Preparing for our first backpacking trip

After hiking up Harney Peak last year, I looked up Missouri’s highest point of elevation. It turned out to be a rather disappointing 1,772 feet at Taum Sauk Mountain. But this discovery yielded an interesting bit of information. There is a hiking trail between Taum Sauk and Johnson Shut-Ins (site of one of our camping trips last year) with a length of 14 miles. The hike up Harney Peak left me itching to do more hiking and 14 miles seemed like fun. However, a hike that long would take us the better part of a day and we wouldn’t have time to do a roundtrip back to our car.

Then, sometime over the last two months I read about Missouri’s Ozark Trail. It is a hiking and backpacking trail (with a lot of mountain biking and equestrian access as well) with a total length over 350 miles at the moment.  The trail is situated mostly in the southeastern quadrant of Missouri and stretches almost down to Arkansas.

I spent several hours one night reading stories backpackers had written about their experiences on sections of the trail, including the section between Taum Sauk and Johnson Shut-Ins. That’s when I got the idea to do a backpacking trip with Fox.

We bought hiking boots about two months ago, but most of our camping gear is suitable only for car camping. In order to better understand what we are getting into and how to prepare, I started reading lots of guides to backpacking during my train commute to and from work (The guides on REI’s website seemed quite good).

Seeing as we normally camp with a queen-size air mattress, relatively heavy tent, and heavy blankets, we had some big holes to fill in our gear inventory. We would need at least one frame backpack, a lightweight tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads. We have been doing a lot of reading across the Internet about pros and cons of various types and brands of tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, sleeping pads, stoves, water filtration systems, clothing, and other accessories.

So far, we found a great clearance deal on a Kelty Coyote 80-liter backpack for me as well as clearance deals on Kelty Cosmic Down 20-degree sleeping bags (Long for me, Women’s Regular for Fox). We didn’t intend for this to sound like a Kelty advertisement, but their backpacks and sleeping bags have been consistently recommended on review sites for their quality at a reasonable price point. Also we keep finding great sales on their stuff where we look.

We are still looking for a good four-person tent (maybe the Kelty Gunnison 4.2 since it reviews well and is only $200 at REI) and sleeping pads (probably NEMO Astro Insulated) and probably a backpack for Fox too. If we need a backpacking stove, we recruited my little brother to go with us and we got him one for Christmas. We were thinking ahead there.

My plan at the moment is to keep an eye out for a dry weekend this spring and drive down to Taum Sauk Mountain State Park early in the morning. We will then park where our car will hopefully not get disturbed for a couple of days. Then the three of us and our dog, Mishka, will set off for Johnson Shut-Ins. We will hopefully arrive at Johnson Shut-Ins State Park a couple hours before dark so we can get to a campsite and get our tent up without trouble.

We may spend a day hanging out at the park and spend a second night there, or we may head out the next day. This part is still up in the air. The park has a good showerhouse, camp store, and campgrounds with fire pits, so we will still have nice amenities and won’t have to make camp in the wilderness this time.

I have been spending a lot of time looking forward to this trip. The thought of hiking through the wilderness while carrying everything we need to survive holds a particular sense of excitement for me. It’s definitely my most anticipated adventure for 2015 that we have planned so far. I’m looking forward to making some good memories this year.

Return to Pere Marquette

View from the Twin Mounds overlook

View from the Twin Mounds overlook

 

Last year, Fox wanted to spend her birthday with me doing something special.  I had gotten her a picnic basket, so she wanted to have a picnic at Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois.  After the picnic, we hiked a trail which loops through much of the park.  We enjoyed that day so much we got married there the following spring.

This year, we have been working hard at our jobs both at work and in the evenings.  We  wanted to take a break and wanted to get back to the park where we were married.  After running an errand in St. Charles in the morning, we made our way over to Pere Marquette via ferry for an afternoon of hiking.

Fox tying her shoes during a break

Fox tying her shoes during a break

We took the same loop around the park as last year.  The road used to get to the lodge and visitor center also continues into the park itself.  To the right of this road, just beyond the turn-off to go to the lodge, a hiking trail begins.  This is a relatively easy trail but with some noticeable elevation changes.  It proceeds from west to east along the south side of the hills of the park.  In the fall, the sun is low in the sky but this trail stays well lit until sunset.

Due to our choice to hike in early November, we were able to experience a backdrop of mostly yellow and orange leaves in the trees during our hike.  If we had waited another weekend for the leaves to turn shades of red, we (1) would not be able to go due to work obligations and (2) would be hiking in freezing temperatures and falling snow this weekend and the trees would be mostly fallen and dead.

