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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NorCal backpacking Carson-Iceberg Wilderness
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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).


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

A Captivating Look at the “Big Four” North American Deserts

Ah, the desert: the “land of little rain”, the house of haboob and flash flood, the thirsty wilderness, the barren void wandered by nomads, exiles, spiritual seekers, bandits, prospectors, and UFO hunters—plus sidewinders, scorpions, tarantulas, and vultures, of course.

Taken collectively, the deserts of North America are still overshadowed sizewise by the Sahara—at 3.6 million square miles, the greatest (non-polar) desert in the world—as well as the Arabian, the Australian Outback, and several others. But in beauty, wilderness, and ecological uniqueness they hold their own with any desertscape on Earth.

We’re going to take a dusty, sandy, squinty-eyed look at the “Big Four” of North American deserts: the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan, which together cover some 500,000 square miles—from the lonesome sagebrush backlands of Oregon and Nevada, down to the cactus groves of central Mexico.

Desert Definitions

A lonely desert road.

Justin Meissen

There are various ecological and climatological definitions of “desert,” a rough-and-ready one being somewhere that gets 10 inches or less of annual precipitation. A more precise one calls a desert a place where evapotranspiration (evaporation plus the water given off by plants) exceeds precipitation.

Lots of places that don’t meet the technical criteria get slapped with the desert label nonetheless; heck, a big chunk of the Great Plains, mainly the mixed-grass and shortgrass prairies, was once called the “Great American Desert,” though these grasslands are too well-watered to formally qualify. We should acknowledge that “desert” can be a subjective term more to do with mood—solitude, awe, fear, terror—than rain gauges.

We don’t have the space to go into the nitty-gritty of why North America’s deserts sprawl where they sprawl, but suffice it to say it mainly has to do with rain shadow-casting mountains, distances from moisture sources, the permanent high-pressure zones of the subtropics, and combinations thereof.

(Oh, and before we dive in: The Arctic and Antarctic are polar deserts, getting as little yearly precipitation as many sand-and-cactus ones at lower latitudes. But we aren’t going to be considering the dry tundra of Alaska, Canada, or Greenland in this discussion: We’ll stick to the temperate and subtropical zones of North America.)

The Great Basin Desert

A swirling sunset over the largest desert in the United States.

Bob Wick / BLM

Encompassing the better part of 200,000 square miles, the Great Basin Desert is the largest desert in the United States and the second-largest in North America after the Chihuahuan. This ecological realm covers most, but not all, of the physiographic realm of the Great Basin itself, the biggest component of the Basin-and-Range Province.

The Great Basin Desert stretches between the Southern Cascades and Sierra Nevada (source of the rain shadow that forms it) on the west and the Rocky Mountains on the east. To the north, it grades into the semiarid sagebrush and bunchgrass steppes of the Columbia Plateau and Snake River Plain; to the south, it drops down into the lower, hotter Mojave Desert. It takes up most of Nevada, while its fringes lie in northeastern California, southeastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho, and western Utah.

The Great Basin Desert is a cold desert: both a descriptive and formal term. It’s the northernmost major desert province in North America (again, non-polar) and gets most of its scanty annual precipitation in the form of winter snowfall.

Mountain range, basin, mountain range, basin: rinse and repeat. That’s the basic topographic story of the Great Basin Desert. Relief often on the order of 5,000 or 6,000 feet separates high mountain crests from the bottoms of the intervening sinks, or bolsons, which typically lack drainage outlets. Ephemeral lake beds (playas) lie on the floor of many of these basins, and of course there are few permanent water bodies here, too, like the Great Salt Lake and Pyramid Lake—remnants of larger and more numerous Great Basin lakes of the Pleistocene.

Desert wildlife on the prowl.

Mitch Gritts

If you’re into botanical variety, the Great Basin Desert gives you the least of the Big Four deserts. Sagebrush, especially big sagebrush, dominates the scene: They don’t call this heartland of the American West the ‘Sagebrush Sea’ for nothing. Greasewoods, saltbushes, saltgrasses, and other salt-tolerant plants take over on saline flats, scrawny gallery forests of cottonwood and willow line some streamways, a blackbrush realm helps segue the Great Basin Desert into the Mojave, and of course non-desert woodlands and straight-up forests grow in the mountains, but generally speaking this is a blue-gray sagebrush kingdom. But to some folks (count me in that number), an unpeopled Sagebrush Sea islanded with mountains has a siren’s call.

