Category Archives: Trek

NZ | Abel Tasman Track, Whariwharangi

From the Awaroa Hut to the Whariwharangi (“fari farengi”) Hut is also typically a 2-day hike but again, there was that departing flight I needed to make, so I did it in one. Definitely take the two days if you can. At Awaroa I ran into two ladies who were also fast tracking so we did the hike together. Pink shirt (below) was one of the ladies, an Australian tour director who was testing the Abel Tasman Track for a tour she was organizing next year and her 82-year old mother, who did the whole track with a 30 pound backpack. Did I mention tour director had just had foot surgery and mom had a double hip replacement?

Beautiful scenery along this stretch too, however a very close encounter with a seal was the highlight. We noticed him while hiking across the beach. Apparently ‘his’ beach since as we crossed over he barked at us. Luckily seals are slow on sand so we were able to snap a few photos then scurry over a boulder hill to the other side.

The Whariwharangi Hut is the smallest on the track. Most people never make it to this hut since its at the far northern reaches of the park. Its interesting in that it used to be an old farm house, now outfitted sleep about 10 people in bunks. Here be on the lookout for Wekas, a cheeky, wingless bird who will steal things out of your backpack and run away.

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UL: Low-tide crossing on the track from Awaroa
UR: Oh yawn, another beautiful Tasman view
Lower: Separation Point, Gannet re-colonization

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Upper: Seal encounter
LL: Seal, happy that we were leaving
LR: Arrival at Whariwharangi

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Left: Whariwharangi Hut
Right: Cheeky Weka

NZ | Abel Tasman Track, Awaroa

From the Anchorage Hut to the Awaroa Hut is typically a 2-day hike but I needed to do it in one. Definitely take the two days if you can, the scenery along this stretch is incredible. Just to make things more challenging, I detoured a few miles off track to Cleopatra’s Pool, a ‘swimming area’ where a stream pools up. While the water was warmer here than in other places, it was not warm enough for me. It was, however, a good photo op of other people who apparently enjoy swimming in ice water.

Suspension bridges and vistas over the Tasman dominated my almost 12-hour hike until I reached the Awaroa Hut. Around this stretch you need to be aware of tides, since some of the paths are completely under water at high tide. I almost made it before high tide, almost.

Note to self – get waterproof boots.

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UL: Cleopatra’s Pool, brave swimmer
UR: One of many suspension bridges
LL: Peekaboo Tasman view
LR: Trekking through sand

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Upper: Tasman views
LL: Another impossibly beautiful beach
LR: Arrival at Awaroa Hut

NZ | Roteburn Track

After you finish Kepler Track, if you’re feeling extra energetic and have another 3 days, you can piggyback the Roteburn Track. Roteburn is also a 60km “moderate” hike with some spectacular scenery. If you’re time constrained you can fast-track Roteburn by entering at the Alpine Walk section to the summit, which is at the higher elevations; this stretch is only a 3 hour return and it has the more panoramic views.

Kepler is still the more dramatic in terms of scenery but its also more difficult to traverse.

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NZ | Kepler Track

The Kepler Track is a 60km hiking trail starting near the South Island city of Te Anau. There is some amazing scenery on this track, most of which you will immediately classify as Lord of the Rings. No doubt Peter Jackson issued some flyovers of the region but he did not set up camp in the region due to the preservation restrictions.

If you’re thinking about doing this track please keep in mind that while it is billed as a ‘moderately difficult’ hike, that is moderate in New Zealand terms. The first 5km is relatively easy and flat, but then you get a solid 4-5 hours of 10-30% grade switchback ascent. Moderate my ass!

Oddly and unfortunately, there was a summer snow storm the night we landed at the first hut, Luxmore. Its was great fun hiking through the start of the storm, snow being a novelty for me, however the next day the 10k hike across the top was not possible. I went down the mountain then around the other side to pick up the last third of the track. Hopefully, next time I do Kepler the weather will cooperate!

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NZ | Queenstown

Queenstown is a haven for adventure sportists; there are so many activity choices here you’d need to spend several weeks just to cover the highlights. However, if you only have one day, the Skyline Tram to the top of the mountain gives you some spectacular views and doesn’t take much time. If you have more time, hiking to the top of Skyline will give you great peekaboo views across Lake Wakatipu and the forest at the top comes across surreal with they way it bends and toys with light.

Don’t forget to try the worlds best hamburger @ Fergburger; do you self a favor and phone in takeaway to avoid the hour wait.

