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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Road to the AT: The Beginning

As far back as I can remember one of the things my father has always said is that he wants to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in his lifetime. Most of the time when I was growing up this was a “someday” muse. Something he would say infrequently and I would say that I wanted to go with him, then conversation would change to something else. We always spent a lot of time outdoors when I was growing up, riding bikes, camping and exploring several acres of forest behind my grandparent’s house. The latter being a favorite past time of my siblings and I, every time there was a family get together or excuse to go to our grandparent’s, we were out in the woods. But sometime after graduating high school, while juggling a bills, work and responsibility I became a homebody. Even during my military service (aside from Afghanistan) when the day was over we were having get togethers at the house, watching movies or some other indoor activity. Even in Alaska, where there was so much to do in vast wilderness. I kick myself now for not hiking some of the awesome trails that I was within driving distance of for those years.

I didn’t really find my love for hiking until about a year ago. Just before the New Year, having struggled with increasing weight, alcoholism and marriage woes stemming from PTSD symptoms that I have been dealing with for years. Having been medicated by the VA to the point that I was numb to everything and basically going through my weekly routine like a zombie. I decided that 2016 would be a different year for me. I had gained so much weight that running was painfully hard on my knees and ankles, but walking was easy enough to manage. So after doing a few quick google searches about how to optimize calories burned while walking, I came across article after article about backpacking and hiking and just how many calories the sport burns.

Shortly after that I sent my father a cryptic “I think I’m going to start hiking this year so I can lose weight’ text. To which he replied that he would hike with me to help me lose weight and get healthy again. A few weeks later and after several hundreds of dollars’ worth of Amazon purchases to outfit myself, we picked a snowy Sunday the second week in January as our first hiking trip. We looked up local trails in the Morgan Monroe State Forest area, about a 40 minute drive from my house at the time. Once we decided to check out the “Low Gap Trail”, Dad drove up about an hour from where he lives and we set out in the fresh snow. After about an hour long 45mph drive on treacherous highways, and passing the trail twice (this picture is from a power line access ¾ of a mile down the road from the trailhead that we thought we were at) we set out.

I threw a 40 pound pack, laden down with an enormous amount of crap that I never could have used on a day hike under any circumstance, on top of my 290lb frame (at the time). Now, if you’ve never hiked on a trail in fresh snow. Imagine trying to walk uphill at a 15/25 degree incline in the finest powdery sand that you can imagine, with an extra 40 pounds on your back. Needless to say I was questioning my life choices after about the first quarter mile. We stopped at the top of the second “big” hill that we encountered and I vividly remember standing there, in the middle of nowhere with my Dad, catching my breath and watching the snow continue to fall. I remember how peaceful it was in that forest, away from the sounds of the city and people complaining about the snow and the cold and everything else that we can think of to complain about. The only sound I heard was the soft patter of snowflakes bouncing off my hat and the calamitous thumping of my heartbeat in my ears. We continued on past newly fallen trees, over a creek bed and down a ravine. About a mile and a half into the 10 mile trail when we came across a camp site completely buried in snow. So we decided to drop our packs and get a fire going to warm up. My Dad was an Eagle Scout growing up and spent most of his adult life in the Army, I spent 4 years in Alaska, soaking up extreme cold weather and deep wilderness survival skills from field problems and mandatory trainings that you get living in a place as frigid and deadly as interior Alaska. But none of that mattered to the fire pit that day. We dug the pit down to the ash base, carved the ice covered bark from the twigs we found for kindling (it had rained for days before it froze and snow came) and found some dry leaves on some standing deadwood nearby. But after 30 minutes of trying everything, including torching everything with a propane cook stove, we still had no fire.

At this point we decided that the best way to war up would be to hike back to the truck the way we came. As we were backtracking, following our footsteps from 30 minutes earlier that were already filling in with new snow, I started to realize what I’ve been missing. Sweaty and out of breath despite temps in the low teens, lamenting myself for getting so out of shape and letting something like PTSD change so much of me I started to feel like this was exactly where I was supposed to be. Out on some crazy winter adventure with my Dad, bragging about how outdoorsy we are but failing to start a fire when we really could have used it. My first of many hike therapy sessions took place on that 1.5 mile stretch of the Low Gap Trail in the fresh Indiana snow. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to fall in love with the outdoors again and it would change my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined.

2016 Hikes: My Favorite Pictures

We had a very active year in 2016, logging hikes in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee/North Carolina and Texas. We put hundreds of miles on our trail shoes and even more knowledge in our heads. These are just a few of my favorites from the hundreds of pictures that we took during all of our hikes.

