Getting Misty in the Cloud Peak Wilderness

Cloud Peak 1
Lake Helen

By Robin EH. Bagley

If you don’t mind running across a stray moose or getting a little chilly at night, consider a trip to Misty Moon Lake in the Cloud Peak Wilderness in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. This summer we took two trips to this area on the western side of the Bighorns. This is one of the most popular routes into the wilderness area for day hikers or backpackers who are making a run at either Cloud Peak (13,166 feet) or Bomber Mountain (12,841 feet). Plus, it’s absolutely breathtaking.

Trail 63 departs from West Tensleep Lake and more or less follows the creek upstream. Be prepared for a couple of creek crossings early in the hike, and expect high water early in the season from snowmelt. There was a noticeable difference from mid-July to mid-August when we easily were able to cross on stepping stones. Watch for moose along the lake shore and the creek. Moose are large and grumpy, especially cows with calves, so observe from a distance.

 

Cloud Peak 2
Bull moose chilling in the woods

 

The trail begins above 9000 feet and only goes up from there; the air gets a bit thin as you climb. If you experience headaches, dizziness, nausea, or extreme fatigue, it may be altitude sickness, and the only remedy is to descend to a lower elevation. Spending a night there before you hike will help you acclimate.

You’ll wind through meadows and the creek bottoms, and may spy some oxbows in the creek. All the while surrounded by peaks and cliffs. The trail leads in and out of the trees, and while the shade is welcome in the summer, that’s where the bugs are waiting. The mosquitoes are fat and relentless; bug spray is a necessity.

After five miles, you’ll reach the southern end of Lake Helen (elevation around 9900 feet), which I feel is the prettiest lake of the three. It’s a good spot to refuel, and you may be tempted to stay awhile. On our first trip, this was as far as we went, after all, it’s a 10 mile round-trip hike. The lake is so clear you can see the fish swimming around near shore. You can see Cloud Peak from the lake, looming large and broody to the north.

However, there are two more lakes on the list. The worst of the elevation gain is over; however, the rest of the hike will be completed over 10,000 feet. You’ll skirt the west edge of the lake, sometimes hiking above it for great views, and sometimes along the water’s edge where you’ll be tempted to stick a finger in to check the temperature. It’s cold! The most noise you’ll hear are squirrels chattering and the plop of a fish jumping.

 

Cloud Peak 3
Cloud Peak is still five miles away

 

Continuing north along the stream, you’ll climb a bit more and after another mile you’ll see Lake Marion. The trail doesn’t touch this lake, staying above it along the granite wall. Lake Marion is beautiful but much smaller than Lake Helen.

The trail continues through alpine meadows, with the rocks growing larger and the trees smaller. The wind is gets friskier; you may need to grab your jacket. When Misty Moon comes into view, you’ll look down on this little alpine tarn surrounded by rocks and nearly devoid of trees. A few small clumps of trees offer nearly no shelter and campers pitch their tents in the open, at the mercy of the wind. If you thought Lake Helen’s water was chilly, stick your pinky in Misty Moon. Let’s just say I wasn’t tempted to take a dip.

What’s disconcerting is how far away Cloud Peak still seems. I had thought it would feel close, tangible. It still feels very remote from what is considered the main basecamp for attempts at Cloud Peak. It’s still another 5 miles away, and methinks it will be tough 5. Next year!

You’re now about 7.5 miles away from the trailhead, so if you’re doing an out-and-back, don’t linger too long. We departed the trailhead at 9 am and returned around 5 pm with just a few short stops for a snack or visiting with other hikers. And applying tape to the hot spot on my heel. Honestly, the last two miles felt like five, and I know our pace was far slower at that point. Fifteen miles felt like an accomplishment, but damn, were we tired that night! We got back to our campsite, ate our mac and cheese and went to bed.

 

Taking a break at Misty Moon. Notice the clear water, and Cloud Peak rising in the distance. Hazy skies are from western wildfires.

 

Be prepared for rapidly changing weather. Thunderstorms pop up quickly, so a rain jacket or poncho is a must. The wind is noticeable at the higher elevations, and temperatures can dip quickly. I have another layer of clothing plus my beanie and gloves in my pack. Even the summer, temperatures can sometimes be in the 40s. There are black bears in the Bighorns, so bear spray is recommended for hikers, campers, and anglers.

