GOING OUT WEST
“Well I’m going out west
Where the wind blows tall”
From “Going Out West”, written by Tom Waits & K. Brennan
For this year’s trip we decided to simply things. Over the last few years it had begun to feel like we were always attempting to outdo the previous year’s trip. In 2008 I thru-hiked the John Muir Trail in California. The next year we spent three weeks in Alaska. We followed that up with a trip to Peru. Those trips were all fantastic, but in many ways, they weren’t really vacations. They were complex adventures, and the planning had been exhausting. This time around, we wanted a more relaxing experience.
Even more importantly, we wanted this trip to focus on family time. I travel for a living, and I’m out of town more often than I’d like. For this trip, we wanted to spend as much time together as possible. Also, we felt like maybe it was time to take our dog, Boone, on one of our adventures. He had definitely been disappointed when we’d left him behind the previous two years.
With these criteria in mind, we decided to go back to one of our old favorites. Back in 1999, Christy and I took our first trip together. We spent a week in Wyoming backpacking in the Wind River Range. Since then we’ve taken two additional trips to Wyoming. This time, we planned a 4-week trip that would include two backpacking trips in the Wind River Range, a backpacking trip in Yellowstone National Park, and at least one dayhike in Grand Teton National Park. Since we were bringing the dog with us, we would be driving. That meant we’d have a chance to visit some new areas in the Midwest along the way.
It seemed like such a simple plan, but it wasn’t long before things began to unravel. First gas prices nearly doubled. Since we were driving, that meant that the cost of our trip doubled, too. We considered flying instead, but that meant leaving the dog at home. Plus, by the time we factored in the high airfare, the rental car cost, and the obnoxious baggage fees, it was still significantly cheaper to drive.
Then the winter of 2010 / 2011 hit the Rocky Mountains. By April, the snowpack in parts of Wyoming and Colorado exceeded 400% of normal. In a typical year in the Rockies the high passes are clear of snow by early July. Because of Christy’s school schedule, the latest we could start our trip was mid-July. With the deep snow, we had no idea if we’d even be able to pull our trip off.
Conditions actually worsened in May and June. Snow continued to fall. A major snowstorm actually hit the Sierra Nevada in early July. At the last minute we began considering other options. The Rockies were buried under a massive snowpack, but there were no other appealing options. The Sierra Nevada and the Cascades were just as bad. In New Hampshire, a ski slope was still open in late June. The only part of the country worthy of a month-long trip that wasn’t still buried in snow was Arizona and New Mexico, and that area was on fire due to drought. What to do?
We decided to roll the dice and proceed with our trip as planned. I had doubts as to whether we’d be able to do the hikes I’d planned, but I figured we could afford to be flexible. Since we were driving, we could always alter our plans based on the conditions we encountered.
By the time early July rolled around we had our plans in place. Unlike our more complicated trips, we had a good bit of flexibility built into this one. We had a backcountry permit reserved in Yellowstone for 5 days, along with a corresponding reservation for Boone at the Happy Tails Pet Resort in Jackson. Beyond, that, we were only marginally committed to a few hotels and campgrounds along the way. There’s a lot to be said for the open road!
The final days leading up to our trip featured a flurry of organizing and packing. Items were crossed off the to-do list, but somehow the list got longer. Meanwhile, the dog began to lose his mind. He knew what was going on, and he remembered how he’d been left behind the last couple of times. We told him over and over that he was actually going to get to GO this time, but he didn’t seem to believe us.
Packing for this trip was a little different. Because we were driving, we didn’t have to stuff everything into four massive suitcases and two giant carry-ons. Hell, we could take everything we wanted! Well, everything that would fit in the car. Since the car was already going to be occupied with two adults and one 85 pound Weimaraner, that didn’t really leave a lot of room. It did help that we had upgraded our ride a couple of months ago, partially with our trip in mind. We’d traded in our Subaru Forrester for a Honda Element, which was more practical for a cross-country drive.
Once I started packing the car, Boone was so beside himself that it was easier just to put him in the car than to have him underfoot. We used a system of bins to organize and pack our gear, which worked out pretty well. Unfortunately, more often than not it seemed like the bin that was needed was on the bottom. Still, it was better than having a giant pile of crap to sift through.
We finished our packing and headed out of town on Friday morning. This was convenient, as we wanted to be in Lafayette, Indiana Saturday evening. The first goal of the trip was to visit Wolf Park. They have “howl nights” about once a month on Saturday evenings, and that was something we wanted to experience. Stay tuned for more about Wolf Park.
