Grand Canyon: Going Over THE Hill to Turn Over The Hill

The day after my 40th birthday was going to be amazing. I’d traveled all the way from Cleveland to the Grand Canyon to turn 40 the right way: literally going “over the hill” at my favorite “hill” in the world. Having that adventure awaiting made getting out of bed at the ass-crack of dawn a little bit easier.

I was only slightly hung over when I woke up in the morning, which was surprising considering the astronomical amount of vodka and wine I’d had the night before. Between that and the fact that I was now in my 40’s, I sort of expected to wake up feeling like death (combating a killer headache, needing to vomit, questioning my life choices). What a pleasant surprise to only feel sort of shitty! 40 wasn’t looking too bad.IMG_4845.JPG

We had a big breakfast at a kitschy diner in Williams before we headed towards the National Park. I was so excited by the time we finally got there that I felt closer to 4 than 40. I was practically skipping across the parking lot, unable to fully contain myself, when I got out of the car. As we approached the rim, the magnitude and majesty of the Grand Canyon came into view. My breath caught in my throat and my heart skipped a beat; it was even more beautiful than I’d remembered. The enormity of the Grand Canyon is stupefying. It can’t be fully captured in photographs. There’s just no way to appreciate this tremendously massive place without seeing it for yourself. It’s impossible not to feel small when you’re staring out at a landscape so spectacular. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is, it’s awe inspiring.

the Grand Canyon National park

Since Mary had never seen it before, I was almost as excited to see her reaction as I was to see it again for myself. She has such an energetic personality. I’m not sure if it’s her youth (she’s only 25), her seemingly endless optimism, or if she’s just more full of life than most people, but Mary has this incredible ability to make every situation fun, to turn the most mundane task into an adventure. Add to that the fact that she’s easily impressed, and I couldn’t wait to see her face when she saw the it for the first time.

Mary enjoying her first trip to the Grand Canyon

There’s something interesting, and quite lovely, that happens to people when they’re at the Grand Canyon. It’s as if everyone understands its natural sanctity, knows it’s a place to be revered and respected. Everyone gets a little quiet, like they’re in church. So, instead of freaking out, Mary, like so many others, was speechless; but her expression spoke volumes.

After admiring the view, we walked towards the gift shop and purchased some prickly pear margarita mix before heading to the Bright Angel trailhead. Although we weren’t looking to get any serious mileage in, as we wanted to be fresh for our ten mile trek the following day, we did want to get our legs warmed up. We only hiked about 3/4 of a mile before deciding we were ready for lunch, taking a few pictures, and hiking back up to the top.IMG_4890.JPG

We got our over-priced hot dogs at the Visitor’s Center soda fountain and enjoyed the sunshine as we ate. There were plenty of other tourists roaming around, but despite the number of people, the area is so open that it never felt crowded. I’m sure that’s not always the case (especially in the summer months), but I was pleased that, on this particular day, it wasn’t too packed.

After finishing our lunch we decided to try out another trail on the South Rim, the South Kaibab trail. We moved our car and parked along the main drive, near the shuttle bus access road that leads to the trailhead, and began walking. IMG_4945.JPG

Though I’d done some serious backpacking in Washington only a couple months earlier, I wasn’t sure how well I’d fare on the switchbacks in the Canyon. Going uphill for that long, at that elevation, was intimidating. I didn’t want to hike too far down the trail and wear myself out for the next day’s big hike.IMG_4977.JPG

We hiked down to Ooh Aah Point which, as the name suggests, has one hell of a view. It’s a great spot to stop, catch your breath, and really appreciate your surroundings. Mark, however, being the Pro Grand Canyon Hiker that he is, wanted to get a few more miles in, so he kept going while Mary and I had a snack and smoke break at Ooh Aah. We chatted with some Australian tourists, drinking in their every word with those beautiful accents, and admired the breathtaking view, while we waited for Mark to return.IMG_4987

Once it was time to hike back up, I got serious. I took a long drink of water, a deep breath, and up we went. I’m not sure how far I’d gone when I realized I wasn’t struggling, but there was a moment when I thought, “I should be out of breath by now,” but I wasn’t. That’s when I really started to feel empowered. All the hard work I’d put in: running, yoga, new eating habits; a complete lifestyle change, had paid off. Mary wasn’t quite as in love with the uphill trek, and was going a bit slower. I was so grateful to Mark for staying with her so I could keep pushing. I couldn’t stop smiling! I was having the time of my life.South Kaibab Trail

Getting to the top was a wonderful feeling. It made me more confident for the big hike in a few days. I was still a little nervous about a ten mile hike out of the canyon, but I knew I could do it. And even better, I knew it would test my limits, push me. I do love a challenge.

We went to refill our water, but were greeted by an elk who’d decided his thirst trumped ours. He was going to town on the leaky spigot, and was not about to move aside for some dumb, thirsty humans. We were sitting at a picnic table waiting out our long legged friend, when we were approached by a chatty teenager. I was instantly annoyed. He seemed to have either undiagnosed or untreated ADHD. He was all over the place, just being around him made me anxious.

 

The kid explained he was on a road trip with some friends from college, and that they’d wanted to hike further than he did, so he was waiting for them to come back. He wondered if he could hang out with us for a while. After he explained his situation, I kinda felt like an ass for being irritated by his very presence. This poor kid was alone, with no way of contacting his friends, and he was starting to freak out a little. I think he just wanted to be around a grownup. However, he was also very awkward and annoying, and I just wanted him to go away.

We planned on watching the sunset, but it was starting to cool down and we’d left our hoodies in the car. Although we felt bad leaving Mark alone with our new, chatty, young friend, Mary and I set off to return the trekking poles and retrieve some warmer clothes . . . and smoke a bowl, cause that kid, and all his nervous energy, was stressing us the hell out.

Thirsty elk at grand canyon national park
Thirsty Elk

Walking along the access road seemed to be taking forever, so we decided to take a shortcut by cutting through the forest. We thought we had a pretty good sense of where the car was parked, so we took a diagonal path, and were feeling like a couple of trailblazing badasses, when we started to notice all the snake holes in the ground. Like, everywhere. Dozens of them–and we were in rattlesnake country. I thought I was going to completely lose my shit. We took off running like we were being chased by a swarm of angry bees, no longer caring where our car was, just wanting to get the hell out of there. We must’ve looked like a couple of lunatics, but I was not about to ruin what was left of my trip with a snakebite. Hell. No.

We emerged from the woods nowhere near our car. I’m not sure if that was due to our panic-stricken dash after realizing we’d wandered into downtown Snakeville, or if we just had no idea where we were going to begin with, but we had a bit more walking to do before reaching warm clothes and cannabis.

enjoying the view at grand canyon national park

We stuck to the road on the way back to the rim (learning from one’s mistakes is so adulty, I was already good at being 40), and found Mark playing cards with Boy Awkward when we arrived. I had the thought, if we’re stuck with this kid for sunset, with him prattling on like that, when I just wanna find some freaking zen, I’m throwing his ass over the edge of this canyon. Obviously, I wouldn’t actually do that, but I was beyond relieved when his friends finally emerged from the trail, and we were off the hook (and no one would be arrested for murder: bonus).IMG_5122

The sunset was as breathtakingly beautiful as I imagined it would be. We sat and watched the shadows float over the canyons, as the sun sank below the horizon, setting the whole world aglow. It was so peaceful I felt like I could almost hear the sun going down, as if it was whispering goodnight. IMG_5120

With the sun went the heat. The temperature was dropping and we were chilly even in our hoodies. We walked back to our car, stopping so I could take pictures about a dozen times, along the access road as the crescent moon rose in the sky before us.

Once back in Williams, we hit up the Route 66 Diner (so. freaking. delicious.) with Mark’s newly arrived friend Peter, before heading back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep. Morning would be upon us before we knew it, and with it came the big day: Hiking to Supai!IMG_5196

Thank you for stopping by! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday when our Arizona adventure continues!

Follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

Road Trip: Getting Our Kicks On Route 66

When I decided there was no way in hell I was going to spend my 40th birthday in Cleveland, I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day than it turned out to be. From waking up to the warm Phoenix sunshine, to hiking in Sedona, to falling asleep in a funky hotel on Route 66, it ranks among my top ten favorite days of all time.IMG_4644

I couldn’t believe all the little ways my Uncle Mark and Aunt Cindy made this trip–and especially my birthday–exceptional. I was eyeing the chocolate chip cookies Cindy baked for our road trip when my uncle plugged in his iPod, said, “I hear you like these guys a little bit,” and started blasting Foo Fighters. Like the Foo? I LOVE the Foo!img_6522 I love them so much I had the FF inked into my flesh, for christ’s sake. Mark had done his homework (and his source, my daughter, is a very good secrets-keeper, which should probably scare me a little bit). If there’s one thing I want to hear on a road trip, it’s Foo Fighters (and Guster, but now I’m off topic).IMG_4626

Our first stop was Bell Rock, near Sedona. Although I will never end my love affair with trees, there’s something starkly beautiful about the desert. The contrast between the red rock and the brilliant blue sky was so spectacular, it almost looked fake, like an oil painting. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen such a deep, rich, blue sky before. IMG_4670

 

After an hour or so we decided it was lunchtime, so we headed into Sedona. We sat down at Sedona Pizza and Pasta Co. and, though we were warned by the hostess about a bee issue, we enjoyed a delicious, leisurely and relatively bee-free lunch on their patio.

After lunch it was time for more hiking. We headed to the West Fork trail to do some more hiking. The trail follows the West Fork Oak Creek and, although heavily trafficked, is a lovely trail that offers the perfect mix of red rock views and lush forest. In late October, the entire trail was bursting with fall colors.

mayhew lodge fireplace

At the start of the trail is an old homestead, the Mayhew Lodge. It was once a popular retreat for the likes of Walt Disney, Herbert Hoover, Clark Gable, and other early 20th Century icons. Little remains of the lodge now but the fireplace and a few crumbling walls, all crawling with ivy. Considering the view, and what must’ve been complete solitude in the early 1900’s, it’s not difficult to see why the rich and famous would choose this place for their getaways.

mayhew lodge window

We hiked for a couple of hours until we were running out of light, and then headed to Williams, where we had rooms reserved at the Grand Canyon Hotel. Located on Route 66, according to its website, it opened its doors in 1891, and is the oldest hotel in Arizona. Once a busy establishment (at one point renting rooms by the hour), it closed its doors in 1970 after Interstate 40 bypassed the town. It remained empty until being purchased in 2004, renovated, and reopened to the public.

Grand Canyon Hotel on Route 66

We were in the WWI room. It had a bunch of war memorabilia, including a creepy portrait of a soldier, whose eyes seemed to follow us no matter where we were in the room. Between that, the age of the building, its extensive history, and the long, dark hallway next to our room, it felt, for a second, like a small scale version of The Shining. I was expecting to see a set of twin girls at the end of the hall, begging me to play with them forever, and ever, and ever . . . We were convinced the hotel was haunted. So convinced, in fact, that when the lights in that long, dark hallway suddenly turned on, I almost leapt right the hell out the window before realizing they were on a motion sensor.

WWI memorabilia at the Grand Canyon Hotel

After we got settled it was time for dinner. There was a steak house next door to the hotel, but we had an hour to kill before our table would be ready, so we headed to Barrel House for a cocktail. An old saloon dating back to the days of the Wild West, when Williams was a logging and fur-trading post, they now serve craft beers and cocktails to locals and tourists alike.

Dinner was divine. I ordered the filet mingon, which was cooked to perfection. They even had my favorite wine, Chateau Ste Michelle’s Riesling. I ordered a glass, at which point my uncle said, “Don’t you want a bottle?” Why yes, yes I do. My uncle is a genius.

Barrel House in Williams, AZ

We laughed and talked, and I kept drinking wine, and by the time we’d finished our meal, I was pretty drunk. We were all tired, but it was the last few hours of my 40th birthday, and I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I had a sort of Cinderella-like complex, I think. The day had been so perfect, so magical, so memorable (and I was so drunk), that it almost seemed like a dream. It felt like, if I went to sleep, I’d wake up in the morning, back in Ohio, going to work, and coming home to clean up cat puke, while my children communicated with me only in grunts and interpretive expressions. No, calling it a night was just not happening. Not yet.

So, while Mary and Mark headed back to the hotel like responsible adults, I kept the party going at the bar across the street. It was a dive bar, as one would expect in a small town, and it was karaoke night. Bonus. Bring on the prime people watching.

There were only a handful of people in the bar, including a straight-up cowboy. I mean, this guy had the hat, the boots, chaps, and a long, leather trench coat. Dude was legit. I was sorta disappointed he didn’t say “Howdy, ma’am.” with a tip of his hat, to be honest.

Singing bartenders in Williams, AZ

Being such a slow night, the two bartenders were left to pick up the mic between karaoke “performers.” I sat on my bar stool, watching as they sang country (of course) songs, wiped down the bar, poured beers, and checked their phones, seemingly all at once. These women were master multi-taskers.

After they finished their rendition of The Dixie Chicks, “Cowboy Take Me Away,” I ordered a double lemon drop and a water (balance, people). I watched her pour the vodka over ice in the cocktail shaker, then pour it into a glass. And then I watched her pour the excess into another glass, and put them both in front of me. This was no double shot, folks. These were two glasses of vodka. Try as I did, I couldn’t get anyone to help me drink them. These were beer people who, when offered vodka, looked as if I’d just offered them up their first born child to eat. But I wasn’t about to let good vodka go to waste, so I drank it all and started making friends (I’m a very happy, social drunk).

Route 66

It was about 45 minutes later that it started to really hit me. I was wasted. Those shots were unnecessary and ill advised. I went to the bathroom and somehow couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. I literally just stood there for a solid minute, looking around, utterly confused as to how I’d even gotten in there to begin with. There was a door that was locked, and it took a conscious effort to find the beaded curtain around a corner (which you’d think I would’ve remembered) that led back to the bar. By the time I found my way out I was stumbling and dizzy, and I knew it was time to call it a night.

WWI soldier portrait at the Grand Canyon Hotel

I walked outside and sat on a bench on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette and enjoying the absolute desolation that is Route 66 at 2am. I half expected tumbleweed to start rolling down the street. In the end all that passed me by was a pickup truck, which seemed so cliché, and after sending out a drunk Snapchat of myself lip syncing to a Miley freaking Cyrus song that was playing on the bar’s patio (like I said, definitely time for bed), I headed back to the hotel.

My 40th birthday had been as epic and wonderful as I’d hoped it would be, and then some. I’d spent it under the bluest sky, hiking along a canyon creek, eating my favorite foods, listening to my favorite music (the Foo, not Miley), drinking my favorite drinks, and spending time with some of my favorite human beings in the entire world. As I fell asleep under the watchful eye of the WWI soldier, my heart was filled with gratitude. I mean, my head was spinning from all those favorite drinks, but as my friend Shawna would say, my love tank was overflowing.

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you’ll come back for LadycationSunday to check out the next installment in my Arizona adventure as we head to the Grand Canyon!

Follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

How I Decided to Spend My 40th Birthday: Family, Friends and Adventure

The big 4-0 was approaching. I wasn’t really sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, I always thought 40 was so old. On the other hand, I didn’t feel old. I’d always assumed I’d feel different at 40: wiser, more established, maybe a little boring. You know, a married homeowner, mom-jeans, much better cook. Yet here I was in my rented duplex, divorced and alone, eating a peanut butter sandwich, and watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix for the billionth time.

mom and three kids in vegas
My three beautiful children and I all dressed up for my stepsister’s wedding in Las Vegas.

