Finding Magic on the Lost Coast

I saw a unicorn in Humboldt County, CA. It was grazing in a field right next to a pair of zebras. I wasn’t high, nor am I superstitious, but this was clearly an omen of the magic awaiting us.

Trail running on the Lost Coast, California

The Lost Coast Trail is a 60 mile point-to-point trail along California’s remotest stretch of coastline. This trail wouldn’t exist except for the steep mountains and geotechnical issues that prevented State Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, from paving this pristine seaboard. Instead, the road goes around these coastal mountains and in its place the world has a sanctuary of beaches, headlands, redwood forests, and one remarkable trail.

The trail isn’t obscure. Its reputation among backpackers places it as one of the most iconic footpaths in North America. Viewing the trail as a running objective means all the scenery without any of the pack weight. Doing it in this style also requires support. With Aspire as crew and moving gear between camps and cooking up gourmet meals, you’re guaranteed a good time.  

Day 1: Meet in Fortuna and drive to the Mattole River

Three hundred miles north of San Francisco lies the quaint, but relatively unremarkable, town of Fortuna. It’s the launching point for the trip.  As the crow flies it’s only about four miles to the coast, but its a two-hour drive along winding roads to the trailhead. It’s along this road that we saw the unicorn.

Rolling into camp after the long day of travel, runners head out across the beach in search of a good view of the surf and a place to pitch a tent for the night. As the sun dips towards the horizon, the Aspire crew shows up on the beach with plates of appetizers and cold drinks, a precursor of the nights meal and a pattern to be repeated for the remainder of the trip. 

Trail running on the lost coast

Day 2: Mattole River to Shelter Cove (24 miles, elevation gain: 1,000’)

The day begins with heaping plates of french toast, yogurt, various nut butters and fresh berries, drizzled or doused in maple syrup. It’s an early start and a carefully timed departure to catch the appropriate tide. 

Trail running on the lost coast

For many miles the Lost Coast is literally a beach trek. In some sections the beach is swallowed by the incoming tide, making safe passage impossible. Knowing the particular times and heights of the local tidal rhythms is essential. Aspire has all of this info dialed, right down to the date of the trip to catch the best possible window to make 3 tide-dependent crossings possible in a single 24 mile day. 

The terrain is a mixture of sandy beach, basketball sized cobbles, single-track trail, creek crossings, and rocky tidal flats. It’s not race pace, but the effort is real. Eight to ten hours on the beach takes its toll, but the rewards are incredible. Along the way runners encounter abandoned lighthouses, intertidal creatures, herds of sea lions, and spot whales on the horizon. 

Sea lions while trail running the lost coast

The day finishes at Shelter Cove and Aspire shuttles runners to a nearby campsite with a waiting dinner of homemade spaghetti (meatball or vegetarian), topped with fresh basil and parmesan. No one goes hungry.

Trail running camp on the lost coast

Day 3: Shelter Cover to Needle Rock (10-20 miles, elevation gain:1,500’ to 3,500’)

On day two, runners have a choice: a 10-mile direct route into the next camp, or a 20-mile route.  These ten bonus miles are along runnable single-track, connecting the red dirt trail and oak forests of the King Range’s crest with the Lost Coast Trail. There is no pressure to go either way, it’s up to each runner to choose the adventure that best suits their goals and ambitions.   

Trail running on the Lost Coast, California

Both options converge after runners drop out of the mountains and land on a rolling plateau of single-track. Here the forested trails open up to the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The trail winds through Eucalyptus groves, pocket beaches, and rolling terrain that would be perfect for running if the views weren’t so spectacular that slowing to take it all in seems inevitable. 

Right in the middle of this pristine landscape is the Needle Rock Camp. Home to only a handful of campsites, perched on a sweeping ocean overlook at the end of a steep windy road, it’s arguably one of the best campsites on the planet. The site is cared for by a cadre of hosts who take turns staffing the small visitor center. Full to the brim with whale bones, sea shells, historical photos, and knick-knacks, the center is an epicenter of local information. A few moments on the weathered redwood porch can easily turn to hours as the history of the place is unfolded by loving caretakers. 

Trail running on the Lost Coast, California

Basecamp for the night is staged out of the “barn camp”. The shower tent is set up looking westward towards the horizon and a resident herd of Elk are the backdrop to the evening’s dinner, libations, bonfire, and dutch oven apple crisp. 

Day 4: Needle Rock to Usal Beach (20 miles, elevation gain: 6,300’)

Waking up to the sound of waves rhythmically crashing into the shore is consoleing as sore legs prepare for the third day of running.  Day three is 20 miles and has the most climbing of them all. The southern part of the Lost Coast receives less maintenance, making it brushy and remote feeling. The trail is all single-track as it climbs headlands and winds in and out of creek drainages. Pockets of Redwood trees, the Jurassic quality of the coastal underbrush, and the mystery of what lies ahead all add to the adventure quality of the day.  

