A Few Steps in Paradise: The John Muir Trail

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Beginnings:

We began our twenty-one days on the trail from Tuolumne Meadows with a stroll through Lyell Canyon. We were excited to finally take steps on the trail after months of planning. At our first campsite, Mark Fincher, with 25 years experience as a park ranger, gave us some good advice about bears. Anything hanging from a tree signals food to a bear. Even tying your pack up could cause a bear to tamper with something they’d ignore if it were sitting on the ground and lacking a scent. From then on all packs sat unzipped next to tents and we stored scented items and food inside bear canisters.

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Approaching Donohue Pass

A first low:

My second day was most difficult. It was warm. I felt weak and allowed myself to become a little dehydrated. I forced dinner down and slept. This was going to be more difficult than I’d expected!

Bouncing back:

Felt much better for day 3 and fell into a rhythm that sustained. We breezed into Reds Meadow and had a wonderful lunch. During the afternoon, I felt guilty watching a hailstorm and rain through the grill’s window while enjoying blueberry pie and four scoops of ice cream. For the remaining twenty days on the trail, I thought of that blueberry pie every time I looked up at sunny blue skies.

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Hailstorm and rain at Reds Meadow

JMT Red's Meadow grill

A meal at Reds Meadow

Plumber Joe or Plunger?:

While in the restroom, a neighboring toilet became stopped up. The hiker calmly walked out and returned to the stall with a plunger and quickly cleared the problem. His buddy said, “Your trail name should be Plummer Joe.” I could tell he didn’t care for the name and suggested Plunger as a possible name. He liked Plunger because it was open to many interpretations. They were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I wonder if the name stuck?

Falling into the rhythm of the trail:

Part of the rhythm of the JMT is thinking in terms of seven miles of up or down rather than lots of shorter ups and downs as we often see in the Ozarks. Bookmarking the patterns of the trail were high passes and stair-stepped glacier-formed lakes. Each pass was an adventure and held unknown challenges of snow, water, boulders, and climbs. Each series of lakes continued to surprise as we ascended only to learn that the map was correct, and another lake was draining into the one we just passed. Each glacial lake was a visual ornament that sparkled and reflected its surrounding beauty.

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Muir Hut at Muir Pass

IMG_3667rrWay, way down to the Muir Trail Ranch:

We descended a series of switchbacks, and the isolation of Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) became a reality to me. I expected to see a large sign at the junction marking the spur to the ranch, but this modest sign marked the way.

 

 

We had reservations for two cabins. Thus began a true zero-day that was a delight. The outdoor shower was wonderful, and it was a pleasure to wash and hang clothes to dry. The dining hall served baked salmon and salad, an amazing feast considering our remote location.

A change of plans:

After our zero-day, one of our partners spent the night throwing up and felt very ill the following morning. We suggested camping an additional night for recovery time, but Nick wisely decided to leave the trail. He also took his two sons, so our group of five was now two. His departure from the trail was not easy. It involved a 9:00 a.m. horseback ride lasting over two hours, then taking a ferry across Florence Lake and a shuttle on a narrow hazardous road before finally arriving in Fresno, California at 6:00 p.m.

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Nick and his sons prepare to depart Muir Trail Ranch

For a couple of days, there seemed to be a sense of gloom over the trail because our three friends were not with us. The beauty of the wilderness was still stunning, and acceptance took hold as we continued our trek, knowing they’d made the right decision for health and safety.

We camped close to McClure Meadows and walked through Evolution Valley before finally arriving a Wanda Lake and camping at 11,434 feet. I took a quick dip in the lake to wash off the trail grunge. I felt revived by the cold water but was unaware of the beauty that Wanda Lake had planned for us the next morning in 32-degree temperatures. Bob was the first to notice the glassy mirror in the early morning stillness.

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Morning light hitting the mountains surrounding Wanda Lake

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Equipment failure:

Though minor, my Sawyer squeeze bag sprang a leak. Bob’s water filter was functioning, so pure water wasn’t a problem, but I didn’t like depending on someone else for water. I carefully dried my bag and repaired it with seam seal and Tenacious Tape. The bag worked the following day but soon failed again. More repairs followed, but it was obvious that they did not work.

An unlikely trail angel:

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Sawyer squeeze bladder next to a Vapur water bladder.

The next two days we shared Bob’s filter while crossing Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass. We then had a seven-mile trudge upward, camping at Woods Creek next to a masterfully-built suspended bridge.

While taking down my tent the next morning, a neighboring hiker learned that my Sawyer bladder had failed. A few minutes later, he walked up and held out a 16 oz. bladder that was in new condition. I thanked him and immediately began to enjoy water independence as I proceeded down the trail. I learned his name was Joe.  Each time I filtered water, I wondered if he had any idea how much his gift was appreciated. Bob reminded me to pass the good deed forward when the opportunity presented itself.

