PNT Prep

Less than 3 weeks until we set off on the Pacific Northwest Trail and we’re in full prep mode. Food, maps, gear. Our apartment is a mess.

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Mostly the mess is due to the food. We’re making all of our meals due to K’s gluten allergy (more info and a recipe here). It’s a lot of work to do ahead of time but it’s also pretty fun, put on some tunes and get a production line going.

Biggest change from previous backpacking trips is we’re going no cook. At least that’s the plan. Seems doable from the comfort of our home but time will tell how I feel after ~70 days of cold soaking (don’t worry my stove will be on hand to send via resupply in case this plan goes horribly south).

2 months of maps 😍

2 months of maps 😍

Maps! Maps are maybe my favorite thing. Not just for backpacking but maybe also in life. K can attest to how long it took me to sort these out (too long) because I kept stopping to look them over. So pretty. So nice. Can’t wait to start using them.

The Pacific Northwest Trail

A version of this article appears on The Trek, which you can read here

I remember as a kid seeing a North Country Trail sign while hiking on Lake Superior. I asked my uncle where the trail went and when he said “New York to North Dakota” the idea of hiking that far both baffled and enticed me.

Since then thru-hiking a long trail has always been in the back of my mind as “something to do someday” but I never really had a plan (or time) on how to do it. Then 3 years ago when I was laid up with a broken ankle I stumbled across the book “Grizzly Bears and Razor Claims” by Chris Townsend. I devoured it. The Pacific Northwest Trail resonated with me: rugged, rough, remote. I became somewhat (ok, totally) obsessed with the idea of hiking it.

And just over a month from now I’ll be starting the PNT. Hell. Yes.


Why the PNT?

The PNT has all the things I love about backpacking: navigation challenges, undeveloped sections, bushwacking and solitude. The length is perfect for my 3 month timeframe, the trail typically takes 2-3 months. These are the reasons why I’m choosing the PNT over some of the more popular trails like the AT or PCT. Plus, I love the scenery and the vibe of the Pacific Northwest and am excited to spend the summer walking across it.  

Having a lot of experience backpacking I’m confident in my backcountry skills, but that’s not to sound naive. According the PNTA less than 300 people have completed the trail since its inception in 1977. It’s going to be tough. Really tough. It will test me. It might even break me. All part of the adventure. Let’s do this.

Cold Soak Recipes

I spend a lot of time in the winter scheming up new ideas for my summer trips. Usually these involve lightening pack weight and spreadsheets. Oh how I love my spreadsheets.

This winter’s obsession was cold soaking. Yup it’s what it sounds like: pour cold water on your food and let it sit and soak. No stove, no heat.

Initially I was intrigued, can this really be good? My philosophy for trail food is it has to taste good and be nutritious. I don’t want to eat ramen packets, pop tarts or anything else chock full of things I can’t pronounce. It shocks me what some people eat on the trail (to be fair it shocks me what most people eat in real life). I fully admit that I’ve been known to scarf down some less than “clean” food without shame, I just don’t want this to be part of my plan before I head out on the trail.

The mad scientist’s lab

The mad scientist’s lab


What got me onto the cold soak train was thinking about how much I actually use my stove. I realized that on my most recent trips I’ve only used it once per day, at dinner time. I gave up making a hot drink at breakfast a while back to save time and I’ve always, even at home, eaten my oats uncooked. Seemed like a lot of weight to carry fuel, stove and a pot around for just once a day.

Tower of power

Tower of power

There are lots of good companies out there that make pre-made cold soak meals but I’m frugal and enjoy making up my own meals, so my winter goal became to create a nutritionally balanced menu with high caloric density that I actually want to eat. Oh and it has to be gluten free too since K can’t handle the gluten. I was hoping to get 4 solid meals, seemed like a good rotation for an 8 day or less trip: each meal twice... I ended up creating 6, they are: Thai Peanut Rice, Southwest Beef and Corn w/ Rice, Thai Coconut Rice, Green Curry Rice, Beef and Corn Chowder, Pea/Walnut/Carrot Salad, Almond/Broccoli/Cranberry Salad.

All of the dinners vary slightly in weight and calories; however, the average of the 6 is 140.09 cal/oz and 6.92oz each, about 970 calories per meal.

