Adventure Seeker

A Guide to Dispersed Camping in the Mountain West

A loud bugling throws my eyes open. I’m curled up in the back of my car, zipped tight into my sleeping bag. The windows have frosted over a little bit in the cold. The night before, I’d sped south from Yellowstone in search of some place to sleep before heading to Grand Teton National Park in the morning. It was dark when I pulled in, crawled in the back and fell asleep, but now, opening the back hatch, I can see where I am. I had backed up to the edge of a small knoll over the Snake River, and the bugling that woke me was coming from a small group of elk wading into the steaming water only a few hundred yards away.

Not a bad spot, I think.

For anyone van-lifing, road tripping out of their car, or living the climbing bum lifestyle, one perpetual stress is knowing, after a long day on the road or trail, where you’ll be spending the night. If you’re away from home for any extended period, paying much more than a few dollars a night—whether that’s for a cheap motel room, Airbnb, or in an established campground—is generally out of the question. Night after night, those expenses add up quickly, which makes finding a free place to pull over and get comfortable a daily priority.

Thankfully, especially in the Mountain West, finding a quiet, picturesque and free campsite is a lot easier to do than you might think.

Not Your Average Walmart Parking Lot

One of the best car camping experiences you can have in Colorado: Lincoln Creek Campground.
One of the best car camping experiences you can have in Colorado: Lincoln Creek Campground.

Ry Glover

All overnight parking is not created equal. RV travelers and truckers have become accustomed to hopping between 24-hour Walmart parking lots and large, rumbling travel centers, which, for dirtbags, will certainly do in a pinch (just check with management at that location to make sure they follow the Walmart norm and allow overnight guests), but they’re definitely not ideal.

While plenty of random locations like local parks, some private land, and other municipalities and retail locations allow overnight parking, they’re far from reliable and the consequence for getting caught staying somewhere you shouldn’t could, in the end, make you wish you’d spent the money on a comfortable—and legal—hotel room. Even day-use areas, trailheads, and other seemingly vanlife-friendly locales typically don’t allow overnighters.

“Dispersed” Camping?

Dispersed camping cooking in the BLM lands of Southern Utah.
Dispersed camping cooking in the BLM lands of Southern Utah.

Jake Wheeler

Luckily, the Mountain West is ripe with public land, chiefly National Forests, and as taxpayers, we’ve often already paid our campground fees. Dispersed camping is the general term for camping anywhere outside a developed campground, and it’s the bread and butter of the cheap road trip.

A dispersed campsite would be the National Forest equivalent of a backcountry campsite in a Wilderness Area, but because National Forests have roads running through them, a dispersed campsite doesn’t necessarily require a long trek into the backcountry, and they’re easy to find right off the road.

As you might expect, free dispersed camping doesn’t come with the amenities of established campsites. Even outhouses aren’t guaranteed at all but the heaviest-use sites. But what you trade away in luxury, you gain in solitude and a feeling of remoteness that’s hard to get mere feet from your vehicle.

Finding Your Campsite

The dispersed camping at Colorado's Alta Lakes is easily some of the best you'll find in the West.
The dispersed camping at Colorado’s Alta Lakes is easily some of the best you’ll find in the West.

Jake Wheeler

Often tucked away down rocky Forest Service roads, a dispersed site could be anything from a small pull-off, to a spot tucked farther away, but they almost never have signs or can be found with a quick Google Maps search. Researching your spot beforehand is a must.

However, what you can find on Google Maps are the lands that might contain these campsites. Bureau of Land Management properties, National Forests, or Wildlife Management Areas are typically good places to start to look. Not all public land is open to dispersed camping, so be sure to check the rules and regulations for those specific properties. From there, scouring satellite imagery can be a good way to identify open areas, pull-offs and specific campsites. Check out Forest Service roads (typically identified only with numbers) first or use websites like freecampsites.net or campendium.com to crowdsource the work and look for locations that others have found.

Also pay attention to any other special restrictions or permits that might be required for specific areas.

The final step is to go check them out! Drive roads in search of pull-offs and offshoots. In many cases, sites will have obviously been used by others passing through. If you’re lucky, there will be a makeshift fire ring ready to go! Always keep an eye out for “No Camping” signs or other posted rules, which can be instated to help protect some places that have been used heavily.

A Few of Our Favorites

Watching the sunset behind the Tetons from Shadow Mountain Campground.
Watching the sunset behind the Tetons from Shadow Mountain Campground.

Jake Wheeler

– Shadow Mountain Road (Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming)

Is Shadow Mountain the best camping near the Tetons? It’d be tough to find a better alternative. Hidden around the backside of the National Elk Refuge, this rugged dirt road climbs Shadow Mountain to a collection of open grassy areas with unbeatable views of the rocky peaks across the valley floor.

– Kaibab National Forest, Arizona

Get away from the summer crowds swarming the campgrounds within Grand Canyon National Park without sacrificing an inch of scenery. A number of prime camping spots dot this forest just 15 minutes south of the park, offering some of the best dispersed camping in the Southwest. You’ll stay shaded among the some of the densest ponderosa pines in the country, and you’ll likely have your pick of the litter when it comes to campsites.

– Blankenship Bridge (Flathead National Forest, Montana)

Another gem just outside a popular national park, this pull-off is just minutes from the collossal mountains of Glacier NP. Pull right out onto the spectacular rocky banks of the Middle Fork Flathead River and fall asleep listening to the water just footsteps from your car.

Things to Keep in Mind

A starry night beneath the ponderosa pines of Kaibab National Forest. Brian Bates
A starry night beneath the ponderosa pines of Kaibab National Forest.
Brian Bates

  • Bring your own water, or water treatment equipment. Dispersed campsites don’t come with running, potable water.
  • Dispersed campsites are always first-come-first-serve and can not accept any reservations. If you find what you think could be a busy area, get there early or have a backup plan.
  • You can’t live here, but you can hang out for a while. Dispersed campers are allowed to stay a maximum of 14 days in any 30-day period.
  • Always practice Leave No Trace. You won’t find any trash cans at dispersed campsites, and most receive minimal maintenance, so be sure to pack out everything you drive in with, and leave the site cleaner than when you arrived.
  • Forest roads can be rough in the Mountain West, so a high-clearance vehicle that can handle rocks and mud will always make you more comfortable in the woods.

Written by Ryan Wichelns for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Zach Dischner

Discovering the Scenic Byways of Moab

There’s magic in the name Moab. The word conjures up dreams of sandstone landscapes dissected by canyons and lorded over by buttes and mesas. The town of Moab, Utah, nestled beside the Colorado River, casts a special spell on every visitor, enchanting them with the surrounding bare-bones landscape and a sense of limitless space. Spectacular scenery fills the Moab area, offering long views, a rainbow of colors, dazzling sunsets, and plenty to see and do. Driving Moab’s byways and backroads are the best way to explore its wild country and see its sights. These roads allow mountain bikers, rock climbers, hikers, and river rafters to get intimate with Moab’s red rock playground. Here are five of the area’s most scenic drives.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (Utah 128)

The Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway, following Utah 128 or the River Road, runs 44 miles along the Colorado River and across open hills to Interstate 70. The drive, beginning north of Moab, twists through a dramatic cliff-lined gorge beside the Colorado River for the first 13 miles. Attractions include a hike up Negro Bill Canyon to Morning Glory Arch, bouldering at Big Bend, and rafting down the Colorado. Past the canyon, the land opens up and the drive passes Red Cliff Lodge and the Moab Movie Museum below Castle Valley.

A side trip leads to the Fisher Towers, a collection of strangely eroded formations. The byway continues through the upper river canyon, passing scenic overlooks below red rock cliffs, to the site of the historic Dewey Bridge. The one-lane bridge was destroyed by a brush fire in 2008. The final section runs across the barren desert to the ghost town of Cisco before ending at Interstate 70.

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway (Utah 279)

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The Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway features access to many activities on the surrounding cliffs and canyons.

Gary Whitton/Moab Area Travel Council

The Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway, locally called Potash Road, follows Utah 279 along the twisty Colorado River for 17 miles to the site of a potash mine. Besides gorgeous scenery, the drive offers dinosaur tracks, climbing, hiking, mountain biking, and four-wheeling on the surrounding cliffs and canyons. The byway enters the Colorado River gorge about three miles south of U.S. 191 and runs alongside the west bank of the river through a deep cliff-lined canyon.

At Wall Street, the road edges between the river and a towering sandstone cliff. The roadside crag is Moab’s most popular climbing area, with a couple hundred sport and trad routes. Poison Spider Mesa Trail offers great mountain biking along the canyon rim. An easy trail crosses slickrock to vaulting 105-foot-high Corona Arch. Jughandle Arch frames the north entrance of Long Canyon near the drive’s end at the Intrepid Potash Mine where potash is mined for fertilizer. Past turquoise settling ponds, the road turns to dirt and heads into Canyonlands National Park as the White Rim Road.