My life definitely hadn’t turned out the way I thought it would, but I was happy with where I was. Aside from not having the romantic and material things I’d always associated with adulting, I was doing pretty well. I have three incredible kids who, if I do say so myself, are turning out awesome, I have some of the greatest friends in the world, and have had some absolutely epic experiences.

How was I going to mark the beginning of my 40’s? How did I want to commemorate the occasion? One thing was for sure, I didn’t want to do it in Cleveland. That seemed like adding insult to injury. An adventure was in order, something to challenge my aging body and renew my spirit. I wanted to be outside, away from the cacophony of traffic, sirens, and millions of other people in the city. I wanted to be in a place that took my breath away; somewhere warm, far away, and totally different than what I was used to, a complete break from my reality. I wanted to push myself and shatter the image of what I’d always thought 40 looked like.

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Amy, Dad, Uncle Mark, and a very heavy Steph before our hike to Supai in 2008

When I was in my late twenties I hiked part of the Grand Canyon. My friend Amy, my dad, and I flew to Phoenix where my Uncle Mark picked us up from the airport. After a family cookout with the whole Stohre clan, we got a good night’s sleep before heading to the Hualapai Hilltop. From there we set off for Supai village, at the bottom of the canyon, on the Havasupai reservation. I was a lot younger then, but I was also considerably heavier and very out of shape.

I made it to the village, where we had rooms reserved at The Lodge, and even down to Mooney Falls the next day, but I never made it to Beaver Falls, and was physically incapable of hiking back to the hilltop. It was such a defeat. I rode a horse out of the canyon–which was a cool experience–but it was a huge blow to my self confidence, and also a sad testament to my general health.

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Amy and I after reaching Mooney Falls in 2008

With that in mind, the decision was made. What better way to enter my 40’s than by conquering a trail that had conquered me a decade earlier? I would go over the hill while turning Over The Hill (I love puns). Supai here I come! And this time I was going to camp and not ride a damn horse out.

I recruited my neighbor and one of my best friends to come with me. Mary is like family, and she shares my love of nature, adventure, and hiking, in addition to bringing an added layer of fun to everything she does. I also emailed my Uncle Mark. He’s always down for a hike to Supai, and I don’t get to see my Arizona family enough. Plus, he’s the guy you want around on any trip, but especially one in Arizona. He’s like the Yoda of the Arizona wilderness.

When the day finally arrived I felt more like a kid on Christmas morning than a woman entering middle age. Excited doesn’t begin to describe it. I adore the Grand Canyon and hadn’t seen it in a decade, and I was still on a post-Bestieversarycation high from Lindsey and I’s Washington trip, still in the honeymoon phase with my love affair with backpacking. I was so pumped I feel like we could’ve fueled the plane on my adrenaline alone.

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My aunt and uncle were having dental work done in Mexico (put that in the column of: Things You Don’t Hear in Ohio) the day we arrived in Phoenix, and my cousin Luke was working. That meant Luke’s wife, Kelly, was on Steph-and-Mary duty. She picked us up from the airport and drove us to their house in a beautiful gated community in Tempe, and Mary and I were finally able to smoke a cigarette (yes, I know, it’s a disgusting habit, and I’m working on it. Cut me some slack, I’m old now). Hours of airports, airplanes, and other people’s cars had left us on the precipice of full-blown nicotine withdrawal, and I could feel myself starting to get anxious and bitchy. We stepped into Luke and Kelly’s backyard and, as I took my first, glorious drag, I also took in my surroundings.

Holy crap. Their place was off the hook. That is what I pictured 40 looking like. It was a big, open, classically Southwestern home with the backyard of anyone’s dreams. The patio, that ran the entire length of the house, had an outdoor BBQ kitchen, a hot tub, and sun shades that descended from the ceiling at the flip of a switch. Mind: blown. There was a pool, palm and citrus trees, and the yard was entirely enclosed by a stucco privacy wall. It was gorgeous. I had a brief moment when I wondered if they wanted a live-in, housekeeping cousin.IMG_4599

When Luke got home we headed to the grocery store so Mary and I could pick up some camping food. Along with granola bars and mac-n-cheese, we got other important staples. . . like tequila. Once back at the house, Luke got to work mixing us up some margaritas. After all, we were in the Southwest.IMG_4589

We finished a couple margs and headed to dinner. What a great time it was getting to know my cousin and his wife! I grew up in the Midwest, far removed from the majority of my dad’s family who all lived in Arizona. I’d never gotten to know them except for a handful of visits spread out over four decades. Turns out, they’re totally dope. And they have awesome wives.

Between the pre-game margaritas and the wine at dinner, Kelly, Mary and I were pretty tipsy. Luke drove us to my aunt and uncle’s house where, I’m not gonna lie, despite my age, I still felt weird being drunk around my elders, like I was going to get in trouble. I think a part of me will always feel 15, no matter how old I get. But instead of judging, or sending me to my room and calling my dad, when my Uncle Mark and Aunt Cindy came home, Mark started making more margaritas. I remember thinking, these are definitely my people.

Luke and Kelly stayed long enough to celebrate the last moments of my thirties and help welcome a new decade before heading home. Aunt Cindy went to bed soon after, exhausted after having spent the entire day on international travel and oral surgery. Mary, who had stayed up way past her bedtime, was the next one to call it a night, and after a wonderful chat with my uncle, he was ready to hit the hay, too. There I was, alone, in a beautiful backyard in Phoenix, with nothing but the warm night air and four decades worth of memories to keep me company.

I reflected on my first forty years as I sipped the margarita Mark made me before he went to bed, and I let all the memories wash over me. I realized how many experiences I’d had, and how each experience had taught me something, brought me to where I was in that moment, made me who I was. As I sat there, I was grateful, not just for the moments of joy, but also for all the times I’d screwed up. Not a single misstep can truly be a mistake if the lesson it teaches makes us better people. So, despite my anxiety over turning 40, I found myself thankful for the experiences I’d had, and welcoming this new chapter in the story of Steph Stohre.IMG_4605

The sun was pouring through the windows when I woke up the next morning. It was hard to feel anything but bliss on a morning so perfect. It was warm, the birds were singing, the sky seemed bluer than usual, and I could smell the citrus trees as I walked through Mark and Cindy’s backyard.

Mark was getting some work done before we hit the road, and Cindy was in the kitchen cooking up my favorite breakfast: bacon (among other things, of course). God, I love bacon. I can’t imagine a better way to have begun my first day as a 40 year old. I’d worry about my cholesterol later.IMG_4615

After breakfast it was time to pack up the car and head to Sedona. In addition to breakfast, Cindy had baked chocolate chip cookies that she bagged up for our trip. She was one busy lady in the kitchen that morning! Could this day get any better? I was in Heaven. We all wished she could join us, but she had other obligations, so after some pictures and hugs, she waved us off, as Mark, Mary and I set off for our five day adventure in the Wild Wild West.

Thank you so much for reading! I hope you’ll check out some of my other adventures, and be sure to check back next week to read another chapter in my Arizona Birthday Ladycation!

Follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Curing My Nature Withdrawal

It’s been over 7 months since my last nature trip and I’m in full blown withdrawal. I need to be surrounded by trees and falling asleep in a tent under the stars. I flew to Vegas with two of my fellow ladycationers in March, and we were supposed to camp in Zion National Park for two nights before two nights of Vegasing, but our flight was cancelled and we ended up missing the first two days of our trip. Ever since then I’ve been a hot mess of a tightly wound woman, who desperately needs to escape reality and get her hike on.

Great Smoky Mountains

Funds are tight, a far away adventure is out of the question. I always want to go west when I travel. I love the West! The mountains, the ocean, the weather, the people; I love it all. But living in Ohio, getting to the western USA is no easy or inexpensive feat. So, I started looking for more reasonable, accessible options.

The Great Smoky Mountains are only a half day’s drive from Cleveland, and I’ve always wanted to hike on the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the Smokies. I started looking at a trail map and researching various trails in the National Park, and when I’d picked the perfect route I called my ladycationers.

