TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Archive for family adventures

Plunging Into Solitude–Exploring Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park

We stand on the rim of an unnamed slot canyon in the backcountry of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, in a spot that just a handful of people have seen before us. We’ve arrived here after hiking about two hours uphill on the Navajo Knobs Trail, and then heading off-trail, navigating a circuitous route up steep slickrock and below a sheer-walled fin of white Navajo Sandstone hundreds of feet tall, stabbing into the blue sky. Now I peer down at the narrow, deep, and shadowy crack that we have come to rappel into, and feel a little flush of anxiety.

By making the 100-foot drop into this slot canyon, to be followed by three more rappels, we will commit ourselves to going all the way through it—there will be no option to climb back out the way we’re going in. We know the walls will close in to about two feet or less apart. We also know that one long horizontal traverse through that claustrophobic chasm will require employing the rock climbing technique known as “chimneying,” where you press your feet, hands, and back against opposing rock walls, and meticulously reposition feet and hands one at a time to inch slowly sideways as you would climb up or down a chimney.

My wife, Penny, looks at me and asks gravely, “Are you sure about this?”

Neither of us is worried about ourselves. We are thinking about the two little people in our party who have never done anything quite like this before: our 11-year-old son, Nate, and daughter Alex, who turned nine a week ago.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Exploring_Capitol_Reef.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Walking Familiar Ground: Resurrecting Old Memories on the Teton Crest Trail

The moose cow and her calf block the trail, staring back at us with expressions that I swear look like confusion over what to do. So the feeling is mutual. They were coming down, we were going up, and now none of us are moving. With steep, rocky, wooded terrain on either side, we backpack-carrying humans aren’t interested in an off-trail detour. The moose don’t seem enthusiastic about that option at the moment, either.

We appear to be at a standoff.

Mike Baron, one of my oldest friends and first backpacking partners—and one of the friends with whom I first backpacked this very trail to Death Canyon in Grand Teton National Park almost 20 years ago—looks at me and says, with a grin, “What do we do?”

I smile, shrug, and tell him, “We wait.”

We’re just a few miles into one of the greatest multi-day treks in America, backpacking for four days from Death Canyon Trailhead to Jenny Lake in the Tetons, a 27.1-mile traverse that takes in some of the most scenic miles of the classic Teton Crest Trail. Our group includes my wife, Penny, our 10-year-old son, Nate, and eight-year-old daughter, Alex, and another longtime friend, Diane Tompkins.

But actually, that’s just a superficial description of our itinerary. On a deeper level, we four adults are retracing old footsteps through mountains as full of memories for us as our packs are full of gear and food. Meanwhile, my kids are making new prints beside ours, embarked on a metaphorical path they will follow far beyond these four days. So in a sense, one long journey continues while a newer, parallel journey is just getting underway.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Backpacking_the_Tetons.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast

On a remote, sandy beach on Washington’s Olympic coast, we stop in our tracks and gaze up. A wall of muddy earth rises some 300 feet into jungle-like rainforest. A thick strand of hemp rope dangles down this steep, eroding embankment. A ladder of wooden steps built into the muddy ground rises in tandem with the rope.

We’re going up it.

We’ve reached this spot after an hour of stepping and clambering cautiously over a beach tiled with big boulders, each one coated with wet, slick kelp and barnacles. Our group of six—including my wife, Penny, our school-age son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, my brother-in-law, Tom Beach, and his 15-year-old son, Daniel—crossed that beach while racing the clock against an incoming tide that was rapidly transforming that rocky stretch of coast to ocean. Now, this rope ladder marks the start of a three-mile-long overland trail through the rainforest. This detour off the beach is necessary to get around Hoh Head, an impassable section of coast where cliffs rise straight out of the pounding ocean.

“Oh, there’s a slug! There’s ANOTHER slug!” Nate excitedly calls out every sighting of these slimy creatures that are as long as his hand as I follow Alex and him up the rope ladder—bracing myself to, in theory, catch a tumbling kid.