La Sal Mountain Loop Road

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On the La Sal Mountain Loop Road, drive past monolithic sandstone formations such as Castleton Tower.

Crystal

The La Sal Mountain Loop Road, a Utah Scenic Backway, is a 60-mile drive through the La Sal Mountains southeast of Moab. The road, with both paved and gravel surfaces, climbs from dusty desert valleys to aspen glades, rushing streams, pine and fir forests, and a dozen 12,000-foot peaks, including the range high point, 12,721-foot Mount Peale. The best way to drive the route is counter-clockwise, beginning on U.S. 191 south of Moab. The road climbs to Mill Creek Canyon, one of Moab’s best climbing areas, and then shelves across the northwest flank of the mountains.

Take a right turn and drive to Warner Lake, a gorgeous pond surrounded by wildflower-strewn meadows and golden aspen. Several overlooks yield striking views across the sun-baked landscape below. The final road segment switchbacks down to Castle Valley and runs north to the drive’s end at the River Road. This section passes monolithic sandstone formations, including Castleton Tower, The Priest, and The Nuns.

Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway (Utah 313)

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The last few miles of Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway crosses Dead Horse Point State Park, which features one of the most stunning overlooks in the state.

Dan Norris/Moab Area Travel Council

The 35-mile-long Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway follows Utah 313 through sandstone canyons and across sagebrush-covered hills atop the Island in the Sky. Dead Horse Point at the end of the drive perches on the abrupt rim of the mesa, offering one of Moab’s most-loved overlooks. The drive’s last few miles cross Dead Horse Point State Park, a 5,300-acre Utah parkland, with overlooks, hiking and mountain biking trails, a campground, and visitor center. The view from Dead Horse Point, reputedly one of the most photographed scenes in the world, is breathtaking. The glassy Colorado River loops through a dramatic canyon lined with red cliffs more than 2,000 feet below the overlook. Beyond stretches a vastness of flat-topped mesas, ragged canyons, and the snow-capped La Sal and Abajo mountains.

After taking your own photos, head back to Utah 313 and head south to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Expect more great views from the park drive as well as hiking trails, natural arches, and a desert wilderness that reaches to the horizon.

Arches National Park Scenic Drive

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Balanced Rock with the La Sal Mountains in the backdrop.

Moab Area Travel Council

The 18-mile park road at Arches National Park traverses a stunning landscape, with skyscraping buttes and towers, balanced rocks, and more than 2,000 arches, the largest concentration in the world. The out-and-back drive offers dramatic overlooks and trails to features like iconic Delicate Arch, Double Arch, and Skyline Arch. Before heading out, stop at the visitor center off U.S. 191 to acquaint yourself with the park.

Past the entrance, the road climbs to the Courthouse Towers, a sculpture garden of massive rocks, and edges alongside the Great Wall. A short spur leads past Balanced Rock to the Windows Section with Turret Arch and the Windows. Other sites to explore include the 1.5-mile trail to Delicate Arch, a must-do hike; labyrinthine slots canyons at the Fiery Furnace; and Devil’s Garden at the road’s end. A good trail explores Devil’s Garden, passing Landscape Arch, the world’s longest natural span, and other arches. Finish the drive by piling back in the car and returning to the visitor center.

Written by Stewart Green for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Marc Piscotty/Moab Area Travel Council

Pro Tips for Hiking with a Hangover (According to a Bartender and a Physician)

I haven’t even put my truck into park before Derek swings the door open and jumps out. He post-holes his way through knee-deep snow over to the tree line and doubles over, retching into the pines. The trailhead hurl has become something of a tradition for Derek. The rest of us barely acknowledge it. We’re dealing with our own demons.

As I see it, this problem begins at home. Specifically, the distance between home and the trailhead. We live in Chicago, and that means driving great distances to get to our destinations for any true wilderness trip. We can’t just gear up after breakfast and be on the trail by 10AM.

The nearest wilderness area is 6 hours away.

Getting to the backcountry requires driving up and finding local accommodations the night before. That means there’s time to kill that evening, and the default method for the killing of said time is… to drink.

Among our group of friends, the “Hike-In Hangover” has become as much a part of our wilderness adventures as GoreTex or freeze-dried food. Whether we killed a growler of Founders around a campfire the night before a Manistee River paddling trip, or bar-crawled our way through Marquette, Michigan the night before snowshoeing into the Ottawa National Forest, it’s inevitable that most of us will wake up that first morning with some degree of regret. Sure, we still want to get close to nature—even if this sometimes means lying down on the cool ground and staying very, very still.

The Hike-in Hangover seems to get worse with age. And since simply “making better choices” is not in the cards, I will instead take a mature, scientific approach to this problem.

I’ve tapped the expertise of two qualified experts in the field: My friend and long-time drinking buddy, Dr. Michael Sullivan MD—a family practitioner and avid outdoorsman living in Watertown, Wisconsin; and Morgan Delaney—a fellow backcountry enthusiast and professional bartender at Spotted Bear Spirits, a community-minded craft distillery in Whitefish, Montana. Their shared wisdom might just be the tonic we’re all looking for.

Bleary-eyed hiking in the North Carolina High Country.
Bleary-eyed hiking in the North Carolina High Country.

Evan Castellano

Plenty has been written about hangover remedies. But, specifically for the outdoor adventurer, is there an approach that you’d recommend?

Dr. Mike: “As a physician, I obviously must warn against excessive alcohol consumption. Men should keep intake to 2 drinks daily. Women should keep this to 1.5 servings daily. The best approach to hiking with a hangover is avoiding a hangover in the first place.”

Bartender Morgan: “Chasing every drink with a tall glass of water – it won't kill your buzz, but it will make you a happier, more hydrated skier the next day.”

Are sports drinks any better than just drinking water?

Dr. Mike: “Water is always a good choice. Sports drinks can be better when you plan to be active, since you’ve depleted not only calories, but electrolytes.”

Bartender Morgan: “Sports drinks have a lot of sugar, so I find it is best to chase them with water. And then a shot of bourbon.” 

What about coffee?

Dr. Mike: “If you regularly consume coffee, skipping it may add to your hangover symptoms, like headache and shakes. However, I’d recommend consuming only a cup or two. Since coffee is irritating to the stomach and dehydrates, try to avoid.”

Bartender Morgan: “In the backcountry, coffee can be a blessing and a curse. It helps get camp broken down quickly, and gets you on the trail… But it is a diuretic.”

Did someone in this photo just make a beer toot? It's likely. Very, very likely.
Did someone in this photo just make a beer toot? It's likely. Very, very likely.

Evan Castellano

Do bready carbs help soak up alcohol?

Dr. Mike: “Carbohydrates do not ‘soak up’ the alcohol. But carbs are a good source of fast calories, and their bland nature tends to be easy on the gut. Since we are calorie deprived and our stomach is inflamed, carbs are typically a good choice for the day after.”

Bartender Morgan: “Whip me up some biscuits and gravy, flap jacks, eggs, and a side of bacon. But don't expect me to go anywhere the rest of the day.”

That’s the perfect segue into the ‘greasy food’ approach? A good idea before hiking or paddling with a hangover?

Dr. Mike: “The scientific answer is no. Going back to the idea of alcohol causing inflammation and irritation in the stomach, greasy foods are not recommended for a hangover, especially if you’re planning a 6-hour canoe or kayak trip. Let alone the availability of reliable facilities!”

Bartender Morgan: “Again, you want to be mindful of the weight you are carrying with you, be it on your back or in your bowels.  Once you hit the trails, dehydration and a heavy belly will make for a slow hiker.”

What about pain meds?

Dr. Mike: “In general, it is okay to take OTC pain relievers, but it’s important to avoid acetaminophen, as this is broken down by the liver and potentially toxic. Not a good idea considering you’ve just stressed your liver with alcohol.”

Bartender Morgan: “The best medicines to carry are Aspirin and, for those living in states where it's legal, cannabis.”

A big thing now is Pedialyte. Thoughts?

Dr. Mike: “Pedialyte is along the same lines as sports drinks. It has sugar and electrolytes which, again, you are depleted of. But I would strongly question a person who would bring Pedialyte on a backpacking or kayaking trip.”

Bartender Morgan: “Pedialyte is best utilized for the really bad hangovers. But in that case… The Baby's Alright cocktail: 1. Fill your cup with a handful of that slushy Spring alpine snow… 2. 2-3oz Pedialyte 3. 1oz vodka 4. Seltzer water or Ginger brew. If you have a water filter and/or trust your water source, that will work fine as well. Add a tab of Alka-Seltzer for carbonation.”

Does vomiting that morning help or hurt with a hangover?

