Garner State Park

We had taken off early from work on Friday, and as we jumped in the car for the three hour drive from Austin to Garner State Park, I could practically smell the sausages that would soon be cooking over our blazing campfire. Garner had long been on our list and I was so excited it was finally happening. We had a weekend of camping, hiking, swimming, and relaxing with friends ahead of us; I was really looking forward to getting away after a hectic week at work. 

As we pulled into the entrance and found our way to the park headquarters, there seemed to be some sort of event going on. I knew the park offered nightly dances on their pavilion during parts of the year and I assumed this crowd was part of it. But no bother, because we would soon be at our campsite and away from the crowd. 

Beautiful fall colors while hiking along the Frio 

We parked the car and after squeezing through the crowd and dodging hordes of running children, we made it to the door. The scene that greeted us was so far from what I was expecting that it took me a minute or two to digest. I could see four park employees through a glass window, barricaded behind a locked door. A large number 80 flashed in red above the door. The door buzzed and the lucky holder of number 80 was allowed through to speak to the rangers. 

View of the Frio River from halfway up Old Baldy trail 

After looking around, I saw the red number dispenser by the door. I pulled number 51. Ok, I thought, about 30 people ahead of us. Not great, but that shouldn't take longer than 30 minutes right? My heart sank as the red number 80 turned to 81. It was going up, not down. There were 70 people ahead of us. 

Number 51 was called two and a half hours later. We had arrived at the park around 7:30pm and did not get to our campsite until about 10:30pm. It wasn't exactly the relaxing night I had expected when we had set off from Austin earlier that day. 

Enjoying the view from the summit of Old Baldy

Garner State Park has over 400 spots available for camping; this is a huge amount compared to other parks I've been to and speaks to why they have a ridiculous wait time to check in. It also explains why the park feels like a miniature city in some places. There is a huge pavilion where dances are held nightly in the Summer, a burger restaurant, a candy store, and putt putt golf. 

The concession area offers a huge dancing pavilion, burger joint, and  putt-putt golf

Putt-putt golf 

Garner Grill 


Garner State Park at a glance

  • 11 miles of hiking trails
  • Onsite putt-putt golf, candy store, and burger restaurant 
  • 347 campsites, 37 screened shelters, 17 cabins, and one group campsite. 
  • The park hosts nightly dances over the Summer and has been doing so since the 1940s. 
  • 3 miles of the Frio River winds through the park. You can rent paddle boats, kayaks, and inner tubes to enjoy the water. 
  • Expect to wait a while (2.5 hours in our case) if you arrive on a Friday afternoon during busy season. I recommend arriving on an off day (e.g. Thursday instead of Friday) and/or getting to the check-in office as soon as check-in begins (2pm). 
  • There are five different camping areas. The Oakmont and Pecan Grove camping areas seemed to be the busiest and most packed in but are also the closest to the concessions, boat rentals, and more popular hiking trails (e.g. Old Baldy). 



2017 in Review

My resolution for 2017 was to not only to get outside more but to do more backpacking and camping. As the year wraps up, I'm happy to say that I've met that goal and then some. I started Trial by Trail in March of this year as a way to document my trips and hopefully to help and inspire others to plan their own. I have learned so much this year and I am looking forward to a 2018 full of adventure. 

Best Overall: Grand Canyon Rim to Rim 

Ribbon Falls 

The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike is 24 miles with roughly 10k feet of elevation change. We hiked North to South over three days in June, spending two nights at the bottom of the canyon. Temperatures reached 117 degrees Fahrenheit, but we stayed cool by swimming at Ribbon Falls and in Bright Angel Creek. 

There is just something about the Grand Canyon. The top of the rims offer amazing views, but the bottom of the canyon is what I found the most astounding. The absolute lack of noise from cars and people was something I had never experienced before. As you hike to the bottom of the canyon, it's like walking through time. I have never felt my own impermanence more strongly. 

Click here to read more about our Rim to Rim hike and how to plan your own. 

Passing by some mules headed down into the canyon on our way up to the South rim.

Most Unique: The Narrows Top Down

Aptly named, the Narrows is the narrowest part of Zion Canyon and is one of the most popular hikes in Zion National Park. The canyon walls reach over 1,000 feet tall and only 20 to 30 feet wide in some places. The Virgin River runs through the canyon so the hike is mostly through flowing water that generally ranges from ankle to waist deep (and sometimes deeper).

We were unable to obtain an overnight permit for this hike so we did all 16 miles from Chamberlain's Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava in one day. Armed with dry pants, dry bags, canyoneering shoes, and really big walking sticks, we finished the hike in about 9.5 hours.

Click here to learn how to plan your own Narrows hike. 

Most Challenging: Grand Circle Trailfest 

I took up trail running towards the end of 2016 as a way to train for longer backpacking trips. I've always hated running, having stuck mostly to roads. I've discovered that running on trails is a completely different experience and one that I actually enjoy. 

As I continued to add additional miles to my long runs I must have been feeling overconfident because my husband convinced me to sign up for the Grand Circle Trailfest, a three day trail running festival near Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks. We only signed up for the first two days, but both days were farther than I had ever run in my life with a lot of elevation gain (Day 1 was 14 miles with 4k elevation gain, day 2 was 12 miles with 2k feet of elevation gain). 

I surprised myself. It was hard, the first day especially, but I did it. It was inspiring and humbling to see people of all ages on the trail. At one point I paced off a lady who looked like she was about 80 and any sense of grandeur I had disappeared immediately. The trails were magnificent and despite my legs being extremely tired, I found myself regretting not signing up for the third day. 

Best Camping: Pedernales Falls State Park 

My husband and I visited several State Parks this year that we had either never been to at all or had never camped at: Pedernales Falls State Park, Garner State Park, Colorado Bend State Park, Virgin Creek State Park, and Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. 

Pedernales Falls 

  1. Pedernales Falls State Park: So far, Pedernales Falls is my favorite camping spot for it's proximity to Austin, private camp sites, and network of hiking trails. 
  2. Colorado Bend State Park: We definitely need a second visit to Colorado Bend State Park as we left a few trails un-hiked on our visit. It's second on my list because the drive-in campsites offer no privacy from other campers (walk-in campsites do), but the hiking trails are beautiful. 
  3. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area: Definitely one of the most unique natural areas in Texas, Enchanted Rock is the closest you'll get to seeing a mountain in South Texas (unless you count Old Baldy in Garner State Park). It's third on my list because the hiking trails are lacking, but if you're into rock climbing I highly suggest checking it out. There are only walk-in campsites so no RVs or roof-top tents allowed. 
  4. Garner State Park: I have to admit this is low on my list because of how crowded the park was. With a two hour wait to check-in on a Friday evening, we likely won't return to this park to camp. 
  5. Village Creek State Park: Unfortunately, this park was heavily damaged by Hurricane Harvey and only the RV camping part of the park is open. All trails are closed and the canoe launch was destroyed during the storm. 

Enchanted Rock 

Colorado Bend 

Virgin Creek


What's Next? 

My husband Taylor and I are turning 30 this summer and we want to celebrate with our biggest trip yet. We're applying for permits to hike the John Muir Trail in late July. The JMT is a roughly 200 mile part of the Pacific Crest Trail, starting in Yosemite Valley and ending at Mt. Whitney. We expect it to take us around 20 days to complete. Fingers crossed we can get permits! Stay tuned to hear more about planning and logistics for this trip. 


Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is one of the most unique natural areas in Texas. The huge granite dome that is the "enchanted rock" rises about 425 feet above the surrounding land. Even in the hill country, this monadnock sticks out like a sore thumb. WTF is a monadnock, you ask? It's an isolated rock hill or small mountain that rises abruptly from a gently sloping or virtually level surrounding plain. Don't worry, I had never heard that word either until I visited the park. Enchanted Rock is so unique that it inspires an interest in geology that requires immediate googling. 

View of the dome from Moss Lake Trail 

View of the rock from Turkey Pass Trail. If you look closely you can see some rock climbers. 

On our way up Summit Trail 

View from the top of Summit Trail. 

According to the Park's website, humans have camped in this area for 12,000 years. I'm sure our campsite was reminiscent of the prehistoric campers who came before us. The park offers 35 walk-in campsites, 20 primitive backpacking sites (1-3 miles from parking), and one group primitive site. There are no drive-up sites available so no RV or rooftop tent camping is allowed. 

Walk-in campsite #35 with a view of the enchanted rock behind. 

We stayed in a walk-in campsite which was one of the best campsites I've stayed at in a park in Texas. These range in distance from the parking lot, but even the farthest are within 100 yards. The campsites are divided into two portions by the road/parking lot. Campsites 1-21 are in an open area with few trees and little privacy between you and the campsites near you. I recommend staying in campsites 22-44. These sites are nestled right up next to the granite dome and the surrounding trees offer more privacy (although you are still close enough to hear other campers). 

Walk-in campsite #35

Walk-in campsites 1-21 have less trees to provide privacy.

Other than camping, hiking and rock climbing are the main activities to enjoy in the park. There are 11 miles of hiking trails, though the short hike up to the top of the dome is the most popular and also the most challenging. We always enjoy scrambling down the East side of the dome after reaching the top. This isn't an official trail but is a fun way to enjoy some more adventurous hiking. The other trails in the park are very easy for anyone in moderate shape. 

The East side of the dome offers a fun off-trail scramble down the side that connects with Turkey Pass Trail. 

Hiking the Loop Trail 

The park offers many climbing routes which range in difficultly from a 5.0 to 5.11. To learn more about the different routes, click here

Keep in mind that pets are not allowed in many areas of the park. Dogs are allowed in the picnic areas, the campsites, and the 4.6 mile Loop Trail. All other trails are off limits for pets. Although unfortunate for those of us who like to camp with our doggers, the park implemented this rule to protect the vernal pools which form on the surface of the granite. These pools create their own ecosystems and are home to a tiny crustacean called the fairy shrimp.


Enchanted Rock at a glance: 

  • 35 walk-in campsites 
  • 20 primitive backpacking sites + 1 primitive group site for up to 75 people
  • Tent camping only; no RVs or rooftop tents allowed
  • Pets are allowed in campsites and picnic areas but not in many other areas of the park
  • Main activities include camping, hiking, and rock climbing
  • 11 miles of hiking trails throughout the park 
  • Several climbing routes which range in difficulty from 5.0 to 5.11
  • The park is very popular and can fill to capacity as early as 10am during busy months. If you're going just for the day be sure to get there early! 




My Favorite Outdoor Adventure Books

A few months ago I wrote a post about some of my favorite outdoor podcasts and I'm following up with a list of some of my favorite outdoor adventure books. These are all great reads and in my opinion are the next best thing to adventuring yourself. 

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

As the title suggests, this book tells the story of the fastest boat ride ever down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. During parts of the book I could close my eyes and feel as if I was on the boat myself, hurtling down the giant rapids of the Colorado. Not only is it a thrilling read, but it teaches you a ton about the history and exploration of the Grand Canyon, including some of the present day threats the Canyon faces. I read this book right after doing the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike and it definitely deepened the appreciation I already felt for this amazing piece of planet Earth.

