Backpacking in Denali

My summer season job with MICA Guides wrapped up September 10 which gave me just enough time to do an overnight backpacking trip in Denali National Park before the park service stopped running their buses on September 13.  My plan was to rent a car from Anchorage, drive up to Denali on September 11, pick up a permit and camp at Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance. Then I would take a Camper Bus into the park on September 12, camp out in the backcountry, and hike out and catch a bus back to the park entrance on September 13… the last day buses were running, so no being over ambitious and missing the bus!

A few unique things about backpacking in Denali National Park:

  • Private vehicles can only drive the first 15 miles of the 92 mile long Denali Park Road, the only road in the park.
  • Park busses only run from late-May to early-September. (Basically, when snow is not expected.)
  • Backcountry permits are only issued in person at the Visitors Center from 8 AM the day before the start of your trip, so you can’t really make a detailed hiking plan before you get there and you will want to get to the park as early as possible the day before your trip to maximize your permit choices.
  • There are no established trails, your permit is for a Unit or Units that you have a certain amount of time to move through. Based on the quick search I did, there isn’t much information about suggested backpacking routes in Denali NP on the Internet besides climbing Mt. Eielson. But I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be — a true wilderness experience!
  • From the whiteboard behind the permit desk at the Visitors Center, it looked like for some Units the maximum number of people who can camp per night is 4 people, so don’t plan to backpack in a large group.  
  • No trails means assuming you will be hiking at a speed of no more than 1 mile an hour. You don’t know what the vegetation will be like, if the drainages will be swampy, what stream crossings will look like, if a scree slope will be traversable.

In summary, it’s an intimidating mix of needing to plan in advance and then not being able to really plan much in advance. Luckily, I had learned quite a bit about hiking in Alaska — following moose trails, alder bashing, finding campsites, bear awareness — over the course of the summer and felt like I was prepared with realistic expectations. Here’s a good read if you are looking for more information about backpacking in Denali.

The drive to Denali National Park

It had started to get cold and rainy in at the end of August, such that I had started to long for being indoors and having insulation (I lived in a tent all summer), but from Labor Day weekend Alaska was enjoying an Indian summer which brought us back to the warm sunny weather of early July and camping was once again quite pleasant. Parks Highway offered impressive views of Denali (The Mountain) on my drive up from Anchorage, but I didn’t stop to take any photos because I was trying to get to the park in time to pick up a permit. (The Internet said that permit pick up was until 3:30 pm, luckily for me the desk was actually open until 5 pm.) The scale of the scenery on Parks Highway was much bigger than Glenn Highway where I’d spent the summer. The mountains were striped rust red tundra and spruce green with the gold of aspen and alder lower down, their black rocky peaks dramatic against a bright blue sky. It was a bit confusing when I got to Denali National Park. I got a camper bus ticket at the Wilderness Access Center, then had to go to the Visitor’s Center to get my backcountry permit and then Riley Creek Mercantile to get a walk-in tent site. I was glad I had a rental car to run all these administrative errands; I had considered taking the train.

Picking up my permit

The process of getting a backcountry permit worked like this. There is a whiteboard listing Unit availability above the permit desk. You get a form to fill out from the permit desk and the ranger sends you to flip through binders that describe the different Units. I had done a bit of poking around on the park website Unit map so I had a few Units written down as candidates for an easy overnight backpack. Unit 12 Sunrise and Sunset Glaciers on my list was available, so I snapped the last spot up. Of course, after hiking on a glacier almost every day for 3 and a half months, the thing I wanted to do most in Alaska was see more glaciers! Then I watched the required leave-no-trace, stream crossing, bear awareness videos, purchased a USGS quad map of my Unit to study and borrowed a bear canister.

Backpacking in Denali

The next morning at about 7 am, I got on the earliest camper bus for the 4 hour ride to Eielson Visitor Center to begin my hike. We saw a couple of moose and a mama bear and two cubs from the bus. The bus driver would stop to allow everyone to capture the wildlife with their gigantic telephoto lenses. It was cloudy, overcast and windy. When I arrived at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali was hidden behind a shroud of clouds and I nixed the possibility of climbing Mt. Eielson as it was covered with a dusting of snow at the top.

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Perfect conditions for hiking!

I hiked down to the end of the developed trail from the Eielson Visitor Center, and gingerly picked a crossing across Gorge Creek. First real stream crossing ever completed, my feet were soaked but my merino wool socks squished out quickly and stayed warm. I walked along the gravel bar of Thoroughfare River as recommended by the ranger who issued my permit, but got bored and decided to punch up into some tundra to see what I could see. After a short bash through some small trees and wading through shin deep shrubbery, I started to recognize the plant life I wanted to walk on. The red stuff, mostly blueberries, was short, firm and easy to walk on, so I let the vegetation direct my path. Greener vegetation indicated drainages and I learned to follow the moose paths across those parts to avoid ending up in boggy marsh.

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Beautiful tarn

I didn’t have much of a plan except to camp in the valley along Sunrise Creek, since that was the closest area I was allowed to camp. The problem with Unit 12 is that most of it is visible from the Denali Park Road and you have to camp out of sight of the road. That also makes it a not so wilderness-y experience, but easy access to the road and Eielson Visitor Center made it a fool-proof, if a bit boring choice, for my solo end-of-season backpack.

I came to a small creek before Sunrise Creek where I found I had to backtrack and lose some elevation. Being stubborn I tried to climb higher across a scree slope but I kept falling so I ended up scree skiing down into the gorge and rock hopping across to Sunrise Creek.

Then I tried to walk as far as I could up Sunrise Creek. I was hiking up the north bank when the gravel bar virtually disappeared. Making the silly decision to avoid getting my feet wet, I was attempting to boulder across a short section of the gorge wall when a cinder block sized rock I was hanging on to detached from the wall and fell into my lap. I was lucky to only suffer a bruised thigh. So after a cold crossing, I gave up on following the river and climbed up on the south bank of Sunrise Creek.

It was only 4:30 PM, but suddenly, I was completely exhausted. I had only hiked about 6 miles but I think the fatigue from an entire summer of physical work and little time off caught up with me. My plan to hike up to the bottom of Sunrise Glacier was abandoned for the more urgent need to find a place to lie down. I set up my little tent on the bench below Bald Peak, and sheltered from the katabatic winds, took a nap for 1.5 hours. Somewhat recovered, I made dinner of Idahoan mashed potatoes and a foil packet of lemon pepper tuna and lay back down again reading Into the Wild (Chris McCandless’ ill-fated Alaska adventure having happened not far away) in my tent until the valley came ablaze at sunset around 8:20 PM. I was a less exciting expedition than I had hoped, but I guess the luxury of solo hiking is having the freedom to do things like pull in early to take a nap.

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My campsite view of Sunrise Glacier

In the morning, I left my tent up to dry and set off to climb the saddle under Bald Peak and up a little knoll in front of it. The cloud cover from yesterday burned off over the course of the morning, revealing dramatic white peaks framing Sunset Glacier. As I got to the precipice, the peak of Denali poked up over the ridge behind Mt. Eielson. A pleasant surprise! I’d been hopeful but not at all certain I’d get a Denali view from there.

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Sunset Glacier

Me and Denali

Obligatory Denali selfie

I descended back to my camp, packed up and had an easy walk down the bench and back down to the gravel bar. I planned to simply follow the gravel bar along Thoroughfare River back to Eielson Visitor Center, but the stream crossings got intimidating and I ended up tussock hopping around a tarn and retracing part of my route across the blueberry fields from the previous day. There were still a lot of blueberries good to eat, but thankfully I didn’t see any bears! I arrived back at Eielson Visitor Center by 2:30 PM and first things first, took off my wet boots and socks and put on my Crocs. Yay, camp shoes! I put my name on the bus list and watched a video about climbing Denali before getting put on a bus for the 4 hour ride back to the park entrance.

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Thoroughfare River

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Denali with lenticular cloud

Post-hike

It was late evening by the time I got back to my car and I was feeling strangely not stoked about more camping and hiking adventures. I think I was realizing my body just wanted to recover from the summer. I sat in the parking lot feeling a bit defeated and found an AirBnb in Palmer and booked it for the next night. Too tired to make any other plans, I camped at Riley Creek Campground again. I had slept like a log on the tundra, but seemed to have trouble getting comfortable that night. When I got up in the morning to use the bathroom, I noticed that the tenugui I had hung on the corner of the picnic table at my campsite had frozen into a stiff origami shape. The plastic collapsible water bottle I had left on the picnic table was crunchy with ice crystallized across the inside. Ah, that’s why I had trouble sleeping. It was too cold to wait for hot water to boil and percolate my own coffee, so I quickly packed up my things and went to Morino Grill next to the Visitors Center to restore the feeling to my fingers with a cup of corporate-y Starbucks latte. My backpacking night had actually been very comfortable, and it had definitely not been close to freezing cold, even though it was at higher elevation. I had been super lucky with the timing of my trip! As my fingers regained feeling, I felt pretty good about my decision to spend my last two nights in Alaska indoors.