Locked and Loaded

While you’re reading this (thank you, by the way), Lindsey and I are somewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains, probably getting rained on, if the forecast is correct, and loving every minute of it.

We’ll be hiking the Forney Creek Loop that begins and ends at Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the National Park. We’ll hike down the Forney Creek Trail, then up the Jonas Creek Trail, before joining the Welch Ridge Trail, and finally turning up the AT for the final leg of our journey. It’s only about 20 miles, but from what I’ve read, it’s a pretty strenuous and challenging hike. There are multiple creek crossings that are said to get fairly treacherous;fFrequent rain causes the creeks to swell, making them difficult to get across. There’s also almost 4000ft of elevation loss and then gain, so this hike will test our limits.

Gatlinburg Great Smoky Mountains Tennessee

I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am about this trip. I’ve seen The Smokies before, but I’ve never hiked them. A group of girlfriends and I spent a long weekend in a cabin near Gatlinburg, Tennessee a few years ago. We had every intention of hiking, but ended up losing an entire day in the tourist-hell that is Pigeon Forge, never making it into the wilderness. So I’m pretty stoked about finally getting to explore the mountains, instead of the gift shops and chain restaurants in town, this time. We’ll be surrounded by green, passing waterfalls, climbing mountains, crossing rivers. . . It’s just what the doctor ordered (technically a lie. I’ll be having a bone scan the day before we leave to confirm that I have another stress fracture in my leg. I’ve been advised to cease all high impact activities, but I will NOT miss this trip, so it could be a very interesting hike).094.JPG

We’ll finish our hiking trip the way Lindsey and I always do: an AirBnb with a hot tub. Once we hike out of the mountains we’ll head to Asheville, North Caorolina, where we’ll clean up, check out the town, eat dinner, and retreat to the hot tub with a bottle of wine. No work, no kids, no responsibility; just me and my bestie on a long awaited ladycation.

I hope you’re all having a fantastic week and are planning a nature fix of your own. I can’t wait to see what stories and shenanigans this trip will produce, and share them with whoever is inclined to read them. For a sneak peak, follow Ladycations on Instagram where I’ll be posting a few photos from our adventure! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

A Hiker’s Guide to Lake George and Gobbler’s Knob (yes, Gobbler’s Knob)

Mount Rainier National Park is a must-see for any hiker. With over 370 square miles of pristine wilderness, breathtaking mountain views, alpine lakes, glaciers, and valleys to explore, it’s hard to decide where to begin. The good news is, you really can’t make a bad choice; it’s all spectacular.

If you’re looking for a long day hike, or weekend trip, Lake George and Gobbler’s Knob should be on your short list. As if being able to say you went to a place called Gobbler’s Knob isn’t enough, the views and the quiet solitude make this hike truly spectacular. Here’s what you need to know.

Mount Rainier National Park
The view from Gobbler’s Knob fire lookout tower

Reservations and Permits: While day hiking in Mount Rainier National Park does not require a permit, you will need to get a wilderness permit to do any overnight camping. Demand can be high, so it is recommended that you make a permit reservation in advance. The permits cost $20 per party and are good for up to 14 consecutive days. If your request is granted, you (the person requesting the permit) will need to pick it up at any Ranger Station or Wilderness Information Center before 10:00am on the day of your hike.

trail to lake george

Distance: The hike to Lake George is about 9 miles round trip. If you plan to continue on to Gobbler’s Knob (which you absolutely must because the view is out of this world) you can add an extra 3 miles, mostly switchbacks, to that. This hike can be done in a day, but I highly recommend taking the time to spend the night at Lake George to fully enjoy the this incredible piece of the Mount Rainier National Park.

Terrain: The first 3.5 miles of the trail is an old, gravel road that winds up the mountain. It is all uphill, so prepare your body in advance, as this is a rather strenuous hike for those who aren’t in shape. The last stretch is just under a mile, and begins at a poorly marked (at least while we were there) trailhead that leads through the forest to Lake George. It’s a steeper, but exponentially more beautiful climb, with views of Rainier through the trees.IMG_3624

Campsites: There are multiple campsites at Lake George, and a shelter, most of which overlook the peak of Mt. Rainier! They’re spread out fairly well, so unless the campground is full, you’ll have some privacy.

Campfires: Campfires are NOT allowed at such high elevations in Mt. Rainier National Park. Please don’t be the dick who ignores the rule and burns down the forest. Let’s keep our parks beautiful for everyone to enjoy.

Toilets: There are pit toilets in the campground. They’re exactly what you’d expect a National Park backcountry outhouse would be. Unpleasant, but not Sleepaway Camp unpleasant. If you’re planning on camping, I assume you’ve already accepted outhouses as a part of the experience.

Lake George

Water: Since the campground is located on the shore of a pristine alpine lake, water is easily accessible. Just make sure you have a water filter and/or purification tablets to make it safe to drink. Unless you want to spend a lot of time in the a-fore mentioned outhouse.

Food Storage: Bear canisters are required for overnight campers, and there are bear poles to hang food and scented items out of reach. Canisters can be borrowed at the Wilderness Information Center in Ashford for an optional, but much appreciated, and well deserved donation. Support our parks!

gobbler's knob fire lookout tower

Weather: Due to the elevation at Lake George the temperature is going to drop as you ascend the trail. When we left the parking area it was in the low-mid 80’s, but by the time we’d reached the campground, and were surrounded by trees providing abundant shade from the setting sun, the temperature was about 20 degrees cooler. At night, even in summer, it can dip into the low 30’s. Make sure you pack accordingly!

Lake George and Gobbler’s Knob are spectacular. I hope you add it to your list the next time you’re thinking of an outdoor adventure in the Pacific Northwest!

 

 

Hiking to Lake George at Mount Rainier NP: Boring to Beautiful, A Trail’s Tale

We almost wished we had another day to relax at the Time and Again Cabin. Alternating between bed and hot tub all day sounded pretty damn nice. But, Rainier was calling, and we couldn’t wait to get all up in her. (That’s what he said.) We had reservations to camp at Lake George for two nights. Although we reserved our site well in advance for fear of it filling up, we were one of only two parties in the entire campground.

trail to lake george

We checked in at the Wilderness Center in Ashford to pick up our wilderness pass and, with it in hand, drove to the trailhead. I use the term “trail” loosely because it’s actually an old, gravel access road snaking up the mountain. It’s not very scenic for the first four miles. Every once in a while you catch a glimpse of Rainier’s peak, but compared to the hiking in we’d done in Olympic National Park, it felt more tedious than anything. Our fatigue may have been a contributing factor to our overall opinion of the trail. Had this been our first hike of the trip, I think I’d be considerably more forgiving in my assessment.

After a seemingly endless, and all uphill hike, we reached the final stretch of trail, which is just shy of a mile from the campground at Lake George. Although much more scenic, it was also a steeper, more strenuous climb. When we finally reached the lake we were ready to drop. We quickly found a site with a gorgeous view and immediately set up camp. Lindsey’s blisters had gotten exponentially worse throughout the course of our adventures, our bodies were crying out for rest; we just wanted to be off our feet.IMG_3619

I’d begun the hike in a tech skort and tee, but the higher we climbed, the colder it got. Once in the shade of the forest at Lake George, my heart rate slowing down (and soaking wet with sweat), I was freezing. All I wanted to do was take off my skort, my big, clunky boots, and sweaty socks; put on warm, dry clothes, and smoke a damn cigarette. I’d taken off my boots and socks, put my sandals on, had lit a cigarette and was just about to finish pulling up my pants (a challenge with my sweat-sticky legs), when I realized I never took off my skort. I had to start all over. Total fail. I wanted to cry. Any illusions I had about my prowess and badassery from hiking up the mountain vanished in that moment. Call me Kendrick, cause I felt real damn humble.

