In a move that can only be described as being highly uncharacteristic, last week Kelly and I made a snap decision to leave the soothing vast emptiness of Death Valley National Park and visit its evil twin – Las Vegas – for a few days.
We made the decision knowing that during the stay I would have a chance to meet-up with former colleagues attending a conference while also making time to visit family. Coupled with a few other to-do’s while in the area, these “up-sides” became justifications Kel and I anchored to as we ventured into the city known for showcasing much of the urban trappings we otherwise loath.
And yes … we did spend an evening on the strip dining and walking – not gambling – through casinos.
Valley of Fire State Park is located about an hour from the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas strip, but scenically the park may as well sit atop another planet. This being our second visit to VOF we knew what to expect. The park is not particiually large and ambitious hikers can easily traverse most of the trails in two or three days.
As an escape from the Vegas circus this place is just about perfect … even more so if you camp in the (cheaper) non-hook-up sites.
Despite the government partial shutdown closing many areas of Death Valley National Park, Kelly and I did manage to find a few places that remain open and accessible for hiking.
The Mesquite Sand Dunes and Mosaic Canyon we’re easily accessed from our campground and brought us two contrasting experiences.
Usually when out hiking, Kelly and I simply eat bars, gels, and sometimes fruit or trail mix.
However, in a change of routine, today I decided to pack a backcountry stove and #mountainhouse meal. Not sure why, but for some reason I thought a hot lunch might be a welcome treat – which it was.
A few hours into the hike, we enjoyed a warm lunch and hot tea in the shadow of a backcountry church (denominationn unknown).
Here in western North Carolina fall colors are in full swing, daytime temperatures are lovely, and the hiking has been wonderful during our first visit to Smokey Mountain National Park.
The elevation here in south-central Kentucky is just over 1,300ft. While this altitude is nothing to outright dismiss, it is hardly on par with abundance of 5,000+ heights common to the western portions of the country I am more accustomed to.
In the absence of elevation to ascend, a lot of hiking seems to instead descend into valleys and gorges.
And so, we venture into the belly of the beast.
The hike to Jaques Lake was supposed to be a solo backpacking trip. In the process I would shakedown loads of new backpacking gear I’ve been slowly assembling.
Weather forecasts had me envisioning a night – sans rainfly – peering endlessly at the stars before peacefully drifting to sleep. Instead, what I got was a ferocious rainstorm … and confirmation that my new tent and rainfly performs like a champ.
Also unexpected, were the trio of moose who came to graze outside my tent in the wee hours of the nights once the rains stopped. While I’d seen them earlier in the day in the lake, I didn’t expect them to so boldly enter camp. Simultaneously terrifying and amazing, I could hear the huge beasts chomping at grass and bushes just outside my tent.
Eventually I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be left alone or eaten. With either scenario being out of my control, I settled comfortably into my sleeping bag, awaking both alive and unscathed.
The area is beautiful; I can’t blame the moose for making this serene location their home.
Directions to Helen Lake.
From the parking lot, follow the trailhead up the steep, rooted path. Numerous switchbacks are woven into dense trees and thick bush; keep an eye out for bears munching ripe berries.
Anticipate a bit of huffing and puffing during this initial climb. A nice resting point is a rock outcropping overlooking turquoise waters of Bow Lake far below, casually situated at the base of Mt. Thompson.
Pushing on, continue uphill through a clearing of new growth – the result of recent forest fires. Negotiate more switchbacks before a final turn towards Dolomite Peak.
Having arrived to the alpine meadow, now is the time to relax – the trail is mostly flat ahead. With less need to watch your footing, allow yourself to marvel at the neighboring peaks and an abundance of blooming wildflowers as far as one can see.
Be sure to keep trekking poles handy, they will prove useful as you traverse a few final water crossings. And, because you’ll be well above the tree-line, expect the winds to pick-up and temperatures to drop.
Helen Lake lie hidden ahead.