Tom Stienstra and 11.7 Miles of Heaven

Award-winning outdoor writer Tom Stienstra, author of California Camping and California Hiking by Moon Press, knows the best places for ultralight backpacking. He described my favorite spot in a column published in the San Francisco Chronicle today: a loop in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, from Agnew Meadow to Shadow Lake to Garnet Lake. I agree with Tom that with kids back in school and most PCT and JMT hikers already passed, now is time to go. Few bugs. Nice days. Cool nights. Check out the Mule House Cafe at Red’s Meadow on  your way in or out.

Sweet Solitude-America’s Least Visited Places: Revealed by the Crowds

One of my ultralight backpacking partners, Wild Bill, and I just completed a quickie and butt-kicking 16-mile hike in the popular Ansel Adams/John Muir Wilderness in the Eastern Sierra.

I’ll do a trip report shortly, perhaps with video. But first I want to comment on an article in the latest issue of Backpacker Magazine with the special report: “The Wildest, Quietest, Darkest and least-visited places in the lower 48.” The list is impressive. But you don’t need to go far to achieve the same effect.

We had planned on a short 3.5 mile hike to hugely popular Shadow Lake with day-hiking to Ediza, Iceberg, Cecelia and Mineret Lakes. Alas, we got to the ranger station and were told, sorry guys, the trail quote of 25 is filled, better go somewhere else.

So we pick the Fern Lake-Ashley Lake-Holcomb Lake loop that started and finished at Devil’s Postpile Ranger Station. Ranger Scott tipped us that it was a pretty trail and much less used. In fact, after seeing a few parties in the first two hours, we saw no one until the next day toward the end of the trip. And this is peak season in an area where the PCT and John Muir Trails cross. It’s a backpacking superhighway in summer, yet we had a wonderful night on a peaceful lake and empty trails. The lesson: ask the rangers for their tips on where to get away. We might have only been a few miles from hundreds of hikers, but felt like we were in some of the darkest, more quiet, more remote areas on Earth.

Be light. Be safe. Be one with the pack.

PS – if you can, plan ahead so you have reservations for the hike you really want!

Sad, But True: No Campfires in California This Summer

As my friends and I stood and watched an unusual storm over the Pacific Ocean on June 20 — namely thunder and lightning on the California North Coast — we weren’t too concerned about it causing harm. Celebrating a friends birthday, we WERE amazed and surprised because it is so rare where we live. The next morning, however, we had a different feeling — one of dread — when it was still lightning and thundering, but now over the forests in the east. Continue reading

Granite Chief Wilderness – Small and Beautiful

Granite Chief WildernessJust returned from a three-day trip to the Granite Chief Wilderness near Truckee, California and Lake Tahoe. The PCT cuts through the area, no doubt adding to the foot traffic in summer. Right now, except for day hikers (which we didn’t see until hiking out on Father’s Day), we had the place to ourselves. Although a few patches of snow remain, the trail is mostly dry and mosquito free. We hiked in 2.5 miles (steep for about the first two miles, then flattening out) to the largest lake in Five Lakes Basin. A pretty spot with red fir, jeffrey pines and some lodgepole. Some wildflowers. Since you can camp no closer than 600 feet from the lake or 200 feet from the stream flowing out, we tucked ourselves away from trail where there was abundant downed wood for a fire. Days were around 70 degrees and nights about 40. With my ultralight backpacking companions, The Duke and Wild Bill, I explored the Whiskey Creek area (there’s a old cabin used now by rangers) and we headed south along the PCT, which in the tall trees was too deep in snow still to comfortably follow the trail. From our basecamp, we hiked about 10 miles a day with lots of ups and downs. But we took our time, stopped to check out flowers, marvel at a view or enjoy the shade a big pine and a warm breeze.

Be light. Be safe. Be one with the pack.

Whiskey Creek Trail Cabinfive-lakes.jpg

Manchester State Beach To Close on the Rugged North Coast

Stornetta Preserve

Wind swept dunes separate Manchester State Beach on California’s North Coast from one of the longest and most beautiful beaches anywhere. Now, it is slated to close under California’s pitiful budget cutting proposal. I’ve been told that California State Parks represent 1/2 of 1 per cent of the entire state budget, yet they continue to come under attack — this time to save $16 million as part of a plan to deal with a $10 billion budget deficit. Just to the south is the Point Arena Lighthouse and the new Stornetta Preserve with a pretty waterfall plunging into a crashing ocean. Manchester may close, but I have a feeling the gate won’t keep many folks out. For those who want an escape, it has an irresistible draw. It’s one of those places you can walk for hours and see no one.

Be light. Be safe (don’t go too close to the surf). Be one with the pack.

Back Diamond Mines – So Close and So Far Away

I was checking out Two-Heel Drive, Tom Mangan’s blog, and saw his item today on hiking at Black Diamond Mines in Contra Costa County, Northern California. Reminds that when I lived in Lafayette, in the East Bay of San Francisco, there was no shortage of hikes any season. I’m not sure there is a urban area any place in the U.S. that has as many hiking trails and parks as the San Francisco Bay Area. The lesson: sometimes the best hikes are those in your backyard. I was maybe 10 miles from Black Diamond when I lived in the East Bay. Now, I live 170 miles north.

Be light. Be safe. Be one with the back.

