Tongariro Northern Circuit: 3 days on Mt Doom

It’s been a while since I posted. To refresh: Before setting out on a 3 day circuit that crosses the shoulder of what is known in Nerdom as Mt. Doom, I had high tea at the Chateau Tongariro. It was delicious, made it so I could pack one less meal, and also made me slightly nauseous because apparently hiking an hour after you’ve had enough sugar for 4 people isn’t the best. #WorthIt.

Day one was glorious. I was the only person I saw on trail until I hit the Mangatepopo Hut and Campsite. There were moments when I was literally crying because I was so in love with life, and also probably all of the sugar loosened my leash on my emotions.

164.JPGI met a Canadian named Kate, and we nerded out a bit over the fact that we were camping at the base of Mt. Doom. The Hut Warden was also from Canada, and told us a bit about her job.

“In North America, my job in conservation is to save the animals. Here, if it’s a mammal, I’m pretty much trying to kill it.” She asked us to please pack out our trash, “Unless it’s an apple core. We’ll roll those in a cinnamon-poison mix and it will make a possum very happy for their last meal.”

So that was cool.

I woke up early the next morning to try to beat the 2,000 people who do the Tongariro Crossing each day. The Crossing is a 5 hour-ish long section that crosses some of the lava fields and craters of Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom) and doesn’t require a permit. Because of its popularity, there were many times when I could have reached out my arms and formed a conga line with the people in front of me. But I try not to get mad at other people who are enjoying the same thing that I do, and in the end, it was still a fun day.

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177.JPGThe descent is about a quarter-mile of volcanic sand covering a steep slope. It took a long time and I was passed by a lot of people, so I was grateful to reach the turn-off where the Crossing splits from the Circuit.

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I descended into a plain covered with dozens of fins of black pumice. The trail wound through these, so I ate lunch in the filming site of the Emyn Muil. By the end of the day, I was feeling very sorry for the hobbits, as it was hot and I was tired even without the great burden of the One Ring. Luckily, when I reached my campsite, I found a spot just feet away from a little creek that had been dammed enough for a bath.

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I was just beginning to be sad that I only had a few days left in New Zealand, when I woke up on day three and found my whole view shrouded in gray clouds. I hiked out, waved goodbye to where I thought the mountains must be, and headed north for one last adventure before my plane took off.

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Three Days on Mount Jefferson

Around 11 years ago, in the summer before my 8th grade year, my dad looked at his map of the Jefferson Wilderness Area and pointed thoughtfully at one of the trails. “I think,” he said, “I want to try out this Breitenbrush trail this weekend. You wanna come?” he asked.

Of course I wanted to go. So we packed some snacks and sunscreen and, knowing my dad, left well before the crack of dawn. The hike was lovely and became one of our favorites, but perhaps the most life-changing thing that happened on that trip was me seeing a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail.

“That goes from Mexico to  Canada,” Dad explained when I asked what it was. That was the day that I decided I wanted to attempt a thru-hike.

The sign for the trail we took that day

Even though my thru-hike was thwarted by a lame knee, I still approached Jeff on my section hike with a sense of excitement and returning to where it all began. We arrived in the Jefferson Wilderness Area the day that we left Big Lake Youth Camp.

On day 1 in the Jefferson Wilderness Area, the PCT climbed up through bleached burnt forests and the baby firs that are trying to take their place. Purple wildflowers and red Indian Paintbrush were in bloom, even though by the end of the day we would camp among viny maple that are already turning red. Huckleberry bushes provided snacks for us at every break. It was warm, but a stiff breeze cooled my neck and played harmonica with the trees.

Hiking the South side of Three Fingered Jack

We passed on the South side of Three Fingered Jack, just above the treeline. A couple of hunters were glassing the screw field for mountain goats, and I might have felt bad for scaring away their quarry if they’d bothered putting a leash on their two dogs. For about a mile we could look up and see the changing shape of the boulder. Despite nearly circumventing it, we never figured out how it got its name. 