Dr. Mike: “Vomiting only helps you if you feel nauseous and need to get it out. This occurs because of inflammation in the stomach, and high acid content. While it may temporarily make you feel better, it won’t speed things up. Do not induce vomiting. If nature takes its course, so be it.”

Bartender Morgan: “Vomiting the morning after is never a good sign. If you're going to hurl, do it the night before and then drink a lot of water.” 

Let’s pause here for a moment, because this brings up an interesting question. If—like us—you are a proponent of Leave No Trace ethics, then what exactly are the Leave No Trace guidelines for puking in the pines? Horking in the hills? Barfing in the bush? It’s not a situation we plan for, but it is human waste after all. So, I contacted Katie Keller, a Leave No Trace Master Educator based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

According to Leave No Trace principles, this would be an incredibly inappropriate place to hurl.
According to Leave No Trace principles, this would be an incredibly inappropriate place to hurl.

Liz Fieser

What are the Leave No Trace guidelines for upchucking?

Katie Keller, LNT Master Educator: “The principles behind ‘Dispose of Waste Properly’ with Leave No Trace still apply. If you have enough time, dig a cat hole 6-8 inches deep, that is at least 200 feet from all water sources, trails, and campgrounds. Or, if you have access to a bag or container, you could pack it out until you can properly dispose of it. Make sure that your disposal method is compatible with where you are. It is always a good idea to read Leave No Trace information related to specific ecosystems before you go.”

Turns out Derek has been doing it wrong for years. Words to ralph by, thanks Katie. Now, back to our interviews.

What about exercise? Sweating it out?

Dr. Mike: “Most of the data actually discourages exercise due to the fact that you are dehydrated, calorie depleted, and your GI system is inflamed. If you do exercise then you should overhydrate to compensate not only for your initial fluid depletion, but to account for fluid loss due to activity. Get calories as well.”

Bartender Morgan: “Extreme dehydration from a mix of outdoor activities and a night of drinking can cause substantial mental and physical fatigue, leading to poor decision making, injury, or worse…a Trump presidency.”

When you've reached the headache stage of the Hike-in Hangover, you know you're in trouble.
When you've reached the headache stage of the Hike-in Hangover, you know you're in trouble.

Evan Castellano

Does the temperature outside affect a hangover?

Dr. Mike: “The hotter it is, the more fluid you’ll lose. But be very careful in the winter as well. Our bodies don’t always give the same signs of dehydration in winter. You may not feel as thirsty, or sweat as much, but you’re still losing fluids.”

Bartender Morgan: “I've drunk during the summer in the desert and I've drunk in the winter above the tree-line. I prefer the latter, as the cold does seem to have anti-inflammatory effects. And being out in the dry, hot sun while hungover is not my idea of a good time.”

So, there we have it. Thanks to Dr. Mike and Bartender Morgan we can now approach our next backcountry bender with some degree of knowledge and preparedness. Fluids and calories: good. Acetaminophen and bacon sandwiches: bad. The only thing left to do is to field-test what we’ve learned. Whitefish, Montana is only 25 hours from Chicago. Last call at Spotted Bear is at 8PM. I sense a plan coming together.

Written by Patrick Burke for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Evan Castellano

Backpacking the 83-Mile Uinta Highline Trail

The prominent Uinta Mountains of Utah rose from Precambrian rock about 600 million years ago. These geologic giants are the northern-most high altitude massifs formed by glaciers during the Ice Age without present-day glaciers and are the longest east-to-west oriented mountain range in the lower 48.

My friends Craig Benson, Bob Wenger, husband Lee, and I flew to Salt Lake City for an eight-day thru-hike on the high altitude, 83-mile Uinta (pronounced you-went-a) Highline Trail (UHT).

We rented two vehicles and drove to Hayden Pass for the 175-mile car shuttle. After leaving Craig’s rental at the western terminus at Hayden Pass, Lee drove us to a basic motel in Vernal, Utah, where we enjoyed a good night’s rest before the next day’s departure at the eastern terminus of Hacking Lake (10,630-feet).

Day 1

The trailhead at Hacking Lake, the Eastern terminus of the Uinta Highline Trail. Polly Scotland
The trailhead at Hacking Lake, the Eastern terminus of the Uinta Highline Trail.
Polly Scotland

At the trailhead, I hoisted my 38-pound pack and proceeded up trail number 025.

Near Leidy Peak (12,028-feet), the boys consulted the map as I passed by and walked into a dense conifer forest.

I strolled along until I came to a hulking brown form blocking the path, where I stared at three pairs of eyes twenty feet ahead. I blinked. They blinked. My heart pounded as the unknown shape morphed into three female elk that bolted––one left, one right, one back.

Five minutes later, dozens of elk charged across the trail. The thunderous stampede darting between fir trees kicked up a veil of fine dust.

The panoramic vista at our first pass, Gabbro Pass (11,689-feet), held a commanding view of barren humpbacked mountains with ribbons of snow.

At the intersection overlooking Deadman Lake, we saw the route descended steeply to the lake before going back up. Lee said, “It might be shorter to stay high than to pick up the trail on the other side.”

Initially this shortcut made sense, but bushwhacking over uneven terrain was arduous. Eventually we picked up the trail again and trekked to Whiterocks Lake, then Chepeta Lake, where fly fisherman claimed the choice campsites. We were forced to go an extra mile north to Moccasin Lake.

Day 2

The reflective waters of Moccasin Lake. Polly Scotland
The reflective waters of Moccasin Lake.
Polly Scotland

On the morning of day two, I popped the nasty, quarter-sized blister on the bottom of my heel, then retraced my steps to Chepeta Lake and set out for the marshy area of Reader Lake. On the far side of the slough, we spotted a bull-moose leisurely raise and lower his shovels underwater as he dined on breakfast.

Toward noon, heavy cloud cover obliterated the sun during the climb up North Pole Pass (11,800-feet). Several false summits taunted us until we finally reached the top where strong winds were swirling.

Scrambling over the summit, I descended to Brook and Fox Lakes in an isolated thunderstorm. I plopped down on a soggy log near the foundation of an dilapidated log cabin in a light hail shower.

At a tributary of the Uinta River, a second hailstorm covered the ground in tiny white balls of ice. My feet throbbed, my back ached, and this second day of “boot camp” was miserable. I dropped my pack, sat on it, ate some nuts, drank water, and took Ibuprofen. I felt better and once again hit the trail.

Two moose—a mom and her baby—traversed an expansive meadow. They sauntered toward us until mom caught wind of us and dashed into the conifers.

We arrived at Kidney Lake after a difficult eleven-hour day.

After midnight, the sky cleared and the August Perseid meteor shower was on display with dazzling, light blue smoke tails of shooting stars.

Days 3 & 4

Sunset over Kidney Lake. Polly Scotland
Sunset over Kidney Lake.
Polly Scotland

On the third day, we walked to the expansive Painter Basin where another storm cut our day short.

The fourth day’s crisp, clear morning was invigorating as we hiked the steep ascent to the UHT’s overall high point at Anderson Pass (12,700-feet).

Many day-hikers merged onto the UHT from the north via the 27-mile Highpoint Trail near Mountain View, Utah, with a single goal of bagging the state’s highest point of King’s Peak (13,528-feet).

I sat below Anderson Pass and tracked my husband Lee in his blaze-orange jacket as he ascended the 1,000-foot spine above the shoulder of the pass to the summit.

Lee estimated that he would take two hours for the scramble to the summit, so Craig, Bob, and I pressed on toward the second pass of the day––Tungsten Pass.

Beside the splotchy green grass of Yellowstone Creek, I met a dozen students from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana taking a 12-day orientation trip. The mostly female freshmen, led by two chaperons, were on their first-ever wilderness experience.

When Lee caught up to me at Tungsten Pass, I asked, “What’s it like on the highest point of Utah?”

“The wind was so noisy I could barely hear anyone speak, but the 360-degree view went on forever––even north to Wyoming. A young blond woman took my picture, read passages from a time capsule, and showed me the signature book. It was a brief but incredible moment. I tried to place a cell phone call home, but there wasn’t a signal,” Lee recalled. “But let’s keep going before I seize up. I’ve been eating on the move and want to get to camp.”

From the top of the pass, we saw North Star Lake in Garfield Basin and Craig’s olive and gray tent hugging a windblown patch of shrub. At camp, Lee had the stumbles and bumbles because of a taxing ten-hour, two-pass, and one-summit day.

Day 5

The crew posing in Painter Basin with King's Peak looming in the distance. Polly Scotland
The crew posing in Painter Basin with King’s Peak looming in the distance.
Polly Scotland

On the fifth day, we hiked to Porcupine Pass (12,236-feet), then descended the crumbly, loose scree slopes toward Lambert Meadow. The gray-white pyramid peaks of Scout (12,855-feet) and Explorer (12,708-feet) were in sharp contrast to the adjacent red rolling caps.