One of my favorite quotes from the book:

This domain was older and deeper, by far, than anything they could even pretend to imagine—a dimension of time and space where God himself seemed to be a deluded and laughable idea and, in the same instant, closer and more ingrained than the teeth inside one’s own head.

Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks by Andrea Lankford 

This book takes you behind the scenes of some of our nation's most popular National Parks, where the Park Ranger's mission is to Protect the park from the people, the people from the park, and the people from themselves. Largely about search and rescue operations in parks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, Angela recounts stories of her time as a ranger and those of other rangers she worked with during her career. This book strikes a balance between lightheartedness and a gritty reality which I really enjoyed. I found the struggles Lankford faced as a female ranger especially interesting (and frustrating). 

Some of my favorite tidbits from the book:  

Park rangers call a hiker like this a “Code W.” A Code W is a wimp. There is nothing medically wrong with a Code W. He is only tired and sore. His spirit, not his body, is broken. A Code W falls for the Grand Canyon's insidious trap and now wants the federal government to rescue him out of it - on his terms and within his time frame. A Code W does not consider the many real emergencies and depressing tragedies the ranger has dealt with that day.
In the United States, a park ranger is more likely to be assaulted in the line of duty than is any other federal officer, including those who work for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF); the Secret Service; and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Thru Hiking will Break your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail by Carrot Quinn 

This book is similar to Wild but focuses much more on the day to day experience of thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Quinn is a lovable and quirky narrator who I immediately felt a sense of kinship with. Quinn immerses you fully into the experience and introduces you to thru-hiking norms like hiker noon (9am) and hiker midnight (9pm), to the joys of trail magic (food/drink left by "trail angels" for hikers to enjoy), and the experience of a trail family - perfect strangers who you build strong bonds with as you cover the same stretch of land from Mexico to Canada. 

Some of my favorite quotes: 

In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back, into safety.
I plod along the sandy path, my pack like a giant hand crushing me into the earth. What is even in this thing? Fear, probably. Fear that this or that will happen. My fear is crushing me into the earth.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson 

This book is no doubt on many other "best outdoor books" lists and for good reason. It's laugh out loud funny and has put the rest of Bill Bryson's books on the top of my to-read list. Bryson chronicles his hike of the Appalachian Trail with his cantankerous and out of shape hiking partner who often throws fits and dumps portions of his food on the trail to lighten his load. His writing about bears is both hilarious and informative and like Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart listed above, he helps the reader understand what hiking a long trail is actually like. 

My favorite quotes:

What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die of course. Literally shit myself lifeless.
I know a woman who gets in her car to go a quarter of a mile to a college gymnasium to walk on a treadmill, then complains passionately about the difficulty of finding a parking space. When I asked her once why she didn't walk to the gym and do five minutes less on the treadmill, she looked at me as if I were being willfully provocative. 'Because I have a program for the treadmill,' she explained. 'It records my distance and speed, and I can adjust it for degree of difficulty.' It hadn't occurred to me how thoughtlessly deficient nature is in this regard.






Hiking the Narrows Top Down: Planning & Logistics

The Narrows Top Down in one day is one of most unique and more challenging day hikes I have done. Spanning 16 miles from Chamberlain's Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava in Zion National Park, you follow the Virgin River as it carves its way through Zion Canyon. For most of the hike, you walk in the river itself.

This is far from a traditional trail. The water ranges in depth from ankle to waist deep and you may even find yourself swimming through some parts. It's called the Narrows because it winds its way through the narrowest part of Zion Canyon. You'll find yourself flanked on both sides by canyon walls over 1,000 feet tall with the Virgin River stretching 20 to 30 feet from wall to wall. It is truly an amazing hike and one I would highly recommend if you plan to visit Zion National Park. 

The first three miles of the Top Down hike are dry. 

The Fall colors at the top of the hike were amazing. 

Day Hike or Overnight? 

There are three ways to Hike the Narrows. 1) Bottom Up day hike, 2) Top Down day hike, and 3) Top Down overnight hike. This post outlines how to plan both versions of the Top Down hike.There are many factors to consider including permits, cost, how fast a hiker you are, and how much time you want to spend on the hike. If you're not sure which version of this hike is best for you, check out this earlier post to help you decide.

Most of the hike is shaded because the canyon walls are so high.

Big Springs is a common turn around point for people hiking the Narrows bottom up. 


Obtaining a permit will be the number one factor that decides which version of the Narrows hike you can do. Both versions of the Top Down hike require a permit. 

Over half of all permits are issued in advance through an online reservation system and are made available in a three-month time frame. The system opens on the fifth of every month at 10am MT. This means that if you are aiming for an October hike, you’ll need to try for a permit on August 5th at 10am MT. Click here to access the Zion permit reservation site.

These permits are extremely competitive and sell out in a matter of minutes during desirable months. There are only 12 campsites along the trail with only half being reserve-able in advance, so overnight permits are especially competitive. For day hikes, there is also last-minute drawing 7-2 days in advance of your trip date. Any leftover day hike permits and half of all overnight permits are available one day prior to the desired hike date at the Zion Visitor Center.

You'll need to pick up your permit in person at the Zion Visitor Center the day before your hike. Keep this in mind when planning your travel to and from the park. 

We were not able to obtain an overnight permit despite trying right at 10am MT. All of the overnight permits for the month were sold out within three minutes. I recommend having at least two people trying for overnight permits to increase your chances. Also, note that just because you reach the screen where it asks for your information does not mean you have the permit in the bag. I had filled out all of my information including credit card info and when I clicked submit was told there were no permits available. 

When to go 

Don’t forget that most of this hike is through the water, and naturally the water gets colder as temperatures drop. The busiest time of year is late Spring and Summer because water levels are lowest and the temperatures are warmer; however, flash floods are more common during this time. During winter and early spring, you should expect colder water and higher water levels. Fall offers less erratic weather but water temperatures remain cold. No matter when you go, day and night temperatures can fluctuate greatly so be sure to bring layers! 

We did the Top Down day hike at the beginning of October and it was lovely. We started out on a pretty cold morning but it warmed up throughout the day and we were able to peel our layers off. The amazing fall colors made the cold morning totally worth it. 


This hike does not begin and end at the same place, so you'll need to arrange transportation to and from the trailhead ahead of time. 

Getting to the trailhead:

The hike begins at the Chamberlain’s Ranch trailhead, which is a 1.5-hour drive from the Zion visitor center. The road is paved for about half of the way but the second half is along very rough dirt roads. I would not take a non-4-wheel drive vehicle on this road and highly recommend hiring one of the shuttle services offered in the area so you don’t have to worry about retrieving your car after the hike. 

We rented a shuttle from Zion Adventure Company for $37 a person. There were two morning shuttle times offered and we chose the earliest one at 6:15am. The shuttle picks up in front of the Adventure Company which is located just outside the park in the town of Springdale. 

Getting from the trailhead: 

The trail ends at the Temple of Sinawava in Zion National Park. This part of the part is not accessible to private vehicles and your only option is to take the park shuttle. The shuttle has several drop offs throughout the park and will eventually take you back to the park visitor center. From there you can catch another short, free shuttle to the town of Springdale and back to your car. 

Keep in mind that the time of the last shuttle from the Temple of Sinawava changes throughout the year. At the time we went in October, the last shuttle was at 7:15 pm. We were dropped off at the trailhead at 7:45 am. That gave us 11.5 hours to complete the hike; the Park Service says 12 hours is the average. We finished in 9.5 hours but took very few breaks. If you're a slow hiker or don't want to feel rushed, the day hike may not be a good option for you. 

You can find the most up to date park shuttle schedule on the most recent map & guide found on the park's website. 

The shoulder high walking sticks we rented from Zion Adventure Company were really helpful. 


For our Top Down day hike we rented canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, walking sticks, and dry pants from Zion Adventure Company. 

Canyoneering shoes vs tennis shoes or hiking boots

The canyoneering shoes were not very comfortable but I couldn't imagine doing this hike in one day without them. They were very sturdy and kept me from slipping on the wet rocks. A lot of people will do this hike in old tennis shoes and while that probably would have been fine, I appreciated the grippy surface and ankle support of the canyoneering shoes. I would not recommend hiking boots as they would quickly get water logged and very heavy on your feet. 

Rented walking stick vs trekking poles

I had brought my trekking poles with the full intent of using them rather than renting a walking stick; however, the rental package we chose came with one so I decided to use it. While I could have gotten away with trekking poles I am really glad I brought the walking stick. It was a lot sturdier than trekking poles and the height of the stick made crossing fast moving water much easier. 

Dry pants or dry suit vs no dry pants

This will depend on what time of year you're doing the hike and how tolerant you are to cold. The water temperature ranges from 65 degrees in warmer months to 38 degrees in the winter. Personally, I would have been miserable if we didn't rent the dry pants. If there are areas that require swimming (the rangers or employees at the rental companies will be able to tell you), you might want to rent the dry suit. 

Dry Bags

Your bag will likely never ben completely submerged in water, but on the off chance that you fall or there are areas you need to swim through, it's a good idea to bring a waterproof pack or dry bags that will fit inside your current pack. It's worth it to keep any extra layers, electronics, and food you bring with you dry. We bought a cheap 20 Liter dry bag backpack off Amazon and it worked perfectly. 

Towards the end of the hike where we started seeing more and more people doing the bottom up day hike. 



Hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park

The Narrows is one of the most popular hikes in Zion National Park and for good reason. Aptly named, the Narrows is the narrowest part of Zion Canyon. The canyon walls reach over 1,000 feet tall and only 20 to 30 feet wide in some places. The Virgin River runs through the canyon so the hike is mostly through flowing water that generally ranges from ankle to waist deep (and sometimes deeper).

There are three different ways to hike the Narrows and each offers a different experience. In this post, I’ll walk you through the three choices and help you decide which option is best for you.

Three Options for Hiking the Narrows

The Narrows Top Down Day Hike (permit required)

The Narrows Top Down hike starts at Chamberlain’s Ranch (private property outside the park) and ends 16 miles later at the Temple of Sinawava in Zion National Park. You’ll find yourself on dry land for the first 3-ish miles but the rest of the hike is almost all through the water.

The Chamberlain’s Ranch trailhead is a 1.5-hour drive from the Zion visitor center. The road is paved for about half of the way but the second half is along very rough dirt roads. I would not take a non-4-wheel drive vehicle on this road and highly recommend hiring one of the shuttle services offered in the area so you don’t have to worry about retrieving your car after the hike. 

The Narrows Top Down Overnight (permit required)

This is the same hike as what I’ve listed above, except you split it into two days and camp at one of the 12 campsites along the hike. Permits are required for this hike and are extremely competitive.

The Narrows Bottom Up Day Hike (no permit required)

This out and back version of the hike begins in Zion National Park at the Temple of Sinawava and is as long as you want it to be. You simply go out as long as you feel like and then turn around when you’re ready. This is a great choice for day hikers who can’t get a permit, are limited on time or money, or just don’t want to hike 16 miles.