Epilogue: My AirBnb host turned out to be a super cool fiber and ceramics artist, I had the most comfortable stay, and the house was walking distance from two craft beer breweries (Arkose and Bleeding Heart)!

 

Not a Gnarly Adventure Story

I recently went to a Boldly Went outdoor adventure storytelling event in Portland. Since then, I’ve been thinking whether I have any exciting stories about my outdoor adventures to share in that type of format. The problem is I don’t have any stories with much “gnar factor.” I’m not very sendy. I like to be prepared. I do a lot of research. I’m conservative in my decision making, because either I’m the least experienced or I am alone.

It was only about a year and a half ago that I went on my first backpacking trip, but as I live this life of being an itinerant-worker-outdoor-adventurer, I think that I may already be forgetting how hard and scary things I now think are easy once were. And maybe I am less excited to report back to you about my trips because they just seem ordinary now. So before I forget, here are some things I used to be super intimidated by. Funny (and sad) to think that these sorts of things kept me from enjoying the wilderness earlier in my life.

1. Peeing and pooping in the woods

It turns out that, as long as there are not a lot of other people around (e.g. not trails in day hiking distance from Tokyo), peeing and pooping in the woods is very pleasant. It’s cleaner than most public restrooms, and the view is going to beat your bathroom at home. When I am hiking and need to pee, what I usually say to my hiking buddies to indicate I am stopping and wandering off trail a bit is “I’m going to find somewhere scenic to pee” and it’s true! Further resources and funny stories here.

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The best backcountry toilet paper I have had the pleasure to experience. I think it’s a lichen? I just call it “alpine Charmin”.

2. Finding a campsite in the backcountry

Before you actually do it, you read about it and have no idea what other people are talking about. You should camp on durable surfaces; you should camp on established camp sites; you shouldn’t camp on the top of a ridge (too windy); you shouldn’t camp at the bottom of a valley (cold air sinks); and on and on. In the end, campsites are like any other kind of real estate, each one has it’s pros and cons and it comes down to personal preference. Maybe you are willing to take a more exposed campsite for the great view; or maybe you have to pick a less flat spot that is more sheltered from the wind. After a while, you start getting an idea of what looks like a good campsite to you. It’s like learning to find street parking in a new city (which is actually much harder).

3. Hitchhiking

Sounds scary. But in my experience, if you are hitching near a place that is popular with hikers, and look like a hiker, it’s totally not a big deal and doesn’t feel sketchy at all. Most often, the people who pick you up are hikers or otherwise adventurers themselves. Keep good hitchhiking karma by picking up hitchhikers yourself.

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Me hitching off the JMT

4. Not showering every day

When I was in law school, I remember telling my friend Erica I could never go camping because I have to wash my hair everyday. I’ve found that if physical activity is stimulating enough and I’m tired enough at night, going to sleep dirty and itchy scalp becomes a non-issue. It helps to adventure in cool places where you won’t sweat too much. If I do get sweaty it helps to jump into a cool lake or towel off with a bandanna. My hair does still start bothering me after 3-4 days so I like to bring a wooden comb on multi-day trips to help me manage the grossness. Ostensibly it helps distribute hair oils, but it’s really just a way to scratch my scalp that feels good.

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I still prefer to be clean if possible!

See, if I can become outdoorsy, you can too!

Hiking the Hakuba Range (白馬連峰)

At the end of August, looking to escape the Tokyo summer heat, I took a highway bus from Shinjuku to Hakuba, the famous ski town in Nagano, for a three-day solo hike in the Hakuba Range.

Hakuba hike map

My 3-day hiking route and planned alternate course, in case of adverse weather.

Day 1: Wednesday, August 30

Happo Ike Hut (八方池山荘) –> Karamatsudake Hut (唐松岳頂上山荘) (4.56km)

The 6:35 AM highway bus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal direct to Hakuba Happo Bus Terminal arrived on time at around 11:45 AM. First things first, I went to the Montbell store on the second floor of the bus terminal building to purchase a fuel canister. Then, I got directions and a bus schedule for post-hike logistics from the information counter.

To reach the beginning of my hike, I took the Adam Gondola and two ski lifts up Happo One (pronounced “oh-nay”, meaning ridge) Ski Resort. At the top of Adam Gondola, I purchased a Nozawana oyaki for lunch and ate it on the next lift up. (“Oyaki” is a Nagano specialty buckwheat steamed bun.) The lifts were set really low, and I swung my feet in the long grass. Dairy cows relaxed on the verdant green ski slopes.

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The lifts got me up to Happo Ike Hut by 1 PM. Upon asking where to get water, I was informed it was 100 yen for up to two liters. I had 500 ml on me and should’ve filled up at the bottom of the mountain for free. Rookie mistake!

The weather forecast for the week was rainy, and when the bus had driven into Hakuba Valley the clouds were hanging low, covering to tops of the mountains on both sides of the valley. But by the time I reached Happo Ike pond at about 1:40 PM, the fog had begun to lift. I took a coffee break and enjoyed the reflection of the Hakuba range in the pond.

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There’s a little shrine at Happo Ike to the dragon god who lives in the pond.

Beyond Happo Ike, you leave the tourists behind. Since I started hiking in the afternoon, I ran into only one other hiker on the way up to Karamatsudake Hut, where I camped for the night. He was an older gentleman who had driven up from Chiba in the morning, so we were on more or less the same schedule. Seeing the sleeping pad strapped to the outside of my pack, he asked if I was tent camping. He was curious how heavy my pack was. I said that the scale at the bottom of Happo One said 11 kilograms. He said his was 12 kg, and he was planning to stay at the hut, which meant he hadn’t packed food, tent, or sleeping bag… how come my pack was so light? Then, he realized he was carrying 2 kilograms worth of camera kit. I said, that totally explains it, because my tent is only 750 grams and my sleeping bag even less than that. That’s one benefit of having not gotten crazy about photography while hiking… yet.

I completed the anticipated 4-hour hike from Happo Ike Hut to Karamatsudake Hut in just about 3 hours. It’s a short hiking day, but I’d been up and traveling since 5 AM and was satisfied to call it a day. Welcomed by a sign offering draft beer, I checked-in and paid 1000 yen for a tent site. After a brief chat with the girl at reception about mountains in Taiwan, I set up camp. The campground consisted of scattered sites down the other side of the ridge from where I had climbed up, and offered amazing views of the Tateyama peaks dominated by Mt. Tsurugi.

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Karamatsudake Hut

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What my campsite looked like

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View of Karamatsudake Hut and tent sites

I’m relaxing and unpacking and somehow 1.5 hours disappeared. I climbed back up the ridge to go to the hut to use the restrooms, then returned to my tent to cook dinner as sunset fell on the archipelago of the Kita Alps in a cotton candy sea.

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Sunset on cloud-capped Mt. Tsurugi

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Scoping out the next day’s hike: looking north across Kaerazunoken

Day 2: Thursday, August 31

Karamatsudake Hut –> Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha (白馬岳頂上宿舎) (8.64km)

I am awakened in the middle of the night by rain inside my tent. It’s condensation being shaken off the inside of my tent by the wind blowing outside. I wiped down the inside of my tent with a small camp towel, changed the orientation of my head (since I had been sliding down toward one end of my tent) and slept much better for the rest of the night.

I had ambitious plans to wake up for sunrise but couldn’t actually motivate myself to get up. Anyway, when I finally got out of my tent there was pretty much zero visibility due to the mist. I packed up my tent and went to the hut to brush my teeth, pee, and make some coffee. Reception at the hut tried to sell me 1L of PET bottled water for 600 yen, but I purchased 1L of unfiltered river water for 150 yen and ran it through my Sawyer filter.

It was imperceptibly drizzling as I started the day’s hike and after about 20 minutes, I stopped for breakfast of a piece of Family Mart chocolate pound cake at the peak of Karamatsudake. It’s wrapper had conveniently puffed up into a balloon at high elevation to keep it from getting smushed in my pack.

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400 calories of chocolatey goodness

The next section of the hike was a rocky traverse called Kaerazu no Ken (不帰の険), which translates to “Cliffs of No Return”. It looked pretty sketchy based on the trip reports I’d read on Yamareco and my map had a dotted line labeled “danger”. So, in case of heavy rain and low visibility, I had a plan B of going south from Mt. Karamatsu and taking an easier traverse to Mt. Goryu. I was walking among wisps of cloud, but it wasn’t raining so I decided to follow plan A and go for it. Just past the first sign marking the beginning of Kaerazu no Ken, the trail wasn’t too bad. A family of ptarmigan waddled down the trail in front of me, unperturbed by my presence. But soon I had put away my trekking poles and found myself traversing cliffs on chains and swinging around rocky corners trying to stay balanced with a bulky pack on my back. Finishing the traverse without falling to my death, I was rewarded with a huge slogging uphill climb on switchbacks and then some more chains to the top of Tengu no Kashira (天狗ノ頭). From the top of Tengu no Kashira, you could see that the peaks to the south were super rocky and steep compared to the rolling ridge to the north, which looked much less extreme.

