How to Not Get Lost on the Trail

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  ~Psalm 25:4 (ESV)

On a recent day hiking trip to the Red River Gorge Geological Area in the Daniel Boone National Forest, we met a couple at the trailhead who were on a multi-day backpacking trip.  As we were loading our gear into the car after the hike, a man approached us and seemed to be asking for directions.  After a brief discussion, though, it turned out he and his wife were hoping to get a ride to their vehicle because they had taken a wrong turn on the trail and were now 3.5 miles off course.  We happily gave them a ride, and our conversation on the drive inspired a few thoughts on how to not get lost on the trail.

Before You Go:

Learn how to navigate using a map and compass and carry them as a backup:  With today’s amazing GPS technology and the availability of some excellent smart phone apps, many people rely exclusively on these devices.  As much as I am a fan of digital technology, there are limitations:  batteries run out, devices break, software fails, and GPS signals can be obscured by rough terrain and heavy foliage.  For these reasons I strongly recommend learning how to read a topographic map and navigate using a magnetic compass and carrying both as a backup especially when exploring more rugged and remote areas.  There are plenty of good books to get you started, but hands-on experience is important if you ever have to count on these skills.  Check with a local park, outfitter, or hiking club to see if they know of classes available in your area, or if you live near an REI store they typically offer a Map & Compass Navigation Basics course several times a year.

Research the trails and parks you plan to hike:  Research is amazingly easy with many great online sources for topographic maps, guides, and park information.  One of the most important things to understand before loading up your gear and heading to a new destination is the difficulty of the trails and terrain you will face so you show up prepared with appropriate maps and trail guides.  In parks with good signage and well-blazed, easy-to-follow trails, a simple overview map showing roads, trails, facilities, and a few geographic features may be sufficient.  But, in rugged terrain with twisting, turning, or poorly marked trails, a detailed topographic map and possibly a descriptive trail guide may be necessary.

Although visitor centers and park offices are usually a great source of maps and information, do your homework rather than just showing up.  Hours of operation can be unpredictable and many isolated or smaller parks close facilities in the off season, while some have no facilities at all.  Also, some parks require reservations or advance purchase of permits, especially for overnight stays, and may require you to check-in when you arrive.  Knowing and preparing for these things ahead of time will avoid disappointment later.

Map Detail ComparisonThree maps of the same area in Red River Gorge showing different levels of detail.

Download and print hardcopies of maps and other information:  You can likely find everything you need online, but make sure you download it to your devices before you go as cell service may be limited or non-existent on the trail.  Even if you are using your electronic devices as your primary navigation tool, print and carry hardcopies as a backup.  If you are a fan of physical maps and guide books, like me, rather than bringing the whole map or a toting a heavy book in your pack, make copies of the sections and pages you need, seal them in a zip-top bag to keep them dry, and carry them in a pocket so they are easily accessible on the trail.

IMG_0269Map sections and guide book pages ready for the trail.

Leave a trip plan with at least one responsible person:  Not every hike requires extensive planning, but the further you venture away from civilization the more intentional you need to be.  Even on short trips with minimal preparations, it is good to let at least one responsible person know where you are going, who you are with, the trail(s) you intend to hike, and when you expect to be home.  On longer trips let two or three people know, and include more details, like vehicle information, local agencies to contact, and a daily itinerary with trailheads, routes, and specific campsites if possible.  An easy way to send all this info is by marking up a map with these details and attaching it to an email.  This may not keep you from getting lost, but if something goes wrong it will help rescuers find you.  Make sure you contact everyone after you return home or if you decide to extend your trip so they don’t get concerned and start alerting the authorities.

Trip Plan ExampleExample trip plan with detailed maps.

On the Trail:

Orient yourself at the trailhead with your map:  Once you arrive at the trailhead, take a few minutes to look at the map and orient yourself as things tend to look different in person than they do on a screen or in a book.  Start by finding the trailhead on your map.  As ridiculously simple as this sounds, I have actually run into people on the trail who were not sure where they started their hike, not a good position to be in if you find yourself lost and in need of help.  After you know your starting point, study the trails you will be hiking, as well as nearby trails, especially those intersecting your route.

Next, identify major, extended geographic features in the area such as roads, rivers, and ridgelines.  When paralleling your route, these features are called “handrails,” and when perpendicular to your route they are called “backstops.”  These features are helpful to keep you oriented along the way, but also provide easy-to-find destinations to navigate toward if you get turned around.

IMG_0243Rough Trail (#221) trailhead in Red River Gorge.

Check your progress using the map:  As you hike periodically check your progress against the map.  Pay close attention at trail junctions and always be on the lookout for distinctive landmarks such as a prominent bends in the trail, high points like peaks, ridges, and cliffs, and low points like ravines, creeks, and lakes.  It is also good to look behind you on occasion as another means to stay oriented.  Even on a loop trail this could prove useful if you ever need to backtrack.  Paying attention as you go and noting each point on the map ensures you will never be too far off your desired path at any given moment.

