Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sleeping Bear Dunes--Platte Plains

Hike: Bass Lake Loop
Nearby Town: Empire, MI
Elevation (Max): 629'
Elevation Gained: ~62'
Mileage: 3.5
Difficulty: Easy
Trailhead: Go west on Trail's End Rd from M-22 just north of Platte Lake and south of Empire. Follow Trail's End Rd to the parking lot at Bass Lake.
Web Site:

Bass Lake at the start

This is a pretty easy hike on the coast of Lake Michigan in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Since it's a loop hike, you have two options for the hike, counter-clockwise or clockwise. When I did this hike with my family, we went clockwise which means starting along Bass Lake and returning via the trail by the vault toilet, but looking back I would recommend doing it counter-clockwise since I believe it's always best to leave the best scenery for the end of a hike. Another very important tip I have for this hike is to be prepared for bugs. If at all possible, avoid doing the hike in the evening (which is when my family did it). This hike tied with my hike of Mount Monadnock for the worst bug experience I can remember. Despite that, though, this hike transports you to beautiful pine forest and can truly be enjoyable if you're prepared.

Dad walking along the lake

In terms of bug preparedness, if you insist on doing the hike in the evening (which actually is a beautiful time to do it and lends itself to more wildlife sighting opportunities), I would recommend bringing bug spray with you and wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt with a hood. My family did this hike in the middle of summer, but still I resorted to wearing a jacket with the hood up and cinched around my head. We started the hike along Bass Lake which was a beautiful aqua green color at that time of the evening. The hike is in pretty dense pine forest and is mostly flat aside from the occasional ups and downs. Not long into the hike while we were still going at a pretty relaxed pace, the bugs had yet to get under our skin, I spotted an animal I had never seen before just off the trail--a porcupine! The light in the woods was low and the porcupine was on the move so the pictures didn't turn out great, but it was definitely neat to see. We all paused to look at the porcupine, which may have been our undoing because I'm pretty sure that brief time we stood still was all the bugs needed to hone in on us and they didn't relent for the remainder of our hike.


From there on, our hiking crew split into two groups. My Dad and aunts went at a more leisurely pace probably because they were all wearing more clothing, and my sisters, Mom and I broke off into a faster group that seemed to make a quick exit from the woods our main goal. The trail is pretty obvious for most of the hike except two junctions. There is one point on the out portion of the hike where you need to turn right to remain on the loop (if my memory serves me, there is a sign at this junction that will direct you). Later in the hike there is a T that surprised us because it's not on the trail map, but you want to go left at this junction and you will soon be back to the parking lot.

Most of the hike from the porcupine sighting to the end is a blur in my memory. This is for two reasons. First, whenever my group came to any downhill portion, we would break into a jog to speed up our escape from the bugs. And, as you can see in the photos, this meant that my memory is not that only thing that is blurred. Also, I'm pretty sure part of my coping mechanism was to try to separate my mind from my body so as to not go insane from the bug attack. I remember lots of pine trees, soft ground under foot, and rich green vegetation all around. When we finally got back to Bass Lake the bugs dissipated greatly, and we walked onto the small dock and took in the scenery of the dark woods surrounding the emerald lake with the late evening sun setting the tops of the trees on the far shore ablaze in golden light.


In case you've never been to northern Michigan, I feel I should just comment here that you haven't seen much of a sunset until you've seen one there. Not only are they colorful and set against intensely beautiful natural backdrops like towering sand dunes or lakes, but also given the high latitude and location on the western edge of the eastern time zone, the sun doesn't set until about 9:30 and the sky doesn't go completely dark until around 10:30. And as long as I'm bragging about the Sleeping Bear Dunes area (check out an earlier post I did here), I might as well mention that Good Morning America named it the Most Beautiful Place in America earlier this year. You can watch their segment on it here. Check out the GPS-generated map of the hike below.