Which Option is Best for Me? 

So now that you know a little about each option, how do you decide which version of the hike is best for you? There are several factors to consider.


A permit will be the number one limiting factor when considering which version of the hike you’re going to do.  Both the overnight and the day hike from Top to Bottom require permits. These permits are extremely competitive and sell out in a matter of minutes during desirable months. There are only 12 campsites along the trail with only half being reserve-able in advance, so overnight permits are especially competitive.

You can learn more about the permit process by visiting my Planning and Logistics postClick here to access the Zion permit reservation site.


The cheapest way to do this hike will be the Bottom Up day hike. Depending on time of year and the length you wish to walk, you probably don’t need to rent any gear for this version of the hike. If you’re hiking Top Down, you may wish to rent canyoneering shoes, a walking stick, and a pair of dry pants or dry suit.

The rental companies will charge you about $25 a day for the shoes, socks and walking stick. They charge you only half that price for a second day. If you want to add on dry pants or a dry suit, expect to pay around $40 to $50 for the first day and half that for the second day. We rented the package with the dry-pants from Zion Adventure Company for our Top Down hike and it was well worth the cost.

For the Top Down hike, you’ll also likely want to pay for a shuttle to the Chamberlain’s Ranch trailhead which will run you about $40 a person.

Don’t forget the cost of permits. They cost $15 for 1-2 people, $20 for 3-7 people, and $25 for 8-12 people. There is also a $5 fee if you apply for the permit online.

Cost approximations for each hike:
Bottom Up hike: $0 to $25 depending if you rent gear (includes gear rental only)
Top Down hike: $55 to $100 depending on if you rent gear (includes permits, shuttle, gear)

It warmed up throughout the day and we had to shed a couple layers. 


How much time do you have and how much are you willing to spend on this hike? Hiking 16 miles in one day takes a while. It took us about 9.5 hours and the park estimates 12 hours on average. On the other hand, you’ll still be hiking the better part of two days if you decide to do the overnight (though with the plus side of spending a lot more time in the canyon).

You have a lot more flexibility if you’re doing the Bottom Up hike since you can turn around whenever you feel like it and spend as much time as you desire hiking.  

Time of Year

Don’t forget that most of this hike is through the water, and naturally the water gets colder as temperatures drop. The busiest time of year is late Spring and Summer because water levels are lowest and the temperatures are warmer; however, flash floods are more common during this time. During winter and early spring, you should expect colder water and higher water levels. Fall offers less erratic weather but water temperatures remain cold. No matter when you go, day and night temperatures can fluctuate greatly so be sure to bring layers!

You should also consider shuttle times when planning this hike, especially when choosing the Top Down day hike. The Temple of Sinawava is only accessible by shuttle system, which means you must be done with your hike by the time the last shuttle leaves. The last shuttle time changes depending on what time of year it is.

The National Park System averages 12 hours for the Top Down day hike. We did it in about 9.5 hours but took very few breaks. If you don’t feel like you can (or want) to do 16 miles from the time your shuttle drops you off at Chamberlain’s Ranch to the time of the last shuttle from the Temple of Sinawava, the Top Down day hike might not be a good option for you.


Since it’s generally more accessible, the Bottom Up version of the hike is a lot more crowded. Aside from the few people who rode the shuttle to Chamberlain’s Ranch with us, we didn’t see a single person until we were about three miles from the end of the hike. As we neared the end, it very quickly got crowded and in my opinion less enjoyable. Solitude was a huge reason we chose to do the Top Down hike.  

Physical Fitness

Doing the Top Down version is a challenging hike. Hiking 16 miles in one day through water and uneven terrain is not the easiest thing I’ve ever done. There are some technical parts of the hike as well like scrambling over boulders or crossing knee deep rapids. If you aren’t an experienced hiker I wouldn’t recommend doing the Top Down in 1 day, especially since you’re racing the park’s shuttle schedule. The overnight hike lets you take more breaks and splits the mileage into two days, but remember you’ll likely be carrying a heavier pack. The Bottom Up will be the easiest option since you can choose how far and how fast you go.  

Ok, so I’ve decided which version of the hike to do. What now?  

Click here to learn how to plan your own Narrows hike. 

Day Hike to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park

The hike to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park is one of the more enjoyable day hikes we have done. The trail offered a good workout and beautiful views that beg you to stop and stare. The hike starts at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead in the Many Glacier section of the park and climbs 1,840 feet over 7.6 miles (11.4 roundtrip). It winds through alpine meadows and along a cliff face, offering views of Josephine Lake, Lower Grinnell Glacial Lake, and several waterfalls.


Once at the top, you can enjoy a panoramic view of Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake. The color difference between the upper and lower parts of Grinnell Lake is striking. You can content yourself with this view or you can climb down to the edge of the lake and over to the glacier. Walking on the glacier is not recommended but you can walk right up to the edge of it. We spent almost two hours at the top exploring and taking a lunch break. We even saw a few Bighorn sheep while we were walking around. 


  • 11.4 miles roundtrip.
  • 1,840 feet elevation gain.
  • Don't forget your bear spray!
  • This trail is marked as strenuous although we saw hikers of many different fitness levels (including children) on the trail. I wasn't carrying a pack and my heart rate was definitely elevated but we didn't need to take any breaks on the way to the top. 
  • I highly recommend spending a decent amount of time at the top. Why would you climb all that way if you aren't going to stay a while to enjoy the view? 
  • Most of the hike was warm (we did our hike in August) but it was quite chilly at the top because of the elevation gain and wind coming off the ice. Bring a jacket if you plan on spending time at the top. 
  • If 11.4 miles sounds like too much, you can cut about 3.4 miles off if you take the shuttle boat starting at Many Glacier Hotel. There is a fee to ride the shuttle boat.
  • Get to the trailhead early. This is a really popular day hike and is more accessible to the crowds that we expected it to be. We arrived at the trailhead around 10 am and were lucky enough to get one of the last spots in the trailhead parking lot. Parts of the trail were also pretty crowded and if we had started earlier we might have had a bit more solitude. 

A view of Lake Josephine a mile or so into the hike.

Approaching Lower Grinnell Lake 

A view of lower Grinnell Lake looking back down the trail. Lake Josephine in the background. 

Closer to the top. You can see the glacier in the background.

Upper Grinnell Lake with view of Grinnell Glacier on lefthand side

View of Upper Grinnell Lake with view of Glacier in background

Bighorn Sheep!

Close up photo of Grinnell Glacier 

Upper Grinnell Lake 

Upper Grinnell Lake with view of Grinnell Glacier in background





Gear List for Backpacking in Glacier National Park

My husband and I backpacked for four days and three nights to Brown Pass in the North Fork of Glacier National Park in late August. This is what I carried in my pack. You can read my full write-up of the trip here

Backpacking with a partner is great because you can share gear and spilt up some of the weight. Taylor carried the tent and some of the food while I carried our Jetboil, water purifier, and about 3/4 of the food. If you're backpacking on your own, you might need to make adjustments to this list. 

Photo of my gear for our backpacking trip in Glacier.. A few items were removed/added after this photo. 




  • ProBars (6 each)
  • Salami (1 each)
  • Tuna packets (6) 
  • Beef jerky (1 large bag)
  • Via coffee packets (6)
  • Dehydrated whole milk 
  • Mountain House dehydrated backpacking meals (3 each) 
  • Gummy Worms (1 bag) 
  • Trail mix (1 large bag)
  • Baby carrots (1 small bag)
  • Nuun Active Hydrating Electrolyte tablets


  • Wet Wipes 
  • Advil
  • Tums
  • Hand Sanitizer 
  • Iodine tablets
  • Mosquito repellant 
  • Travel sized sunscreen
  • Travel Sized Deodorant
  • Travel sized toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Hydrocortisone cream 
  • Kleenex
  • Toilet Paper 
  • Moleskin blister dressings
  • Burts Bees lip balm 
  • Small first aid kit 

What We Learned

We've gone on a few backpacking trips and we're still dialing in our gear. We learn something new on every trip and this was no exception. 

Rain Gear
I agonize on every trip I go on whether or not to bring my full compliment of rain gear. This includes my rain jacket, waterproof pants, and pack cover. I decided not to bring my waterproof pants this time because the forecast didn't call for rain. Well, the forecast was wrong. We got pretty drenched on the second day of our trip. I think I've finally learned that unless I am going somewhere where it almost never rains (like the Grand Canyon), I'm bringing all of my rain gear. It's worth the little bit of extra weight to stay dry and comfortable. 

Utilizing the outside of my pack
I realized on this trip that I do not use the outside of my pack enough and always try to squeeze everything inside of it. For example, I left my very lightweight but comfortable camp chair at home because it wouldn't fit in my pack. Weighing in at only a pound, I could have easily have strapped this to the outside of my pack and had a comfortable place to sit during our hours at camp. 

Bringing the right amount of food and water
This is probably the hardest thing for me. I definitely pack my fears when it comes to packing food and water. On this trip, I could easily have brought a water bottle with attached purifier and filled it up along the hike instead of carrying 3 liters on my back each day. We're also still figuring out the formula for the right amount of food. We had quite a bit of food leftover and didn't even touch the tuna packets we brought. 


Backpacking in Glacier National Park


How we got there: AUS > DEN > FCA
Dates: August 23rd - 26th
Hike Stats: 31.4 Miles over 4 days, 2,870 ft elevation change
Itinerary: Bowman Lake Trailhead > Bowman Lake Head Campground > Hole in the Wall Campground > Bowman Lake Head Campground > Exit via Bowman Lake Trail
Day 1: 7.1 miles, 0 elevation gain, 3.5 hours
Day 2: 8.6 miles, Elevation: Up 2,610 | Down 260, 6.5 hours
Day 3: 8.6 miles, Elevation: Up 260 | Down 2,610, 5 hours
Day 4: 7.1 miles, 0 elevation gain, 3 hours
Favorite part: Brown Pass

Choosing your Route

Glacier National Park is gigantic. With over 700 miles of trails, you could plan several different backpacking trips and cover only a fraction of what the park has to offer. We spent an entire week in the park and I'm already planning our next visit. 

The park is divided in two by the Continental Divide. The West side of the park is generally lower in elevation and more heavily forested. It's also less visited than the East side of the park which is higher in elevation. We chose to hike in the North Fork section of the park because it's the least visited and most remote part of the park. We also saw Brown Pass listed on National Geographic's top 10 backpacking trips in US parks and just couldn't resist.

You can read about the other parts of the park and what they have to offer on the Park's website. Click here for a detailed map of each trail and backcountry campsite in the park. 

Things to keep in mind when choosing your route: 

  • Transportation: How will you get to and from your trailhead? Most of the park has free shuttles; however, the North Fork is only reached by private vehicle and has mostly unpaved roads. Many people hitch hike back to their car once they finish their hike. We chose a route that began and ended at the same place. 
  • Mileage limit for advanced reservations: The park places a 16 mile a day limit on advanced reservations. This may impact the number of days it takes to do a specific route. 
  • Availability: The route you actually take will largely be based on permit availability. Most of the campsites have very few spots and half of those are reserved for walk-in reservations. The most we saw in one campsite was six, the least was three. See below for more information about attaining a backcountry permit. 
  • Timing: July and August are the best times to plan a backpacking trip in Glacier. Many backcountry sites don't even open until August because of the tremendous amounts of snow the area gets in the winter. Hiking is still possible in September and October but you'll need to be prepared for potential snow storms and very cold weather. 

