Backpacking with Yonder Buds in Harriman State Park
Two weeks ago, my Yonder friend, Lauren, asked me if I had any upcoming overnight trips planned. I didn’t yet, but I had been wanting to get out all winter and with the weather looking a lot more like late spring than late winter it was definitely time to get out for one. So we picked a date and I started looking through my maps. Harriman State Park has become my #1 go to place for a quick weekend getaway. It’s only about an hour away, has over 200 miles of trails, and there are plenty of shelters and tons of primitive campsites throughout the park. The hardest part is figuring out which section to visit each time. For this trip, I decided on a route that would take us through the southern section of the park with some beautiful views and interesting rock scrambles and that would have us camping out at one of the stone shelters.
I posted the planned trip as an event in one of our local hiking groups on Facebook, the Trailseekers Crew. Byron, the founder of the Trailseekers Crew, and his girlfriend had to cancel last-minute due to a sprained ankle, so it would just be Lauren and I joined by Joanna and Liz. And of course, my dog Buddy, who has probably been itching to get out on the trail as much as I have. I love how excited he gets as soon as he sees me take his Ruffwear Approach backpack out of the closet. I’ve hiked with Joanna and Liz a few times over the past several months and have met Lauren briefly while helping her out with planning and some logistics for a backpacking trip that she did last summer. But this would be our first overnighter with each other and we were all eager to hit the trail and have some fun camping out together.
We met at the Reeves Meadow Information Center at about 8 am on Saturday morning. Joanna and Liz were there almost an hour early, and their excitement was evident as soon as I pulled into the lot. This would be Joanna’s first backpacking trip and they had both just recently bought a bunch of new gear and were eager to test it out. Lauren arrived a few minutes after I did and we were quickly on our way. It wasn’t long before the trail began a steep ascent, as is the case with most of the hikes in this region. There’s nothing like a good climb right off the bat to get your legs screaming, heart pumping, and mind wondering what the hell you’ve got yourself into this time. But everyone handled it well and we were well rewarded with the view from the Torne when we got up there.
After a quick snack break and some pictures from atop the Torne we continued on along the orange trail. The goal today was to backpack about 12.5 miles to the Big Hill Shelter where we would camp out for the night and then wake up and hike about a mile to the Jackie Jones fire tower to catch the sunrise. I knew that this was a little ambitious and that we may be hard pressed to make it there, but thus far, we were holding to a pretty good pace of about 1.5 miles per hour and should be able to make it there by late afternoon / early evening.
The trail was very pretty in places, with lots of fun little stream crossings that always seemed to get us smiling and laughing, usually at Liz’s expense. The first few times we hiked with Liz she was pretty gun shy about crossing the streams as she can be a bit clumsy at times (which she readily admits and laughs about with us), even going so far as to crawl across one downed tree instead of risking a fall into the water. I have to admit though, that she has come along way since then and you could barely notice that she isn’t too thrilled with them, other than the good natured ribbing she gets from her friends and the scrunchy-faced look she gets just before attempting the crossing.
I was hoping to break for lunch when we reached the Ed Stone Memorial Shelter, about 8 miles into the hike, which would leave us a little less than 5 more to go for the day. But as the day wore on our pace started to slow. The constant up and down amongst the hills, difficult (but fun) scrambles along the cliff faces, and the always uneven footing along the rocks (I swear this place grows them) were taking their toll. By 1:30 I could tell that everyone needed a break, and that hiking another mile and half to the shelter without one wasn’t going to happen. It was also pretty evident at this point that my plans for the hike were going to have to change. Fortunately, I had a backup plan in mind. That’s one thing that I quickly learned to always have, as well as the flexibility to adapt to the groups needs, when taking my children on overnights or extended backpacking trips. Leading a group of adults isn’t much different, as we are all at varying levels of experience and fitness, and even with that being good, hiking with a heavy pack on over this terrain can quickly wear your body down. So I decided to cut out a large loop and camp out at the Stone Memorial Shelter instead. This would give us time to setup camp and enjoy ourselves, and the experience, a whole lot more.
It was just about 3 o’clock when we crested yet another rise and could see the shelter peeking out through the trees on the next hill over. And even better news, the stream below was running just fine, which meant that I wouldn’t have to hike a mile to the lake to fill up on water for the night. (Thanks Lauren, for offering to go with me though!).
We crossed the stream and scrambled up the slope to the shelter and it was even better than I had seen it described. It’s one of the older ones and the floor is uneven on one side and the inside fireplace isn’t that great compared to some of the other shelters in the park. But it would do just fine for the evening. The girls all decided to get some use out of their new tents while I setup my pad and sleeping bag in the shelter.
After I got setup in the shelter and hung my hammock I went down to the stream to fill up some water and to test out my new water filtration system. I pieced together a gravity fed system using two old Platypus Hydration Bladders for the dirty water bags and their hoses, a 6.0 Liter Platypus Water Tank, and the Sawyer Mini Filter. It gave me the ability to filter 5 liters of water in just a few minutes with minimal effort. Way better than the pump or UV filters I had been using before. I ended up filtering 15 liters of water between that afternoon and the next morning and all I had to do was screw in the hoses to the platypus bladder and water tank each time. It’s truly effortless. And with the Sawyer Mini, I can use it as an emergency filter while on the trail for day hikes without carrying all of the extra bladders and tubing. Makes for a great filtration system that can be adaptable to whatever your needs are and weighs next to nothing. I couldn’t be happier with it.