Vast public lands, mostly BLM-managed, serve as adventure gateways to the Great Basin Desert, which includes its share of iconic destinations: Nevada’s Black Rock Desert (Burning Man H.Q.) and the Bonneville Salt Flats among them. Much of Great Basin National Park lies in the wetter heights of the Snake Range, but its lower elevations show off fine desert wilds.

The wide-open spaces of the Great Basin Desert also host some impressive long-distance animal movements: Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeastern Oregon and Sheldon National Antelope Refuge in northwestern Nevada bookend a major pronghorn migration route that’s centered around winter range at Beatys Butte.

The Mojave Desert

Heat warnings in California's Death Valley.

Graeme Maclean

The Mojave Desert is the northernmost “hot desert” in North America and essentially a transition land between the Great Basin and Sonoran. It’s the smallest of the Big Four, covering some 54,000 square miles of southeastern California, southern Nevada, and itty-bitty strips of southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona.

Like the Great Basin Desert, the Mojave gets most of its precipitation in winter; unlike it, most of that falls as rain. Springtime blooms of ephemeral Mojave wildflowers are awesome; sometimes they’re superblooms and all the awesomer.

Roughly speaking, the Great Basin Desert yields to the Mojave at the northern range limit of creosote bush, the defining shrub of North America’s hot deserts; its distribution essentially outlines them. You can rightly think of it as the hot-desert equivalent of big sagebrush.

But the trademark plant of the Mojave, the one whose geography basically maps out this desert, is the Joshua-tree. This outsized yucca actually flourishes best on the Mojave margins, reaching peak development on middle slopes of foothills and bajadas (the characteristic rubble-aprons edging desert mountain ranges).

A desert canyon in California.

Justin Meissen

Good places to wander among wacky and wonderful Joshua-tree forests are California’s Joshua Tree National Park (straddling the Mojave and Sonoran/Colorado deserts) and Mojave National Preserve. A stone’s throw or two from Zion National Park on the margin of the Colorado Plateau, meanwhile, you can check out some of the northernmost Joshua-trees—and the northeastern frontier of the Mojave Desert—a few miles south of St. George, Utah in the Woodbury Desert Study Area (also a popular rock-climbing spot).

The pinnacle of the Mojave Desert is Death Valley, although “pinnacle” is a dumb word to use for North America’s lowest piece of terra firma (282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin). As we’ll get into, the Sonoran is, on average, the hottest and driest North American desert, but the 156-mile-long trench of Death Valley stands apart: Its summer mercury readings are among the most extreme on the planet, and by some counts it boasts the hottest-ever recorded air temperature, 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10, 1913.

Besides its fearsome weather, Death Valley dazzles with bizarre, beautiful, and forbidding landscapes: from the Zabriskee Point badlands to the corrugated saltpan of the Devil’s Golf Course. Death Valley also encompasses one of the most impressive elevational gradients on the continent: That basement of the continent, Badwater Basin, is only 15 miles from the summit of Telescope Peak in the Panamints, more than 11,000 feet above sea level.

The Sonoran Desert

Sunset in Arizona's Organpipe Cactus National Monument.

Robb Hannawacker

The roughly 100,000-square-mile Sonoran ranks among the superlative deserts of the world: not for its size, but for its botanical and scenic splendor. The Sonoran Desert’s comparatively “lush” plantlife stems partly from the two rainy seasons that prevail in its eastern and southern sectors, which get both summer and winter precipitation.

More than two-thirds of the Sonoran Desert lies south of the U.S.-Mexico line, encompassing most of Baja California and a big chunk of the state of Sonora. In the U.S., the Sonoran Desert mostly occupies southern Arizona, with a small extent, the Colorado Desert, in southeastern California.

The epitomizing sight of the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro: that long-lived, skyscraping cactus that forms the stately desert woodlands starring in most people’s go-to mental image of Arizona—or, really, the American desert as a whole. The Sonoran is sometimes called an “arboreal desert” on account of those tree-sized cacti, mostly found east of the Colorado River; they’re prominent in the Arizona Upland, one of two Sonoran Desert divisions in the United States. Saguaro National Park, it goes without saying, is a standout destination for appreciating these kingsize celebrities among cacti.