Our next resupply was Onion Valley near the mall town of Independence. Topping out at Kearsarge Pass and seeing automobiles in the distance felt surreal. The sun’s reflection on the windshields in the distance seemed out of place. We enjoyed visiting with a couple who worked in California’s wine industry. We later met another couple camping in a van that was several years old but appeared to be in new condition.

News from the outside world: 

I noticed the campground host’s US Flag was a half-mast and asked a camper why. She looked surprised and said, “You must have been on the trail for several days.”  Police officers in Dallas had been killed by a sniper. This news jarred me because I’d been immersed in a world that contained such beauty but was now reminded that it could also hold meanness and disregard for the lives of innocent law enforcement officers doing their duty.

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Breakfast at the Food Coop

The trail provides us with a new friend:

The next morning while waiting for Bob’s wife to shuttle us to Independence, a hiker sat down at the end of the parking lot. We learned he was injured and needed a lift, so Bob asked him to join us. We spent three hours visiting over breakfast at the Food Coop in Independence. Keith, our new friend, was able to get a room at the Mount Williamson Motel where we had reservations. We enjoyed getting to know he and his wife who arrived later that evening.

I thought about the kindness of Joe in replacing my damaged water filter bladder and Bob’s offer of a ride to Keith, thus beginning a friendship. Goodwill seems to float around and expand on the John Muir Trail. In every case, we receive much more than we give when sharing that goodwill.

Resupply:

Below are a few scenes from the small town of Independence. When Chris Chater (trail name Strider) purchased the Mt. Williamson Motel three years ago, those who knew her thought she’d lost of mind. She’d say it was one of the best decisions of her life. Her trail name is a result of her fast hiking pace and her 21 consecutive years of hiking the John Muir Trail.

Back to the trail for the final push:

We hiked back across Kearsarge Pass and by early afternoon I was exhausted. Bob could tell by the way I ducked into my tent that I wasn’t feeling well. While filtering water that evening, he spotted a bear clawing at a dead tree for grubs. The bear continued through the woods oblivious to campers in the area. I missed the bear but was pleased that he’d seen it.

After a good night’s sleep, I felt much stronger. My little episode of weakness made me appreciate all of the other days that I felt strong.

John Muir was one tough dude and his trail was, too: 

My little time of weakness on the trail was embarrassing when I thought of John Muir exploring this area before there were trails. He was known to grab a loaf of dry bread and take off to explore for a week or so. Muir wrote more than 300 articles and several books about his favorite natural areas. He was co-founder of the Sierra Club and served as president of the organization until his death.

IMG_4300rrConstruction on this trail that carries Muir’s name began in 1915, the year after his death. The trail was completed in 1938. It is a marvel to walk, especially if you’ve ever done any trail maintenance and realize the difficulty of this work. In some places the trail is blasted from solid rock and in other places, the path is easy and clear. The construction of stairs impressed me. They could be a challenge when the itinerary called for a multi-mile downhill walk.

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Tools left by workers next to the trail near Forester Pass

Approaching the summit of Mt. Whitney: 

IMG_4676rrAfter crossing Forester Pass, we camped at 12,200 feet. The next day was a shorter mileage day, and we rested to gain energy for the approaching Mount Whitney. We camped at Guitar Lake above tree line in the shadow of Mount Whitney. During the night we could see the headlamps of hikers approaching the mountain from the other side.

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A small lake below Mt. Whitney glistened in the morning sunlight.

The hike up Mount Whitney went well, and it felt good to drop the pack at the junction and take the spur to the summit. I was relieved to see the roof of that little Survey Hut and trail register. We were now standing at 14,494 feet.

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Sitting on the edge of the summit of Mt. Whitney – My version of a selfie.

While returning from the summit, a couple of young ladies asked, “Are you Jim?” They then said they’d shared a campsite with Dana, Bob’s wife. They raved about how much they liked Dana and how helpful she was. For a second I wondered how they’d recognized Bob and then thought of his one-of-a-kind beard.

We camped at the Outpost Camp where the approaching departure from the trail began to feel real. We agreed to take our time the next morning before breaking camp. I was looking forward to some early morning camera time.

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A 5:30 a.m. photo using my headlamp to illuminate the foreground.

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Waterfall near the Outpost Camp

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Cascades below the waterfall

Endings and the walk to Whitney Portal:

As we hiked the final four miles to complete the JMT, Bob said, “If you see a tear in my eye, it’s just dust from the trail.” We felt a sense of sadness to be leaving the John Muir Trail but knew that our 210-miles of steps in paradise were drawing to an end.

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Bob and Dana offered rides to the two young ladies Dana had shared a campsite with earlier in the week as well as a young man from Romania living in Dallas who had completed a large section of the John Muir Trail. He began his hike carrying a small cast iron pan because he enjoyed cooking. The pan was dropped off at a resupply, and he joked that there wasn’t time to be a creative chef on the John Muir Trail.

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Energy and enthusiasm filled the van as we made the drive toward Bishop. As the senior member of the group, I felt thankfulness that I was able to complete the journey without injury or illness.