Our campsite was perfect. As we ate our dinner we watched the sunset on Mount Rainier; the color of her mammoth, glacier-capped peak changing from gray to orange to red to purple, until the sun was gone and the sky filled with stars. So many stars. Between the enormity of Rainier, the pristine, turquoise water of Lake George, and the infinite stars in the sky, the trek to get there is totally worth it.

I have literally never been anywhere so quiet. It was surreal. The only sounds we could hear at night were the occasional chipmunk scurrying around, and the breeze as it passed through the trees. During the day it was just the breeze and the soft hum of insect wings. It was so peaceful that hearing the occasional hiker passing through was almost jarring. I guess we’d become more confident and comfortable with being alone in the wilderness, despite our nervousness when we began.IMG_3689

Fires aren’t allowed that high in elevation in Mt. Rainier National Park. It was cold–and I mean cold–once the sun went down. I had on fleece-lined long underwear and two pairs of yoga pants, three pairs of socks (one of which was wool), a tee shirt, long underwear shirt, long sleeve tee, and a hoodie. I was still freezing. Lindsey, however, is a genius, and she brought a bunch of those self-heating hand warmers. It kept my hands warm while we star gazed, and when I went to bed I threw it in the bottom of my sleeping bag, which kept my feet nice and toasty all night long. I definitely regretted not buying the cold weather sleeping bag and tent, though.IMG_3687

In the morning we woke to a frigid, see-your-breath kind of day, but the sun was shining and I was excited for our hike to Gobbler’s Knob (yes, Gobbler’s Knob. Insert dirty joke here). Lindsey’s feet, however, weren’t hiking anywhere. Her blisters were now deep, open sores that were weeping and raw. They were a little alarming, to be honest. She needed to let them rest. We were both afraid she wouldn’t make it off that mountain if she didn’t.IMG_3853

I hated leaving her there, and had a little trepidation at going it alone, but she insisted. She knew how excited I was to finally see the place I’d been reading about for months, and I couldn’t fathom not going. So, with Lindsey squared away at the campsite, I stopped at the lake to refill my water and headed up the trail to the summit, solo.IMG_3628

The first thing I remember on the trail was the field of wildflowers in a small valley before the ascent to the lookout tower. The ground was covered in white and yellow wildflowers, and the air was alive with the buzzing of hundreds of bees. I was a little freaked out at first. I walked cautiously, but I soon realized they didn’t even notice me. They were too busy to care about who was passing through. It was an unexpectedly delightful experience.

The climb up to Gobbler’s Knob is no joke (despite it’s name). It’s steep and can be a little disorienting if you’ve got an issue with heights (which I do). Looking out over the edge at the massive peak of Rainier is mind blowing. I got dizzy on the trail when she came into view, and had to focus on my footing so as not to fall. I was relieved to look up and finally see the fire lookout within sight.IMG_3767

When I emerged from the trail on top of the mountain and saw the view, it literally took my breath away. I don’t even know how to describe it. I was completely oblivious to anything around me except the majestic beauty of Mt. Rainier. “Holy shit.” It just escaped my mouth before I even knew I was speaking, startling even me. That’s when I heard the couple on the lookout tower, whose romantic moment I’d just interrupted, laughing. I jumped, realizing I wasn’t alone, and apologized while I tried to get my bearings. I felt unsteady, I was shaking, and my knees felt weak. The view was unlike anything I’d ever seen, but my body was in total preservation mode, “Danger! Flee!” I’ve got a really bizarre Bucket List for someone who’s afraid of heights.IMG_3771

I carefully walked up the steps to the lookout tower, my knees shaking so badly it made walking something of a challenge. I had this irrational fear that the railing would collapse, and I’d fall over the edge, plummeting to my death down the mountainside. Once I was up there I gripped the windowsill for dear life. I wanted a selfie with Rainier in the background to commemorate the moment, but I couldn’t let go of the windowsill, even to take the picture. If you look close enough you can see the fear in my eyes behind the elation.

Volcano Selfie

I wanted to take a million pictures, but my whole body was shaking, so I couldn’t hold my phone steady and only got a few decent shots. I sat down to have a smoke to calm my nerves. Back securely against the wall, and after some concentrated breathing exercises, I was able to relax and just revel in Rainier’s magnificence. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The only sound I could hear was the wind, which seemed to be her peak itself, whispering. I was transfixed, entranced, in absolute awe. Take me to church!

I was busting out my snack when I noticed the water filter in the side pocket of my pack. Oh shit. I had left Lindsey at Lake George with torn up feet and absolutely no water. Commencing panic in 3, 2, 1. . .

Mount Rainier

I frantically gathered my things, bolted down the tower steps, and hit the trail. Unlike my cautious hike up, the fear was gone, adrenaline coursing through me, and I was running. I had this image in my mind of Lindsey down at camp, crying, cursing my name, and dying of thirst. I felt like the worst friend ever. I ran the entire way down the switchbacks (receiving a “Damn, you go girl,” from a fellow hiker along the way), through the field of wildflowers, and up to our campsite. When I arrived, sweaty and breathless, Lindsey was doing yoga; calm and collected, zen AF, and, upon seeing me arrive, said, “Oh, heyyyy, you’re back!” Once I caught my breath and was able to speak, I apologized. She laughed at my panic, and we headed down to the lake to sit in the sun, and get her some water. She was fine. Thirsty, but fine.IMG_3806

The lake was calm, and apart from when a breeze went through, was like a smooth pane of emerald glass. It was hypnotizing. There was no one in sight so we smoked a crazy, kief covered joint, and watched from the shore as the sun danced on the water. The sparkling drew us in, and we lost a good hour just watching the sun’s reflection twinkle and dance. The high from the joint we’d smoked was incredible. Cerebral, uplifting, and completely relaxing. The perfect sativa-indica hybrid to facilitate a full submersion in our surroundings.IMG_3834

When the sun dipped below the mountain it was time to head back to camp. It was another cold night on the mountain, but the solitude had taken us over, and we were consumed by its tranquility. It was our last night in the wilderness and we wanted to savor every single second, so we loaded up on hand warmers, and enjoyed the night, staying up well past dark to admire the stars. Living in the city, it’s easy to forget just how spectacular the night sky is when you get away from all the lights and smog. We even saw a couple of meteors!

This trip had brought Lindsey and I together on a level that, even as best friends, we hadn’t previously experienced. We’d gone through the trenches together, like comrades in arms, we’d had to rely on each other, to work together to achieve our goals. And we loved it. We knew, by the end of this adventure, that it was only the beginning of our Ladycations. And as we fell asleep on our last night in the backcountry, we dreamed of all the nights, in all the places, we’d venture to next. . .IMG_3632

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you’ll check out my other posts, and don’t forget to come back next week for LadycationSunday when the Washington Bestieversarycation continues in Seattle!

Don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on upcoming trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

O’Neil Creek Camp and AirBnb: Hot Tub, Cheese and the Good Samaritans

We wanted to shorten our hike out of the park on our last day, so we packed up camp and headed back down the East Fork Quinault River Trail to O’Neil Creek Camp the day before. Only a few miles from Pyrites Creek, it seemed like the shortest hike ever after so many days of mileage in the double digits. It also allowed us to get there nice and early, so the place was empty. We chose a large site along the river, surrounded by large, moss covered trees that provided both privacy and shade. It was like the Ritz Carlton of campsites: location, location, location.IMG_3539

After setting up camp we put on our bathing suits, grabbed our sleeping mats, and headed to the rocky island in the middle of the river to spend the afternoon. We rinsed off in the icy cold water and stretched out to dry in the hot sun. It was the most amazing feeling. There was no urgency, we were able to just be still; no responsibilities, really enjoying being in the present, appreciating everything that got us to that place, at that moment. It was like combining a badass adventure with a relaxing beach vacation, and a mountain retreat with gurus to guide you on the path to your best life. Only instead of gurus, we had weed.

