Healed By Nature: Hiking Bear Lake To Fern Lake In Rocky Mountain National Park

I’m sitting here in my campsite, a fire crackling faintly in the background. The site is situated across from a meadow and the stars are putting on quite a show. When I lay down on my picnic table, the satellites make continual arcs across the sky as I try to identify the constellations I learned while in Yosemite just a couple of weeks ago. Understanding the night sky makes the world feel so much smaller, like we’re all living in a big terrarium, seeing the same stars. This earth is the thing that unites us. We all live here in this one place, flung to the farthest ends, waging our wars, struggling for peace, looking for meaning in the vastness of this universe held within God’s thimble. Elk are bugling in the adjacent meadow, a reminder that life persists, continues, goes round and round each season. I feel overwhelmingly lucky to be here in this moment. It is impossible to sit here in the middle of so much wonder and not be awed to the core.

I was nervous about this trip at first, butterflies creating a storm in my subconscious. This is my first solo camping/hiking trip out of state. Traveling alone is exhilarating, empowering, lonely, and joyful. Today I went on a hike from Bear Lake all the way back to my campsite in Moraine Park, more than 11 miles over mountains, between passes, beside cerulean alpine lakes, and through meadows where elk danced and sang. The first stop I made was below a grouping of pines where birds were noisily active, so much so that I wanted to sit and be in the midst of their motion. The second I landed myself on a rock, a family of 5 dusky grouse came meandering by, tutting softy to one another just a few feet from where I sat. I could barely breathe. My heart was about to burst from happiness as I watched their hefty mottled brown and white bodies pick their way through the undergrowth, enjoying the day’s first meal. As I continued to sit, a hawk came through in a deadly dive, only to swoop aloft once again just enough to show me the beautiful markings under his wings and breast. As things quieted, I reluctantly set on my way through a forest filled with the scent of pines readying themselves for the weight of snow on their boughs.

There are several boulder fields along the trail and pika were scurrying in and out among the rocks squeaking excitedly to one another as they gathered grasses tinged with the colors of fall for their winter’s store. I also began passing the people I’d be leap frogging with all day. The nice thing about hiking trails in the national parks is that a camaraderie is built, even for a day. Everyone I passed was friendly and we all began to settle into the rhythm of stepping aside for one another.

The highlight of this trail is the lakes dotted here and there beneath the ever waning glaciers. Lake Helene has tucked herself away just far enough that if you aren’t keenly looking for the unmarked trail that leads her way, you’ll miss it. There is also a stunning vista to the right of the trail, unmarked as well, that goes to the top of some boulders. A sprawling view of Odessa Lake and Lake Helene lie below. Sometimes those little side trails are worth the curiosity of a short jaunt.

Her waters are shallow, but I desperately want to know the stories Helene holds. There is so much peace here in spite of the wind that seems to blow continually, rippling the surface just enough to cause an urgent lapping sound. Small dark-eyed juncos are busy catching insects at the water’s edge.

Once past Lake Helene, it’s all downhill to Odessa Lake through a dynamic landscape where each turn reveals a new glimpse of what’s to come.

The last time I hiked to Odessa’s shore, I could barely stand upright in the biting wind and snow. Today I spent some time soaking up the sunshine beside the brook that meanders away from the lake.

No sooner had I set down my pack when an American Dipper came sauntering by, half hopping, half floating in the current’s sway. I saw a dipper the last time I was here and I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same bird and this is its daily routine, patrolling this stream like a playful army sergeant.

The art of stopping and sitting for a minute proved to be a gift throughout this trip, not just on this trail.  On more than one occasion when I stopped to rest, animals would come by. Delight is truly the best word that can be used to describe the feeling one gets when a creature hardly anyone ever sees graces you with its presence. When I hike alone, I tend to speed along as quickly as I can, while taking frequent breaks. Honing the skill of observation requires a willingness to sit, which is not always easy for me, but settling into stillness gives nature a chance to rest in our presence and find ease in walking by.