 

 

After dropping the young people at a local hostel, we drove to the home of the California host family who had stored my Jeep during our hike and would prepare an evening meal for us before we began our drives back to Arkansas. The Wilders’ hospitality was overwhelming and provided important support for the ending of this wonderful adventure. Their kindness was another example of the trail providing just what was needed when it was needed. Our little walk through paradise was over, but the memories would last a lifetime.

More photos from the trail: Slideshow #1

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If you want to see more photos of the trail: Slideshow #2

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A Short Drive on a Historic Trail, Route 66

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Early in my trip back to Arkansas after hiking the John Muir Trail, I couldn’t fight the temptation to sample a California section of Route 66. I’d driven short sections in Oklahoma and Texas but had never had the opportunity in California, so I exited I-40 in Newberry Springs and found myself transported to the past.

This motel sign caught my eye because it stood on an empty lot. I pulled to the side of the road and then noticed a cafe sitting just down the road in front of several dilapidated travel trailers.  IMG_5153rr

 

I entered the small cafe and learned that it was called the Sidewinder Cafe until the movie Bagdad Cafe was filmed there in 1987. It has since been named Bagdad Cafe.

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Some German tourists were selecting t-shirts when I entered. The jukebox caught my eye and the display of currencies from many countries that had been left on the wall by visitors over the years.

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I was delighted by the texture of the blacktop on this section of Route 66. It was rough and stood in stark contrast to the fast highways I’m used to. The road noise and bumpiness could be felt in my Jeep so it would really give you a good rattling in a modern car.

There was no traffic, so I stopped and took a few photos of the road’s surface before driving several more miles and returning to I-40 and a quicker pace, pleased to have spent a few minutes in the past.

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Don’t Wait Until You’re Fully Qualified

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Bernard Kleina began his photojournalism career during the 1960s civil rights movement before considering himself a photographer. This comment he made during an interview captures what I sometimes feel when planning a trip.

This Grand Canyon climb was a confidence-builder even though we were outside of our comfort zone. The best challenges are those we’re not fully qualified to accept.

JMT Food: Natural Where Possible While Watching Your “Weight”

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Organizing food for the JMT (and thinning out where possible)

While studying the JMT Take/Leave Survey, I noticed a pattern. Some hikers who indicated that they took too much food would post comments like, “Didn’t feel like eating.” Then, the percent of trip completed might be 20-30%.

I’ve seen the effect of elevation changes on the appetite. Not eating enough can cause the early end to a trip. I’ve been fortunate that I stay pretty hungry on the trail, but keeping food interesting, nutritional and light, is a challenge.

There is also a danger in packing too much food (and weight) so measuring and estimating needs can be challenging. Finding foods that are calorie-dense, lightweight, and low in bulk, is the task. Finding veggies for the trail is important, too.

I do better if my trail menus contain “real food” I might eat at home. Going with natural foods where possible also helps in the taste department. Some might thrive on nothing but commercially available freeze-dried meals, but I find that home-dehydrated food is tastier and less expensive.

To dehydrate frozen veggies, just place them on the rack and let your dehydrator run for several hours until they’re crispy. You can go for chewy if your trip is soon, but I prefer crispy-dry to avoid spoilage and reduce weight.

I like to dehydrate fresh vegetables when possible. It’s important to blanch them by placing in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. I cut them then, blanch them, and then place them on the rack. Some veggies do better if I spray the rack lightly with Pam to avoid sticking. Blanching is important if you want to hold the natural color in your veggies. I even blanched two green bell peppers before placing on wax paper in my dehydrator. They were a thing of beauty and will add some flavor to several meals on the trail.

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Blanched bell pepper ready for dehydrating

For some veggies like carrots, broccoli, and green beans, I purchase Mother Earth Products freeze dried vegetables. Powdered cheese and butter from Hoosier Hill Farm also add some flavor. These products area a little pricey, but good!

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Dehydrated fruit is a real treat and good energy on the trail. My favorites are bananas, apples, strawberries, and pineapple. I slice thin and dip in instant lemonade, so the fruit holds its color. Dry until crispy to avoid spoilage and reduce weight.

Home dehydrated fruit is much better than what you can buy in the store. The flavor is amazing. It’s difficult not to eat the dry fruit before ever arriving on the trail!

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dehydrated bananas (approx. 40 slices = 1 whole banana)

Protein for backpacking tends to be heavy. Tuna, chicken, or salmon in foil packs are delicious but heavy. Carrying a few of these for lunch or dinner is an option, but I purchased a can of Mountain House dehydrated beef and chicken for weight and convenience. Meat added to breakfast or even $1.00 Knoll side dishes make a tasty and easy-prep meal.

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Dinners with a view: Having just a few simple recipes that can be varied is the way to go when backpacking. Below are my foundational breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes. With planning and preparation, food on the trail can be the source of enjoyment and energy. Enjoy your outdoor restaurants and dinner with a view where ever the trails may lead!

