May 30th 2014
I took my son, Justin, on a backpacking trip to Zaleski State Park in Ohio. I have been trying to do a two night, weekend long backpacking trip for a while. Something always throws a wrench in the plans. This trip was no exception. Here's the two big points of the weekend. First, we did a personal record of 15 miles of backpacking in a single day. Second, I didn't particularly enjoy Zaleski as a backcountry destination.
Here's my ideal weekend backpacking trip. Leave after work on Friday, hike a short ways and camp that night. Hike all day Saturday and camp that night. Hike Sunday a short ways back to the cars and drive home. I've tried this plan on several occasions and never been able to pull it off.
Zaleski is broken up into three loops: South, Middle, and North. The South loop is a total of 10 miles and has two camp sites. The third camp site is at the intersection of the Middle and North loops. Technically, you're only allowed to camp at the designated sites. However, the spacing of the sites is a little odd for the distances.
The first camp is only about two miles from the trail head. This is perfect for a Friday night camp site. The second site is only about four miles from the first camp site. That's much too close for the second night's camp site. However, the third camp site is another 6 1/2 miles (or 10 1/2 miles from the first site). Justin and I have never hiked that far in a day and I wasn't sure we could. So I figured we'd hike the Southern loop and then as far up the Middle loop as we could and stealth camp somewhere along the way. That'd leave us 6 - 7 miles to hike the rest of the Middle loop back to the cars on Sunday.
We did make the first camp site pretty easily Friday night. Along the short hike we passed a young couple that had stopped and setup their camp almost right in the middle of the trail. So much for stealth camping. When we got to the designated site, there were already three other groups camping. We found a spot and setup camp. By the time we left in the morning there were a total of 8 groups camping at the designated site.
Justin slept in my new Warbonnet Blackbird XLC. It uses cinch buckles and straps for suspension; couldn't be easier to setup. Justin had no problems getting setup himself. I was sleeping with my own hammock and bugnet I had made. No chance of rain, so we didn't bother setting up a tarp. My hammock has whoopie slings for suspension. I'd never hung it outdoors before and I'd never hung my bugnet. Both gave me quite a bit of problems getting adjusted. Overall, it took me about 30 minutes to get setup Friday night. However, I did get it hung well and slept wonderfully. I really enjoyed the more open feeling of the hammock and separate bugnet. I'm really looking forward to using this setup more.
Saturday we got up at a fairly decent time. We finished some oatmeal breakfast and were packed up by 9:00am. The hike to the second camp site went pretty well. We finished the 4.5 miles in about 2 hours. This was probably the most enjoyable of all the miles we hiked that day. It was somewhat remote even though we saw several groups out hiking.
There was water on tap at the site and we cooked lunch of ramen noodles. Justin was pretty pleased with how quickly we were hiking. He was confident we could make it all the way to the third campsite. The second half of the South loop was a little tough. I was hiking in my Merrell trail running shoes instead of boots. It was an experiment in lighter footwear. Unfortunately, there were a couple miles along a fire service road that was gravel paved. The rocks were pretty hard on my thin soled shoes.
We intersected with the Middle loop and started heading up towards the third camp site. This section of the trail was also tough; lots of ups and downs. The trail is pretty much straight line, so any hills just have to be climbed. After two hours of hiking I was pretty tired. We'd done 8.5 miles so far and I was ready to stop. My original plan had been to stealth camp at about this distance. But Justin was anxious to get to the camp.
After one particularly brutal hill, I just pulled off the trail and setup my hammock. I told him I just needed a break for a bit. It was still early afternoon and we were nearly to our final destination. I setup and didn't get a fantastic hang. I definitely slept for at least 30 minutes. I woke up to a carpenter bee loudly buzzing near me. I didn't think much of it, but then noticed my bug net wasn't hung quite right. Given enough persistence the bee could definitely fly into my bug net.