When the UHT (also called the Ashley Forest Trail) in Lambert Meadow intersected the Lake Fork River Trail, we turned northwest into an Oz-like landscape. The scenery became more dramatic with warm-red peaks, chiseled mountainsides, and turquoise lakes that winked in the sunlight.

We camped beside the Lake Fork River in an area that was a tinderbox full of deadfall. After dinner we played the Bocce Ball game that Bob had lugged.

Day 6

The sixth day was another double pass day. After bushwhacking through unmarked terrain, we found the cairn marking the path up the distinctive Red Knob Pass (11,975-feet).

Next, we moved into the valley of Dead Horse Lake. At the milky-blue lake, I looked up the jagged, knife-edged mountain and asked the boys, “Where’s the Pass? There’s nothing remotely resembling a cut into the serrated mountaintop.”

Lee said, “Just trust the trail.”

A boulder scramble gave way to a very faint path. Bob called out, “I found the dead horse.” Resting on a rock was the skull of a horse with most of its teeth.

The boys moved steadily, and I lost sight of them. Leaning into the sharp slant of the incline, I planted both hiking poles into the loose scree before positioning one foot in front of the other. I continued this slow, methodical, baby-step pattern.

I came to a junction and couldn’t tell which sketchy path led to the pass and which was a ghost trail. As I weighed the options, I saw Lee coming for my pack.

At the apex, he dropped my pack, grabbed his, and headed down to get out of the freezing wind tunnel. I wanted to enjoy the vista, but I was nearly blown off as I clicked some photos before rounding the bend. I dropped down the backside of the scariest pass.

Eventually, I reached Ledge Lake (10,845-feet) and thanked Craig for choosing the east to west route. If I had climbed the daunting Dead Horse Pass with a fully loaded backpack on the second day, the trail might have been renamed Dead Woman Pass.

Day 7

The crew huddled under a tarp at Carolyn Lake. Polly Scotland
The crew huddled under a tarp at Carolyn Lake.
Polly Scotland

On the seventh day, a wave of threatening black clouds built above the well-named Rocky Sea Pass. I moved earnestly across the wobbly sea of rocks, summited, then caught up to the boys at Pigeon Milk Spring.

We were seven miles from the car, but no one was ready to re-enter civilization. Our last night was to be at Carolyn Lake, but when we arrived, the temperature plummeted 30 degrees and a series of hailstorms raged. We huddled under our trap, sipped hot broth, played trivia, and watched the heat leave the lake in wispy layers of fog. After the tenth round of mini-marshmallow-sized ice balls, we headed for Hayden Pass.

At dusk, I reached the parking lot where we rejoiced, hugged, and congratulated each other. I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment as I neared the finish line of the 83-mile, eight-pass journey that averages only 50 thru-hikers annually.

As I thought about the fact that our earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, and the Uinta Mountains were created 600 million years ago, and the dinosaurs roamed 150 million years ago, I realized that my seven-day existence in this magnificent place doesn’t even register on the spectrum of time; however, it was a profound and humbling experience to travel atop 23 layers of geologic time––even if only for a moment.

Written by Polly Scotland for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Polly Scotland

The Fascinating History of Hueco Tanks, the Birthplace of Modern Bouldering

For anyone who loves to boulder, a pilgrimage to Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site is inevitable. And it’s no wonder: This beloved Texas landmark is considered the mecca of modern bouldering, with a style of climbing found nowhere else in the world, all set against the backdrop of stark desert and reddish-brown rock. It’s the birthplace of the V-grades, the national bouldering standard, and the first place where climbers flocked purely for the boulders rather than roped routes.

This ancient place also has a 10,000-year-old legacy, where prehistoric people hunted now-extinct bison, sought shelter, and performed sacred ceremonies commemorated on the rock through paintings. From early inhabitants to rock climbers, Hueco Tanks, which is located about 32 miles northeast of El Paso, is indeed a sacred space, one that every climber should visit to experience some of the best bouldering in the world.

Why Hueco?

Any climber will tell you that the rock at Hueco Tanks feels like it was made for climbing. Hueco’s boulders are bullet-hard, with features found nowhere else in the bouldering world, like the surfboard hold on the Moonshine Roof or the impressive Martini Cave. This ancient igneous rock provides a place for complex movement that’s gymnastic-like and physical, yet delicate and technical. It’s one of the best places in the world to climb complex roof problems and helps climbers develop a combination of technique and strength in their climbing.

The rocks at Hueco Tanks are actually a remnant of uplifted domes of molten rock that were weathered and eroded over millennia and now contain “huecos,” or “hollows.” The hollows refer to the depressions in the rock that are perfect for holding water, providing an oasis for plants, wildlife, and humans—and now for the hands, feet, and knees of rock climbers.

A Snapshot in Time

People of the Jornada Mogollon culture left a rich and distinctive legacy on the rocks during the roughly 1000 years that they occupied Hueco Tanks. Based on the large numbers of pictographs attributed to these people, it also appears that painting-as a ritual or artistic expression-played a large role in the lives of these foraging farmers. Among more sedentary people, the need for rain and favorable growing conditions for crops likely were critical concerns, expressed in rituals and conveyed through the painting of sacred symbols. Many of these symbols, thought to refer to water, lightning, clouds, and other natural elements, appear to hark back to more ancient times and far away places, where older cultures had similar concerns. At Hueco Tanks, these depictions, along with hundreds of masks, faces, dancing figures, animals, and other images, provide glimpses of the spiritual world of the Jornada Mogollon. #huecotanks #txstateparks #tpwd

A post shared by Hueco Tanks SPHS (@huecotanksstatepark) on

But Hueco hasn’t always been a rock climbing destination—humans have inhabited Hueco Tanks for millennia, leaving their mark on the area in the form of rock art paintings, or pictographs. The collection of rock art in Hueco is remarkable, with thousands of paintings by multiple groups over the course of 10,000 years.

Painted masks with almond eyes and square faces stare out from the rock, along with ancient Mexican gods resembling serpents or jaguars. Hunting scenes abound, with horned humans and tiny, delicate deer and mountain sheep. Mysterious wavy lines and abstract symbols from ancient humans still stump archaeologists.

More recently, modern nomadic Native Americans like the Kiowa and Apaches have left their mark, too, drawing pictures of elaborate victory dances and hunts. As European and Spanish traders entered the scene a few hundred years ago, Native Americans drew pictures of cattle, churches, horse riding, and people dressed in European clothing.

From Rock Art to Rock Climbing

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Today, the only new marks on the rock you’ll see in Hueco Tanks are chalk ones on bouldering holds. But Hueco wasn’t always a bouldering destination. Early climbers boldly tackled the surrounding cliffs using ropes, minimal trad protection, and the occasional bolt.

But over decades, climbers began exploring the bouldering potential of Hueco, and the results were impressive. In the 1970’s, Mike Head established the Mushroom Roof in Hueco, comparable in grade to Yosemite’s bouldering test piece of the time, Midnight Lightning. This was unprecedented—until that point, Hueco was just a local crag, and besides, bouldering was usually done to train for big-wall summits, not for its own sake.

But over the next decade, climbers headed in increasing numbers to Hueco, attracted to the pure joy of working and finessing moves on a small-scale environment, pushing their limits of strength, technique, and power as they topped out the boulders.

It wasn’t until climber John “Vermin” Sherman came to the scene in the 1980’s that the story of these desert boulders was forever changed. Sherman established more than 500 bouldering routes of varying difficulty, and soon, Hueco Tanks became the first major place in America where people gathered to boulder rather than to climb tall walls.

As the sport became more popular, the need for a bouldering guidebook began to emerge, and Sherman rose to the challenge, publishing Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in America in 1994. His original manuscript didn’t include a grading system, because according to Sherman, “Numbers got no soul. People need to get over that stuff.” But his publishers required it, so he set about creating a grading system using the “V for Vermin” grades that he and his climber buddies had jokingly used to grade their first ascents. Joke or not, it was the first time in the U.S. that an open-ended grading system had been used for boulders, and it established Hueco as the standard setting area across the nation. Now, the V-grades are used throughout North America, at every climbing gym and in every outdoor bouldering area.

Red Tape and Playing by the Rules

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After Sherman’s guide came out, bouldering in Hueco blew up. Visitors swelled in the 1990’s as Hueco Tanks was featured in climbing magazines and established climbers came from around the world. But all that popularity came with a downside, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department became concerned with the impact that visitors were having on the vegetation, wildlife, and the potential harm to archaeological sites and pictographs. In 1998, park officials created the “Public Use Plan,” closing two-thirds of the park (East Mountain, East Spur, or West Mountain), unless visitors enter with a park-approved tour guide, and limiting access to the North Mountain to only 70 people a day.