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Dinnertime in the Ozarks. Looking forward to meals on the JMT.

Recipes

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JMT Egg Scramble with ground beef and a touch of cheese and butter

JMT Egg Scramble  

Problem: We need an easy-to-prepare hearty breakfast that includes much-needed protein. Solution: JMT Egg Scramble.

Ingredients: (I include some brand names because of the variations in products and taste.)
At home: Place the following in a ziplock bag. Measure the amount needed for each breakfast on your itinerary:
4 tbs Hoosier Hill Farm Whole Egg Powder (equivalent to 2 eggs)
1 teaspoon Hoosier Hill Farm cheddar cheese powder
1 teaspoon Hoosier Hill Farm butter powder
Pinch of salt & pepper
Pack a medicine measuring cup which includes tsp marks (3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon)

In a separate bag, place the following:
1 tbs Mountain House freeze dried ground beef
1 tsp dehydrated onions (add dehydrated bell pepper and zucchini squash if you like)

In camp:
In a small pan or cup, place 1 tablespoon of beef and 4 slices of potato (and any other dry veggies) broken up
Barely cover with some of the water heated for coffee and soak for 15 minutes or more
After re-hydrating, add mixture from your small pan or cup to your cookpot and bring to a boil (add a little water if needed)
Add powder egg from bag prepared at home (includes salt, pepper, cheddar cheese powder and a pinch of butter powder). If mix is runny, you can add more egg mix.
Heat for just a minute and then eat out of the pot or in a breakfast burrito

Camper’s Choice Dinner

Problem: Commercial freeze dried meals are very high in sodium and boring.
Solution: Home prepared meals with varied ingredients to keep the appetite interested.

Ingredients:
Ziplock bag with ½ cup (or more) dry powder soup – I like Bear Creek Cheddar Broccoli or Creamy Potato  / Alternate: Romine Noodles, Knoll side dishes, etc.
If the soup you choose requires milk, include Carnation instant milk in the bag with soup. Usually, a tablespoon is all that’s needed.
1-2 tablespoons Mountain House freeze dried beef or chicken (from separate ziplock bags)
1-3 tablespoons (or just a fist-full) of the dehydrated veggies of your choice (potatoes, broccoli, spinach, etc.)
1 ½ cup water (or more)

In camp:
In a small pan or cup, let meat and veggies soak for 15 mins. or longer
Add meat and veggies to the 1 ½ cup of boiling water in cookpot
Add ziplock bag of soup mix and stir constantly until the soup thickens (5-10 min.)
Eat out of the pot.

Lunch Crunch Roll-Up  

Ingredients:
Soft tortilla
Meat – tuna, salmon, or other
Mustard packet or Taco Bell-type sauce
Crushed Fritos or other calorie and fat-loaded chips
Dehydrated tomatoes

In camp:
Place ingredients on tortilla and form into a roll-up.

Peanut & “Jelly” Sandwich

Ingredients:
Soft tortilla
PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter
Hilltop Garden Honey-Cinnamon Sprinkles

In camp:
Put a small amount of water (approx. tablespoon) in a cup and add powdered peanut butter until the desired thickness. Spread peanut butter on a tortilla and sprinkle honey-cinnamon crystals lightly on the peanut butter. Roll up and enjoy.

Citrus  Water

It’s nice to have a little flavor (not sweet) in your water on the trail or in camp. A little lemon or lime seems to calm the stomach at times. Add a pinch of True Lemon Crystalized Lemon to your class of water. A 2.85 oz container is the equivalent of 15 lemons so repackage in a smaller container. True Lime and True Orange are good, too.
Natural

A packed pack and John Muir Trail gear talk

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Granite Gear Crown 60 backpack and Keen hiking shoes

There is something beautiful about a fully loaded backpack. I can almost hear it whisper, “Where are we going and what shall we see?”

This pack will soon travel the John Muir Trail (JMT) and may have some stories and photos to share when it returns. I’ve purposely avoided posting anything about our John Muir Trail plans. Maybe it’s my fear of failure, but successful or not, there will be new learning to share.

Many variables work for or against a successful trip. Present physical condition, preparation, weather, and elevation changes are the most significant variables to me. Here in the Ozarks we hike at anywhere from 600 to 2,700 feet. On the JMT we’ll be between 4,000 and 14,000 feet in elevation. Preparation can impact our conditioning but not those areas involving Mother Nature. I hope she’s kind to us.

As often happens, the beginning of our JMT planning can be traced to a book. Elizabeth Wenk’s John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail gave me the confidence to say “Yes!” when asked if I wanted to join some friends on this trip.

A significant task (and possible deal-breaker) is getting a JMT permit. Nick, Bob, and I faxed a different application itinerary each day for five days, receiving courteous “Thanks for trying” emails the next day. I remember where I was when I received an email forwarded from Nick that was different. I stared at the text for several seconds before realizing this message was granting us a permit! We’d “won” the lottery! Our planning was no longer theoretical but for real!