The saguaro may be the best-known in the U.S., but the Sonoran Desert is an all-out cactus funland: There’s a crazy variety of species, shapes, and sizes, including, in the Mexican portion, the mighty cardon, an even bigger (but rangier) cousin of the saguaro. Then there’s the wild-armed ocotillo (or coachwhip), the fuzzy-but-stabby teddybear cholla, the chunky fishhook barrel cactus, and the multi-pillared organ pipe cactus that barely edges north of the border (where it plays a starring role in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument).

Desert blooms in Joshua Treen National Park.

Robb Hannawacker

And the rich floral quilt of the Sonoran isn’t confined to cacti, either: There’s also the creosote bush, the white bursage, the blue palo verde, the elephant tree, and the big California fan palm, which bristles in select washes and gulches in southeastern California and northern Baja, plus Palm Canyon in southwestern Arizona’s Kofa Mountains. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, famous for its wildflower blossom blowouts, is also a great place to hike palm oases—and scout for desert bighorns, too.

Mostly sitting below 2,000 feet and positioned well south, the Sonoran is hotter and drier overall than the other North American deserts. The infernal core of the continent’s drylands—Death Valley notwithstanding—lies in the Sonoran Desert’s lowest and harshest reach, the Lower Colorado Valley (the other section along with the Arizona Upland that reaches the U.S.). It’s the region swaddling the head of the Gulf of California, and it includes California’s Salton Trough, the Colorado River Delta, and the vast, desolate Pinacate of northwestern Sonora, about which Edward Abbey had this to say (approvingly, of course):

This region is the bleakest, flattest, hottest, grittiest, grimmest, dreariest, ugliest, most useless, most senseless desert of them all. It is the villain among badlands, most wasted of wastelands, most foreboding of forbidden realms. At least in the Southwest, the Pinacate desert is the final test of desert rathood; it is here that we learn who is a true rat and who is essentially only a desert mouse.

Along with the hardscrabble volcanic outback of the Pinacate Shield, this Sonoran outback harbors the Gran Desierto de Altar, basically North America’s Sahara: Here you’ll find the continent’s biggest dunefield, built up from sediments deposited upwind in the Colorado River Delta, and its only active sand sea, or erg. The Algodones Dunes in California’s Yuma Desert are basically a northern extension of the Gran Desierto de Altar erg.

Southern Arizona’s sprawling Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge (one of Abbey’s favorite haunts) borders the Pinacate country and mirrors its remoteness.

The Chihuahuan Desert

The sprawling desert landscape of Big Bend National Park.

Adam Baker

The Chihuahuan is the biggest desert in North America, slightly edging out the Great Basin, and also the easternmost and southernmost (it extends a little bit farther south than the Sonoran’s Baja quarter). More than 90 percent of its 200,000-plus square miles lie in Mexico, where the Chihuahuan rolls between the Sierra Madre Occidental and Sierra Madre Oriental.

North of the border, the Chihuahuan comprises a series of north-south lobes in southern New Mexico and, depending on whom you talk to, spills into a little bit of southeastern Arizona. A subtle but important gap occurs between the easternmost Sonoran Desert and the westernmost Chihuahuan in the U.S.—an expanse of high semiarid grasslands along one of the subtlest stretches of the Continental Divide. (The separation continues south into Mexico, so the Chihuahuan is the standalone desert among the Big Four: The Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran are contiguous.)

The Chihuahuan Desert is, like the Great Basin, a true high desert, much of it above 3,500 feet. Though it’s far southern stretch hosts tall cactus, the cacti roster here isn’t as significant as the Sonoran’s. Creosote bush and tarbush prevail over big stretches of the Chihuahuan, but the emblematic plants are agaves and yuccas; ocotillo and honey mesquite are also widespread.

The famous gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument.

Miguel Vieira

The scenic centerpiece of the U.S. portion of the Chihuahuan is West Texas’s Big Bend National Park, named for the canyon-chuted swerve taken by the Rio Grande along this length of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. This remote Chihuahuan wilderness showcases plants and animals rarely seen north of the border and offers a whole lot of spectacular backcountry to explore, from the three great canyons along the Big Bend to the high country of the Chisos Mountains.

The greatest pile of gypsum dunes, meanwhile, lies in the U.S. portion of the Chihuahuan Desert: the famous White Sands of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin.