To visit Hueco, it’s essential to plan ahead as early as possible. Call Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Hueco Tanks reservation line up to 90 days in advance to snag a spot. Once you have a reservation, show up at the park gate before 10 am to claim your spot, or call the parks to hold your reservation if you’re late. This will allow you to enter the North Mountain area, the only area open to self-guided visitors.

If you don’t have reservations for the North Mountain, there are two options for access: Show up at the gate before 8 am to wait in line for any open reservations (the park saves 10 spots a day for walk-ins), or come after 10 am, when all unclaimed spots open up. Tours meet at the front gate, and sometimes they’ll have open space and you can join.

The other way that people get into the park, and the only way in to East mountain, East Spur, or West Mountain is with a guide. The park’s guides take groups out bouldering or to see rock art, making sure that leave no trace ethics are followed and that park rules are closely observed.

There are two types of guides in the park: volunteer and commercial. Volunteer guides cost about $3 a person, but availability depends on the guide’s schedule. Call or check in at the park entrance to request a volunteer guide, and the park will let you know if a guide picks up the tour. Book a commercial tour if you need to guarantee availability, prefer to communicate with your guide regarding your ideal agenda for the day, and don’t mind shelling out up to $25 a person.

All visitors must pay the $7 entrance fee or purchase the annual Texas State Parks Pass for $70, which allows access to the park for everyone in the car.

Where to Stay and When to Go

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The most popular place to stay is the Hueco Rock Ranch, where climbers gather to hang out, share tips on boulders, and soak up the desert scenery. It’s $10 a night to camp ($5 for American Alpine Club members), or you can rent a bunk or private room. There are showers, a barn, sheltered communal cooking area, and fire pits for campers to enjoy.

Quieter camping can be found at Gleatherland, with great views, showers, a fire pit, and WiFi, all for $5 a night, but you’ll need advance reservations. Rent a private room or a bunk room at the Hueco Hacienda, and take advantage of the full kitchen, dining room and living room, as well as crash pad rentals, WiFi, and showers.

The best time to boulder in Hueco Tanks is November through April, and the most popular time is during January and February. It will be sunny during the day and chilly at night, so don’t forget your puffy jacket and slippers!

The Hueco Rock Rodeo bouldering competition hosted by the American Alpine Club, usually in February, is a lot of fun to attend, but you’ll want to book lodging and park reservations in advance.

Written by Jacqui Levy for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Alan Cressler

The Ultimate Weekend Getaway in Durango (No Matter What Kind of Traveler You Are)

There’s only one question you need to answer to determine whether Durango should be your next weekend getaway destination, and that’s whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway, period. While Durango is a year-round destination, winter is a particularly good time to visit. Whether you enjoy skiing, snowmobiling—or even ice climbing—the region is filled with scenic options for enjoying the winter weather. It’s also got great restaurants, breweries, cultural and historic sites, and family attractions for those who want to enjoy a view of the snow from inside.

Founded when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in the late 19th century, Durango was once a mining boomtown, with the hills chock-full of silver and gold. More than a century later, many of the mines are played out, but the area still has many finds—you just have to know where to look. Here’s where to go and what to do on a winter trip to Durango—regardless of what kind of traveler you are.

If You Like the Outdoors

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The frozen waterfall at Cascade Canyon near Durango is a popular spot for ice climbing.

Marcus Garcia

Looking for an action-packed winter weekend in the great outdoors? Start with Purgatory Resort, which has been drawing skiers for more than 50 years. Located just 25 miles north of Durango, the resort offers a unique blend of steep tree skiing and wide-open cruisers, both of which provide stunning views for lucky visitors who will enjoy fewer crowds and cheaper prices than at many other Colorado resorts (it’s been named North America’s Best Ski Value by TripAdvisor for three years straight). The runs at Purgatory are known for their character, with a high fun-factor as they twist down the mountain. Snowboarders will get a kick out of the seven terrain parks, and the state’s largest Snowcat skiing operation gives advanced skiers access to 35,000 acres of the San Juan backcountry.

At Purgatory, you can explore the backcountry another way by taking a snowmobile tour withSnowmobile Adventures. Professional guides will teach you how to ride and take you through more than 75 miles of trails, where you can play in vast meadows and take in the incredible views.Ice Pirates out of Silverton features snowmobile tours and rentals on its trail system that covers 55,000 acres in the San Juan Mountains, with a high point over 12,000 feet. Either choice will give you the ride of a lifetime, with unmatched views to enjoy.

For a quieter way to enjoy the outdoors, theVallecito Nordic Ski Club provides a groomed trail system for cross-country skiers about 20 miles northeast of Durango near the Vallecito Reservoir. You can rent equipment in town and take it to the trails, which offer plenty of terrain for any level of skier. Snowshoeing is another option to escape into the winter wonderland. Just about any hiking trail takes on a whole new life in the winter with a pair of snowshoes, and some of the more popular options in the region are the Colorado Trail, the Hermosa Creek Trail and the Falls Creek Trail.

For the truly adventurous, the frozen waterfall at Cascade Canyon is an excellent spot for ice climbing.Kling Mountain Guides offers beginner and intermediate ice climbing courses to get you started.

If You’re a Foodie

Believe it or not, Durango is home to more restaurants per capita than San Francisco. Durango’s no big city, but when it comes to having cultural experiences, it will give any larger city a run for its money. On your first night, stroll down Main Avenue, the town’s quaint main drag, to scope out your weekend’s must-eats. Spend the night at the historic Strater Hotel, where you can enjoy a range of award-winning dining, including two classic saloons. Durango dining includes French, Italian, Japanese, Thai, and, thanks to Durango’s proximity to New Mexico, phenomenal Mexican restaurants. The best breakfast of your trip will be at Oscar’s Cafe, and you don’t want to miss Seasons, the first farm-to-table restaurant in Durango, or the contemporary flair of Mutu’s Italian Kitchen.

If You Like Cocktails and Craft Beer

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Spend the evening at Ska Brewing, where you’ll have plenty of beer to choose from.

Visit Durango

Durango has a number of breweries, so don’t be intimidated if you’re not sure where to begin. If you’re staying at the Victorian-era General Palmer Hotel, you’re within walking distance of Carver Brewing Co., a brewpub with an extensive menu and beer list. The Colorado Trail Nut Brown Ale is a nice option on a winter night. Another option is Ska Brewing, which is known for its signature True Blonde or Pinstripe beers. On day two make for Durango Craft Spirits Distillery & Tasting Room, the first post-Prohibition distillery in the area. There’s also El Moro Spirits & Tavern, the site of Durango’s strangest shoot-out (ask your bartender about it). Or stop in at the Ore House for a handcrafted cocktail nightcap.

If You’re Traveling with Kids

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is great for families—not only do kids tend to jump at the chance to check out a train, but coaches also have bathrooms and concessions are available on the train, so you won’t be stranded with hungry, cranky kiddos. (Cars are also heated during the winter, so this is an option year-round.) After the train ride, head to Steamworks, known for its great food and family-friendly atmosphere and conveniently located just three blocks from the train depot and museum. On day two, sign on for snowmobile tour with a reputable local outfitter. This activity is great for families because it gives you a chance to get out farther than you otherwise might with little ones or grandparents.

Other options kids will also love include tubing at Purgatory Resort or exploring the Powerhouse Science Center, a museum located in an historic coal-fired, alternating current (AC) electric plant on the Animas River. You’ll find enough hands-on, interactive exhibits to keep kids entertained for hours.

If you’re looking for some relaxation, Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs is just seven miles north of town. It features two mineral-rich hot pools, plus a heated Olympic-sized swimming pool that’s open year-round. You’ll also find lodging options and spa treatments on the property, when you need that massage after a day of adventure.

If You’re a History Buff

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Head to Mesa Verde National Park to learn about and see first-hand the incredible cliff dwellings created by Ancestral Puebloans.

Ken Lund

For a dose of ancient history, head to Mesa Verde National Park, where you’ll learn about and see first-hand the incredible cliff dwellings created by Ancestral Puebloans. It’s believed that Mesa Verde (or “green table”) was seasonally inhabited by Paleo-Indians as early as 7500 B.C., likely because of its position 8,500 feet above sea level. The mesa was an ideal place for the Native Americans, providing an abundance of food and shelter (despite the barren-looking landscape, they were able to grow corn, beans and squash). While tribes and cultures inhabited the area off and on, the last known inhabitants were the Ancestral Pueblo people, from A.D. 600 to 1300. The cliff dwelling area is the main attraction in the park, and you are actually allowed to get up close and go inside some of the structures. There are hiking trails and the park is also popular for bird watching and stargazing. In the winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is also available in the park, weather permitting. Plus, a guided Winter Ecology Hike helps you look for the park’s winter inhabitants. Check the park’s website for winter trail conditions to see what’s available.

Written by Emma Walker for RootsRated Media in partnership with Durango Area Tourism Office.