JMT permit pic
One day’s applications received at the JMT permit office. Notice the two stacks on the right contrasting JMT confirmations and rejections. Thanks to Justin Gordon (actor/backpacker) for the photo.

For this post, I’ll share some of the equipment changes made in preparation for this trip. I hope to share some food preparation ideas and recipes in a later post.

The John Muir Trail (JMT) came along at a good time because some of my equipment was due for an update. I’ll mention brand names and sources, but have no financial arrangements with these businesses. Some links are to online sources, but when possible, I purchase from area outfitters because they invest in local trails and stand behind their products. They’re also good people to know when you need advice. I’ll list links at the end of this post.

Backpack: Replaced my Equinox Katahdin pack (that I loved) with the Granite Gear Crown 60 pictured at the beginning of this post. It is light, strong, and large enough to accommodate a bear canister. It was on sale, too! When you say 40% off, you have my attention (a good reason to frequent local vendors).

My Equinox ultralight pack was old, and I feared it might fail on a long trip. It will still make overnighter trips in the Ozarks with me. I can’t imagine throwing it away. We have traveled many miles together. I don’t usually form emotional bonds with things, but some items become icons that hold special memories.

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Equinox backpack loaded for OHT thru-hike.

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Enigma down quilt

Sleeping System: I replaced my down sleeping bag with an Enigma 20-degree down quilt by Enlightened Equipment. The workmanship is excellent, but allow 8-12 weeks for delivery because they produce the quilt after you place your order. I’ve been using sleeping bags like quilts for several years. Now I’m not sleeping on top of a zipper, and the quilt is much lighter.

I updated to the Sea to Summit Comfort Light sleeping pad and silk bag liner to use on top of the air pad. I’d just about destroyed my old silk liner with all my squirming around over the last ten years or so.

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Sea to Summit air mattress

Tent: I studied this purchase for several months and considered some very technical (and expensive) ultralight tents. I decided to go with something familiar (and freestanding) in the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2. I’ve enjoyed my earlier Big Agnes 2-person for several years and will still use it for overnighters. Using a 2-person tent is my nod to backpacking extravagance. I like the extra space for my pack, well worth the 9-ounce difference in weight.

Water bottles: Added a couple of Vapur 1-liter water bladders instead of bottles. They fold up when not in use and are light at 1.5 ounce compared to 6.3 oz. for a Nalgene bottle.

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Vapur water bottle full and folded

Shoes: Loved my Oboz, but was ready for a larger toe box and went with the Keen waterproof Koven (pictured at the beginning of this post). I’m not brand and model conscious because I had to look up these shoes to remember the name. I will not purchase shoes online or by brand. The shoes’ fit is the most important factor. I’d prefer trail running shoes, but for extended backpacking, I need something a little beefier without being a heavy boot. For camp shoes, I’m using Crocks. They’re good for creek crossings and comfortable camp shoes.

Electronics…. I have a love/hate relationship with electronics on the trail. My preference is to leave the stuff at home (or in the car). Since we’ll be out of cell range most of the trip, I’ll carry my inReach and a cell phone that allows me to text using satellite. The downside of electronics is weight! I have a solar panel for backpacking but opted to leave it at home due to weight. I’ll carry a small battery pack and a dual USB wall charger to speed things along with the limited outlets at JMT resupply points. Everything stays turned off until needed.

My camera must always travel with me. I don’t think of it as part of “electronics.” since it’s for capturing memories, not communicating with civilization. I’m not very brand-conscious, as long as the camera has manual settings if needed and is small and light. Right now I use a Canon G7x. It is fragile so I try to handle with care. The lens cover malfunctioned in my first one, but the fine folks at Bedford Camera exceeded expectations and replaced the camera. I carry three fully charged camera batteries in hopes they’ll last between resupply stops. A small flex tripod is a light-weight addition but more often a tree or rock serve the role of a tripod.

Maybe/maybe not items… 

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Yaktrax ICEtrekkers and gators on a snowy Lake Alma Trail

Yaktrax ICEtrekkers: These are great because they grip in snow and ice, but allow you to walk easily over patches of bare ground or rock. I’m taking them so I can decide whether to carry them or not once I’m on location.

Gators: I don’t like my gators, but they are nice to have when snow gets deeper than three inches. They’re heavy if not used, so I’m taking them and deciding once on location.

2015 John Muir Trail Survey Take/Leave Report:  A resource for gear decisions unique to the JMT. It can also inform decisions about backpacking in general. John Ladd and George Greely collect and compile this annual survey of JMT hikers asking two questions. “What type of item did you leave at home, that you would bring on the next similar trip? And why?” and “What type of item did you bring but would leave at home on the next similar trip? And why?” John Ladd provides a nice narrative at the beginning sharing general impressions from the survey results. The John Muir Trail Hiker Survey Facebook page provides updates on snow levels, etc. Good reading!