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Sign warning hikers of the start of Kaerazu no Ken

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Ptarmigan

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These chains will later make the cables at Half Dome a piece of cake

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“I think the trail goes that way?”

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“Snow river” in the valley that will not melt through to the next snow season

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View south of Tengu no Kashira

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View north of Tengu no Kashira

I was pretty spent by the time I got to Tengu Hut. The clouds thinned and parted a bit and I quite successfully dried out my tent and aired out my feet over lunch at a picnic table in front of Tengu Hut.

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Lunch, tent drying, and water-getting at Tengu Hut

However, by the time I started back on the trail again, the mist had dropped again and there was no visibility as I crossed the small snowfield after Tengu Hut, making it a bit scary as I couldn’t see where I was going. Then, there was a climb up brilliant white marble (?) scree to the top of Hakuba-Yarigatake. Since there was still no visibility, I took the easy route around Sakushidake (杓子岳) instead of summiting another peak. Past the Hakuba saddle there were supposed to be alpine flower meadows, but I couldn’t really see anything. I finally spotted a sign for the municipal run Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha hut (白馬岳頂上宿舎), paid my 1000 yen to camp out back and warmed up in the restaurant.

Day 3: Friday, September 1

Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha –> Tsugaike Shisenen Ropeway Station (6km)

Sometime during the night, I pulled my Buff down over my eyes and ended up sleeping past sunrise again. It was the coldest night I’d spent so far in my tent and sleeping bag, and when I awoke I stuffed my hiking clothes inside my sleeping bag to warm them up and unzipped the mesh door of my tent to my heat up some breakfast in the vestibule of my tent while still sitting in my sleeping bag. It’s a brilliant blue sunny sky out. Darn it! I missed a beautiful sunrise. After eating, I zipped my tent back up and put on my now toasty warm hiking clothes. The sun was just beginning to warm my tent as well, as I pushed my pack out through the tent door, collapsed the tent and collected my tent stakes. The tent was pretty dry from the sunny morning, so I didn’t have to worry about drying it during the day.

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Breakfast

I made my way up to the top of Mt. Shirouma. There is a another huge hut right there! Yesterday, I couldn’t see anything. This is why I like overnight hiking: you get two chances to see stuff. At Mt. Karamatsu, the night before, I had a beautiful sunset, but no view in the morning in the morning. Last night, there I couldn’t see anything when I arrived at the campsite, but this morning there is not a cloud in the sky.

Behind the privately run Hakuba Sanso hut near the peak, there was a spot on the ground that marked each of the landmarks in the distance. Looking southwest, I could see Yatsugatake. Unfortunately, there was no Fuji view that morning. Toward the south, I saw Shakushi and Hakuba-Yari peaks which I crossed yesterday. In the distance, I could see Yarigatake and Mt. Hotaka, and closer Mt. Tsurugi; toward the west, Toyama city and Noto penninsula surrounding Toyama Bay, further west, the Sea of Japan.

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Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha Hut

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View from Hakuba Sanso Hut

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There was more of this view in full 360 degrees from the top of Mt. Shirouma. Toward the northeast was the mellow ridge leading to Mt. Korenge that I would walk that day. The ridge rising above the clouds looked like the backbone of a sleeping dragon. And then it sank beneath the rising clouds.

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Dragon’s backbone of Mt. Korenge (View from summit of Mt. Shirouma)

After an initial steep decent, it was an easy and flat walk on crushed rock the size of large gravel. I passed by large cairns lurking mysteriously in the fog. The white rock changed to red, indicating iron content. My map showed a side trail leading on to the site of an old refinery and mine office.

The rocks on the slope up Mt. Korenge tinkled like glass when I walked over them. I picked one up and it felt lighter than it looked. An almost pumice. Atop Mt. Korenge, I took a break for a second breakfast of coffee, nuts and salami. I packed out an abandoned tupperware that obviously had held someone’s lunch in it. (It was a nice tupperware, but I was afraid to open it to wash it out and ended up just throwing it away when I got down to the gondola station at Tsugaike.)

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Mt. Shirouma behind me

At Hakuba Oike Hut, I picked up some water (free!) and admired the flat campground looking onto an alpine meadow. Should be pretty on a clear day. Where is the pond? I followed the sign for Tsugaike to the other side of the hut and see the edge of the water in the mist and the trail going around the pond. After following the trail for the while, I think, this is a huge pond! More like a lake? I could only see the edge of the clear green water but it feels like the trail has been going around it for quite a while. The trail becomes some pretty fun rock hopping with occasional X and O symbols directing the way. It was like this all the way to the top of Mt. Norikura, which is not much of a peak but the high point on a flat mountain top. (No use hiking here to snowboard down, you’d just be stuck!) Finally, the sky opens just briefly enough for me to see the whole Hakuba Oike pond and take a photo.

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Hakuba Oike pond

There was more rock hopping until I reached a small snowfield, and after the snowfield the rock hopping got quite a bit more challenging. Climbing down big boulders with a heavy pack on is much more difficult than with only a day pack, because you don’t want to destroy your knees and ankles from impact. Finally, finally, I reached the raised wooden platforms set over a marsh I’d been spying from up above.

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The wooden walkway was being replaced, and there were pallets of new wood to be installed off to the sides of the pathway. I hopped over onto one of the pallets and made myself comfortable. Since I didn’t really pack lunch for this last day, I end up cooking half a pack of quick cook pasta and a cube of kimchi jigae soup, since that’s what I have left. Yes, I have become one of those Japanese hikers that cooks hot lunch!

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Lunch break!

As I was packing up after my lunch break, one of the workmen made his way over and asked me when I was heading down. He was looking for someone to walk down with. I’m a little weirded out initially, but he started telling me about his job. He and his team have been up at Tsugaike since July living in two trailers by the top of the Tsugaike ropeway. His company also did the wooden walkways at Happo-Ike, which I passed the first day of my hike, as well as at Mt. Naeba and Mt. Hotaka. I commented that it was a nice job to be able to work in all those beautiful places. He replied that he only comes to the mountains to work, his hobby is golf. He pointed out some bear scat on the trail. I haven’t seen a bear while in Japan yet!

We ran into a hiker testing the water at a spring. This water is safe, he called out to us, so we stopped for a drink and a chat. This typical retiree hiker explained he thought it would be boring to just set a goal of climbing the Hyakumeisan, so his personal goal is to test all the water sources on the Hyakumeisan. He says that so far, all the water sources he’s tested have been potable. Good to know right?

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Guided by someone who’s walked up and down the trail everyday for months, I made it down to Tsugaike ropeway safely, with no injuries and finished my hike in good time. After getting to the bottom of Tsugaike Ski Resort, I consulted the bus schedule. I could’ve either hopped a bus direct from Tsugaike back to Tokyo, but I ended up busing back to Happo Bus Terminal where busses are more frequent so I could catch an onsen before returning to Tokyo.

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The ski resorts of Hakuba Valley come into view

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Tsugaike Gondola, the end of my hike

Logistics and Costs

I picked Hakuba for this last minute hike because the logistics were easy. I took a highway bus to and from Shinjuku, ski resort gondolas and lifts to and from the trail heads, and one of the Hakuba town buses from Tsugaike back to Happo Bus Terminal.

Shinjuku <–> Happo Bus Terminal Highway Bus: 8700 yen round trip

Happo-One Ski Resort: one-way up Adam Gondola – 1550 yen (1400 yen if you have a jRO search and rescue insurance card)

Tsugaike Ski Resort: one-way down the ropeway – 1360 yen

Tsugaike –> Hakuba bus: 560 yen

Tent site at Mt. Karamatsu: 1000 yen

Tent site at municipal Shirouma Hut: 1000 yen

Trip Tips

I wouldn’t have done Kaerazu no Ken by myself if it was raining. If it had been raining that morning at Mt. Karamatsu, my Plan B was to go south to Mt. Goryu, instead of north to Mt. Shirouma, because that ridge is less dangerous. Kaerazu no Ken was pretty sketchy and since I was alone, I was very careful and it took me 1.5 times the estimated course time on the map to complete it, because I didn’t want to lose my grip or footing anywhere and fall into an abyss…

There are two huts at the top of Mt. Shirouma, Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha (白馬岳頂上宿舎) and Hakuba Sanso (白馬山荘). Hakuba Sanso does not have tent sites.

There is free water at Tengu Hut, Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha and Hakuba Oike Hut, but not at Happo Ike Hut or Karamatsudake Hut.

Hiking in Taiwan: Dabajianshan (大霸尖山) 4-Day Solo Hike

On clear days, you can see Dabajianshan (大霸尖山) from my parents’ apartment perched on the hills southeast of downtown Hsinchu. The distinctive square shape of the peak makes it super easy to recognize. It’s on the 500NT note. Dabajianshan is the holy mountain of the Atayal people and where they believe their ancestors came from. The “ba” in Daba means “dominate”; it’s the same character used in「霸王」or warlord. All reasons I decided to climb it.

