Hiking the Knobstone: Day 2

Little did we know when we began planning this trip at the end of August, that Indiana would be hit with an unseasonably warm spell at the end of September. As it turns out, the weekend we decided to hit the trail. We spent our time on this iconic Indiana trail alone due to the high heat and humidity. Temps were in the 90s and humidity was nearly as high.


Even being a hammock camper where you’re usually afforded the luxury of a gentle breeze throughout the night. Our first and what would turn out to be our only night on the Knobstone Trail was devoid of any breeze, while the temps never dipped below 78 and the humidity made for a very sticky attempt at sleep.

When morning came we broke camp with first light, I know I slept about 2 hours in total because I absolutely could not stop sweating the entire night, and I had somehow become covered with black ants during the time I set up camp. I don’t think Dad slept much more than I did. After breaking down camp and eating a quick breakfast I downed close to a liter of water  because I could already feel the dehydration setting in.


Once we started out in the trail it was immediately evident that I had no idea what I was getting into when I stepped foot on this trail.  The Knobstone is a relentless rollercoaster of steep climbs and fast descents. During the first hour and a half on the trail we progressed about 2 miles and finished nearly all of the remaining water we had on us while having to constantly swat down large spiderwebs that were strewn across the path as it seemed that we had been the only hikers on this portion of the trail in a few days. Luckily, a local trail club had anticipated a few hapless adventures taking on the trail in the current conditions and had stashed a few gallons of water at nearly every road crossing we came upon. 

We gladly refilled our water every chance we got  and continued on at a breathtakingly slow pace (my pace), taking every opportunity we had to drink water and attempt to cool down. Eventually stopping at a creek that I promptly dove into after stripping down to compression shorts. The temps were already into the high 80s and the humidity was stifling by a quarter after 10 and after slowly making our way another 2 miles we came to a road crossing that was stocked with more water gifted by trail angels. It was at this point, with sweat soaked through all of my clothing and my pack, having downed nearly 2 gallons of water in 8 miles on the trail and still feeling the effects of severe dehydration. Sitting on a log on the side of the road with my dad, I decided to end my trip on the Knobstone. At least this time around.

After getting a ride from a local thru hiker and retiree, getting some food and more water in our bellies and catching up on sleep that I’d missed in the sweatiest night that I’ve ever hammocked through. I saw the full scale of what happens when you sweat through your bug spray in prime chigger weather in Indiana.


All in all my first experience on the Knobstone was nothing close to what I was expecting it to be. But I had a good time hiking with my father and made some more memories that we can add to our future campfire stories. The Knobstone beat me down this time and left me with the worst case of chiggers that I’ve ever seen. But I’m not deterred, next time we set out to tackle this trail I’ll be better prepared for the hills, hopefully it won’t be this hot, I’ll overapply my bug spray and we’ll complete the whole thing.

We did get some cool pictures while we were out that I’ll post below.

If you’re interested in hiking the Knobstone trail, further information is available below.  https://www.in.gov/dnr/forestry/4275.htm

Happy Trails!

Hiking the Knobstone: Day 1

Well, more like day 1/4. After a morning of prep (and work for my Dad) and an hour and a half drive from Peru, Indiana to Bloomington, Indiana to meet up with Dad before rushing another hour down to Corydon to cache water and start our hike. We FINALLY hit the trail at a little after 6pm. We managed to make it a little past the 5 mike mark after hiking by headlamp for the greater part of an hour.


The first 4 miles of the trail are gently rolling hills, not too much of a bother. But once you get past the 4 mike marker the trail starts going up, and doesn’t stop for what seems like an eternity to an out of shape hiker that’s gotten used to the flat trails in Texas. So we have 1 “hill” down and so much more to go. Elevation profile added for dramatic effect.