Proceed cautiously at poorly marked trail junctions:  There are situations where extra precaution is warranted.  Areas with poorly marked or numerous unofficial trails can be particularly difficult.  Also, be aware that signs and markers are sometimes damaged by weather or vandals.  If you end up at a questionable trail junction, proceed with caution and use your map and compass to determine which path coincides with the direction you are traveling.  After choosing a route, proceed a short distance and look for trail blazes (or cairns in some environments), signs, or recognizable terrain features.  If you find a clear indictor that you are on the right path press on, but if nothing appears or the trail starts to fade, return to the trail junction and try a different direction.  If you find yourself at a particularly confusing trail junction be sure to mark the direction you came from in a non-destructive fashion to help you backtrack if you do not find a clear way forward.

IMG_7016Weathered trail marker on Buck Trail (#226) in Red River Gorge.

Don’t take unnecessary risks if the trail is obstructed:  Another situation demanding extra precaution is when you encounter obstructions on the trail such as creek crossings, blown down trees, slides, or wash outs that require you to detour around.  If an obvious path is not evident take your time looking for a safe and clear way through, but don’t venture too far and risk losing the trail completely.

IMG_7357One of many creek crossings you’ll find in Red River Gorge this one along part of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail.

Turn back if you are in doubt or daylight is running out:  If you are in doubt or travel becomes too difficult or hazardous, it is always better to turn back and try another day.  Also, pay attention to the time as well as the distance you have traveled and the distance you still need to hike to reach your destination.  If it looks like you will lose daylight take the fastest and easiest route back to the trailhead.  Carrying a headlamp or flashlight is an essential precaution, but even with a light source night navigation is difficult and can be downright dangerous in some circumstances.

IMG_2678Night navigation is dangerous in areas with high cliffs.

Don’t panic and stay put if you really are lost:  If everything I have suggested here fails you and you believe you are lost, you need to stop, take a breath, and assess the situation.  Pull out your GPS, smartphone, or map and compass and perhaps after resting a few minutes to clear your head you will be able to figure out where you are.  If not, it is time to start thinking about shelter and other resources at your disposal, including ways to signal for help, but these are topics for another post.  If you really are lost and searchers need to be called in the worst thing you can do is wander aimlessly.  Stay put!  If you rush around in a panic you might end up getting injured and you will ultimately make it harder for a search team to find you.

IMG_3567How prepared are you to spend the night if you get lost?

As for the couple we helped that day, their two biggest problems were inadequate planning and a serious lack of awareness on the trail.  By their own admission they did not know the area very well and did not do much homework or come prepared with a good map.  On the trail, after they veered off course, they passed through two trail junctions, a trailhead and parking area, and crossed a gravel road all of which were marked even on the basic overview map they were carrying.  Had they been paying more attention, any one of these features should have alerted them to their mistake and allowed them to take corrective action sooner.  With a more detailed map they also would have had a few more opportunities to right their wrong because they could have seen where their route was either paralleling or crossing a creek and they would have had a better understanding of the terrain they were traversing.  In the end they were fortunate they remained on the official trails (there are many unofficial trails in Red River Gorge) and that their detour led them to a trailhead where they were able to find assistance.

How to Not Get Lost Infographic

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2017.


Hiking Devils Garden – Arches National Park

Arches National Park is a treasure trove of incredible landscapes and amazing geological features. According to the National Park Service website, “the park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks.” The Devils Garden Trail includes all of this and offers the most challenging hike in the park, even for a seasoned hiker.

Arches is not considered a backcountry park, other than a few outlying areas accessible only in a high clearance vehicle, but this trail is your best chance of getting away from the crowds, even if it is only for short periods of time. This is the longest trail in Arches National Park. The NPS brochure for this hike places the total distance at 7.2 miles, including all of the side trails to the various arches and the primitive trail. It also includes some reasonably challenging rock scrambles, several steep climbs/descents, and narrow sections of trail with significant drop offs. If you reach a point where you do not feel comfortable traversing the terrain, I recommend you turn around and return via the primary trail. We encountered a number of hikers who did just this on the day we were there.

For your own safety and the protection of the sensitive desert landscape, stay on the trails! The sandstone fins are an amazing feature in the Devils Garden landscape, but they also present some interesting challenges to navigation. Pay close attention to the cairns that mark the way, especially on the primitive portion of the loop. Generally, the cairns are not too difficult to find, but make sure you locate the next cairn before you proceed, and backtrack to the last marker you observed if you are unable to find your way forward

At one point on the primitive trail it is possible you will encounter a pool of water that you will need to cross depending on the season (it was waist deep when we visited in mid-May). You will either need to drop into and wade through the water or scramble over the steep rock to one side. We chose the rock scramble which proved quite a challenge. It could easily have resulted in a dip in the pool we were attempting to avoid, but we successfully navigated the obstacle and remained dry in the process.

If you plan to do the full loop, I recommend following the primary trail out to Double O Arch and Dark Angel first and returning via the Primitive Trail. This allows you to visit most of the major landscape features first, just in case you encounter a section of the trail where you are not comfortable proceeding due to difficult conditions or your own skill level.

Don’t forget to pack plenty of water and enjoy the hike!

The first two arches you will encounter are Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch both of which are accessible down a side trail that adds 0.5 miles to the total hike. Even though this is a short and easy trail, I suggest visiting these arches on the outbound trip as you may be inclined to bypass them if you are too tired on the return trip.

IMG_6432Tunnel Arch


GOPR0080-0001Pine Tree Arch

The next landmark you will encounter is Landscape Arch one of the best known arches in the park. Now at this point in the trail you will likely be thinking, “this is easy!” You may also be wondering if it is possible to escape the crowds, especially during busier times of the year. Not to worry, keep hiking because there is plenty of great scenery ahead, and the farther you go, the more likely you are to escape the crowd.