Outdoor outfitters that I frequent on a regular basis: All good people here!

Pack Rat Outdoor Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas: This business began in a garage in the 1970s. They have a strong history of supporting trails of Arkansas! Owners Carolyn and Scott are charter members of the Ozark Highlands Trail Association and long-time trail volunteers. Employee owner and store manager, Rick Spicer, is a hardcore outdoorsman with great experience and knowledge.

Lewis and Clark Outfitters in Springdale, Arkansas

The Woodsman in Fort Smith, Arkansas

Ozark Outdoor in Little Rock

Bedford Camera and Video in Fort Smith and other towns in Arkansas: They’re not outfitters, but Bedford’s is my camera store due to the way they’ve stood behind their products.

Luxurious Ouachita Trail Base Camp

 

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Mountain Thyme B&B, a beautiful base camp for the Ouachita Trail

Mike and Rhonda, owners of Mountain Thyme Bed & Breakfast, probably didn’t select their property specifically because it was two miles south of the Ouachita Trail’s intersection with Scenic Highway 7, but I think it was a brilliant choice! If Becca and I truly want to get away for relaxation balanced with exercise, the Mountain Thyme “Base camp” is ideal. Rooms are reasonably priced, and the best part is that there’s nothing to do there but relax and enjoy the woods, delicious breakfasts, and afternoon cookies.

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Yogurt and granola to be followed by omelet and sausage

A future trip on my to-do list involves covering the Ouachita Trail from it’s beginning in Oklahoma and concluding the extended backpacking trip with a stay at Mountain Thyme for some post-hike pampering. I’ve told Rhonda and Mike they could hose me off in the yard before letting me inside. This visit was for the celebration of our wedding anniversary and a chance for some early morning day hikes.

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Short Mountain overlook on Hunt’s Loop

Hunt’s Loop Trail begins at Iron Spring on Hwy 7 and climbs Short Mountain before intersecting with the Ouachita Trail. Hunt’s Loop has become a favorite over the years and is one of those trails you enjoy doing in all seasons and conditions.

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Stream running through Iron Spring Recreation Area with remnants of an iron water gate installed by the CCC.

I’ll hike Hunt’s Loop in different directions to add interest. If I have a little extra time and want some more miles, I’ll tack on the 1-mile out-and-back to the Moonshine Shelter on the Ouachita Trail. No evidence of a whiskey still but a nice place to take a break and read a few entries in the shelter journal.

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Moonshine Shelter

I like to walk Hunt’s Loop early and then make it back to “base camp” in time for breakfast. At 6:15 p.m. on our most recent trip, I surprised a black bear a few yards off of the trail, or as I said later, “the bear surprised me.”  I heard a low huff and looked toward a pine sapling thicket to see the back side of a black bear’s head and shoulders as it tromped quickly out of sight. I’d never heard that type of stomping on the ground before. I was pleased to have seen my first Ouachita bear! No photos. Barely got a look with the two lenses in my head!

Iron Spring is a great place for a family picnic or a restroom break when driving down Scenic Highway 7. There are pit toilets, but no drinking water unless you filter out of the creek.

GPS for Mountain Thyme B&B “Base Camp”

34°45’05.7″N 93°03’35.0″W

GPS for Iron Spring Recreation Area and location of Hunt’s Loop Trailhead

34°45’44.5″N 93°04’15.4″W 

Just to clarify, I don’t do product or service endorsements. I just like the place!

A few more scenes…

A Father’s Influence Along Life’s Trail

An early Father’s Day post…

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My father (on the far right) with friends in Hot Springs, Arkansas

I have some of my father’s traits and am thankful for those in every case. Sadly, I did not get his 6-pack abs or shiny dark hair, but I’m thankful to have inherited his legs and his enjoyment for walking our little planet.

When daddy was in high school in Smackover, Arkansas, he took a job with a local man who was doing concrete work in a nearby oil field. There were 8-10 young men moving and spreading concrete in the summer heat. At the end of the day, only he and a couple of other guys remained. They were hired to continue the next day. He was strong and determined.

I’m thankful for this photo of my father and me moving dirt in our wheelbarrows. I think about my dad every time I see a wheelbarrow, especially if it’s full and difficult to balance! I’ve never had the physical strength to match my father’s, but I’ve shown signs of his determination on occasion.

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A rare photo of my father fishing

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Hiking a mountain on the edge of Arteaga in Mexico during the late 90s

Over the years, my dad and I’ve shared several hiking trails. When I was a child, our family often visited state parks in the Ouachitas or Ozarks region. As an adult, I had the privilege of hiking trails with my dad at Petit Jean State Park one early spring morning. I still think about him each time I walk down that favorite trail, thankful for his strength in my legs and memories of his love for creation.

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Daddy and mother at Petit Jean State Park during the 1980s.

