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Monthly Archives: March 2020

Off the Beaten Path: The Midwest

by: Ben Shaw

Part 2 of a 5 part series:

This week we’re hanging around our home in the Midwest to hear about some of my favorite long weekend spots. We can’t always get away for a week out west so here’s some of my favorite wilderness areas, beach spots, and hidden gems, right here close to home.

Sylvania Wilderness, Michigan

Backpacking, Kayaking, Canoeing

The Sylvania Wilderness is an awesome little spot tucked away up in the Ottawa National Forest. It’s comprised of 18,327 acres of protected wilderness filled with miles of trails and dozens of different lakes to traverse and explore. I found this little gem when the boundary waters proved to be a little too far away for a long weekend. One thing I can tell you is that going in late August can be a coin toss, not only can the heat be brutal, but blackfly season is in full swing and those suckers can bite…. At just under eleven hours away, if you have five days and love to paddle, this is a destination I would recommend to anyone. Added bonus, next to no crowds.

Best time to go: May-October

Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, Michigan

Backpacking, Beachbumming, Hiking

Like many of the finds on my list, this spot popped up while I was on the move during a larger trip. My group and I were heading back from a week in Michigan’s upper peninsula and we needed a place to crash for the night. The east coast of Lake Michigan is riddled with beaches, awesome sights and

amazing sand dunes (it’s even got two stops on this list), but this is one of my favorite spots in the entire state of Michigan. Nestled just up the coast from the town of Ludington, Nordhouse sits in the Manistee National forest occupying 3,450 acres of amazing freshwater coastline, pine forests and massive sand dunes. Nordhouse Dunes is the only wilderness in the southern peninsula of Michigan and is open year around to the public, although the unpaved road might be hard to access in the winter snow. The cost for an overnight camping permit is a measly $5 per day or $15 per week if you really want to hang out on the beach. Be warned, with only a mile hike into the easiest to access section of beach Nordhouse can get crowded during the peak season of June-July. If you’re determined to get away from the crowds though, a short walk north or south along the coast will land you on your own little slice of paradise where you can play in the water and watch some of the most amazing sunsets.

Best time to go: May-October

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Kayaking, Backpacking, Car Camping, Hiking

I’ve actually been to Sleeping Bear three different times, twice when I was a kid and another time about two years ago. The area covers 71,187 acres open to hiking, kayaking and other activities. Just like Nordhouse, Sleeping Bear has some amazing shoreline and awesome views out across Laker Michigan. Unlike Nordhouse, Sleeping Bear Dunes is a little bit tamer for the family looking for a long weekend destination and has some better setup facilities. The lakeshore also boasts historic lighthouses and in 2011 was named the most beautiful place in America. There’s really not a bad time to visit Sleeping Bear and if you’re anywhere near Traverse City, I highly recommended the short detour out.

Best time to go: June-October

Charles Deam Wilderness, Indiana

Car Camping, Backpacking, Kayaking, Hiking

I wouldn’t have guessed there was anything too terribly exciting hiding around in Indiana, but the Hoosier NF provides 203,000 acres open to recreation with 266 miles of trail to explore. It’s also home to Indiana’s only wilderness area, the Charles C. Deam wilderness, encompassing 12,000 acres with 57 miles of trail and many more miles of unofficial trails leading to hidden ruins and hundred-year-old cemeteries left over from when the area was inhabited by farmers before the Great Depression. The area is also home to Lake Monroe, the largest lake entirely in Indiana.

One of my favorite things to do is to get up early on a Saturday and head west to the Axsom Branch Trailhead, from there it’s a moderate 4 mile hike out to the shore of Lake Monroe where you can sit and enjoy the day along the water, swimming and watching fishers and other boats go by. As the sun starts to set on the other side of the water you can begin the hike back to the car or if you’re a backpacker you can setup camp near the lake shore and enjoy a night under the stars.

Trust me when I say this, Hoosier NF holds way more awesome hiking on top of this, so if you get a chance, definitely check it out.

Best time to go: Year Round

Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, Illinois

Car Camping, Backpacking, Climbing

Not going to lie, I got confused the first time I read about Garden of the Gods because I thought it was in Colorado (there’s two and I’ve been to both). Garden of the Gods is about 6 hours southwest of Cincinnati in the Shawnee National Forest, and takes up 3,300 acres of canyons, rocky cliffs, and about 40 miles of trail. It’s a great spot for a weekend trip or even a day trip, if you’re up for a long day… My recommendation is to hike counterclockwise around the rock formation and end your hike on top for some pretty good views of the surrounding area. Although this is a great spot year-round, I highly recommend late fall and early spring, you’ll avoid the crowds, water is abundant and there’s plenty of great camping spots to choose from if you’re backpacking.