IMG_6438Landscape Arch

Just past Landscape arch you will encounter the first obstacle that will cause some to turn back…we witnessed this when one member of a party decided they would rather return to the trailhead than continue on. At this point on the trail this is a perfectly safe thing to do, even for an individual person. The scramble up the relatively steep face of this sandstone fin is not really that difficult; however, if you have a fear of falling or a poor sense of balance it can be rather intimidating.


GOPR0081-0001Climbing a steep fin…the first major challenge

Shortly after reaching the top of this fin you will encounter a side trail that leads to Partition Arch and Navajo Arch. This trail adds an additional 0.8 miles to the hike and like the other side trails is worth the effort.


IMG_6446Partition Arch

IMG_6452Navajo Arch


On the next section of trail, you traverse the top of a narrow fin with a serious drop off on both sides. For anyone with a fear of heights this will be a challenging section of trail, but the views are worth it! Descending off the fin also takes a bit of strategy so keep an eye out for markers that indicate the way down, as it is not the easiest route to find.

GOPR0085-0001Traversing the top of a narrow fin

 A little further along you will encounter Double O Arch. The area under the arch was closed off when we visited due to a large chunk of rock breaking off and falling away from the arch a few weeks earlier during a period of significant rain…just part of the ever changing landscape.

IMG_6466Double O Arch


The next landmark to visit is Dark Angel, a towering pinnacle, that requires an out and back side trail of 0.8 miles round trip, though I highly recommend not skipping this as the sweeping views at the end of the trail are well worth it!

IMG_6471Dark Angel


IMG_6473The amazing view looking back from the end of the Dark Angel trail

After backtracking on the Dark Angel trail, you have the option to return to the trailhead via the primary trail by which you came, or you can complete the loop on the Primitive Trail. If you found the main trail was intimidating and pushed your limits, then I do not recommend taking the Primitive Trail. If you are up to the challenge the effort is worth it, and make sure you don’t miss the only side trail out to Private Arch.

IMG_6480Private Arch

Even though you won’t completely escape the crowds, especially on the easier portions of the trail, this hike is a must do for any serious hiker visiting Arches National Park. You can hike nearly all of the shorter trails in the park in the span of a single day, but make sure you carve out at least half a day (more if you are a photography buff) to do the entire Devil’s Garden Trail, including the Primitive Trail if you are up for the challenge!

IMG_6504View from the back side of the Primitive Trail, looking up at the fin we crossed earlier in the hike…those are hikers up there!


© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2016.

Enter by the Narrow Gate

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” ~Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)

IMG_6480Private Arch, Arches National Park, Moab, Utah.

Private Arch is located on a side trail off the Devil’s Garden Primitive Loop in Arches National Park.  As the name Devil’s Garden suggests, this trail traverses a fairly harsh landscape and the primitive loop is an even more challenging trail that fewer visitors to Arches NP actually hike.  On the day we visited, private is exactly what we got.  Though the parking lot at the trailhead was bustling with visitors, and the easier sections of the Devil’s Garden trail were filled with a continuous stream of hikers, because we chose to take “the road less travelled,” we really had an opportunity to spend a little extra time enjoying the beauty and solitude of this hidden little corner of God’s creation.

Like the passage from Matthew’s gospel suggests, good things don’t always come easy.  Whether it is enjoying the beauty and solitude of a remote, less visited place in a busy national park, or the eternal life offered by following our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the best destinations often require us to travel a more difficult path.

If you want to find your way to the less visited, scenic corners of our amazing national parks you either need to hire a guide who knows the trails or have a good map and the skills to read and follow it.

In our Christian walk we are equipped with the best map available, the Bible.  But more than that we have the Master guide himself, who has gone before us, paying the price for our sins, and who through His mercy and grace is ready to show us the way.

Christ is the narrow gate through which we enter, and though the path may at times be hard, the reward of this challenging journey is nothing less than eternal life with our Master in His glorious kingdom!

Yours in Christ,
Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

Air Travel Tips for Hikers & Backpackers

IMG_20150511_065141If you have flown anywhere in recent years you likely know the list of items you cannot bring along in your checked or carry-on luggage is rather extensive. For the average business or vacation traveler the challenge of packing is complicated enough; however, for those of us who like to spend our vacation time tromping through remote wilderness locations with a backpack full of gear, the challenge is even greater!

In this article I will focus on domestic air travel in the US, not to exclude anyone, but rather because the rules and regulations of international air travel include not only the safety and security concerns of our own US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) but also those of similar agencies in other nations. Keep in mind that customs and immigration laws unrelated to air travel safety will also apply, so even if an item can be transported in a carry-on bag, it may not be legal to bring that item through customs; for example many countries, including the US, ban the import of certain food items. My only recommendation, if you are planning an international trip, is to start your research early.

Do I Need to Check Baggage?

The short answer is yes! If you are flying and bringing your own gear it is safe to assume you will need at least one checked bag for your gear if you are day hiking, and likely one checked bag per person if you are backpacking. You need to research the checked baggage policies and fees when booking your flights as checked baggage fees can add up quickly, often $25 or more, per bag each way depending on the airline. Some carriers like Southwest Airlines offer two checked bags per ticketed passenger at no extra charge. With their already low prices for airfare and the bonus of not having to pay extra for checked bags they are my personal favorite for our adventure travels whenever routes and schedules allow!

