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Reviews > Books > Trail Guides > Best Backpacking Vacations N. Rockies > Owner Review by Richard Lyon

BEST BACKPACKING VACATIONS IN THE NORTHERN ROCKIES
A FALCON GUIDE BY BILL SCHNEIDER
Owner Review by Richard Lyon
November 1, 2014

PERSONAL DETAILS AND BACKPACKING BACKGROUND

Male, 68 years old
Height: 6' 4" (1.93 m)
Weight: 200 lb (91 kg)
Email address: montana DOT angler AT gmail DOT com
Home: Bozeman, Montana USA, the jewel of the Northern Rockies

I'm in my fifth decade of backpacking, and travel regularly to the Rockies for outdoor activities.  I do a week long trip every summer, and often take three-day trips.  I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 13000 ft (1500-4000 m).  I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp, but I do my share of forced marches too.  Recently I've actively sought ways to reduce my pack load, but often still choose a bit more weight over foregoing camp conveniences I've come to expect. Summer trips often focus on fly-fishing, winter trips on skiing and ski touring opportunities.

Best VacationsPRODUCT DETAILS

Publisher: Falcon, a division of Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut USA
Website: www.falcon.com
First published:  July 1, 2002
Edition:  First  
ISBN:  0-7627-2355-6  
Binding:  Paperback  
Page count:  288 listed, mine (bought shortly after the book was first published) has 280
Trim size (listed and measured):  6 x 9 in/15 x 23 cm
MSRP: $16.95 US
Weight (measured): 14.4 oz/408 g
Year of purchase: 2002

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK

The author begins his foreword "Of all the hiking I've done over the past thirty-three years, these are my favorite backpacking trips in the northern Rockies," or, later, the "choicest of the choice." Mr. Schneider's is no ordinary database from which to draw favorites, to understate things considerably. He is one of that rare breed who, it could fairly be said, backpacks for a living. In 1979 he co-founded Falcon Press, and at present its successor company lists more than 450 "Where-To" and "How-To" Falcon Guides for all sorts of outdoor activities, more than 200 of which feature hiking and backpacking. Mr. Schneider is author or co-author of eighteen, many including hikes in the Northern Rockies. Most of the trip descriptions in Best Backpacking Vacations are taken from his other books.

This book is a Where-To Guide. The "Where" is the northernmost section of the Rocky Mountains in the United States, running south from the US-Canada border south through the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  Merely listing the sections from which the author chose his twenty-seven trips ought to whet any backpacker's appetite. From north to south: Glacier National Park, Bob Marshall Country [three Wilderness Areas adjacent to Glacier], Lee Metcalf Wilderness, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and the Wind River Range.

The author defines "backpacking vacation" as a minimum of three nights out. A few of the trips call for three nights in the backcountry; most are four or more. The longest, 68.5 miles (110 km) through the Thorofare region of Yellowstone Park, calls for ten days and nine nights.

This book is divided into five parts:

    The author's Foreword, in which he states his philosophy and objectives for the book.

    How to Use this Guidebook, an explanation of his difficulty ratings and other terms used throughout the book.

    Planning Your Backpacking Vacation, mostly planning basics and safety information.

    The trip descriptions, organized by geographic section, north to south.

    An Afterword entitled "The Wilderness Challenge." I recommend this reasoned plea for responsible stewardship to all dedicated hikers or anyone else who values preservation of America's magnificent Western wilderness areas.

Appendices include several gear checklists and contact information for the United States Forest Service (USFS) districts and National Park Service (NPS) offices that oversee these wonderful backpacking venues. All sections of the book contain very alluring photographs, many of them taken by the author.

This book is all about the trip descriptions, so I'll touch only briefly upon the other sections. One of the most useful planning features is the first chapter in the Planning section, entitled "Finding the Ideal Trip." Here Mr. Schneider organizes the trips both by activity (For Backpackers Who Like Photography, For Beginning Backpackers, For Backpackers Who Like Grizzly Bears, For Backpackers Who Don't Like Grizzly Bears, for example) or type of trip (For Beginning Backpackers, For Backpackers Who Like Climbing and Peak Bagging). Most of the trips are listed under several categories. There are also informative sections on safety (Hypothermia, Fording Rivers, Lightning, Hiking in Bear Country and the like), leave-no-trace protocols, and Backpacking with Style. This last category should be required reading for any backpacker on any trip; it includes several dozen obvious but regularly broken rules of camping etiquette intended to reduce friction among team members and maximize enjoyment of one's surroundings.

Now for the trip descriptions. Immediately following an overview of the particular geographic section each trip has its own chapter. This begins with a facts-and-figures overview of each such discrete area that includes basics such as finding the trailhead, type of hike (loop, shuttle, or out-and back), and degree of difficulty.  Each hike has an introductory section in which the author provides a table of information, such as this one for the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, in Yellowstone National Park:

    General description: An unusual trip along the majestic Yellowstone River nearly the entire route.

    Special attraction: Snow gives up this area early in the year providing a rare opportunity for early season backpacking.