Pack warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag for camping. You may expect warm temps in summer, but nights are cold. I froze my butt off the first night, even in long underwear in my sleeping bag. Time for a new one! Maybe you’ll hear the coyotes at night, like we did. Plus a moose walked through our campsite during the night. While bears are possible, there isn’t a large concentration in this area. However, don’t keep food in your tent just in case.

There are several US Forest Service campgrounds in the vicinity, but this is a popular camping area so spots fill quickly; make reservations well in advance. I tried to make reservations at the West Tensleep Campground but was unable to get a reservation even three weeks out. These campgrounds are small, some with only 10 spots. However, I did manage to get a spot at Boulder Park the first trip and Island Park on the second trip. If you’re a paddler, bring the SUP or kayak as West Tensleep Lake is a beautiful 125 acre lake perfect for paddling since it’s open only to non-motorized watercraft. For more information on Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/bighorn.

 

Finn & I enjoying the view at Misty Moon

 

Multiple Contributor

Robin EH. Bagley is a freelance writer and social media manager who spent most of her years in South Dakota, from the prairies to the granite spires near Custer. She loves to camp, hike, and paddle but is a reluctant mountain biker. She has recently relocated to Sheridan, WY near the Bighorn Mountains and is getting accustomed to hiking in bear and moose country as opposed to buffalo country. If you meet her on the trail, you can hit her up for a granola bar or Band-Aid.

56 thoughts on “Getting Misty in the Cloud Peak Wilderness

  • August 30, 2017 at 4:34 am
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    Wow! Beautiful pictures of nature! I love experiencing camping and I really want to arrange a family camping trip soon. You have shared some great info and ideas including packing tips.

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  • August 29, 2017 at 7:40 pm
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    I loved camping growing up and white water rafting. My husband not so much. I can’t wait to take my girls on adventures like this.

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    • August 29, 2017 at 11:02 pm
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      Yes! Definitely get those girls outside, they’ll love it. One thing I noticed this year is how many young women are hiking & backpacking these days. So good to see all these young women getting out there.

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  • August 29, 2017 at 5:10 pm
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    Definitely an adventure to remember by the look of it, Such a lovely place.

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  • August 29, 2017 at 5:03 pm
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    Wow what a magical place!!!! You really make me wanna go there

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    • August 29, 2017 at 11:01 pm
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      It is beautiful, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t regret your trip!

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  • August 29, 2017 at 12:35 pm
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    It’s amazing you got close enough to that moose to take that photo. It must have been humbling to be that close.

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    • August 29, 2017 at 11:00 pm
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      It was exciting to see him so close. Granted, I used my zoom lens on my camera, but he was 60 – 70 yards away, which is pretty close. Especially to such a huge animal. Moose definitely deserve a healthy amount of respect!

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  • August 29, 2017 at 10:50 am
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    This was a great article for me to read, as my husband and I will be going on an Alaska backpacking adventure next summer. Beautiful pictures too!

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    • August 29, 2017 at 10:59 pm
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      Oh my! That will be epic – have fun! I haven’t made it to Alaska yet.

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  • August 29, 2017 at 10:17 am
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    Wow what an adventure you went on! I am not great with camping or hiking but this has inspired me to try a bit more! I love all your stories about the wildlife – sounds like some great experiences!! Thanks for sharing!

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    • August 29, 2017 at 10:58 pm
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      Thanks Katie! Start with shorter hikes on well-marked trails closer to home. As your comfort level increases, you can go further afield & try longer ones. Plus that will help you break in shoes, figure out what snacks you like (important!), and what to carry in your pack without being in any risky situations. Good luck!

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  • August 29, 2017 at 8:54 am
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    Such great pictures you have from your trip here. I think I have only hiked at that altitude once. You have to be really careful and take it easy when you do or you will end up getting sick. And that’s no fun.

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    • August 29, 2017 at 10:55 pm
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      So true! Altitude sickness is nothing to mess with. It helps to arrive early & acclimate a little before starting the hike.