We picked up our permits at the Apgar Backcountry office next to Lake McDonald.


Permits are required for any backcountry camping in Glacier. You have two options when obtaining a permit: 1) Advanced Reservations or 2) Walk-In Applications. 

Advanced Reservations

Advanced Reservations open on March 15th at 8am MDT (March 1st if your group is larger than 8 people) and are processed in the order received. If you have your heart set on a specific route or if you are traveling to Glacier from far away like we did, I suggest trying for the advanced reservation. With a $40 application fee, it's more expensive than a walk-in reservation, but you don't have to worry about trying to attain a permit once you get there. The worst part is the wait; it can take up to 4 weeks to hear back (it took us 31 days to get our application approved). There is also a limit of 16 miles a day for advanced reservations, and this may impact the campsites you can stay at. 

Keep in mind that you have to pick up your permit in person at one of the Backcountry offices in the park 24 hours in advance of the start of your trip. 

Learn how to submit your application here

Walk-In Applications

About half the sites in each campground are reserved for walk-in applicants. These permits can be obtained by visiting any of the backcountry offices in the park up to 24 hours in advance. Unlike the advanced reservations, there is no $40 application fee and you only pay $7 per person per night.

If you are flexible on the route you take, are hoping to plan a last minute backpacking trip, or want to hike more than 16 miles in one day, a walk-in application might be the right option for you. 

Our Hike

We chose to do an out and back trip so we didn't have to worry about hitch hiking when we were done. In hindsight, I wish we had taken the chance and done a thru-hike instead. While we enjoyed the hike immensely, it would have been nice to see more of the North Fork rather than seeing the same section twice. 

Day 1: Bowman Lake Trailhead to Bowman Lake Head Campground

Bowman Lake Trailhead 

Our day started out by driving down miles of dirt roads through Polebridge and into the North Fork area of the park. We stopped at the Polebridge Mercantile, a bakery/general store which is over 100 years old, and grabbed a coffee and some baked goods before starting the hike. After passing the ranger station, the trailhead is another six miles down an unpaved road that is barely big enough for two-way traffic.

Polebridge Mercantile 

Bear Claw that's actually shaped like a bear claw

Starting at the southern most tip of Bowman Lake, the first day of our hike was 7.1 miles of mostly flat trail along the side of the lake. Armed with our bear spray, we clapped our hands and yelled "HEY BEAR" probably more than was necessary. We never did see a bear. 

Beginning of our hike. The trailhead begins off camera to the left and follows along the lefthand shoreline. 

Day 1, Mile 1. Bowman Lake Trailhead to Bowman Lake Head Campground. 

You quickly lose site of the water due to the denseness of the trees and other foliage. About halfway through the day's hike, you begin to get closer to the lake and follow it's edge until you hit Bowman Lake Head Campground.

The campground is right along the lake and is a popular place for kayakers to stay. We were the only party staying the night that hiked to the campsite. Everyone else had kayaked or canoed from the start of the lake. The campground includes a pit toilet, cooking/food area, horse hitching area, and six campsites. 

View of the lake from Bowman Lake Head Campground 

Taylor relaxing at the edge of our campsite while enjoying a view of Lake Bowman

Day 2: Bowman Lake Head Campground to Hole in the Wall Campground

We awoke on the second around 7:30 am to the beginning of a rain shower. After frantically packing up and magically keeping our tent (mostly) dry in the process, we grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out. 

The first half of the day was much like the day before, flat and very forested. At about mile 4 we had a brief break in the trees and the rain finally stopped. We then started the climb up towards Brown Pass, gaining a total of 2,610 feet of elevation. Our entire mileage this day was 8.6 miles and it took us about 6.5 hours. 

Most of the climb is over once you hit Brown Pass Campground and then it's only another 2 or so miles until you get to Hole in the Wall. Brown Pass was by far the most beautiful part of the hike and we definitely dawdled to take in the views and eat all the huckleberries along the trail. 

Hole in the Wall Campground is possibly the most beautiful place I have ever stayed the night. It was well worth the climb and I wish we had been able to stay for more than one night. The campground includes a pit toilet, cooking/food area, and five campsites.

Day 3: Hole in the Wall Campground to Bowman Lake Head Campground

On day 3 we re-traced our steps and enjoyed the sunshine we didn't have the day before. It took us about two hours to go two miles from Hole in the Wall to Brown Pass Campground because we kept stopping to take in the view, snap photos, and eat huckleberries. We begrudgingly made our way out of the pass and back into the heavily forested area on our way to Bowman Lake Head Campground. 

View of Bowman Lake from Brown Pass

Brown Pass

Day 4: Bowman Lake Head Campground to Bowman Lake Trailhead

We purposefully got a late start so we could enjoy the campground as much as possible before heading out. The water of the lake was so calm and the water of the lake was even more clear than before. The hike out was quick and easy but we enjoyed the beautiful weather and views of the lake. We stopped at the Polebridge Mercantile again for some iced coffee before heading over to the East side of the park for the rest of our stay and some amazing day hikes. 

Very calm Bowman Lake in the morning


Miscellaneous Tips & Tricks 

  • [COMING SOON] Click here for my full gear-list for this trip as well as a list of items I wish we had brought or left at home. 
  • Rent your bear spray! Bear spray is pretty much a must if you're hiking in the backcountry of Glacier, but it's not cheap. One bottle will run you $45-50 and you can't carry on or check it in your luggage. Glacier Outfitters in Apgar Village will rent you a can of bear spray and help you save a few bucks. They charge $9.25 for a day, $18.50 for 48 hours, $28 for 3-7 days, and $32 for 8-14 days. We saved about $30 bucks this way. 
  • You must filter your own water while camping in the backcountry, but there is plenty of it. We could have carried much less water than we did since we were almost always near a source from which we could filter (always check with the rangers to double check there are water sources on your hikes). 
  • The early-bird gets the worm, or whatever. We had a few days after our backpacking trip to do some day hikes and found that the trails on the East side of the park got pretty busy in the late morning. Next time we'll be more on our game and get up early so we can experience a bit more solitude. 






My Favorite Outdoor Podcasts

I've gotten more into podcasts recently and have been listening to them a lot in the car or while I run. I've mainly focused on outdoor related podcasts and find they give me a bit of a nature fix when I'm between camping/backpacking trips or stuck inside because of the hot Texas Summer. I'm sharing some of my favorites in this post. 

Outside Podcast

This podcast is basically Outside magazine converted into audio form. Each episode is related to a theme Outside has explored in the past. I've especially enjoyed the Science of Survival pieces where they retell stories of survival in extreme environments. 

My favorite episodes so far:
XX Factor: How the Sports Bra Changed History
Science of Survival: In Too Deep

The Dirtbag Diaries

The Dirtbag Diaries podcast has been around for several years which is great because you can binge listen to episodes and still not run out. The podcast retells adventure stories and covers a range of outdoor experiences like climbing, biking, hiking, skiing, etc. The stories are simple yet inspiring. 

My favorite episodes so far:
The Fear is Real
Start Saying Yes
Any of the Tales of Terror episodes (there are 7 volumes) 

Women on the Road

This is a brand new bi-weekly podcast with only 3 episodes so far, but I'm really enjoying it. The podcast is hosted by Laura Hughes, a woman who lives out of her Ford Transit Van. She interviews other women in various stages of life on the road. As someone who has thought about this lifestyle a lot recently, I'm really enjoying hearing experiences of other women who have made it a reality. 

My favorite episode so far: 
Episode one: What we wish we knew before hitting the road

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Packing List

We hiked the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim at the beginning of June 2017. This is what I carried on my back! Read my full write- up of the trip here

Full disclosure, having a hiking buddy to share the load helps a lot. I carried most of our food because my husband Taylor carried the tent. If you're doing the trip by yourself, you might need to adjust what you bring with you. 

We didn't officially weigh our packs, though I would guess once we added water we were between 35 and 40 pounds. 




  • ProBars
  • Clif Bars 
  • Muesli 
  • Summer Sausage
  • Tuna packets (flavored and regular) 
  • Beef Jerky 
  • Loaf of bread 
  • Jar of Peanut Butter
  • Small bottle of Honey 
  • Via coffee packets
  • Clif bar goos with caffeine 
  • Haribo Gummy Bears
  • Fruit twist snacks
  • Canned sardines in olive oil
  • Canned oysters in olive oil 
  • Nuun Active Hydrating Electrolyte tablets


  • Wet Wipes 
  • Hand Sanitizer 
  • Iodine tablets
  • Mosquito repellant 
  • Travel sized sunscreen
  • Travel sized toothbrush and toothpaste

What I wish we had left behind:

Rain Gear
It rains very little in the Grand Canyon but I am always a bit paranoid when it comes to having rain gear. I brought it, but it was very unnecessary on this trip and we could have easily left it behind. 

Tent and footprint
It was hot enough and there were few enough bugs that we could easily have slept without a tent and saved ourselves some weight and room. 

What I'm super Happy we packed:

Opsak odor proof bags
You must pack out everything you pack in, so these bags are a life saver for any trash that might smell. We had a lot of seafood with us (tuna, oysters, sardines) and you wouldn't believe the smell after walking through the canyon heat with the trash. Thankfully, we didn't smell a thing until we opened the Opsak bag to empty it. 

Camp Shoes
Our friends didn't bring camp shoes in an effort to lighten their load. They regretted it and we secretly rejoiced that we brought ours. We had a lot of down time and got in and out of the water a lot, and it was really nice to have sandals we could get wet. 

Mission Multi-Cool
The rest of the group made fun of me for how excited I was about this piece of fabric. It can be worn several different ways but I mostly wore it around my neck. It really helped keep me cool and stayed cold for long stretches of time. 

Extra Clothes
I wore my long-sleeved shirt and pants during the day and brought running shorts and a t-shirt to hang out in at camp and sleep in. I also brought an extra pair of running shorts and shirt so I could have a set of clean clothes when we finished the hike. It was nice to be able to shower and change into clean clothes when we got to the South Rim. 


Village Creek State Park

A view of Village Creek, a tributary of the Neches River and the Park's namesake.

A view of Village Creek, a tributary of the Neches River and the Park's namesake.

The Park at a Glance 

Located about 4 hours East of Austin in Lumberton, TX (near Beaumont)
16 walk-in campsites + 1 Group campsite, 25 water/electric campsites, 8 person cabin, 
Heavily forested featuring Cypress Swamps
Several heavily shaded and private picnic areas
Canoe launch with access to 40 miles of smooth water
8 miles of hiking trails

Holy Humidity! 

