My heart stopped. Just moments before, we had been happily enjoying the down-hill momentum and views into Glacier’s central valley, that was until company round a bend ahead. We froze in our tracks. A giant male grizzly dominated the trail just 20 meters beyond.
Of course, I’m well-aware that Glacier National Park is home to a grizzly bear population – warning signs are everywhere – but I never really expected to get THIS close to one. I had hoped to catch a sight of one form the car window. That would have been nice. Nice and safe. If anything, I had been on higher alert earlier that morning as we set out, completely alone, from the Siyeh Bend trailhead. Crossing through Preston Park meadows still enveloped in mist, I made sure to make our presence known, and scouted the area for any sign of movement. Nothing.
Leaving the timberline far below, we wound up a shingle trail to summit Siyeh Pass. There we found a plump lonely marmot, hair blowing in the breeze, admiring the view. He didn’t seem bothered by us, so we let each other be, taking in the same view of a previously hidden eastern valley with tiny glaciers dotted high above.
From Siyeh pass the views really exploded. No longer sheltered by trees, the trail begins a tight descent, switch-backing 3220 feet alongside the stunning Sexton Glacier. Both Conrad and I became so preoccupied with trying to capture the splendor on our cameras – failing completely – that concerns of bears left our minds.
Our cameras had just returned to bags as the trail began evening out, hugging the edge of Goat Mountain. That’s when the creature appeared, completely startling us. Conrad was in the lead (thank God), as we simultaneously stopped dead in our tracks. He had seen us too. Definitely a grizzly. His dark coat hung over huge hunched shoulders, with the tell-tale long snout that identified his bread. I suddenly felt very vulnerable. We hadn’t seen another human-being all day. And here we were carrying a bag full of trail snacks. What idiots! I bet we smelt good enough to eat too.
My mind rapidly began processing every bit of advice I’d ever consumed about bears. I knew enough not to run. Even though instinct kind of made me want to. Now, what was the difference between dealing with grizzly verses black bears again? The bear was holding our gaze. It felt like a Mexican stand-off. He seemed unsure too. Then, slowly, he resumed his stride, edging even closer. Shit! I’m going to die! I immediately began clapping my hands and shouting loud, incoherent nonsense – anything that sprung to mind that identified us as people. Meanwhile, Conrad frantically released the can of bear pepper spray from its holster, the can we had debated paying $50 for just days before. He pulled the safety tab out ready. I cowed behind him.
I’m so grateful we never had to dispense the noxious mace. For one thing, a strong wind was blowing in our direction so we would have probably blinded ourselves! And for another, by the bear choosing to have a change of heart and divert off of the trail instead of confronting us, he kept himself safe. Not that we could have defeated him, but National Park policy often dictates that ‘troublesome’ bears – those deemed a threat to humans – are killed. So we both happily got to live another day! We watched as he leisurely passed us further down the slope, eventually stopping to inspect some fallen timber, to no doubt on the hunt for food.
I spent the remainder of the descent along the gushing Baring Creeks constantly looking over my shoulder, rattled. I didn’t dare get any food out. But wow! What an encounter. My respect for nature increases every day.
We hiked the Siyeh Pass Trail from Siyeh Bend, ending at Sunset Gorge. The trail is just over 10 miles long and gains 2240 feet. There is a further option to extend the hike up to Piegan Pass and view Piegan glacier, but you will have to back-track from the pass to re-join this circuit.
Tucked 10 miles into Rock Creek Canyon lies Little Lakes trailhead and my favourite hike in the Sierra. So far at least. From the very beginning of the 7.5-mile walk, the rewards felt endless.
The trail departs from a peaceful campground sat beside the babbling creek and slowly ascends 994 feet through the valley. As it does a handful of alpine lakes appear, happily nestled below rapidly melting snow-capped peaks.
The path that eventually ends at Gem Lake isn’t overly difficult and contains all the drama and beauty you could possibly want from a hike in the Sierra.
For some, the path to a closer Lake such as Long or Chicken Foot is enough. We pass by the odd angler peacefully fishing in crystal-clear waters. And here lies the charm of this trail – you don’t have to make it to the end to feel rewarded. You could spend 4 hours hiking all the way to Gem Lake like we did, or find yourselves happily lost in the views almost anywhere in between.
Not that you will get lost – very little navigation is required. The trailhead contained a map detailing the various lakes and 2 passes further along different splinter trails. Some brave people trek all the way to Mono Lake more than 50 miles north, but for those with little time to spare, this trail is still well worth the drive.
