Category Archives: Backpacking

Stories of Backpacking trips, or something in that general area

A Thanksgiving adventure – Backpacking Elk Meadows

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A Thanksgiving adventure – Backpacking Elk Meadows

Thanksgiving is going to be different this year. This is my first year being single in half a decade, and thanks to the COVID Pandemic it’s also the first year that I can’t travel, and don’t have any friends still in town. I’m flying solo, have a ton of vacation to burn, and am feeling energetic...


Monday and Tuesday, 23 & 24-Nov-2020


This… looks really similar to the previous post. Which is because it was, in fact, very similar!

Instead of hiking Elk Meadows as a day-hike though, I went as an overnighter – Nothing too intense, but an excellent chance to get out of the house, out of the city, and out of the insanity of what the entire year has become. Instead, I could get into the woods, the quiet, and the calm crisp air of winter.



Ohh man, did I succeed.

It was beautiful, cold, and amazing. I started out late in the day, similar to when I’d hiked… with the advantage that I didn’t have to make my way back to the car after I got to the meadows. In trade, I had the downside of schlepping my pack along with me… and since it was winter camping, it was a solid 45lbs, food and water included. But, thanks to good boots, poles, and fairly consistent time on the stairmaster, I was able to cruise up to the meadows pretty much as quickly as I’d done the previous time… It took a little longer, but not as much as I’d expected.

Once I was there… ohh man. Not much more snow had fallen, it seemed, but getting to watch the sun set over Mt. Hood while I was cooking up dinner was truly sublime.

The rest of the night was just spent… being quiet. I can’t really describe exactly what I got up to… It wasn’t really anything, truthfully. I read a little, but mostly I just took the chance to be. To be quiet, to be under the stars, and to feel the cold slowly seeping into me. I know that sounds like a negative thing… but believe me, it wasn’t. It’s something I hadn’t realized quite how much I’ve missed, living in Oregon, but I love the feeling of camping in the snow, and feeling the cold slowly engulf you.

It’s calm, and quiet. It’s beautifully relaxing, and it makes worming my way into the sleeping bag that much better afterward.



The next morning, I awoke to the comforting sound of cannon fire, ringing out across the mountain.



Wait.



Yeah, that… that was definitely cannon fire.



Well, I was camped sort of near the ski area? So… that’s probably what it was?

I was worried for a few moments. I couldn’t imagine anyone triggering an avalanche anywhere near where I was, and I know that I’d camped in a quite safe spot (off to the side of the meadow in the trees, far away from any high-angle snow) but it was still definitely a disconcerting way to wake up.

Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures from the day… I’d turned my phone off overnight to save battery, but I’d left it in the pocket of the tent. Which, as it turned out, got extremely cold… cold enough to nearly kill the battery completely. I had a portable charger back at the car, of course, but that wasn’t going to help me out on the trail. Since my camera is also my phone, which is one of my pieces of safety equipment, I wasn’t going to risk it just to get a few extra pictures.

So accept my apologies, and enjoy the few pictures that did snap, before I realized just how low the battery had gotten.

As has become tradition at Elk Meadows, I breakfasted with a family of small birds – Gray Jays I believe – who flittered around and kept me company. Or, more accurately, constantly tried to literally jump inside my cup of coffee. It’s warm, I guess, and seemed to make a good change of pace from trying to jump inside my breakfast.

Freaking birds are lucky that they’re cute.

The rest of the day went beautifully. I kept the theme going, pretending to be an intrepid explorer by breaking new trails, exploring the meadow, and appreciating the crisp air of the mountain.

Elk Meadows is at roughly 5,200ft elevation… so not quite as high as Denver, but definitely a noticeable increase from Wilsonville’s 150ft elevation. It’s enough that I noticed it, but not enough that I was really winded while breaking trail… Combined with the cool air and snow, and it made for an amazing experience.

When I got back to camp, ready to pack up, I was happily tired out, and ready for the quick snack I had before heading down the trail back to the car. Packing the tent was a bit interesting, since the day’s sun had melted a lot of snow on the trees… leading to my tent getting completely soaked from the constant drip of meltwater. But that’s why I carry a spare (clean) trashbag with me, and soon enough I was heading back to the car – with the plan to hang my tent up as soon as I got home.