Dad made many beautiful things from iron and he had an eye for photography. He let me “play” with his Zeiss Contessa camera when I was young. He purchased it while serving in the Army.

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Photo taken on his Zeiss Contessa while serving in the Korean War (early 1950s).

He learned to weld as a young man and got into ironwork as a sideline business to supplement the family income. His regular job was shift work as a chemist and later environmental control in local oil and chemical plants. On Saturdays and some evenings, I would help in his iron shop by grinding and buffing handrails. At other times, I’d assist him with an installation. Working with my father was good experience for a teenager and made me appreciate his work-ethic.

As a hobby, he sometimes made decorative items from iron. Below are a few examples. He made the imaginary plant on the right from corroded telephone wire being thrown away next to a railroad in South Arkansas. In the center is his replica of a “preacher-in-a-pulpit” wildflower using a piece of oil shale rock as a base.

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This book was personally delivered to my father as an expression of thanks for the progress of South Korea since the war.

This soft-spoken and hard-working man often said he was lucky to have been stationed in Korea during a lull in the fighting as if he should apologize. He still had opportunities to show his character in the face of danger.

Once he was leading a platoon and his point man froze as they approached a potential minefield. My dad told the point man and others to follow his steps as he led the soldiers through the area, knowing that the discovery of a mine would probably end his life but save others in his platoon. I’ve always admired that fearless quality in my father!

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Lieutenant Warnock made friends with children in Korea

My parents are members of what we often hear referred to as the greatest generation. Based on close inspection of this man and his wife for my entire life, I can confirm they are members of the greatest generation.

Those of us who’ve shared the trail with them would do well to emulate as many of their traits as possible. I like what writer Neil Gaiman said recently in a commencement speech. “If you can’t be wise, pretend to be someone who is, and act the way you think they would act.” Not bad advice when you have these models of wisdom and character.

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Mother and daddy with a vase he gave her before they were married, 65 years ago.

A Stroll Through History on the Arkansas River

Stroll

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View of the Fort Smith Courthouse as you approach the trailhead

I typically like hiking in the deep woods of the Ozark Mountains, but this little urban path is a fun hike for kids and history buffs. It’s also a great place for runners and cyclists visiting the city of Fort Smith.

Driving Directions: To get to the trailhead, turn southwest off of Garrison Ave (AR 64) onto 4th Street. Then turn right (northwest) onto Garland and drive one block to 3rd street and the entrance to a parking area. A covered pavilion is at the north end of the parking area, and this is where we’ll begin our walk.

GPS  Trailhead Coordinates: N35° 23.260’  W94° 25.851’

Distance and Additional Information:  4.6-mile out-and-back with a small loop. This route is wheelchair accessible throughout. Leashed pets are allowed.

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This is one of the few (maybe only) trails I’ve walked that begins by crossing a railroad track, but train traffic is limited (or non-existent). The entire trail described here is handicapped accessible. There are restrooms at the Historic Site Visitor Center just to the northeast of the trailhead. There are also restrooms at the River Park Events Center about 1 mile into the hike. Be sure to carry water even. There are water fountains at the River Park, but they were not on when I visited.

The trail climbs slightly to a small loop around the site of the First Fort Smith, 1817-1824. Stone footings are still visible where the fort stood overlooking the Arkansas River.

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One section of footings at the site of the original Fort Smith

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Site of the original Fort Smith

The trail backtracks a short distance to where you’ll take a right and circle around until the Arkansas River is on your left side. You’ll come to the Trail of Tears Overlook with interpretative markers and a bench. A set of stairs invites you to walk down by the riverside where you might see geese and other wildlife.

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The shoreline below the Trail of Tears Overlook

After leaving the overlook, continue down the paved path into a wooded area with a high shaded canopy. Some of the larger trees are cottonwood with a few sycamore close to the riverside. I looked around to be sure we were alone and then let Hiker-dog take a quick run through these woods. She returned and let me leash her back up before any other walkers were in the area.

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The trail passes a spur to the right that takes you back to the trailhead if you want a short walk. We’ll use this spur later when we return from our out-and-back. Continue under Garrison Bridge at 0.7 mile and to the River Park stage. Turn left (southwest) and walk under the bridge a short distance then turn right (southeast), walking downstream with the river on your left. You’ll come to stone steps that outline the Riverfront Amphitheater seating area. Handicapped accessible switchbacks lead up the seating area to the Events Center.

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Looking through the Riverfront Amphitheater toward the River Park Events Center

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After walking past the River Park Events Center, you’ll come to a pavilion with a bronze statue of a girl carrying flowers and a basket. This is where the River Trail officially begins as it follows the Arkansas River downstream.  IMG_1055rrIMG_1142rr

A short distance down the 12-foot wide path leads you to an overlook with two beautiful bronze sculptures. This is a nice destination if you want a shorter walk.

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Looking back upriver toward the River Park from the River Trail

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This statue seems to celebrate the river and land to the west.