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UL: Lake Wakatipu
UR: Wind surfing the lake
LL: Queenstown Airport
LR: Hiking Skyline

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Above: Views from the surface

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Above: Views from above and Fergburger

New Mexico | Bandelier National Park

Its a long story how I landed in Bandelier but I basically piggybacked this trek on top of a work activity after seeing signage for the park many times while en route to Los Alamos. I was curious to try out my new trekking pack on some elevation changes which are not available locally in Houston, this trek definitely suited that purpose.

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Condition
The park itself contains a short 3-mile loop, The Monument Loop, taking you through the National Monument; remnants of the Native American culture that existed long ago. There are kivas which you can explore. That is, if you aren’t prone to vertigo while climbing the four sets of ladders to get to them.  There are also some nicely intact structures they used for storage, cooking, worship, etc.; these are all very interesting from the ground but I liked the view of these after hiking upwards.  The Monument Loop is very well-maintained and very easy to follow; I highly recommend walking this one first.

Aside from the Monument Loop there are a large number of back-country trails you can explore. Back-country trails are not all in good condition thanks to a massive flash flood a few years back and a series of fires. If you decide to explore these you’ll definitely want to have a sit down with one of the onsite rangers and of course, pick up a topo map at the entrance. I did three of the back-country trails, my favourites being the Upper and Lower Falls Trails, which are offshoots of the Monument Loop. There were several spots along the trail where the trail just ended, obviously having been washed out by the floods. You can pick up the trail again in less that 1/4 mile but this is when you’ll need the topo map.

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Difficulty
The Monument Loop is easy, even climbing the 4 sets of kiva ladders is not very challenging unless, of course, you have a fear of heights.

The back-country trails are medium difficulty since you have to navigate on your own in spots and this is where you’ll need to pay a little more attention to surroundings. By that I mean both being able to navigate without a well-defined trail and to not accidentally step on a rattlesnake. I did see one little guy sunning himself in the distance half-way through the Lower Falls Trail. He gave me the obligatory rattle to say ‘Hey you, you’re a little too close!’, I stopped, since really I was a visitor in his neighbourhood, then he moved along into the rocky cliffs. Other than that, the elevation changes are gentle and the trail-less spots are still very navigable.

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Duration
Its really up to you. The Monument Loop is about a 3-mile return. If you do the kiva ladder climb and explore you’re probably looking at a 2-3 hours. If you wander off to the back-country trails it could be the better part of a day. It took me 8 hours to do the Monument loop and 3 of the back country trails.

Gear
For the Monument Loop, you don’t need anything more than tennis shoes, sunscreen and water. There are a few stream crossings on the Monument Loop but the water is shallow (< 1 ft) and there are hopscotch rocks across.

For the Falls Trails, you’ll need more substantial footwear, like hiking shoes or boots, since there are spots of loose rock and you have to navigate around downed trees and a number of jagged, uneven surfaces. If you do more than just the Monument Loop you’ll probably want to pack a few snacks and extra water if you don’t carry a method of water treatment. Its extraordinarily dry here. And the sun is oppressively strong even when the temps are in the 70s.

There is a cafe and small store onsite if you forget to bring water, snacks, sunscreen. etc. Or if you want to sit down and have a green chili cheeseburger and a cup of pinon coffee. If you buy a New Mexico coffee mug you can get free drink refills – for life.

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Fees
The entrance fees are going up in 2016 but if you’re like most people and you drive there, park, then do your trekking, its $10 to enter the parking area. There are different fees if you are on foot or if you want a multi-day pass or if you are camping.

Parking
A special note about parking. A fellow trekker had told me to get to Bandelier before 9am. Dual purpose advice. The first purpose is to avoid the late afternoon sun, which is brutal at this elevation. The second is after 9a you cannot park at Bandelier proper, you park downstream at a shuttle stop and they bus you in and out of the park. I’m not sure why but if you don’t want to wait for the shuttle coming and going, better to arrive before 9a. If you do so, you can safely ignore all of the cautionary signs warning you to turn around and park at the shuttle area.

Thermarest

I was excited when my Thermarest ProLite Plus arrived. I’ve had other camping air mattresses; those old school rectangles weighing in at about a ton and these were the kind you had to inflate manually. But the Thermarest weighs in at 1 lb 14 ounces and it self inflates. Well, it kind of does, that is, after a little priming.

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Priming
I unleashed the Thermarest from its plastic cage and opened the valve, expecting a whoosh of air and a ready-to-go mattress. No such luck. I rationalized that after its rolled-up slumber in the Thermarest warehouse, it probably needed a little time to get back into the self-inflation swing. A few hours went by, nothing. I decided to give a little help by manually blowing in a few puffs thinking that would certainly kick start the process. Kinda, after a few more hours it inflated about halfway. Then I thought, lets create a vacuum and see if that will coax more air into the mattress. It did, I just rolled up the mattress starting at the top near the valve and squeezed all the air into the bottom  then unrolled it and let it sit. That worked very well. In about 15 minutes it was almost full. I blew in a few more puffs to top it off.