Most people climb Dabajianshan in a 3-day hike, staying two nights at Jiujiu (or 99) Hut, which is manned. However, a Chinese language hiking guide I read strongly suggested breaking up the hike into 4 days and tent camping at 3050 High Ground or staying at Zhongba Hut which appealed to me because I like to avoid crowds and had a romantic idea of seeing sunrise from Dabajianshan.

Trail journal below.

Day 1 – Monday, July 17

Dalu Forest Road (大鹿林道) to Madara Creek Trailhead (馬達拉溪登山口) (19.5km)

Dalu Forest Road is an easy walk. It’s a mostly gravel road crossed by many small waterfalls. I actually get to see most of the endemic and endangered birds and butterflies described on the interpretive signs along the trail. Good job with signage and conservation efforts, national park and forest service! The road winds up the side of the mountain and the view on the other side of the valley is not bad. But it does get tedious after about 10km. (And there is no where secluded to pee.)

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Beginning of Dalu Forest Road

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Gwanwu Waterfall – a popular day hike in Guanwu Forest Recreation Area but you can’t tell it’s this high from the bottom of the waterfall.

Dabajianshan used to be a popular two-day climb, but typhoons repeatedly washed out Dalu Forest Road so its been closed to private motor vehicles since 2008 adding an additional 20km each way to the hike. You can see how the road was damaged and how streams/waterfalls just run across the trail in the video below.

I drove up in the morning from my parents house in Hsinchu past Judong (竹東) and Chingchuan (sp? 清泉) (a beautiful hot spring village high in the valley where Zhang Xueliang, the once rival warlord to Chiang Kai-shek who was blamed for losing China to the Communist Party, was once held in house arrest), so by the time I arrive at the trailhead to turn in my permit it’s a few minutes past 11AM, and the ranger lets me though without watching the safety video, because he wants to get off his shift. You’re not suppose to enter the trailhead after 11AM because of the long walk up to 99 Hut (4 hour, 4km hike up from Madara Creek Trailhead), but I’m only camping at Madara Creek.  Since I get a late start, I meet only one other hiker going up that day when I’m hiding from the rain in a worker shack at the 15km mark. He has a thick accent and I imagine what exotic location he is from in China. (Later I find out it’s Macau.)

When I finally get up to the campground in front of the abandoned visitors’ center at Madara Creek around 5:45PM, the water is not running at the toilets which is troublesome because there aren’t any good places to do you business around there. (It is apparent people have been using the toilets anyway and they are really gross.) I’m staking in my last couple of tent pegs when two vans pull up filled with workers who will be staying the night. They take over the visitors’ center building, despite a sign posted saying that the foundations of the building are not stable so do not enter.

I was looking forward to relaxing and enjoying my solitude since I have the sole permit reservation for the campground, but now my peace is disturbed by a chainsaw and leaf blower as the workmen build a f-ing bonfire.

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They were there to cut the grass along the forest road the next day.

I retreat to the nearby forestry service workers’ hut and manage to have a quiet dinner overlooking the creek. After dark, there are too many bugs in the hut (elevation ~1800 meters), so I have to hastily pitch my tent inside the hut. This was not as relaxing as I hoped!

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Forestry Service Hut

Day 2 – Tuesday, July 18

Madara River Trailhead to Zhongba Hut (中霸山屋) via Jiujiu Hut (九九山莊) (9.5km), and evening visit to Dabajianshan (4km round trip)

I sleep in longer than I intended because it is so dark inside the workers’ hut and only finish packing when I hear a leaf blower go on. I finally cross the red Madara Creek Bridge and start hiking just before 8AM. This results in me getting hailed on in the afternoon thunderstorm on the way to Zhongba Hut. It’s been classic Taiwan summer weather recently – 午後雷陣雨 – not-a-cloud-in-the-sky mornings followed by afternoon thunderstorms.

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Looking back across Madara Creek Bridge towards some hikers coming down from the mountains that morning

Not very far up the trail, I dig my first cathole the first place it looks viable to go off trail. It’s difficult, but I hit a rock and after wedging the rock out, the hole reaches regulation depth. (Review LNT principles here.) Achievement unlocked! I’m back on the trail clipping my potty trowel to my backpack when a hiker coming down passes me. Lucky!

The climb up to Jiujiu or 99 Hut is a slog, except for around the 2.4KM mark where there is old grown cypress forest. I love the smell of hinoki! Apparently there are two kinds: Taiwan Cypress /扁柏/ヒノキ, and Formosan Cypress/ 紅檜/ベニヒ. I thought they were all the same. FYI a lot of the large cypress tori (e.g. at Meiji Jingu) and large hinoki baths in Japan are constructed out of Taiwan hinoki.

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Cypress forest

I wander into 99 Hut to checkout the facilities even though I don’t plan on staying there and get ambushed by the caretaker and the cook who make me sit and drink ginger tea and then oolong tea with them. The cook feeds me sausage and eggs left over from breakfast and gives me two tomatoes for the road. The caretaker names all the flowers in the photos I took on Xueshan and shows me photos of Dabajianshan that he’s taken in all conditions. “This year, it snowed April 1 at 99 Hut!” he says as he proudly shows me the photo. He’s incredulous I have only brought my phone for photo taking purposes. I finally extract myself by promising to stop by again on the way down.

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Mr. Chang, the caretaker of 99 Hut, and I

On Daba Trail there are four baiyue: Dabajianshan (3492m), Xiaobajianshan (小霸尖山 3360m), Yizeshan (伊澤山3297m), and Jialishan (加利山3112m). It is hailing pea-sized pellets at the time I reach the junction for Jiali Shan. I see two people turn off the main trail to climb Jiali despite the crappy weather, but I skip Jiali and Yize and head straight along the increasingly muddy trail to Zhongba Hut for shelter. I’m not that crazy about peak-bagging baiyue; I’d rather get dry. It’s a good thing that after the junction for Jialishan at 3050 meters, the trail is never very steep.

At 3:20 in the afternoon, I’m resting on the deck of the very cozy Zhongba Hut. Arrived, swept out the hut, and had a pee before it started raining again. Great facilities here! Cathole digging equipment and rainwater collection tank with water coming out of a tap just out back. I lost my trash bag out of the side pocket of my backpack, probably when I set my pack down to dig out my rain jacket. I hope I find it on the way back down or I’ll feel really bad.

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Zhongba Hut

The clouds part above Zhongba Hut around 5:50PM, so I decide to go to Dabajianshan and see what I can see.

Dabajianshan is hiding mysteriously in the mist when I approach. I bow and say a little prayer of thankfulness and hope for good weather and safety and then cross to the metal rails toward the traverse under the Daba peak to Xiaoba. There’s a sign attached by a chain to the metal railing, and I’m taking a selfie with the sign and white where Daba is supposed to be behind me, when suddenly the clouds part and I see Daba clearly on my phone screen. Of course, I immediately turn around and shout “Wow! Wow! Wow!” out loud to nobody.

If ever you arrived at the top of a mountain and were sure it was a god, it would be Dabajianshan. You can’t step on the top and conquer him (no longer permitted by law because it’s dangerous, and really you shouldn’t out of deference to aboriginal beliefs), but you can sit at his feet and look out onto the wondrous view he has. I don’t stay long, because I want to be back at the hut to cook dinner before dark, and I want to get an early night so I can be back up at Daba for sunrise.

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No, this is not a stock photo. I took it with my very own wee little iPhone.

Day 3 – Wednesday, July 19

Zhongba Hut to Dabajianshan and Xiaobajianshan and back (5km?), then down to 99 Hut (9.5km)

Zhongba Hut is snug and quiet, no bugs, no scurrying or other animal sounds. The only sound is the occasional commercial jet flying overhead. When I wake up at 4:20, I go outside and can still see many starts though the horizon is getting reddish. I make a coffee, bottle it up and go to have breakfast with Dabajianshan. On the way, I can see the twinking of a city’s lights in smog far down below.

I wondered if anyone would make a night climb from 99 Hut to see the sunrise, but turns out it’s just me. It’s an amazing experience to share the sunrise with Daba; one tiny human and a great mountain god.

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Sunrise at Dabajianshan

Indeed, as the 99 Hut caretaker had told me, at sunrise, Daba is first red (5:09AM) and then turns golden yellow (5:13AM). After sunrise, I cross under the square Daba peak formation and head for Xiaoba. The ridge between Daba and Xiaoba offers great views of Xueshan and the Holy Ridge, but I can’t take any good pictures because they are eastward in the direction of the rising sun.

I get lost at the bottom of Xiaoba. On the way up yesterday, 3 separate hikers had warned me that the ropes on Xiaoba were damaged, not reliable and that they had forgone getting to the top. Unable to find the ropes, I end up behind the formation on the east side, then come back around and make an attempt at climbing up the north face, but then decide I don’t really want to get dead. I’m about to give up when I find a marker and finally locate the ropes. There are plenty of good footholds and handholds along that route that the tiny, tiny bit of indoor bouldering experience I have is enough to make me feel comfortable enough to climb up and down without relying on ropes.

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Panorama from top of Xiaobajianshan (Xueshan Main Peak in the middle of the photo in the mountain range in the distance)

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I climbed this rockpile by myself and didn’t die.