Looking at the 40+ miles to go, and knowing what lays in store definitely gives me one of those “what the hell did I get myself into” frames of mind. But I’m determined to finish this hike while I’m back. I don’t know the next time I’ll get to hike with my father, and I want this trip to go successfully in the record books. We just happened to pick the hottest, most humid weekend of the year to accomplish it. But I guess the unforeseen challenges are what make it that much more memorable.
Anyway, after managing to set our hammocks up  by headlamp (kudos to Atlas Straps and aluminum carabiners) and sitting around a small fire to dry off and get the bugs off of us. We’re both ready to snooze in our hammocks. I know tomorrow will be challenging, but I hope I have the fortitude to overcome.

If you’re interested in hiking the Knobstone trail, further information is available below.  https://www.in.gov/dnr/forestry/4275.htm

Happy Trails!

Back on the Low Gap: 2017 Edition

2017 has been full of excitement so far, but much of it has been away from hiking trails. I’ve found that South Texas gets pretty hot during the summer, and that heat isn’t great for hiking or backpacking like I’m used to. So most of this summer was dedicated to overtime at work and catching up on Game of Thrones so that I could be just as disappointed as everyone else that the last season won’t start for another 18 months. However, the end of August brought with it a month long trip back home to Indiana to visit family. Just after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in our area. Luckily where we live in New Braunfels, TX was relatively mild, getting much less rain than areas further east like Houston. We’re thankful that our area didn’t get hit worse and that we were still able to make the 18 hour road trip home without having to drive through much of the storm.

Once back in Indiana where the temperature is about 20 degrees cooler than back home in New Braunfels, I didn’t waste any time getting back on my favorite Indiana trail: the Low Gap. This particular trip was special because in addition to getting back on trail with my Dad (the other half of Free Range Hiking), I had the opportunity to take my Brother in Law on his first backpacking trip as well as introducing him to hammock camping. The Low Gap trail was a great starting point for him and a good reintroduction to less than flat trails for me. Texas has some great hiking, but most of the trails close to where I live are flat and rocky, a very stark contrast to central Indiana’s heavily wooded dirt paths.

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This hike was great, we got to Morgan Monroe State Forest at about 3, while it was still sunny and in the 70’s. It was forecasted to rain so we intended to make camp early, get a fire going and call it an early night. We managed to put in about 4 miles before the rain hit and the wind started to pick up. But we were still able to put up our hammocks and get the fire started with plenty of daylight left. So I introduced Jt, my Brother in Law, to JetBoil stoves and expensive Mountain House dinners. He wasn’t overly impressed with the food. But I think that had more to do with the fact that his clothes had gotten wet in the rain and less about the quality of the food. Regardless, he opted to forgo the mountain house meal and eat a quick, cold dinner while he got more acquainted with the fire.

 

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Before long we were all snug in our hammocks, lulling to sleep as we listened to the rain pattering on our rain fly’s. This was the 5th night I’ve spent in rainy/cold conditions in my Clark NX-270 hammock and each time I’ve slept more comfortably than I do in bed at my own home. I can’t speak highly enough of these hammocks and how they perform in all 4 seasons. Unfortunately, the Hennessey classic that JT was in didn’t stand up to the temps quite as well as my hammock and he spent most of his first night on the trail shivering from the cold. We’ve all been there, we know how much it sucks. I was hoping for a better experience from his first hammock camping experience, but we live and we learn. The next morning we were up with the sun, warming up around the fire, cooking and eating breakfast (MH Breakfast Skillets and instant coffee), showing Jt how to break down camp and readjust the straps on his pack before hitting the trail to knock out the remaining 6 miles.

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Overall this was a great first trip, the Low Gap was the first trail that I stepped foot on as an adult and it is the trail that made me fall in love with hiking/backpacking. On this trip it was a great reminder that even small hills suck when you’re fat and out of shape, and that being out in nature with great company is the best motivator to keep you coming back.

Directions and further information on this trail are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/low-gap-trail

Happy Trails!

More pictures below.

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The Appalachian National Scenic Trail

What is it?

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, commonly referred to as simply the Appalachian Trail or “the AT” for short, is probably the most well-known hiking trail in the United States. As such it inspires a few thousand prospective thru-hikers and (estimates say) close to 3 million visitors (day hikers, section hikers) to the nearly 2,200 mile footpath each year. Though less than half of the prospective thru hikers actually go on to complete the trek.