Lit

We headed back to camp when the shadows moved in as the sun sank below the mountains, and made dinner. Being our last night, we were down to only the food we’d chosen not to eat thus far. So it was a somewhat depressing meal, and I was dreaming of hamburgers and mozzarella sticks, as I begrudgingly ate my vegetable beef soup.

A family from a campsite nearby asked if they could walk through our site to get to the river and, of course, we happily obliged. They were really sweet people, very natural, “granola,” if you will. They’re like the smart kids I went to high school with, who got graduate degrees and are now professors, or running science labs, and are always going on hiking and camping trips with their beautiful spouses and adorable kids. Talking with our new Nature Neighbors was like talking to my high school friends, but ten years in the future.

The Granola Dad laughed at Lindsey’s can of soup as he passed through, saying, “You guys must be going ultralight.” We kinda looked around at all our stuff everywhere and thought, “Huh?” It made us wonder what all he and his family had carried in with them.

O'Neil Creek Camp

Talking to our new friend about soup got us talking about other foods. Real food. We were craving some good, hot meals, but what we really wanted was cheese. Cheese and crackers and wine. We decided to pick some up on the way to our AirBnb after we hiked out of the park. The thought of sitting in the hot tub with a glass of wine and snacks, as we sat on the ground with our stiff backs against a tree, sounded positively orgasmic.

We were in bed early that night, and up early the next morning. When we were packing up camp, Granola Mom came over to greet us. To our absolute astonishment, she had cheese, crackers, and granola bars with her. She said her husband overheard us talking about being hungry and wanting cheese, and that they had leftover rations from the night before that they wanted us to have. I’m not kidding when I say we had tears in our eyes as we looked at her. These people were our heroes. It might have been the best damn cheese we’d ever had in our entire lives. It was some kind of smooth gouda that, in the backcountry on day 4, tasted absolutely decadent. That kind, beautiful family restored a little bit of my faith in humanity that day.IMG_3555

The hike out was about 9 miles, and our packs were lighter as we’d eaten all our food. We talked as we hiked about our favorite parts of the trip. One thing we both loved was the quiet, being so far removed from other human beings. While unsettling at first, we’d learned to cherish the solitude, and the connection it allowed us to feel with our surroundings. The few people we did encounter had as much reverence and respect for the forest as we did. We wanted more of it in our lives. We’d fallen head over heels in love with backpacking. But first we wanted showers. And wine. And more cheese.IMG_3564

By the time we emerged from the forest, we were definitely ready for a break, and we felt like we’d earned it; we were unbelievably proud of ourselves. We’d hiked over 43 miles in the backcountry, in 4 days, with everything we needed on our backs. The word, “badass,” was said more than once, but we were next level exhausted. We were so excited to do things like sit in a real chair, sleep in a real bed, flush a toilet, get water from a faucet. . . I love to escape the world, but there are some things I also love to come back to. Nature helps me appreciate all the advances in modern technology. . . Like indoor plumbing.

When we got to the car I noticed something was amiss. In all the excitement of embarking on our big adventure, I’d left the driver’s window all the way down. . . For the last 4 days. . . In the woods. . . Unattended. . . With hundreds of dollars worth of weed, and all the rest of our stuff inside. We just stood there for a second and exchanged an “uh oh” look before surveying the damage. To our relief, and absolute amazement, everything was still there. Someone could’ve robbed us blind, but our stuff was untouched. It was the second time that day that I’d been given hope for the future of mankind.

The few food items we’d left in a Target bag on the floor of the backseat, however, were another story. They’d been feasted on by some small, forest critter. There were tiny teeth marks in all the packaging, and the contents (mostly Lindsey’s dehydrated fruit, and granola bars she was saving for Mt. Rainier) were just gone. We inspected the rest of our stuff to make sure there were no more surprises, and were satisfied that whatever had been in there had moved on, so we did too. We would find out later, of course, that he wasn’t gone. In fact, whatever it was also drove to our AirBnb and then Mount Rainier with us. After two nights of hiking Rainier, and even though all the windows were securely closed, our food was once again gone, with more chewed up wrappers left behind. We never found it. Whatever it was, he was like some sort of tiny, forest ninja. We weren’t sad when we returned that rental car. At. All.

I wish I could remember the name of the pizza place we went to in Olympia. We were exhausted and in a post-nature daze, I barely even remember the drive to get there. What I do remember is that it was the most delicious Coke to ever pass my lips, and the cheesy garlic bread almost made me cry. Honestly, though, it probably wasn’t really that good. We were just overjoyed to not be eating granola or canned soup, so we were pretty easy to please.IMG_3596

After lunch we made a brief stop at Target for our wine and cheese, then made our way to our “home” for the night. The Time and Again Cabin is a little slice of paradise located in the middle of a Christmas tree farm in Cinebar, Washington. Dripping with charm in every nook and cranny, the cottage has a bedroom, a futon in the living room, a mini kitchen, private laundry and bath, and a giant hot tub. It’s the perfect stop between backpacking trips.IMG_3579

The hosts were a delightful couple who gave us a tour of the cabin and introduced us to their sweet, old dog, who would wind up keeping us company most of the night. They left us snacks, plush bathrobes, flip flops, and special mugs for the hot tub, then they left us to bask in the luxury of their guesthouse.

We showered immediately and oh, how glorious it felt! I honestly felt physically lighter when I stepped out, like I’d just washed away 30 pounds of dirt, sweat, and grime. After we were clean, we threw in a load laundry before pouring our wine and hopping in the hot tub.

Cheers!

There we were, stretched out in this 6 person hot tub, staring up at the billions of stars against the jet black sky. We sipped our wine while the hot water and powerful jets soothed away 4 days of hiking up and down the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. We were totally blissed out.IMG_3587

Clouds began to roll in just as we started getting a little hot, feeling like we may need to get out and breathe some cooler air. Then it started to rain. Just a light, drizzly mist that cooled off our faces enough to allow us to stay in the hot tub a while longer, relaxing as the water massaged us from head to toe. Absolute amazeballs. Even removed from the forest, Mother Nature still had our backs. Thanks, Mom!

After we got out, we switched our laundry and sat on the patio; eating our cheese, finishing our wine, and looking at the pictures we’d taken so far. The dog was by our side, sleeping contently as we smoked a joint, reminisced, and talked about the adventure awaiting us on Mt. Rainier.

We slept so good that night. I’m pretty sure I didn’t move a single muscle from the moment my head hit the pillow until I woke up to the sun shining through the windows, beckoning us to the mountains, in the morning. We were ready.

One thing is for sure, my next visit to Washington will include another trip to Olympic National Park, followed by a stay at the Time and Again Cabin. It was the most perfect mix of wilderness and luxury.

Thank you for stopping by! Be sure to check out my other posts, and come back next week to continue the adventure, when Lindsey and I embark on an all up hill hike in Mount Rainier National Park!

~Steph

Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park: Mountains and Glaciers and Trees (but no bears), Oh My!

The morning air was crisp, cool, and moist with humidity. The birds were singing a cheerful song, as a woodpecker kept the beat, announcing it was time to start our day. We were a little achy when we climbed out of the tent (and I kinda wanted to strangle the woodpecker with my bare hands), but so ready to get exploring, and finally see the Enchanted Valley.

After a quick breakfast we hit the trail. The first obstacle came before we even left the campground: the bridge over Pyrites Creek had been washed out in a storm. We had to find our own way across. There were several places to get over the creek, but I managed to find the most complicated one, only to get across and see that they’d erected a temporary footbridge about 50 feet from where I’d crossed. Oops.

Behold!