Featured image provided by Visit Durango

Where to Go for Last-Minute Backpacking Trips in NorCal

With the summer solstice behind us, it’s now officially camping and backpacking season. In the Bay Area, this means that it’s officially time of year to escape the thick fog often blanketing the city.

The only problem? Popular campgrounds in the area have long since been booked for every weekend in the summer. But fear not: With a little savvy planning, you can still snag a spot—and ditch the crowds—by hitting the trail. While weekend campsites at state and national parks fill the minute the reservation system goes live, many world-class wilderness areas within reasonable driving distance of the Bay Area offer first-come, first-served backcountry permits. Better still, some wilderness areas have no trail quotas, which means you virtually guaranteed a spot under the stars no matter when you arrive to retrieve your permit. Here, details on seven nearby backpacking destinations for excellent last-minute backpacking trips in NorCal.

1. Yosemite National Park

Young Lake makes for a scenic overnight trip in the Yosemite Backcountry.
Young Lake makes for a scenic overnight trip in the Yosemite Backcountry.

Charlotte Dohrn

With soaring granite domes, gushing waterfalls, and notorious crowds, you might think of Yosemite NP as the perfect example of a place that’s next to impossible to get a reservation for the front country—or backcountry. But packed campgrounds and traffic jams are only the reality for Yosemite Valley and other main campgrounds. About 95 percent of Yosemite is a designated wilderness area, crisscrossed by 750 miles of trails. Backcountry camping permitted almost anywhere in the wilderness, as long as you follow the rules .

When planning your trip, the first thing to consider is that you must be at least four trail miles beyond Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, and other heavily visited areas. Beyond that, the Yosemite Wilderness is yours to explore—as long as you have a valid backcountry permit. In the summer, 60 percent of the quota for each trailhead is reservable in advance, and reservations at popular trailheads fill up early. The remaining 40 percent of the quota is available first-come, first-served at ranger stations, beginning at 11 am the day before you start hiking. With minimal advance planning, a four-hour drive from San Francisco, and a few miles of hiking, you can fall asleep in some of the Sierra’s most striking landscapes. 

2. Desolation Wilderness

Granite slabs and mountain lakes in Desolation Wilderness.
Granite slabs and mountain lakes in Desolation Wilderness.

Jonathan Fox

Desolation Wilderness, located in the Eldorado National Forest, beckons hikers with the promise of rugged peaks and sweeping views over the crystalline waters of Lake Tahoe. The wilderness area’s 15 trailheads allow access to more backcountry lakes than any other area around Lake Tahoe. Though it's one of the state’s most popular wilderness areas, the forest service reserves at least 30 percent of the quota for first-come, first-served backpackers. Permits are available for pick up from a ranger station on the day you start your trip . Don’t want to take your chances on snagging a walk-up permit? There's no quota system in place before the Friday of Memorial Day weekend or after September 30 ( though keep in mind that the weather turns stormy in fall, and much of the area is under snow in the winter). Consider hiking into the glacier-carved basin of Aloha Lake, dotted with granite islands, or planning a loop around the Velma Lakes. Peak baggers can summit Dick’s or Pyramid Peak, the tallest in the area.

3. Carson-Iceberg Wilderness

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Camping alongside Sword Lake in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.

Charlotte Dohrn

Located in Stanislaus National Forest about a three-hour drive from San Francisco, the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness offers scenic backpacking options that are often overlooked by visitors heading south toward Yosemite. With more than 200 miles of trails including a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, backpackers looking for solitude can hike through sweeping pine forests, beneath 10,000-foot peaks, and across dramatic river valleys. As an added bonus, you can spare yourself the agony of praying for a coveted walk-up reservation, as the wilderness has no quota system in place throughout the year. Visitors must s top by one of the ranger stations to pick up a free wilderness permit for the trailhead from which you will start your trip . For a scenic choice, backpack into Sword Lake—a granite basin tucked into the forest beneath the crags of the Dardanelles range that makes for a great basecamp for day hikes.

4. Emigrant Wilderness

Upper Buck Lake beneath blue skies in the Emigrant Wilderness.
Upper Buck Lake beneath blue skies in the Emigrant Wilderness.

Ryan Kalinowski (USFS Region 5)

Stretching along the northern border of Yosemite National Park, the Emigrant Wilderness Area encompasses more than 100,000 acres of volcanic ridges, pristine meadows, and icy lakes. The elevations in the wilderness area range from under 5,000 feet up to 11,000 feet, including some of the highest peaks in this section of the Sierra. Myriad lakes perforate the granite substrate, making Emigrant a great choice for a summer adventure complete with refreshing swims. In the winter, significant snowpack falls and melts to feed the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers. Expect sweeping views over the rocky, lake-scattered wilderness from peaks and passes. Like Carson-Iceberg, Emigrant Wilderness has no trail quotas, guaranteeing a spot wherever you choose to hike. However, you will also need a free wilderness permit, which can be picked up from the Stanislaus National Forest Ranger Station . For a taste of classic Emigrant Wilderness scenery, consider hiking from the Kennedy Meadows trailhead to Emigrant Lake and Bucks Lake. Expect to drive about four hours from San Francisco to reach the trailhead.

5. Plumas National Forest

On the trail in Plumas National Forest.
On the trail in Plumas National Forest.

Jeff Moser

North of Lake Tahoe, Plumas National Forest offers an expanse of scenic backpacking options— with limited crowds. The expanse of rugged, forested terrain makes Plumas an ideal choice for a solitary wilderness experience. The area contains more than 75 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and countless other scenic options for your trip. With no quota system, Plumas is a great destination for spontaneous trips, and no permits are required for most parts of the national forest . Consider visiting the Bucks Lake Wilderness Area, about a four-hour drive from SF, the Wild and Scenic Feather River, or the Mt. Elwell area for views over pristine lakes and the craggy Tahoe Sierra.

6. Ventana Wilderness

The Santa Lucia mountains in the Ventana Wilderness.
The Santa Lucia mountains in the Ventana Wilderness.

Charlotte Dohrn

Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness, about a three-hour drive from SF, offers accessible backpacking options in the beautiful Coast Range. Expect steep trails that climb from near sea level to the peaks of the St. Lucia Mountains, which tower more than 5,000 feet above the rugged coastline.  Trails wind through cool river valleys, descend shady canyons, and traverse exposed ridge lines. Peaks reveal expansive views of the sparkling Big Sur coastline and the St. Lucia range. Popular destinations include Sykes Hot Springs, Vicente Flat, and trails that climb Cone Peak or Black Cone. Bonus to all those adventures awaiting? No permits are required to hike in the Ventana Wilderness. The Ventana Wilderness Alliance maintains many of the trails in the area and posts frequent updates about trail conditions, as well as recommendations to help you plan your trip.

7. Henry Coe State Park

The golden hour in Henry Coe State Park.
The golden hour in Henry Coe State Park.

Aaron Fulkerson

Despite the park’s proximity to major cities in the Bay Area (it's about a two-hour drive from SF), backpackers will find available camping and relatively empty trails in northern California's largest state park. Trails climb high ridges, traverse manzanita forests and oak meadows, and cross several creeks with refreshing seasonal swimming holes. On the western side of the park, backpackers can camp in established first-come, first-served campsites. On the park's east side, camping is permitted anywhere. Though reservations and permits are required, sites are rarely full. For an overnight trip, consider the Poverty Flat and Los Cruzeros loop hike, beginning from the park headquarters and covering several trails, before doubling back at Los Cruzeros Camp. 

Know Before You Go

Before you hit the trail, be sure to read up on quota and permit details for your specific destination. Though first-come, first-served options make it possible to snag a last-minute spot in some of California's most scenic wilderness areas, it’s also possible that others hikers will fill claim available spots, so arrive with a contingency plan in mind. As always, be sure you know the local weather conditions and pack accordingly. In wilderness areas, it is critical to follow leave-no-trace (LNT) principles and any other specific regulations, so that these areas remain pristine for everyone’s use. Pay particular attention to regulations about where you can camp, how to store your food (bear cans are generally required or highly recommended), and human waste.

Written by Charlotte Dohrn for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Charlotte Dohrn

5 Best End-of-Season Mountain Biking Trails in Lake Tahoe

The first major storm of the year recently blew through the Lake Tahoe Basin, bringing gallons and gallons of rain at the lake level and dumping one to two feet of classic Sierra Cement on the upper elevations. This brief period of unsettled weather makes it very tempting for locals and visitors alike to store away their summer toys, relegating them to gather dust for the next six months. As tempting as it may be to begin preparing for powder days, you may end up missing out on some of the best mountain biking of the year.

Fall in Tahoe is arguably the absolute best time of year for mountain biking. Squeezing in a few extra rides on the mountain bike means cool days, less crowded trails, and perfectly packed singletrack, dampened by the passing rain showers. This is the final opportunity to squeeze in that ride you’ve been dreaming about all summer but still haven’t gotten around to. Here you’ll find the lowdown on the best mountain bike trails to squeeze in before winter hits in Tahoe.