Once everyone was done setting up camp I had us all work on gathering some firewood for the night. Fortunately, there was plenty available within a short walk around the shelter and we had a pretty big pile after only a few trips out each. While Liz was still out gathering her last load, Lauren decided to climb into the hammock.
When Liz got back with an armload of firewood, Joanna thought that it would be funny to take a picture of her staring in disbelief at the “Princess” resting in the hammock while everyone else was out gathering firewood. Even though it was a staged pic, it was really funny and they both played the part perfectly.
And this wouldn’t be the only comic relief that Joanna had in store for us. I setup my JetBoil Flash and started to prep dinner. I had brought some homemade dehydrated chili for Lauren and I while Liz and Joanna had each brought some prepackaged Mountain House Chili Mac. But Liz had brought the 2.5 serving package while Joanna only brought the 1 serving, a point that she commented on several times while we were cooking my chili and heating up the water to cook theirs. Everyone started eating, except for Liz, and when she came over to join us she quickly realized that Joanna had “mistakingly” started eating her 2.5 serving bag of chili mac! Either Joanna was really tired and made an innocent mistake, or she was really hungry and hoped Liz wouldn’t notice. We all just laughed at it and gave her the benefit of the doubt. To her credit though, she finished the entire bag!
After dinner I got the fire going and Lauren and I had some tea along with a little blackberry brandy while Liz and Joanna sipped from the airplane bottles of liquor that Liz brought with her. We hung out around the fire for a few hours and talked and laughed until we were all about to pass out. Lauren had said she wanted to stay up until 9 so that she wouldn’t wake up super early and I think we all used that as our unofficial bedtime because as soon as it turned 9 we were all headed off to sleep.
I tried to sleep in the hammock. I put my sleeping pad and sleeping bag in it and tried to get comfortable. While I was certainly warm enough, I’m a side sleeper, so it was hard to get comfortable enough on my back. And when I would turn onto my side I would immediately start to feel compressed where the hammock was causing me to bend the wrong way. Buddy also wouldn’t stay in the shelter without me and curled up below the hammock where I would have to keep wrapping him up in his blanket every time he would get up and shake it off. I made it until about 4 am when the wind picked up too much to stay out there and Buddy and I both happily retreated to the comfort of the shelter. It was well after 8 by the time I awoke again and even though I hadn’t slept great in the first half of the night and lost an hour due to the Daylight Saving Time change, I felt pretty good and was ready to get the day started. While everyone started breaking down camp I got breakfast going, including some homemade dehydrated breakfast burritos that went over very well.
While eating breakfast we decided on the route we would take back to the cars. Everyone was hurting a bit from the previous day’s hike and we were getting a late start so we decided that today’s hike would be a shorter, but no less exciting, trip back to the cars along a different route. After breakfast we finished packing up and paused for a quick group photo before heading back out on the trail.
“A journey is best measured in friends, not in miles.” ~ Tim Cahill
The first half of the journey back was relatively flat, although still ridiculously rocky, as it followed along the shore of Pine Meadow Lake. It really is a beautiful little mountain lake with a couple of pretty cool, although prohibited, camping spots along the shore. Apparently swimming is prohibited here as well, which is really a shame as this would make for a great place to bring the kids backpacking.
After we made it around the lake we were in for another steep ascent. This one might have been the worst of the climbs we did on the trip, mostly because of how tired and sore we already were. But the view from the top overlooking the lake was incredible and we knew that it would probably be the last of the climbs so it was bearable.
The descent down had some pretty cool rock scrambles. There were a few places where I had to lift Buddy and set him down and we all had to shimmy down or slide down on our butts. After the last one, Lauren said to me with a big smile, “That was the awesomest part of the trip!”. She was right. But for me, it wasn’t just scrambling down the rocks that made it the best part, it was seeing the huge smiles on the faces of the girls while they did it. And they didn’t just do it, they did it with a heavy pack on their back, one while overcoming a fear of heights, another a fear of just tripping and falling, and I couldn’t be happier for, or prouder of, each one of them. You ladies rock!
You can conquer almost any fear if you will only make up your mind to do so. For remember, fear doesn’t exist anywhere except in the mind.” – Dale Carnegie
As the adrenaline wore off from the descent it was time to find a spot to take a break and have some lunch. We were now down out of the mountains for the last time and were walking along the Stony Brook. We found a great little spot with some rocks along the water were we could relax for a bit and enjoy the peaceful babbling of the brook.
It was another hour or so back to the car and the remainder of our journey was pretty quiet. It’s always bittersweet as you get near the end of a trip like this. You’re tired and sore and want nothing more than a hot shower, some greasy food, and the comfort of your own bed. But you know the minute you leave the trail you’ll start missing it and daydreaming about getting back out there again.
“Happiness only real when shared.” ~ Christopher McCandless
I’ve done a lot of solo trips over the past few years and I’ve always felt like there was something missing during them. And while it’s always nice to find some solitude while you’re getting lost alone in the woods, I have truly come to realize that these journeys are definitely better when they are shared. Until next time. Namaste!
Here’s some more pictures from my adventure in Harriman State Park