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  • August 29, 2017 at 12:35 am
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    The views are so gorgeous and being around this type of nature always refreshes the mind. Loved reading this.

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  • August 29, 2017 at 12:08 am
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    WoW! This must have been a phenomenal adventure. I love to hike, but still working on the camping.

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    • August 29, 2017 at 10:51 pm
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      Hiking is a good place to start! And to start camping, you could start out with a cabin. You still need sleeping bags & such, but you have a roof over your head & a floor underneath. And then you don’t need to buy a tent right away either.

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  • August 28, 2017 at 6:45 pm
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    I’ve never been camping before but when I do go I would love to go as a family. Not sure I would have fun just me alone.

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    • August 29, 2017 at 10:52 pm
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      Camping is fun with other people (and dogs!). Fun to sit around the campfire at night. And to share chores. 🙂

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  • August 28, 2017 at 4:36 pm
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    What a beautiful place to visit. I love camping and fishing, and that moose is incredible. We spend a lot of our summer in our trailer or tent enjoying the areas around us.

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    • August 29, 2017 at 10:53 pm
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      Fun! That sounds like a good summer!

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  • August 28, 2017 at 9:44 am
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    Those are some gorgeous hiking views there and I love that you took your cute doggy with you on your adventures. We love doing the same!

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    • August 28, 2017 at 4:26 pm
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      Thanks Suzannah! Finn is quite the adventure dog. Loves to hike & also paddle boards with me.

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  • August 28, 2017 at 9:18 am
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    Cloud Peak goals for next time will sound easier now that you know the distance. Such beautiful pics; what a lovely place to go.

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    • August 28, 2017 at 4:27 pm
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      Thanks Rosey!

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  • August 28, 2017 at 8:37 am
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    Though we have done a lot of trekking and hiking we have never tried camping. The trail looks gorgeous which woods, peaks and lakes all along the way. And the pictures are awe-inspiring. Presence of bears and moose does scare me a bit but then it must be a completely different experience for trekking deep into the wild.

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  • August 28, 2017 at 3:57 am
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    I’ve been wanting to go camping for so long. This looks like the perfect place for my first camping trip. It looks very beautiful and peaceful looking. Just a great place to get away from it all.

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    • August 28, 2017 at 4:29 pm
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      It’s very beautiful & out-of-the-way. But it has a short season due to its elevation. September is the last month the campgrounds are open in this area. (Snow!)

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  • August 28, 2017 at 2:03 am
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    I love travelling and i love camping out in nature so much. The name Misty Moon Lake sounds just amazing to me and i would love to visit it! The photos you took are beautiful. Thank you for sharing your camping experience, it’s very informative.

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    • August 28, 2017 at 4:29 pm
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      Thanks Cat!

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  • August 28, 2017 at 1:54 am
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    I totally want to go to Wyoming. I love the idea of seeing wildlife in their natural habitat. How cool would it be to see a moose or a bear! For a city girl like me, that would be amazing.

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    • August 28, 2017 at 4:30 pm
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      Hi Melanie, it’s pretty exciting for me too. I get excited every time I see a moose. I haven’t seen a bear in the Bighorns yet; they’re here but not easily spotted. So I’m sure I’ll lose my mind when I finally spot one! 🙂

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  • August 27, 2017 at 9:58 pm
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    Looks awesome. I can’t imagine getting that close to a moose. And, it looks like your dog had fun too. I will certainly consider planning a trip there.

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    • August 28, 2017 at 4:32 pm
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      Hi Emily,
      Finn had a blast (he always does). The moose was 60 – 70 yards away & I used my zoom. I had one photo of him where I could actually see his eyelashes. Yesterday I was paddle boarding at a nearby lake & a mama moose and her calf wandered very close to the parking lot as I was loading up. I kept a close eye on her – mama moose are scary! And that as a bit close for comfort.

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  • August 27, 2017 at 9:23 pm
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    Wow! Your photos are incredible! Looks like you had a wonderful time. Makes me want to go take the family on a fun adventure.

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    • August 28, 2017 at 4:33 pm
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      Thanks! Adventures are good!

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  • August 27, 2017 at 8:47 pm
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    What a gorgeous place to explore! I would love to take a trip to Misty Moon Lake in the Cloud Peak Wilderness in Wyoming with my family!