1. Kingsbury Stinger

The newly-minted Kingsbury Stinger trail represents an incredible partnership between the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association and the U.S. Forest Service, turning formerly illegal downhill trails into yet another professionally-crafted legal trail. The good community vibes created from the building of this intermediate trail match well with the flowing 4.5-mile downhill ride that drops approximately 1,400 feet. Because this trail is located on the drier southeast side of the Lake Tahoe Basin, it should hold good riding well into mid-November until snow starts sticking in the upper reaches.

From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 207 up Kingsbury Grade, After 2.8 miles, turn left on North Benjamin Drive and continue until the road dead ends at the trailhead. This trail is best done as a shuttle system with a second car parked at the former Kingsbury Middle School on Echo Drive.

2. Corral Loop

New construction on the lower half of Corral Loop offers challenges for most ability levels.
New construction on the lower half of Corral Loop offers challenges for most ability levels.

USFS Region 5, photo has been cropped from original

The legendary Corral and Sidewinder Trails provide some of the best singletrack for a range of ability levels in the Lake Tahoe region. Riders have until November 15 before the Forest Service gates close, cutting off the ability to shuttle and ride a few laps on this insanely fun network of trails. After November 15th, riders will have to earn their turns the old fashioned way by huffing and puffing for two miles up the paved road—though this seems to make the downhill even better. This ride is just under nine miles when you take both the Corral and the Sidewinder.

From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 50 toward Meyers, turn left on Pioneer Trail, right on Oneidas Street, and continue on to the service road at the end of Oneidas.

3. Tahoe Rim Trail—Tahoe City

Massive moss covered trees frame incredible views of Lake Tahoe from the Tahoe Rim Trail. Massive moss covered trees frame incredible views of Lake Tahoe from the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Massive moss covered trees frame incredible views of Lake Tahoe from the Tahoe Rim Trail. Massive moss covered trees frame incredible views of Lake Tahoe from the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Sierra28k.com

Often lauded as one of the best contiguous segments of mountain biking in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the 20+ mile segment from Tahoe City to Brockway Summit features incredibly fun, flowing trails that weave through stands of pine and manzanita with breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe. It’s not for beginners, but this trail will be a cherry on top of a season for any intermediate rider who has been building their skill level all summer. This route is best done as a shuttle from Brockway Summit to Tahoe City to maximize the amount of downhill. The big reward here lies in the final five miles of trail that cruise through banked turns and amazing singletrack, dropping about 1,400 feet down to Tahoe City. Be a good ambassador for the sport and share the trail with other users on this popular segment—trail etiquette states mountain bikers yield to all other users.

From Tahoe City, take Highway 28 toward Kings Beach. In Kings Beach, turn left on Highway 267 toward Truckee, parking at the signs for the Tahoe Rim Trail trailhead near the top of the summit.

4. Van Sickle Trail

This technical singletrack might be South Lake Tahoe’s most accessible trail. Located in the Van Sickle Bi-State Park just behind the Casino Core area, this challenging route flows through dense forest and the open burn scar of the 2002 Gondola fire, providing incredible sunset views of Lake Tahoe on the descent. The Van Sickle trail can be ridden both up and down and provides the perfect opportunity for a quick outing or a full day of laps. Ambitious riders might even be able to ski Heavenly in the morning when they fire up their snowmaking mid-November, then trade in their skis for a mountain bike at the bottom of the gondola for an afternoon ride.

See the RootsRated guide for hiking the Van Sickle Trailfor directions to the trailhead.

5. Flume Trail

The trails have steep drop-offs, but give way to sensational views of Lake Tahoe on the Flume Trail.
The trails have steep drop-offs, but give way to sensational views of Lake Tahoe on the Flume Trail.

Jonathan Fox

If you still haven’t biked the Flume Trail by now, stop reading and immediately go ride this incredible 14-mile downhill trail. It might just be the most scenic mountain bike trail in the country. With abundant fall colors lining the beginning of the trail and vertigo-inducing views of Lake Tahoe as you descend to Incline Village, this is one ride that needs to be done before the snow flies. A paid shuttle service operates at the end of the trail to take you back to your car at Spooner Lake through November.

For full details on the shuttle and detailed trail maps, check out the official Flume Trail page.

Written by Aaron Hussmann for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Jeff Moser

How to Travel 18,000 Miles With Your Dog

For two years, I worked toward a lofty life dream: to outfit a van and drive from California to Patagonia. By last winter, plans were finally coming to fruition. I quit my job, my boyfriend and I set a date to move out of our house, and our van was, well, a work in progress. But one month before we planned to leave, he called it quits on the trip—and ended our three-year relationship.

With no job, no place to live, and a travel dream that seemed impossible to pursue solo, I felt pretty lost to say the least. But I still had a van, a serious case of wanderlust, and a dog. So I rolled with the changes and started the adventure anyway, with my 30-pound heeler mix as co-pilot.

Rodi “Rodrigo” Herzog came into my life about a year prior to it turning upside down. He’s the kind of dog that wins over hearts with his rugged good looks and shameless penchant for cuddling, then turns a few heads by charging down trails and practically levitating over boulders. If Rodi could survive a puppyhood wandering the plains of rural Nevada on his own, he could survive living in a van with me.

But I was a bit less sure about my van. Less than a quarter of the way outfitted at the time I decided to take the trip solo, my Sprinter came with more than a few faults: shattered windshield, balding tires, two out of four functioning doors, and more dents than a recycled beer can. For three weeks I worked at an unrelenting pace to get that sucker running and built out with the poorly-leveled plywood that I now call home.

Van mostly functional, dog always primed for adventure, Rodi and I set off for a road trip of undetermined length, unspecified time, and half-baked purpose. Instead of heading south to Latin America, I decided to start east and figure out the journey one step at a time. Ten months, 24 states, and two countries later, we’re still on the move and still happily unsure of when and where we’ll land next. Nonetheless, life on the road with Rodi has taught me a thing or two about, well, life. Here are some of the quirks and perks of embarking on this type of travel with a dog.

Embrace the fact that your dog will likely be more popular than you.

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Rodi keeps a lookout in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Jenna Herzog

Unless you walk around the campground passing out free IPAs and down jackets, most people will find your dog to be far more interesting than you—and they will want to quiz you about him, pet him, and hang out with him. Countless times now I’ve waltzed through the routine: guess what breed my mutt is, ask me how old he is, tell me that he looks like a coyote.

After enough of these casual encounters turning into friendships and climbing partnerships, I readily accept that Rodi is my better half, and that if people want to strike up conversation with me just to sneak a few cuddles with a cute pup, then so be it.

One August evening, I rolled into Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park campground after six hours of driving. I was tired, hungry, and a little unsure if this pit stop on my way to Yosemite would be worth it. In my weary and cranky state, I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and scarf down a Clif bar for dinner.

Van door open, I was left with nothing but the sound of Rodi’s tags as he trotted away, likely lured by the smell of roasting sausages. Wandering out by headlamp to retrieve my begging dog, I was greeted by Rodi’s new friends, a group of climbers quick to offer me a seat at the picnic table, complete with a beer and brat.

The next afternoon, I found myself with no plans and no climbing partners, so I embarked on my usual routine of walking around the crag with Rodi. At the very least, I get to see the climbs and Rodi gets an always-appreciated walk. Tail wagging, Rodi charged ahead to the open arms of a guy sitting on a bench watching his two friends climb.

A few minutes later I was tying my figure-eight and chalking up to climb with them. Without Rodi, I probably would have walked right by without a word, feeling too shy to ask if I could join their party of three. A couple months later, I’ve now shared summits in three different states with one of the climbers I met that day—all thanks to my dog.

Don’t swear off all national parks.

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Rodi has a dog’s eye view of some stunning alpine lakes in California.

Jenna Herzog

National parks in the U.S. are generally not the best places to go gallivanting around with a dog. In my experience, it all comes down to taking the time to research where a dog can and can’t go within a park’s boundaries and weighing that against what I hope to do while I’m there.

Take Yosemite, for example. Since I spend most of my time traveling to rock climb, it’s no surprise that this park runs high on my list. My first time going to Yosemite Valley with Rodi, I had little faith that he could endure the place for long. Thankfully, I found that the paved walkways in the valley offer plenty of opportunity for scenic dog walks, albeit usually in the dark after I finish climbing for the day. And driving outside of the park to camp every night gives Rodi enough space to let out excess energy, which is well worth the few extra dollars in gas.

Meanwhile, the much less-crowded Badlands National Park in South Dakota boasted one of the best camping deals for budget-conscious and dog-owning travelers: a wide open field with free camping where Rodi was welcome to enjoy the views too.