Most of the ingredients I buy in bulk and a good rainy spring day activity is mixing up a bunch of meals at once. Then when I decide to go on a trip I can grab and go from the cupboard.

The cost for each meal varies, but they are between $2.61 - $4.78 per serve and pack more calories than most packaged meals. The beef is the premium ingredient costing about $2/meal, if I were to go vegetarian the costs would be $2.61-$3.69 per meal.

Below is the Thai Cashew Curry recipe, this one costs $3.07 when buying in bulk. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you make it, I’m always open to improvements!

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My Sub 2lb Camera Setup

As much as I like to shed weight heading into the backcountry it’s also the time I want the best camera possible.

Sub 2lb set up

Sub 2lb set up

Over the last few years I’ve experimented with the balance of weight and image quality. On shorter trips, like weekend trips or day hikes, I’ve taken full frame cameras such as the Canon 5DS R, Sony A7Rii and Nikon Z7. A full frame camera is an amazing tool to have in the backcountry but the weight penalty comes at a premium. The only one I’d consider on a longer trip would be the lightest of the 3 above, the Sony A7Rii (or A7Sii if I was shooting more video) weighing in at 22oz w/ card and battery. Weight aside I just really love the Sonys and already use them for non-backcountry travel and professional shoots.

Which brings me to my current solution for a balance of weight and quality: the Sony A6000. There are newer models (A6300, A6500) with extra features but ever the frugal guy I was able to get a used A6000 with a low shutter count for a bargain.

Photos w/ Sony A6000 and Zuiko 28mm f/2.8 lens

The A6000 has an APS-C sensor which isn’t as nice as full frame but in high light for outdoor shooting I feel it does a great job. And it only weighs 11.6oz with battery and card (no body cap). 11.6oz!

Lens-wise my preference is to use a prime lens. I think the image quality is superb and they are typically lighter and faster than zoom lenses. There are drawbacks like a fixed focal length, but I mostly take landscape photos and it ends up not being a big deal for me. If I wanted to take wildlife photos I would definitely look into a zoom.

Again, being a frugal guy I tend to be an opportunist when it comes to lenses (and everything in life). The lens I take with me is an old Olympus Zuiko 28mm f2.8. Yes. That’s what I take. I picked it up at a consignment shop for $20 (they tend to run $50-$75 on eBay). All manual everything. With the crop factor of the Sony APS-C sensor (x1.5) the 28mm becomes a 42mm (if I lost you crop factor explained). To me this lens packs quite a punch for its compact size and the weight isn’t too bad at 6.2oz.

My $20 Zuiko 28mm f/2.8

My $20 Zuiko 28mm f/2.8

The downsides are the OM to Sony adaptor weighs another 3oz, no auto focus and it’s a sort of atypical focal length for landscapes. I’ve been considering getting a wider lens, something between 18mm and 28mm, and probably will but it’s hard to justify spending the money.

Outside of my camera setup I love the Peak Design Capture clip. To have my camera on my shoulder strap ready to shoot photos means I use my camera a lot more. It’s actually easier to access than my phone.

I also take the Pedco Ultrapod. The tripod is great for long exposure photos (astrophotography)  and low light situations (morning, dusk) and I trust it with a lot of weight. If you need a tripod it’s great, but I’ve been finding that I rarely use it and, at 4.2oz, would consider leaving it at home when I’m counting every ounce. It’s not that hard to find a rock or a log to balance the camera on the rare occasion that I use it.

A breakdown of my typical backpacking camera setup (*new version of Capture Clip is even lighter than mine!):

camera setup

Never Summer Wilderness Weekend

It feels appropriate to ring in the fall equinox in the Never Summer Wilderness. I wasn’t sure what to expect here having not read much about it (and really I shouldn’t be surprised) but, wow, it was an excellent trip. Scenery was top notch, it was only 2 hours from my door to the trailhead for an amazing weekend loop. And the bonus: from Boulder the fastest way is to take the Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. Not. Bad.