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  • August 27, 2017 at 7:01 pm
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    My husband considers the moose to be his spirit animal and always runs into one or two in locations where they are often seen. I don’t think he’s ever been to Misty Moon Lake, but it does sound lovely!

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    • August 28, 2017 at 4:34 pm
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      It’s beautiful, that’s for sure. And he’d love it – lots of moose in the area!

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  • August 26, 2017 at 8:37 pm
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    I have never been camping but enjoy hiking and this looks amazing. The elevation scares me though as I don’t do well with that. The pictures are beautiful, reminds me a little of Yosemite in NorCal!

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    • August 27, 2017 at 2:03 am
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      I have yet to go to Yosemite – that’s on my list! To see Half-Dome & El Cap, wow! I would love to hike the Pacific Crest Trail someday. Thanks!

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  • August 26, 2017 at 8:22 pm
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    I love hiking but don’t live near any good hiking trails. Would love to visit and complete this trail. It is great advise to arrive a day early and camp to acclimatize to the altitude. The views from the top are amazing and I am sure the effort is well worth it.

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    • August 27, 2017 at 2:01 am
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      Thanks Joella! It was a lot of work, but as you said, well worth it.

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  • August 26, 2017 at 6:22 pm
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    Misty Moon sounds simply magical. I would love to hike and see wild moose. P.S. are they dangerous? I’ve eaten moose before but have never encountered them in their natural habitat.

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    • August 27, 2017 at 2:00 am
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      Hi Suzanne,
      Moose can be very dangerous. They’re huge, and when the cows have their calves with them, they can be aggressive. Bulls are usually less grumpy, except during the rut (breeding season) when all that testosterone starts flowing. For the most part, always give them a wide berth. They are beautiful but best observed from a distance.

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  • August 26, 2017 at 1:40 pm
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    I like mountain peeks but with gondola or a train. But hats off to you who started their trail at 9000 ft, my god that’s just too much. Fifteen miles trek is really astonishing, plus the views you got up there were simply gorgeous. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful piece.

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    • August 27, 2017 at 1:58 am
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      Thank you! I think seeing mountains from a train would be lovely! That’s on my life list!

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  • August 26, 2017 at 10:09 am
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    The trail begins at 9,000 feet?! I’m 100% sure I would suffer from altitude sickness, so I’ll have to admire this place from your post. It’s so great you manage to see, and camp in these places, you must really get a feel of being with nature. The view at Misty Moon looks so serene, and so does that bull moose!

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    • August 26, 2017 at 3:49 pm
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      The trail is high, but it helps to arrive early & get a bit acclimated first. We live in the foothills, so this is a big adjustment for us as well. Getting to the campground the night before helps. But you still feel it! That moose was so chill, it was great.

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  • August 26, 2017 at 8:14 am
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    Wow, I love camping out in nature so so much. This place looks amazing and I would for sure would love to visit.

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    • August 26, 2017 at 3:49 pm
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      You should definitely visit! It’s pretty incredible.

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  • August 26, 2017 at 2:04 am
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    Ah! I love camping! Unfortunately I’m not going to get a chance to go this summer, as I’m too close to my due date to get too far from home. But I can’t wait to get our little one out doors! Thanks for sharing this wonderful place!

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    • August 26, 2017 at 3:50 pm
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      Thanks Jane & congrats on your new arrival!

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  • August 26, 2017 at 1:16 am
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    Camping is really not my cup of tea. But reading your blogs make me want to give it a shot at least. The close encounters with the wildlife is too good to pass up! The views are amazing too – would love to wake up to that!

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    • August 26, 2017 at 3:54 pm
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      Seeing the wildlife is one of the best parts of hiking. And they’re so unpredictable – some days you see animals & some days you don’t. Camping grows on you if you can be comfortable, which (to me) means warm & dry. On this trip, I did get cold one night, but the next night was okay. However, I did order a new sleeping bag. Sleeping bags & pads are integral to a good camping experience. Also, having layers to put on & take off as the temps fluctuate. Camping does help you get to the trailhead faster. Thanks!

      Reply

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