IMG_20150511_072601On the ground at Denver International Airport

Other Gear Transport Options

There are other options such as shipping your gear via a land based carrier, though, based on what I have paid to send Christmas gifts through various shippers in the past few years, the costs are significant, and there are still restrictions that apply. In addition to the cost, there are many logistical and timing issues you will need to work through if you go this route. Another option I will mention is working with an outfitter who rents gear at, or will ship it to, your destination. I have done a cursory look around the internet and know there are a number of companies who do this, but cannot comment on the cost or availability of these services, which I expect vary significantly depending on where your adventures take you and what time of year you travel. Even if you use one of these options there are still items you will need to purchase at your destination, so planning and research are always a must.

Special Considerations

If you have special dietary needs or require special medical equipment, supplies, or medications you need to do your homework regarding air travel restrictions. If there are items you plan to purchase at your destination, I expect most cities large enough to have an airport will also have places to purchase whatever you need, but do not take this for granted, especially in more remote destinations. Spend some time on the internet researching options, and by all means, follow up with a phone call, especially for highly specialized or critical items.

Planning Ahead and Preparing to Pack

Start gathering your gear at least two weeks before your trip. Our dining room becomes a staging area for gear before any backpacking trip, but this is especially true for our trips that include air travel. Waiting until the last minute is a sure way to forget a critical piece of gear or leave something in a carry-on bag that causes TSA agents and local police to take unwanted interest in you at the security check point! The later situation is certain to result in confiscation of the overlooked item, like a favorite pocket knife or multi-tool, or still worse, it could turn into a complete search of your person and baggage, a missed flight, and potentially a fine or even arrest, depending on what the item is.

IMG_5815Backpacking gear gathered in our dining room before a trip.

Check all the pockets in your backpacks and clothing to make sure there isn’t a spare lighter, fire starter, knife, or some other restricted item tucked away. And keep in mind that some outdoor clothing lines have hidden pockets and compartments for survival gear built into their clothing, so extra diligence is warranted with these types of items.

Packing Your Bags

The weight limit on checked bags is generally 50 pounds, with additional fees for oversize and overweight bags. As you pack your gear consider the fit as well as weight of each item. Once your bags are packed you should weigh them and make adjustments as needed.

IMG_5817Packed bags ready for weighing.

Having more than one checked bag gives you flexibility as you can shift items between bags to balance the weight and keep them all below the limit. If you check only a single bag you will need to closely watch the weight or just plan to pay the overweight baggage fee.

IMG_5820Hanging the bags on a luggage scale to ensure they are within the weight limits.

Guidelines for Specific Items

The following table is my attempt to cover the some of the most common items hikers and backpackers might carry.  Though this is certainly not an exhaustive list, I tried to include many of the pieces of gear I have personally had questions or concerns about in the past. With a few items I could not find specific TSA guidelines.  In those cases I have given you my personal interpretation and practices, which generally err on the conservative side. I prefer the no hassle approach and would rather not risk losing valuable gear! If you have specific items you are concerned about I suggest reviewing the TSA’s list of Permitted and Prohibited Items yourself or using their “Can I bring my…?” tool, that allows you to search for guidelines on specific items. If you review these resources and still have questions I suggest calling the airline or contacting the manufacturer of the item.


At Your Destination

Another practice I recommend is spending some time before your trip searching the internet for outfitters, grocery stores, and other vendors where you can purchase supplies once you arrive at your destination. This saves time, allows you to find the stores closest to your road travel route, and gives you an opportunity to call ahead to check hours and make sure any special items you need are available. I usually plug the addresses into my GPS unit before the trip, as well, making navigation quick and easy.

We tend to purchase most of our supplies in the cities where our flights take us. Cities with airports tend to be larger so the stores have a better selection and usually cheaper prices. That said, the stores we have patronized in and around the national parks have not had significantly higher prices. And, although the selection of items is usually limited, you should have no problem finding the basics of food, water, and fuel. Taking the time to do a little research in this area will save you time, frustration, and disappointment which is not what any of us want when we are tired from spending hours in airports and sitting on a plane!

Final Advice

If you want to avoid hassles, delays, or the loss of an important piece of gear, I strongly suggest you err on the conservative side and leave questionable items at home or plan to purchase them at your destination. Consider every item you take, large or small, and finally make sure you check and double check your gear to ensure you don’t forget anything critical or leave a restricted item in a carry-on or checked bag that will cause problems going through security screening at the airport.

Travel safe, hike safe, and by all means get out there and explore this vast, amazing, and beautiful world that God has blessed us with!

Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015 & 2017.

Relevant TSA Website Links:
Permitted & Prohibited Items:
Liquids & Gels:
“Can I bring my…?”:

He Has Put Eternity into Man’s Heart

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.  ~ Ecclesiastes 3:9-13 (ESV)

IMG_6059View along the Grand View Overlook Trail, Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah.

The open spaces and seemingly infinite views of the American west provide us with many iconic landscapes that encapsulate our nation’s deep seated spirit of independence and freedom.  Our recent trip to Canyonlands and Arches National Park fully met, and perhaps even exceeded, my expectations of amazing vistas and endless photo opportunities.  I have yet to decide whether these places are a photographer’s dream or nightmare, as incredible scenes surround you every step you take along the trail.  The real challenge is deciding what not to photograph!