Odessa Lake lay in all her glory, serene, sparkling, and perfectly secluded in this protected place.

Last time I stood on the edge of the shore leaning into the wind, being pelted with sharp snowflakes. Today the vibe is more relaxed. A slight breeze blows as the water laps the shore.

Onto Fern Lake! As I approached the boulder field that leads down to the shore, a small cacophony of juncos flitted in and out, playing at the border of the woods and the rocks. Fern Lake was a popular destination and I left the lunchers and fly fishers to keep pace on the trail until I reached the waterfall that would serve as my lunch spot for the day.

In a happy incident, I missed the hiker shuttle at the trailhead when I popped into the privy, so I decided to walk the remaining 2 miles to my campsite. I’m so glad I did. Sometimes being on foot provides a more fulfilling experience than the quicker way home. The meadows glowed golden in the breeze as birds of prey perched on dead branches to scour the happenings below. I heard the elk before I saw them. Huge bulls having a tame standoff, bugling to the multitude of females surrounding them. The meadows close at 5 pm, and since I still had a couple of hours, I walked in a bit, found a nice rock to perch on, and enjoyed the show. What a majestic display as they chased each other, slowly moving through the meadow, dipping down into the stream, and swishing through the grasses to the next hill.

I headed into town for a stroll past the shops, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the solitude of my campsite. Too many people, too much noise…get me out of there. Camping provides a nice seclusion from the tourist scene and I prefer this to a hotel any day. Yeah, my feet stink and the baby wipes only help so much. But, I have clean water, a bathroom nearby, and the whole Milky Way galaxy above my head with shooting stars streaking right through. Is there a better place to be in the world right now? I don’t know how sleep will be possible tonight knowing this is happening above me.

I am healed by wild places. Muscles that stiffen with daily stress are relaxed. My mind is open to actually hear what my heart is saying without being drowned out by work and home responsibilities, or the tempest that rages in the world right now. My anxiety has increased in many ways with the tenor of our country. I am always on alert, worried about what comes next. But out here, none of that exists. My phone doesn’t work except to take pictures, and my eyes are not strained from reading the news. Instead they feast upon a banquet of scenery that fills my soul with childish delight. This is where I belong. This is where I am most myself. And as I sit here at this table alone beneath the cosmos, I feel closer to God. I understand his presence here in ways I never understood it in the context of organized religion. Since I separated myself from the thing that calls itself the church today, my spiritual life has manifested outdoors beneath the Heavens. Maybe the stars that shoot across the sky are messages from loved ones lost. Maybe every dose of beauty is evidence of God’s love, his artistry, his perfect mercy that sees a weary heart and heals a piece of its brokenness with a visit from a bird.

A Hug From The Sky: Hiking Clouds Rest

Every time I’m in Yosemite, I can’t help but think about John Muir. His footprints are all over the wilderness that exists there.  Part of me feels really conflicted about this because even though he gets much of the credit for the conservation of that land, it couldn’t have come about without devastating consequences for the Native Americans who lived there first. Their lives were destroyed, their homes stolen from them, their way of life shattered.  I think as conscientious citizens and frequenters of public land, it’s up to us to keep their story alive and to remember their sacrifices as we tromp among mountains that were once home to vibrant tribes.

IMG_2472Our most recent trip took us to Tuolumne Meadows, nestled in the Sierras. The Native American meaning of Tuolumne is “people who dwell in stone houses.” Surrounded by mountains of granite with pine trees whose strong roots grip in every crack to keep them aloft, the season here is short and even in the summer, the smell of snow is on the air.  In late August, the temps hover at 70 during the day and dip into the low 30s at night.