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Appalachian Trail Map (http://swling.com/blog/tag/best-radio-for-appalachian-trail/)

How do you thru hike it?

The AT is most commonly hiked from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire before travelers reach the northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Although many of those starting later in the year choose to hike southbound from Maine to Georgia to avoid seasonal closure in Baxter State Park that would otherwise prevent northbound hikers from actually reaching the summit of Katahdin if they run behind.

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Approach Trail (http://cnyhiking.com/ATinGA-SpringerMountain.htm)

Mt Katahdin

Mt. Katahdin (http://www.summitpost.org/katahdin/150219)

What’s the draw?

The Appalachian Trail is iconic and has been the focus of several books, documentaries and a mainstream movie. But what makes people want to start an undertaking of this magnitude? The answer to that question is very specific to the person that is answering. Many people want to say that they thru hiked the grandfather long trail, some want to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to survive in the woods for months at a time. Others are just looking for an escape or change of pace. But one thing remains the same, everyone that starts the trail finds the same rocky path, lined by seasonal flowers, rhododendron tunnels, mixed forest filled with fresh mountain streams and spring water sources, breathtaking mountain views and comradery that most never expect to find in the middle of nowhere.

How long does it take?

The average hiker takes between 4-5 months, or 165 days on average, to finish the thru hike. But it can be done in less time by those determined to skip zero days (a day that you hike 0 miles), and can take longer for those wishing to really experience everything there is to experience on the trail. Many of the trail towns hold festivals. Damascus, VA hold an annual festival dubbed “Trail Days” and offers an opportunity for vendors and past and present thru hikers to come together and celebrate the trail.

How much does it cost?

An AT thru hike costs an average of $4500-$6000 depending on the amount of time the hiker decides to stay in trail towns or in hostels along the trail. The biggest expense along the trail is food, as the average hiker needs to consume nearly 5,500 calories a day to maintain their weight while thru hiking the AT. This constant need for calories has also spawned dozens of traditional eating contests in trail towns along the way. From eating a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting to hotdogs and pancake eating competitions. Thru hikers know how to load up on calories whenever the opportunity is presented to them.

In addition to actual hike costs, prospective thru hikers will spend between $500 and $2,500 on gear before setting out on their epic quest, cost mostly depending on the brand of gear that is purchased. While it is possible to spend less upfront, outfitters like REI stand by the items that they sell and will send thru hiker’s replacement gear while they are on the trail if anything happens to fail.

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Additional Links:

http://blog.rei.com/hike/21-appalachian-trail-statistics-that-will-surprise-entertain -and-inform-you/

http://www.projecttimeoff.com/blog/things-do/more-walk-woods-what-you-need-know-about-appalachian-trail

What is a Thru-Hike?

What is a thru-hike?

This is a question that a lot of new hikers find themselves asking or googling after hearing the term in conversation. But there isn’t always a straight answer, especially depending on what company you’re with at the time. Oftentimes people will refer to themselves as bona-fide thru hikers after completing one of America’s “Big Three” long trails, in one setting. Of course I’m referring to the iconic Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles), the scenic Pacific Crest Trail (2,659 miles) and the mystifying Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles). If you ask someone who has hiked one of these trails what it takes to become a thru hiker, they will likely tell you that you have to hike the mileage of the trail that they hiked to earn the title, and rightly so.

But there are others in the sport that argue that completing any “long trail” in the United States will earn you the title. The truth is that it really depends on how you feel about it. Hike your own hike, if you complete a 100 mile trail in one setting and you want to call yourself a thru hiker, call yourself a thru hiker. As long as you feel comfortable with your accomplishments, that’s what the sport is all about. Getting to be one with nature, learning survival skills and bonding with new and old friends. You might not be a thru hiker to someone who has hikes one of the big three, but others who have hiked the trail you hiked might agree that you should call yourself a thru hiker. At the end of the day, it comes down to what you feel you are. If you feel like a section hiker, be a section hiker. If you feel like a thru hiker, be a thru hiker. Don’t base how you label yourself or your adventures on anyone’s views but your own. When it all comes to a close, you are the only person that lived your life and the only one who will remember how your adventures felt to you.