As we would pause on our hikes to gaze out upon yet another magnificent panorama, I could not help but reflect on the vastness of the wilderness that lay before us, and ultimately my thoughts would turn to my own smallness in contrast to the infiniteness of our mighty God who created all of this.  What is it about scenes like the one in this photograph that give us pause and lead us to great moments of reflection?

Beautiful places like this serve multiple purposes in God’s sovereign plan.  On one hand they are simply a gift from God given for our enjoyment and relaxation.  On the other hand, they are also intentionally designed to stir deep feelings within us. As the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, these feelings come from God, who “has put eternity into man’s heart.”  God has made us in His own image, and part of that image is a mind that allows us to consider things beyond ourselves, beyond the physical horizons before us, beyond the moments in which we currently live, and eventually to things eternal.

And yet, while we may ponder the eternal, we will never have all the answers, in fact this passage tells us we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” We cannot know the mind of God, nor will we ever fully understand His ways, but thankfully he has given us hearts that desire eternity.  Ultimately that longing we feel is a longing for God, a longing for a personal relationship with the Almighty Creator, Himself.  In our fallen, sinful state, though, our desires lead us to pursue things other than God as we try to fill the void within us.

But praise God, because he has not only given us a desire for eternity, he has also given us a means to fulfill this desire!  He has given us an amazing creation that points us to Him.  He has given us his written word, the Bible, that tells us how to fulfill this desire.  Above all He has given us  the Living Word, His own Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ who, through His perfect life, undeserved death, and glorious resurrection, gives us the only way to fulfill this desire and spend eternity with Him beyond our brief and tiny lives here in this world.

To God be the glory, forever and ever!  Amen!

Yours in Christ,
Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

Glacier National Park: Vast, Wild, and Wonderful

01_SwiftcurrentLake_IMG_8173Morning mountain reflection on the still waters of Swiftcurrent Lake in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park.

The vastness of Glacier National Park is incredible! Its beauty is impossible to capture in mere words, and photographs only partially convey the wonders we discovered in this amazing corner of God’s great creation. It really needs to be experienced in person to be fully comprehended!

Traveling to Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is located in northwestern Montana and borders Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada) in the southwestern corner of the province of Alberta. If you plan to visit Canada bring your passport and do some research, so you know what items you are allowed to bring with you going into Canada, as well as returning to the US.

The closest airport is the aptly named Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana, about 30 miles from the western entrance of the park. Kalispell is also large enough that you can find any gear and supplies you might need for your adventure, at competitive prices. The tables and chart below will help orient you with the area, and also provide drive times and distances between major areas around the park, as well as to other airports in the region.

02_GNP_TravelTimesDistancesWhen to Visit

While you can visit Glacier any time of year, keep in mind much of the park is inaccessible in the winter, and the season when all the roads are open is relatively short. Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only road that fully spans the interior of the park from east to west, typically opens in early July and closes in late October; but, I strongly urge you to check the NPS website regardless of when you plan to visit as construction and weather can influence that timing; for example, a portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road will be closed earlier than normal (late September) in 2015 due to construction.

Where to Stay

Whether you plan to stay in one of the grand old lodges, a rustic cabin, a front country campground, or do some backcountry camping, there are plenty of options available. The one common element, regardless of your choice, is the need to plan well in advance of your trip. The lodges book early; and, while there is a mix of reserved, as well as first-come-first-serve campsites, you want to know what to expect. Rather than going into great detail here I suggest starting your research at the following pages on the NPS website:

Camping: There are 13 campgrounds with over 1000 sites, which should keep my fellow Campstake users busy for many years posting photos and reviews!

Backcountry Camping: As with any national park, if you plan to go backpacking and backcountry camping many regulations apply and permits are required, so do your homework.

Lodging: There is a variety of lodging options in and around the park, though the prime months of July and August book up quickly, so make reservations as early as possible. We booked in January for a mid-August trip and could only find openings in the East Motel of the St. Mary Lodge & Resort. The room was quite expensive. It was clean and adequate, but very small with no frills! Remember you are paying for the location, and hopefully you haven’t traveled all this way just to sit around in your hotel room! The food and service were good and the stores appeared to have everything you might need at fairly reasonable prices, though we had stocked up in Kalispell before heading to the park, just in case.

Be Prepared

Glacier National Park is a vast wilderness and, depending on which trails you hike, the number of people you encounter can vary significantly. Even on the busiest trails we sometimes went a while without encountering other hikers. Also, do not expect to be able to use your cell phone to call for help as service fades quickly once you enter the park.

As with any mountain wilderness outing, you need to be equipped with proper clothing, gear, and supplies, including extra warm layers, raingear, a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, some form of makeshift shelter, sufficient water and/or a way to purify water, food, first aid kit, flashlight or headlamp, whistle, emergency fire starting materials, and, finally, a good map and compass.

03_GrizzlyBear_IMG_8271Grizzly bear eating berries along the Iceberg Lake Trail.