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Ridge between Dabajianshan and Xiaobajianshan

When I get back to the bottom of Daba, I meet four recent college grads, two girls and two guys. I take a few photos from them and they take a couple for me. One of the guys points out Turtle Island, the distinct island off the coast of Yilan, in the distance, indicating that the lights I saw below before sunrise were probably Taipei. It’s about 8 AM, which means I got to spend 3 hours hanging out with Daba and Xiaoba all by myself.

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When I get back to Zhongba Hut, there is a guy inside passed out in his sleeping bag. I try to gather up my things quietly and prepare to pack-up and cook my breakfast on the deck outside the hut. After a bit, he gets up and comes outside for a smoke. “Where did you come from?” I ask, since no one was there when I left at almost 5AM. Turns out he’s a porter carrying gear and lunch (!) for the group of hikers I ran into on top of Zhongba lookout (中霸坪) on the way back here. He lives in Chingchuan. The group he’s with got up in the wee hours to see sunrise at 3050 High Ground near the junction for Jialishan and they will be having lunch at Zhongba Hut. I offer him a sachima (a type of Chinese pastry I packed as breakfast food). He wanders off the pee and then goes back to bed. [Aside: Not to judge… Okay totally judging… but if you can’t carry your own lunch on a day hike (since they stay two nights in a row at 99 Hut)… Catheter and bedpan, much?]

I climb Yizeshan and Jialishan and take the obigatory peak photos on the way back down to 99 Hut. By the time I get to the top of Jialishan the cumulonimbus have piled up threateningly.

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Yizeshan – laminated sheet someone left up there

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Jialishan – Notice cloud difference from previous photo

I manage to make it to 99 Hut at 2PM just before it really starts pouring and take up the caretaker’s offer to stay there (instead of back down at Madara Creek Trailhead — being a government facility, he does charge me the requisite 200NT) and the cook’s offer of hot dinner (complimentary). When the rain lets up I go take a nap until dinnertime.

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After dinner, I joined other hut stayers to watch the sunset, but the clouds didn’t quite clear in time, so we were treated to a cloud light show instead.

Day 4: Thursday, July 20

99 Hut to the beginning of Dalu Forest Road (23km)

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Sunrise at 99 Hut

I tried to decline hot breakfast the night before but am woken up at 4:30AM by the cook anyway. No matter, I wanted to get moving early anyway in attempt to finally beat the afternoon thunderstorms one of these days. I’m back through the old growth forest at 7AM and back across the red bridge at Madara Creek Trailhead at 8:40AM. Not much to say about the day except I leap-frog with the porter I met at Zhongba Hut all day, chatting occasionally, and cross paths with a group of 7-8 other young porters from the same company bringing 200kg of fresh food up to 99 Hut in anticipation of the weekend. The forest road is monotonous since I’ve seen it before and I end up listening to Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? on Audible. (She had something really insightful to say about confidence and entitlement at the end of the book. Really!) Cumulonimbus are looming again by 1:30PM but I manage to finish the trail just before 2PM and before any rain!

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Finish!

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Convenience store dog at the Hi-Life I stopped at in Judong to get coffee on the way home. It was, of course, super hot back at lower elevation and this dog was enjoying a nap in the AC. Must be tough being a Husky in Taiwan. #itsadogslife

Hiking in Taiwan: Know Before You Go

I grew up in Taiwan, but just completed my first two high mountain hikes (and bagged my first six Baiyue!) over the month of July. I am fluent in Chinese and have family here so it was probably easier for me to figure out how to do it than for most people. Really, it was my brother that figured out all the permit stuff. Anyway, it was amazing so I wanted to share the information I gathered that might be useful to any English-speaking folk that want to hike in Taiwan.

Hiking culture in Taiwan is heavily influenced by Japanese hiking culture, as it was the Japanese that first developed modern, western-style hiking culture in Taiwan during the colonial period. Of course the mountains were sacred places and important hunting grounds for certain aboriginal tribes in Taiwan before the Japanese arrived and many of the current trails used to be hunting trails or trading routes used by the native peoples. My impression is that hiking infrastructure is very similar to the Japan, but the mountains are wilder.

Like Japan’s Hyakumeizan (日本百名山), Taiwan has its 100 famous peaks, known as Baiyue (台灣百岳) (see list here). But Japan only has 21 peaks above 3000 meters, while all of Taiwan’s Baiyue are above 3000 meters. The eastern two-thirds of the island is basically a series of mountain ranges running parallel to each other. The mountains are extremely rugged and remote for such a small island. The Central Mountain Range is the length of the JMT, but there is no practical way to resupply by hiking out to a town so you cannot do an American-style long distance hike of it. People have hiked the full length of the Central Mountain Range, but more in the manner of a full-fledged hardcore mountaineering expedition.

Speaking of hard-core mountaineering expeditions, see documentary of hard-core Taiwan canyoning expedition led by Mike Harris from Canyons in Gunma here.

Permits

Permits are required to hike the major trails in Yushan National Park, Shei-pa National Park and Taroko National Park. There is a lottery to climb Yushan Main Peak, so you must apply for a permit at least a month in advance. For the majority of other trails, you must apply for a Park Entry Permit at least 7 days in advance. This can be done at the National Park Permit Application website: https://npm.cpami.gov.tw/. (The website also comes in English and Japanese.) Everything is automated. You select the trail you want to hike and the online application form will automatically populate your options for itinerary and lodging. Check availability of beds/tentsites on your desired route before choosing dates. Generally, all Saturdays will be booked out for popular trails as soon as registration becomes available (usually a month ahead). You will need an emergency contact with a Taiwan ID number and phone number.

After completing the National Park Permit Application, you should be directed to a link to apply online for a corresponding Mountain Entry Permit from the police bureau. You can apply online up to 5 days in advance of your hike, or you can actually do it last-minute in person at the police station closest to your trailhead. (Taiwan police are notoriously friendly and nice.) The permits are free, as are most mountain huts and campgrounds.

Park Entry Permit approval depends mostly on availability of space in the huts/campsites for your dates and the difficulty of the trail. You’ll see a difficulty rating on the permit application for your course. For anything more than an A rank trail, you will be required to provide evidence of adequate previous hiking experience (e.g. photo with summit marker). Solo hikers are required to sign a waiver co-signed by a family member, so your family can’t sue the park service if anything happens to you. Mountain Entry Permit is apparently just some anachronistic formality and is automatically granted if you have a Park Entry Permit.

You’ll need to print 2 copies of each permit after they are approved. You will deposit one copy of each with the ranger at the trailhead when you enter the trail and hold on to the second copy, which you may be required to show on the trail and will have to deposit back at the trailhead when you finish so that the park service knows you’ve come back down to civilization and are not lost somewhere.

Permits may be annoying but I think they are understandable for safety and environmental reasons. When you deposit your permit at the trailhead, depending on the mood of the ranger, you might be required to watch a mountain safety / leave-no-trace video. I jokingly call this “the defensive hiking video.” They have an English version for foreigners.

If you need help with permits, contact me.

Mountain Huts, Porters and Food

When you apply for a Park Entry Permit you also designate your planned lodging / campsites. The mountain huts and campsites in the national parks are free unless otherwise specified. For example, Jiujiu Hut (or 99 Hut) on Daba Trail charges 200NT per person per night. It’s run by the forestry bureau and has a live-in caretaker and hot showers. Management of the hut most people stay at for a Yushan / Jade Mountain climb is outsourced to a private company and supposed to be really nice, so you probably have to pay for that one too.

Mountain huts called XX山莊 (shan-zhuang) have facilities like designated bunks covered with a thin rubber mat (think cheapest yoga mat), a cooking area, toilets, running water, solar-powered lighting. This is where most people stay and will probably be lively and noisy with big groups and aboriginal porters and cooks. I saw these guys servicing hikers at both 369 Hut and 99 Hut: http://www.bununclimbers.com/. They were friendly and professional. At 369 Hut, the rate was 200 NT per kilo to carry your stuff to and from 369 Hut and 800 NT for a sleeping bag and hot dinner and hot breakfast, which was 100% real food, mainly consisting of local fresh veg, and didn’t look too shabby. So, even though the national park website will say there is no food service or bedding at the mountain huts, you can get it from a private provider if you contact one in advance. When I was coming down from Dabajianshan on a Thursday, there were 7-8 young porters carrying 200kg of fresh food in styrofoam coolers strapped to external frame packs up to 99 Hut in anticipation of the weekend. (On a side note, fascinating history of external frame packs here.)

Huts called XX山屋 (shan-wu) are intended to be used as emergency huts and don’t have any facilities. (Park service considerately provided a shovel and hoe for digging catholes at Zhongba Hut.) It appears the emergency huts in Shei-pa National Park have all pretty recently been rebuilt or refurbished and had rainwater collection tanks added and are quite nice.

Don’t expect the designated campsites to have any facilities; they are just places which are relatively flat and have water sources nearby.