Backpacking in to Elk Meadows – 30-Oct-2020

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Friday and Saturday, 30 & 31-October-2020

It’s been a while since I’ve gone backpacking… it feels like the Fall has flashed by, with the leaves suddenly going from green to bright red and the air becoming cool and crisp out of nowhere.

This year’s been interesting, and I think the constant barrage of calamities, news, and changes has really kept it moving quickly… but at the same time, last year feels like a lifetime ago.

I got away from it all, escaping to the Eastern flank of Mt. Hood.

Last weekend’s hike up to McNeil reminded me just how much I love Autumn and winter hiking… it’s not something I could ever forget, of course, but hiking up and into the frosted forest just brought that love vividly back to mind. Vividly enough that there was no way I was spending another weekend in town.

Friday morning, I didn’t rush. I don’t like rushing in the morning, if I can help it, and since the weather forecast called for rain until the early afternoon… I figured it’d save me some wet gear if I took my time, made a nice breakfast, and then trundled out into the woods after I’d taken my time to wake up.

The plan worked perfectly, and when I parked at the trailhead I was one of only two cars parked there.

The other team, it turns out, was just on the trail as a day hike – I ran into them pretty quickly, interestingly, as they were on their way out… which meant that I was left completely alone on the flanks of the mountain, on a perfectly beautiful late Autumn day.

Not anything I could ever complain about, and not anything that I could have dared hope for.

I headed in, set up camp, made a nice dinner, and rested… It was a beautiful night, exactly my favorite hiking weather. Cold, almost bitingly cold, but still warm enough that I was comfortable in my layers of jackets and gloves.

There was a full moon, which fully illuminated the entire meadow around me… I’ve been making effort to be more present and less distractable, and this was a perfect moment to just… be.

I don’t know how long I stood in the meadow, just watching the moonlight carve its way across the grass toward Mt. Hood. It was lovely, but soon enough I was heading back to the tent, to curl up into the sleeping bag and drift off.

At like 8:30 at night, because it gets dark crazy early now.

Saturday dawned bright, cloudless, and crisp.

Frost was covering the meadow, though there wasn’t any snow to speak of yet, and the temperature had realistically passed “crisp” pretty significantly, diving fully into “cold” as the night had worn on.

Thankfully, I had a nice puffy jacket, and a hot breakfast to cook up to keep me warm – and I even had a bird-friend to hang out with!

I really miss Ollie, on these hikes, but I do appreciate getting to see more wildlife than I really ever did before. I miss the excitement and running energy that she’d bring to the hike, but at the same time the quiet is definitely appreciated, and the calm is a nice change of pace. I’m sure I’ll get used to the difference over time… but for now, it’s something I notice every time I’m out hiking alone.

After eating, I set out for a quick walk… I hadn’t made any real plans for the day, but I figured that I’d circumnavigate the meadow, and see where that brought me.

Where it brought me was the Blue Grass Ridge trail – a spur trail off to the East of the meadows that I’d never been to before. It was a rough trail, pushing through a huge forest of standing dead trees… from a wildfire years back, it seemed like. Those empty trees gave for some amazing views though, and very interesting scrambling, which kept the blood pumping and my mind focused.

It was great, and I enjoyed the challenge of finding paths around and through the fallen trees, trying to scope out the best place to get views of the Northern and Southern volcanoes.

I hadn’t expected any mountain views aside from Hood, so seeing everything from St. Helens to The Sisters was a huge and welcome surprise.

After exploring the ridgeline for a while, I headed back down toward the meadows… it was starting to get toward mid-day, and I was getting a bit restless. I had some extra food, so I theoretically could have stayed an extra night… but I was feeling like getting a move on.

After finishing my circumnavigation of the meadow, I packed up, headed out, and started down the road back toward home… A little happier, a little more tired, and quite a lot energized for the rest of the long weekend.

A big backpacking trip – Ice Lake and The Matterhorn, in the Eagle Cap wilderness!

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Tuesday through Friday, 25 to 28-Aug-2020

 

I took some vacation earlier this year, but it wasn’t quite as relaxing or refreshing as I’d hoped that it would be.  On top of that, I can’t carry my vacation time over into next year… and it’s already August.

So I took some time mid-week to go backpacking.

To escape from town, to get away from everything, and to focus on in getting my head back into a positive place.  It’s important to escape every once in a while, to simply be, somewhere without interruptions or distractions.  I’m reminded of a popular quote that, as is common with quotes, isn’t quite portrayed completely…

“The mountains are calling & I must go & I will work on while I can, studying incessantly”.