So whether you’re a day hiker, a section hiker, or a thru hiker. Enjoy the adventure and don’t stress over titles. Once you’ve gotten your trail name, you can revel in the fact that you’ve made it into a very prestigious group of people who care more for experiences than outward appearances and that is a very good place to be indeed.  Whatever you do, remember to hike your own hike (HYOH).

Happy Trails,

Aaron

*HYOH is a term also used to tell a fellow hiker that is offering unwanted advice to mind their own damn business*

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Need an excuse to get outside?

We don’t own this, but it is great enough to share. Spring is almost here, my hiker trash buddies longing for sunlight filtering through green canopies! Have a laugh, then go prep your gear.

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Clifty Falls

Back before the promotion and move to Texas we hit the creek bed trail at Clifty Falls in Indiana.

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This trail literally follows the creek bed from the terminus all the way to the waterfall.

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The waterfall is technically off limits because of the risk of falling debris from above. But we’re not the type of people that find a waterfall and don’t have a little fun.

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Aside from the AT, this was the coolest hike I went on in 2016 and I hope to make several more trips in the future.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/parks/us/indiana/clifty-falls-state-park?ar%5B%5D=10164113

Happy Trails,

 

 

Appalachian Trail: A Brief Adventure in the Great Smokys

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The Appalachian Trail, a thru hike of the granddaddy trail has been something that my father and I have talked about doing since I was a kid. So when we started hiking seriously at the beginning of the year making a weekend trip to this hiker’s Mecca was at the top of our list. We finally got things planned out and days off that would accommodate our trip this past weekend. So we piled on the car on Saturday and made the 6 and a half hour drive from my home in Central Indiana to the Newfound Gap Trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee / North Carolina border.

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When we pulled into the parking lot after an hour of driving through the beautiful scenery of the National Park seeing the trail was like coming down the stairs to find presents under the tree as a kid on Christmas Day. Little did I know at the time that the next 24 hours would show me just how much I underestimated this fabled trail and overestimated where I need to be physically before I attempt a thru-hike. I’ll give a little bit of background for perspective before I go any further with the story of our weekend. When I started hiking at the beginning of the year I was coming off a very hard year, I’d had serious relationship problems that nearly led to a divorce. I was struggling with PTSD from my time in Afghanistan that was exacerbated by frequent 1st to 3rd shift changes at work and to top it all off, I’d gotten to the fattest I’ve ever been in my life at nearly 300 pounds. I’ve always been a big guy, I was in the 180-200 range when I wrestled in high school and even through Basic Training and AIT when I was in the best shape of my life I barely touched 175. But a combination of depression, sleep problems and bad eating habits had landed me at a new personal low (and high).

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When I found my love for hiking at the beginning of the year I saw it as my way to beat my personal demons and get myself back to where I should be physically. I knew it would be frustrating, that I would hurt, and that it was going to be a long arduous road. But like any hiker will tell you, the best way to conquer a mountain is one foot at a time. So with my dad and later my wife by my side I started hitting trails every weekend. Week after week I started feeling better (without prescription meds), losing pounds here and there, and getting myself back into shape, taking out 6-10 mile trails in a handful of hours each and every weekend. So after 4 months of this I felt like I was ready for a weekend of hiking on the trail that inspired me to start this journey.

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So we set off at around 4pm on Satuday, we started walking up the trail talking about how great it was to be out here doing this and how much fun we were going to have over the next few days. We were so happy that we made it half a mile into the trail before we realized that we were headed in the wrong direction. We had set a plan to head south, had reserved shelters and arranged pick up to the south… and we were heading north, oops. So we laughed it off and started back down the trail we had just come up, through the tourist crowded parking lot full of people that had just watched us walk up that same stretch of trail 10 minutes ago, then across the street to the hidden marker that let us know we were heading the right way this time.

