Trip Planning, Goal Setting and Picking the Best Backcountry Partner

A recipe for happiness: Friends, alpine lakes and Moo.

A recipe for happiness: Friends, alpine lakes and Moo.

“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”
Louisa May Alcott

Exploring the Hoover Wilderness: Saddlebag Lake, Conness Lake and 20 Lakes Basin

This past summer, I have had the pleasure of spending the majority of my time in the backcountry. I spent many days exploring new trails, paddle boarding on alpine lakes, fording swift rivers, and even learning how to backcountry ski. I went on solo 60-mile backcountry excursions, bagged a couple of 14ers, hiked fun easy treks with friends and suffered through extended knee breaking day trips with my dog in tow. Over the past couple of years, I have learned to set many different objectives when I venture into the outdoors. My outdoor partners and I have essential discussions on whether we are going to bring wine or vodka and if we should also bring along blow up rafts and bikinis. We also discuss the practical stuff like weather, alpine gear, and strict turn around times due to inclement forecasts. I have come to learn that not every trip has to be an "accomplishment", in the sense of bagging a massive peak, or doing loads of miles each day. An accomplishment can mean having tons of fun, frolicking in lakes, improving my photography skills, or spending hours watching my dog run around alpine meadows.

A day without bright colors is a boring day…

A day without bright colors is a boring day…

I have also learned to choose my backcountry partners wisely. I have about ten close friends who I backcountry with on the regular and although I love each one dearly, I am very attuned to each of their limitations and preferences. Some of these friends have zero desire to hike 20 miles in a day with me, others cannot stand the snow, and a small handful will be up for any adventure I plan. I also have some friends who I will struggle to keep up with and who will challenge me to my core. Having an agenda and a goal in mind for each trip is important because it not only determines the purpose of the trip, but it determines who you will have the most fun with in the backcountry.

To solo or to not solo?

I recently completed a 60-mile loop in three days with a total of 24,000 feet in elevation change. I started from Glen Aulin and made my way to the Grand Canyon of Tuolomne via Pate Valley up to White Wolf to Ten Lakes and back to Glen Aulin. It was an absolute sufferfest, and my goal was to push myself physically and mentally so far out of my comfort zone. I wanted to test my strength, endurance, and willpower. Although I would have loved a backpacking partner, I honestly didn't have anyone on speed dial who would jump at this chance. So, therefore, some trips like these are better off as a solo adventure.

Fun is the goal of this trip

When my friend Brandi reached out to me about a backpacking trip over Labor Day, I jumped at the chance. Brandi is extremely easy going, and FUN and I like fun! She told me she did not want to do big miles or any crazy elevation gains so I decided on a stunning, moderate loop off of Tioga Road. We had a quick phone conversation to discuss goals, gear, and alcohol, and the decision was final, Saddlebag Lake and 20 Lakes Basin over three-days. Low miles, lots of swimming in lakes, minimal elevation gain, non-quota permits, and only an hour away from where I live.

  • Trip details: Saddlebag Lake, Conness Lake, and 20 Lakes Basin

  • Permit: Yes, non-quota

  • Dog-friendly: Yes, but be mindful of the paws 

  • Miles: 15

  • Highest elevation: 10,800 feet 

  • Elevation gain: 1,000 feet

  • Parking: On the side of the road

The long path to fun…

The long path to fun…

One too many tequillas

Living in Mammoth during long holiday weekends means one thing; I need to escape the crowds. Vodka, rainbow blow-up rafts, swimming in alpine lakes, playing fetch with my pup and just enjoying Mother Nature, were the only items on our agenda. We decided to go out to dinner Friday night before our Saturday morning early departure, and I may have had one too many tequilas. Yikes! I am pretty sure I had a tequila to go and took it on the trolley with me back home.