– John Muir

Normally, the quote is shortened to just “The mountains are calling and I must go” – which definitely gets most of the idea, but I do enjoy the little extra regarding working and studying… I took this change to be by myself, surrounded by soaring peaks, to reflect, study, and do a little work on myself.  Maybe not as impressive as John Muir preserving Yosemite, but hey.  We all do what we can, right?

Ohh, as an interesting side note?  I think this is the highest peak I’ve ever summitted!  Yay me!

 

Here’s the vital statistics:

Hike to Ice Lake:

Somewhere between 7 and 9 miles, each way (every guidebook differs a bit), roughly 17 miles round trip

3,350ft elevation gain

High Point 7,900ft

Ice Lake to Matterhorn Summit:

3.6 miles round trip

1,980ft elevation gain

High Point 9,826ft

 

Here’s the itinerary, and actual milage / elevation gain (per my fitbit):

  • Tuesday – Rest, go slow, and arrive at the trailhead around 5:00pm.  Hike in a mile or three and camp off trail.
    3.2 miles, 650 ft gain
  • Wednesday – Hike in the rest of the way to Ice Lake, rest.
    10.81 miles, 2600 ft gain
  • Thursday – Summit The Matterhorn, rest
    8.55 miles, 2140 ft gain
  • Friday – Hike out, drive home.
    10.73 miles, 250 ft gain

 

So… how was the trip, you may ask?

It was excellent.

Perfect.

Ideal.

I don’t have strong enough words to describe how much I enjoyed this trip.

 

The trail to Ice Lake was beautiful – exceptionally well graded, to the point that I didn’t really notice the elevation gain at all.  The trail to the Matterhorn was steep and hellish… but well marked, and still quite pleasant with views the whole way up.  The lake itself was pristine, and had barely any other people there – which was amazing, since everyone warned me that it’d be slammed, even during the week.  But nope – I don’t think I was forced to speak to anyone once while camping.  On the trails, maybe… but nothing lasting more than 30s.  Nice and peaceful, and it gave me a solid amount of time to just relax, and be alone with my own thoughts.

It’s been so long since I’ve been able to truly let my mind wander, you know?  Long drives work pretty well, but there’s still the destination that I’m always thinking about with some portion of my attention.  On a solo backpacking trip, though?  I don’t really think much about the destination, because it’s usually so far away… and I don’t really have to plan for anything.

Backpacking’s amazing like that – I’ve gotten good enough at the logistics of setting up camp, etc… that I don’t really have to think about it much.  It’s sort of like rock climbing, in that I can pretty easily get into a glorious zen-state of clear-headedness.  I love it.  Walking, letting my brain go wherever it happens to go at the time, without having to worry about what I’ll be doing next.

I know what I’m doing next – it’s walking.  One foot in front of the other, repeatedly, until I get to a spot that I want to stop.

So I walked, and thought, and walked some more.

I stopped to rest when I was tired, and had snacks when I was hungry.  Took a sip from my camelback when I was thirsty, and took pictures when something caught my eye.

 

Before I knew it, I was at Ice Lake.

Now, I say that I enjoyed the solitude, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t interact with people.  As I passed folks coming out, I exchanged a sentence or two with them, getting little bits of info about the next stages of my adventure.

By the time I got to Ice Lake, I knew that I should take the left fork to find the best campsites, and that I’d follow the right fork the next day to summit the Matterhorn.  I had a map saved to my phone, so I would have been able to find these out on my own anyways… but why not get first-hand recon information, if people are willing to share?  Right?

(Ed Note: To wax poetic for a moment, asking questions is important.  Ben tries to get direct info from people as often as possible, instead of just looking it up online.  While it might not be the quickest option, it does usually give more interesting data, along with unexpected extras that wouldn’t come from a focused google search)

I turned left, and pretty quickly found an ideal campsite – fairly secluded from anyone else, right on the shore of the lake, good views…  Yeah.  I’m glad that the folks beforehand gave me the tip to go left.

 

Once camp was set up… I hadn’t really expected to make the lake so early in the day, honestly.  Like I mentioned, the trail was gloriously steady, and I had made really good time… which meant that I had a few hours to kill before sunset or dinner.  So I kept the theme of the day, and walked around a bit more – around the lake, up to the Matterhorn trail, and just let my feet wander as much as my mind was wandering.