Bass Lake at sunset

Beautiful green water

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lantern Hill

Hike: Lantern Hill
Nearby Town: Ledyard, CT
Elevation (Max): 426'
Elevation Gained: ~270'
Mileage: 2.11
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Trailhead: Lantern Hill is right next to Foxwoods Resort & Casino. Follow Route 2E just past Foxwoods and the intersection with Rte 214. Take the next right which is Wintechog Hill Rd. You will see a little turn off on the right pretty soon where you can park.
Web Site:

Lantern Hill is a classic short hike in southeastern Connecticut. The hike has nice vistas, cliff faces, and some steep climbs. Overall, though, the hike is short, so even though the blood will occasionally get pumping, the hike is pretty easy. You want to start the hike in the pull off from Wintechog Hill Rd., where you will usually see at least one other car parked. Unfortunately, this hike doesn't give you time to warm up, as one of the steepest sections is at the very beginning. Once you get up that hill, the hike more or less flattens out and walks through forest with some small vernal pools scattered about.

Fall colors

It won't take long before you arrive at a 4-way junction. Going right takes you to the Two Trees Inn at Foxwoods, going left takes you to the top of Lantern Hill (this is the way I had always done the hike prior to this time), and going straight will take you along the western side of Lantern Hill before climbing up the southern end of the hill to the summit. On this hike, to satisfy my curiosity, we went straight.

Tight squeeze in this section
Quarry with the ocean on the horizon

I was very pleased with our choice. Not only is it nice to get a different perspective on a very familiar hike, but this route is also less strenuous than the usual route to the top. The trail skirts the western edge of the hill with cliffs above and steep dropoffs below. The trail then comes to a point where it turns around to head to the summit, but there is a vista point here where you can pause to view the nearby quarry and Lantern Hill Pond below. Then follow the trail north up the hill to reach the rocky summit. You can enjoy views to the west (great spot for sunsets) or views to the east over low wooded hills. The cliff on the west side of the hill is a favorite of vultures for soaring on the updrafts. You can also just barely see the ocean to the south if you have a clear day. If you look north, though, the view is a bit startling. All other directions show more or less uninterrupted woods, but looking north reveals Foxwoods and it's enormous buildings. My preferred spot on the summit is looking east where there's a nice cliff to sit and enjoy the view.


Once you're done enjoying the view, follow the trail north down from the summit. This trail will eventually get you to the junction from earlier in the hike. To return to your car, go right, and you'll be there pretty quickly. On this particular hike, though, I kept up the theme of exploring new trails so I went straight toward Two Trees Inn. This part of the hike was not so enjoyable. It goes through buggy woods and eventually arrives at the Two Trees Inn parking lot. On the way, you'll cross a large path. You can go right on this path and it will take you back to Wintechog Hill Rd. where you can turn right and it's just a short walk back to the car. Lantern Hill is always good for a quick hike, and it's one of the best vistas you can get in all of southeastern Connecticut. Below is a GPS-generated map of the hike.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Devil's Hopyard

Hike: Devil's Hopyard
Nearby Town: East Haddam, CT
Elevation (Max): 435'
Elevation Gained: ~725'
Mileage: 4.54
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Trailhead: From I-95, take Exit 70 onto Rte 156 N. Turn R on Rte 82 and take immediate Left on Hopyard Road. Turn R on Foxtown Road directly above the waterfall and park in the lot above the falls.
Web Site:

This is a loop hike around both sides of Devil's Hopyard State Park. The first half is relatively flat while the second half has some short segments that are steep enough to make use of all four of your limbs. To get started, park in the lot above the falls. Cross the road and walk along the falls on the right side passing by a stone arch on the right.