Easy to say, the next morning was brutal. I felt like death, but with Brandi's motherly help, I powered through! We had to make a couple of quick stops in town and everyone who I ran into, declared, "Kristen, you look like death!" Yes, I was hurting. Brandi drove my car to the trailhead after trying to convince me to eat some food at The Mobil Mart, but I could not even keep water down. I had an emergency bag in the car, and we may or may not have had to pull over multiple times on the 395. I was off to a rough start.

Your dog is your own responsibility

Our first day consisted of an easy 2.5-mile hike into our campsite, so I was not too concerned. I could take it slow, puke my brains out and chug along. I was armed with Pedialyte, ginger and lots of water to keep me as hydrated as possible. After all, my philosophy is "I can do ANYTHING for two miles"! Within the first half-mile, we saw a dog that was overheating and needed to be treated then carried off the trail. The owner declared that I should carry her dog back to the trailhead (we were hiking the opposite direction, I had a 45-pound pack, I had my dog to take care of, and I was actively puking). I was in no shape to carry out a 50-pound dog. The lady was annoyed when I said, "I couldn't". She had the option of pouring water on her dog, soaking a t-shirt in water and wrapping it around her dog, allowing her dog to actually drink water and the list goes on. She was persistent in having someone immediately carry her dog off the trail, and I was not going to be that person.

The first lesson of the trip: If you are bringing your dog into the backcountry, make sure you can carry him/her out on your own and also understand how to prevent and treat heat exhaustion in your pet.

Reflections from Saddlebag Lake

Reflections from Saddlebag Lake

Broken tents and tequila sickness

Since it was a holiday weekend, the trail was extremely crowded. I was nervous; some dude was going to walk by me and give me the lecture on "altitude sickness" when I had "tequila sickness." As a result, I tried to keep it together and only vomit when nobody was around. Mission accomplished! We arrived at Greenstone Lake and took our time looking for a campsite that was not on alpine meadows or within 100 feet from the lake. We came across the perfect spot and started setting up camp when Brandi noticed her tent poles were broken. I was pretty sure I was done puking for the day, but I still felt like garbage; however, I knew I had to help her. We devised a plan, spent over 30 minutes re-constructing her tent poles, and I used my duct tape from my first aid kit to hold her poles together.

#TeamworkMakestheDreamwork

The second lesson of the trip: Always carry duct tape in your first aid kit

After we set up camp, I blew up my rainbow raft, and we ran for the lake. The water was refreshing, and Moo surprisingly ran in after me (she is not a water dog). We frolicked around for a minute and spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing on a rock. We were content, and Moo was off chasing all the cute marmots, flies and lizards to her little heart’s content. 

Queen Moo, living her best life.

Queen Moo, living her best life.

Granite waterfalls on the way to Conness Lake

Granite waterfalls on the way to Conness Lake

More tents than square footage

As we were cooking dinner, we noticed hoards among hoards of people setting up camp on alpine meadows. Many of the campers were also setting up their tents way too close to the lakes (like within a stone's throw away). I have never seen anything like it, in all my years of backcountry adventuring. I was downright disgusted in regards to how people were disrespecting the backcountry rules. Rangers work extremely hard to herd cats and to create a safe environment in the outdoors, and it is incredibly disheartening to see so many people have zero respect for Mother Nature. Although this area was under a "non-quota" permit; it is still required to walk into a ranger station, request a permit and listen to the lecture on the particular backcountry rules that are set in place to protect our environment. 

The third lesson of the trip: Leave No Trace regulations are in place for a reason. Please respect the rules, so these areas are around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy. 

We settled into our tents, and I started reading a new book that I could not put down. It was a new moon, so I was overly excited to photograph the night sky for my very first time. I woke up around 11 PM, and the Milky Way was shining in all her glory. I set up my tripod and camera and got to work! Astrophotography is a skill that takes practice. I spent over an hour shooting the night sky, and for my very first time, I was pretty stoked on some of my photos! By 1 AM, I was back in my tent, cuddling with my pup! 