Suddenly the trail in front of us turned a corner. “Cue the Lord of the Rings music,” I said, so Braids and I broke out in winded orchestral impersonations. We broke over the hilltop to find our first close-up of Mount Jefferson. Perhaps just because this is my favorite mountain, I felt like I was home. Jeff was a king surveying his cloudless domain, bleached acres of burnt trees nothing more than his white robes to match his snowy crown.

Me and Mr. Jefferson!

After a few requisite pictures, we continued on to where we could see a few other hikers resting across the canyon. The trail led us to a spur just a few hundred yards from the boulder atop Three Fingered Jack. There, we had a snack and listened to a couple of weekend hikers tell us what badasses we are. I didn’t feel like one at the time, but it was a nice encouragement. We also meet Hot Tamale and Moon Train, who camped with us and the weekend hikers that night at a pond a few miles later.

Snack breaks are the best breaks.

Three Fingered Jack in the evening.

Day 2 in the Jefferson Wilderness Area was also a long uphill climb, though there weren’t as many burnt areas. At one point we stopped for a rest after only a mile–well, my hiking partners did. I stopped twice in that mile. My Poptarts called to me.

Just before that I was zoning out, listening to music, on a grueling shale hillside, trying to remember why I’d thought this would be fun. I heard a noise behind me. Apparently, when startled, I have the capacity to react in much the same way as a pirate being challenged to a duel. I spun around, trekking pole raised against the threat, shouting an unintelligible warning–only to find a rather attractive hiker standing frozen and alarmed on the path behind me. I gasped an apology as I let him pass. Safe to say we can probably scratch him off my list of potential soulmates. As it turns out, Braids fell down when he tried to pass her, so he was probably thinking PCT girls are really weird during that mile, anyways.

We camped that night by Milk Creek. We got there when it was almost dark, and all the campsites were full for a few miles around. Too tired to walk the three miles to the next marked campsite, we threw our sleeping bags down 2×2 on a side trail and hoped not to regret our tentless state.

Milk Creek. Also in the evening.

The final day we climbed 6 miles, passed the spot where I first learned of the PCT, ate lunch in Jefferson Park, and then climbed another 2 miles up Jefferson Ridge. There, I could look back at Mount Jefferson, then turn 180° and see Mount Hood, Adams, and St. Helens ahead. We ate more huckleberries here.

Captain Hook! Oh, wait…it’s Hood. Nevermind.

Our goal for the evening was Ollalie Lake Campground. I was craving a burger and needed to call my mom. Unfortunately they had neither burgers nor cell phone reception. However, I invested in a bag of Doritos for dinner. Basically the same thing.

Just before reaching Ollalie, I had one of the most peaceful moments on trail. I paused by Upper Lake to lay down and rest a few minutes. The sunshine glimmered off the water. As I looked up, I saw a strand of spider web caught in the breeze. It reflected the sunlight as it floated above the lake and into the open air.

Mount Jefferson and Jefferson Park from the north.

The Nicest Smelling Pit Toilets I’ve Ever Been In: Glacier National Park

I’m a big-picture planner. By this I mean I like to focus on the overall arc of an idea, and let someone else figure out the details. Sometimes, though, both of the other people I’m planning things with are also big-picture planners. The result? Two days in Glacier National Park with less than twenty minutes of planning, total, from our group. And most of that was me booking us a campsite. Which we didn’t even use one of the nights.

That one time my dad used the word “Selfie” correctly!

Months ago, my sister and I decided that, since our cousin’s wedding was about 5 hours on the road towards Glacier anyways, we would meander on from Oregon through whatever Google said was the fastest route and camp in Glacier for, who knows? Three days? A Week? Summer break, people! But then my dad got a few days of vacation time freed up, so he was able to join us. The catch? We had to be back in time for his knee surgery, which meant leaving the park after only 2 full days. 

No big deal. Being an efficient Googler, I would have a plan. I would mark out exactly which trails we could hike, and what to do, and–what? We leave tomorrow morning? I reserved the last available campsite in the entire park and trusted the rest to luck.