Be sure to follow our social media links to see the rest.

The Low Gap Trail: Revisited in Full.

The Low Gap Trail. In association with Great American “GRAM” Trails. <Link to Video>

Yesterday turned out to be a beautiful, high 50 degrees, light breeze, sunny spring day. It was also the day that we has set aside to hike through the full ten and a half miles of the Low Gap Trail, which has quickly become out favorite trail out at Morgan Monroe State Forest.

Our Original intention was to hike out to a nice camping spot by head lamp on Saturday night so that we could get up at dawn and hit the trail. This would have given my father, Jim, a chance to try an overnight stint in his new DIY hammock (if you haven’t seen it yet here’s a link to the video, Do you wanna build a hammock ). However, as often is the case in life. Something else took precedence Saturday night and we resolved to get up the next morning and hit the trail by 8:30 instead of camping.

When we hit the trail head the next morning around 8:30 it was already busy, we encountered a local boy scout troop and a middle aged couple out to hike the trail. We made small talk with the couple for a few minutes as we all got ready and recounted some of the places we’d been hiking recently. The boy scouts were loud and rowdy, typical of a large group of boys that age. In fact, even when we could not see them on the trail that day we never lost track of where they were just based on noise production alone.

In the past few months we’ve hit several parts of the Low Gap Trail and I’ve been in to see the cave formations a few times. Because the large cave is a fantastic sight when it’s ice covered and still impressive otherwise. But today we intended to hike the trail in its entirety. So this marked the longest single day of hiking that we’ve done since we got back into hiking regularly as well as the most beautiful trail we’ve hit. While I’m sure the Three Lakes Trail (Three Lakes Trail: An Epic Winter Adventure) would give it a run for its money this time of year. It was entirely snow covered when we tackled it a handful of weeks ago and that took away from the views a bit.

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We ended up making better time than we’ve made in previous hikes, along the way realizing that the GPS unit I was using doesn’t register switchbacks or portions of the trail that double back on themselves and it had lost a mile during the morning. We ended up stopping twice, once in the morning to have a late morning snack and to check out the hammock on the trail after our first 2 miles and the second was our lunch break at 1 after we’d hiked 7 and a half miles. I had a chance to pull out the FireBox that I keep in my pack and boil some water to rehydrate some long grain rice and chicken broth. We ended up sitting by this log, swapping plans for the AT and eating jerky, fresh fruit, tortillas and seasoned tuna packets along with some odds and ends stuff that we had for the better part of an hour before packing up and hitting the trail again.

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By this time we’d already been passed by the rowdy boyscout troop, the couple we’d spoken to at the onset of the hike and about a dozen other day hikers that had decided to take advantage of the great weather. The last few miles of the trail were all paved except for the last mile or so that’s currently closed as they work to put in a paved bike trail. At this point in the trail we decided to off trail hike back to the truck, avoiding the construction areas but keeping the trail in view. Once all was said and done we got back to the extremely crowded parking area at right around 3:30. We threw our stuff in the back of the truck and headed back to base camp for a few IPA’s and to recount the story of our morning to anyone that would listen.

We’re one step closer to getting to where we want to be for our AT hike, picking up trail knowledge and putting in a lot of foot time. Now we’re on to the next mini adventure.

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

Happy Trails!

Pictures are linked below.

We hiked the Low Gap Trail in its entirety today. 10.5 miles down on a beautiful day. Great day, great hike.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mason Ridge: Sun, Canines and closed trails.

We’ve been lucky enough to have great weather for the past 4 days. Even luckier for me because I have Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays off every week plus the vacation day I took on Saturday. So I got 4 days of sun and warm temperatures right before work starts again, the temps plummet and we’re talking about snow again.

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Because it was so nice out today, I decided it would be nice to take the dogs out and hike the Mason Ridge trail that I didn’t get to hike a few weeks ago when I was out of commission for a week with what the Dr. thought was meningitis (until the spinal tap came back negative to my relief). Anyway, today being the beautiful day that it was I packed up the truck and headed back out to Morgan Monroe to check this trail off my to-do list.

As it turns out, it’s a good thing that list is pretty long. After hiking into the trail about a mile and a half and crossing the road that marks the half way point I found myself faced with a notice explaining that the southern portion of the Mason Ridge trail and a large portion of the Tecumseh (40 mile) trail are closed until further notice. You see, they’re in the process of tearing out thousands of trees and destroying huge portions of the existing trails so that they can put in a paved bike trail. Something that those of us who regularly hike out here vehemently lament. After spouting a few curse words and laughing to myself when I found that someone who had come before me had torn one of the signs off the post it was attached to, shredded it and placed the pieces in a plastic bag containing another notice.