Oh Starry Night

Oh Starry Night

Our backcountry “home”

Our backcountry “home”

Conness Lake is dreamy

We woke up nice and slow the next morning and started to plan out our day. Our original plan was to backpack to Lake Helen and set up camp; however, Brandi's tent was broken, and neither of us wanted to take on that task again during this trip. We also had an incredible, private campsite, and after seeing the hoards of people, we had a gut feeling Lake Helen was going to be packed! We decided to keep our camp and day hike to Conness Lake and around the entire 20 Lakes Basin Loop. We made the right decision. The crowds were out of control, the number of illegal campsites we saw around the lakes was disturbing, and it is always so much nicer carrying a daypack instead of our full overnight set up! 

The fourth lesson of the trip: Be flexible, plans can change, and sometimes for the better. 

Conness Lake and all her glory

Conness Lake and all her glory

We headed off to Conness Lakes for some alpine lake swimming. The two-mile trail was stunning. Moo ran and ran through alpine meadows, and we stood in awe of the granite, the waterfalls, and the views. The short climb was enough to get our blood pumping, and as we approached the second lake, we couldn't wait to go for a dip! I blew up my raft, and we immediately jumped in the turquoise lake. The frigid water took our breath away. We laughed at how ridiculous we must have looked, but we were having SO much fun. Once we could no longer feel our limbs, we jumped out, dried off in the sun and marveled at the beauty. As we were sitting in our bikinis on the granite rock, a nice gentleman offered to take our photo. He couldn't figure out how to work my camera, and the wind blew our raft away. He quickly retrieved our raft, took our pictures, complimented my sweet dog, and off he went. We need more men like him in this world; kindred souls who empower women to be themselves. 

Tent city and rock scrambles; Greenstone Lake to Lake Helen to Odelle Lake

We ate lunch and decided that we should get on with our day since we had about nine more miles to go. As we continued hiking the 20 Lakes Basin loop, we kept commenting on the number of disrespectful people pitching their tents wherever they felt like it. It was becoming a tent city!

After about five miles, we scrambled over some pretty rocky terrain on the way to Lake Helen. As we navigated our way through the boulders and rounded the corner of beautiful Lake Helen, we were grateful we did not choose to camp here, as it was overly crowded with tents, ice chests and lots of people playing music.

As you approach the backside of Lake Helen, you can continue the loop or verge left and go up Lundy Canyon. At the beginning of the summer, I hiked to Lake Helen from Lundy, and it was a type 2 suffer-fest. I do not recommend it!

Cornices are pretty but they can kill you…

Cornices are pretty but they can kill you…

Views from Greenstone Lake

Views from Greenstone Lake

The trail from Lake Helen to Odelle Lake was extremely rocky. I eventually packed Moo into my pack to protect her paws as we hiked up through the canyon to Odelle Lake. Odelle Lake was stunning, and it was void of people (my kind of lake). We continued the loop and made our way back to camp just before the sun was setting. We got cleaned up, cooked dinner, and reminisced about our day. Moo ran straight into my tent and passed out. We once again fell asleep under a sky littered with bright stars. We had a successful 10-mile day.

Lake Helen with Moo in my pack

Lake Helen with Moo in my pack

Will work for that Alpenglow

We awoke the next morning before sunrise to set up my camera, as I wanted to shoot the alpenglow. I do not function without coffee, so it took me a while to get my act together and adjust my camera settings appropriately. I had the most magical six-minute window as the sun hit Conness Peak, and I was in awe. When I was finally satisfied with my captures, I made coffee and began to pack up my camp. Moo was already off running around and guarding our campsite.

Good morning, Conness Peak

Good morning, Conness Peak

Looking for marmots

Looking for marmots

Air horns and cranky old men

We began our hike out on the opposite side of the lake from which we hiked in. As we were approaching Saddlebag Lake and as Moo was trotting along the trail, a cranky old man who had his tent set up in an alpine meadow, blew his air horn at Moo as she was approaching his camp. She barked and barked, and my friend and I both had steam coming out of our ears. She quickly ran off, not giving a care in the world about this guy. She had marmots to chase and could not be bothered by a hostile camper, but Brandi and I were both pretty bitter. That man must have felt like a fool for blowing his air horn at a 12-pound little dog, who did not even react. He could have yelled at her, asked us to leash her, and nine other possibilities before blowing his air horn. He also had his food spread out all over his campsite, inviting bears and marmots to a feast. We joked that he probably carries bear bells (the most annoying thing on the trails) and bear spray (which is illegal in this area). I was so over all the nonsense I witnessed on this trip, that I did not have the energy or the desire to approach this man about his erratic and inappropriate behavior. 