Maps

Sun River publishes hiking maps for climbing Taiwan’s Baiyue very similar to Yama to Kogen hiking maps in Japan. They cost 200NT apiece and are should be available at any serious outdoor gear shop. I got the one for the Holy Ridge which covers most of Shei-Pa National Park. The map provided information about the huts, campsites, water sources, model itineraries, course times and elevation profiles for popular routes. If you can’t read Chinese, the map is still useful for matching Chinese characters to signs, water sources, hut locations, course times etc. Beware that trail conditions are constantly changing due to typhoons, earthquakes etc. and maps may not be fully up to date. Check the appropriate national park website for latest conditions before you go.

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Water

According to a Chinese language Taiwan mountaineering book my mom has, there is no water in the mountains of Taiwan that will make you seriously ill, there is only water that may not be very tasty to drink. The mountains are mostly sandstone, shale and half-metamorphosed shale-slate and when the water from the porous sandstone hits impermeable shale, it flows out in delicious mountain springs. Up on a ridge though, the water sources may be brown snow/rainwater ponds, so you’ll probably want a filter for that.

In Taiwan, it’s still not recommended to drink the tap water in the cities; so most people habitually filter or boil their water even if it looks fine. Use your own judgment or ask an aboriginal porter rather than some flatland Taiwanese person.

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Water seeping through cracks in the shale in the Black Forest under Xueshan Main Peak

Weather

As with any high alpine environment, the weather changes really quickly in the mountains. I hiked in July in the typical summer weather pattern of not-a-cloud-in the-sky mornings and short afternoon thunderstorms. Best time to hike, according to the caretaker at 99 Hut, is from September through December when the weather is most stable (after typhoon season and before cold fronts). You can hike most trails year round but snow gear (crampons, ice axe) may be necessary January-March and the difficulty rating on the trail is increased for permitting purposes.

In mid-July, at 3000 meters it got down to 8 degrees Celsius at night. Daytime temps above 2000 meters were so comfortable for hiking. It was a great escape from the sweltering sauna of Taiwan summer down below.

Dangerous Animals and Plants

If you see a Formosan Black Bear, you should go buy a lottery ticket because that means you’re really lucky. Their remaining habitat is the three national parks you will probably be hiking in but they are extremely endangered and sightings are extremely rare, so few that no meaningful estimate of the population can be done. Taiwan’s poisonous snakes are nicely distinct looking if you have the misfortune to have to tell a doctor which one bit you for anti-venom, but they don’t live at high elevation. Formosan macaques look small and cute but have been known to be aggressive, so don’t look them in the eye and don’t leave your pack unattended if they are around because they will go for your food.

There is a really scary plant to be aware of that is common in mountain forests called yaorenmao (literally “biting cat”). It’s a variety of stinging nettle. It’s covered with really fine little hairs that will prick and burn you with an acid venom if you accidentally touch it. It was all along segments of Dalu Forest Road on the Daba Trail when I hiked in, and the Forest Service had sent a private contractor to cut it down by the time I hiked out, so it’s good to know they are trying to keep it under control.

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Once bitten, you won’t forget what it looks like.

Elevation

Diamox / Acetazolamide is available over the counter at most any pharmacy in Taiwan for prevention of elevation sickness.

Cultural Quirks

For some reason, a lot of people hike in rubber boots, or wellies. I think that would be so hot and uncomfortable and ill-fitting. No one hikes in shorts; I got so many shocked comments. I guess you would think it’s cold in the mountains if you can wear jeans in the 39 degree sauna down at sea level.

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Take me back to the mountains!

Shinetsu Trail: What was in my pack?

I already wrote about my gear following my Yakushima Trek (read here), but Kiwi Sig Other thinks it’d be interesting for y’all to see what it looks like and how I pack. I’m just a beginner backpacker (lifetime 3 overnight backpacking trips) and made my gear choices based on other peoples’ great blogs and Youtube videos. On the Internets, newbies often post about all their gear and ask a more experienced community for a shakedown, but I haven’t ever weighed my stuff since I don’t have a scale and I think the key is probably to get out there with all your gear and figure out what works and what you can live without.

Overview

Here’s pretty much all the stuff I brought on the Shinetsu Trail, minus food and clothing worn.

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All the things in my pack for the Shinetsu Trail. How did I fit it all in there? With food, too!

From left to right, top to down- ish:

  • ULA Circuit pack, Sea to Summit Ultrasil Packliner (used this to protect sleeping bag and clothing from rain and also put food in here because of paranoia about bears and ants), some extra grocery bags to use as trash bags, a pair of disposable chopsticks as emergency eating utensil (I also carried a titanium spork thrown in my food bag), Montbell potty trowel attached to bag by cheap 100 yen store carabiner (also emergency eating utensil?).
  • Hiking poles with small draw string sack to cover tips (polite when using public transit in Japan).
  • Stuff generally stuffed in mesh pocket or otherwise attached on the outside of my pack: hat, sunglasses, potty kit (hand sanitizer and pocket tissues), tenugui (Japanese version of a bandana), small bottles of sunscreen and bug repellant (need better bug repellant, the stuff in the blue bottle was useless).
  • Stuff for camp: camp cookset, windscreen, swiss army knife, small ~300ml Thermos (this is my luxury item and I love it), Montbell Versalite Pack 15.
  • Water system: 1L PET bottle, 2L Sawyer Squeeze bag, Sawyer Squeeze filter, coupler for backwashing the filter.
  • Stuff in ziplock bags: First aid kit, electronics, toiletries, glasses. Not pictured: baggie for paper stuff. Details below.
  • Packed clothing: rain jacket, microfiber towel (I got this awesome sweat towel from volunteering at the Tell charity run. It is more absorbent and dries faster than a tenugui. Hit up Ben to see if he has any left…), merino wool Buff, glove liners, spare undies, spare socks, Uniqlo 100 weight fleece, Uniqlo Ultralight Down vest, Uniqlo Heattech Extra Warm top and bottom for PJs, tyvek drawstring bag used as clothing bag.
  • Big stuff: sleeping pad (cheap foam pad from the Amazon trimmed down with kitchen shears with four folds on the bottom separated so that the smaller section can be used as a sitting pad – Thanks for the advice, Ken!), sleeping bag, tent, tyvek groundsheet, tent pegs and cord for guylines in small ziplock. (Read more about my “Big Three” in my previous gear post.)
  • Not pictured: phone and minimalist wallet were carried in one of the side hip belt pockets.

Further Breakdown

First Aid Kit

I took Wilderness Advanced First Aid  with WMA Japan in May (hope to finally write up a post about that experience soon), which led to beefing up my first aid kit. This is what I threw together for now.

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What’s in my kit (roughly top to bottom, left to right):

  • WMA Field Guide and SOAP notes
  • a few packs of sterile gauze, blister patch and a few bandaids
  • tampon, ankle brace, stretchy bandage, surgical tape, vet wrap, duct tape, syringe for irrigating wounds (repurposed Sawyer filter backwashing syringe)
  • gloves, Advil, antihistamine, small tube of topical steroid for itchiness, small tube antibiotic ointment (I also intend to carry a small dropper bottle of iodine), a few safety pins (also good for hanging laundry on backpack).

This is a work in progress. I’ve got a swiss army knife and some other things in my pack that double as first aid tools. As with anything else in the outdoors, it all comes down to experience and your kit is only as good as your knowledge, so I highly recommend getting trained in Wilderness First Aid if you want to spend any extended period in the outdoors.

Here are some links I found useful about building your own first aid kit for hiking:

Electronics

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Self-explanatory: iPhone charger, earphones, earplugs, spare batteries for headlamp, headlamp, external battery that charges my iPhone 5 SE 3-4 times.

Toiletries

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Self-explanatory: Hotel disposable toothbrush, toothpaste, moisturizer, contact solutions, contact case, glasses (getting Lasik soon to so I won’t have to bring all the eye stuff).

Honestly, I didn’t use that face cream until after I finished the trip and I forgot to bring lipbalm. It’s probably generally humid enough in Japan in the summer that you don’t need to bring any moisturizer, sunblock will be enough. Here’s something I read recently that provides good perspective for women on how to let go of the need to groom and look good all the time: http://www.foxintheforest.net/be-wild-love-yourself/.

Paper things

IMG_2216Forgot to include this in my overview photo above, because I was using the contents to write my Shinetsu Trail blogpost. I carried a book, maps, a small journal and a pen in another ziplock.

Cook-set

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Playing matryoshka with my camp cooking gear

I bought a new 750ml titanium cookpot for solo-hiking, but when Genna decided to come along, I realized that now I have the perfect two person cook-set, because the smaller pot weights next to nothing and packs neatly in my old 900ml cookpot. My two-person cook-set consists of:

  • Snowpeak 900ml Aluminum Cook Set
  • Evernew 750ml Titanium Pasta Cooker
  • Windscreen – Aluminum tempura splatter guard (didn’t even have to cut it down, just folded it up!)
  • Fuel canister
  • Lighter (back-up matches in first aid kit)
  • Tiny titanium stove and stuff sack
  • Mesh sack that came with smaller cookpot (the smaller drawstring sack holds everything tightly together so the lid of the larger cookpot doesn’t bang around)

Here’s what cooking dinner looks like:

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All Packed Up!

