meals from the dehydrated ingredients I had.  

    -Green curry- dehydrated Trader Joe’s Green Curry Simmer Sauce over cooked jasmine rice, then added dehydrated shrimp and freeze-dried peas.
Dehydrating Trader Joe's Thai Green Curry sauce mixed with jasmine rice.
    -Corn chowder- dehydrated corn bark, dried corn and dried potato, nido milk powder, cheese powder, dehydrated shrimp or ham.

    -Sushi in a bag- dehydrated sushi rice (prepare sushi rice as you would for regular sushi by seasoning it with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt, then dehydrate it), dehydrated shrimp, dried cabbage, and broken up dried seaweed.  I'd put it all together in a bag, then add cold water. It wasn't rolled since that would have taken too much time, and the seaweed turned sort of mushy, but all the flavors were there and it tasted close enough for me.
Making "sushi" for the trail.
    -Fantastic foods tabouli- with added dehydrated corn, carrots, and peppers.

    -Tortilla soup- dehydrated corn, peppers, tomatoes, squash, dehydrated refried beans, freeze dried  cheese, dehydrated beans, with fritos sprinkled on top.

    -Lime-cilantro rice with corn and beans- dehydrated rice with lime juice and cilantro, also added corn bark, dehydrated beef, and taco seasoning.
A favorite.
Meal plan
I followed a rough schedule for eating that involved frequent meals.  Breakfast at 5-6 AM, 1st snack at 8 AM, 2nd snack at 10 AM, lunch at 12, 3rd snack at 2 PM, 4th snack at 4 PM, dinner at 6 PM and evening snack right before bed.  Dinner was probably my smallest meal.  I felt more constant energy when I ate continuously and never had a big meal.  When I did fewer miles and didn't need as many calories, I skipped the evening snack.

Breakfast was always granola with nido milk powder and jerky or cheese sticks for protein.  I ate this every single morning and never got sick of it.  I mailed myself nido milk but bought granola in town.

Lunches and dinners were just-add-cold water meals.  Sometimes I had tortillas with cheese and pepperoni, or with peanut butter and dried fruit.  Because I am hypoglycemic, I always had protein with my meals in the form of cheese, tuna, nuts, or freeze dried meats.
Blue Yonder makes up some tortillas with peanut butter and dried cranberries.
Snacks were bars, pudding, dried fruit, dried veggies or veggie chips, or nuts.   Plus some protein like cheese or jerky at every snack break to avoid sugar spikes.  An equal number of sweet and savory snacks worked well.  The evening snack was usually peanut butter.  Salty snacks were especially important in the heat. High calorie snacks were really important in the Sierra.  We were all really hungry by that point, and needed extra calories in the cold and difficult terrain.
Snack break after crossing Forester Pass.
I didn't like bars as much as other people.  But they were easy to buy and carry so I still ate them sometimes.  Traditional bars were usually too sugary and boring, but made OK treats when paired with some jerky.  A few times other people gave me bars they were sick of like ProBars and these were great because I hadn’t had them before.  I liked bars that had higher calorie content like some of the protein bars, builder bars, and pemmican bars.  I also found a few unusual bars in natural food stores that were delicious and high fat (which was great!) like Halvah and Oskri coconut bars.
The key to bars is variety and not eating them too much. 
Dried fruits
I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy dried fruits and fruit leathers.  Especially tart and tangy fruits.  I didn’t dehydrate any fruit for the beginning of my hike because I thought dried fruit would be easy to buy.  I was wrong- all the dried fruit was too sugary and not nearly as good as my home dehydrated fruits.  (The exceptions are dried ginger which soothes the tummy, and Trader Joe's Mandarin oranges.)  So while I was healing from the stress fracture, I dehydrated bananas and made low-sugar fruit leathers (cranberry-orange and mixed berry were favorites).  I added yogurt to the fruit leathers to up the protein.  Most of the time I ate the dried fruit directly, but it was also delicious when I added cold water to it and let it soak and turned it into a “smoothie”. 
Dried fruit and fruit leathers.
Other sweet snacks
Instant pudding with nido powder and chia seeds.  Instant cheesecake mix.   Chocolate was also a very important thing to carry for chocolate-emergencies.  Tictacs and jolly ranchers for SoCal.
Don't forget the chocolate!
Dried veggies
Veggie chips were a favorite.  Also, wasabi peas and kale chips. 
Loved all things veggie.
Nuts and nut butters
Nuts were one of my favorite things in SoCal.  Then I got sick of them by the end of the Sierra.  Nut butter single serving sizes were good at the beginning, but once hiker hunger set in, I always carried a jar of nut butter.  One time I mixed nutella and chunky peanut butter half and half and it was divine, though probably had too much sugar for me but I didn't care at that point.
Nut butters.

I ate a lot of jerky.  Lightweight and packed with needed protein.  I loved Simply Snacking jerky strips.  Krave brand jerky (Pork black cherry barbecue) was another favorite.  Jerky was really expensive on the trail, so I tried to get it sent to me because it's much less expensive at Costco or online.

I usually carried a block of cheddar, but occasionally got something fancier like gouda.  String cheese was another favorite.

Drink mixes
EmergenC, gatoraide (low sugar), and any kind of drink mix packets added flavor.  These were especially good when water was scarce and I would want to “tank up” and drink a half liter (or a liter) at the water source to rehydrate. 
Drink mixes.
Fresh food
Packing out fresh food added nutrition and tasted delicious.  Things that held up especially well included apples, tomatoes, and carrots.  Other favorites to pack out included baked goods and hardboiled eggs.  Tortilla, cheese, and pepperoni was my standard lunch fare. 
Nothing like packing out a fresh apple.
To be honest, I didn’t do as much fresh food after the stress fracture because it tended to weigh more and it was more important to me to keep my pack weight down.  To make up for it, I did take more zero days and ate a lot on in town.

Final notes
The thing about food on the trail is that everyone is different.  Some people say they get more variety from buying in town, but I just saw they could get more variety of poptart flavors.  Read a lot of different blogs about food on the trail, and try to read between the lines to see what strategy fits your tastes.

My experience was hugely shaped by having to get off the trail due to injury.  I imagine I could have gotten sick of my food if this hadn't happened.  But then again, I had a lot of variety and a specific diet, so perhaps not.