The Red Trail breaks off on the right, follow it. It crosses Hopyard Road. Follow the Red Trail to where it comes to a point and switches back. Continue to follow the Red Trail, over a small bridge, and then turn left on the Green Trail. Take another immediate left on the Green Trail, and then follow the trail until it intersects the White Trail. Go right on the White Trail and follow it, crossing the Green Trail a couple times along the way. The White Trail will meet back up with the Red Trail where you should turn right to return to where you first joined the Red Trail. I know that sequence of trails is pretty confusing, and those trails all intersect multiple times, but basically you want to make a lollipop out of the Red and Green trails, and the White trail can be used as a short cut. That concludes the part of the hike on the west side of Hopyard Road.

The rest of the hike is on the east side of the road along Eightmile River and up on the ridge. Go right at the end of the Red Trail, then go left down some stairs, then right through a picnic area, then left across the covered bridge. At the other side of the covered bridge, go straight to the vista. From here, follow the trail to the vista (there are trail markers that will direct you).

Initially, the trail follows the river which is really beautiful with lots of moss covered rocks and tall evergreens. A trail marker will direct you on a short detour to Devil's Oven, a small cave in a cliff. This is a strenuous, very steep side trip, but it is fun and the cave is kind of neat, so I would recommend it. You can either continue to follow the trail to the vista, or you can continue along the river until you are even with the vista (you will need to use a map to figure this out), then turn left and climb up the hill. This is a challenging ascent that will get your hands involved.

When you come upon the trail, turn right to the overlook over the valley to the south. It is a really beautiful sight so I would recommend bringing a plum or nectarine to enjoy up there. Take the spur back to the Orange Trail loop. Turn right to take the upper half of the Orange Loop back to the parking lot. The trail will split again after a bit, stay right. The trail will hit a small stream and follow that for a bit with a trail branching off to the right. Ignore it, stay straight, and you will arrive at the base of the falls. Climb up the rocks (not the steep rocks in sight of the falls but the ones a little tucked away that look more used by hikers), and turn left to return to the car.

Below is a GPS-generated map of this hike.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Lincoln and Lafayette

Guest Post: My friend Eric has recently been dominating the mountains of New England and he wrote this report of a loop hike of Little Haystack Mountain and Mounts Lincoln and Lafayette in New Hampshire.

After hiking Mount Washington and being confident that I would’ve had energy for the drive home, I decided to do a day trip to the Whites. I planned to go a few weeks ago, but failed to wake up early enough. But on October 8th I got up a little after 3:30 and was out the door at 4:00. I drove up 91 North about 130 miles into Vermont and turned down 93 South. My destination was Franconia Ridge. I am far from done with the Presidentials, but wanted to check out a new area. Franconia is home to the two tallest peaks in the Whites outside of the Presidentials, Lafayette and Liberty (my targets). It also has two other big advantages: it is directly off 93 and it does not require a parking pass. Unfortunately, there are multiple parking areas, and this led to a slightly later start than planned.
I knew how to get to Franconia Notch but wasn’t sure which parking area I wanted. I thought I wanted the first sign for trailhead parking after Exit 34B (spoiler alert: I was wrong). I pulled into the parking lot at about 7:30 and there were already ten or fifteen cars. I put on my boots, grabbed my backpack and started looking for the tunnel underneath the highway. Not sure of which direction to go, I headed south. The person I tried asking didn’t know, but he also looked like he’d been stoned since Woodstock, so I didn’t put too much into his opinion. I walked for a few minutes before deciding that I must be headed in the wrong direction. I have the AMC Guide maps, which are great, but the scale on the Franconia map is smaller than the Presidential map and I couldn’t decipher the parking area. As I passed back through the parking lot I noticed that everyone in sight had rock climbing gear and not hiking gear. This was alarming, but didn’t necessarily prove anything, so I proceeded to the north end of the lot, where I immediately found the tunnel. Now sure of myself, I crossed under the highway and texted my girlfriend that I was at the trailhead. The only problem was I didn’t see a trail. I walked for a few minutes on the paved bike path until I looked across the highway and could see a decent sized body of water. This was on my map and it allowed me to determine that I was too far north. So I went back to the parking lot, drove down 93, and quickly saw signs for trailhead parking at Lafayette Place Campground. I got off that exit, drove around the little parking lot, and found that all of the parking spaces were filled. I pulled over in front of the hiker information shack to ask if there was anywhere else to park. The woman inside told me that I could where I had pulled over, so I crossed under the highway and was off.