IMG_2464Life up here is quieter, shielded from the touristy bustle of the valley. There is one camp store, a small post office, and the Tuolumne Meadows Grill, all combined into a building constructed of canvas and plywood, a temporary setup for the hiking season. The picnic tables out front boast a ragamuffin crew, backpackers taking a pit stop along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the John Muir Trail (JMT), scarfing down warm burgers and carb loaded fries before finishing with a big cup of soft serve ice cream. Ah, the simple pleasures of trail life!

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The campground sits behind the store and is quite large. There are communal fire rings where rangers give talks on a whole variety of subjects (we really enjoyed learning about bats!). Bathrooms range throughout, but bring headlamps because none of the facilities have electricity. I’ve never been in such a quiet campground and it was absolutely lovely. Folks stay up here to hike, which means they want to sleep at night. We cooked on a backpacking stove and a camp stove, and warmed up by the fire at night before scurrying into our sleeping bags to try and stay warm. On the night it dipped down to 29, I was wearing most of my clothes and ended up cinching every part of my body into my bag so my face wouldn’t freeze off.  There’s nothing like waking up on a frigid morning and sitting on an ice cold toilet seat!

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Our first hike of the trip was a 15 mile roundtrip trek to Clouds Rest. We started from the Tenaya Lake trailhead and had no problem finding a parking place early morning.  There are bear lockers available so that any scented items can be left outside the car. The trail descriptions mention a 1,000 foot elevation increase during the second mile and from there on it gets easier.  While this is partially true, the trail does continue to ascend over the remaining miles, including the climb to the actual peak. We stopped quite frequently along the way to let our lungs adjust to the elevation. Read that as, “we desperately sucked air every 14 steps because it was really hard to breathe up there!”

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IMG_2188There was a serene alpine pond that we passed where a chorus frog was prepping for the evening symphony.

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As you get higher, the views start to open up and you can actually see Clouds Rest through the trees. At that point all you can think, is that it still seems kind of high and you thought you were done will all this uphill stuff. But you gasp some more air and press on…

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Just before the final climb begins, there is a stunning overlook to the right of the trail. Views take the eye all the way back to Tenaya Lake, which brings the full impact of how far your feet can carry you in a few hours. The canyon yawned beneath us as we looked down at birds flying past. The Sierras seem fake, as though you can reach out a hand and merely crumple the backdrop. But this is no illusion. These mountains stretch for 250 miles towering to heights over 14,000 feet. Clouds rest sits at 9,931′.

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The upper trail description on Yosemite Hikes was quite amusing:

The top of Clouds Rest is a narrow ridge with a long, sheer dropoff on the north side (the side you can see from the Tioga Road). The dropoff to the south is less extreme, but it wouldn’t require special talent to wind up just as thoroughly and symmetrically dead by falling off that side. It’s best to visit Clouds Rest sober and during dry weather.

That said, the route over the ridge is more manageable and less dangerous than Half Dome’s cable route. If you’re slow and careful, you shouldn’t feel like you’re a freak gust of wind or a momentary lapse of concentration away from the bottom of Tenaya Canyon. And the very top of the peak opens up again to around fifty feet wide, which will feel like the Great Plains after the underpants-imperiling knife edge you’ve just crossed to get there.

Since we were sober and the weather was dry enough to parch a tortoise, we continued  to the peak, and what a stunning peak it is.

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It sounds silly to say I felt like I was on top of the world, but honestly, it’s hard not to feel that way when everything else is below you. There was a raven up there who would occasionally rest on a rock and then just walk off into thin air only to rise back up on a wind current. That bird must have a very refreshed soul.

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Many hikers were up there resting on the peak. Some were headed over to Half Dome, others were headed to the valley, and some had even walked all the way up from the valley. The guys who had walked up were from Europe and sat around munching dry ramen, so we decided they were on another level athletically and probably skipped all over the Alps for fun on rainy days.

What I never realized before is that you can continue down to Half Dome from this point. I always thought Clouds Rest was a peak that just ended, but it keeps going. Personally if I were ever going to hike Half Dome, I’d start from Tenaya Lake and go this way instead of climbing up from the Valley. Less people, better views, and less elevation gain that way. The hike would be longer, but what a way to approach Half Dome! Clouds Rest has a higher vantage point than Half Dome, so we could actually look over and see climbers on the cables through our binoculars.