Concluding Farewell

Embracing his inner desert rat in Death Valley's Badwater Basin.

Paxson Woelber

But what does it all mean? Should you know each and every geographic, botanical, and whatnot name about North American deserts? Or the ecology and biogeography of where exactly the Mojave bumps up against the Sonoran, or what the sagebrush steppe is versus desert shrubland? No, not necessarily.

The important thing is to get out there, out in the barren backlands, and explore them for yourself; to develop a better understanding of their terrifying beauty; to study how sand grains whip over the spine of a dune; the way stony mountains look under full moonlight; the way an old twisty sagebrush creaks in a cold desert wind. Tread lightly, taste just a little of the healthy and blood-deep fear the high white afternoon sun inspires on a summer afternoon, rekindle your gratitude for water, and shake out your boots in the morning in case it’s the one time out of 50 some glossy arachnid has taken up residence inside.

Embrace your inner desert rat, in other words.

Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Joshua Sortino

Thru-Hiking With Your Significant Other: Tips on Staying Happy (and Together)

When I first suggested hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to my husband, Adam, it was, if not exactly a joke, at least an off-the-cuff idea. We were on a short section hike at the time, rambling along a 5-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail near New York City. In that environment, with the birds singing and leaves rustling in the wind, hiking for an additional 2,575 miles sounded romantic, a shared adventure that we would remember for the rest of our lives.

But it didn't take long for that off-the-cuff remark to turn into a shared reality. For nearly five months in 2014, we embarked on the intense emotional and physical journey of thru-hiking the PCT, travelling from the desert of southern California, through the high reaches of the Sierra Nevada, and along the volcano corridor of the Pacific Northwest before ending in the remote wilderness of the North Cascades at the Canadian border. Along the way, we shared more than we had planned: tears, sweat, base layers, and even toothbrushes. But we were in love, so no problem, right?

It’s easy to let the romantic and adventurous appeal of a thru-hike cloud out the reality of its emotional and mental challenges—and that goes double for couples hiking together. On a thru-hike, your partner will see everything: the good (you’re likely in the best shape of your life), the bad (bonking after your first 25-mile day), and the ugly (who knew you could get a blister inside of another blister?).

There was a lot from that first thru-hike that we learned about each other: our strengths and weaknesses, how to lean on one another when the going got tough, and what foods we didn’t want our partner to eat before climbing into the tent. Here’s what we learned along the way.

Sharing Gear

That look you get when you ask to use your partner’s toothbrush.

Eric Schmuttenmaer

This one’s a no-brainer when you’re travelling as a team, right? Not exactly…

Laura: You’d think it would go without saying that couples would share everything they can on-trail to save weight. But we knew couples who carried their own stoves, separate food stores, and even separate tents. And some of them thought we were crazy for sharing as much as we did—we eventually got a two-person sleeping bag (turns out I don’t kick as much in my sleep as a certain someone was worried I would) and stopped carrying separate toothbrushes (hey, everything weighs something, right?. Although it wasn’t really a conscious decision—we just realized at one point that we had forgotten whose was whose.)

Adam: The biggest reason not to share your gear is if you think you won’t always be hiking together, which is something you’ll want to talk about in advance. Sometimes people want the opportunity to hike alone, or maybe one of you is a morning person who likes getting an early start and the other is a night owl who tends to sleep later. Another reason is that some people prefer to be responsible for their own stuff, like water and food. If you prefer to make decisions about what you’re going to be eating or how much water you’re going to be drinking without any spousal wrangling, it may make sense to keep track of your own nutrition essentials. But most couples prefer to make those kinds of decisions jointly.* *

Divvying Up Who Does What

Couples that treat blisters together, stay together.


Splitting up chores might be as much of a pain in the backcountry as it is in the frontcountry, but, hey, at least there are fewer of them.

Laura: It can take longer to do chores at first because the routines you had in the frontcountry kind of go out the door on a thru-hike—there’s no trash to take out or bed to make, and the lawn doesn’t need mowing. But when you get to camp at the end of a 20-mile day, putting up the tent can seem surprisingly overwhelming for what a small task it is. Basically, the more you can communicate about what you’re doing, what still needs to be done, and what you need help with at the beginning of your hike, the faster you’ll fall into an automatic routine where you get to camp and start getting set up without needing to talk at all.