My route was a counterclockwise loop. I started with Old Bridle Path for a couple tenths of a mile before turning onto Falling Waters Trail for the ascent to Little Haystack Mountain and the intersection with Franconia Ridge Trail. I turned left (north), to cross over Lincoln, then Lafayette. I descended via the Greenleaf Trail and Old Bridle Path. This loop (in either direction) is considered one of the classic day hikes of the White Mountains. Falling Waters Trail was appropriately named. It crossed over brooks multiple times and had excellent views of waterfalls. The first and largest brook crossing had a bridge but the rest did not. While they were easily manageable now, I imagine they would be challenging with higher waters.

After the brook crossings, the trail became somewhat non-descript. This wasn’t a bad thing, it had generally good footing and was reasonably graded, but nothing really stood out besides a couple switchbacks to ease the grade. There were no great views until breaking treeline slightly below Little Haystack Mountain (which lacks the prominence to be an official AMC 4000-footer). At this point the views became fantastic, as I could see back across to the other side of the notch. Upon reaching the top of Little Haystack, I had 360° views: Franconia Notch, up and down Franconia Ridge, and east into the Pemi.

I went north toward Lincoln, fighting some strong wind coming from the west. Every time the trail dipped down to the east side of the ridge was a welcome relief. I took a lot of pictures, but none of them really do the views justice; it felt like the pictures would all come out the same despite the views seeming to change drastically as I moved just a short distance. There was still a bit of haze, but still a better than average day for visibility. Because there’s no trail that ascends directly to Lincoln, it seemed like a midpoint more than a destination and I did not stop.

Moving onward, I quickly reached Lafayette, where I sat for a few minutes taking in the views of Owl’s Head and the Pemi. I also checked out my new views to the north of Garfield Ridge and back south toward Lincoln. The summit, while not loud, had a few groups on it, so I didn’t stay long.

I began my descent down the Greenleaf Trail. This trail was above treeline for quite some time so I had excellent views to the west. I was now encountering a lot of people coming up, so I frequently had to yield. I saw an older group of three approaching and one of the men was wearing a shirt from a road race with the L&M Hospital logo on it. As he neared, I also noticed that he was wearing a Conn College hat. I asked if he was from Connecticut and when he said yes, I asked where. He said from the New London area and I responded that I was from Ledyard. The woman then replied that the second man was from Ledyard. I didn’t know him, but he lives on Whalehead, so that was my “small world” interaction for the day.

The last thing I’ll note about the descent was the incredible number of French Canadian people that I encountered. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised since many of them likely had shorter drives than I did, but it was a little jarring for the proportion to be about 50%. Everyone was nice, although I did receive some blank stares back when I replaced “hi” with a more casual “how’s it going”. At one point I came across a young boy who could not have been more than 8 and we said hi to each other. It then occurred to me that I hadn’t passed anyone in a few minutes and I didn’t see anyone else coming. I turned back to him and asked if he knew where his parents were, but he just pointed at himself and said “me French”, so that was the end of that conversation. I passed several more people in the next couple minutes so I’m sure he was fine. Mount Lafayette must be one of the most popular destinations in the Whites, but it is amusing to wonder if French Canadians like to hike this peak to honor its namesake.
I enjoyed the views on Old Bridle Path, which had a few lookout areas below treeline. I soon reached the brook where Falling Waters Trail had initially diverged, and a few minutes later I was at my car. There is no access to 93 North from where I parked, so I hopped on South. I immediately learned that I did not understand the parking situation up there: there were cars parked on both the north and south sides on 93 for almost half a mile. Since I was the first car to not get a spot in the morning, I didn’t get to see this as an example, but it’s good to know for the future. Overall, this was a great hike, and a highly recommended route for a day with good weather.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Art Loeb Trail/Graveyard Fields