As I doubled back the way I came and watched the dogs sniffing and playing along the trail I reminded myself what hiking has shown me since I started getting back into it regularly. That is that life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Sometimes that journey is what you’re expecting it to be and sometimes it’s doubling back the way you came. But when all is said and done, it’s what you remember and cherish the most.

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

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GPS route and pictures are linked below.

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Three Lakes Trail: An Epic Winter Adventure

When we decided to hike the Three Lakes Trail at the Morgan Monroe State Forest over Valentine’s Day weekend we knew that it was going to be a test of our hiking skill and fortitude thus far. This 10.5 mile trail is nearly as rugged as they come in some spots. But in the spirit of making bad decisions so that we have cool stories to talk about later over beer, we decided to tackle this behemoth of a trail (by our standards) during a snowstorm and with day temps dipping down to around 18 degrees. Our plan going in to this hike was to complete the entirety of the Three Lakes Trail, then hike a mile or so into the back country where camping is permitted, as it’s not allowed on the Three Lakes Trail, so that we could test out our winter camping gear.

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So we got underway at about 2:30 on Sunday (valentine’s day) and got our first taste of the trail while the snow fell pretty heavily. Now, when we went into this, we knew that the trail was supposed to be tough. Definitely a test of our fitness level thus far. In any case, carrying a 50lb pack full of everything you need to survive in a subfreezing environment for a day or two is a test of anyone’s fortitude. On this occasion we definitely didn’t take into account how much the snowfall was going to slow us down. Having to trudge through 2-3 inches of fresh snow and deal with slick ledges on narrow portions of the trail slowed us to nearly a crawl at some points.

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As it was we had seriously underestimated this trail. After making it about 5 miles in and with night quickly closing in on us, we made the decision that we would have to find a suitable place to wait out the night, test our gear and hike out safely in the daylight on Monday. We could have tried to make it out and not break the no camping rule. But portions of the trail that we’d already been on had become so slick that we didn’t want to chance one or both of us getting injured in the dark with temps in the high teens. So we hiked as far off trail as we could and found a nice camping spot.

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The night went by without a hitch, we got a nice fire going, heated up some food for dinner and warmed up before turning in. We listened to the haunting call of the local coyotes in the distance bouncing off the trees of the otherwise silent forest. Our 0 degree sleeping bags held up to their promise of keeping us warm and alive through the frigid night.

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The next morning we packed up and were back on the trail by 8:15. We rounded the second lake, snapped a few pictures of the scenery. Then both experiences our first winter hiking “oh shit” falls on the trail. Luckily no one was around to laugh at us except for a few hundred Cardinals and some rather unhappy squirrels. We had tackled the southern portion of the trail on day one, we hadn’t known at the time but most of the serious hills were now behind us as most of the northern portion of the trail is flat. This was a blessing for me especially, being over 300lbs with all my cold weather gear and my pack. My legs will be about the size of tree trunks before our next hike. But at this point they were screaming like kids in a toy store when mommy and daddy are on a budget.

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We kept a slow and steady pace for the remainder of the trail, stopped a few times to get water at some of the semi-frozen creeks and to try to talk the fatigue out of my very unhappy calves and quads. But we finished the trail after another 3 hours, we walked off the trail right around 11am on Monday. At this point we were greeted by one of the local DNR employees who told us he’d seen that my truck had been sitting overnight and was about to go check some of the shelter houses to make sure we weren’t stranded somewhere. We recounted the story of our miscalculation, lamented how tough the trail had truly been and got a bit of a scolding where we were told that under most circumstances there is a $200 fine for anyone caught camping on the Three Lakes Trail. But because of the situation he said he understood the necessity. We took the warning, dropped our packs at the truck and ended the first real epic adventure of the year for the Free Range Hikers.

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

 

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Complete photo gallery and the GPS map from this trek are linked below.