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There is never enough time in places like this. How does one take in the vastness of a view? Is it possible for our brains to even comprehend what we are seeing? I could have stayed up there all day, taken a nap, soaked up the sunshine, had a chat with the raven…but we had a 7.5 mile downhill jaunt back to the car.

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As soon as we finished climbing off the ridge, we stepped off onto the trail and noticed a large bird on the right side. I got so excited! It was a grouse, a sooty grouse to be precise. And not only was she standing there in all her glory, owning that piece of real estate, but she had a baby the size of a little teenage chicken with her! I’ve always wanted to see a grouse and she did not disappoint. Her feathers were gorgeous with mottled browns and golds. At one point I knelt down to get a better (lousy) picture of her on my phone and the little one just walked right next to me. (Inward squeal!) There is nothing more beautiful than seeing these creatures utterly at home in their habitat. A reminder that we are the visitors passing through.

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While the hike down was not as hard as the climb up, our joints took an absolute beating. Even though it felt like we went uphill the whole way there, we definitely had plenty of uphill on the way “down.” The switchbacks felt longer and the farther we descended it seemed hard to believe that we’d actually climbed so high. Even though I was exhausted that night, I still think back on the trail as an exhilarating highlight I was able to check off my bucket list. I can’t possibly recommend it more, and hope I’m lucky enough to kiss the sky again someday on Clouds Rest…

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The Ache That Nature Fills: Chasing Life Outside

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”   ~John Muir

These days I find myself aching to be out in nature. The freedom that exists in the open air on a mountain peak is a freedom that escapes those of us in the lowlands who live trapped in a world of screens, walls, and responsibilities we’ve created for ourselves that never seem to end. More and more I realize how truly separate we are from nature, how our homes and vehicles do everything they possibly can to shield us from the outdoors.

Those of us who move beyond those barriers on purpose encounter discomfort. We walk through thunderstorms, endure inescapable sun on fragile skin, fight off armies of bugs that want to feast on our blood, struggle to breathe thick summer air, and desperately try to maintain the aching feet that carry us. We experience the scope of how finite we truly are in the vast arena that is nature. And yet somehow, in spite of all this, the call to return to the places that are pure and unscarred remains.

None of those discomforts can overshadow the peace and solitude that brings us back to ourselves. When I step onto a trail, my mind begins to unravel. Being in nature opens up wells of creativity that our brains are free to tap into on the backdrop of nature’s canvas. Over the years I’ve mentally written dozens of books and articles on my hikes. If only I had the discipline to make notes while walking! All I can think is that those ideas were the overflow of a heart that feels suffocated. Staring at spreadsheets all day long and keeping up with the news have drained me in such a way that I am just now starting to catch up to what I need in order to maintain my work. Time away. I need to escape from computers and cell phones, and being in a place where I literally have no reception is the only way I can do it these days. Sorry, you can’t reach me, I’m in the wilderness…

We are quickly losing the sacred space that allows us to stay in touch with who we are as spiritual beings. Phones are the biggest thief of our time, our relationships, and our creativity. As much as I am thankful for the ability to communicate with my family and friends who live far away, I am equally dismayed by the time my phone has stolen from my husband and I, the time I’ve spent scrolling through articles online as opposed to reading a book, and the time I’ve filled aimlessly that could have been spent intentionally in silence or prayer.

And so, I leave. I go to the mountains when I can. I go on trips when I can. I go to the beach when I can. I go to the places that refresh my soul so I can keep moving. All with the determination to give time to the things that hold meaning and beauty. I don’t know how long this form of escapism will last, but for this season of my life, I want to see the places not everyone can see and notice the things that not everyone observes.