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We hit the trail the first day around 11ish (yes we are lazy). From the parking lot the trail skirts the side of the mountain until it intersection with the Bowen Trail, which is also part of the CDT! From here we began to climb up Bowen Gulch. Our total gain was 2,800ft over 8 miles but given the consistent increase it didn’t feel too bad. We split off the CDT onto the Bowen Lake Trail for the last 1.25 mi to get to Bowen Lake, a great place to set up camp and chill for a few hours before sunset. There were a few people around but it really wasn’t busy. The hike up was mostly through the forest, not much for long views but a very pleasant hike, especially with the aspens starting to change. Scenery at the lake opened up a bit and we could see the ridge we were taking the next day.

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Day 2 we hit the trail early and got up onto the ridge behind Bowen Lake, the Cascade Mt Trail. The ridge section is about 4 miles and there are amazing views in every direction. And a summit of Cascade and Ruby Mt if you choose to (the trail itself goes just below the summits). The trail is easy to follow, in a few sections it became faint but since we were following a ridge, no problem.

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The ridge descends down to Bowen Pass and intersects with the CDT/Bowen Trail. We headed west on the CDT for a ¼ mile before the intersection of the Jack Park (?) trail. There is a small creek here and it provided a sunny spot for lunch. The trail winds up the side of Fairview Mt and after a mile we bore right at another unnamed trail junction. We headed up to the pass between Fairview Mt and Parika Peak getting good views along the way. At the pass we could see down to Parika Lake and the Baker Gulch, our way back to the car. Parika Lake is exposed and would make for a tough camp in windy weather if doing the loop in the other direction. There are more sheltered spots a bit farther down Baker Gulch near an unnamed lake at approx 11,000ft that would make a good camp. The walk out down the valley became mostly wooded and was similar to the Bowen Trail we took up.

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Made it back to the car around 4pm, I was tempted to stop in Estes Park but I’m glad I was able to wait another 30 minutes to Lyons where we hit up the Oskar Blues Taphouse for a delicious burger and a beer.

If you go

20 Hour Getaway

Its a busy Labor Day weekend for me but I have the itch to camp. 

After shooting photos for a client in the morning i grabb my pack and hastily shove my gear in. Luckily, in the spring I got on kick making a bunch of meals in anticipation of hiking season. I grab one of those and some oats and hop in the car. An hour later I’m at the Moffat Tunnel trailhead ready to hit the trail. The beauty of living in Boulder.

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I’ve been to James Peak Wilderness before and I know there are multiple lakes with awesome campsites within 3-4 miles of the trailhead. This time I’m headed to the Crater Lake area, about 3 miles from the car. 

It’s late afternoon by this point and most people I pass are headed back to the trailhead. After 2 miles of steady gradual incline I get to the turn off to crater lakes. From here the trail becomes more steep before eventually flattening out near the lakes.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of activity around the lakes. On another weekend it could be a nice place to camp but for tonight I’m going another .5 mile and 400ft up to Upper Crater Lake. 

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This is the steepest part of the climb and at lake level it becomes more of a rock hopping experience than actual trail. Not a lot in the way of flat sites but I find a little spot for my tent near the east side of the lake just past the outflow. The bonus is no one else is up here camping. 

By the time I finish dinner it is already fairly dark and the Milky Way is starting to emerge. The job I was working this morning was using a Canon 5DS R with an 16-35mm zoom. Perfect for having a bit of fun messing around with long exposure shots while the sky is still moonless. This is a great camera, it’s completely impractical to bring into backcountry but, hey, what the hell.

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The next day I make it out early to get home. From door to door the whole trip was only 20 hours but was a great reset.

If you go:

Capitol Creek Circuit+

Summer is finally here and we’re starting it out with a big trip. The Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness has been on my list of places to check out since moving to Colorado last summer. The issue is it’s also on a lot of other people’s lists too. Solitude in wilderness is what really resets and invigorates me. The super popular 4-pass loop is out. Enter the Capitol Creek Circuit route.


After reading up on the Capitol Creek Circuit there are a lot of things going for it over the 4-pass loop: longer, more elevation, not as busy and “circuit” sounds cooler than “loop”. It’s not as busy as 4-pass but it still is popular (if a route has a name it’s a “thing”, and if it’s a “thing” people will hike it). Which isn’t a bad thing, I’m just a grump.

Route planning is one of my favorite parts of planning a trip, after pouring over the maps and devising no less than 6 ways to do the loop I settled with what I’m calling the “Capitol Creek Circuit+”.

