Exploring the Otter Creek Wilderness in West Virginia

A few weekends ago, we headed out to Otter Creek Wilderness for a short trip. I’ve been there a few times. In fact, it was the location of one of my first backpacking trips. I quickly discovered why people used poles, thought the Green Mountain Trail was challenging, and learned just how many stars you could see at night.


We’d been tossing around the idea of posting a low-mileage DC UL trip to Otter Creek for a few weeks. While it is a bit of a drive, it really is a wonderful spot, especially if you time it so you can enjoy the swimming holes in Otter Creek. The loop itself is about 15 miles, give or take. The campsite we had our eye on is very close to one of the deepest swimming holes, but its location calls for an uneven split – 10/11 miles and 4 miles. The weather, however, was looking perfect for swimming hole fun on Saturday: low 80s and a low chance of rain. We opted for the shorter half on Saturday to give people time to enjoy some swimming and explore nearby trails. We had a plan!

Our path for Saturday took us along the Mylius Trail, which goes up and over the ridge before descending to the Otter Creek Trail. The water was flowing nicely in Otter Creek, but was low enough that careful hikers could rockhop their way across. (Of course, we did have the “just wade through it” group.)

We made it to the campsite in good time, arriving around 2 p.m. – quite early by DC UL standards! People quickly got down to business: setting up tents, eating lunch, and enjoying a quick break before it was time to swim. The weather didn’t want to cooperate with our plans, though. Most of our crew had time for a quick dip before a downpour cut short the swimming time.

A few of us decided to explore the Moore’s Run Trail, while others hung back hoping for fairer weather. Moore’s Run is a gentle climb to the top of the ridge – so gentle that you barely feel as though you are climbing. You could continue the loop – in fact, I did this trail on a previous trip – to see the bogs along Moore’s Run and then connect it with the Yellow Creek trail. It’s just one of the many variations you can take in Otter Creek.

Planning Tool: Map for Otter Creek

The next morning found us up bright and early for our 11 mile jaunt out of Otter Creek. The first few miles took us along the Creek, but a series of blowdowns have rerouted the trail up higher. I remembered one from an earlier trip but the other one was new to me – at least, I didn’t recall it. We bobbed along the trail – sometimes along some serious underbrush – and arrived at our last crossing of Otter Creek. Now it was time to climb up the Green Mountain Trail, which most certainly cannot be described as a gentle climb. It also has one of the more dramatic conclusions to Once the top is gained, the trail levels out for the remainder of the hike. The bushwhacking, however, continued. I think we were all getting tired of rhododendron in the face.

I also promised everyone that we’d have an obvious turn from Green Mountain onto Shaver’s Mountain trail, having remembered a “trail abandoned” sign and gate at that intersection. Whether the trail was rerouted or the sign removed, we had no indication that we had actually changed trails. After consulting with the map, we knew we were headed in the right direction. Still, a few may have wondered if they inadvertently signed up for a 20 mile day. We arrived at the intersection with the Mylius Trail and began the happy descent down to the cars. Beer and good food at the Alpine Inn quickly followed.

It is a long drive but Otter Creek is worth it. It certainly offers a wilderness experience and is less crowded than its more popular neighbor, Dolly Sods. In the warmer months, it has one of the best swimming holes you can find.

#Operation46er: Allen. Ow. 

Allen has a reputation. It has a long approach, and essentially climbs a stream to get to the summit. You may ask: don’t a number of Adirondack trails also include some stream walking? I would answer: yes, that is true, but Allen’s stream climb mixes in some wet slab with slippery algae. Lovely.

(I guess the passage of time has not softened my thoughts on Allen. Also, I have no pictures from the day.)

Its reputation wasn’t helped by the fact that a hiker who also was doing the Dix Range (which we had hiked the day before) would beat me to each summit so I could arrive in time to hear his horror stories of hiking Allen the prior weekend. The mystery of Allen was building.

Given the long approach, our goal was to get moving as early as possible. We started at 6 a.m. and found the first four or five miles to relatively flat – some rolling hills but for the most part an easy hike in. The creek crossing didn’t give us much trouble. In fact, I was looking forward to it on the way out!

It’s when you arrive at the base of the climb that things start to get interesting. Some stretches of slab are covered with algae, making them incredibly slippery. I slid a few times on the way up, and was moving very slowly to make sure I had some semeblance of footing. Our hopes of being done by mid-afternoon were quickly slipping away.