This was the least busy State Park I have ever been to and that may have been because outside in Texas in August is not always the most fun (read: so sweaty). Wanting to camp but not wanting to spend the night cooking in our tents, we managed to snag a two-night reservation at the 8 person cabin in the park. I wouldn't go so far as to actually call what we did "camping," but it did give us a chance to explore the park while having an air conditioned refuge and shower to head back to when we were done. Unfortunately, the walk-in campsites were flooded so I didn't get a chance to see what camping in the park would normally be like. 

Swimming area at the end of Village Creek Trail (1.13 miles one way)

Swimming area at the end of Village Creek Trail (1.13 miles one way)

The park has about 8 miles of trails that wind through cypress-tupelo swamps. These trails are also great for biking and trail running. There is one main swimming area with a sizeable beach. The park has numerous warnings about alligators living in the area, which convinced us not to swim despite the heat. We kept our eyes peeled but unfortunately, we didn't see any during our visit to the park. There is also a canoe launch and the park lends fishing tackle if you aren't into hiking/biking. 

The Cabin

We really enjoyed our stay in the cabin at Village Creek. It has a full kitchen, bathroom, and sleeps up to 8 people. Best of all, it has AC! Mattresses are provided so all you have to bring is your bedding. The screened in porch was a great way to spend more time outside while staying out of reach of the bloodsuckers. It's also super affordable at only $80 a night. 

Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim

Our Trip At a Glance 

How we got there: AUS > LAS > Rental Car to North Rim
Before the hike: North Kaibab Lodge (North Rim)
After the hike: Maswick Lodge (South Rim)
Hike Stats: 24 Miles over 3 days, roughly 10k feet of elevation change
Itinerary: North Kaibab Trailhead > Cottonwood Campground > Bright Angel Campground > Bright Angel Trailhead
Day 1: started at 6:30 am, finished at 10:45 am
Day 2: started at 6:00 am, finished at 9:15 am
Day 3: started at 5:50 am, finished at 11:50 am
Favorite part: Ribbon Falls
Worst part: 3-mile Rest house to Bright Angel Trailhead (so many tourists!) 


Day 1: View from the North Kaibab trail

Day 1: View from the North Kaibab trail

Step 1: Choosing Your Itinerary


There are several possible itineraries for this hike and there are many variables that might dictate which you choose. I've included our itinerary below, as well as some other information which might help you choose which is best for you. 

The Rims: 

You can start your hike from the North or South Rim. While the South Rim of the park is open 24/7/365, the services at the North Rim close during the winter. 

There is one entry to the trail on the North side via the North Kaibab Trailhead. Closer to the South Rim, the trail splits in two and connects with the Rim via the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail. The South Kaibab trail is slightly steeper than the Bright Angel trail. It's also less trafficked and has fewer water sources. 

Day 1: View from the North Kaibab trail

Day 1: View from the North Kaibab trail

The Campgrounds:

There are 3 campgrounds along this hike as well as Phantom Ranch Lodge. You must have a permit to stay at any of the campsites. Reservations for Phantom Ranch Lodge can be hard to come by and tend to fill up a year in advance. 

Each campsite features a picnic table, food storage boxes, and a pole to hang empty packs. 

Cottonwood Campground:

  • Located 6.8 miles from North Kaibab Trailhead.
  • 1.5 miles from Ribbon Falls - an absolute must do on this hike and a great place to spend a few hours after you're done hiking for the day.
  • Composting toilets and drinking water available.
  • Campsites 10 and 4 offered the best shade which was very important for a Summer hike. 10 is close to the drinking water and toilets. None of the other campsites had tree cover. 
  • There is a great place to swim near the ranger station.
Campsite #10 at Cottonwood Campground provided a decent amount of shade throughout the day.

Campsite #10 at Cottonwood Campground provided a decent amount of shade throughout the day.

Bright Angel Campground:

  • Located 14 miles from North Kaibab Trailhead, 9.5 miles from Bright Angel Trailhead, 7 miles from South Kaibab Trailhead.
  • Flushing toilets and drinking water available.
  • More shady campsites than Cottonwood. Site 20 offered shade for most of the day and was close to drinking water and bathrooms. 
  • Bright Angel Creek runs directly next to the campground and is a great place to relax and cool off. Boat Beach is also a short walk past the campground and offers an up close view of the mighty Colorado River. 
  • Only a short walk to the Phantom Ranch Cantina which is open to all hikers, not just guests of Phantom Ranch. 
Campsite #20 at Bright Angel Campground. Bright Angel Creek is off to the right. 

Campsite #20 at Bright Angel Campground. Bright Angel Creek is off to the right. 

Bright Angel Creek runs to the right of the campground. 

Bright Angel Creek runs to the right of the campground. 

Phantom Ranch Lodge:

  • Located right next to Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon, the lodge offers heated/cooled dorms and cabins. 
  • The Cantina is a little slice of heaven during the Summer months. You can buy a cold beer or tea/lemonade and other snacks. They also sell postcards and stamps which are brought out of the canyon by mule (remember to write down any addresses you may need ahead of time). 
  • The Cantina also offers meals which you can reserve online. We really enjoyed the stew (unlimited servings accompanied by cornbread and salad) on the night we stayed at Bright Angel Campground. 
View of the Colorado River from Boat Beach, a short walk from Bright Angel Campground. Bridge to South Kaibab trail in the distance. 

View of the Colorado River from Boat Beach, a short walk from Bright Angel Campground. Bridge to South Kaibab trail in the distance. 

Indian Gardens Campground:

  • 4.9 miles from Bright Angel Trailhead
  • We did not stay at this campground so I can't offer much information about it other than it appears the campsites were in a lush and shady area.
  • It seemed to be much more trafficked since it's the closest campground to the top of the South Rim. 
Day 3 on the approach to Indian Gardens Campground 

Day 3 on the approach to Indian Gardens Campground 

Our Itinerary:

Day 1: North Kaibab Trailhead to Cottonwood Campground (6.8 miles, 4,161 ft elevation loss)
Day 2: Cottonwood Campground to Bright Angel Campground (7.2 miles, 1,600 ft elevation loss)
Day 3: Bright Angel Campground to Bright Angel Trailhead (9.5 miles, 4,380 ft elevation gain)

Our itinerary allowed us to make the most of our time in the canyon. The pace was easy and we had a good chunk of time to relax each day and enjoy being in such an amazing place. 

It was nice to end on the South Rim which has more lodging and food options if you want to stick around after your hike. That burger and beer at Bright Angel Cafe after the hike really hit the spot. My only complaint was that the hustle and bustle of the South Rim was a bit jarring to come back to after two nights of tranquility in the bottom of the canyon. The North Rim may have been less so. 

Day 1: Ribbon Falls. Our photos really don't do it justice. 

Day 1: Ribbon Falls. Our photos really don't do it justice. 

Day 2: View from top of Ribbon Falls

Day 2: View from top of Ribbon Falls

Which itinerary should you choose? 

How much time do you want to spend in the canyon? 

Overall, the hike is fairly short and you have to make the tradeoff between logging high mileage each day and spending time. We could easily have done this hike in two days but I am really glad we didn't. While it can feel great to accomplish something like the Rim to Rim in as short a time as possible, I would argue that you'll regret not slowing down and enjoying yourself.

One way to add more time in the canyon and mileage to your hike is to do a Rim to Rim to Rim hike. This also removes the need to get transportation back to your car at the end of the hike. 

Day 2: Heading out from Cottonwood Campground 

Day 2: Heading out from Cottonwood Campground 

Day 2: Walking through the canyon

Day 2: Walking through the canyon

How fit are you? 

To an experienced hiker or backpacker, this hike is not difficult. I would recommend our itinerary even to a novice hiker. Coming out of the canyon is by far the hardest part. However, if you really want to take it easy you might consider grabbing a night at each campsite along the way. Keep in mind you can only stay at each campsite for a maximum of two nights (consecutive or non-consecutive) for each hike. 

Day 2

Day 2

When do you want to go? 

Ultimately, the itinerary you get will depend on availability. Permit request success rates vary drastically during different times of the year (see When to Apply below). 

The canyon is home to some pretty intense weather and you'll want to be aware and prepared for the temperatures you might see during your hike. The average temperatures might also dictate how long you want your hike to take or which Rim you start/end on. Remember, the North Rim has limited services during the winter and snow often closes the main road to get into the North side of the park. 

Day 3: Crossing over the Colorado River

Day 3: Crossing over the Colorado River

Day 3: Looking back over the Silver Bridge after crossing the Colorado River

Day 3: Looking back over the Silver Bridge after crossing the Colorado River

Step 2: Secure Your Permit 

I've found that figuring out and then landing permits for backcountry hikes is the most tedious part of the entire planning process. It seems each park has a different system and lengths between requesting a permit and hearing back. All in all, the permitting process for a Rim to Rim hike isn't too complicated and we heard back very quickly. 

Do I need a permit?
If you are aiming to do a Rim to Rim hike over multiple days, you'll need a permit. The park requires permits for any camping outside of the established campgrounds on the North and South Rim. 

When to Apply: 
There is a period of about ten days at the end of each month within which you can apply for permits for hikes starting roughly five months later. For example, if you want to hike in June, you can apply for earliest consideration between January 20th and February 1st. Equal consideration is given to all requests submitted in this time period. According to the park website, requests are combined together into one pile, duplicates are removed, and then processing begins using a computer-generated random order. 

If you want a good chance of securing a permit, you should apply during this earliest consideration period. Success rates for backcountry requests submitted on the earliest allowed date are published in the Backcountry Use Statistics Report. Success rates for the hotter summer months are close to 100%, while the more temperate Fall months drop below 60%.

Taken from the  GCNP website.  Always double check the park website for the most up to date information about permits as the system is subject to change. 

Taken from the GCNP website. Always double check the park website for the most up to date information about permits as the system is subject to change. 

How to Apply:
You can find all relevant information for how to apply on the permit request form itself. 
You'll have to fax or mail it in since they don't accept email or phone requests. You can also drop it off in person at either of the Backcountry Permit Offices in the park. 

Day 3: Between Cottonwood Campground and Indian Gardens

Day 3: Between Cottonwood Campground and Indian Gardens

Day 3: Looking down over the trail we've just hiked.

Day 3: Looking down over the trail we've just hiked.

Step 3: Transportation & Lodging 

Once you have your permit you can start planning transportation to and from the trailheads as well as lodging for before and after your hike. 

Getting back to your car:

We parked our car on the North Rim and ended our hike on the South Rim. The only option we found for transportation back to the North Rim was the Trans Canyon Shuttle. It was a fantastic service. There are pick-up times twice a day from each rim. We took the 8am shuttle the day after our hike. It takes about four hours to travel between the rims and the shuttle made two rest stops along the way. They offer unlimited seat availability (not sure how they do this!) and can accommodate you on any date as long as you book in advance. 

Lodging before and after:

Lodging in the actual park can be hard to come by unless you're booking far in advance. When we first received our permits in February for our June hike, all lodges in the park were completely full up for our dates.

Most of the lodges in and around the park have generous cancellation policies. I suggest booking as far in advance as you can, even if you don't have your permit yet. You can always cancel if you don't get a permit or if you get different dates than your original request.