What makes it “+”? 1. It’s longer (+6 miles), it has more elevation (+2,000ft) and has +2 more passes. And it has a bonus side trip. I’m certainly looking forward to all the +’s, K maybe not as much. You can view the route on Caltopo or Gaia.

We’re starting from the Maroon Snowmass trailhead at the base of the Geneva Lake trail. The parking lot is small so plan to arrive early if you go. From here we backtrack a ¼ down the road to the East Maroon Trailhead. We’re choosing to go this way (clockwise) because Willow Lake, our campsite for tonight, is the highest and most exposed of the sites we plan to stay at and the forecast looks clear with little wind.  

100ft up the trail we hear some rustling in the bushes about 20ft off the trail. It’s a bear! It’s sitting on its haunches eating berries facing away from us. It looks over its shoulder at us, stares for a second or two and nonchalantly goes back to the berries. Ok then, I guess we are not a threat.  


The East Maroon trail is a steady, beautiful slog 6.75 miles up to the pass. From the pass, the highest point of our hike at 12,627ft, we can see Willow Lake and the Willow pass we’ll head out on tomorrow. From here it’s only another 1.5 miles down to the lake to camp. We saw one other person on the trail and no one else is camping here tonight. Perfect.


Day 2: We head up the Willow Pass and down to the Maroon Snowmass Trail. Gone is the solutiude, we’re now on the busy 4-pass loop. I shouldn’t be so crabby. The people are all stoked to be up here and there is a reason why this is a popular trail, the scenery is out of this world.


The next pass is Buckskin (again, amazing) and after we head down hill to Snowmass Lake, about 3.5 miles from the pass. It’s early afternoon, we had thought about pushing on to Geneva Lake but it’s just too nice here and there are still tons of good tent spots left. Plus we’re not on a tight timeline so why push it. Being on the 4-pass loop the campground fills up by late afternoon and it’s a bit of a zoo, but there are plenty of nice spots to sit and enjoy the lake as the sun goes down.


Day 3: We head over Trail Rider pass and down to Geneva Lake. At the north end of the lake we decide to try the side trip to Siberia Lake I scouted before we left. On the Forest Service topo maps there is a trail here but I had read the trail no longer exists. That’s ok, it makes the side trip more fun.


The first ½ mile alternated between tall grass and shoulder high brush, there are a few faint game trails occasionally to make it a little easier. Once we enter the more forested section it becomes easier to walk up the creek itself for a little less than ¼ mi to the base of a boulder field. The creek has really cut out a gorge here, going up the boulder field to the east is a steep but doable affair. The trail levels off into a narrow meadow with the creek flowing through it. It’s a little marshy but there are a few spots, especially later in the season, that could definitely be doable for a small tent. You certainly wouldn’t be bothered up here. We spend a while chilling in the meadow and decide not to go all the way up to Siberia Lake, another scramble up a boulder field would get you there.


We head back down the boulder field this time starting a little farther east through the woods which wasn’t too bad. Less brushy but more blowdowns to hop over. We get back to the main trail and make camp around Geneva Lake, much more private than Snowmass Lake. The spots are farther apart and much more defined.


Day 4: As we’re breaking camp I grab a trekking pole and think, “this feels weird”. I look down… some little bastard decided to chew through the grips on two of our poles and began to munch on a third. Hell. My guess is a marmot. Here is our quick tape fix. Classy, eh?


After that debacle we walk downhill to the Geneva Lake trailhead, which is accessible only by 4WD and not very busy. From here it is a 2.25 mile walk back up the 4WD road to the Silver Creek trailhead. The roadwalk provides spectacular views south into the Raggeds Wilderness and not much traffic, but the best part is the wildflowers. The entire slope is awash in color as we switchback up it. Turning onto the Avalanche/Silver Creek Trail the flowers refuse to let up and we hike higher into wildflower laced meadows. As we are heading up the pass (our 5th of the trip) we realize we have been circling Meadow Mountain, which couldn’t be more aptly named. Heading down the other side of the pass the terrain changes to a rocky meadow dotted with pine trees.