Once you complete the slab stretch, the trail then pitches straight uphill until reaching the ridge. A few minutes of ridge walking lead you to the summit. What you don’t hear about Allen is that it does have a great view. You need to go a little bit past the summit to gain it, but it is worth it.

Going down was bit easier until I reached a particularly troublesome stretch of slippery slab. I had difficulty with it on the way up, and prepared to pick my way down. Of course, I slipped and landed on my rear. I hit the slab just right, apparently, and found myself on a fast slide toward a downed tree. I knew my feet would stop the slide but I wasn’t convinced I’d remain unscathed.

And I didn’t! A branch crashed down on my face, causing my lip to split and hitting my nose. My biggest fear was that I broke my nose but I realized it was okay after carefully prodding it. I hiked the rest of the stretch with my lips pressed together to keep it from bleeding.

I was happy to see the river crossing and equally happy to emerge from the herd path. Still, it was a long walk back. 5 p.m. came and went, and with it my hopes of finishing in 11 hours. I got back to the car by 5:50. At least, it took me less than 12 hours!

Allen’s reputation is well earned. It is a tough hike, but it also yields some nice views and the trail is a nice one (when it isn’t algae-covered slab).

#Operation46er: Tackling the Dix Range

The Dix Range has held a special spot for me. It marked my first trip to the Adirondacks, prompting me to fall in love with this place. During that first trip, we aimed to complete the Dix Range in a day but fell short by skipping Macomb. That was July 2012.

Dix Range

During my first trip in 2012, I needed a helping hand to navigate some of the scrambling

Three years later, I was back. Macomb was an outlier for both me and Michael. While we just needed Macomb, polishing off all five peaks was unfinished business. In 2012, I approached the Dix Range from 73, which involves unmarked trails to the East Dix (now Grace) slide. This year, we approached from the Elk Lake side and would climb via the Macomb slide. Of the two approaches, I’d highly recommend the Macomb slide. It looks daunting but I just took my time and navigated my way to the top. That being said, I’d much rather climb up it than down.

Macomb slide

Looking up at the Macomb slide

Our route took us up to Macomb first, then South Dix, East Dix/Grace, back over South Dix to Hough, and then over the Beckhorn to Dix. We descended via the Beckhorn trail, which required some tricky scrambling at the start of the descent but  gradually turned into a typical steep Adirondack trail. (If you’ve been there, you know what I mean!) The Dix Range was conquered.

Beckhorn, Dix Range

Michael perched on top of Beckhorn

I’ve been comparing those two trips over the past week. I’ve always said the Adirondacks make me want to be a better hiker and I can see that I’m getting there. In 2012, I was barely able to hobble out the last four miles to our cars. This year, I was tired but hiked out the same day and did Allen the next day. (More on Allen in another post!) I’m still uncomfortable on slab but I’m walking on it – albeit at a slow pace. I’m getting there. Still, it was a great feeling to have this challenge under my belt.

Catching up on the Mid-State Trail

It’s been a busy few months. I moved from my apartment of 12 years and spent weeks purging all that had accumulated in my apartment. I’ve been able to find everything in the new one – only a few times have I wondered why I got rid of something. 

The other big project (of sorts) has been tackling the Mid-State Trail in sections with DC UL. Section hikes can be logistically challenging at times since you’re striving to have the right number of cars to avoid the dreaded drivers’ only shuttle. 

  
The Mid-State Trail runs through Pennsylvania from the border of Maryland to the border of New York. It’s got a personality. The trail beers from flat ridges to boulder fields, and throws in a few knee-jarring descents for good measure. It’s a challenging trail. 

The most recent section – Little Flat Mountain to Hairy John – has been the nicest so far, although we may have been swayed by the blooming mountain laurel. (Or most likely, that is followed Section 3 which was described by a fellow hiker as rocksrocksrocksrocks. Ow.)

  
We’re charting our progress on DC UL’s meetup. 

Gear Review: The New Gossamer Gear Mariposa

I’ve been a long-time fan of Gossamer Gear products. (In full disclosure, I am one of its trail ambassadors.) The Mariposa was the first ultralight backpack that I purchased. It was versatile and sturdy — a bonus for me since I am very hard on gear. I’ve carted this pack along Sweden’s Kungsleden, the John Muir Trail, up and down trails in the Adirondacks, and countless trails in the Mid-Atlantic. It’s held up well but an unfortunate encounter with a branch and wet slab along the Sewards led to a fairly large rip in the side pocket. (Okay… I got stuck on a branch while butt-sliding down a slab, and gravity won.)