Dinner was lovely, as lovely as mountain-house can be, the stars and lake were gorgeous, and I slept like a log.

 

Thursday was my summit day, but that didn’t mean I got going early.  The Matterhorn trail isn’t particularly long, but it is intense… so I wanted to be fully rested and energetic before I attempted anything.  Which is my reason for just laying in my sleeping bag, reading, and randomly making happy stretching noises.

I mean, I still was mobile by 9:30 I think, so… not that lazy of a morning all things considered.  But still, it’s a vacation and I made sure to treat it as such.

The hike up to the summit was beautiful, but definitely a lot steeper than the trail the day before.  A lot less obvious as well… I didn’t ever really lose the trail, but there were a fair number of times that I had to stop and assess the terrain for a little while, to figure out exactly where I wanted to go next.  Again, not bad… but also not boringly obvious.

I saw evidence of mountain goats a few times (wool, poop, tracks), and a team coming down asked me if I’d seen any coming up.  I hadn’t, but it was definitely a nice change of pace from the normal hikes I’ve been on – getting deeper into nature definitely means getting closer to animals, which is always a fun aspect to backpacking.  Especially here – The Eagle Cap Wilderness is home to lots of critters, from squirrels to bears, so I’d been acutely aware of how I was storing food the entire time.

The summit itself was gloriously empty – I was the only one there, and I took the chance to really enjoy it by setting up a nice sunshade, and reading a few chapters in the book I’d brought along.  I even flew a kite!

Really, there’s not much to say here.  I enjoyed the quiet, the wind, and the views.  The solitude was excellent, and the sense of accomplishment was appreciated.  It’s hiking, and it’s great.

 

On the way down, I finally saw those mountain goats that people had been mentioning – a “herd” of five or six goats, with a few kids in the mix.  They were super cute, but stayed pretty well away from me, and from any of the major cliff faces that I was walking beside.  It was lunch time for them, I guess, since they were hanging out pretty exclusively around the flowers and fresh growth lower down on the trail.

The rest of the day was relaxed – I was definitely starting to feel the miles, and had absolutely started feeling the elevation while I was relaxing on the peak – 9,826ft is pretty high up there, and while wearing a mask has definitely helped me acclimatize, it can only go so far.  So instead of hiking too much more, I just rested.  I read, had two dinners (I’d packed an extra for this exact reason) and enjoyed the sunset.

 

Friday dawned a bit earlier than Thursday, since I had far more miles to cover – roughly 362miles, between the hike out and the drive home.

I’d been debating staying an extra evening somewhere nearby, and had the supplies to do so stashed away in the trunk of the car… but I didn’t quite feel the energy for it.  I felt good – I’d accomplished what I wanted, and didn’t really feel the need to continue the solitude and self-reflection.  I needed to jump back into the world for a bit, and let my thoughts come back to the insanity of the day-to-day.

Poetic, right?  That’s what happens when you’re alone too long, kids.  Be careful.  You might catch the philosophy.

I had a quick cold breakfast, tried Sardines for the first time, packed up camp and said goodbye to my little tent site.  I hefted my pack, took a few final pictures and started onto the long trail back to the car.

Quick note – Sardines are really salty.  At least the kind I tried.  Too salty to really taste anything.

The hike back, as most hikes back are, was quick and pleasant.  Downhill is always faster and easier, and a lighter pack is always appreciated.  What I did notice was the sheer number of people heading into the wilderness – While I had only seen a few other people at Ice Lake, I saw a solid 25+ people heading in as I was heading out.  It definitely make me thankful for my ability to take time off from work, and for the privilege of taking a mid-week backpacking trip.  It would have been a hugely different experience had I gone on the weekend, I’m sure.

I walked, I thought, I admired the views from a different angle, and I enjoyed the last few hours in the wilderness.  It was excellent.

 

The drive home was pretty simple, if quite long.

I had a nice plate of nachos in Joseph (the town closest to the trailhead) before the drive, and picked up a coffee on the way.  I’d changed clothes as well – so I was comfortable, and didn’t have anything to distract me from the cruising ride back into Wilsonville.  It was lovely and quiet, a good chance to listen to music, and appreciate the dust-infused sunset over the gorge.