There are other trip reports that this loop is difficult to follow. I assume people are referring to this section of the trail, which at times is faint/non-existent, but never for more than 100 yards. We didn’t have trouble following it, using our maps and GPS it’s pretty clear where we needed to go to stay in the right direction. Without going off on a tangent let me just say if you’re heading into the backcountry, even on well travelled trails, it’s a good idea to have knowledge of how to use a map, compass, and GPS. If visibility was low this section might have been tougher.


After the meadow the trail stays relatively level just above the tree line at approx. 11,600ft skirting along the east side of the valley for a couple miles and then ascends to just over 11,800ft through a small pass (#6 of the trip). From here the GPS and the National Forest topo maps diverge but there is never any question where the trail is and after a steep descent we make it down to Avalanche Creek. Walking up the creek ⅓ of a mile we end the day at Avalanche Lake.


Day 5: Our final day and our final 2 passes. At 14 miles this will be our longest day, but the lure of a hot shower and a cold beer should be enough to give us the extra push back to the car.


We start the day by walking back down Avalanche Creek .5 mile before turn onto the Capitol Creek Trail. We climb 1,600 ft to the pass which sits at 12,000 ft. Beautiful views of Capitol Lake await us at the top. After the lake the trail descends into the forest and after about 2 miles we head onto the West Snowmass Creek Trail. Here again the GPS and National Forest topo maps are different but the trail on the ground is obvious. Heading up to Haystack pass the trail has been rerouted to stay along the creek for longer before climbing to the pass (the FS map has it following a spur uphill.


Pyramid Peak comes into view as the trees thin and we get to the wide pass (#8 and final!) and take a break for lunch. It’s all downhill for the last 6 miles, through pine and then aspen forest. With 3 miles left to go a light drizzle comes and goes, the only rain of the trip. 1.5 miles from the end we get to Snowmass Creek, the only real creek crossing of the trip. With the early season snowmelt it’s knee deep. After crossing you’ll be tempted to take a left onto an old trail, but the no trespassing signs etc should clue you in you’re going the wrong way. Seems counterintuitive but take a right to find the Geneva Lake Trail. From here the trail levels out and it’s a fast walk to the car.


The circuit was just shy of 46 miles and 14,300 ft of elevation gain. Our side trip on day 3 was an additional 3 miles and 1,000 ft of elevation gain.

If you go:

Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Backpack

I wouldn’t call this loop challenging by any stretch of the imagination and the views are nice but not going to top any “best of” lists for Colorado. But when the more scenic trails are still covered in snow and you’re looking for an easy, pleasant weekend trip it does the trick. You could easily do this route as a day hike too.

The loop is 11.5 miles total with a net elevation gain of ~2,000ft and no steep climbs. It’s located just south of Fairplay, CO. Access is an easy 2WD gravel road.

We did the loop counter-clockwise starting from the Rich Creek trailhead. The trail is a steady uphill for the first 5 miles (most of the elevation gain for the hike) through aspen, pine and then a meadow: the high point of the hike.

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Just after the high point we started looking for camping spots. As you go downhill a small creek starts to form. I suspect as the season goes on this creek dries up. We chose a spot not too far off the trail here amongst the trees about 50 yards from the creek. Turns out there is a more popular (and flat) camping spot about a mile down the trail just before the Tumble Creek trail junction, but the privacy we had was worth it.

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On day 2 we spent the part of the morning looking for the Buffalo Ridge 1470 trail but we couldn’t find the access; it may have been partially under water as the marshy area was full with spring snowmelt. Regardless the area was fun, we saw turtles, beavers and many birds in and around the water.

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We followed the Tumble Creek trail for the rest of the loop back to the car getting nice views of east and west Buffalo peak along the way. I’d certainly recommend this loop if you’re looking to get away from the crowds and have a relaxing backpacking trip.  

If you go:

Rich Creek TH

Maps: Caltopo / Gaia

USFS Buffalo Peaks information

New Gear Testing

I did an easy two nights out to test a few new items I purchased to lighten my pack on solo trips. The first night was in a steep valley near a river approx 8,200 ft in elevation. Not normally an ideal place to camp given the cold air will sink to the valley floor, but I wanted to see how the gear performs in more humid conditions. Night 2 was above an alpine lake, approx 9,800 ft in elevation. Forecast was for lows near freezing on Night 1 and upper 30s on Night 2. Chance of rain was about 30% each night.