We stayed at the Kaibab Lodge the night before our hike. It was fine for one night's stay and was only a 30 minute drive to the trailhead. Another option was Jacob Lake Inn, which was slightly farther away (they also make some pretty damn good cookies). I called again the week before and thankfully there had been some cancellations at Maswick Lodge on the South Rim for the dates we needed. Don't expect much from these lodges; they're basically motels and are far from fancy. After camping for a few days, you won't even notice. 

Day 3: View from Bright Angel Trail

Day 3: View from Bright Angel Trail

Day 3: Mules headed down the Bright Angel trail into the canyon. 

Day 3: Mules headed down the Bright Angel trail into the canyon. 

Learn before you go

This was my first trip to the Grand Canyon and I was absolutely blown away. The view from the top of the Canyon is awesome in the most basic sense of the word. The tranquility and timelessness you experience at the bottom is something I've never felt before. We were there for only 3 days, but that was enough time for me to absolutely fall in love with the place. Since returning from our trip, I've tried to learn as much as I can about the Canyon and I've found some resources that I wish I had read before our hike. 

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

As the title suggests, this book tells the story of the fastest boat ride ever down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Not only is it a thrilling read, but it teaches you a ton about the history and exploration of the Grand Canyon. 

National Geographic: Are We Losing the Grand Canyon? 

Written by the same author as The Emerald Mile, this article details two men's 650 mile hike through the Grand Canyon and goes in-depth about the conservation battles currently being fought to protect the area. The Dirtbag Diaries Podcast episode titled Mileposts — Greater than the Sum of its Parts also discusses this same trip and the challenges the two men endured to complete the hike. 

To learn more about the current threats to the Grand Canyon and what you can do to help, visit:

Hiking Buddies! 

Hiking Buddies! 

Miscellaneous Tips and Tricks

  • View my full packing list here.
  • If you're going in the Summer months, you can go without a tent or sleeping bag to save weight in your pack. You can still be comfortable with just a sleeping pad and light blanket (I brought my Rumpl and didn't even need to use it). 
  • The hike is short enough that you can also easily go without a stove, especially if you reserve a meal at Phantom Ranch.
  • Give yourself time to hang out at Ribbon Falls. Sure, you can drop by on your way to or from Cottonwood Campground, but it was amazing to spend a couple of hours there during the hottest part of the day.
  • There is food storage at the campsites so you don't have to worry about bringing your own food storage options. 
  • Best campsites: Sites 10 and 4 at Cottonwood, site 20 at Bright Angel. 
  • Last minute cancellations are your friend. If you're not able to get lodge reservations or food reservations at Phantom Ranch, call a few days before your trip to see if anyone has canceled. This was how we were able to get accommodations at Maswick Lodge and our stew dinners at Phantom Ranch. 
  • The stew dinner at Phantom Ranch was definitely worth it. We heard from other campers that the steak dinner was just so so. 
  • Phantom Ranch Cantina is a little slice of heaven. The ice cold lemonade and beer were extremely enjoyable after being in the heat all day. 
  • It gets hot in the Summer - like seriously hot. It is generally 20 degrees hotter at the bottom of the canyon than it is at the top. Do some research about desert hiking and come prepared with proper clothing and lots of salty snacks and water. We left camp no later than 6am each day to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day. 



Discovering Nature

Where were you when you discovered your love for nature?

This discovery came slowly for me. I grew up in the suburbs of San Antonio, the seventh most populated city in the US. While I spent a lot of time outside growing up, my activities centered mostly around team sports. A few RV camping trips with my grandparents and extended family were fun but made no lasting impression. 

I was 24 when my boyfriend (now husband) Taylor suggested we tack a visit to Colorado onto the end of another trip we were taking to Washington DC. I agreed, and before I knew it we were driving through Estes Park on our way to Rocky Mountain National Park. At this point, I was more excited to see the famous Stanley Hotel (which had served as inspiration for Stephen King's novel The Shining) than I was for our hike. 


Taylor had done some research and picked a 9-mile hike for us to do named Sky Pond. The hike begins at Glacier Gorge Trailhead, one of the more popular parts of the park. Because of this, we started the hike surrounded by other park visitors, many of which dropped off about a mile in at Alberta Falls. The chatter of other people died away as we continued on and the trail became continually more challenging. Not used to the elevation, I trailed several steps behind Taylor for most of the hike. 

Loch Vale aka The Loch, about 3 miles into the Sky Pond hike

Loch Vale aka The Loch, about 3 miles into the Sky Pond hike

About four miles from the trailhead we reached the base of Timberline Falls. From there, the trail went directly up the side of the waterfall. This required us to climb/scramble about 100 feet up. The climb wasn't too difficult, but I found it exhilarating. Once at the top, we found the Lake of Glass and amazing views of several surrounding peaks. Despite the many people we had started the hike with, we were the only ones who had climbed the falls and we had this beautiful piece of nature all to ourselves. 

Lake of Glass, Rocky Mountain National Park 

Lake of Glass, Rocky Mountain National Park 

That moment at Lake of Glass stands out vividly in my memory. The feeling of accomplishment of having made it to the top, the slight fatigue from the hike, the solitude, and the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains formed an intoxicating combination. This was the moment I fell in love with the outdoors. 

Where were you? 

Heading down from Lake of Glass

Heading down from Lake of Glass

Lessons Learned in Lost Maples


I sit bolt upright in the tent.

What was that?

“Sounds like a hog,” Taylor says. The unnatural squealing echoes again in the distance followed by deeper, guttural grunts.

“Oh. Ok.” Just pigs. No big deal. They sound far away anyways. Totally harmless.

It was New Year’s Eve 2015 and we were visiting Lost Maples State Natural Area for the first time. This was our first solo camping trip as a couple - my first hike-in camping experience - and both of us were excited to celebrate the new year under the stars. Unfortunately, the cold weather and lack of fire (no fires allowed in hike-in campsites at Lost Maples) had led to us crawling into our tent as soon as darkness fell.

I lie back down, grab my kindle, and try to rig it so I can read with as little of my body exposed as possible. It’s 20-ish degrees, I’m freezing, and just generally not having a fantastic time. My feet, wrapped in two pairs of thick wool socks, still feel frozen.

It’s the first of what is supposed to be three nights camping, and I’m seriously lacking the commitment that I’ll need to make it through the next two nights. I’m going over all the reasons why we should leave tomorrow and weighing which ones would convince Taylor to end our trip early. I land on the fact that the dog – our Catahoula Pitbull mix named Coca – looks like she’s having an even less fun time than I am. She’s shivering despite being wedged between us with several blankets. Clearly, she’s missing her warm couch and wondering why we’ve decided to punish her this way.

I’m finally starting to feel sleepy and thinking if I try really hard maybe I can fall asleep despite the cold. I close my eyes. Several moments later I hear a twig snap outside. I can feel Coca and Taylor move next to me.

Snort Snort Snort, Craaaaaack, Rustle Rustle, Snort Snort!

These new noises are mere feet from the tent. Screeeeeeee! goes the hog in the distance.

Something nudges the tent by our feet. We both sit bolt upright. Another twig cracks from the opposite side of the tent, followed by several more snorts and grunts. Our tent is surrounded by wild hogs.

One of us turns our headlamp on, hoping it won’t spur the hogs into a wild tent-attacking frenzy. We urgently begin whispering, hatching a plan.

How do you handle hogs? Can you scare them away? Or will they attack?
No idea.
Shit. Why are they so close to the tent?
Umm. We have food in the tent.
Oh yeah. Oops.

We had naively thought that there was nothing in the area that would be drawn to our meager food rations, most of which was pre-packaged and in Ziploc bags. Maybe a possum or a raccoon, but nothing that would cause us a real issue. Not several huge hogs with razor sharp tusks (ok maybe my imagination was running away from me). We now found ourselves eye level with who knows how many wild hogs, with only a thin layer of nylon tent between us and them.

After what feels like an eternity sitting in silence waiting, we realize our late-night guests are not in a rush to leave. Our ferocious hog hunting dog is literally shaking from cold and/or fear between the two of us. She hasn’t made a move. We’re thankful for this, since we’re not sure if hogs would be scared or react defensively to a dog’s bark from inside a tent. After what seems like an eternity, we take a chance and decide to try to scare them away by making a bunch of noise. I wait for a razor-sharp tusk to tear its way through our tent wall, but thankfully that doesn’t happen. We hear them walk away and after a few minutes, the coast seems to be clear. Taylor carefully gets out of the tent and ties our food up in a nearby tree.

We had a fitful night’s sleep. I kept waking up because my feet were so cold. The dog was shivering. In the morning, we packed up camp. We enjoyed the park for the rest of the day and then headed home to sleep in our warm bed.

This wasn’t what I would call my favorite camping trip, but I learned several valuable lessons. Some of these may seem like common sense, but if you’re new to camping you may not even think about these.

Lost Maples gets its name from the many maple trees, making Autumn an amazing time to visit. Check out  their Instagram  for some really beautiful photos of the fall foliage. 

Lost Maples gets its name from the many maple trees, making Autumn an amazing time to visit. Check out their Instagram for some really beautiful photos of the fall foliage. 

Lesson 1: Proper Food Storage and Handling

For people who camp or hike on a regular basis, not keeping food in your tent is a no brainer. As a newbie to camping, I didn’t even think about it. Our close encounter with the hogs ensured that I’ll never do that again, especially when hike-in or backcountry camping where there are likely to be animals outside of possums and raccoons.

Using proper food storage and/or hanging your food from a tree overnight or anytime you leave it unaccompanied is key. This also extends to other smelly items you might be carrying, like toothpaste or sunscreen. You’ll also want to dump any water used for cooking or washing dishes at least 200 feet away from your campsite.

If you’re car camping in a place without bears, a cooler works as a great storage container, but raccoons and possums can still easily open them. Put something heavy on the lid or keep it in the car overnight.

If you’re hike-in or backcountry camping, you can use a bear bag or canister or an odor-proof bag like OPSAK bags. Use a rope to hang your food from a tree. You can tie a rock or other heavy item to the end of the rope to help you throw it over a high limb. Once over, attach your food bag and hoist it into the air. You want it high enough and far enough away from the tree trunk that animals can’t reach it (think about a bear on its hind legs!). Tie the rest of the rope around the tree trunk to secure it.

Always check online to see if the place you’re visiting has special rules around food storage.  

The pigs outside of our tent probably looked a lot like this one. Not as scary as I imagined!

The pigs outside of our tent probably looked a lot like this one. Not as scary as I imagined!

Lesson 2: Know the local wildlife and how to handle an encounter

Aside from knowing how to protect your food from the local wildlife, you should also be knowledgeable on how best to handle a direct encounter. Upon arrival at the park, Taylor asked the ranger if there were any wildlife we should be aware of. There was no mention of hogs. Despite this, we should have been prepared and known how to react. 

We were lucky that our animal encounter was not actually super dangerous. I looked it up after the trip, and feral hogs of this kind prefer to avoid humans and generally don't attack unless cornered or protecting their young. All the same, if you come across them, it's best to keep your distance.