Earlier this year when we were in Scotland, there was such a beautiful lack of clutter in the landscape there. Towns were nestled between hills, with housing and shops arranged in such a way that buildings were adjacent to each other, alleviating the impact on the land. In restaurants no one had their phones out. No one. People actually sat and talked to one another, with the exception of pubs where folks were screaming at TVs that played soccer games, even then, a communal activity. I cannot imagine what the winters there must be like, carving a living off the land, herding sheep with the hope of enough payment to make it till next year. There was reliance on neighbors, folks checking in with each other when they stopped in for a pie at lunchtime. It’s a different world over there…a world I very much wish mine resembled more closely.

And so I go to the mountains and we try to see friends when we can. As the seasons change and autumn approaches, I wonder what winter will hold? Will the busy seasons of work eclipse the need for space away? Will we look back at this time in our lives and wonder how we could have missed so much? Or will we realize that we saw all we could, breathed the fresh, crisp air of clouds at 10,000 feet, and walked until we could walk no more…

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. To front only the essential facts of life. And see if I could not learn what it had to teach. And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  ~Thoreau

 

Life Lessons Learned On The AT: Clingman’s Dome to Cades Cove

This weekend I met up with two new friends to go for a walk in the woods. We’re all from different places, traveling on our own unique paths in life, but hiking brought us together. A weekend was a great time for a short backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And like many of the best laid plans for hiking in the Smokies, rain was involved, but the weather couldn’t keep us away.

We hiked from Clingman’s Dome to Cades Cove, heading southbound on the AT to Derrick Knob Shelter, then continuing onto Bote Mountain Trail, and eventually down Anthony Creek Trail back to our tents in the Cove campground. Even though we started at the highest point on the AT, there was a staggering amount of uphill climbs involved. Every time we headed down a mountain there was the realization that an ascent lay somewhere ahead. The trail from Clingman’s Dome to Derrick Knob was the standard narrow, high elevation, forested trail we’ve come to know and love.  We encountered some rain, but nothing really heavy, and met some other hikers along the way.

The shelters in the Smokies have a reputation for being mouse-ridden. We slept with our heads toward the opening of the shelter to avoid anything that might run along the walls. Although we never saw any mice, one of the food bags was chewed through at some point. At this time Derrick Knob Shelter was under a bear warning, so we were very careful about hanging everything with a scent on the bear cables. There is no privy here and the “toilet” trail is extremely overgrown. To get water there’s a steep little downhill hike to a spring just off the side of the shelter. We were the only ones spending the night, so we cooked, ate, and fell into our sleeping bags before dark in an effort to dry out and rest.

The next morning dawned clear with blue skies overhead! We ate breakfast while watching a hummingbird and butterflies flit around the bee balm and wildflowers nearby. Once our gear was packed up, we headed out on what we thought was the AT and quickly doubled back to find the actual trail, not realizing what lay ahead of us. Never make the mistake of assuming that going South translates to going down. The trail does have its moments of level ground, but for the most part we went down and up, up, UP, over steep inclines that seemed to go on forever.

This portion of the AT through GSMNP is extremely overgrown. Many times the trail couldn’t even be seen through all the blackberry briars and vegetation growing over it.

We pushed through with trekking poles, our legs and gear grabbed by the thorns. Mid-morning clouds rolled in and the rain began, steadily increasing to an outright downpour that turned the trail into a literal river. Water cascaded down the path, creating miniature waterfalls as we climbed. Level ground became a channel for the rain, and it took no time for our feet to become soaked, regardless of whether shoes were waterproof.

We pushed through the brush, scooted down rocky descents, and climbed the unceasing hills. My legs were on autopilot and felt strong even though my breath was short. I carried an umbrella attached to my pack and wore a rain skirt, which went a long way in keeping most of me dry. We made occasional stops to wring out socks and shoes.