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Ready to go in the morning!

Oh yeah, I actually made the last minute decision to clip some 100 yen shop flipflops to the outside of my pack. It was definitely nice to have camp shoes (especially after a swim), but they are not essential. Up in the air on whether I would bring them again.

Five Days on the Shinetsu Trail

The Shinetsu Trail is an 80 kilometer trail from Mt. Madarao to Mt. Amamizu along the ridge that separates Nagano and Niigata prefectures. I found out about it while hanging around Iiyama Station waiting for a Shinkansen when I was living in Nozawa Onsen. In Japan, it’s a rare “long trail” designed for multi-day trekking and not peak-bagging. It is not high elevation (the tallest peak is Mt. Madarao at 1382 meters) and there is not very much elevation change. There are no Hyakumeisan and no fancy mountain huts along the trail. Instead, the trail crosses many historic mountain passes between Nagano and Niigata, used for trade and travel between the domains of Shinshu and Echigo once upon a time, some of which have now become roads which provide easy access to various points of the trail. Some local minshuku down in Iiyama valley are signed up to provide accommodation for hikers on the Shinetsu Trail and will drive you to and from the appropriate trail heads each day. Or there are six designated tent sites along the trail. Four are barebones sites with pit toilets and a water source maintained by the Shinetsu Trail Club, an NPO, and two are existing commercial camp facilities.

Since my interest in the Shinetsu Trail was to use it as a practice hike for the JMT, I planned the hike as a 5 day 4 night tent camping (“tento-paku” in Japanese) backpacking trip and my friend Genna from Nozawa hopped along.

This is the story of how it went down.

Day 1 — Monday, June 19

Course: Chiroru Trailhead (チロル登山口) → Mt. Madarao (斑尾山) (start of Shinetsu Trail) → Akaike (赤池)

Distance: 11 km

Genna and I catch the Hakutaka 553 Hokuriku Shinkansen departing Tokyo 7:52 and arriving in Iiyama at 9:43. I had planned for us to catch a 10 AM bus from Iiyama Station to Madarao Kogen Hotel to start the hike. But, when we arrive at the bus stop in Iiyama, it turns out that the 10 AM bus only runs on weekends and holidays. Rookie mistake. So, we get a ride from a concerned taxi driver who warns us about mama bears with their cubs.

Since we take a cab, we are able to get the driver to drive us all the way to Chiroru trailhead (where the main lift ticket office is for Madarao ski resort in the winter). The climb up Mt. Madarao is basically straight up the ski slope, steep and hot, with no cover and, frankly, not very fun.

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I climbed the last bit to the peak from the top of the highest chair lift twice last winter for a backcountry tour. I thought it would be interesting to see what the mountain looked like in the summer. Everything looked totally different. The last time I was up there we hiked to the right of a huge cornice.

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Hiking up Mt. Madarao in February

Last winter, our guide Andy from North Nagano Outdoor Sports had explained that the snowpack on Mt. Madarao is very stable because the short bamboo (sasa) covering the mountain creates a great bonding layer for the snow. There were many bamboo shoots poking out on the hiking path but nothing tender enough to pick and eat.

At the fork right before the peak, we run into two sprightly young guys (college students?) with sleeping pads strapped to the outside of their packs. We run into them again loitering around the signboard at Akaike when we finish our first day’s hike around 4 in the afternoon. The boys pressed on and I found out from Instagram later that they thru-hiked the whole trail in 3 days and 2 nights.

It is an easy hiking day. We get to the top of Mt. Madarao to begin the trail just before 11:30 AM and reach our campsite at Akaike before 4 PM. We hike through beech (buna) and cedar (sugi) forests and couple small marshes, one full of skunk cabbage (already past flowering) and the other full of frogs that sings a chorus for our lunch. They were so loud!

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Official start point of the Shinetsu Trail

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Lake Nojiri

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Mt. Myoko – looked so cool! I want to climb Myoko now…

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Idyllic Akaike (That little building had running water and flushing toilets!)

After we set up our tents, Genna wades into Akaike for a swim. I sit at the edge icing my ankles saying, “I’m sketched out by unknown bodies of water.”

Genna goes, “Hope there aren’t any monsters.”

“You mean like that?” I point at a huge arm-length white koi swimming straight towards her, freaking Genna out.

My second hiking fail of the day is when I pull out my camp cook-set and realize I brought an empty fuel canister instead of a full one. Good thing Genna has brought a 230g canister that ends up comfortably lasting us the entire trip.

At night, the stars are so bright above our campsite. Each time I wake up without moving from my sleeping bad, I see the Big Dipper was hanging a bit lower as it descends toward the to horizon.

Day 2 — Tuesday, June 20

Course: Akaike (赤池) → Katsuraike (桂池)

Distance: 20.1 km

I wake up at 5:30 to a lot of condensation on the inside of my tent. I use my tenugui to wipe off the condensation, then wring out the tenugui and use it to wash my face on the way to the toilet. We cook breakfast and make coffee and set off at about 7:30 AM. We have 20.1km to cover in a day and neither of us has ever hiked that far before.

We find a beautiful panorama of Mt. Madarao, Mt. Myoko (妙高山) and Mt. Kenashi (毛無山) from a clearing just past Numaike (沼池) / Nozomiko (希望湖). So we take a snack break (second breakfast!) to enjoy the view and discuss that we should’ve camped there instead. For next time!

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After Wakui (涌井), most of the trail is on forest road (林道) with little cover on a hot and sunny day. 31 degrees when I check my phone. We break for lunch and put out damp tents to dry at Tomikura Gap (富倉峠) around noon. Just past Tomikura Gap are sweeping views of Iiyama Valley. Apparently, this is where famed warlord Uesugi Kenshin, daimyo of Echigo province (present day Niigata), set up camp to battle his rival Takeda Shingen who had conquered Shinshu (present day Nagano) during the Sengoku period (16th Century).

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Around 2PM, we are hot, sweaty and exceedingly grateful to reach a nice little pentagonal hut perched on the ridge near the top of Kuroiwayama ( 黒岩山) where there is a nice cross breeze. We strip down to sports bras to dry our t-shirts in the cool breeze.

We’d been a bit intimidated by the distance in the morning, but since most of the trail was forest road or old trading routes (graded for horses and ox carts), the trail was pretty flat the whole day and we arrive at our second campsite at Katsuraike about 3:30PM. We take a brief swim in Katsuraike to cool off (too hot and sweaty to care about monsters) and then sunbathed a bit to dry off. The forecast for Wednesday was rain and cloud cover began to come in at dusk. At Genna’s first report of hearing a mosquito, I zip myself into my tent for the night.

Day 3 – Wednesday, June 21

Course: Katsuraike (桂池) → Sekida Gap (関田峠)

Distance: 11.4 km on the Shinetsu Trail, plus 1.5 km to campsite

I wake up to a large tick clinging to the screen door of my tent looking like a kid trying to lick ice cream through a store window. Nope, I think, and flick it off with my finger into the grass somewhere. It’s a rainy morning but luckily there’s an empty rundown old house at the campsite serving as a makeshift shelter. In the shelter, we hang our tents to dry and cook breakfast. We get a late start to the day around 9AM after the rain lets up a bit.

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Getting water at Taroshimizu spring (太郎清水)

My rain jacket wets out almost immediately and turns into a sauna suit. The first 3.5km of the trail after Katsuraike is a tough uphill climb to the top of Togari Onsen Ski Resort with two small stream crossings along the way.

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When we reach Togari Onsen Ski Resort, we climb onto one of the ski lifts to dry off and cool down.

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Togari Onsen Ski Resort

Then there is a bit of a climb up the ski hill. Shortly after we get off the ski slope and back into the trees again, the rain stops. The clouds lift first over Iiyama valley and the wispy clouds hanging over Nozawa Onsen and the Chikuma River (千曲川) were so pretty. Thanks to the rain, we’re able to see frogs and mushrooms, snails and slugs on the trail. So, all in all, I’m actually glad we had to hike in the rain.

The narrow knife ridge up to Mt. Nabekura (鍋倉山) is definitely the highlight of the trail. We could see all the way to Naoetsu (直江津) and the Sea of Japan on one side and all the way up and down the Chikuma river valley on the other, all at once! Though the rain had stopped, it was still extremely windy from the storm and I had to remember to pay attention to my feet and not fall over.

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Nagano side

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Niigata side

Since the ridge is so narrow and windy, at some point near 1PM we simply squat straight down on the trail and eat a well-deserved lunch. We rest again at the top of Mt. Nabekura and again at Mt. Kurokura (黒倉山), where the sun comes out and we are able to dry our tents and put away our rain jackets.

Yesterday it was 31 degrees but today the temperature was in the low teens. I wore my thin leggings and merino wool long-sleeve hiking shirt (which dried like a champ), but otherwise probably didn’t need to bring these extra clothes

We detoured off the trail to Chayaike (茶屋池) which was worth it because it was a very pretty pond and had a lovingly maintained toilet.