A frigidly cold breeze sometimes whipped us as we rambled the rocky path, hopping across stone water crossings. Yet at this elevation, the sun certainly left its mark. Bring mosquito spray, and even better – if you have the time – pack a tent and s’mores to spend the night under the endless sky. Happy trails.
Last week Conrad and I shattered a personal record. Having made it across the border to Wales for the first time ever – yes we only live in London – we somehow managed to take a ridiculous 7 hours to complete a 6-mile walk. I use the word ‘walk’ loosely here. What followed involved some seriously sketchy scrabbling as our hiking poles got stowed away to grip onto wet rocks for dear life. Please don’t make me another tragic face on the news following a failed mountain rescue attempt I prayed. On the plus side, the views were exceptional. Continue reading Becoming an unwitting Mountaineer in Snowdonia National Park
Road-tripping Colorado last September our entire journey centred around completing the Four Pass Loop trail. Situated close to Aspen in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, I first learnt about the hike from an Instagram photo. The image of an impossibly steep mountain pass covered in wildflowers caught my imagination. Eager to find out more, I searched YouTube where after a few hours my excitement had been fuelled by the epic mountain scenery and numerous ‘awesome’ references. I knew the hike would be challenging – twenty-eight miles of rocky terrain, ascending four 12,000-foot passes, at an altitude we were not acclimatised to – but since our PCT hike ended the previous year I longed for adventure. After convincing a reluctant husband that sleeping outdoors wouldn’t be too bad, we packed the camp set-up we vowed never to use again for 3 days in the wild. Continue reading Colorado’s [not quite] Four Pass Loop Trail
In my previous post, I outlined my child-like desire to visit America’s first National Park and introduced the 3-week trip that finally made my dream a reality. After years of sitting on the bucket list, we finally witnessed Yellowstone’s geological wonderland in September of 2015. It didn’t disappoint. The place has it all: Mountains, geysers, canyons, waterfalls, animals, hikes… tick, tick, tick. With merely a week and an SUV, we attempted to cover as many park highlights as possible before travelling south to the Grand Tetons en route to Salt Lake City. Here’s a flavour of our days and some tips I’ve taken away. Continue reading A week in Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons
With a hint of early spring in the air it seemed like a good idea to escape London. In an hour-and-a-half we arrived in Hastings, one of England’s oldest seaside towns. It’s a place that will sound familiar to anyone ever taught in the British school system. Home to the infamous 1066 Battle of Hastings – the one where William, Duke of Normandy became the Conquerer and King Harold met his end with an arrow through the eye, as illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. Despite the grisly past, today’s seaside ports of Hastings, Rye, (and nearby Battle where the war was actually fought), are all charming destinations in East Sussex worth a visit.
The 14th Century moated castle is home to a collection of roosting bats
Resident duck enjoying the sun
Making a brief stop at Bodiam Castle on the way
Setting out beneath a clear-blue sky the plan was simple: to walk 13.2 miles from Hastings to Rye, then catch the train back again. But as we all know, not everything always goes to plan. Still, our walk began as expected, joining the Saxon Shore way above Rock-a-Nore beach. In sunnier seasons, a Victorian funicular railway operates, carrying people up the 300-foot vertical cliff face to Hasting Country Park. But it was February, so we contend with the stairs.
From the map, our intended path roughly traces the coastline. But from the outset, signs warn of an up-coming area of coastal erosion. Less than a quarter of a mile into the walk we traipse inland, across boggy fields making very slow progress. Eager to re-join the Saxon Way, we end up bush-whacking through Ecclesbourne Glen, something I wouldn’t recommend. Once back on the trail, the undulating path provides views out across the English Channel towards France. The odd ship appears on the horizon.
The Saxon Shore Way has another unfortunate break further along the trail. Not shown on our GPS, we come to a dead-end in Fairlight Cove where the road has literally fallen into the sea far below. A local, out tending his lawn informs us the road has been like it for years. So we follow a series of quiet residential roads without sea views, until the trail returns in Cliff End. From our vantage point we see Pett Level Beach stretching out in the sun below. We opt to get closer to the beach, so we descend down and depart the trail to walk along the raised sea wall. Only once we join the long, straight beach, do I realise its made of shingle, not sand. I spot the odd tree root poking up from the surf, remnants of the ancient forest that once grew here before rising sea-levels buried it. On the opposite side of Pett Level Road, expansive wetlands attract bird-watchers, who sit in their cars with binoculars and probably flasks of tea milling away the hours.