Since then I’ve rolled out all the air, closed the valve then reopened it several times to see if it would auto inflate – it does and it takes about 20 minutes. I still top it off with a few manual puffs but I like a more firm mattress.

It seems the lesson with this mattress, perhaps other foam cell mattresses like it, is to prime the foam cells into ‘remembering’ how to auto inflate.

Comfort
Despite its very thin depth, this is one of the most comfortable air mattresses I’ve used. I rolled it out on my wood floors, plopped on top and started watching a movie. 20 minutes later I was asleep. 2 hours later I woke up with no soreness or aching.

Storage
I didn’t see any specific instructions on how to store this mattress but so far what seems to work is to store it inflated but with the valve open when its not in use. Since its impossibly thin, I can slip it into almost any closet or under the bed.

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Transport
The mattress weighs in under 2 pounds for the standard size (there are long and short options). I don’t know if that categorizes it as ultra light but this was one of the lightest mattresses I considered. It only takes a few minutes of rolling and pressing to remove all the air. It rolls up to 4″ x 11″ which very easily fits into either the top or bottom compartment of my trekking pack.

Price
It typically sells for $80 at REI but I happened to catch it on one of their quarterly sales so I picked it up for $60. Of course if you’re an REI member you’ll get 10% of that back at the end of the year.

While I have no idea how well it protects against cold surfaces, it does add a necessary comfort boundary between you and whatever surface you confront. Its light, deflates in 2 minutes, packs out small and, after some initial priming, inflates by simply opening the intake valve. I’m curious how it will feel with the new Feathered Friends sleeping bag, which we’ll get to next.

Buffalo Bayou Trail

I knew about Buffalo Bayou Trail but never took the time to explore until just recently. The Bayou itself runs from the notorious Houston Ship Channel around the north side of downtown to the west side before meandering westwards and paralleling Allen Parkway. The Bayou itself is not a sight, in fact, its probably better to not look directly into the Bayou. However, the trail is a pleasant walk easily integrated into whatever activities you have planned for downtown, near-town, Washington Corridor or Montrose.

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Access
You can get to to the trail from the west side of downtown via just about any of the east-west streets or anywhere along Allen Parkway; just look for a bridge and likely that bridge will have a set of stairs leading down to the trail. There places to pop up at Bell St for the density of oil and gas high-rises, another at Prairie for the Wortham and Buffalo Bayou Centers, one for the Aquarium and many that allow access to either Montrose or Rice Military.

It looks like they are building out the north side and east side trails, since the paths were closed with a “building in progress” look. There is a separate path that runs along the Bayou from EaDo out to the ship channel but it does not appear to be connected to the rest of the system. Yet.

Condition
In most spots parallel to Allen Parkway there are separate walking and biking paths which allows different transport modes to peacefully coexist, however they merge in downtown. The paths, bridges, benches and everything else are kept in immaculate condition. There’s nothing to watch out for save a few ducks, who apparently think the trail is for them.

The trail is lit up at night; its not great lighting but it will keep you from biking off the trail and into the Bayou.  Its particularly interesting to explore this path at sundown;  the highly reflective skyline of downtown slightly beyond the cobalt blue lights they installed under the freeways make the city look like an anime setting.

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Duration
You can customize this walk to your liking. I did an 8-mile return from the north side of downtown at Prairie St, across the Aquarium, under the Sabine St. Bridge, past Montrose and coming close to River Oaks. Then back. It was a 3 hour walk, stops included

Gear
You could do this with flip flops and water bottle; its that easy.

Activities, Sights

Wortham Center for cultural. Bayou Center for entertainment including Sundance Theatre. Main St. for craft cocktails. Aquarium. Volleyball, soccer, dog park, exercise courses and picnic areas are along the Allen Parkway segment.

The views of downtown are second only to those from the north side; you’ll see the city from a very different perspective. You’ll see some funky art installations, which frankly I did not know existed before walking the trail. I was fascinated by the metal Buddha-ish figures welded together from various alphabets.

This is a very heavily traveled path at all times; if you’re looking for solitude, keep looking, however if you like knowing other people are always around, you’re in luck.

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Cincinnati | Far Ridge Trail

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When I visit Sister in Cincinnati invariably we wind up on some hike, be it urban or rural. This time we visited the Cincinnati Nature Centre and she recommended we hike the Far Ridge Trail. The Nature Centre has a dozen or so trails, all branded under the umbrella name – Rowe Woods. The trails vary in distance and difficulty. You can collect a map of the lot from the Nature Centre. Or you can download the map from the Rowe Woods Website. Far Ridge is one of the “difficult” trails but its relatively short, 1.5 miles. However, what they don’t tell you is that you’ll walk 2 miles to get to Far Ridge.