This is also bear country, home to both grizzly and black bears. We saw several of both during our visit, most from the safety of our vehicle, though we did encounter one grizzly, about 30 yards away, while hiking the Iceberg Lake Trail. Read up on bear safety and heed the recommendations to not hike alone and have every adult carry bear spray. Also, if you are traveling by air, you cannot transport bear spray in either your carry-on or checked luggage, so you will need to purchase it upon arrival. I did some research when we took our trip and found a used sporting goods store in Kalispell, Replay Sports, where we were able to purchase bear spray for $25 a canister and return it for a $10 refund (2012 rates), assuming the canister was not discharged. Considering a canister of bear spray currently costs around $50, this is a good option to explore to save a bit of money.


There are six major areas of the park including, Logan Pass, St. Mary Valley, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Lake McDonald Valley, and Goat Haunt which is in the remote, northern end of the park. We did not do any hiking in the Lake McDonald Valley, though we did drive through on Going-to-the-Sun Road, but never even came close to Goat Haunt.

There is a great shuttle system with numerous stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road that is available at no extra cost. This is a convenient way to do some point-to-point hikes along Going-to-the-Sun Road. It is also a great way to get to Logan Pass without the concern of finding a parking spot; plus, you get to watch the scenery along the way rather than the road and other vehicles. Pay close attention to the shuttle times, though, especially later in the day, as you do not want to get stranded at the end of a long hike without a way back to your vehicle, except a long walk in the dark.

In all, we hiked about 45 miles over seven days and barely scratched the surface of the 740 miles of trails Glacier has to offer. As I said earlier mere words cannot do justice to this magnificent place, so I will provide only brief technical information about each hike and let the my photographs do the rest. All the trails we hiked were well marked so navigation was not difficult, though having good topographic maps does provide an added measure of confidence.

Highline Trail to Haystack Butte from the Logan Pass Visitor Center; 7.2 miles out-and-back; some ups and downs along the way with a sizeable climb at Haystack Butte.

04_Highline1_IMG_7836Bighorn sheep ram charging down the narrow Highline Trail and frightening hikers near Logan Pass.

05_Highline2_IMG_7879Indian paintbrushes with Haystack Butte in the background.

St. Mary Falls & Virginia Falls from the St. Mary Falls trailhead (St. Mary Valley); 2.9 miles out-and-back; some minor ups and downs along the way with a moderate climb to get up to Virginia Falls.

06_StMaryFalls_IMG_7913St. Mary Falls.

07_VirginiaFalls_IMG_7972Posing in front of Virginia Falls.

Siyeh Bend to St. Mary Falls from the Siyeh Bend/Piegan Pass trailhead on Going-to-the-Sun Road just east of Logan Pass; 5.0 miles one-way with a return trip via the park shuttle. There is about a mile of uphill hiking at the beginning of this route, but then it is all downhill except a brief, easy climb to the St. Mary Falls trailhead and shuttle stop at the end.

08_Siyeh_IMG_1977Todd the Hiker at the Siyeh Bend trailhead. (Photo credit: Leah Nystrom)

09_DeadwoodFalls_IMG_8028Deadwood Falls on Reynolds Creek in the St. Mary Valley.

Upper Two Medicine Lake from the Boat Landing on the west end of Two Medicine Lake; 4.6 miles out-and-back; this is a moderate uphill hike on the way to Upper Two Medicine Lake and downhill on the return. We chose to ride the boat out to the trailhead (for a fee); this is not required, though it is almost triple the distance if you choose to hike the whole route starting near the Two Medicine Visitor Center.

10_Upper2Medicine_IMG_8140The windblown waters of Upper Two Medicine Lake.

11_RunningEagleFalls_IMG_7975I recommend a stop to see Running Eagle Falls on the way up to Two Medicine.

Iceberg Lake from the Many Glacier Visitor Center; 10 miles out-and-back; there is about a two thousand foot elevation gain on this hike, all uphill on the way out and all downhill on the way back. This is a tough hike so give yourself plenty of time, with margin built in to rest and take in the scenery at the top.

12_IcebergLake1_IMG_8190Beargrass and the incredible mountain views along the Iceberg Lake Trail.

13_IcebergLake2_IMG_8205Mountain meadow wildflowers with Iceberg Lake in the distance.

Grinnell Glacier from the Swiftcurrent trailhead (Many Glacier); 9.6 miles out-and-back; this is pretty much the same configuration as the Iceberg Lake hike, with about a two thousand foot elevation gain, all uphill on the way out and all downhill on the way back. This is another tough hike so, again, give yourself plenty of time to rest and take in the scenery at the top.

14_GrinnellLake_IMG_8316Fireweed accents the view overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Grinnell Lake.

15_GrinnellGlacier_IMG_8346Spectacular view from above Grinnell Glacier.

Hidden Lake Overlook from the Logan Pass Visitor Center; 2.6 miles out-and-back; this is a short and fairly easy hike, though it is all uphill on the way out and downhill on the way back.

16_HiddenLake_IMG_8417Enjoying the view from the Hidden Lake Overlook.

17_MountainGoats_IMG_8477Mountain goats in the snow above the Logan Pass Visitor Center.

Our time in Glacier National Park was an amazing experience! The most difficult task I faced in writing this post was deciding which of the over 1000 photographs to include. I hope the ones I chose provide you with the inspiration to take a trip there yourself, you won’t regret it!

18_StMaryLake_IMG_8369No visit to Glacier National Park would be complete without a stop to snap a shot of the iconic St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island from the scenic overlook along Going-to-the-Sun Road.