Autumn leaves along trail at Pere Marquette

Autumn leaves along trail at Pere Marquette

During the hike, I was so obsessed with the vivid colors of the leaves that I repeatedly stopped and took hundreds of photos using various focal lengths along any point of the trail with a good view of the colorful tree canopy.  I took close-ups, wide shots, mixed different colors, and filled photos with a single color while Fox continued walking (probably giving up on me ever finishing the hike).

Close-up of Pere Marquette's leaves

Close-up of Pere Marquette’s leaves

Eventually we did make it to the eastern end of the trail.  After a gradual climb, the trail splits into two.  Straight ahead winds to the north and crosses the road.  Another path to the right goes down the hill and further to the east.  According to the map, the trail continues for a quarter of a mile to a lookout point called “Lover’s Leap.”  But the dense bed of fallen leaves obscured the trail after a few hundred yards.  All around us we could see tall, dark trunks penetrating about six inches of red and brown leaves that seemed like burnt, crunchy snow.  “Lover’s Leap” will have to wait for another day.

Thick bed of leaves cover trail on the way to Lover's Leap

Thick bed of leaves cover trail on the way to Lover’s Leap

When the trail turns north on the east side of the park, it crosses a road along the tops of the hills before turning back to the west.  This part of the trail is on the far side of the hills from the sun and is therefore darker and cooler.  It also has more variation in elevation and the trail surface itself is rougher and rockier.  It’s more fun for people who like hiking up and down hills.

With the sun falling behind the ridge to the south, we crunched through leaves as the trail started uphill.  We had already climbed and descended a few hills (and were not necessarily in the best shape anyway) so this hill quickly got our hearts beating in our ears and our chests puffing trying to get oxygen.  After a tight u-turn, we spotted a wooden wall at the top of the hill.  I remembered that wall from last year’s hike and knew the toughest part of the hike was nearly over.

Wooden wall at the top of long trail climb

Wooden wall at the top of long trail climb

Turning a corner at the wooden wall had us walking along a pathway partially covered by tree canopy.  The slight decline of the path allowed us to catch our breath.  Then we could see a bright light shining through an opening at the end of the trail.  We got closer and I pulled out my camera in an attempt to capture the sunlight shining on some railroad ties which led out to a clearing.

Thick wooden beams line the trail up to an overlook

Thick wooden beams line the trail up to an overlook

Walking out into the clearing, we were greeted by the fantastic view offered by the Twin Mounds overlook.  The overlook is hundreds of feet above the valley below.  We could see a field of prairie grass, multicolored autumn forests, the boat docks across the street from the park, the Illinois River, and miles of grassland and forest in Missouri.

Red-leafed plant stands out at the top of the overlook with a river barge in the background

Red-leafed plant stands out at the top of the overlook with a river barge in the background

We probably spent ten or fifteen minutes taking in the view before taking a series of steps down another short trail to a second overlook.  This one features a small roofed structure with a wooden staircase out to a vantage point.  As we walked up to the structure, I noticed two people sitting on the roof filming with a small camera.  I silently made my way out from under the roof and captured this second overlook’s in my camera’s memory.

Trail opens out to roofed structure at Pere Marquette overlook

Trail opens out to roofed structure at Pere Marquette overlook

Fox was resting against one of the structure’s support pillars, so I turned my camera on her.  Another couple walked up as well and had the same idea.  They offered to take photos of us against the scenic background if we took some of them.  The guy reviewed the photos I took with his phone and seemed quite pleased with the results.  I always feel good when I can make someone happy with my photos.

Fox and Griff at a Pere Marquette trail overlook

Fox and Griff at a Pere Marquette trail overlook

We left the couple to enjoy the view and we made our way back beyond the first overlook.  The trail splits in several directions at one point and we took the quickest way back down to the Visitor Center.  We were tired and wanted to get some photos of the lodge while the sun was still above the horizon.

As we walked back to the car, our legs were tired and the air was getting cold.  We got in the car and were thankful for heated leather seats and protection from the cold.  Fox and I pulled out of the parking lot and headed back down the Great River Road as we made future plans for a return trip.  Along with being the site of our wedding, Pere Marquette is a beautiful park with fun and challenging hiking trails and we intend to return year after year.