It’s early on the first afternoon of our three-day, 17.5-mile backpacking trip on the southern stretch of the Olympic coast, from the Hoh River north to La Push Road. On the outer edge of the Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park protects the longest strip of wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States. You can’t order fried seafood or buy a T-shirt anywhere along these 73 miles of seashore. In fact, it’s one of the few remaining pieces of ocean-view real estate in the Lower 48 that Christopher Columbus or Capt. George Vancouver would recognize.

It’s also one of America’s most stunningly beautiful strips of shoreline. Up and down the coast, scores of stone pinnacles—called sea stacks—rise as much as 200 feet out of the ocean, some of them topped with a copse of a few trees, others just bare rock

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Southern_Olympic_Coast.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

2011: A Year of Adventure in Pictures

From cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and paddling in the Everglades (the final two trips for my upcoming book) to backcountry skiing from a yurt in Oregon’s Wallowas (watch for a story soon), an ultra-dayhike across Zion National Park, rock climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks, rafting Oregon’s Grand Ronde River, dayhiking in the Columbia Gorge and New Hampshire’s Franconia Ridge, a six-day mountaineering trip on the Ptarmigan Traverse in Washington’s North Cascades, and backpacking the Teton Crest Trail and in Idaho’s Sawtooths (twice), 2011 was a pretty good year.
I’ve already written about some of those trips at this site, and will write about others in coming months. Check out this photo gallery of highlights from all of those 2011 adventures.

At this time of year, I’m poring over maps, guidebook descriptions, and websites, planning adventures for 2012. I hope you are, too. Looking for ideas or inspiration? Try this gallery of pictures from outdoor adventures I’ve taken in the U.S. and around the world—all of which you can read about (and get advice on planning) at TheBigOutside.com.

Make it a happy new year.

Chasing the Snow: Why ‘Compressed Adventure’ Can Save You

Zooming down the interstate, with my family in the car and our Nordic skis in the roofbox, I’m reminded of a truism that explains not only our motivation today, but many of life’s turns and frustrations: Sometimes the place where we are and the place where we want to be lie far, far apart.

My wife and kids have hunkered down for the long haul with their books and electronics, settled in for a day trip that will involve about seven hours of driving in exchange for less than half that much time skiing. To our left rise the visual evidence for why we must make this pilgrimage: the Boise Foothills above our home, brown and virtually devoid of snow in late autumn. It’s a disheartening sight.

My companions had uttered a few murmurs of skepticism that the payoff will justify the drudgery of so many hours car bound. But we’ve run out of patience waiting for the snow to come to us. So we’re en route to the nearest place with white stuff on the ground and groomed ski trails—Galena Lodge, which sits at the upper end of Idaho’s Wood River Valley, at well over 7,000 feet in the Boulder Mountains.

The phrase for what we’re doing speaks to the desperation implicit in this act: We are chasing the snow. It sounds like both a fool’s mission and divine inspiration—and actually, it has the potential to go either way.

The idea of chasing snow also provides a useful metaphor for a larger, almost constant challenge: fitting the activities that bring us pleasure into lives that can often seem far too overstuffed with responsibilities to accommodate anything more.

The mere thought of making the effort to go after fun when it lies at a distance from you—especially when it involves motivating and moving an entire family—can be the thing that stops us. It’s often not the weather or a lack of enthusiasm about being there once you get there. It’s the organizing and getting-there part that causes inertia. I know; I, too, have on rare occasions suffered from that spirit-killing mental funk. But I prefer to view that attitude in the same way that ancient mariners viewed the unexplored margins of their maps: those areas were labeled with warnings to venture no farther in that direction, “for only dragons dwell here.”

    Read the entire story and see photos and a video from that trip at thebigoutside.com/Chasing_the_Snow.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Like No Other Place in the World: Paddling the Everglades

As we turn off US 41 onto an unmarked dirt road, just a few miles north of the boundary of Everglades National Park, a small, homemade sign nailed to a tree reads: “Welcome to the real Florida.” Although the driving directions I received for this put-in on the East River seemed to invite error—they were of the “turn left past the end of the guardrail” variety—this sign makes me think we’ve landed in the right place.