It’s taken us longer than it should have to reach the end of the beach, so we sit outside the beach cafe with a drink to decide what to do. We want to return to Hastings before it gets dark so we can explore it today. I’m also really hungry! So at that point, based on the train and bus timetables, we elect to shorten our route by around 1.5 miles to end at Winchelsea instead of Rye. This involves cutting across the nature reserve – completely soaking my feet – to enter the small town through the imposing 13th century New Gate. Winchelsea is an attractive little place. It centres around the very grand, gothic St Thomas’ Church. Unfortunately we don’t have time to visit the local pub, due to the expected bus, so instead we take a quick stroll through the churches graveyard. Within it lies the final resting place of the much-loved British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan.
Whilst today wasn’t the prettiest coastal walk I’ve ever done in England, this may partly be due to the time of year and various diversions. But it’s accessibility from London, and the attractive towns on route make it a great choice for an easy day-trip. It’s possible to travel to Hastings by train from various London stations. I believe the quickest route is from Cannon Street in 1 hour 29 minutes. The return from Rye station (into St Pancras) can be done in little over an hour.
On a side-note I really should invest in some hi-top waterproof shoes. The number of water-logged fields we crossed during this hike definitely slowed us down. I just need to find a comfortable pair so I don’t end the day in one big squelching, wrinkled-footed mess!
The first time we tried hiking the famous Kalalau Trail it didn’t happen. It was 2012, and having woken before sunrise to get a parking spot at the trailhead, a string of yellow police ‘warning’ tape – the kind you see in CSI – completely sealed off the trail. How can a trail in sunny Hawaii be closed? While loitering around trying to figure this out a ranger arrived. His explanation seemed even more bizarre. Apparently a ‘fugitive’ was on the run, having pushed a tourist from the cliffs the day before. I shuddered at the horror of it, but still couldn’t help feeling utterly disappointed. The trail would remain closed for the foreseeable future. Hike aborted, we left to cheer ourselves up with a cooked breakfast.
We had travelled a long way to hike the trail. Stretching 11-miles along the breath-taking Na Pail coastline of Northern Kauai, the Kalalau Trail regularly features in lists of the worlds ‘greatest’ hikes. The reason for it’s fame is simple – the scenery is sublime. A certain degree of ‘exclusivity’ also adds to its allure, with land access to the fluted coastline only possible by foot. The trail promises to transport hikers into landscape preserving the very essence of Aloha. Carving a path along towering Pali – sea cliffs – high above the turquoise ocean, it traverses 5 lush valleys, crossing streams and passing waterfalls, to reach a secluded beach.
Na Pali coastline from the air
Using the excuse of needing R&R after our PCT hike, we returned to Kauai 4 years later. With our camping gear in tow, and considering ourselves now super fit, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attempt the hike once more. On setting out we even half-wondered whether we might complete the entire out-and-back hike in a single day…
It’s 6:30am and we’re ready. Parking space secured at the now familiar Ke’e Beach trailhead, I’m feeling eager to clock off some miles before the sun heats up. We join the trail passing multiple signs warning of potential dangers, such as flash flooding. The initial climb along a cobbled path is significantly slowed due to thick, slippery mud following overnight rain.
The first couple of miles form a popular day hike. As such we are regularly overtaken by people not heaving huge backpacks, and some remarkably wearing flip-flops. I try not to let that bother me, instead stealing glimpses of distant coastal views whenever the thick foliage allows. At Hanakapai’ai, most people either turn around after visiting the small cove beach, or take a 2-mile trail inland to view the falls. We continue, crossing the stream by hopping over rocks, fortunate that the water is low. Apparently some people haven’t been so lucky, with danger signs warning of deaths caused by flash flooding and strong currents. There is a key message: don’t go near the water if levels are high.
Once past Hanakapai’ai the trail instantly feels remote. Our miles slow down even further, travelling along narrow switchbacks that climb 800 feet through dense tropical vegetation. We find ourselves sweating buckets in the humid conditions. The views are not as expansive, but bright colours of vivid green flora and fauna, contrast against the red clay soil. I also notice the strong smell of sweet fruit. We see wild guavas and passionfruit, many of which lay rotting on the ground. The trail doesn’t level out. We climb up and down into deep, narrow valleys, until 4 miles later we reach the forth valley: Hanakoa.