Condition
The Centre and all of the trails, benches, picnic tables and bird-watching ledges are in immaculate shape. There are ample, clearly marked signs everywhere directing you to trails (color coded even), all of them include distances, in case you want to double think before you venture down a trail that is too long for your time restrictions.

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Difficulty
The difficulty in hiking Far Ridge is due to a steep incline about half way through the outbound trip followed, naturally, by a steep decline on the return.  Personally I found the decline more difficult since it’s harder to see depressions in the trail surface coming from a higher angle of view, which makes your footing tentative.

Since the trail surfaces are in great shape you shouldn’t have to worry about navigating around dangerous spots. A few boulders and roots on the path are not stationary nor stable, as always,  test those out first before assuming. There is one stream crossing but there was so little water (in June) you could walk straight across if you don’t mind soggy shoes. Me, I did boulder hopscotch across to keep my feet dry.

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Duration
From the Nature Centre itself you’ll spend about 30-45 minutes walking to Far Ridge; more if you want to stop to take in the scenery. Really, its a beautiful setting filled with clear lakes and a wide variety of trees and flowers. In the lake just behind the Centre, I watched fish making depressions in the sandy bottom for what I assumed was egg laying.

Once reaching Far Ridge, you’ll want another 45 minutes to an hour to complete the circuit. In total, about 2 hour return from the Centre, stops notwithstanding.

Gear
You shouldn’t need much more than a water bottle and of course, your camera. You’ll want some shoes more sturdy than tennis shoes to navigate the boulders, tree roots and stream crossings; basic trail shoes should be fine. If you want but forget to bring snacks, water or an umbrella those are all for sale at the Nature Centre.

Fees
There is an $8 park entry fee for non-members however when we arrived there was no one there to collect the fee, so there’s that.

I can recommend Far Trail for anyone who finds themselves in the greater Cincinnati area and wants a beautiful, briefly challenging hike.  I’ll probably do the other Rowe Woods trails on return trips

Hawaii | Mauna Kea

I’m not a fan of organized tours, typically I get more out of just wandering and discovering things for myself. However, exceptions proving the rule, the highlight of my trip to the Big Island was a guided tour of the Mauna Kea Summit. You can tour it independently if you like but you’ll need a four wheel drive and keep in mind you will be sharing the rickety dirt road with tour buses much larger and and having less precise turning abilities. Your call.

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano and  the highest point in Hawaii, 14,000 ft. Slightly higher than its sister Mauna Loa which you can see in its entirety from the top of  Mauna Kea,  along with all of the Big Island and some of the other Hawaiian islands. While both volcanoes are dormant, there’s ample gossip about one or the other destined to erupt in the next 5 years. Who knows how true that is? I like to think this is the same kind of urban legend as when I heard California would break off into the Pacific in 1985. And then again in 1997, 2000, 2005 and 2012. To my knowledge, that hasn’t occurred either.

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On the tour we had a lunch / elevation adjustment stop at about 7000 ft at an old, abandoned farm. Its interesting to note the vegetation here, since at 9000 ft, it changed drastically into a brown, black and burnt-red lunar-scape with no vegetation. Around this elevation we learned that Mauna Kea is one of the largest military training grounds around. Tour guide informed us when a big red flag is flying over the base that means training with live ammunition is in progress. The big red flag was up as we made our way up to 10,000 ft.

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After bumping and grinding our way up the impossibly twisty and small dirt road we landed on a paved road for the last 2 miles to the top. Once at the top the reality of the summit being ‘a little colder’ bitch-slapped us square in the face. From 80F coast side to 30F summit side. Its worse than it sounds since what they don’t tell you is that the wind is a constant 20 mph.

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The Mauna Kea Summit is  home to some of the highest-powered telescopes in the country. More than a dozen of these pepper the top of the summit and we were there at sunset to watch them all open and start their rotation to observe whatever they were observing. Big mechanical devices coming to life were the only sounds other than the constant wind. The clouds we were looking up at from the shoreline looked like the sea since they were so far below the summit. It paired well with the rest of the mountain top which at sunset faded into an icy blue cast, the outer islands disappeared and the big island started to shimmer like a distant star. The result left me feeling as though I’d had been dropped into an alternate universe. Then the space shuttle went overhead and I could actually tell it was the space shuttle with naked eyes.

Truly surreal and something you shouldn’t miss.

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