Traci and I have been enjoying the varied options for outdoor fun afforded us by our new locale, but haven't really seen the true outdoors. This weekend we rectified that with a little help from Groupon and Bay Area Expeditions.
The Groupon was for a discounted overnight backpacking trip in Big Sur, which is HUGE.
More specifically we were in Los Padres National Forest on the Mill Creek Trail.
We started out traveling the two hours to the meeting place, a Subway sandwich shop in King City. They chose that as our meeting place as it gives everyone easy access to gas, food, restrooms etc. before we hit the trail (literally). Once you leave that parking lot, cell service ends making it impossible to call for directions.
When we got there, we were informed that while BAE can't officially condone alcohol use, human nature dictates that once we have hiked all morning and made it to camp, people will want something to do and drinking is a highly social event that often happens. So off we went to the AM PM store to get a couple of bottles of wine to share at camp that night. We didn't have a wine key and AM PM was sold out, but we figured it would work itself out. We were traveling with eighteen other people plus the two guides so one of them was bound to have a way to open it (or a clever, MacGyvery way to open it).
Once we were all stocked up and ready to go, we got into caravan formation and hit the road for the last hour of our journey to the trailhead. The road to get up and over the mountain was incredibly twisty with portions of it being precariously perched on a precipice (don't you just love alliteration?).
Once we reached the parking area at the trailhead, we set about learning how to pack our backpacks. BAE provided each of us with a top of the line Kifaru internal-frame backpack, a headlamp, a blow up sleeping pad and titanium bowl and spork. We also had the option of renting a sleeping bag from them which we did rather than buying one. Since BAE provides dinner and breakfast, we all had to split up the community items and carry them in our packs. The real lesson (besides PACK LIGHT!) was in learning how to adjust the backpacks. There is a belt that buckles and tightens with d-rings as well as two "delta straps" on either side of the belt that allow you to fine tune the fit. Once you have it strapped and tightened properly, 99% of the weight of your pack is taken by your hips with almost no pull on your shoulders. Pretty amazing. Not that it wasn't still heavy, but the balance makes it feel like much less than the thirty or so pounds that it was.
At this point, Chris asked the group if anyone required the false sense of security offered by sleeping in a tent. There was no rain in the forecast and it was predicted to be a warm night, so the tipi was really not required. Not to mention that Chris informed us that we would have to shoulder the additional weight of the tipi (and also that it is a bit of a pain to setup). We all agreed that sleeping under the stars sounded great so we did not lug the tipi into the forest.
The hardest part of the trail we took, according to Chris, is the very beginning. We rounded the corner from the parking lot and were met with an uphill path with dry dirt and loose gravel making it a little tricky. Once we were past that, we started hiking. Our path followed Mill Creek (the trail's namesake) but at the start, all we could see was the dry ravine to the right which was far enough down to cause serious injury or death should one fall. The trail at this point was wide enough for both my feet side by side plus maybe one more of my feet. That sounds like a lot of feet. Anyway, my point is that we were about 12 inches from doom for the first ten minutes of our trip. It definitely solidified for us that this was not a simple walk in the woods and put us on alert that we'd need to be careful and pay attention.
Along this first part of the journey, Chris began pointing out plants of note. First he pointed out poison oak which was prolific in the woods. Along the path for the rest of the journey, we passed down the information whenever a patch cropped up. Likewise, we notified each other of poison hemlock which we saw frequently. Chris shared a story with us about an herbalist friend of his who was on a hike and pointing out hemlock and other plants to her hikers. She forgot to wash her hands after handling it and apparently poisoned herself by eating skittles with her hemlocked hand. She began hallucinating and knew what had happened. She made it to the hospital in time to have her stomach pumped and she survived. That story and others that were shared with us along the trip made us very wary and aware of our surroundings. On the happier side of plant life, Chris also pointed out edible wild strawberries (his last trip about wiped out almost all of the ones along the trail, but there were still a few to be seen), and redwood sorrel which looks like clover only bigger, and tastes like green apple skin. Surprisingly tasty!