Since we managed an early start, we took the scenic route to Indiana. The night before we left, I did a little planning and found a campground and some hiking opportunities in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. We’d head for the Red River Gorge, which is famous for its natural sandstone arches. That’s an area that I’ve wanted to visit for years. We wouldn’t have time for a lot of hiking there, but at least I’d be able to check the area out.
There is no good way to get to the Red River Gorge from Charlotte. Interestingly, we decided to take back roads through Boone, NC. We headed that way, and Boone the dog was certainly confused. He was probably wondering if we were going camping or to a football game. It’s probably good that we weren’t headed for a football game, since it was raining and downright cold when we reached town. Despite the conditions, we stopped at Wal Mart for groceries for our first couple of nights of camping. We also picked up lunch at Jimmy Johns, since we figured that our options would be limited once we left town.
We drove through Mountain City, TN, and on into southwest Virginia. The rain finally quit and the temperature warmed as we headed north. The highlight of this part of the drive was passing the “Pound Church of Christ”. The sign out front actually said, “Who let the dogs out? Jesus! Jesus!” *
From there we drove deeper into the mountains and on into eastern Kentucky. The rain resumed here, and we began to wonder how our first night of camping was going to be. Christy drove most of this first day, bless her heart, since I had to finish writing a report for work. She whined a bit about having to do most of the driving, but I think she came out ahead. At least she wasn’t staring at an overheated laptop the entire day.
We arrived at the Koomer Ridge Campground late Friday afternoon. We didn’t have reservations, but fortunately the campground was only half full. By 7pm though, every site was occupied.
We were impressed with the campground. It’s a nice, scenic place with pleasant campsites. At $18 a night it’s a little pricey, but they do have showers. We didn’t actually make use of them though, as it seemed a little early in the trip for bathing.
We took campsite #1, as it was rather isolated from other campsites. The rain stopped just as we pulled in, which seemed like an encouraging omen. We set up the tent quickly, not knowing if the foul weather would return. By the time camp was set up rain was clearly not a concern, as blue sky began to appear through the tree canopy above us.
I decided to take advantage of the break in the weather with a short hike. Christy was worn out from packing and driving though, and elected to take a nap.
The Red River Gorge has the largest concentration of natural stone arches in the eastern United States. There are over 100 natural arches in the gorge, and Gray’s Arch is the largest, spanning 79 feet. The hike to it is less than 2 miles (one way), so it seemed like the perfect choice for a short hike.
Boone and I drove a few miles from the campground to the Gray’s Arch Trailhead on Tunnel Ridge Road. This is a popular area, but facilities are limited to pit toilets at the trailhead. There were only a few other cars there when we arrived, and we didn’t see many other hikers on our walk.
The hike was easy and pleasant, except for some pesky deer flies near the trailhead. At several points there were side paths leading off the main trail, but they generally led to only marginal views. Fortunately the trail was in good shape despite the rain, and the hike offered an easy leg-stretcher after a long day in the car.
After a little over 30 minutes I reached a sandstone cliff that was initially impressive. It turns out that I hadn’t seen anything at that point. I descended a long staircase, which brought me to the base of a massive cliff. The cliff harbors an incredible rock house. Towering high above was Gray’s Arch.
I’ve seen many arches over the years, both in Kentucky / Tennessee as well as out west. Gray’s Arch is as impressive as any of them. It’s a little harder to see that the ones in Utah because of the surrounding vegetation, but not a lot harder to see. It’s a massive feature, and the rock house below is equally impressive.
I spent the next half hour exploring the arch and the rock house. Surprisingly, I had the whole place to myself right up until we were about to leave. On our way out, we stopped at a tiny stream down at the bottom of the cove so Boone could get water. We climbed back up to the trail, but explored a side trail before leaving. It led out to a nice view just above the top of the arch. From there I hurried back, ready to return to the campground for dinner.
I grilled a steak that night, while Christy had a veggie burger. The meal also featured sautéed potatoes and steamed broccoli. I washed my dinner down with a beer, which was particularly enjoyable since alcohol is strictly forbidden in the campground. We went to bed early since we had a big day planned for Saturday.
It rained again Friday night, but cleared before dawn. We were up at 6:30, eager to see more of the Red River Gorge before the road beckoned. I made eggs, hashbrowns, and coffee, and we were very efficient breaking camp. We got on the road by 8:15, and drove a scenic loop through the Red River Gorge. Highlights included the Red River and the Nada Tunnel (meaning “not a tunnel” in Spanish), which is 900’ long but only 12’ wide. I was tempted to squeeze in another short hike, particularly since Christy had missed Gray’s Arch the previous afternoon, but I wasn’t sure if we had time. Ultimately, we both agreed that we should’ve hiked there rather than doing a hike in Indiana that afternoon.
Back to Kentucky
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Please remember to Leave No Trace!