Best time to go: Year Round

Porcupine Mountains State Park, Michigan

Car Camping, Backpacking, Climbing, Kayaking, Fishing

The Porcupines are another of my favorite spots in Michigan, and I have several of them. If you haven’t caught on, I really like Michigan…. The state park sits in the upper peninsula of the state of Michigan along the south shore of Lake Superior and protects 60,000 acres of public land and wilderness areas. The area can experience some freak storms, but they typically move out of the area pretty fast. The biggest draw in the Porkies is probably Lake of the Clouds, a 133-acre lake situated in the middle of the park, it’s a paradise for backpackers and backcountry fishermen. Other notable spots are Mirror Lake, the Laker Superior Trail and Summit Peak which offers 100-mile views on a clear day. With over 90 miles of trails and countless backcountry campsites and yurts this should be a must visit for any backpacker. In my opinion, the best time to visit is late September into October as the air begins to cool, the breeze comes in off Lake Superior and the leaves begin to change colors, it can almost feel like New England up there…

Best time to go: May-October

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Car Camping, Backpacking, Kayaking

The lakeshore protects 42 miles of pristine Michigan coastline along Lake Superior as well as 73,236 acres full of waterfalls, hiking trails, amazing beaches, steep bluffs and little lakes scattered all around. The best way to see the coast is from the water by boat, you can either charter a tour out of Munising or get a backcountry permit and kayak north along the shore. Be forewarned, its 11 miles of steep rocky cliffs before you reach the first beach you can land on so know the water and weather conditions before you go. On top of all the opportunities for adventure on the water, there’s over 100 miles of trails open to backpacking and day hiking journeys. The best option is to start from the east side of the park along County Highway 720 and head west towards the lake. If you want a quiet day along the beach head north to twelve-mile beach, if you’d prefer waterfalls and steep rocks cliffs, then head south to Chapel Beach, one of the best spots along the shore. Heads up, permits can be tough to get so try to apply early online.

Best time to go: May-October

Explore more locations from the Off the Beaten Path Series: South, Southwest, Northeast, Midwest, Northwest

Off the Beaten Path: The Northwest

by: Ben Shaw

Part 1 of a 5 part series:

The RRT crew travels all over the place. Between everyone here we’ve been to dozens of countries, touched every state and discovered our fair share of hidden gems along the way. Over the next several weeks we’ll be breaking down our favorite places we’ve found across the country when we get off the beaten path. Mostly these are my little treasures but luckily, I’ll have some help filling in the blanks from the rest of the RRT gang along the way. You won’t find any National Parks on this list, but you’ll find some of the most amazing car camping spots, kayaking destinations, backpacking trails and much more. This week we’re heading to the Northwest for some of my favorite mountains in the world, a desert you probably don’t know exists and some eye-popping peaks.

Alvord Desert, Oregon

Car camping, Hot springs, Off-roading, Hunting

The Alvord desert was definitely an accidental find. A few years back I set out to snowshoe around the rim of Crater Lake National Park. We got about halfway around the lake when we heard there was three feet of snow in the forecast for the next two days so we hightailed it out of there and headed to the coast for a few days before beginning to dream about soaking in a hot spring (Oregon is littered with them). After a few hours of searching we found this backwater gem. The desert is a 12-mile by 7-mile

dry lakebed that gets just a few inches of rain each year. It’s been the location of the women’s land speed world record and is surrounded by small ranching communities. The nearest major town is almost a two-hour drive, so you’ll really feel like you’re out there… Also, don’t forget to fill up the gas tank before you head out; Fields has the only gas station for about an hour drive in any direction, but they sometimes run dry.

One of the biggest draws of the area is the Alvord Hot Spring, located right next to the dry lakebed. The spring consists of two small concrete “baths” where the temperature can be regulated. The water comes up at 170 degrees (scalding hot!) so you want to stick to the pools… The ranching family that owns the land recently decided to clean the springs up from a state of disrepair and keep a better eye on the area. You can camp near the hot springs and soak for 24 hours a day for a small fee with a caretaker located onsite. I spent two days here and it was absolutely wonderful, we soaked in the morning, explored for the day and then came back for another soak into the evening as the temperature dropped.

The other two major draws are the Alvord Lakebed and the Steens Mountain Wilderness. You can drive your car out on the lakebed and feel like you’re in Fast and Furious at 100mph or you can wander up into the Steens Mountains. A forewarning about heading into the Steens Mountains, the area is a beautiful BLM land, but the roads are very rough. It’s mostly two track dirt roads and much of it is open to big game hunting throughout the year. There’s little to no cell signal in most of the area so be prepared for some peace and quiet. The area is also sprinkled with spots to park the car and spend a night sleeping under the stars for those less inclined to go backpacking out into the unknown.