Adam : I agree that frontcountry routines don’t always apply in the backcountry, but it can help to try to split up chores by what you are both most apt do. For example, if you’re the one who makes coffee in the morning, make coffee on the trail. If you make the bed at home, be the one to set up the inside of the tent. That being said, it’s also important on a thru-hike to stretch yourself from time to time and switch it up. Don’t let your partner be the only one to handle a particular chore. At the very least, this will help you to appreciate the person who is making the coffee all the more.

It’s also helpful to remember that splitting chores is just as important in-town as it is on the trail. Maybe more so, as the faster you can get through town chores like laundry, the sooner you’ll be able to relax and enjoy a beer with your new trail friends.

Hiking Together

If you look very, very closely, you can see an eye roll of epic proportions.


The couple that hikes together, stays together. (Or you can just enjoy your together time when you meet up later).

Adam: I’m not a fast hiker, so I’m rarely hiking far out in front of other people. I think it’s a good safety precaution to keep your hiking partner in your line of sight. If I’m the slow one in a group, I try to make sure I can still see the person if we’re not actively having a conversation. If I’m the fast one, I try to look over my shoulder every so often to make sure the other person is in sight.

Laura: We’re pretty lucky, in that Adam and I match pace pretty effortlessly and tend to want breaks around the same time. And that was something we knew beforehand, from years of hiking and running together. I think it does help to have a background of shared backcountry travel experience or even just training together.

Since we know that our tendency is to match one another’s pace, if we see that one of us dragging, we’ll have that person hike at the rear. We find that usually helps release that person from the not-insignificant mental load of trying to set their own pace. If one of us is really dragging, we’ll slow down and reevaluate our plan for that day or section.

I think it’s fine for a couple to hike separately during the day and meet up at camp. It just requires an extra layer of communication (such as picking out a campsite in advance for the next day), and knowing it will be tougher to stop early or hike longer. And you’ll have to double up on some gear like a water filter or maps, which can increase the weight you’re carrying. But, in the end, your pace is your pace and there is only so much you’re going to be able to do to adjust it to the other person.


One of the great truths of life on a long distance trail (and everywhere else): You will get in fights with your partner.


Every so often you meet a couple who swears they never fight on trail. Don’t believe them.

Adam: It will happen—you are going to fight at some point. Sure, thru-hiking is about digging deep into yourself (and maybe your relationship), but it’s also about addressing elemental bodily needs. If you aren’t fighting over something that’s actually wrong in your relationship, you’re going to fight for less significant but still pressing reasons: You’re hungry, or you’re tired, or because you need to use the bathroom. So before you start a fight, try to ask yourself: Am I angry because I’m hungry? Am I angry because I’m tired? And know that you need to ask your partner those questions too, and to not take offense when they ask you. The simple act of asking your partner if she needs a snack could mean the difference between a pleasant stroll and a rage hike.

Laura: Thru-hiking is sometimes really hard, and exhaustion can bring out the worst in people. You aren’t always going to be as supportive or understanding of what your partner is going through as you would want to be. Try to remember that if you feel like you’re on your last legs, your partner might be too, and cut them some slack if you can.

Something that also worked for us was to get really attuned to our partner’s cues and behavior, so that we could prevent bonking whenever possible. I now know all the different ways my husband can say "I’m OK" and which ones mean he is not OK, and it’s time to adjust accordingly.

Finding Your Trail Family

Trail families are great, but don’t forget to carve out some one-on-one time with your partner.


This will be one of the best parts of your thru-hike. For your relationship? Not so much.

Her: We met some amazing people during our 2014 PCT thru-hike, and I wouldn’t take back a single mile we hiked with them. But we didn’t end up hiking with anyone but one another during our Colorado Trail, and we enjoyed that experience too, in different ways. One reality of thru-hiking is that, for the most part, the herd is following the same two-foot wide path, at the same time. It can be surprisingly difficult to find a few minutes alone together, and if you’re hiking with a trail family, it can be impossible. But it’s important to carve out that time together, even if it means missing a section of trail with your new friends.

Him: It’s pretty incredible how you can meet someone on trail and, within a week of knowing them, feel as if you’ve known them for years. That can also make it hard to have a private conversation with your partner, who you have actually known for years. Your trail family, just like a real family, won’t always know when you need space, so you need to do what you need to in order to keep your relationship a priority.