Three people. Three people’s camping gear. A very large cooler that in hindsight we could have skipped, because how many bologna sandwiches can three people stomach in two and a half days? (Answer: Not as many as that cooler can hold.). All of this in one Camry, filling the trunk and half the back seat. Not the ideal camping scenario, but since we grew up taking vacations with one child crouching on the floor of our turquoise Aerostar, ducking whenever a police car came into view, we weren’t concerned.

My sister and I!

Like family vacations of olde, we got started two hours later than we had intended. And between not wanting to stop for food in case we might miss our campsite, and thinking I might want to start eating healthier now that I’m almost done with college, I hadn’t eaten a lot on the very long drive. (How to reconcile that with bologna sandwiches? Just let it be, folks.) And I had also just done another 1,000 mile road trip a few days before. I was tired! So tired, that by the time we got to Kalispell and decided we were not going to make it to the stressfully-booked campsite in time to pitch our tent, I was running on empty. There may have been tears in the pizza parlor parking lot. Old ladies were giving me sidelong looks as if they weren’t sure if they should call a women’s shelter or an insane asylum.

The pizza place was out of original crust, so we had overpriced thin crust pizza. After throwing my nutritional goals to the wind and eating half the pizza, I felt great. Embarrassed, but great. Lesson learned: if I ever try to become anorexic, someone will probably shoot me before I see any weight loss.

After a short night at the Super 8, we finished our trip to Glacier. At first it felt like a theme park, mainly because of the themeparks and rafting companies gathered around the entrance. Inside, though, we accidentally ended up on the Going to the Sun Road.

I had learned 3 things in my research:

  1. You have to do the Going to the Sun Road. It’s on some list of awesome Civil Engineering things.
  2. The Northwest corner of the park is the most remote part of the park, and supposedly has some of the top 100 most scenic backpacking trails in any national park (Per this list compiled by Backpacker Magazine).
  3. The Glaciers are dying.

The bottom of the Going to the Sun Road.

What they never told me was that there really is no other option besides the Going to the Sun Road. If you want to cross that park, that’s it. It’s the main road. And though the beginning part is flat and doesn’t make sense as to why it would be a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, after a few miles we completely understood the hype.

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It’s steep and beautiful and scary as Hell and I was grateful my Dad came, if only so that my sister and I didn’t have to risk driving.

A view from the Going to the Sun Road. Very High. Very Steep. Very Gorgeous.

So we marveled at the road. At the top, we saw a sign for Logan Pass. “Why don’t we get out here and hike a bit?” we thought.

“Because the parking lot is full, and as soon as one car leaves, twelve more swoop in to take their place,” the visitor center answered.

“Let’s not do that,” we decided. Instead, we meandered onto a waterfall just on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. We finished driving the road, found a gas station that charged more for a bag of ice than for a gallon of gas, and returned to the western side to pitch our tent in Fish Creek Campground.

What to do with the remaining four hours of daylight?

“Let’s head over to Bowman Lake,” my dad suggested.

Bowman Lake–in the remote northeast corner! We could finally escape the crowds… that we honestly hadn’t encountered much of the entire trip. But we decided to go, and two hours down a mostly gravel road (again: we were in a Camry) we finally said, “If we haven’t found it within the next ten minutes, we’re turning around.”

Nine minutes later, we arrived. It was a pretty lake, until you stepped out of the car. The only mosquito bites I received the entire trip were bestowed during the hour we spent there. After such a long trip, I found the pit toilets mentioned in the title of this post. We then walked around the lake about a mile, past the sign warning us of Grizzly attacks and absolving the state of any fault if we happened to run into one. The trail was surrounded by dog hair (thick forest and brush that makes it impossible to see more than a few feet).

We played “Would You Rather” so our noise would scare away the bears, and turned around well before leaving the lake shore. We got back to camp, ate quickly, and went to bed with a plan to hit Logan Pass early the next morning.