Best time to go: May-June & September-November


Three Sister Wilderness, Oregon

Backpacking, Mountaineering

Not gonna lie, I’ve never been here. Luckily our wonderful owners, Joe, Emily, and Bryan have! The Three Sisters are in the Willamette National Forest. The wilderness area encompasses 281,190 acres with 260 miles of trails in the wilderness including 40 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The owners spent 5 days hiking through the wilderness past the three sisters taking glacial baths, enjoying a wonderful section of trail and soaking up the sites.

RRT Co-Owner Bryan Wolf had this to say about his journey through the Three Sisters, “The Three Sisters was a spectacular experience of alpine lakes and meteor showers over sharp peaks. Our path took us by drastic contrasts of thick woods, alpine glacial lakes, and dark burn areas from a past fire. An amazing sampling of the PCT!”

Definitely on my list for next year…

Best time to go: June-October


Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho

Backpacking, Climbing, Mountaineering, Horseback riding, Hunting, Packrafting

If you’re beginning to notice, we like the wilderness… The Sawtooth National Forest covers 2,110,408 acres and contains over 1,000 miles of trails. Areas are open to hunting, car camping, climbing, horseback riding and much more. The forest contains beautiful alpine lakes, sprawling grasslands and plenty of beauty. My recommendation is to start at the Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead and spend the next 6 days exploring the Toxaway Lake and Imogene Lake areas. The loop is most definitely best left to the seasoned hiker; Imogene Pass tops out at over 9,000’ with 1,500’ of gain in just under two miles and a good bit of exposure near the top. In the Imogene basin you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Payette Peak, the surrounding mountains and an awesome waterfall campsite if you look with your ears.

This loop only explores a fraction of this amazing area. Other draws include car camping near Pettit or Redfish Lakes and climbing one of the 40+ mountains over 10,000’ in the National Forest. For the thrill seeker, you can get with one of the many outfitters in the area for a multi-day whitewater rafting trip on the Salmon River and get your blood pumping with some class V whitewater.

Best time to go: June-September


Wind River Range, Wyoming

Car Camping, Backpacking, Climbing, Mountaineering, Horseback riding, Packrafting

The Winds is probably one of my favorite places in the country. These towering granite peaks top out at 13,810’ on the glaciated summit of Gannett Peak with 40 other named summits over 13,000’. This place is so big that portions of it are in two different National Forests, the Shoshone and the Bridger-Teton. The range encompasses roughly 728,020 acres of wilderness making it one of the largest road-free areas in the continental US. Additionally, 80 miles of the Continental Divide Trail run through the heart of the range. The range is a mecca for climbers, backpackers and mountaineers alike with different adventures calling each person. There are also several outfitters out of Pinedale offering pack trips on horseback into the range.

My favorite parts of the Winds are the Titcomb Basin near Gannett Peak on the north end the Cirque of the Towers on the south end. Titcomb basin is home to beautiful alpine lakes, and dozens of peaks covered in various climbs. From here you could hike north continuing the route out of the range along the Continental Divide Trail, climb Fremont or Gannett Peaks, or climb over Indian Pass across the continental divide past Knifepoint Glacier and out of the range. In the Cirque, you can enjoy pristine alpine lakes, a world-renown waterfall (in my mind) and some of the best alpine climbing in North America. There are countless loops you can wander on through the wilderness going over alpine passes, taking you by crystal clear lakes and revealing some beautiful sights. My mind wandered into the Winds in the spring of 2016 and then my body about 6 months later and the place has had my heart ever since.

For the car camper looking for something a little more rugged than KOA, there’s different areas around Big Sandy Trailhead where you can pull off and grab your own little slice of heaven with day hikes a

short way away. Disclaimer, the roads into many of the trailheads in the Wind River Range can be rough, so be prepared.

Best time to go: June-September


Black Hills, South Dakota

Car Camping, Backpacking, Climbing, High pointing

The Black Hills of South Dakota are about an hour to the west of Rapid City and cover a massive stretch of the western border with Wyoming. There are over 1.25 million acres open to recreation and the national forest is home to the highest point in the state of South Dakota, Black Elk peak with an elevation of 7,242’. It’s a moderate hike with great views from the top, the hike starts at Sylvan Lake and the drive up there is scenic in and of itself. Another cool draw in the area is Custer State Park Wildlife drive. The wildlife loop allows you to drive right up close with the bison herds and other animals with them sometimes even coming right up to your car. Spearfish Canyon also has some awesome hikes, very few people, and some great climbing for the avid rock climber. In all it’s a pretty sweet area of the world, just a short flight (or a nice 18 hour drive).

Hope you enjoyed our hidden gems of the northwest, check back next week for some awesome spots in the Midwest including a mini Boundary Waters, some local backpacking spots and other awesome ideas for your summer travel plans.

Best time to go: May-October


Explore more locations from the Off the Beaten Path Series: South, Southwest, Northeast, Midwest, Northwest