New gear tested:

-Enlightened Equipment Enigma 30F Short/Slim - $265

-Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Sleeping Pad - REI $35

-Outdoor Research Helium II - $65, REI Garage Sale

Night 1

Night 1

Night 2

Night 2

Enlightened Equipment Enigma 30F Sleeping Quilt:

Those of you who know me know it’s pretty rare that I buy new items or drop serious coin on gear (patience is key to finding good deals). However, EE makes amazing gear and when I do buy new I like to support good folks. I love my 20F EE Accomplice for 2 person trips so it was a no brainer to go back to the well for my solo quilt. Night 1 was, as predicted, humid and just above freezing. With base layers and a hat on I was nice and toasty. Night 2 was in upper 30s and much less humid and I slept well without base layers.

For sizing I got the short/slim. The EE site says short is for “5’6” or under”, I’m 5’ 7 1/2” and I find the short to be the perfect size for me. My feet are snug in the footbox and the top of the quilt comes nicely to my chin. The slim size is for “50” or smaller”, I measure myself at 51”. I sleep in a corpse position and like to be essentially swaddled so this works great for me but it’s about the the smallest I’d go. If you’re the type of person who feels restricted in a mummy bag you’ll want a bigger size. The insulation value is in the loft, if the quilt is too tight around you it’s making the quilt less effective.

Fox friend at Lost Lake night 2

Fox friend at Lost Lake night 2

Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Sleeping Pad:

Is it weird that over my many years of backpacking I’ve never used a closed cell foam pad? I’ve always had inflatable mattresses and only once over who knows how many nights have I had to deal with a leak. However, for $35 I figured it was worth a shot, especially since it weighs about the same as inflatables that cost $100 or more. While it’s not as comfortable as an inflatable I like a firm mattress and I slept pretty well. On a longer trip it’d probably get uncomfortable but for a week or less I think it’ll be fine. The best thing was the set up. Just throw it in the tent and you’re done. Amazing. Con was the bulk, I have to strap it to the outside of my pack, but for the cost savings I can deal.

Lost Lake in the morning

Lost Lake in the morning

Outdoor Research Helium II Raincoat:

This piece of gear makes its on to a lot of UL lists. I’ve been eyeing it for a while but at $150 retail you can about guarantee that I’m not going to buy it new. But when I saw one at an REI garage sale for $65 I figured it was time to go for it. On my scale the small weighs in at 5.7oz, a full 10.3oz lighter than my current raincoat (REI Crestrail). The 30% chance of rain never materialized so I didn’t get to put it through its paces but it did work nice as a windbreak layer in the evening.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

“Use the heater on the dash to warm up the turkey leftovers.” This is how our trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park started.

We had an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving weekend to get out and check out the dunes. The days are getting short, not much time left for hiking after a slow start and 4 hour drive from Boulder. Permits were easy to get, after talking with the ranger it seemed like we might be the only ones camping in the dunes tonight… Good sign? Bad sign? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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The basic backcountry instructions are to “go at least two ridges over from the visitor center, then camp wherever you want.” We took off from the parking area near the Medano Pass Road (which was closed) and hiked about 2 miles into the dunes before it started to get dark. The wind was intense but we managed to get the tent setup. I’m really glad we chose our heavier freestanding tent vs our Tarpent, which would have been near impossible to pitch in the dunes.

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Backpacking in the dunes is slow going, day 2 we made it a grand total of 5 miles. On top of the sand slowing us down we also were carrying all of our water for the day - there is no water in the dunes themselves and it was highly probable that we wouldn’t have water at the Aspen campsite either (there wasn’t).

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Early afternoon we exited the dunes and reached the Aspen campsite, aptly named as it is nestled in a grove of aspen trees with gorgeous views of the dunes and the mountains. It was much less windy here and with temps near 60 it was a great spot to lounge for the rest of the afternoon and enjoy the sunset.

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We headed out early in the morning, using the last of our water to eat our breakfast and coffee. Little Medano Creek, our nearest water source, is about 1.75 miles from Aspen and we had a long break there refilling water and basking in the early morning sun. From here back to the car it’s about 5.5 miles and for the most part the sandy trail parallels the dunes. The last mile we chose walk on the 4WD road. The views were similar, just less sand.

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