A little while later, under a hot February sun and cloudless sky, we push off from a tiny spot of sandy beach into the perfectly still, dark-chocolate waters of the East River in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. My ten-year-old son, Nate, and I share one two-person, sit-on-top kayak; my wife, Penny, shares another with our daughter, Alex, who’s almost eight. We are setting out for a few hours of paddling this river’s pond-like open stretches and tight mangrove tunnels—and getting can-almost-touch-them close to wildlife that you cannot see on most of the planet.

Tomorrow, we will set out for three days canoeing and camping in the Ten Thousand Islands of Everglades National Park.

Mangrove tunnel, East River, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

Minutes after we launch our kayaks, flocks of snowy egrets fly in close formation overhead. White ibises, black anhingas, tri-colored herons, and brown pelicans flap above the wide river and the green walls of forest on both sides. Great blue herons lift off effortlessly and glide on wings whose span equals an average human’s height.

Our companion today, guide Justin Shurr of Shurr Adventures—who will lead us through the East River’s labyrinth of mangrove tunnels—points at a small, easily overlooked shadow on the dark water.

“See that thing that looks like a piece of driftwood?” he says. “It’s not driftwood. It’s an alligator.” As is typical, only the gator’s head breaks the surface; most of its body floats just below, hidden from sight until you get close. But, Justin explains, you can estimate its size using a simple, reliable formula: Every inch of distance from its eyes to the end of its snout translates to a foot of body length. “That’s a twelve-footer,” he tells us.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from that trip at thebigoutside.com/Paddling_the_Everglades.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Jagged Peaks, Mountain Lakes, and Wild Goats

We’re just seconds beyond the sign at the start of the Gunsight Pass Trail that reads “Entering Grizzly Country” when Nate, who’s a month shy of his tenth birthday, begins aggressively making the case for why he should be armed.

“Why can’t I carry a pepper spray?” he asks me—again and again.

Penny Beach on the Gunsight Pass Trail

It’s an idyllic, late-summer afternoon in the Northern Rockies—the sun shining warmly, a gently cooling breeze rippling the air, not a white speck of moisture in the sky. We are heading out on a three-day family backpacking trip to Gunsight Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. One of the logistically easiest and shortest multi-day hikes in the park, the 20-mile traverse from Gunsight Pass Trailhead to Lake McDonald Lodge—both of which are on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and served by the park’s free shuttle bus—takes in some of Glacier’s most spectacular scenery, including views of one of its largest rivers of ice (all of which are steadily shrinking), scores of waterfalls, and a backcountry campsite at Lake Ellen Wilson that is one of the prettiest in the park.

Unfortunately, I was not able to get a permit for the full traverse; it’s popular and backpacker numbers are restricted to avoid overuse and preserve a sense of solitude. So instead, we’ll spend two nights at Gunsight Lake, dayhike to Gunsight Pass, and then backtrack to the Gunsight Pass Trailhead on our last day.

Having hiked the traverse before, I knew Nate and our seven-year-old daughter, Alex, easily have the stamina for the three six-mile days we’ll do. The much bigger concern for my wife, Penny, and me was the preoccupying idea of backpacking in grizzly-bear country with our young kids. In fact, a year ago, I had a close encounter with a sow griz and her two cubs on the Gunsight Pass Trail. Although we know that such encounters are rare, we’ll have to be diligent about making sure the kids don’t inadvertently bring a pocketful of Jolly Ranchers into the tent for the night.

Thinking along similar lines, my hyper-focused son is consumed by the conviction that he should be armed with one of the pepper-spray canisters holstered to the hipbelts of Penny’s and my backpacks. When not distracted by throwing sticks into the raging creek at Deadwood Falls, or watching for moose in the boggy, partly forested flats of the St. Mary River, he persistently returns to his argument that he is just as capable as his mother or me of calmly deploying pepper spray at a charging grizzly. I try, in vain, to convince him that an adult is better able to react to that inconceivably frightful circumstance—although I’m not really sure I believe that.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from that trip at thebigoutside.com/Glacier_s_Gunsight_Pass_4VU.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.