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Once we got on the southbound portion of the trail we started rolling. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful and the first couple of miles were relatively flat. We had reservations at the Mt. Collins Shelter for that night, which meant that with our added mile, we’d be going right around 6 miles that day. Which was great until we went a little over 3 miles into the trail, met our first thru-hiker of the trail. A skinny redhead girl named “firecracker” who was slack packing to Newfound Gap. Then the trail started uphill, and kept going uphill, and uphill. This was also the first time I’d carried (in retrospect) a way too heavy pack over rock scrambles.

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After climbing steadily uphill for miles we came to a portion of the trail that dipped downhill before heading back up. My legs were exhausted at this point, my knee started getting this achy feeling on the downhill portions of the trail and I had that all too familiar “copper penny” taste in my mouth from sucking in more air on the uphill that a hoover vacuum at a hybrid pet / furniture store. We were heading down hill at a quick pace as the sun was getting low in the sky and we really wanted to make it to the shelter and secure out spots before sundown. It was when all this was happening and with the days finish line in sight that I took a wrong step, slipped my foot off a loose rock and turned my ankle. I cringed for a second when I felt it happen, it stung but was no where near the worst pain I’ve felt even from similar injuries. So we continued on at our steady pace for the last mile into the shelter just as the sun was setting behind the mountains. 12919614_10153973860690767_3590228466849547661_nWhen we got to the shelter it was pretty crowded. There were a handful of thru-hikers eating dinner, more that were already asleep and another handful of section hikers like ourselves that were getting ready to bed down for the night. So we hung our packs, changed out of our sweaty clothes, and warmed up a quick dinner before raising our food bags up the bear cables. We made smalltalk with a few of the hikers that were still awake, warmed up by the fire that was glowing in the fireplace inside the shelter. Then rolled out our sleeping bags and called it a night. (Picture is from the “top bunk” of the shelter as the fire was dying).

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The night went by quickly, I had underestimated how much colder it would be in the mountains and hadn’t brought quite enough warm weather gear. But my 0 degree sleeping bag kept me warm through the night and the tarp run across the front of the lean-to shelter kept the 40 mile an hour winds that we experienced that night at bay, apart from sounding like it was going to tear the roof off the shelter. Once we got up we had a quick bite to eat, packed up our stuff and said goodbye to the other hikers at the shelter. From here we started the 3 mile climb up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky’s and the second highest peak east of the Mississippi. It was during this (for me) grueling uphill climb that I really started to feel the effects of my misstep the previous day. The achy feeling in my knee and soreness in my ankle exacerbated by the extra weight that I was carrying. Both in my pack and on my still very far from average frame. It was disheartening, but even at the slow pace that we were going we still reached the summit well before noon. We paused at the tourist trap for a little while, admired the scenery, then started back on the trail toward the shelter we were supposed to stay at that night. Still well over 10 miles away.

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Now that we had made it to Clingmans Dome we got to enjoy 2 miles of gradual decline. Killer on the knees but a great break for your lungs, quads and hamstrings. Once we had gotten about a mile into the 2 miles of downhill, we were walking at a steady pace when we came across a very muddy portion of trail near a spring. As we were maneuvering around the deepest part of the mud my foot slipped and I jarred my leg hard enough to turn my slight aches and soreness into screaming protests up and down my entire left leg. From this point our progress was slowed to a crawl. We hadn’t been going much faster on the uphills, but it was definite downgrade in speed. We decided after this that we would very clearly not be making it to the shelter we had reserved for the night and given the circumstances and the fact that you cannot off trail camp outside of reserved shelter in the Smokys unless you are a thru hiker, so we made a plan to get to the next shelter and attempt to call the shuttle service to see if they could adjust the pickup. When we finally made it to the Twin Spring Gap Shelter, dropped our packs and refilled our water. The shuttle service let us know that they could adjust the pick up but the only place they could pick us up was 3.5 miles back up the trail to Clingmans Dome. So once we let them know the situation and that we would be moving rather slow, we started back up the mountain sore, tired and (for me) slightly disheartened.