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

Note:  This has also been published as a Campstake Field Guide, under the title, “Campstake Guide: Glacier National Park,” as well as on, under the original title, “Glacier National Park: Vast, Wild, and Wonderful.”  It can also be found under the original title “Glacier National Park: Vast, Wild and Wonderful” on the RockyS2V Blog along with other great articles from my fellow RockyS2V Ambassadors (#TeamS2V) and guest bloggers.

Highlights from Big Bend National Park, Texas

00_IMG_2106Desert Sunrise in Big Bend National Park, Texas

With only 316,953 visitors in 2013, Big Bend National Park ranks 42nd out of 59 national parks. When compared to parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone which both get over 3 million visitors a year, or Grand Canyon with over 4 million, you may begin to understand some of its appeal. (Source: complete visitor statistics for the national parks can be found at

The lack of visitors is certainly no reflection on the beauty of this desert gem. In its harsh and rugged way, Big Bend is no less spectacular than any of the other national parks we have visited; and, I am quite certain the primary reason there are so few visitors is the park’s remote location. This is not a place you just “stop by” on your way through, unless of course your final destination is The-Middle-of-Nowhere.

Traveling to Big Bend National Park

Even if you are taking a cross country drive on I-10 (the nearest interstate highway) and head south on US-385 at Fort Stockton, Texas, it is 100 miles to the park’s northern entrance and another 26 miles beyond that to park headquarters at Panther Junction. Driving times (distances) to the north entrance of Big Bend National Park from some of the major south Texas airports are as follow:

Midland International Airport: 3 hours (195 miles)
Del Rio International Airport: 3.5 hours (214 miles)
San Angelo Regional Airport: 4.5 hours (266 miles)
El Paso International Airport: 4.5 hours (288 miles)
San Antonio International Airport: 6 hours (409 miles)

01_IMG_2099The road leading into the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Traveling between major areas within Big Bend is no walk in the park either! Driving times (distances) from Panther Junction to other major areas of the park are as follow:

Chisos Basin Visitor Center & Chisos Mountain Lodge (central): 30 min. (10 mi.)
Santa Elena Canyon via Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (western): 1.25 hrs. (43 mi.)
Boquillas Canyon (eastern): 45 min. (23 mi.)

Be Prepared

Big Bend National Park is a serious, desert wilderness! This is not the place to cut your teeth when it comes to hiking. It is very remote, with harsh terrain and extreme weather. When we visited in late May of 2014 temperatures reached as high as 116 °F during the day and cooled so much at night that we needed a fleece jacket to stay warm. While these conditions are not surprising to anyone who has lived or traveled in the desert, to someone unfamiliar with this environment it is easy to come unprepared.

If you visit during the hotter season, like we did, I recommend getting up early and hiking during the cooler morning hours when temperatures are below 90 °F. Evening hiking works too, but there is less margin-for-error if you underestimate the time to complete your hike, that is, unless you want to hike after dark when the mountain lions and black bears are on the prowl. We did most of our hiking early then went back for a shower and an afternoon siesta…I now truly grasp and appreciate this concept. We found late afternoons were a great time to drive around in air conditioned comfort and scout the next day’s trailhead or find a perfect vista to enjoy the spectacular evening sunsets!

02_IMG_2243Sunset on the Window View Trail in the Chisos Basin.

03_IMG_2028We also experienced a couple of pretty severe late afternoon thunderstorms and were quite glad that we were not caught out on the trail during either of them!  Thunderstorm forming over Casa Grande peak in the Chisos Mountains.

As you might expect in the desert, finding water is an unlikely prospect, so plan to carry all that you will need. Even if you happen to find water (like the Rio Grande River), it is most likely contaminated. Given the low humidity (10% or less) dehydration is a serious concern even in cooler weather, so carrying one gallon (4 liters) of water per person for a longer day hike is not unreasonable. Don’t forget the sunscreen, a hat, and proper clothing to protect you from the sun’s damaging UV rays, either.

A final note of caution that I cannot overemphasize, there is no cell service anywhere in the park and only spotty service on the main roads within 100 or more miles of the park, depending on which direction you travel. If you get lost while hiking or breakdown driving in or around the park there is no way to call for help unless you happen to have a satellite phone, which I suspect most people, myself included, do not. Traffic can also be very sparse, especially in the off-season, so your wait time for assistance from someone just passing by could be significant. Be aware, be prepared, and plan accordingly!

Where to Stay

One lesson we have learned from past trips to national parks is that staying in, or very near, the park has many benefits. Saving drive time to reach trailheads and being in close proximity to scenic spots for morning and evening photography, are two big ones. On this trip I did not even bother to research any lodging options outside the park due to the remote location.

We chose to stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge and were very pleased with the accommodations, the staff, and the food in the restaurant. Wi-Fi service is available in the lodge, so you do have a means to communicate with family and friends. The park store in the Chisos Basin is well stocked with all the necessities and the prices seemed reasonable, though we brought everything we needed with us as we did not know what to expect.

There are also three developed frontcountry campgrounds in the park as well as backcountry camping options that will require a permit.


The NPS website describes several day hikes of varying difficulty in three primary regions of the park, desert, mountain, and river. Our main hikes were in the mountain and river areas, though we did check out a couple of the old ranches (Sam Nail Ranch and Homer Wilson Ranch), the Hot Springs Historic Trail, and a number of the scenic overlooks in the desert area, though these did not qualify as hikes in my book as we were never more than few hundred yards from our vehicle.