If all else fails, the surrounding towns near national parks usually offer at least one option for doggy daycare or overnight lodging. Places like these have saved me a few headaches, allowing me to explore national parks for a day or two without worrying about Rodi.

Know what your dog is capable of—and what’s too much.

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Rodi takes a break on one of his many trips up Stawamus Chief in Squamish, British Columbia.

Jenna Herzog

This is undoubtedly the biggest lesson I’ve learned overall as a dog owner, and one that Rodi and I regularly consolidate through experiences on the road. I’ve been able to travel with very few dog-related challenges not because Rodi is the perfect dog, but because I know his needs, fears, and tendencies.

Knowing what Rodi can handle has made our travels run smoothly, and testing what Rodi can handle has made for good stories (and plenty of lessons learned). The time when a cop came knocking on the van door to tell us to move from our not-so-stealth and not-so-legal camping spot in small-town Montana, it was clear that Rodi’s Mom!-Alert!-Danger! howl was imminent. One stern stare and a whispered command to stay quiet was (surprisingly) all he needed to curl back up in his bed and let me do the talking.

Afternoons spent romping around climbing crags in Utah? No problem. Tagging along for a few drinks at a bar in Tennessee? He’d never complain about that. Packrafting down Class II rapids in Colorado? Achievable and hilarious, but not his favorite. Attempting a Tyrolean traverse over a 200-foot-wide river with Rodi in a backpack? Well, that was a one-time thing.

Accept that sometimes it takes a village.

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Proof that dogs get all the attention during a climbing session in Squamish, British Columbia.

Jenna Herzog

Taking care of a dog while constantly managing every other aspect of my nomadic life can get a little taxing without a travel partner. But, like most single dog moms and dads out there, I make it happen.

The important thing I’ve realized is that most other travelers have a Vitamin D(og) deficiency, and since Rodi is friendly and generally low-maintenance, I’m doing them a favor by letting him fill that void. In Squamish, British Columbia, for example, my sights were set on multi-pitch climbs that required being off the ground for up to 10 hours at a time—too long to leave Rodi alone in the van.

In these times of need, I turned to my community of fellow van-, truck-, and tent-dwelling climbers for a little help. It usually wouldn’t take more than five minutes of walking around the campground or the climbing area parking lots to find a group of new friends willing to hang out with Rodi for the day. They got to enjoy cuddles with my pup in between pitches at the crag; I had peace of mind knowing that Rodi wasn’t roasting away in our metal box of a home under the afternoon sun.

Don’t leave home without ‘em.

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Rodi feeling right at home at the base of a climb near Moab, Utah.

Jenna Herzog

In the last 48 hours before leaving home, I wasn’t fantasizing about dream destinations, fretting over my lack of a steady job, or cursing how much cash I just dropped on new tires. Rather, my mind spun in circles wondering if it were smart, safe, or even possible to bring Rodi on the trip. I struggled to imagine how he would fit into my new, very uncertain lifestyle.

Now, almost a year and more than 18,000 miles later, Rodi has been there with me through it all, never once back-seat driving, complaining about a camping spot, or getting grumpy after a few too many days without a shower. To me, he’s the ideal travel partner.

On a deeper level, I credit Rodi with giving me the extra edge of confidence and much-needed companionship that has made it possible for me to travel “solo” for months on end. So here’s to Rodi, the pup whose playful spirit and unwavering affection helped push me out the door and into a life of adventure at a time when I had nothing to lose.

Written by Jenna Herzog for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Jenna Herzog

Why Central Montana Should Be at the Top of Your Travel Bucket List This Year

Imagine a land where the towering Rocky Mountains meet the sweeping horizon of the Great Plains. Where vibrant modern life is interwoven with a rugged, storied history, and where seemingly endless recreational opportunities are balanced by moments of historical and cultural exploration. Tucked between Yellowstone National Park to the south and Glacier National Park to the northwest, Central Montana is an intersection of authentic Western culture, remarkable scenery, and rich history. Central Montana is an exceptional destination for outdoor recreation, worthy of a spot on anyone's travel checklist. Here are a few of our favorite ways to explore the region.

Explore Unique, Charming Towns

Much of Central Montana is rugged, open country, which means the small communities throughout the region have developed their own unique charms. Lewistown, located at the very center of the state, has a rich gold mining heritage and is now a favorite destination for hunters, anglers and outdoors-folk. Choteau, called the "Front Porch of the Rockies," is also home to one of the world’s top paleontology sites, which has been instrumental in providing insight about dinosaurs from the Cretaceous Period. Fort Benton, known as the “Birthplace of Montana,” is located on the Missouri River. Steamboats would bring travelers there from St. Louis, and it served as a gateway to the northwestern U.S. and Canada. Whichever town you choose to explore during your visit, take in a variety of local cafes, restaurants and Western bars.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness

"The Bob," as locals call it, is a wilderness complex comprised of more than 1 million acres of protected wilderness land. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bob Marshall Wilderness is a bucket-list destination for hikers, backpackers, horseback riders, hunters and fly anglers. The complex, easily accessible from several points in Central Montana, follows the Continental Divide for 60 miles, encompassing terrain from conifer forests to craggy, high peaks. Do a bit of research and head in on a hike, join Dropstone Outfitting for a stock-assisted guided hike, or connect with one of the area’s many outfitters for a memorable mule and horse-packing trip into some of the wildest protected terrain in the lower 48 states.

World-Class Fly Fishing

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World-Class Fly Fishing
World-class fly fishing in Central Montana makes it a veritable angler’s paradise.

Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development

Central Montana is a veritable paradise for those who love fly fishing. The region’s rivers flow through terrain unlike any found elsewhere in the state, dropping from high in the mountains to meander through the beginning of the Great Plains and beyond. These rivers, including the storied Missouri, Smith, Dearborn, Teton and Sun, are often quite remote and serve as home to significant numbers of rainbow and brown trout, as well as native whitefish and other species. Many outfitting services dot the region, allowing visiting anglers to book a guide who truly knows and understands the most productive locations — and ways — to fish at any given time of the year.

Incredible Road and Mountain Biking

Thanks to the varied terrain and often low-traffic roads, Central Montana is perfect for road cycling. Winding roads drop from the Rocky Mountains, leveling out into seemingly endless straight stretches that are an excellent option for logging your endurance miles. Mountain bikers will also find plenty of trails to entertain themselves, from Pilgrim Creek in the Little Belt Mountains to the Mayhem Trail on the south shore of the Missouri River near Great Falls.

Discover a Long, Fascinating History

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Choteau, called the “Front Porch of the Rockies,” is one of the historic towns to explore in Central Montana.

Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development

Despite the area’s history as a leading paleontological zone—a wealth of dinosaur fossils have been found all over the region—our knowledge of Central Montana’s rich history began with the Plains Indians who inhabited the area, pursuing bison across the rich terrain. The Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived in April 1805 in what would become known as Montana Territory, later poling and towing their boats up canyon rapids and a series of waterfalls on the Missouri River. From 1820 to 1880, the area was with rife with trappers and fur traders, and later drew in multitudes of gold miners and then settlers. The rest, as they say, is history—a history that lives on in the day-to-day lives of the area’s residents.

Incredible Trail-to-Tavern Experiences

Montanans love to play just as hard as they work, and it’s a common sight to see people come off the trail or river and head straight to a local pub or brewery, regardless of work clothes and trail dust. Share your fishing stories with the guy on the next stool at any of the bars or restaurants in Cascade. Triple Dog Brewing in Havre is the perfect stop after a day tackling trails or a long day road biking across the seemingly endless horizon on Montana’s Hi-Line. Wherever you choose to recreate, rest assured there’s a locally owned pub nearby, ready to help you relax and celebrate a day of adventuring.

Get Your Feet Wet

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Have a leisurely float down the river in a canoe.

Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development

Central Montana is crisscrossed by several famous rivers, including the Missouri, the Smith and the Judith. Whether your tastes lean more toward fly-fishing, rafting, stand-up paddleboarding or merely a leisurely float down the river in a canoe, Central Montana’s waterways offer a multitude of easy-access waterborne recreation. Looking for a truly unique adventure? Tackle a guided weeklong float down the famed Smith River (by permit only, but it’s an amazing trip for those lucky enough to snag a spot).

Birding

More than 250 avian species call the 13 counties of Central Montana home. Thanks to the area’s varied habitat—from the Rocky Mountain steppes to the sweeping grass and marshlands of the Great Plains — the region provides important habitat for migratory and resident birds. Visit Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area during the spring migration to see tens of thousands of snow geese gather on the lakes.

Driving through Central Montana, you'll see an amazing variety of scenery and wildlife. Take time and read the historic roadside signs. Enjoy a short hike in the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest, take advantage of pull-outs off the highway. It’s a beautiful place to visit—and a getaway you won’t soon forget.

Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated Media in partnership with Central Montana.

Featured image provided by Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development