The fifth lesson of the trip: My dog has a better temperament than most people. 

Me telling Moo that she must always live her best life while she is hopelessly scanning the grass for marmots.

Me telling Moo that she must always live her best life while she is hopelessly scanning the grass for marmots.

The hike out was stunning and was much less crowded than the trek in. After 3.5 miles, we arrived at our car and headed back to Mammoth. Our hearts were full, our spirits were rejuvenated, Moo was dead tired, and once again, I was incredibly grateful for another friend who willingly puts up with my shenanigans on the trail. I am also eternally thankful for my healthy body that carried me to these beautiful places. 

Sometimes innocent and easy backcountry fun is just what we need

We accomplished our "goals" for this trip. We relaxed, had a blast, swam in lakes, and were able to enjoy each other's company while still overcoming unexpected obstacles. We did not do any big mile days, summit massive peaks, or backcountry ski a line; we just had fun.

I used to only think about the destination in terms of "I want to backpack here" or "I want to bag this peak" or "I want to do this many miles in this amount of time." When I look back on these objectives, I sort of laugh at myself. I won't lie; I still plan trips where I set goals that are out of my comfort zone. However, not every journey has to be about stroking the ego, chasing fear or gunning for adrenaline. Sometimes, we can all use a little bit of innocent backcountry fun.

 Thanks for reading!

Hope to see you on the trails,

Xx

Kristen

Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail: The Quick and Dirty

"There's nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it's sent away."
-Sarah Kay

Seals and sea lions on the trail across from Punta Gorda Lighthouse

Seals and sea lions on the trail across from Punta Gorda Lighthouse

The Lost Coast Trail is a force to be reckoned with. From hiking with sea lions and elephant seals, talking sweet nothings to the resident sea otters in Cooksie Creek, staring at the Milky Way in the night sky and observing all the washed up sea life to watching the deer and bear meander down from the mountains to visit the campground creek, the wildlife, night sky, washed up sea stars, sea urchins, whale bones and fish vertebrae are just a taste of the beautiful uninhibited terrain that is known as the Lost Coast. The Lost Coast is mostly a natural and development-free area in Humboldt County California, specifically in the King Range wilderness. In the 1930s this area experienced depopulation and as a result, it was named the “The Lost Coast”. In addition, the steepness and related geotechnical challenges of the coastal mountains made this stretch of coastline too costly for state highway or county road builders to establish routes through the area, leaving it the most undeveloped and remote portion of the California coast. This trip has been on my bucket list for some time and when I saw permits were available for early September, I snagged a solo permit and dove deep into the planning process. From scheduling a shuttle service, understanding the tide tables and mapping the impassible zones on my Gaia GPS, I had my work cut out for me. I decided to do this trip solo since the planning process was a bit intense and frankly, I wanted some time alone to unwind and fall off the grid. From Mattole beach to Black Sands beach this hike is just over 25 miles and I wanted to take my time on the trail, sleep in, make breakfast, have plenty of time to cross the high tidal zones, take in the salty air, watch the waves, and be lost in my own thoughts so I decided to do this trek over 4 days and 3 nights however this can easily be completed in 2 nights and 3 days.

Clear blue skies on an overland trail, day 1.

Clear blue skies on an overland trail, day 1.

Bearikade bear canister, Goal Zero solar panel and battery back and an incredible memoir written by Trevor Noah; all must-haves for backpacking trips. Big Flat campground, night 2.