The Tallest Peak East of the Rockies

Looking up at Harney Peak from the trail

Looking up at Harney Peak from the trail

As we walked along, the gravel trail had changed over to dirt and narrowed substantially. We were now required to walk more or less single-file along the old, dusty pathway as the elevation once more started to increase. The late morning sun beat down from above, sapping my energy despite the day’s moderate temperature. Maybe the thinner atmosphere 6,000 feet up transmitted more of the rays to my skin or maybe being one mile closer to the big ball of flaming gas 93 million miles away made a difference. Probably not, but it sure felt like it.

Another hiker approached as he descended the trail. “You’re about halfway there,” he said, repeating what we had heard from several other hikers over the previous 30 minutes. The trail must abruptly teleport us from the halfway point to the top at some point.

Dead tree along trail up to Harney Peak

Dead tree along trail up to Harney Peak

Let’s rewind a bit back to the start of this adventure. Fox, her parents, and I were on vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We had seen buffalo, prarie dogs, and Mount Rushmore lit up the previous evening. We had seen advertisements for the highest point in the Black Hills, Harney Peak. I had listened to Fox reminisce about hiking Mount Christoffel during a previous trip with her family to Curacao before I had met her. I wanted to experience something similar with her and so I suggested we hike up to Harney Peak.

So there we were about an hour into the hike. We had walked up and down a wide gravel path which passed multiple overlooks from which we could see the inactive fire tower at the top of the peak far in the distance. Eventually the path descended to a small creek which seemed to be at a lower elevation than the 6,000+ feet at the trailhead.

Near beginning of Harney Peak trail

Near beginning of Harney Peak trail

From there, it was all uphill to the top. None of us was in great shape, but at least Fox and I had youth to combat the relatively thin atmosphere compared to our home in Saint Louis. Her parents had more difficulty, but we made steady progress through the numerous switchbacks.

Looking southeast from near Harney Peak summit

Looking southeast from near Harney Peak summit

Soon the tree cover cleared signficantly and we had a fantastic view of the Black Hills for many miles in some directions. It was inspiring me to reach the top. I periodically took a sip from my Camelbak filled with nearly a gallon of water as we climbed. Although the air felt about room temperature, I was sweating profusely along my back, under my arms, and under my hat. Perhaps the dry air and elevation had something to do with it.

Once it seemed that we had ascended above the competing peaks in the area, I knew we were closing in on the top. We came across an old hitching post for tying up pack animals and then the path changed from rocky dirt to man-made stairs. Fox and I pushed ahead, eager to get a view from the top.

Stairway to fire tower on Harney Peak

Stairway to fire tower on Harney Peak

The old fire tower appeared to be in good condition, but the strong winds unobstructed by the surrounding hills made our footing feel a little precarious. But it didn’t really matter as the thrill of being at the top of the Black Hills and all the land for hundreds of miles around forced my camera up to my eye. I got busy shooting off dozens of mediocre photos as I forgot about good composition and merely captured anything that caught my eye.

View from the Harney Peak fire tower

View from the Harney Peak fire tower

Climbing Harney Peak was a wonderful experience. It was my first hike up anything even resembling a mountain and it immediately made me want to do more. It may be a little while before we can do another high elevation hike, but hiking Harney Peak has me in the mood to do more hiking closer to home.

Another dead tree on Harney Peak trail

Another dead tree on Harney Peak trail

It’s Getting a Bit Chilly Out Here

The forecast for Saturday night at Indian Cave State Park was mostly clear skies and a low of around forty degrees. This would be the coldest night of camping Fox and I had experienced to date. We were already planning on bringing a comforter and two warm blankets, but forty degrees caused us to throw a fourth in the car.

A mild west wind blew through the campground until nightfall and made me think maybe a fifth blanket would have been a good idea. Fox’s brother, his wife, their dog, and the two of us huddled around the fire for warmth until we decided it was time to get some sleep.

When we finally got under our stack of blankets, I was immediately aware of the chilly surface of the air mattress through my clothes. I had not given any thought to the effect of slowly descending temperatures on the compressed gaseous filler in our bed. Rather than insulating us from the cold, the heat from our bodies seemed to be drawn away to warm all of that cool air.

I woke up well before dawn to find my face chilled by the low morning temperature as well as a bed even cooler than the night before. While the feeling wasn’t miserable, it wasn’t comfortable either. I moved closer to Fox and fell back asleep.

When we both woke up for good a little after dawn, neither of us wanted to get out from under the blankets, nor did we want to separate from one another. We just wanted to stay like we were until the weather warmed up again.