Have an Ultra Light Happy New Year

I took the month off from blogging, but unfortunately not from work.

Seems like my public relations consulting business, Lewis & Summers Public Relations, always heats up during the holidays.

Just when I think I’m taking a few days of R & R, project deadlines raise their ugly heads. Mostly, it’s been creating 2008 plans for clients. Luckily, I like all my clients, so it’s not unpleasant. In other news …
- For Christmas, my wife, Gerry, bought me a fire pit — a kettle for the backyard that allows me to make samores and believe I’m around a campfire, even if really it’s winter.

- I achieved my 2007 goal of reading 50 books (mostly novels, but some non-fiction). Breaks my 2005 record of 47 books. Favorite books: The Last Season by Eric Blehm (non-fiction) and Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning (fiction). Dunning writes about a former Denver, Colorado homicide cop who quits and becomes a “book man” and opens a bookstore where he sells rare books and seems to get involved in solving murders. But I suggest you read his first novel first: .

-Took a trip with my friend, colleague and co-owner of, to a nature preserve near the Point Arena, California Lighthouse, where we saw Tundra Swans. In lieu of backpacking right now, these short trips — 70 miles roundtrip combined with eating the world’s best omelets at Queenie’s Roadhouse in Elk, California on the way south — are my getaway.

Be light. Be safe. Be one with the pack.

Mt. Diablo State Park: N. Calif. Gem for Ultralight Backpacking and Camping

Ultralight backpackers from all over the world boast of prominent land features near their homes that define their backpacking. In the U.S., that might be the Rockies, the Sierra, the Great Smokies, or White Mountains.

My “local” favorite (10 hours from home) is the Sierra; my favorite spot Thousand Island Lake at 10,000 feet at the crossroads of the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails.

In the Eastern U.S., the White Mountains, which cover about a quarter of the state of New Hampshire and a small portion of western Maine, are most prominent. The highest mountain in the Northeast is Mount Washington at 6,200 feet — a rather dinky peak compared with the “fourteeners” (14,000 foot peaks) in Colorado. Astonishingly, there are 53 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado.

I’m sure each mountain range and peak offers its own special beauty with “tall” having nothing to do with it. Often times, however, it’s the smaller mountains that get overlooked. Among them is Mt. Diablo, located in the middle of the San Francisco East Bay and surrounded by a population of 600,000. Yet, if you are camping or backpacking there you could be a million miles from civilization. At 3,800, it dominates the landscape of Contra Costa County, California.

From the top you can see over the hills to downtown San Francisco, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, San Francisco Bay and on a clear day, Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, more than 200 miles away.

This weekend I car camped on Mt. Diablo, braving a driving rain one night, spending 12 hours in the tent. The next day, however, was beautiful bright sunshine and wispy white clouds with a blazing campfire to top off the day.

I’ve also completed the 28-mile backpack trail on the mountain twice — a wonderous trip you can enjoy all year around the San Francisco Bay Area’s temperate climate. In early spring (February/March) between rains when grass is green but short and trails not too muddy, the vistas are stunning.

Because it is close to local communities (Walnut Creek most prominently), there are always activities in the works built around hiking. But the backpacking trail offers a wide variety of vistas and is little used. Both trips, my friends and I were the only ones on the trail.

If you don’t have time for a backpack, try out the hiking trails, some of which are very demanding.

Check it out. And remember: Be light. Be safe. Be one with the pack.

Hiking the Great Wall in China

b-at-great-wall.jpgYou may have noticed that I’ve been absent for about two weeks from my blog. My wife, Gerry and I were on vacation in China. We visited Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou. An amazing trip. Gerry climbed several sections of the Great Wall and I decided to go to the top of one large stretch.

As a backpacker, when I see a mountain peak, I want to keep going until I reach the top. I climbed from tower to tower, rising about 1,500 feet in about 1.5 hours. The towers are located the distance two bowman can shoot their arrows to defend a section). There must have been 10 sections. At the top were more mountains and an endless stretch of Wall.

The Great Wall, an estimated 4,000 miles long, was built between the 5th Century BC and the 16th Century to protect the northern border of the Chinese Empire. It eventually failed miserably against the Mongols.

About twice the distance of the Appalachian Trail, imagine backpacking the entire wall. If nothing else, you would have plenty of shelters along the way.

Be light. Be safe. Be one with the pack.

Pacific Crest Trail to Mt. Eddy – Don’t Follow The Leader

Mt. Eddy from Mt. ShastaLast week I returned from a short, lightweight backpack to Mt. Eddy (9,025 feet), a great viewing spot for Mt. Shasta.

A mile north of the City of Weed, California, on I-5, you take Edgewood Drive, follow it to Stewart Springs Road and you end up at Parks Creek Trailhead (13 mile drive on paved roads).

When we reached the trailhead, two other groups were in the parking area. Each group headed out on a trail headed up hill without a second thought. Ten minutes later, we followed them. A half mile later, we realized that we weren’t on the trail afterall. We walked back down to the trailhead, looked around and off to the right and found a nice flat trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the trail we had wanted.

Lesson: don’t just follow groups ahead of you, driven by the adrenaline of beginning a new backpack and desire to get into the wilderness. Take a deep breath, check out your map. Avoid making rookie mistakes like ours.

Be light. Be safe. Be one with the pack.