Hike: Graveyard Fields/Black Balsam Knob Circuit
Nearby Town: Brevard, NC
Elevation (Max): 6,214'
Elevation Gained: ~1500'
Mileage: 10.75
Difficulty: Strenuous
Trailhead: Park at the Graveyard Fields Overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway around milepost 419. The trailhead is the Graveyard Fields Loop trail that leaves the parking lot (there are two trails, use the one on the right).
Web Site:

Graveyard Fields from the Blue Ridge Parkway overlook

Park at the Graveyard Fields Overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is one of the most popular overlooks, and the lot can sometimes fill up (though, if it does, people just park on the grass). From the overlook, head down the Graveyard Fields Loop trail on the right which is a paved path through dense rhodedendreon. The path reaches the Yellowstone Prong, a beautiful rocky river. Cross the bridge and turn left on the Graveyard Fields Loop (blue blaze). Enjoy this walk through a rare and beautiful mountain meadow with views up to all the mountains and ridges around you. The trail then turns right onto the Graveyard Ridge Connector (yellow blaze) which will take you up from Graveyard Fields to Graveyard Ridge. This trail can occasionally be confusing (as can several of the trails on this hike as they are not very well marked nor heavily used), but as long as you remember where you are coming from and where you are going, you should be ok. For example, trails zig-zag across the Graveyard Ridge Connector (these trails mostly just go around some obstacles on the trail), but as long as you continue going away from your car and up Graveyard Ridge, you will be ok.

Yellowstone Prong

Heading into Graveyard Fields

On to Graveyard Ridge

The trail will reach the Graveyard Ridge Trail (orange blaze) onto which you want to turn left. This is a mostly flat and easy trail that walks along the side of the ridge with beautiful views over Graveyard Fields and up to Black Balsam Knob. The trail will eventually come to a 4-way junction. The trail on the left is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) ascending Black Balsam Knob, the trail straight ahead is the Graveyard Ridge Trail heading to Ivestor Gap, and the trail on the right is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and Graveyard Ridge Trail (Graveyard Ridge is a loop). You want to go left on the MST up Black Balsam Knob (on the return side of the loop, you will be coming back on the Graveyard Ridge Trail from Ivestor Gap).

On the Graveyard Ridge Trail

Head to Black Balsam and Fire Road 816

We dubbed this trail the Mountainous Sea of Grass Trail as the trail is clearly not heavily used and is pretty overgrown with grasses and bushes. This is by far the most strenuous part of the hike with the majority of the elevation gain coming here. The views really begin to open up on this trail with Mount Pisgah to the northeast and Looking Glass Rock (and, believe it or not, your car) to the southeast. The trail descends a bit from a rocky overlook to the headwaters of Yellowstone Prong before climbing to near Fire Road 816 which the trail parallels a bit before connecting with the Art Loeb Trail. Parking along this road is popular for going into the Shining Rock Wilderness or taking a quick hike up Black Balsam Knob. This is where we first saw other people on the trail.

Not much of a trail

Headwaters of Yellowstone Prong

Join the Art Loeb Trail (white blaze) and begin the balds portion of the hike. The first bald is Black Balsam Knob (6,214') where the views open up on a grand scale in all directions with the Smokies to the west and countless mountains of Pisgah National Forest all around (and you can still, amazingly, see your car if you have binoculars). The balds are a unique feature of the southern Appalacchians where the latitudes are too low for an alpine zone but nevertheless the mountain summits are treeless. Theories for why this is so range from livestock grazing to forest fires. Whatever the reason, they provide beautiful, wide views. The Art Loeb Trail is a lot like the MST, though, with lots of overgrown grass, which, unfortunately, soon got soaked making for a very, very wet hike for the rest of the day.