Hanokoa is the first of just 2 permitted campsites. It’s rustic. Spread over old agricultural terraces, the site contains two sheltered picnic tables, a compositing toilet cubical, and an emergency helicopter landing pad. Seeing the grassy helipad I can’t help but hope we keep it together. Sadly the camp has no beach access as it’s located on top of a hanging valley on the edge of a stream. We long for a break at this point, but a small group of hunters – complete with scary-looking crossbows – seem to have taken over the camp. Most likely out hunting wild boar (at least I hope that’s what they’re doing), we smile but they don’t reciprocate. In fact I get pretty negative vibes from them, so feeling a bit vulnerable in such isolation we swiftly move on.
The next 5 miles are more exposed, offering little shade from the midday sun. On exiting the valley onto drier terrain, panoramic views of cliffs rippling along the sparkling ocean appear. The views are everything. I keep stopping to take it all in, fearing I’ll slip on the vertigo-inducing trail if I lose my focus. This is not a hike for the faint-hearted. Erosion between miles 7 and 8 are perhaps the sketchiest, with crumbling drop-offs such as those at Crawler’s Ledge definitely requiring concentration, nerve and single-file traffic.
The trail begins to ease up on us for the final 2 miles as we lose elevation heading towards sea-level. Reaching the Kalalau Valley, we ford the fast-running stream, and spot ruins of early Hawaiian settlements hidden amongst the trees.
The sight of tents dotted underneath a shaded grove, provides sign that we’ve made it. Just a few minutes further and a long, deep beach of fine white sand appears. We watch as the cool sea invitingly laps against the shore. But first things first – we need to establish camp. Somehow – and I have no idea how – the last 11 miles have taken us 9 hours, with minimal breaks. We feel exhilarated to have finally made our destination, but ridiculously tired. It’s been hard work! On closer inspection, the premium camping spots – those located just behind the beach with a degree of shelter from the wind – are already taken. We haven’t seen many fellow hikers during the day, so it’s surprising to see around 30 people. Perhaps they’re on a multi-night break, or it’s possible they arrived by [prohibited] boats. We check out the waterfall nestled in the steep valley walls, but are too lazy to walk all the way to the end of the beach to investigate a series of caves. We finish the day with a dip in the sea, where we’re rewarded by a beautiful rainbow right before a dramatic Hawaiian sunset.
We pack up camp and make the return hike early the next morning. We make slightly better time because it keeps raining on us. The warm, tropical showers mean the camera comes out far less frequently, and the air is thick with humidity. By the time we reach Hanakapai’ai, many people are enjoying the beach and in the sea, despite warning signs of hazardous rip currents. Once again, we share the trail from that point. Just after lunchtime we emerge at the trailhead, exhausted and covered in mud. We hose off the worst of it at Ke’e beach showers, attracting strange looks from the beachgoers. I am so happy to finally fall into the car seat. I’m not going to lie – the hike was TOUGH! Much tougher than we had anticipated, but WOW.
I’d love to return to the trial. But if I were to do it again, I would plan on spending at least an extra night to enjoy a rest day on Kalalau beach. That would offer the opportunity to explore further the Kalalau Valley, and maybe even hike the spur trail to Hanakapai’ai falls. I would not recommend attempting to do the 22-mile round trip in a single day – who would even dream of such a crazy thing 🙂 As always, the pictures don’t go anywhere near capturing the stunning views. Hawaii, and Kauai in particular continues to capture my heart.
Some Trail Information
Permits are required to hike past Hanakapai’ai. They are limited in numbers, and cost us 20 USD per person. Apparently they sellout months in advance, so book here.
Water: There is no tapped water along the trail, but plenty of opportunities to fill up from fresh streams. It’s recommended that you treat it though, so pack a filter or purification tablets. We used the Sawyer Squeeze.
When to go: The trail is most advisable during summer (May-October), due to less predictable winter weather. It doesn’t rule out a winter hike, but check weather forecasts before you set out – spontaneous, heavy rainfall can be dangerous, with its ability to turn streams into raging rivers within minutes.
What to bring: I recommend using hiking poles for stability on the uneven terrain. Also pack: bug spray; waterproofs (at least to keep your gear dry); shelter (tent or hammock); hat (for sun protection); water filter; head torch (if you want to see at night).