We hadn’t gone much farther when Lindsey stopped me in my tracks with a, “Holy shit! Oh my god, are you seeing this?!” I was so focused on the path ahead that I was forgetting to look around. When I went back to Lindsey my jaw dropped. I don’t know how I’d missed it. It was one of the reasons I’d chosen the Enchanted Valley hike in the first place, and I’d almost walked right past it. It was what used to be the largest mountain hemlock in the entire world until it collapsed several years ago, and it was even more incredible than the pictures I’d seen. Its massive roots lie overturned next to the trail, its once towering trunk stretching out across the forest floor and disappearing down the riverbank. It was magnificent. I tried to imagine what it had looked like before its demise and wondered what finally took it down, but the size of the tree seemed to make the size of the thought too much to comprehend.

It Keeps Going and Going and Going

When we arrived at the narrow, one railing bridge over the ravine, I knew we had arrived. We entered the Enchanted Valley to find the clouds dipping below the peak of snow-capped Mt. Olympus. Everything looked a little gray, the sun only peeking out from behind the clouds sporadically and for brief periods, but it somehow didn’t seem dreary.

The Enchanted Valley

The Enchanted Valley Chalet was perched on the bank of the river, its simple facade humbled by its exquisite surroundings. The Olympic Mountains were lush and green, and waterfalls, fed by glaciers atop the peaks, tumbled down the mountainsides. It definitely isn’t called the Enchanted Valley for nothing.IMG_3488

We ate some lunch outside the Chalet and went looking for the outhouses (Priorities, people). They were rustic, to say the least, but I’ve never been so grateful for an outhouse, nor have I ever been in one with such a spectacular view. I hadn’t relished the thought of digging a hole, squatting, and burying my poo. It’s the one backpacking experience I’ve yet to have (and I’m in no hurry to change that, though I know it’s only a matter of time). I’d been holding it since we left civilization the previous morning, so this little shack, with a toilet seat over a hole, was a welcome sight. That it overlooked the valley, with its mountains, glaciers, and waterfalls, made it feel like the lap of luxury. I give it a 5 star and two thumbs up outhouse rating.

We’d met a couple of other hikers on our way into the valley. They gave us two bits of helpful information: 1. They’d just seen a bear, so watch out. That got us excited. 2. There’s a glacier with ice caves they explored down the trail and across the river. That made us positively giddy. So we went in search of a way to get across, while being watchful for bears (and trying not to step in their poop–which was everywhere).

Enchanted Valley Waterfall

I don’t know where these people were talking about, but we never figured out how to get across the river without going for a frigid swim. We were disappointed. We could see the caves, we were so close, we just couldn’t get there. We hiked a little over a mile farther down the trail, admiring the trees and the mountains as we went, before heading back towards the Valley.IMG_3510

Before going back to camp we stopped to refill our water. There was an island in the river that we had to reach in order to get to the faster flowing water, so we hopped over the little branch of river separating the island from the mainland and, as I was landing, I wanted to scream. I didn’t see it until it was too late: a perfect, pristine bear print in the sand on the river’s island. It was incredible. . . for the split second I saw it before my foot came crashing down on top of it like an inconsiderate giant. It felt like it happened in slow motion, and in my head, it did: me screaming, “Noooooooo,” in a slow-mo voice all the way down. This is my other regret of the trip (the first being when I neglected to get a picture with Ranger Blondie Buns). It was immaculate, even the holes from the claws were there, and it would’ve been such a cool picture. Alas, it now only exists in my memory.IMG_3521

In the end, the paw print and a whole lotta scat is as close as we came to any wild animals (okay, we also saw a tiny lizard, but that totally doesn’t count). Considering the extraordinary amount of bear poop we saw, I’m not sure how we didn’t see any actual bears. I’m also not sure if I’m happy or disappointed about that. Maybe a little of both.

We got back to camp, made dinner, and got our fire going as the sun began to set behind the mountains. Once it began to get dark Lindsey went to bed. We were exhausted. Our bodies were screaming, but the night was so peaceful and perfect that I couldn’t bring myself to go to sleep. There was only one other person in the entire campground and he’d gone to bed before the sun, so when Lindsey went to sleep, I was all alone in the wilderness.

IMG_3529
Naked in the woods selfie!

Since Lindsey was in the tent, I started changing into my pajamas fireside. I was rushing to get changed, fearful of someone seeing my nakedness, and then realized how stupid that was. The forest was so dark I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. There was no one around to see me anyway, so I slowed down and decided to sit in the woods for a while–naked. The cool breeze combined with the warmth of the fire on my skin felt incredible. To sit in the wilderness in such a natural state, listening to the crackling fire and the wind through the trees, staring up at a sky with endless stars, was unbelievably liberating. Part of me wanted to go running naked through the woods just for the hell of it. Maybe I have an unconscious desire to be a nudist hiding somewhere behind all my insecurities and programmed obedience to societal norms (and, you know, the law). Or, maybe it was just fun to sit in the woods, smoking a joint, all by myself and naked, knowing no one would see me. Either way it was an experience I’m glad I had. I was as bare and vulnerable as the trees around me, all of us submitting to Mother Nature together.

I was really glad Ranger Blondie Buns didn’t reappear at that particular moment. On the one hand, it could’ve made for an entirely different and sordid blog post (at least in my fantasy it would). On the other, it could’ve ended up with me getting a citation for public indecency (a far more likely scenario), and getting myself banned from all national parks for life. I’m grateful the night instead ended with me putting some clothes on and going to bed without incident. I was also glad for our upcoming Rest Day with only three miles of hiking. I was looking forward to a having a day to slow down, relax, and fully appreciate Olympic National Park before our hike back to civilization.

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you enjoyed the read! Be sure to check out my other posts, and come back next week to hear how our Ladycation backpacking in Olympic National Park ends! Stay chill and keep exploring, friends!

~Steph

Hiking to the Enchanted Valley: A Complete Guide

Reservations: Advanced reservations are not required!

Permits: A Wilderness Permit is required for all overnight trips, and can be purchased at the South Shore Quinault River Ranger Station in Quinault. $8/person/night

Distance: The maps all say it’s about 13 miles from the Graves Creek Trailhead to Enchanted Valley. But we clocked it closer to 14 miles. This is a minimum 28 mile round trip hike.

Campsites: There are several options for camping on the trail: Pony Bridge, O’Neil Creek, Pyrites Creek and Enchanted Valley. Though reservations are not required, you will need to designate which site you’ll be camping at each night when you obtain your permit.

Food Storage: Hiking to Enchanted Valley means hiking in bear country. Bear activity is extremely high in this area, so using bear canisters is required. All your scented items should be stored in the bear canister—including your trash. Don’t be the jerk that leaves their stuff out. If bears are reported to have gotten into human food or trash, the entire area has to be shut down. They do this for our safety, because if the bears get used to their dinner coming from humans, they’ll become less cautious, and more aggressive in trying to get it. Bear wire is provided at most of the campsites, so bring a bag large enough hold the canister that you can hang from the wire. Bear canisters are available for loan at the same Ranger Station, and there is no charge, however donations are appreciated.

The Night Before You Hike: Lake Quinault Lodge and Rain Forest Village Lodge are both good options for lodging the night before your hike. Depending on when you hike, the passes could sell out. Staying in Quinault allows you to be at the Ranger Station bright and early to ensure you get your permit.

Toilets: Enchanted Valley is the only campground on this trail with an outhouse. If you have to poo while you’re anywhere else, you’ll need to dig a hole, and bury it, so bring a trowel and prepare to lose a little bit of your dignity.

Water: Everywhere! This trail follows the path of the river, so there are plenty of places to stop and refill your hydration pack and water bottle. Just make sure you have a way to filter the water before you drink it.

Weather: The trail is open year-round, and winter weather conditions can occur during all but the summer season, so make sure you pack the appropriate gear when hiking during the colder months. In the summer the temperatures can get as high as the 80’s, but it can also dip pretty low at night, so make sure you pack several layers of clothing, and a rain jacket.

Terrain: The trail goes up and down hills as it follows the path of the river. It is well marked and maintained (during the summer months), there’s virtually zero chance of getting lost unless you’re a complete idiot, or something unexpected takes you off the trail. The bridge at Pyrites Creek was washed out when we were there, and from what I’ve read, that’s a common occurrence, so be sure to pack your water shoes in case you need to do some river forging.

