There are a tremendous number of outdoor activity possibilities here in the Pacific Northwest. And often I like to take opportunity to explore my region in other ways than on a bike. This last weekend I headed out to the Columbia River Gorge with my girlfriend for a s24o backpacking trip. We left at three in the afternoon on Saturday and were back in town for burgers and beers by three the next day.
I don't have a ton of experience backpacking. I believe that this was only my second trip ever. We've done plenty of hiking in our area. Last summer we went out at least every other week for a day hike. Towards the end of the summer we did an overnight trip with some friends on the shoulder of Mt. Hood. It was awesome. And even better, all I needed to gain entry into this new activity was an appropriate backpack. Because of my years of bike touring, I had just about every other piece of gear that I could ever need. There is a lot of overlap between the the gear needed for bike touring and backpacking. There is an identical need for lightweight, durable equipment when you are transporting all of your supplies under your own power. So I already had the tent, the sleeping bag and pad, the lightweight cookset, etc...
(On a sidenote, I do really terrible when car camping. The last time I went, the only thing I brought with that I probably haven't taken with me a dozen times bike touring was a Scrabble set.).
So we packed our stuff and headed out to the Eagle Creek Trailhead in the Gorge. Our planned hike was about a 14 mile loop linking the Eagle Creek Trail, the Benson Way, and the Ruckel Creek Trail. There was a good spot for camping, with a water source, about halfway at Camp Smokey.
We got underway a little after 4:00pm, a bit late, but baring any major difficulties we should be reaching Camp Smokey by dark, around 8:30. The hike out Eagle Creek is a pretty easy walk. The first two miles are well travelled. It's very flat and goes right past the spectacular Punchbowl Falls. Most day hikers only make it that far, snap a few photos, and head back home. Past Punchbowl Falls the trail stays just as flat with only 1600' of elevation gain over the six miles to Tunnel Falls, and no downhill to speak of. There are some nice spots where the trail narrows to a couple of feet wide and skirts the edge of a cliff. A little nerve wracking, but not difficult to pass by. Lots of waterfalls and bridges over precipitous drops. Beautiful.
The only trouble we had on the trip was caused by us missing the turnoff for the trail up the hill to the camp. We walked about 3/4mi past where the turn was, moss covered signage hiding in the bushes. By the time we made it to Tunnel Falls our error was kind of obvious. We ogled at the falls for a minute, debated whether to stop at a camping spot closer, along Eagle Creek, or to retrace our steps and continue on as planned. We opted for the latter, even though we had lost a good hour of our diminishing daylight.
The way up the hill was absurdly steep. 3000' of elevation gain over three miles. Our daylight quickly depleted itself and we spent the last hour hiking in complete darkness. I was thankful to have just replaced the batteries in my headlamp. We somehow managed to not get lost at all. Although three miles up that steep a grade takes a lot longer than one would hope. We finally hit camp around 9:30pm, more than six hours after we set out.
The next hour or so was spent pitching the tent and starting a fire with a bunch of damp wood in order to cook a hobo packet of sausages and peppers. We ate, sipped our bourbon, ate some chocolate, and passed out in the tent.
After a chilly night (it hit the low 30s that night) we had breaky (consisting of bacon, eggs, and tortillas), refilled our water out of the spring, and hiked on. We walked about a half mile on the PCT and then onto the Benson Way until we hit the Ruckel Creek Trail. It was obvious that not many people had come this way in a while. There was still a inch or so of snow on the ground up there at 4000' and the only tracks we saw until we crossed Ruckel Creek were from wildlife.
It was quite a steep decent, we dropped all the elevation we had gained the day before over the course of five miles. The hike up hill had made my thigh muscles complain more than just a little. But tromping down 4000' with a 24lb. pack on my back caused my knee and ankle joints to scream in protest. This has to be the biggest difference by far between bike touring and backpacking. Going up hill either way can be difficult and trying. Going down on a bike is blissful, on foot, not so much.
It took us five peaceful hours to hike back down. We stopped frequently to shed layers as the sun warmed up the day. We barely saw anyone else, maybe a half dozen humans and a dog. Finally back at the trailhead, we piled our tired carcasses into the auto and drove the hour back to Portland where showers, clean clothes, and hot food awaited us.