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On the shuttle ride back to Newfound Gap, exhausted, in pain, and having gone just about 15 miles in all I came to the realization that I have a long way still to go before this dream to thru-hike the AT can become a reality. If just over 24 hours in this terrain could leave me feeling the way I was there was no way that I could survive 5-7 months of this day after day. But sometimes it takes an experience like this to show you how important something really is to you. Yes, this was a low point when I grossly underestimated the trail while at the same time overestimating my own ability. But it gives me a renewed sense of determination, the trail may have beaten me this time. But I’ll be back, skinnier, healthier, and with a vengeance.

If you’re interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail, more information is available in the link below.                                                                                      https://www.appalachiantrail.org/

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An AT adventure in the great Smoky Mountains. From Newfound Gap to Twin Springs Shelter.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, April 4, 2016

Sycamore Loop Trail

This was the first hike of the year where things were really starting to green over and a lot of the plants and flowers in the woods were in bloom. I love winter hiking, but I’m really glad the cold weather is seeing its way out the door.

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I’m starting to find little things about each new trail that I hit week after week that I really enjoy. This week on Monday we took a trip to the Sycamore Loop Train in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness that’s located in the Hoosier National Forest. This is the first trail that I’ve been to in the HNF and it stuck out to me because of the designated camp spots marked throughout the trail. Most of which have been built up to the point that they rival most improved camp sites that you’d find right off the roadway in many places. The coolest that we saw was definitely the 4th or 5th one in, located about 5 miles into the trail. People have taken the time to assemble a limestone table and chairs. No doubt very hard and heavy work, but one of the coolest things I’ve seen.

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Sycamore Loop is a 7.7 mile trail and stays incredibly flat in the back country. The only real climbs on the trail are located on the fire access road leading back to the parking lot and those are small hills at that. Another cool part of this trail, and something I’ve seen at the last few trails in less spectacular fashion are the pine tree forests dispersed throughout the trail. Even in the spring there seems to be something magical about being surrounded by these needle clad green giants.

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I’m definitely starting to see a lot more people out and about on the trails. Boyscout troops are a staple during the weekend hikes and some even on the weekdays. There is also no shortage of fishermen out around the water. It’s good to see that people are getting over their cabin fever and getting back out into the world. The more you’re out in it, the more you realize that this is really where we’re meant to be.

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Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/sycamore-loop-trail

Until next time,

Happy Trails.

We hiked the Sycamore Loop trail in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area at the Hoosier National Forest.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Westwood Park

The more often I get out and hike the more I really start to realize how much natural beauty is all around us, things that we take for granted in our day to day lives and just don’t see. Spending that quality time for a handful of hours every weekend taking in the sunlight and calm of the forest (and water) is enough to calm even the most frizzled nerves. This past weekend I had the privileged of hiking at Westwood Park in New Castle, IN. and from the moment you pull into the ample parking lot right off of the trail head, you can tell this is going to be a hike to remember.

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The trail itself meanders 10 miles in a loop around the lake and gives you the opportunity to snap some breathtaking pictures, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. But the mileage is really the only part of this trail that is challenging. There are very few significant elevation changes and those contain ample switchbacks that make them more than bearable for even the most unseasoned hikers.

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Probably the coolest thing about this trail are the number of bridges that it contains. They vary in size and location but are numbered and make for a neat experience as you count your way through the trail miles.

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But there is also great deal of changing scenery, from deep forest trail, to small wooded outcroppings, to grassy fields. As long as the sun is out and the weather is nice you are absolutely guaranteed to have a great trip to this park.

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When you combine that with the views of the water, you really can’t go wrong in New Castle.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/westwood-park

Happy Trails!

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We had a great weekday hike at Westwood Park today.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, March 21, 2016

Like what you see? Come with us next time! http://www.meetup.com/Free-Range-Hiking-Meetup/