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From the overlook, continue down the river and come to the River Trail Bridge at 2-miles into the walk. Just before the bridge is a spur trail left to the riverside. This is a great place for fishing, but Hiker-dog saw it as an opportunity for a quick dip. A small pavilion is on the other side of the bridge. The bridge is another possible destination and turnaround point.IMG_1112rr

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View of the pavilion and Arkansas River from the River Trail Bridge

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Looking upriver toward the Garrison River Bridge

Standing at the edge of the Arkansas River, you realize the strength of its flow. It might appear tranquil from a distance, but there is a firmness in the water as it speeds along. This barge churned its way upstream on the morning of our walk.

The paved trail continues and then comes alongside private property before ending at Riverfront Drive. A dirt path continues from there along the top of a levy. A ranger told me there are plans to eventually extend this trail to all the way to Van Buren. For today’s walk, we’ll turn around here and head back the way we came.

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Barge working its way up river

After a nice out-and-back on the River Trail, we return to the Fort Smith Historic Site and take a left at 4.2 miles into our walk. This is the spur we passed earlier and it takes us back to the trailhead. Going straight would take you back around to the Trail of Tears Overlook and would give a little more distance to your hike. This route gives you a total of 4.6 miles, the perfect distance for a walk or run right in the center of downtown Fort Smith.

For solitude, go early in the morning, because this urban trail is getting some heavy use from residents and tourists. It should have a positive impact on the community for years to come.

If you have time, check out the gift shop in the Historic Site Visitors Center. You’ll find a variety of books related to the region and National Park Service programs that children and adults will enjoy.  You can take a tour of the Fort Smith Courthouse and decide for yourself if Judge Parker’s reputation as the “hanging judge” was justified. You’ll also learn about Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Continue your stroll through history on the grounds around the Courthouse and let the kids get a close look at historic artifacts.

Hiker-dog says, “Thanks for coming along.” IMG_9875Hikerpaw23

 

 

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Reentering the Fort Smith Historic Site after walking past the River Park on our out-and-back.

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View of the First Fort Smith as you return from the River Trail

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Judge Parker’s gallows are in the foreground with the Fort Smith Courthouse and Visitor Center in the background.

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Someone in period costume arriving to participate in one of the children’s programs.

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World of Beauty Down a Small Ozark Hollow

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I’ve read about the waterfall in Devil’s Canyon, but today was not a waterfall hunting day. We were merely scouting the driving directions and having a look around so that when the water is flowing strongly in the future, we can get to the area quickly. I made it to the first drain and ended up spending all of my available time exploring a small hollow as I followed the water downhill.

Continuing a short distance downstream, we came to this little grotto and waterfall. The large waterfall this area is known for is in another section of Devil’s Canyon (close by air, but distant by foot).

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At this point, I thought I’d seen the scenic features of this little side-valley, but the randomly placed car-sized boulders drew me ever downward. I quickly came to a reflective pool and realized little beauty-surprises were hidden around every boulder.

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Below is a wider view of the same area showing boulders stacked above.

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Massive stacked boulders

Continuing downstream, I heard flowing water but couldn’t see where the cascade was until I arrived next to an A-shaped opening.

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A young man who I’d seen running the jeep road on the edge of the canyon reappeared and exclaimed at how beautiful this little area was. I introduced myself and discovered that he worked for the US Forest Service. He’d been helping with a fire in Tennessee and was now headed back home to Oregon. After our short visit, I thought how easy it is to meet fascinating people on the trails of Arkansas.

While taking a photograph of the little cascade through the leaning A-shaped rocks, I heard a commotion close by and instinctively covered my head. Hiker’s 65-pound frame had dislodged some small rocks causing her to glissade down a slope, bringing rocks and dirt with her. She ran over next to me and stayed close by for a few minutes.

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A surprised Hiker-dog stayed close by for a few minutes after her slide down a hillside.

I needed to watch my time to allow for the uphill climb out of this little valley. The way these boulders caught my attention, it would be easy to remain until after dark.

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We spent some more time at the little grotto on our way back upstream. I ate some dry bread I’d packed as a nod to John Muir, who’s birthday was a few days before on April 21st. Born in 1883, he continues to influence thinking about the outdoors and conservation today. He was known to toss a dry loaf of bread in a sack and explore the mountains for several days…the original ultra-light backpacker.

As we continued upstream, I noticed this scene I walked past earlier. Its beauty wasn’t lost on Hiker because she hopped right in after I took this photo.

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As we crossed the creek that feeds into the hollow, I noticed the abstract patterns created by shallow water and sunlight. I couldn’t resist capturing the intricate dancing lines that flowed at my feet.

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Shallow creek crossing

It had been a beautiful hike down this small stream and back up. Today I learned again that you can’t predict the beauty you might find in the eroded valleys of the Ozark Mountains. I was already missing this place as we passed the overlooks on the edge of the canyon. We will return another day!

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Hiker seemed to enjoy the view as we hiked away from Devil’s Canyon.