Trail Talk

“So, how ‘bout this weather?”


Months on end of backpacking with your favorite human makes for the best conversations.

Laura: One of the best things about thru-hiking is that it eliminates so much of the background noise of the real world, and leaves you alone for days and weeks on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You’d think that would mean you end up having a lot of really deep insights about the direction of your life, for example or how to be a good person. Sometimes that does happen, but for us, we found ourselves paying attention to all the weird memories, ideas, and emotions rambling around in our minds and sharing them.

During our first thru-hike, we made up songs for the trail towns we hiked through, named our future children, tried to imagine what our cat was up to without us, and dissected fights that had happened years prior. And sometimes we didn’t talk at all—one of the key lessons we learned was how to be mere feet away from one another and still give that person space when they need it.

Adam: Maintaining an open mind about conversation is key. Start with the day-to-day, then do a deep dive, and end by talking about your innermost thoughts or dreams. In between you will probably talk about things that are objectively boring, or gross, and that’s fine as long as it’s interesting to you. You’ll develop theories about everyday events you know nothing about, like how water comes out of the ground, and talk for two hours about it.

Looking Good

Nothing says sexy like smelly undies and a nice pair of Crocs.


You don’t need a shower or clean clothes every day, but making an effort is an important way to show your partner that you still care about your appearance (and, just as importantly, not repelling them).

Laura: Your idea of what clean means will change over the course of a thru-hike. Sometimes that’s a good thing, other times it’s not. I try to do the best I can with what I’ve got and to encourage Adam to do the same, even if he doesn’t always listen. If there is a stream, use your bandana to wipe some of the dirt off your legs. If there is a lake, jump in it. But there are going to be times when you get pretty gross, and there isn’t going to be much you can do to clean up all that dirt and sweat and grime. You just have to go with the flow (and the B.O.) and embrace this part of the adventure. * *

Adam: It’s important in a relationship to be look good for the other person, and that doesn’t just go away on the trail. I really strive to be cleaner than I think I need to be on trail. I try to wash up a little bit more than I would ordinarily. For instance, I wouldn’t normally care about how clean my feet are at the end of the day, but I know it’s important to Laura, so I try to clean them up for her—even if she is less than thrilled at the job I do. I was also pleased to see that my insistence on carrying extra wet wipes "just in case" meant that we had another way to keep clean when water resources were scarce.

It’s Just You and Me, Baby

If you’re able to get through this together, then you can get through anything.


One of our biggest lessons from our first thru-hike is that there is a big difference between hiking together for five miles and hiking together for 2,600 miles. The easy rapport we had during that initial conversation was helped by the familiarity of our surroundings: being close to civilization, with hot showers and comfortable beds waiting back at our apartment. Once we were out in it, there were some rough waters to navigate before we got into a groove with another.

Laura: It can be tempting to see how you fare on a thru-hike as a microcosm for your whole relationship—if you’re able to get through this together, then you can get through anything, and if you can’t, well, maybe it’s better to cut your losses now, right? While there may be some truth to this, thru-hiking is only loosely related to the "real" world. Some couples with strong relationships find that they are incompatible hiking partners, and some couples who meet on trail find that they are incompatible in the real world.

One of the best things you can do for your relationship before an adventure like a thru-hike is promising to take the good with the bad. And to be flexible. If hiking with your trail family isn’t working, set out from the next town without them. If splitting your pack weights evenly is slowing one of you down, let the other person take a larger share of the load. There isn’t a right way to thru-hike as a couple—there is just the way that works for you.

Adam: Yeah, and I was right that what works for us is to always carry extra wet wipes.

Laura: If nothing else, at least that way we’re always able to wash our feet at night.

Written by Laura Lancaster for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Dangerous…Dan

An Angler’s Guide to Helena: One of the World’s Top Fly-Fishing Towns

Nestled amid the rolling national forests of the Rocky Mountains and not far from the edge of the Great Plains, Helena is a quintessential example of Montana at its best. It’s also the logical home base for fly fishing many of the region’s great rivers—including the Missouri, Blackfoot, and Clark Fork rivers. Many smaller streams crisscross the local rivers, offering diversions for those more inclined to chase blue lines in the backcountry.