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Our campground for the night, Green Pal Kogensou (グリーンパル光原荘) had apparently not opened for the season yet. It was still very windy when we arrived that we spent a lot of time looking for the most sheltered tent site, only to have the wind die down by the time we got our tents set up. We cooked dinner on the deck of the main green building at the campground with a view overlooking the mountains of Joetsu and the Sea of Japan.

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Day 3 on the Shinetsu Trail was green tunnel and killer vistas, what I imagined it would be like hiking the ridge between Nagano and Niigata. Day 1 was tromping around Madarao Kogen; Day 2 was mostly road walking; Day 3, we got to the good stuff.

Day 4 – Thursday, June 22

Course: Sekida Gap (関田峠)– Nonomi Gap (野々海峠)

Distance: 18.9 km on Shinetsu Trail, plus 1.5 km from campsite

I was thinking while hiking that there would not be much to say about Day 4, except that we started to see snow on the trail: snow patches tucked in shady areas, snowmelt ponds and muddy depressions where there had probably been snow until very recently.

Previous days we noticed that if we came upon a muddy bit, there would be a lot of flies. Well, today was pretty much all muddy, what with yesterday’s rain and the recent snowmelt, so there were a ton of flies.

The trail became challenging but monotonous; a lot of slippery, muddy ups and downs and “limbo trees,” what we decided to call tree branches/trunks crossing the trail at inconvenient height to either duck under or step over. There were great sweeping views of Niigata, but not as dramatic as yesterday. You couldn’t really see the sea because it was quite hazy without yesterday’s rain.

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We emerged at Nonomi Gap just as a group of retirees were being loaded onto a minibus. (They were a hiking group from Osaka thru-hiking the Shinetsu Trail in six days, staying two nights at Madarao Kogen and three nights in Togari Onsen.)

The bus driver asked where we were going and we were able to hitch a ride to our campsite 2km down the road at Nonomi pond (野々海池).

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Skunk cabbage blooming at Nonomi pond

The campsite looked nice enough. But as we put our tents up, we attracted a swarm of black flies. And then, they started to bite. The taps at the indicated water source were not running (probably turned off to prevent pipes from freezing in the winter), so we had to go down to the lake to get water, while being tailed by a vicious swarm of flies. Genna daringly waded into the pond with a plastic grocery bag to get less scummy water to fill the Sawyer Squeeze bag with and we both had to sacrifice ourselves to some flies to filter 4 liters of water for camp. Teamwork!

Our hardship turned out to be unnecessary, because on the way back I stopped by the toilet and found out the hand-washing tap by the toilet was running. It makes a good story (did I mention Genna almost stepped on a snake, I screamed my death scream and the nice guy working on getting the campsite ready for the season hopped in his k-truck to check if we were okay?), and I guess there had to some Type II fun on our trip.

Flies were still swarming our tents, so we boiled a pot of water, split it in two and literally dove into our tents. There must’ve been around 200 flies swarming the fly of my tent. The sound of the flies flying into the fly of my tent sounded like rain. I killed the 5 that got inside my tent when I dashed in. Then, there was nothing to do but eat and get ready for bed. I was pretty happy I didn’t have to get up and go to the bathroom at any time that night.

Day 5 – Friday, June 23

Course: Nonomi Gap (野々海峠) → Mt. Amamizu (天水山) → Daigonji Kogen Campground (大厳寺高原キャンプ場)

Distance: 6.2 km on the Shinetsu Trail, plus ~5 km to get to the trail and off the trail from our campsites 

I wake up to a brilliant symphony of birdsong. And only 8-10 flies still hanging around my tent. I have not left my tent since 6-something yesterday evening and contemplate getting up to go to the toilet. I check if Genna is awake yet and then go back to sleep. I wake up again and get ready for the day by packing up everything except what I need to wash up and make breakfast.

Having confirmed that Genna is up, I work up the courage to exit my tent, go to the toilet, wash my tenugui and brush my teeth. Flies do not follow me, and things are looking good. But, when we start boiling water for breakfast, the swarm reappears and breakfast is another split the hot water and dive for tents affair. After we’ve finished eating our breakfasts, it’s a non-stop dash to take down tents, pack up and leave, barely stopping at the toiler sink to fill up on water. We have to keep moving or the flies will catch up. I think we’re on the road around 7-ish, but I didn’t keep track because our priority was just to beat the flies. We look like Pigpen from the Peanuts comics, being followed by a little cloud of flies.

Up the trail from Nonomi Gap we reach a sunny clearing looking down over Niigata where the trail hooks 90 degrees to the right. We stop to make some coffee and dry our tents. It’s okay for a bit and then we start getting bitten again. We’re just finishing packing up when the group of senior citizen hikers from yesterday appears. As we move on ahead, I overhear their guide explain that our choice of coffee spot is the northernmost point of Nagano Prefecture.

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Misaka Gap, final pass before Mt. Amamizu

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View of Niigata from Misaka Gap

Then it’s more up and downs through muddy bits and the most significant snowfield we cross on the trail (still pretty small) and before we know it, we’ve reached to top of Mt. Amamizu, the official endpoint of the Shinetsu Trail. It’s only 10AM. We take a few photos, finish our coffee and get moving again before the flies gather too thickly.

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Another uphill. “Guess what day it is?” “Leg day!”

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Finish! Official endpoint of the Shinetsu Trail.

Down toward Matsunoyama trailhead, we meet an old man picking bamboo shoots with bear bells that sound like pretty wind chimes. In 80km, we’ve walked a bit backwards in the spring season, despite having come down in elevation. At the trailhead, we meet to bus driver that gave us a lift yesterday and chat for a bit about their group and he points us in the right direction for our last campsite at Daigonji Campground.

We decide to road-walk rather than take another trail to the campsite after I ask Genna the rhetorical question, “Have you had enough nature yet?”

We get to the campground just past 11 and the manager is not in yet. One of the guys working there cutting grass can’t believe we’ve walked all the way from Madarao and keeps saying “sugoi desune!” and pulls out some folding chairs for us to sit on. I ask if the restaurant is open. It is. So, instead of waiting for the manager, we go to the restaurant and have the most beautiful and delicious hiyashichuka (cold summer ramen noodles) I have ever seen in all my years of living and traveling in Japan.

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We put our hats back on for this photo cuz our hair was so greasy and gross. 😛

We also have two beers apiece which get us nicely buzzed since we haven’t had alcohol since??? Then we check in and ask about taking a bath, but the guesthouse is not open yet, so we can only use the shower in one of the cottages. We get the key to a cottage, which has a nice deck with a breeze. I do some laundry in the shower and hang it on the deck to dry and write the last of my trail journal lying on the deck in my underwear. It’s so nice. The perfect temperature, shade, no flies, breeze; a beautiful day. We chill on the deck of the cottage until we get kicked out of the cottage for the next guests to use the shower.

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After the hike, we chilled for the rest of the day and the next at Daigonji Campground doing nothing except laying around eating the rest of our food.

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Our view during dinner at Daigonji Campground

Post-hike Reflections / Advice

I was discouraged from doing this hike prior to July 1 by the Shinetsu Trail Club because they hadn’t completed train maintenance until last weekend and there was still a bit of snow and felled trees on the trail. Except for our last camp site, none of the tent sites we used were officially open. It wasn’t a problem because no one else was there and there were toilets and water sources at each camp site. I think the trail would be beautiful in earlier spring green, perhaps from May.

I’m glad I did not wait until July to do the trail because it was already really hot. It’s not high elevation, so it really did not cool down at night either. I only had condensation inside my tent the first night. In terms of warm layers, all I should have packed was a 100 weight fleece. I tried sleeping without my long johns on one night but since I use a quilt, my thighs were sticking uncomfortably to my sleeping pad so I had to put them on.

The prime season for hiking the Shinetsu Trail must be Autumn. There were so many varieties of Japanese maple lining the trail it must be very beautiful for fall colors.

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Out of season red leaves. A teaser for fall?

The Shinetsu Trail is still not so well-known among Japanese hikers. It’s refreshingly undeveloped, but well-maintained and adequately marked. Even though there is very little infrastructure on the trail after Togari Onsen, you are never more than a few hours walking to a town if you need to bail or get help. (I also had cell phone coverage the entire time.) It was a great trail to do a beginner long-distance trek. Perhaps because we were hiking before the official start of the season, the only other hikers we saw were the two boys the first day and then the group of ~16 retirees from Osaka that gave us a lift on the end of the fourth day. We did see a few other people during our hike doing forest road maintenance or picking spring mountain vegetables.

Matsunoyama Onsen near the end of the trail is a very cute little hot spring village and I’d probably try to stay there next time because Daigonji was still pretty much the middle of nowhere. Good thing Kiwi Sig Other showed up with a rental car so we could get back to civilization. It’s probably pretty easy to hitchhike down to civilization from the trailhead as the only people around are friendly locals who know about the Shinetsu Trail. The magic onsen water cured the itchiness of all my fly bites. Not bad for one of the Three Famous Medicated Onsen of Japan.

Contact me if you have any questions about hiking the Shinetsu Trail!