Bearikade bear canister, Goal Zero solar panel and battery back and an incredible memoir written by Trevor Noah; all must-haves for backpacking trips. Big Flat campground, night 2.

Obtaining that coveted permit

A permit is required to camp overnight in the King Range Wilderness and permits can be obtained at Recreation.gov You can print your permit a week in advance of your start date.

Night 3 at Gitchell Creek

Night 3 at Gitchell Creek

Washed up sea urchin on the trail.

Washed up sea urchin on the trail.

Washed up sea star on the trail.

Washed up sea star on the trail.

Love is truly everywhere, if you look hard enough…

Love is truly everywhere, if you look hard enough…

 Shuttle service, please?

Since this is a one-way hike, you must book a shuttle that will drive you from Black Sands beach to Mattole Beach. Starting from Matthole Beach and hiking the 25-mile stretch back to your car at Black Sands Beach is the way to go because you are hiking in the same direction as the wind and the road to Black Sands Beach is paved and maintained unlike the road to Matthole Beach (an unpaved mess). The shuttle will pick you up at Black Sands Beach parking lot and the driver will give you a 10 minute orientation on proper trail etiquette and the quick and dirty on the tides. He will also give you a tide table book, which is golden for when you are on the trail. The road to Black Sands Beach is windy and narrow and can make you nervous especially if you decide to do this drive at night. I arrived at the parking lot around 11:00PM the night before and quickly discovered that all campgrounds in the area close at 9 PM so I slept in my car since I had a 7am shuttle departure the next morning (not the most ideal situation but sometimes you have to roll with the punches). I booked a shuttle with Lost Coast Adventure Tours (cost about $70) but keep in mind that if they do not have at least 4 people booked for that shuttle time, they will cancel your shuttle or place you in the next shuttle that is full. I was moved from the 7AM shuttle to the 8AM shuttle which meant I was going to start an hour later than scheduled but again, you always have to roll with the punches. Make sure you call them 48 hours before your departure to confirm that your shuttle is full.

Mamma and baby deer crossing Cooksie Creek, night 1.

Mamma and baby deer crossing Cooksie Creek, night 1.

Tide tables and impassible zones

So this is the part where it gets tricky. There are two, 4-mile and one, 0.25 miles stretch of coastal zones that cannot be passed during high tide, and there is one totally impassible zone that cannot be crossed period, regardless of the tide. It is important to study the tide table and understand your hiking windows. The impassible zone is about 0.5 miles from Sea Lion Gulch and there is a small flat rock sitting on top a large boulder referred to as “hat rock”. This “hat rock” is a sign that you must look for the overhead trail that takes you up and over this impassible zone. If you come to the impassible zone like I did, and discover huge boulders that are impossible to climb, retrace your steps and look above for that overhead trail. Once you are about half way up the overhead trail you will notice a trail sign that points you in the correct direction. Remember the ocean is always on your right and the mountains are always on your left (if you are hiking from Matthole to Black Sands).

Now for the 2-mile impassible zones at high tides, the rule of the thumb is to stop hiking 2 hours before high tide and to begin hiking 2 hours after high tide. There is an AM and a PM high tide so you will begin your hike 2 hours after the high tide in the morning and will make sure you are through the impassible zones 2 hours before the PM high tide begins. Here is where it gets tricky; you must deduct 52 minutes from the high tides for the Shelter Cover area and keep in mind the tidal heights. My high tides were all within the 4-foot range so the 2-hour windows were safe for me (for the most part). However if your high tide is within the 6-7 foot range then you may need to give yourself a larger window (most likely 3-3.5 hours before and after high tide). I would suggest going over your hiking schedule with the rangers beforehand if you find this confusing but once you start hiking, you will get the hang of it. I would recommend setting up camp at the beginning of these tidal zones so you can hike through them in the morning after the first high tide so you do not have to worry about getting stuck or waiting out the tide. There are also camping sites within the impassable tidal zones, which are great places to camp as well.

Tide table book.

Tide table book.