Lesson 3: Weather ratings for gear are a thing, and they matter

Ok, so 20 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t that cold, but it’s rare for it to get that cold in this area of Texas. Not only do I hate the cold, but I also didn’t have the right equipment to be comfortable in that temperature. Turns out, my bag was a summer season bag and was only rated for 35 degrees and higher. This is normally a perfect bag for camping in Texas, but the cold took us by surprise.

I also learned the value of checking average lows and highs before I plan a trip, as well as checking forecasts a week out so I can be sure to pack the right gear. 

Lesson 4: Don't Expect Perfection

Had I let this experience color my entire outlook on camping, I would not have been eager to plan my next trip. I took this for what it was - poor planning - and learned from the experience. Part of the fun is learning along the way. If you head out on your first camping trip and have a less than ideal time, try again. Take what you learned and put that knowledge towards making your next trip better. 


  1. Learn proper food handling and storage to avoid having animals enter your camp and attempt to get into your food stores.
  2. Research the local wildlife and how best to safely manage a direct encounter.
  3. Check the weather before you go and make sure your gear is rated for the conditions you might encounter.
  4. Not every trip will go perfectly, and that's ok. Take what you learn and apply it to your next trip. 

Happy Campers: Tips for Beginner's Part 2

There is so much information out there about camping equipment and it can be a bit overwhelming for would-be campers. Don't let them fool you; camping is not that complicated. There are a few basics that you need and everything else is a nice-to-have. In this post, I've included a few tips for newbies who are thinking about setting up camp for the first time.

Borrow or Rent equipment

Camping is a cheap activity but only after you've stocked up on all the equipment you need. It can be tough to spend a bunch of money up front if you're not even sure if you're going to like it or do it often. I recommend either borrowing equipment from a generous friend or renting the equipment. Companies like Logistics in Nature (serves Austin/Houston area) and Lower Gear will rent equipment for you for a fraction of what it would cost you to go out and buy all your own.

If you do decide to buy equipment rather than borrowing or renting, don't do what I did and just go buy the cheapest of each item. If you enjoy camping, you'll just end up re-buying everything because you bought crappy stuff the first time around. Take the time to do a little research first. I often use Outdoor Gear Lab to help make decisions in this department and they haven't steered me wrong yet.

Some of my must have gear for each camping trip. My new Rumpl puffy blanket is amazing for Texas camping; it keeps you warm but isn't as hot as a sleeping bag can be. 

Some of my must have gear for each camping trip. My new Rumpl puffy blanket is amazing for Texas camping; it keeps you warm but isn't as hot as a sleeping bag can be. 

Don't skimp on the Sleeping Pad

Just because you're sleeping outside doesn't mean you have to be uncomfortable. A good sleeping pad will go a long way to help you catch all the zzzz's. Skimp on the sleeping pad and you'll find yourself crawling out of your tent in the morning having not caught a wink, swearing off camping and hoping your campmates have already started on the coffee. Speaking of coffee, that's another piece of vital camping equipment I wouldn't be caught without; but that's for another post.

I've tried a few different sleeping pads and I've landed on the Big Agnes Q-Core. It's super light, compact, and is about four inches thick when inflated. I'm a side sleeper so the extra cushion keeps my hips from digging into the ground. My only complaint is that it's a bit loud when you move around on it. If you want to read more about selecting the right sleeping pad for you, I recommend checking out REI's post here.

When I'm car camping, I bring a real pillow as well. Ok, maybe sometimes more than one pillow. That's one of the upsides of car camping! Bring all the pillows!

Let there be light!

It's sometimes easy to forget since we live most of our lives under fluorescent lighting, but it actually gets dark outside. Like, really dark. Like, holy crap that bush just moved are we about to get attacked by a pack of rabid coyotes who were drawn by the smell of our delicious hot-dogs dark. Bring a headlamp, and you'll easily be able to tell that the rabid coyotes are actually just a small raccoon who is trying to steal your dog's food from under the picnic table. Pro tip: most headlamps have a regular light and a red light on them; use the red setting to avoid blinding your fellow campers.

It's also a huge pain to set up camp once it's already dark, especially if you aren't practiced. Get to camp before dark so you have plenty of sunlight and don't have to rely on headlamps or flashlights.

Learn as you go

I can give you all the tips in the world, but you're still going to forget the toilet paper, the matches, or some other piece of equipment. Don't stress about it. Part of the fun is developing your own camping style and learning your own tricks. The bottom line is you don't need to be an expert to camp. You belong outside! Get out there. 

Hammocks are a great addition to your campsite! 

Hammocks are a great addition to your campsite! 

Pedernales Falls State Park

“Is that the turnoff?” Taylor asked as we were nearing the end of our ninth mile.

“No, I don't think so. I think we have a bit farther to go.” I managed to get this sentence out between gulps of air.

We had just run most of the aptly named Juniper Ridge Trail in Pedernales Falls State Park. My plan had been to run six miles and here I was, somehow closing in on ten. I was impressed with myself, but also more than ready to be done and back at the car where our lunch and cold waters waited for us.

Turns out, I was wrong. That was the turnoff to the parking lot. As we finished our second loop around the top of Wolf Mountain, Taylor starts laughing uncontrollably at the bewildered look on my face as I realized we had just run an extra loop.

Despite our (really, my) lack of direction, Pedernales Falls State Park (pronounced "Perd-n-Alice" by the locals) has become one of our go-to places for trail running, hiking, and camping. Less than 45 minutes from downtown Austin, it makes for the perfect day or weekend trip.

Campsite #4 

Campsite #4 


I absolutely love camping at Pedernales Falls. Surrounded by woods of juniper and oak trees, the drive-in campsites provide quite a bit of privacy and ample places to hang your hammock. They're also really large, giving you plenty of room if you want to bring a group of friends (limit of 8 people per site). You'll find bathrooms with flushing toilets, sinks, and showers a short walk from where you pitch your tent. The 69 drive-in campsites offer water spigots, electricity, a picnic table, a lantern post, and a fire ring with grill. Don't let the high number of campsites fool you; you'll need to book far in advance if you want to get a drive-in campsite on the weekend during Texas' temperate months.

The park also offers hike-in campsites. These are about two miles from where you park your car. There is a four person limit to these sites - it's unclear exactly how many there are - but you do have the luxury of a composting toilet nearby. Unfortunately, no fires are allowed in these campsites.

Trail Running

The park offers about 25 miles of trails that wind through juniper woods and over stream crossings. Juniper Ridge Trail is our favorite running trail in the park. Just shy of 9 miles, it connects with many other trails, including the popular Wolf Mountain Trail. It's almost completely shaded (great for the Texas heat!) and technical enough to be challenging but not technical enough to kill you. It's also the only official mountain bike trail in the park. I haven't yet met a trail in that park that wasn't good for both hiking and trail running.

Pedernales Falls

Pedernales Falls

The Falls

A post about Pedernales Falls State Park wouldn't be complete if it didn't mention the park's namesake. Pedernales Falls is one of the most beautiful natural features in the area (and therefore one of the most popular parts of the park). The emerald green river drops 50 feet in elevation over a distance of about 3,000 feet, gently flowing over layers of limestone. It's prone to flash floods, meaning the tranquil river can become a life threatening deluge in less than five minutes.

The Pedernales River right before the Falls 

The Pedernales River right before the Falls 

Part of the Falls

Part of the Falls


  • Drive-in camping here affords a decent amount of privacy and close proximity to luxuries like flushing toilets and showers.
  • If you're into trail running or hiking, you absolutely need to check this place out.
  • This park is well worth a day trip from Austin. Bring a picnic lunch, take a hike, and experience the beauty of the falls.
  • Nearby Dripping Springs also offers several breweries, wineries, and distilleries if you're into drinking on patios and want to have some adult beverages after visiting the park.
  • Book camping reservations well in advance if you're hoping for a weekend in the Spring or Fall. Keep in mind that the park often reaches capacity on these weekends so get there early if you're just doing a day trip.
Hanging out at the Falls with our dog Coca. 

Hanging out at the Falls with our dog Coca. 

Happy Campers: Tips for Beginners Part 1

Camping sounds like it would be simple, and in many ways it is. You literally go outside, bring some food and water, pitch a tent and voila, you're officially camping! Realistically, it's a bit more complicated than that and can be daunting if you're a first timer. Not knowing where to go, what type of equipment to buy, or even basic camping etiquette can be enough to keep people from joining the camping club. That, my friend, is a travesty. I hope my Happy Campers series of posts will help you overcome any anxiety and answer any questions you may have about your first camping experience.

In this post, we'll answer the question: What type of camping do you want to do? If you're new to camping and just wanting to explore the outdoors, you're likely thinking about what I've dubbed car camping. I'll explain what I mean by that below. However, I still think it's useful to know about the different types of camping so you can keep them in mind when you buy equipment. I'll cover a basic equipment list, camping etiquette, and more in later posts.

Furry friends and yard games are some of the extras you can bring along when car camping. 

Furry friends and yard games are some of the extras you can bring along when car camping. 

Car Camping aka Glamping

Roughing It Rating: 3/10

Car camping is the most casual of the three types of camping I'm discussing in this post. You can pack up your car with as much crap as it will fit and drive it right up to your campsite. Will we need two packs of blue gatorade this weekend? SURE throw it on in! You don't have to worry too much about weight or space and you can afford to bring luxuries like a huge tent and queen sized air mattress. You usually set up your tent within 25 feet of your car. Many state park campsites will have water spigots at each site and toilets and showers within walking distance. It's basically like hanging out in your house but you get to see the stars and have a campfire instead of watching tv.

Go car camping if:

  • You're new to the outdoors and camping and want to get your feet wet
  • You want certain comforts like running water and toilets
  • You don't mind if there are other campers nearby
  • You have heavy equipment or luxury items that you don't want to carry far (24 pack of beer anyone?)
  • You want to bring your dog or small children (note: always check with your park ahead of time since pet allowance will vary. Some parks also allow dogs in their hike-in and backcountry campsites)
Glamping at it's finest with our Tepui Rooftop Tent. It's amazing y'all. #teamtepui 

Glamping at it's finest with our Tepui Rooftop Tent. It's amazing y'all. #teamtepui 

Walk-in or Hike-in Camping

Roughing It Rating: 5/10

Walk or Hike in campsites are generally a far enough distance from where you park your car that you don't want to have to make multiple trips. I've been to parks where the distances vary from a couple hundred yards to up to 3 miles. Hike in campsites often don't allow fires so you'll need to bring enough water and food that doesn't require cooking (or bring a portable stove like a Jetboil). You've also got a 50/50 chance that there is a composting toilet nearby. Be prepared to pee in the woods (Ladies, I've got a post coming for you specifically about how to do that without peeing on your shoes).