04_IMG_1721Trailhead behind the Chisos Mountain Lodge for the Window Trail.

Our first hike was the Window Trail. The trailhead is directly behind the Chisos Mountain Lodge where we stayed. Out the door and onto the trail, how much better can it get? This is a moderate 5.6 mile round trip hike that is all downhill on the way out and all uphill on the way back. This configuration did make it a little more challenging at the time of year we were there as the temperatures were over 90 °F by the time we finished the hike. This is a good hike to start with and the view at the end of the trail is amazing.

05_IMG_1744Typical trail view on the Window Trail (beware of prickly pear cactus when kneeling to take photos!)

06_IMG_1770There will be no doubt when you have reached the end of the Window Trail!

07_IMG_1832Trailhead for the Lost Mine Trail (the trail is only paved for a short distance).

Our second hike was the 4.8 mile round trip Lost Mine Trail. This is another moderate hike, but is has an opposite configuration to the Window Trail as it is uphill on the way out and downhill on the way back. The trailhead is less than two miles from the Chisos Mountain Lodge, so it was easy to get an early start on this trail, as well. The views along this trail, and at the top, make it well worth the time and effort.

08_IMG_1849View of the Chisos Basin, Casa Grande, and the Window along the Lost Mine Trail.

09_IMG_1890View looking south at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

At the far ends of the park are two incredible canyons of the Rio Grande River, Santa Elena canyon on the west end and Boquillas Canyon on the east end. While the hikes into both canyons are short and relatively easy, about a 1.5 mile round trip for each, they are iconic of Big Bend, and a must do. These destinations require drive time if you are staying in the Chisos Basin, so plan accordingly and enjoy the rugged desert scenery along the way. One other note on these two trails is to make sure you listen for the call of the canyon wrens which were a common sound on both hikes.

10_IMG_1976Standing at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon.

11_IMG_1992Enjoying the view inside of Santa Elena Canyon.

Do not be surprised in Boquillas Canyon if you are approached by locals from the village of Boquillas, Mexico who commonly wade across the Rio Grande River to sell souvenirs in this area. You can be fined for purchasing these trinkets as they have not been properly imported. There is a legal border crossing nearby, but you will need your passport if you want to visit Mexico to do any souvenir shopping.

12_IMG_2116The village of Boquillas, Mexico in the distance and some of the local wares for sale on the rocks in the scenic overlook parking area near the Boquillas Canyon trailhead.

13_IMG_2146Boquillas Canyon.

Like any national park we have visited, there is a massive amount of information on the NPS website for Big Bend, and I recommend taking the time to do some research before you go. Also, even though it is one of the least visited parks in the park system, be sure to make reservations well in advance so you are not disappointed when you arrive, especially if you plan to travel there during the peak season between November and April.

One last thing that you cannot miss at Big Bend is to take advantage of the dark nights far from civilization to get out and see the stars. As the song says, “The stars at night are big and bright. Deep in the heart of Texas.”

14_IMG_1825Stars over the Chisos Mountain Lodge with Casa Grande silhouetted on the skyline.

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

Note:  This has also been published as a guest post on the Campstake Journal under the title “Highlights from Big Bend.”

Press On Toward the Goal

Philippians 3:7-14 (ESV) – But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (1-IMG_3174)A view looking west from one of the side trails along the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail. The furthest ridge in the center of the photo is our goal on this hike.

On a backpacking trip to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge early this fall, we decided to explore a trail that was new to us, the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail. Though I knew from our outrageGIS map and the description in Jerrell Goodpaster’s book, “Hinterlands,” that there were many spectacular views along the way, and at the end of the hike, there were still a few times we considered turning back. The hike was difficult at times, involving rock scrambles and thick brush; but, having a goal in mind and some idea of what lie ahead, were key to our perseverance.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (2-IMG_3204)A closer view of the end point on the Star Gap Arch trail.

Even though you may not get a complete picture of what to expect when hiking in a new place, or even on a new trail in a familiar place, it is worth taking time to do some research. Studying topographic maps, reading a guide book, or finding online reviews from other hikers, can give you motivation to both start and complete a new adventure.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (3-IMG_3178)The final climb up the ridge at the end of the Star Gap Arch trail.

In many ways our Christian walk is like a hike in the wilderness. Fortunately, God has given us the ultimate guide book for our journey, the Bible. However, the Bible is far more than just a simple guide book it serves a much greater purpose, pointing us to the ultimate goal, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Personally knowing the author who actually wrote the guide book is our best assurance of all. We will probably never endure the trials that Paul suffered, but we still need to realize there will be good times and bad, easy days and difficult ones in our lives, but with Christ we can be certain that we will make it to the end.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (4-IMG_3193)One of several spectacular views that awaits you at the end of the Star Gap Arch trail.

There is a price to taking a backpacking trip, we give up modern conveniences, endure difficult terrain, and occasionally suffer cuts and bruises, but getting to experience the beauty of God’s creation along the way and the spectacular views at the end of the trail make it worth the effort. There is also a cost to following Christ, the Bible makes this clear, but how much more incredible will the end of our life’s journey be when we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Read more about my “God is Revealed…“ category of posts

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2014.