    Type of trip: Shuttle

    Total Distance: 18.5 miles (29.6 kilometers)

    Difficulty: Moderate

    Traffic: Moderate

    Maps: Trails Illustrated map of Mammoth Hot Springs; Tower Canyon and Tower Junction, Blacktail Deer Creek, Ash Mountain, and Gardiner USGS quads

    Starting point: Hellroaring Trailhead (2K8)

 
Next comes a short description of the hike's highlights, Key Points (a table of milestones and directions), a graph illustrating elevation gain and loss, and a simple, roughly-to-scale map showing the entire route, usually with the milestones included.  The opening Black Canyon hike Key Points illustrate the style:

    0.8 mi (1.3 km) Junction with trail to Tower, turn left
    1.0 (1.6)            Suspension bridge over Yellowstone
    1.6 (2.6)            Junction with trail to Coyote Creek and Buffalo Plateau; turn left
    1.8 (2.9)            Spur trail going north along the east side of Hellroaring Creek; turn left to 2H6 (4*) and 2H8 (4*) and to stock bridge; turn left
    [The number designations (e g, 2H6) are designated campsites along the route; the parenthetical is the author's rating, from one star to five.]


Mr. Schneider then describes the route in detail, noting junctions, fords, passes, hills, vista points, ascents and descents, and similar data useful to the backpacker. He may suggest preferred camping sites or an entire multi-day itinerary.  Each hike includes sections entitled Side Trips, Options (such as alternate routes, bail-out points, taking a loop or point-to-point hike in the opposite direction), and (dear to my heart) fishing.

HOW I USE THIS BOOK

I use this book in three ways.

First, I peek at the fishing section of a prospective hike. Access to high country streams and lakes ranks high on my scorecard for backpacking venue. Based upon his summaries I think Mr. Schneider might think the same way. Certainly his descriptions, usually no longer than a paragraph or two, have accurately captured the appeal, attractions, and challenges of the angling opportunities on the hikes I have taken.

Second, I think this book and the other Falcon Guides from which these trips are extracted are the best planning guides for a backpacking trip I've ever come across. I've used this volume or another of Mr. Schneider's guides to scope out many, many hikes, from two-hour day hikes to weeklong backpack trips. (And I have much to look forward to. I've hiked all or a part of just over half of the author's twenty-seven favorites.) Whether I've become attuned to his summaries or whether they simply coincide with the criteria I tend to use in backpacking planning, his trip descriptions touch all the bases I take into account when selecting where to hike. On the hikes I've taken I have also verified the accuracy of important details, notably trail mileage, to the point where I can trust what he writes. Outside national parks, trail signs and occasionally even USFS maps often use approximations and err on distance. Though Mr. Schneider does not indicate how he arrived at his distances, they have proven more reliable than other sources on the hikes I've done.

Other features I've found especially useful are:

    Campsite locations and, in the National Parks where backpackers are required to camp at designated sites, ratings (the star system described above) and summaries of pluses and minuses of each. Accessibility of water source, privacy, and views from camp are his main ranking criteria.

    Side Trips, which are often described in enough detail to determine if each member of my group would be interested and is physically capable of managing it. [Example from the Heart Lake trail in Yellowstone National Park: "The obvious (and spectacular) side trip is the out-and-back trail up Mount Sheridan. It's six miles [9.6 km] round trip and a tough Category H, 2700 foot [800 m] climb. . . The hike up to the lookout on 10,308-foot [3142 m] Mount Sheridan may be the most scenic mountain top hike in the park."]

    The degree of difficulty of the trip (Easy, Moderate, or Strenuous). As noted above, the categories in the Planning section help make a first cut of the backpacks of choice for a particular group.

    Water data - general availability, proximity of water sources to campsites, crossing points and their respective degrees of difficulty.

All of Mr. Schneider's writing employs a matter-of-fact, descriptive style that incorporates useful information without bogging down in minutiae or distractions; he provides the necessary facts and not the unnecessary ones. The gear lists in the Appendices are good examples of this. None pretends to be an exclusive list and all are guidelines, but each has what the author deems necessary for the task at hand. Mr. Schneider's prose style extends to high points of the trips, which are noted in summary fashion rather than wrapped in purple prose. Even with this muted approach, the author's enthusiasm shines through.  Mr. Schneider throws out teasers and leaves the excitement for his readers to discover for themselves. The following, from the Teton Crest Trail chapter, is about as dramatic as he gets: "The next 11 miles . . . is the absolute essence of the Teton Range, the choicest of the choice for mountain scenery. Even though I have been backpacking for more than thirty years, this was a truly memorable stretch of trail, and I'm sure it will be for you, too."

Third, after I've settled on a trip I often print a copy of the trip map and milestone summary for inclusion in my kit. Those give a very useful overview to the details found on a proper map and serve as a good quick guide for planning each day's journey or side trip.

WHAT I LIKE

    Clear and concise descriptions in plain English rather than technical jargon.
    Simple, easy-to-read map and milestones for each route.
    The author's recommendations based on first-hand experience.
    A special section on fly-fishing for each hike.

WHAT I DON'T

This book makes me worry that I may not live long enough to explore this wonderful area as widely and as often as the author.  Similarly it makes me wistful for the experience and the writing skills to have been able to produce this book.

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