We hiked for about twenty-five minutes - the sunniest, hottest portion of the trip - until we reached a clearing by the stream with room for us to take off our packs and take a break in the shade. I stepped down to the creek's edge and rinsed my hands. The water was cold and refreshing. Chris took this opportunity to discuss wilderness preparedness and emergency survival. He showed us his satellite phone and his emergency beacon, something he recommends everyone invest in prior to backpacking or hiking on their own. We split into groups and discussed in what order we would do things to ensure our survival. We went with assessing our supplies, finding water, shelter, and then some method of signaling for help. We were close. We assumed no one was injured, but the first step in survival training is treating injuries, then shelter, then water. After a bathroom break, we got our packs back on and adjusted and were off again.
Since this is a natural trail, there were areas where trees had fallen and other obstacles blocked the path. Often we had to climb over fallen trees, cross the creek on rocks or logs, slide down and over boulders, etc. All while carrying 30 pounds on our backs. It was tricky and just challenging enough to make us work and keep us interested, but not cocky. We traveled at a leisurely pace with Chris leading the way and Dan bringing up the rear. Both of them were armed with cameras and took candid shots all along the way. You can see them on their Facebook page.
We traveled along the creek until we reached a large clearing in the redwoods which is where we made camp. Since BAE does this trip every weekend, they already had it scoped out with a nice flat area for the camp stoves. The area was boxed in by logs, making an impromptu kitchen. We all unloaded our community items (we had all the couscous, bowls, oatmeal, and our two bottles of wine). Shortly after they had the kitchen setup, we were all trained on using the platypus water filtration system they brought along. They hung the clean water receptacle on a tree near the creek. It's a big black bladder with tubing leading to the filter with tubing leading from the filter to another bladder on the ground. Using that setup, we could scoop water right out of the cold creek, put it in the top, and in a few minutes have safe, filtered drinking water. We used that water for filling up our personal water bladders for the next day.
We uncorked our wine using someone else's swiss army knife (see, I told you it would work itself out) and then set about the task of locating our sleeping spot. We chose a very nice area right next to the creek where it flowed over some boulders making a lovely babbling brook sound. We didn't even need our white noise machine! We inflated our mattresses and inserted them into the sleeves on our sleeping bags which are made for that purpose (camping is like being James Bond, tons of cool gadgets). In retrospect, our campsite was on a slight incline and could have been flatter, but it was the perfect location other than that. There were trees to dry our socks on, rocks to lean our packs on, gurgling water to sleep by - perfect. Others scoped out their sleeping spots and then went exploring the surrounding hills. One of the guys, Anton, found the skull of an animal that we all agreed was likely a bobcat or other small cat.
Back at the kitchen, the drinking had begun. Some of the girls had purchased wine drink boxes. Genius. We didn't see those in the store which is why we opted for bottles. When I asked for cups for wine, I found out that they are not always considered a necessary item in backpacking. Multi-use items are far more efficient. Instead of cups we used plastic bowls (not the metal ones as they cause the flavor to be off). I just pretended that it was a big goblet missing its stem.
It was at this point we recognized that drinking and camping might not be the best combination. For one thing, the woods we were in were slightly treacherous in full daylight with loose rock and tree-detritus, so in the pitch black it was even more so. Secondly, drinking = peeing... in the dark... far enough away from sleeping bags so we don't have to smell it. Lastly, we were tipsy and slightly off-balance as we climbed over rocks and trees to get to our bags. Luckily we were both able to traverse our obstacles without injury and were out like a light in no time. I crashed almost immediately, but Traci took a little longer to find sleep (her mind was racing and going over the day's events). It was a beautiful scene being out in the woods with trees as your only overhead covering.
The next morning we had coffee (out of bowls) and oatmeal (my least favorite food ever) out of other bowls as we packed up and got ready for the return hike. While we took our time on the way in allowing for breaks, we hiked pretty much non-stop on the way out. By the time we reached the narrow trail that started our journey, we were ready to be free of our extra weight and ready for some food! We were treated to one last amazing vista before taking the final downhill walk to the parking lot.
We had an amazing time learning the basics of hiking and are excited to try it again soon. We will stick to day hikes for the time being but would definitely consider another overnight trip with BAE as our guides. There are tons of places out here for this sort of activity, and BAE plans trips to many of them. If any of you are interested in a trip like this, we'd welcome the company. Come to SF and see the great American West with us!!