There were moments of laughter at the absurdity of the situation. Rain poured down in torrents, our feet waterlogged by the rivers we walked through that used to resemble a trail. Being around positive people is essential for a good backcountry experience. Hiking with someone who gets irritable when things get hard, complains nonstop about things that can’t be changed, or pushes you beyond your physical limits will diminish the experience and cause emotional drain in moments where every step requires focus and can mean the difference between safety or injury.

When we finally reached Thunderhead Mountain and traversed the ridge to Rocky Top, the clouds had parted revealing the most spectacular views. Every exhausting moment of the morning was replaced with the elation of being surrounded by the peace of the mountains. We soaked it all in, talked with the day hikers, ate some food, and tended to our feet. Leaving that spot was hard. I could have stayed all day and just watched the clouds change.

The rest of the trail was downhill, which can often be harder on the body than going uphill. Bote Mountain Trail is an old cattle path strewn with rocks that are unforgiving to weary feet. Anthony Creek Trail was a softer reprieve, but we continued down until it felt like we couldn’t possibly go down any further.

Having started the day before at an elevation of 6,644′ at Clingman’s Dome, then dealing with the roller coaster between Derrick Knob and Thunderhead Mountain, we were now descending to 1,807′ where the campground lay nestled at the edge of the Cove, a difference of 4,837′ not including the middle section of constant vertical gain and loss.

By the end of our hike our feet ached and throbbed with pain, blisters formed and skin took on the palor of decay. When I fell into bed, a term used loosely when bed consists of an air pad that needs to be blown up just right to feel comfortable, my whole body screamed from overuse, calves and ankles in protest, stiff neck muscles, and my hips, my God, how my hips ached. But the happiness I felt in being on the trail overshadowed every discomfort. Many of the brands I follow on social media often post photos of gorgeous folks with beautifully wind-tossed hair standing in the midst of unimaginable scenery. While I love seeing these pictures, they often don’t tell the part of the story where one’s body hurts and stinks worse than you ever thought possible. In spite of the reality, the benefits are priceless.

Living portions of life outdoors provides greater appreciation for the moments spent indoors. The gratitude for things we often take for granted increases exponentially. After a weekend spent hiking in the rain where my feet were soaked at all times, I return home with gratitude for the feeling of a pair of warm, dry socks and the comfort that comes from walking on a dirt path…showers, fresh produce, the ability to clean the dirt from under my fingernails, running water, my bed, a down pillow, the snuggly weight of a cat beside me.

And in turn, I appreciate the outdoors for the lessons learned.

  • Endurance is as much mental as it is physical. I can climb mountains and am strong. I can carry what I need on my back and survive in conditions that are less than optimal, even harsh at times.
  • In the moments at work and at home when I feel overwhelmed or frustrated by what needs to be done, I’ll remember climbing a mountain in a downpour carrying a heavy pack and the feeling of elation when we reached the top as the clouds cleared.
  • Going to the grocery store in the rain will seem like less of an annoyance. Doing anything in the rain will feel easy in comparison!
  • Being intentional about the people I surround myself with, like those who find joy at the site of a  mushroom, who appreciate wildflowers and butterflies, and stop to admire the beauty of ancient gnarled trees, those for whom all the stops along the way are just as important as the place we will eventually end up.
  • When you’re in the middle of a situation that isn’t ideal, the only way to get through it is to keep moving forward. Climb the mountains ahead of you, “embrace the suck” as they say, and cherish every moment of reprieve, knowing that you’ll eventually get to the other side.
  • Being in the wilderness is a cleansing experience for the mind and heart. It clears out the junk thoughts and provides central focus on a task that is humbling and empowering all at the same time.
  • And perhaps the most important lesson, that I am capable of what I set out in my mind to do. It’s so easy to question our own ability, drive, and purpose, to feel like we are “less than” in the face of talented friends and coworkers, disapproving or questioning family members, and especially social media.

The last morning we headed back up to Clingman’s Dome to pick up the car we’d left there. The sun shone brightly and the blue sky greeted us as we made plans for our next hike.