It was time to replace the pack, and I stuck with my Mariposa. This year, however, Gossamer Gear has overhauled the look and feel of its pack. Gossamer Gear recently moved from using Dyneema to Robic for its packs. If you’ve seen the new line, you’ll see an immediate difference in the look of the pack.

A side-by-side comparison of the two packs, with the new model to the right.

A side-by-side comparison of the two packs, with the new model to the right.

 

The other big change is in the shoulder straps, which are narrower and have more padding.

 

Right off the bat, you can see the difference in padding between the old and new pack.

Right off the bat, you can see the difference in padding between the old and new pack.

The new straps are narrower, as well.

The new straps are narrower, as well.

 

While the previous shoulder straps didn’t bother me too much, I know many women in my hiking club struggled with the lack of padding on the previous model. But even though I didn’t have issues with the earlier version, the new straps are far more comfortable. It’s a great improvement, and I can feel a difference.

Another bonus is the return of the hydration sleeve within the pack. While I rarely carry a bladder on backpacking trips, I find the hydration sleeve makes a good home for extra maps and my journal. It’s nice to have it back.

Overall, the pack retains the same great features that attracted me in the first place: the long side pocket on one side provides a great home for my shelter, and the lower side pocket on the other side still keeps my water bottle in easy reach.

It also remains a good lightweight option, with the changes only adding an extra two ounces to the overall weight of the pack. My first Mariposa (medium) weighed about 27 ounces, and the new one (medium) clocks in at 29 ounces.

Whether you are new to ultralight backpacking or looking to add to your backpack collection, it is well worth checking out the upgraded Gossamer Gear packs.

 

Trip Report: Brambling along the Tuscarora

No brambles here!

No brambles here!

It’s been about a week since our section hike along the Tuscarora Trail, and my legs are still streaked with brambles. This section was a study in contrasts: a trail that veered between overgrown stretches studded with brambles and rocks to a wide-open forest road that hugged the ridge. You can guess which part was my favorite.

The day started with a mild enough climb but my legs refused to get into a rhythm. I blame the John Muir Trail – two weeks of walking along a well-maintained trail will spoil anyone, and I’ve temporarily forgotten how to walk in the Mid-Atlantic. The trail was obvious but overgrown, and rain made the rocky stretches treacherous. I think I fell five times in the span of two minutes. Sticky, these Pennsylvania rocks are not.

The first few miles were slow going. The trail went from being obvious to being obscure, and we found ourselves searching for the blue blazes and then bushwhacking our way back to them. I opted to wear my capris for hiking which wound up being a terrible decision for my legs. The trail was overgrown with brambles, and my poles did nothing to keep them from tearing up my legs. It was a rough start, but then everything changed: the sky cleared and the trail opened up. We were cruising along the ridge and even ran across a bar. While tempted, we didn’t stop. We were just three miles or so from camp, and wanted to push on.

The shelters we’ve encountered along the Tuscarora, at least in the three sections I’ve done, have been nice and relatively large. With six people planning to sleep in it, I headed a distance away and set up the Trailstar. (I knew the score: someone in that shelter would be snoring!)

The next day promised to be a good one. I set off along the trail at 7 a.m., giving myself a bit of a head start and a chance to enjoy early morning along the ridge. The trail was a wide forest road at this point and the walking was easy, although I quickly learned that the real trail diverted into the trees. Fortunately, the forest road and TT rejoined quickly and I was back on track – but not for long as the trail skirted back into the woods and into the brambles. By now, I had given up trying to protect my legs. Fortunately, the trail came to its senses and went back to being a lovely wide and bramble-free path. What a relief!

For the rest of the day, the trail continued at an easy pace, and deposited us near our end cars. All in all, this was a nice stretch, rivaling the Sleepy Creek section as my favorite one.

Gear:

  • Gossamer Gear Kumo
  • Hammock Gear Burrow Quilt – ~30 degrees
  • Thermarest NeoAir Sleeping Pad
  • MLD Trailstar

Trip Report: First Impressions from the John Muir Trail

A well-signed trail!

A well-signed trail!

It’s been a week since we wrapped up our thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, and – well, to be honest – it is still a bit of a blur to me. Hands down, the trip was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally. It was an experience.

Two fellow backpackers from my meet-up – DC UL Backpacking – concocted the idea for the hike last fall. My father had just passed away rather unexpectedly and I felt like I was floundering. I wanted to get away and tune out, and even though it would be months away, two weeks on the John Muir Trail was a lifeline that I seized.