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Rock Shelter Trail 1-31-2016

This past weekend we decided to hike the Rock Shelter trail at Morgan Monroe State Forest. This has quickly become one of my favorite destinations for quick weekend hikes and I’m looking forward to better weather so that I can start doing some overnights on the Low Gap and Three Rivers trails. I hiked about 3 and a half miles into the low gap a few weeks ago and actually went through a portion of the rock shelter trail. Since the smaller loops connect the larger 10+ mile Low Gap trail.
Anyway, the scenery was so striking last time that I knew we should hit this hike together. They call this the rock shelter hike because of the large walk through cave in our pictures. It’s been signed in several places and looks to be a pretty popular destination for anyone hiking in this area. The center of this trail that is in the backwoods area is absolutely phenomenal. It’s well maintained and the scenery is absolutely beautiful, even in mid-winter when everything is dead. We did get lucky this weekend in respects to the weather. It was a balmy 55 degrees and we quickly shucked our cold weather gear as soon as we got to the trailhead. Of course the weight of our AT packs still makes for a sometimes sweaty hike. While we’re accustomed to carrying weighted ruck sacks from our years in the military (4 for me, 20+ for dad) you really can’t control how quickly you heat up when you’re scaling a backwoods will with 50lbs strapped to your back.
When we first started the hike we followed the trail head about an 8th of a mile to a paved road that takes you about a mile into the backwoods of the state forest. This is an underwhelming portion of the hike as it’s paved with rock and tends to be pretty muddy. There is also a lot of logging going on around this particular trail so it’s not exactly what you want to see on your weekend out in nature. But after about a mile the trail turns off into the backwoods where you zigzag down a large hill into a large ravine with a stream meandering through it. The stream crosses the trail in many spots, so if you aren’t wearing waterproof boots like I have been, you have to get a little creative to keep your feet dry. As you follow the trail through the ravine you’ll notice the terrain change from steep hills to rocky cliffs, the whole time you continue to hike though the ravine following the trail towards the caves at the center of this trail. Now this week we decided to take out our GoPro cameras and record the hike, so most of this will be published to our YouTube channel in a few days, I’ll be sure to link to it from here and vice versa so that you can see the real beauty of this trail.
Once you get past the caves you start heading uphill, this will be challenging for those of you who haven’t been hiking in a while as climbing these hills with weighted packs works your legs more than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. The trail then follows a ridge for another ¾ mile or so before you come to a fork in the trail leading to the backwoods or back to the trailhead. Since we were just hiking the rock shelter trail, we took the left fork back to the trailhead. After about 300 yards that direction the forest trail turns back into a paved (rock) vehicle trail that leads you right back to the parking lot at the trailhead. The whole thing takes about an hour, maybe longer if you take a lot of pictures or decide to stop for lunch. All in all this is a beautiful trail and a much better way to spend a Saturday and Sunday afternoon than sitting around the house.

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

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Low Gap Trail Southwest Loop 1/19/2016

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Today’s trip was along the southwestern portion of the Low Gap Trail (blue loop on the map). This is a very scenic trail in Morgan Monroe State Forest, but is definitely not for the feint of heart. It’s full of challenging terrain and steep climbs. I hiked a little over 3 miles into it (almost back to the southern intersection with the paved road) before doubling back to my starting point. I was planning on hiking a larger portion of the trail, but it was incredibly cold in the morning, to the tune of negative teens with wind chill according to some weather sources. So I waited until afternoon to start the trip. As it was it only got up to 18 degrees as a high but with the terrain I was on it really didn’t seem that cold. This solo trip was more for conditioning and just to see what there was to see in this area than a serious hike. I know I plan on doing a few thru hikes on the full 10 miles of the Low Gap once the weather warms up a bit and I can do some camping in the backwoods. Definitely looking forward to that. But for now, I got a hell of a workout and some pretty awesome pictures.

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Winter Low Gap Trail: 1-10-2016

Low Gap Trail

My father and I hit the Low Gap Trail in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest (Martinsville, Indiana) this past Sunday for a short “get into the swing of things” hike.

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This was my first dedicated hike since I was a kid. We planned this out a week ahead when we heard that we were getting a decent amount of snow, in the hopes of seeing some of the Indiana backwoods in a different light; it didn’t disappoint. While we only actually went about a mile (maybe) into the Low Gap Trail, it was still a workout in the fresh snow. It’s a lot like walking up hills of very fine sand and would be challenging enough for someone in much better shape than myself. As it was, I sweat a lot, got out of breath, and was exhausted at the end of the trip. However we did take the opportunity to get some cool pictures of the scenery since we were the only ones out, aside from a couple of squirrels, in the aftermath of the snow storm. It was a short trip, but was definitely a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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Additional information and reviews of this trail are available at https://alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/rock-shelter

I don’t get paid to say that, I just enjoy the site.