With determination, I got up to finish the hike into the third campsite. Meanwhile, Justin had also setup his hammock and had been laying there studying the map. He figured at our current pace and remaining daylight we could finish the entire Middle loop before dark and go home tonight. I told him quite clearly (and maybe too sharply) I wasn't going to do that. I wanted to camp two nights and I felt like that was too much mileage. He was sullen for the remaining two miles towards camp.
Once we got there, the site was crowded. We actually couldn't find a clear site to setup. I ended up pulling out my hand saw and clearing thorn bushes from around a few trees for us to hang. Justin was still quite sullen while I was clearing the site. He setup his hammock easily and crawled in. I once again fought with my setup to get a good hang. I was tired, hot, and very sweaty. I managed to get my hammock setup so I could rest, but I was only about 6 inches off the ground. I knew I'd have to fiddle with it more to get a good enough setup to sleep in.
Meanwhile, there's all this hussle and bussle around us. Lots of 20-somethings going about making their own camp sites with quite a bit of ruckus. I could also clearly hear road traffic and trucks with their stupid engine brakes. There was nothing relaxing about laying there in a poor hammock hang listening to all the noise while watching my own son sulk in his hammock.
Looking at the map, I could see it was about 4.5 miles back to the car. We'd held a pretty steady hiking pace of 2 miles/hr and we had about three hours of daylight left. So I decided to hike back to the cars. We packed up and headed out. I didn't take time to make dinner. I figured we'd eat when we got to the cars. It was 6:00pm when we set out.
That hike back to the cars was hard. Rather than finish the Middle loop, we back-tracked right over the trail we'd just hiked. That saved us about a mile. When we intersected with the South loop we took a connector trail back to the cars. Honestly, I think that connector trail might have been the best scenery we had on the entire hike. But I was just too tired to appreciate it at all.
We made it to the cars just after 8:00pm. That's a total of 15 miles in a total of 11 elapsed hours. I was completely soaked with sweat. Justin and I both changed clothes into something dry. We then ate several packets of tuna fish cold and several granola bars. We made it home and I was in bed by 11:30 that night.
Clearly this trip was a great workout. There's not a lot of places near Cincinnati where you can string together 15 miles of backpacking trails. I've been running a lot lately to get back into shape. I could really tell a difference on this hike versus the one a few weeks earlier on Archers Fork Trail. This was a hard hike, but I felt better while doing it.
We had some good scenery. I wouldn't say it was the norm, but sections of the trail were very nice. I saw a Scarlet Tanager songbird for (I think) the first time; not that I'm a bird watcher. It was just very pretty and caught my eye. Justin found a very small corn snake on the trail. I don't see too many snakes while hiking, so that was cool too.
I think this was a good confidence builder for Justin. It was very physical and he handled it well. He was also able to manage his own gear quite well: setup, tear down, packing, and carrying.
I was quite disappointed with Zaleski. It didn't seem like the trail was actually maintained. It was easy to follow simply because of how many people were constantly walking on it. But the trail could have used some work. There were several more miles than I would have liked hiking along the fire roads. Those miles weren't pretty or enjoyable at all. I didn't enjoy how many miles we hiked literally within eye sight of a highway.
I feel like Zaleski is a mockery of the backcountry. I go backpacking because I like to get away into remote places that are quiet. I'm an introvert by nature and I have a job that requires quite a bit of socialization. Going to the backcountry is a way for me to escape the constant pressure of "man" around me.
Zaleski looks like the backcountry because there are trails and woods. But it is in no way remote. There is almost no time where you are away from other people. The weekend was a "success" in that I went camping and hiked my most miles ever. But it wasn't a success because I didn't come home feeling refreshed and connected the way I usually do. I came home feeling like I wanted to immediately schedule another trip. The fix wasn't enough.
I'm glad I went. Any time I get to spend with my son in the woods is time well spent. I'm proud of the physical accomplishment of hiking 15 miles in a day with a fully loaded pack.
I won't be going back to Zaleski. I don't think it's the place for me. I also don't think I'll try to schedule any more two night trips for Justin. I'm pretty sure he enjoys backpacking with me, but I'm also pretty sure he doesn't enjoy it enough for two nights.