Be sure to check out the NPS website for more information, and always check weather and trail conditions before your hike!

Hiking to Enchanted Valley: Giant Trees and the Lone Ranger

You know when you get lost and start to panic? You drive extra slow, turn down the radio as if it will help you see better, and start to think you’ve gone miles too far in the wrong direction? That’s kind of how we felt towards the end of our first day hiking the East Fork Quinault River Trail in Olympic National Park.

Ready To Rock

We were so stoked, this was the big one. Three nights in the backcountry with all our gear on our backs. We began at the Graves Creek trailhead near Lake Quinault. The well marked trail, that passes through old growth rain forest, leading to Enchanted Valley, is stunning. It winds through the forest, following the path cut by the rivers and creeks that are fed by glacial melt coming off the Olympic Mountains. The entire forest floor is covered in giant ferns that you’d expect to see in Jurassic Park, and moss grows on everything from the ground to the trees. Everything was so green! It almost looked enchanted (see what I did there?).IMG_3288

The most spectacular sights on this trail, in fact, are the trees. I really can’t say enough about them, you guys; enormous Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, mountain hemlock and western red cedar all around. I learned that Olympic National Park has the largest concentration of “giant” trees in a small area in the world. There are a few things in the natural world that have truly humbled me: the Grand Canyon, the night sky as seen from Madeline Island, the birth of my children. . . Add “the trees of Olympic National Park” to that list. These massive, towering giants stretch so high that I couldn’t even see the tops of them. Imagining how long they’d been there, how much of human history has passed by while they just grew and grew and grew, made me feel very small and insignificant. To witness their beauty and majesty first hand felt like an incredible privilege.IMG_3349

The smell, you guys. . . Oh my god, the smell. . . It was earthy, clean, crisp, woodsy; just divine. At one point we passed an extraordinarily large cedar tree that had fallen across the path. The National Park Service had cut through the middle of it, leaving the trail unencumbered, and the cedar’s shavings dusting the forest floor. The scent of that fresh cut tree was utterly intoxicating. I wanted to roll around in it, cover myself in cedar, be one with the forest. If we breathed it in any deeper we would’ve ended up with a case of cedar shaving asphyxiation.

The Giant Trees of Olympic National Park

I was overwhelmed by the desire to express my love for these trees—in a totally non sexual way, of course—and when I found myself particularly drawn to one specific behemoth of a tree, I had to hug it. I hugged a tree, and I liked it. I don’t even care if that makes me a hippie cliché. That tree and I shared a moment.

Cedar

The ultimate goal on our first day’s hike was to make it to Pyrites Creek. Since neither of us had hiked such long distances before, we didn’t want to try trekking all the way to Enchanted Valley on the first day, but we didn’t want to stop too early either. We decided to shoot for Pyrites which was, according to the maps, 9.5 miles from the trailhead; the third and final campground before entering the Valley. If we couldn’t make it that far we planned to stop at O’Neil Creek Camp, located just under 7 miles from the trailhead.

Zen Break at O'Neil Creek

When we arrived at O’Neil and took a snack/rest break, we were still feeling pretty energized, so we decided to keep going. About an hour later we started to question the wisdom of that decision. My Fitbit said we had already passed the 10 mile mark, and Pyrites Creek Camp was nowhere in sight. Had we gone past it somehow and not noticed? Were the maps wrong? Was my Fitbit wrong? We hadn’t seen another human being for hours. Mile after mile, and not a single soul passed by. We were tired, hangry, and our bodies were getting slower and clumsier with each step we took. As much as I love to escape the crowds of the city, not knowing if there are any other people nearby at all can feel a little disconcerting when you think you may be lost.

Just when I thought I might start to cry, he came walking out of the forest.

I wasn’t sure if he was real at first: He was a Park Ranger; tall, tan, and muscular, with a strong jaw, and beautiful blue eyes. His long, braided, blonde hair reached down his back, and his legs, in his little ranger shorts, appeared like the mighty trees surrounding us: solid.

It was as though the universe had sent this magnificent Viking god to give us the encouragement we needed to press on. I have no doubt that a socially unacceptable amount of time passed between his emergence from the woods and when we finally regained our ability to speak and, although it’s all a blur, I’m sure I sounded like a stuttering buffoon when we did (eventually) greet him. He probably walked away from the encounter assuming he’d have to rescue us at some point.

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Noname. Well played, Olympic NP.

Ranger Blondie Buns (yes, that’s what we named him after realizing we were too distracted by his sexiness to ask his actual name) asked to see our wilderness pass and we chatted for a few minutes. We mostly talked about being a Park Ranger, which he described as equivalent to being a glorified janitor. It made me sad to know that we need people like him going through this beautiful forest picking up the trash other people leave behind. Sometimes I think maybe I like trees more than people, but then I realize how grateful I am for folks who are willing to go around the woods picking up other people’s garbage. I guess I’d like to think it all evens out in the end.

After he walked away, Lindsey and I looked at each other, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing: You saw him too, right? Part of me wondered if I’d hallucinated the entire thing, if my mind had conjured him up just to keep from fracturing due to my high levels of exhaustion and anxiety.

The best tidbit of knowledge our Sexy Ranger Savior gave us was that we were almost there. It was like a physical weight lifted when he said that, like my pack was suddenly ten pounds lighter. We were going to make it, we hadn’t made a mistake.

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The river ran right next to our campsite, with a large downed tree which provided the perfect bench

We reached our campsite not long after we left RBB and, after taking a break to smoke a celebratory “we actually fucking made it” joint and have a snack, we got to work setting up camp and gathering firewood. Thankfully, despite it being so late in the year, the campground had plenty of branches strewn about, so we didn’t have to walk too far to find enough to keep us warm for a couple of nights.

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The moss covered trees surrounded our campsite

The campsite was perfect: a huge site, with towering, moss covered trees all around, right next to the river. After dinner we sat around our fire listening to the river, and taking a moment to really appreciate where we were. We couldn’t believe we did it. My Fitbit had clocked over 14 miles by the time I went to bed. Yet despite how far we’d come, between the fireside yoga we did at our campsite, and the CBD chocolates we ate for dessert, we felt amazing: strong, independent, empowered, and more in tune with nature and ourselves than we’d ever been.

There was one thing that didn’t feel amazing, and that was Lindsey’s feet. The blister’s she’d gotten at Shi Shi Beach had grown on our long-ass hike, and she was now developing new blisters between her toes. I swear, those boots were designed by a sadist. Thankfully, we’d replenished our first aid supplies, and Lindsey had her technique down to a science by this point. Treating Lindsey’s wounds had become part of our routine.

We talked about The Ranger quite a bit that night, wondering what he was doing at that moment. One of my only regrets from the entire trip was not asking to take a selfie with him. How could I, of all people, forget to take a picture?! We weren’t sure anyone would believe us when we told the story without photographic evidence—even we weren’t completely convinced he was real. For all we knew, we really had both come up with the same fantasy to cope with our fear of potentially dying in the woods alone.

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Dinner was Velveeta mac-n-cheese and it was fantastic. I think camping is the only time I actually like the stuff.

We went to bed that night with visions of majestic, towering trees, and sexy Park Rangers swirling through our minds. Knowing the beauty that was surrounding us, and that such a fine specimen of man was out there in the rare event of an emergency, gave us peace of mind. I won’t lie though, a part of me wished one of us would somehow injure ourselves, just enough to need to be rescued by Ranger Blondie Buns, so we could get that damn selfie. Lucky for everyone, that wouldn’t be necessary. We’d live another night and hike to the Enchanted Valley in the morning!

Thanks for stopping by! Come back next Sunday to read the next chapter in Lindsey and I’s Bestieversarycation. Also be sure to check out my other posts, and follow my blog to stay up to date on the latest Ladycations!

~Steph