Go Hike-In camping if:

  • You want to experience nature away from everyday comforts
  • You'd like a bit more privacy from other campers
  • You don't mind carrying your gear the distance to your campsite and back
  • You're fine not having running water or toilets (note: some hike-in campsites will have composting toilets nearby)
  • You're ok with not having a fire

Backcountry Camping:

Roughing It Rating: 8/10

On the scale of Glamping to Roughing It, backcountry camping is full on Rough City. You're living out of your pack on these trips and potentially hiking long distances each day between campsites. Does a bear shit in the woods? Yes, and so will you on this type of camping trip. You might even get to see a bear. I wouldn't recommend backcountry camping for your first camping experience; however, I would argue the rewards of this type of camping are far higher than the other two.

Go Backcountry Camping if:

  • You want to experience the outdoors in all it's glory
  • You want privacy and are ok with not seeing another person outside of your camping party for long periods of time
  • You're ready and willing to carry everything you'll need in your pack
  • You feel comfortable with basic outdoor skills like food storage and Leave No Trace principles

Stay tuned for my future Happy Camper posts where I'll cover the basics for each of the above types of camping.No matter what type of camping you decide to do, just get out there.

Nature is calling. 


Camping Recipes: Southwestern Chicken Packets

My number one rule for cooking while camping is this: Foil is your friend. You can pretty much throw anything you want into a foil packet and toss it over your campfire coals to cook. Prep is simple and clean up is easy. We tried this recipe a few weekends ago while camping in Colorado Bend State Park and it was delicious.

You can also throw the foil packets directly into the fire if you don't have a griddle. 

You can also throw the foil packets directly into the fire if you don't have a griddle. 


The amount of each ingredient can vary based on your personal preference. The amount listed below will make 4 servings.

  • 4 skinless chicken breast
  • 1 can of black beans
  • 3 cups of corn (we used frozen)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon of pepper
  • salsa
  • shredded cheese
  • cilantro (as much or as little as you want)
  • guacamole or sour cream for topping


  • Mix the beans, corn, salt, pepper, and cilantro in a bowl
  • Cut each chicken breast into smaller strips, season with salt and pepper
  • Cut 8 pieces of aluminum foil, roughly 12 inches long each
  • Distribute bean/corn mixture evenly across 4 pieces of foil
  • Add one chicken breast (3-4 strips) to each foil
  • You can choose to add cheese and salsa to the foil packets. We threw them in the cooler and added them after cooking the packets.
  • Use the other 4 pieces of foil to cover the others, folding the sides over several times to create a packet


Throw the chicken packets directly onto your campfire coals. You can also cook over a charcoal grill if that is readily available. Cook for about 25 - 30 minutes, flipping the packets every few minutes. Add cheese and salsa if you did not originally include in the packets. Top with guacamole and/or sour cream and then stuff your face with this delicious and easy meal.

Hiking the Milford Track


We had the opportunity to hike the Milford Track at the end of our honeymoon to New Zealand in November. It was without a doubt the highlight of our trip (Yes, it even surpassed our visit to The Shire.). Aside from the long distance you'll have to travel to get there, the hike is actually very accessible and easy to do if you have all the information you need to plan it. Hopefully this post will help with that part! 

The Milford Track is a 53.5km (33.2 mile) hike through Fiordland National Park on the southern tip of New Zealand. For 4 days and 3 nights, you tramp through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country, which is saying something because damn, New Zealand is a ridiculously beautiful place. The track, heralded as the most popular of New Zealand's nine Great Walks, takes you through rainforest, over a mountain pass, and past countless waterfalls and bubbling streams. 

The start of the Track!

When to Go

The Great Walks season is from end of October to beginning of May each year. The official season for 2017 is October 25th through May 4th. For those of us on the opposite side of the world, remember that Winter and Spring for us is Summer and Fall for New Zealand.

You can also hike the Milford Track in the off season, but the hut facilities are greatly reduced and there are additional safety concerns (like avalanches) to consider. The Department of Conservation suggests that only experienced and well equipped people attempt the track in the off season.

This is a popular hike so book early to avoid disappointment. For our trip at the beginning of November, we made our reservations in mid-May. At the time of our reservations, there were only a couple spots left in each hut. The Department of Conservation (DOC) hasn't released the dates that reservations will open yet, but they'll be posted here.

Day 2 of the hike, surrounded by waterfalls on both sides. 

Why walk the track independently versus taking a guided trip?

You can walk the track independently or pay large amounts of money to take part in a guided tour. The guided tours will run you between $2,000 and $3,200 (NZD). They're easier and more comfortable since your food is provided (lighter packs!) and you stay in private huts. But where's the fun in that?

Walking the track independently will cost under $500 a person. This includes the cost of transportation to and from Queenstown and food for four days. You'll want to add another $200 or so if you need car relocation services.

Whether you pay for the guided tour or not, everyone gets to hike the same trail and see the same amazing scenery. For me, the main appeal of a guided tour is the convenience of not having to plan anything; however, hiking independently only takes a little extra effort and saves mucho moolah.


Getting to and from the trailhead is by far the hardest part of the hike. The DOC actually has a fantastic website with all of the information you need, but I still managed to get confused while I was booking this trip. I've attempted to simplify all the relevant information for you in the Itinerary and Reservation sections below.


Below is what your itinerary will look like. You can only hike the Track in one direction. If you're not coming from Queenstown like we were, then simply substitute your previous location where it says Queenstown. 

Day 1:
Queenstown > Te Anau Downs
Te Anau Downs Water Taxi > Trailhead
Trailhead > Clinton Hut (5km, 3 miles)

Day 2:
Clinton Hut > Mintaro Hut (16.5km, 10 miles)

Day 3:
Mintaro Hut > Dumpling Hut (14 km, 8.6 miles)

Day 4:
Dumpling Hut > Sandfly Point (18km, 11 miles)
Ferry from Sandfly Point > Milford Sound Village
Milford Sound Village > Queenstown or wherever you're going next!


Here is a list of all of the reservations you'll need to complete the trip, in the order you should complete them:

  1. Hut reservations. You must make a reservation through the DOC website for all 3 huts. 
  2. Ferry from Te Anau Downs to the start of the trailhead (about an hour ferry ride). Note: Both ferry rides (see #3) can be booked at the same time that you book the huts. To simplify things and to ensure you get the ferry times you want, I highly suggest booking at the same time. If for some reason you don't want to take the DOC run ferry, you can book this leg of the trip through Fiordland Water Taxi.
  3. Ferry from Sandfly Point (end of trail) to Milford Sound Village (a 5 minute ferry ride). As far as I know, this can only be booked through the DOC. Again, I suggest booking this at the same time you book the huts. 
  4. Bus to Te Anau Downs. The Tracknet bus is great and syncs it's arrival times with the ferry departure times. The bus from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs also makes a stopover at the Te Anau DOC Visitor Centre so passengers can collect hut and boat tickets.
  5. Bus from Milford Sound Village to wherever you're going after the hike. 

What if I'm driving instead of taking the bus?

We found the Tracknet bus system to be extremely easy and didn't want to pay for a rental car that we weren't going to use for four days, but if you are renting a car, you have a few different options. You can pay for a car relocation service such as Easy Hike. They will relocate your car from Te Anau Downs to Milford sound so you can pick it up at the end of the hike. This will run you about $225. You can also park your car at Te Anau Downs and then book the bus from Milford Sound to Te Anau. Our bus stopped at Te Anau Downs on the way to Te Anau for those who left their cars. This stopover isn't listed on Tracknet's website, so I suggest calling to confirm if you want to use this option.

View from trail on Day 2

What about the huts?

There is no camping allowed on the track. Honestly, camping probably wouldn't be very enjoyable because of the exorbitant amount of rain the area gets. Instead of tents, you stay in three different huts along the trail.

The huts are surprisingly comfortable. During the Great Walks season each hut includes bunks with mattresses, clean water supply, flushing toilets and sinks (no showers), and gas stoves for cooking. The sleeping area is communal, so pray you don't get a snorer next to you like we did on the first night. There is also a resident DOC ranger at each hut to give you weather updates and answer any questions. 

View from Clinton Hut during a brief break in the rain. 

View of the moon from the front porch of Mintaro Hut.

What to bring

The DOC website has a great equipment list for the hike. I'll stress a few things that I think were extra important to have on hand.

Waterproof matches or lighter: The gas stoves do not have starters on them so you must bring your own fire. Unfortunately, this was the one thing we forgot. We had to spend the entire trip begging matches off other hikers.

Sandals/Camp shoes: You're not allowed to wear your boots in the huts and you definitely want to air out your smelly feet after hiking all day.

Ear Plugs and/or Ear Buds: While the DOC ranger encouraged any snorers to sleep in the kitchen area, we still ended up with a horrible snorer in our bunk room the first night. I have seriously never heard anyone snore this loud in my life. Even my audiobook wouldn't drown him out.

Trekking Pole(s): This made coming down the pass on the third day way easier than it would have been without. It was also helpful in our attempts to maneuver around huge puddles.

Waterproof EVERYTHING: It rains here. A lot. A lot a lot. Definitely make sure your boots are waterproof. I also recommend a good rain jacket, waterproof pants, and a rain cover for your pack.

Sandfly Repellant: These tiny bugs come straight from hell and will not only annoy the crap out of you by flying around your face but will bite you too. The bites often don't show up and get itchy for a few days either, so they're extra sneaky. Definitely bring sand fly repellant and apply multiple times a day. You'll be especially glad when you get to Sandfly Point at the end of the hike. 

Something to do in the evenings: We finished our hike before 3pm each day. If you have good weather, you can spend the afternoons exploring the areas around the hut. If not, you're stuck in the hut. Bring a book (we both brought our Kindles), cards, or something else to occupy your time just in case.

Mackay Falls on the 4th day of the hike. 

Here we are at Sandfly Point. You can't tell because they're so tiny but there are swarms of sandflies all around us.

Other tips

Don't miss Sutherland Falls: On the third day, it might be tempting to skip the side track that leads to Sutherland Falls and head straight for Dumpling Hut. Don't do that. Sutherland Falls is the highest waterfall in New Zealand at 580 meters, and is simply amazing. It's well worth the roughly 45 minute detour, even if you're tired. You'll be glad you did it.

View of Sutherland falls. It's really hard to tell the scale from the photos but it is massive! 

View from our Riverview Chalet at Milford Sound Lodge

After the Hike: If you'd like to treat yourself after the hike, we recommend staying in one of the Chalets at the Milford Sound Lodge. We stayed two nights in a Riverside Chalet and enjoyed it immensely. The view of Cleddau River from the King sized bed in our private suite might have been the best part of our whole honeymoon outside of the hike. It was especially rewarding after spending the previous three nights in the huts. It's the only accommodation in the area so you should book at the same time you book your hike.

Make your pack lighter: If you're visiting New Zealand for an extended period of time like we were and aren't renting a car, you might be looking to temporarily off-load some of the extra stuff you have in your pack before you hike for 4 days (e.g. jeans, nicer shoes, etc.). We ended up leaving stuff with our hotel in Queenstown and coming back for it later, but we also noticed the Queenstown Airport had lockers we could have used that were not very expensive.

Helpful Resources:

On Mackinnon Pass, elevation 1,154 meters