For a long time, the rivers surrounding Helena have been home to healthy populations of sizeable fish. For anglers chasing brown and rainbow trout, the area first became truly popular in the 1990s, thanks to a surge of editorial coverage of fly fishing on the Missouri River. Thanks to impressive fish numbers—averaging 6,000 fish per river mile—and a year-round fishery (winter angling requires ambition, but it can be productive), the Missouri was soon on most anglers’ bucket lists. The small town of Craig, 44 miles north of Helena, is a shining example of the river’s fame. Home to three fly shops, one bar, one restaurant and not much else, the town’s economy revolves around the bustling fly-fishing industry.

The Missouri’s most productive stretch of river is from Holter Dam to the town of Cascade. The diverse waterway offers a variety of backdrops—from rolling meadows filled with cattle to sheer cliff walls that are home to bighorn sheep, and then eventually the edge of the Great Plains—while offering classic trout fishing in riffles and long, flat pools. Without a doubt, the tailwater is a must-fish for any angler visiting Montana.

The Blackfoot River is home to a healthy population of brown and rainbow trout.

Hunter Day/Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development

The Blackfoot River is easily reachable from Helena, often drawing anglers searching for a remote-feeling river with strong insect hatches and the opportunity for world-class terrestrial fishing. Made famous in Norman Maclean’s writing, "A River Runs Through It" the freestone Blackfoot is home to a healthy population of brown and rainbow trout, as well as native westslope cutthroat trout and the rare bull trout. Pack your dry flies: the Blackfoot is a strong dry fly fishery and once runoff has subsided, the river fishes well with terrestrials, salmon flies and large indicator dries. The upper half of the Blackfoot is smaller water suitable for wade fishing, while the lower river is better suited to rafts (it’s still potentially technical water, and for those unfamiliar with the river, a guided trip is highly recommended).

The Clark Fork River is a bit of a drive from Helena, but it can produce consistent mayfly and caddis hatches, as well as strong stonefly and terrestrial fishing in season. The river winds from the town of Butte to Missoula, joining the Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers just south of Missoula. The upper river is small and winding with a healthy population of small, feisty fish (and some big ones!), while the lower is home to fewer, yet larger fish per mile. The Missouri and Blackfoot offer stellar fishing closer to Helena, but for those seeking a change, the Upper Clark Fork can prove to be an enticing distraction.

The best way to explore any new waterway is with qualified, professional fishing guides, who can provide a float trip in a raft or hard-sided drift boat, bring lunch, and often supply flies and other terminal tackle. They also make it easy— just show up with your fishing gear, get in the boat, and go. Good guides are booked upward of 150 days a year, and spend nearly every day in season on the water, meaning they know where the fish are and what they’re eating. Translation? A far more productive fishing day. Local shops can provide information on booking guides, though be sure to book early—many top guides are booked up to a year in advance.

Fly fishing in Montana can be done year-round, but summer brings the most anglers.

Helena CVB

Helena is home to several quality fly shops ready to help visiting anglers find a guide. CrossCurrents has a shop in Helena and one on the Missouri River in Craig, ensuring they can service anglers wherever the need may be. Headhunters Fly Shop is a favorite fly shop located in Craig and serves up fly-fishing advice with a bit of island attitude. Montana Fly Goods in Helena is also a local resource, and both Pro Outfitters and Montana Fishing Outfitters can help organize guided trips.

Wondering what to pack? If you’re coming any time other than the peak of summer, plan to pack waders, wading boots, and lots of layers. The Missouri River especially is notoriously windy, and there’s nothing worse than being underdressed during a long day on the water. In July and August, the warmest summer months, most anglers can be found in wading boots or sandals, though a rain jacket should always be nearby for summer thunderstorms.

Most anglers will use 4- to 6-weight rods: 4- and 5-weights often for dry fly fishing, and 6-weight rods for nymphs and steamer fishing. Floating line is chiefly used, and bring along 3X, 4X and 5X leader and tippet. Stop in a local fly shop to see what flies are popular in-season, but it’s always a good idea to have a few boxes brimming with classic dry flies, nymphs and streamers ready to go. Many of the local shops feature special patterns tied by local anglers who know what works on certain waterways. And don’t be afraid to call ahead. Most fly shops and outfitters are happy to help you prepare for a successful trip to Helena’s many trout-rich rivers.

Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated Media in partnership with Helena CVB.

Featured image provided by Helena CVB