This would be my second long distance trail. In 2013, I hiked Sweden’s Kungsleden trail, and I was still working out my gear choices. This year, my gear – for the most part – was a no-brainer: the Gossamer Gear Mariposa as my pack; the MLD Trailstar and bug bivy as my shelter; NeoAir mattress; my Snow Peak stove since we figured alcohol stoves would be banned (and yes, I need a hot cup of coffee each morning); the BV 500 bear canister that I mostly hated but also secretly liked (stickers!); and my Sawyer mini for filtering. The big debate, however, was which sleeping bag to bring. I have a Western Mountaineering Versalite (10 degrees) and a Hammock Gear quilt (~30 degrees thanks to overfill). The WM bag would be overkill in the beginning but perhaps necessary for the colder nights when we got into the higher elevation; the Hammock Gear quilt would be perfect for most nights but was largely untested at cooler temperatures. I decided to gamble and take the quilt; after all, it fit much better in the pack and saved space for the @(#&%! bear canister.

Of course nervousness set in before the trip. I’m an expert at calculating the various ways things could go wrong. We had an ambitious plan to cover the trail in 14 days. (Although I guess, we technically did the trail in 13 and then just hiked out from Trail Camp on the 14th day. I’ll let others argue the finer points.) I was concerned about the impact of elevation on my hiking. Being from the Mid-Atlantic, our mountains top 3,000, maybe 4,000 feet. Now we were proposed to hike an average of 15 miles each day at elevation. I was in Peru years ago, and got sick the first night after hiking when I should have rested. I was in Colorado earlier this year, and got a splitting headache at night in Breckenridge. (The most tragic part: it happened at dinner and I could not finish my fine Colorado steak!) But, as we say in DC UL, what could go wrong?

My goal for the trip was to listen to my body and take it slow. As a plan, it worked well. I didn’t get any headaches, but I was incredibly short of breath on the passes and on most major climbs. This is where it become mind over matter for me as the shortness of breath can make me panic: once on Donahue Pass, I got nervous and found myself hyperventilating, and then did the same again on our way to Muir Pass (this time, with an audience!). I was incredibly slow going up to Whitney, but the approaching clouds and thunder prompted me to lose my pride and hand over my bear canister to a fellow backpacker so I could move at a slightly faster pace up the mountain. (As I said, there is a time to be proud and a time to be practical!)

The trail itself is stunning. Each pass yields grand views of lakes and mountains as far as you can see. My biggest memories (in no particular order):
• Climbing up the Golden Staircase. Not what I pictured, but it was a beautiful stretch. Its tight switchbacks allowed for people to zip back and forth as they climbed up. The rain created mini-waterfalls along the trail. It was far lusher than I thought it would be.
• But then having to climb Mather Pass. I did not like this pass. Even the presence of a photogenic pika did not sway my opinion. It was the pass that would never end.

A pika gets ready for its close-up

A pika gets ready for its close-up

• Camping at North Evolution Lake. We cut the day short here because of threatening clouds, and I’m glad we did. The sunset was spectacular. It was a memorable night.

Sunset at North Evolution Lake

Sunset at North Evolution Lake

• Going over Muir Pass. It was rainy and windy, but escaping into the hut gave a bit of refuge. Of course, leaving it meant you had to emerge back into the storm. I think this was my fastest descent, but it led to another great stretch as we descended alongside a churning river and waterfalls.
• Tackling Glen and Forrester in a day. Hands down, this was the hardest day of hiking I’ve done. Glen Pass is steep and the switchbacks seem to go on forever. Still, the view from the narrow ridge was amazing. We then had Forrester to conquer: a beautiful and mild stretch that is made challenging by its 13,000+ elevation. I got a bit lightheaded on this one. We crossed over the pass just before sunset, and made our way down before dark. It was a clear night but it was a windy one: we had to go at least four miles before we could find a good camping spot.
• Savoring the last day. I took the last day slow (surprise!), enjoying the scenery of Bighorn Plateau and Wallace and Wright Creeks, and then baking slowly in the sunny and exposed stretch to Crabtree Meadow. I enjoyed the climb up to Timberline Lake and Guitar Lake, taking in the views of Whitney. And when I finally got to Trail Crest, I stopped to take pictures and to take it all in. The hike was done.

Victory!

Victory!

The last morning view from the Trailstar.

The last morning view from the Trailstar.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll write up more about the trip: more about gear, our splits, and other random ruminations.