Eventually we felt compelled to get up, start a fire, and make breakfast. While we were eating, Fox’s brother seemed to really enjoy informing us how warm he was and how well he slept the night before. They didn’t need a pile of blankets. They had cold weather sleeping bags.

Yes, I’m a little jealous.

Afternoon at Johnson Shut-Ins

As we left our campsite, the grey clouds relentlessly showered the windshield with rain.  In the few minutes it took to drive to the Johnson Shut-Ins, the rain let up slightly, instilling in us a small hope that we might be able to play in the water.  We parked at a playground along the river.  Nearby was a covered shelter with information about the geologic history of the area.  We used our umbrella to cross the distance to the shelter and educated ourselves for several minutes until the rain was only a drizzle.

Geologic history lesson at Johnson Shut-Ins

Geologic history lesson at Johnson Shut-Ins

We decided to follow a gravel trail near the river and see if it would take us to the Shut-Ins.  I brought my camera with me, but the overcast weather made most photographs I took look rather dull due to poor lighting.  Luckily there were some nice flowers and wild plants along the path that made for interesting subjects.

Black-eyed Susans

Black-eyed Susans

Flowering plant

Flowering plant

After what seemed to be about a fifteen-minute walk, we arrived at a parking lot and a large wooden building.  From the tall radio antenna visible, I suspected it was a ranger station.  That turned out to be the case, but it also had a gift shop and changing rooms for people headed to swim in the river.

From the ranger station, we walked along a pathway until we discovered people playing in the water below.  They were wading in a shallow pool created by the river trying to squeeze through the rocks of the Shut-Ins.  The rocks near this pool were short and only just rose above the water, but as the water ran through the gaps and down into a large pool further down the river, the rocks became giant granite boulders as large as elephants.

Small rocks in upper pool at Johnson Shut-Ins

Small rocks in upper pool at Johnson Shut-Ins

Fox and I walked out on the rocks so we could check out the Shut-Ins from up close and I could take some photos.  As we were doing this, the sky continued to clear up.  We both wished we had brought our swimsuits as the water looked clear and was a good temperature.  After a while we left to return to our campground and eat lunch.

Examining the Johnson Shut-Ins State Park on a rainy day.

Examining the Johnson Shut-Ins State Park on a rainy day.

Later in the day the sun was shining brightly and the clouds had all but vanished from the sky.  We changed clothes in our tent, grabbed some towels, and drove back to the parking lot in front of the ranger station.

Due to the nicer weather, the Shut-Ins were bustling with activity.  Many families were scattered about with people looking on from the beach, playing in the upper and lower pools, and climbing all over the large boulders in the water.

We had received advice prior to our trip that it would be a good idea to bring water shoes.  As we started to make our way out into the river, we were glad we had listened.  The clarity of the water seemed to be due to the rocky bottom and the moist surfaces of the boulders could be very slippery.

Clear river water

Clear river water

To get accustomed to the water, we slowly submerged ourselves up to our heads in the upper pool where the shadows of a cliff above the river made the water temperature quite cool.  Fox was covered in goosebumps, so we decided to go explore the paths the river made between the boulders.

The river split into small streams as the water ran between rocks, creating small waterfalls with personal pools beneath them.  Where the streams could not reach there were some tidal pools with warm, stagnant water filled with algae which we generally tried to avoid.

Streams at Johnson Shut-Ins

Streams at Johnson Shut-Ins

Small pool in boulder at Johnson Shut-Ins

Small pool in boulder at Johnson Shut-Ins

We quickly found that traversing the streams between rocks was best done with both hands and feet in order to reduce the risk of slipping, falling, and hitting our heads on thousands of pounds of solid granite.  Also stepping along the bottoms of the streams gave good traction for our feet.

As we made our way to the larger boulders near the lower pool, we encountered some deeper pools where I could not touch the bottom as well as almost unsupervised kids jumping from a large boulder above into pools near us without warning.  As neither of us were interested in getting knocked out by sudden falling children, we turned around and headed back up to the upper pool where there weren’t as many people.

We found an underwater natural bench formed by flat rocks.  It was covered in some slimy moss but otherwise made a good place to sit and relax in the water.  Again I was struck by how cool the water was when I noticed the goosebumps on Fox’s arms, so we called it a day and waded to the beach to get our towels.

Johnson Shut-Ins turned out to be a great place to visit with clean water in which to swim and unique geologic features which were fun to explore.