Tide table example:

AM high tide 4AM 4.5 tidal height (minus 52 minutes)

PM high tide 7PM 6.5 tidal height (minus 52 minutes)

Start hiking through the “high tide impassible zone” after 5AM and make sure you are through this 4 mile impassible zone by 3PM (see how there was a 3 hour window in the evening because the tidal height is much higher).

One of the “impassible zones at high tide”. Day 2-4 were overcast and gloomy.

One of the “impassible zones at high tide”. Day 2-4 were overcast and gloomy.

Backcountry campsites on the Lost Coast

The “campsites” are basically the creek areas where you are able to filter water. Even if the area is not marked as a campsite on your map, you are still able to camp there as this whole area is considered BLM land.  

Getting stuck in the impassible zone

The first night, I decided to camp at Cooksie Creek, an adorable little area where sea otters play in the river and deer roam around in search of a drink from the stream. I met two super nice guys and hiked with them the first day, sharing stories about India along the trail. Cooksie Creek is about 2 miles into the first impassible tidal zone and we had about 2 hours to clear these two miles before we had to worry about the high tides. Seems easy right? Well, hiking over boulders and sand can slow you down, more than you think. Unfortunately we ran out of time and we had 0.2 miles left until we reached camp but we were stuck on a jagged boulder hanging on for dear life as the waves crashed around us, soaking us from the waist down. One of the guys I was with decided to check around the corner to see how far we had to go. When he realized we had less than 0.2 miles to go, we waited for the next set of waves to crash into us then made a run for it. We made it to camp safe and soaked but my heart was filled with pure joy when I came across a family of three sea otters playing at our campsite. I was in animal kingdom heaven! We quickly learned our lesson about the impassible tidal zones and I gave myself plenty of time the next day.

Day 2-4

On the second day, I solo hiked 10 miles to Big Flat where I set up camp for the night. Big Flat is about 1 mile from the second impassible tidal zone, a very quiet campsite with gorgeous ocean views and a large flowing creek for filtering water. The next morning, I was at the beginning of the second high tide impassible zone so I started my hike with fresh legs and with plenty of time to spare in between the high tides. After hiking a quick and easy 4.5 miles on day 3, I set up my camp at Gitchell Creek, which is right after the second tidal zone. I was the only person camping at Gitchell Creek which was magical (this was most likely because it was only 3 miles from the end of the trail). Day 4 made for an easy 3 miles back to my car at Black Sands Beach. I arrived at my car around 10:30AM and drove to San Jose, checked into a hotel and took a nice long shower before meeting a friend for drinks.

Punta Gorda lighthouse, day 1.

Punta Gorda lighthouse, day 1.

Sunset on our only clear evening.

Sunset on our only clear evening.

 Answers to commonly asked questions

  • This is bear country so make sure you store all of your scented items in an approved bear canister.

  • There are streams about every 2-3 miles along the trail to filter enough water for that distance.

  • Camp at a stream (they are called “creeks” on the trail maps).

  • My starting pack weight all in with 3 liters of water was 32 pounds.

  • It was very sunny the first day and very windy and overcast the next 3 days…the weather changes on a dime.

  • I did not use my tent fly once. If there is no rain in the forecast, I would recommend leaving this at home as it did not drop below 50 degrees at night.

  • Most of the trail is on sand and boulders which will slow you down. I recommend very sturdy and high ankle hiking boots. I wore my LOWA Renegades and my feet felt great the whole trip.

  • There are tons of poison oak and ticks on the trail. Be mindful where you step and check your body for ticks when you get to camp.

  • Although this was a relatively easy trip in terms of physical endurance, the planning and logistics were quite tricky so I would not recommend this as a first-time backpacking trip.

  • No I did not bring any alcohol and yes I started and finished an entire book, “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah.

Wet sea otters in our first campsite.

Wet sea otters in our first campsite.

After he dried out… hehe. They were SO cute!

After he dried out… hehe. They were SO cute!

Thanks for reading!

Please feel free to reach out with any questions.

Hope to see you on the trails,

Xx

Kristen