Joining the Art Loeb Trail

The final ascent of Black Balsam Knob

Something you really have to be prepared for when doing this hike is rain. The mountains of western North Carolina are a temperate rainforest, and thunderstorms can pop up suddenly on any day. When we did this hike, we started with beautiful, sunny skies, but only a couple hours later clouds had filled in, and as we approached Black Balsam Knob, thunder started rumbling all around. Being on top of a bald in the middle of a thunderstorm wasn't something we were very interested in. Luckily, we were only a few minutes away from the treeline so we just retreated back down the way we came into the trees to wait out the lightning and heavy rain. We ended up waiting about an hour or more just sitting around under the trees trying to stay dry. This waiting made our goal of reaching Shining Rock essentially impossible. The really great thing about the Graveyard Fields/Shining Rock Wilderness area, though, is that there are lots of trails that come in from the east and west connecting to the central Art Loeb Trail, which makes revising hiking plans easy.

Storm clouds approaching

Waiting out the rain (Don't worry, E is not crying--just bored)

After Black Balsam Knob, the next peak we came to was Tennent Mountain (6,040'), which provides even more incredible views (since the entire hike along the balds is exposed, the views are basically never ending). The trail curls along the east side of Tennent Mountain before descending toward Ivestor Gap with only one more small hill in between. Water supply is the biggest challenge of a hike across the balds as you are entirely on the ridge. Luckily for us, the thunderstorms that rolled through earlier left plenty of puddles around and we filtered from a large puddle between Tennent and this small hill.

The trail up Tennent Mountain

Looking back along the Art Loeb Trail

On Tennent

Descending to Ivestor Gap through wet, waist-high vegetation

We decided to start looking for a site to camp for our two-day hike. We saw three other tents already set up including an amazingly beautiful spot in a field in Ivestor Gap with views both east and west. Sadly, we didn't get this spot, but ours was pretty cool too. We camped right off the trail on a thick bed of grass on top of the hill between Tennent and Ivestor Gap with great views to the east and of Tennent Mountain. There was also a stand of large-ish trees nearby which we used to hang our bear bag. Camping is allowed anywhere in Pisgah National Forest, so it's really a finders-keepers sort of thing.

A lovely camping spot

The night got pretty cold--despite the 85 degree day, but I was comfortable in the 25 degree rated bag. E, on the other hand, slept wrapped in a blanket because she didn't have a lightweight sleeping bag and because we figured late June would be plenty warm. Well, that did not turn out to be quite correct, and she had a rather uncomfortable, cold night. We hit the trail at about 7 the next morning and began the last part of the hike through dewy grass that quickly soaked our socks (again).

The next morning with dew on my lens

When you arrive in Ivestor Gap, several trails come together. First, take a moment to enjoy the view to the west one last time before descending the east side of the ridge. Then take the wide dirt trial on the right heading east. This is the Graveyard Ridge Trail again. This trail is pretty wide as it is supposedly for multiple use like horses, though I cannot imagine a horse walking on this trail covered with loose, small rocks. the trail winds around the east edges on the mountains before crossing Dark Prong, which is a beautiful, cold stream which we filtered to replenish our bottles. The trail continues and pretty quickly returns to the 4-way junction from yesterday. You want to go to the trail from which you came yesterday so go straight on the Graveyard Ridge Trail (right goes back up Black Balsam and left is the MST along Graveyard Ridge). From here just retrace your steps back to your car.

Or, you could enjoy a quick side adventure to the base of Second Falls along Yellowstone prong. To get there, instead of going right across the bridge back to your car, go straight down the hill and you will eventually get to some stairs that take you to the base of the falls. It's a pretty impressive sight.

Second Falls

A beautiful and very cold-looking pool at the base of the falls

This hike can be done in one day as long as you get an early enough start. Thunderstorms pop up pretty frequently in the mountains in summer, though, so be ready to revise your plans. This is easily my favorite hike in North Carolina so far. I hope to get back to the Art Loeb Trail again some day to hike its entire length. Below is a GPS-generated map of the hike.