Trail running on the Lost Coast, California

The last miles of trail drop from a final coastal overlook and wind down to the Usal River. Like clockwork, the Aspire crew has a basecamp waiting and all the fixings for dinner and celebration ready. Runners inevitably report fighting the intrusion of thoughts about what’s waiting at home and embrace living in the moment for the last night. This is easier to do when a pair of elk wander through camp, and  spend the night grazing in the grassy delta, just a hundred yards away.   

camp shower while trail running on the Lost Coast in California

Day 5: Usal Beach Breakfast and drive back to Fortuna

It’s a trek back to civilization. Miles of steep and winding dirt road easily take an hour of careful driving to reach pavement. From there it’s still hours back to Fortuna. The van is filled with laughter and stories of the trail. The strangers of a few days ago are now friends born of sweat, dirt, and trail. Eventually conversations circle back around to the unicorn. Even though it was actually a white horse with a manufactured horn protruding from its bridle, it, like all the miles and moments in-between, were absolutely magical. 

Running the Distance

Christy Mahon is a mountaineer and environmental activist who joined Aspire for our Wonderland Circumnavigation in 2019. This blog was original posted on Words by Christy Mahon. Photos by Ted Mahon.

As we were organizing our running packs for the day, Abram unfolded a map and laid it out on the table. “It’s about 28 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing,” he said. “It’s actually the short day of the loop.”

That got a chuckle out of us. We were about to start our second day of a three-day trail running adventure circumnavigating Mount Rainier on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail.

Considering it would take us about nine hours to complete this section, we thought it seemed anything but short. But if your goal is to tackle this trail in three days, even the shortest leg of the trip is going to be pretty long.

There are certain adventures in life that grab your attention and don’t let go. For me, running the Wonderland Trail was one of those adventures. 

After years spent toeing the line at dozens of trail running ultra races, including five 100 milers, I’ve recently found myself yearning for something a little different. Something without the structure of a race, but one that would still push my body and mind, and still include the long distances that I love. Something that offered the restorative and healing effects of being in the wild and the mountains, and help me escape from the everyday stresses of work and life.

Mount Rainier has always been a special mountain for me. I’ve been fortunate to have climbed and skied it several times through the years. When I first heard of trail running the Wonderland Trail, it was one of those adventures that I just had to add to my list.

Built in 1913, the Wonderland Trail offers 22,000 vertical feet of cruisy trail running around one of our country’s prominent national park treasures. The nearly 100-mile trail lives up to its name with majestic landmarks colorfully identified as Devil’s Dream, Emerald Ridge, Golden Lakes and Summerland. The vast alpine terrain is filled with bears and blueberries and high alpine lakes just off the trail that beg for a quick dip as you go.

The idea of breaking up a beautiful long course over multiple days seemed so appealing. But running for several consecutive days around a mountain as big as Mount Rainier presented some logistical challenges.

Which is where Abram came in. With the mission of helping runners “reach their own personal aspirations,” Abram Dickerson and Aspire Adventure Running organize trail running adventures through the Northwest, from the Cascades to Northern California. From single-day adventures to multiday efforts such as the Wonderland and Lost Coast trails, Abram and his team assist with meals, camping, transportation and other logistics.

So with Aspire’s support we set out on this new adventure. For three days we spent nearly every daylight hour running up and down through countless glacial drainages. We ran through lush green tunnels in the lower “forest-bathing” zones, across huge glacial creek beds, and over high ridge crests and moraines with expansive views of one of the largest mountains in the country.

Heading into the adventure, I wasn’t sure how my body would react to repeated days of 28-34 miles or how this new way of traveling would go, but like in life, with a little preparation anything becomes possible.

As I closed the loop around Mount Rainier on day three, I felt as if I had opened a new door to a different type of adventure. I had realized a new goal: to experience and challenge myself on the world’s most legendary trails and traverses, not against others in a race setting, but rather just for myself.

It was a good reminder that when you don’t know what comes next, just keep moving forward and often the adventure will find you. Taking that first step can be a leap of faith, but once you do and you start down that new path you might be surprised where it takes you.

How Fast Do I Need To Be for an Aspire Trip?

Our trips are designed by runners for runners. We get that the goal is always to move quickly and efficiently over the terrain, but running can mean a lot of things. On trails with big elevation and big distances running can be a total misnomer when in fact, most runners are hiking the uphills and jogging the flats and downhill sections. Runners come in all shapes, sizes, and speeds, and we each have strong days and slow days. So how does Aspire account for such a diversity in terrain and ability, while keeping runners safe and stoked on backcountry trails?

Of all the questions I get asked about our trips, the most common is about pacing. People want to know how fast are people running. It’s a fair question, and ultimately one that deserves some explaining about how we orient our trips as wilderness focused and ego-free running experiences.

two trail runners

When runners ask me about speed, they’re trying to gauge where they’ll fit into the pace of the group. Most runners tend to see themselves in the mid-to-back of the pack. Many are quick to assume that they’ll be the slow one in the group holding everyone else up. On the flip side, runners who spend more time in the front of the pack understand that a group run can involve waiting for others, which is not really a fair position when tackling a big running objective. So how does Aspire reconcile this dilemma?

Most concerns about pacing stem from the assumption that Aspire trips are “group runs” and as such everyone will be expected to stick together. This is NOT how we operate our trips. Runners come in all shapes, sizes, and speeds and wherever they fall- front, mid, or back of the pack, they are free to travel as fast or slow as the trail and their fitness dictates. This freedom appeals to strong runners with a lot of racing or backcountry experience and to slower and/or less experienced runners who are learning to be more comfortable in remote terrain and don’t want to hold anyone up.

three trail runners climb a steep trail

To account for this diversity of experience we use a simple and effective “Safety Sandwich” model for all our trips. The Safety Sandwich is comprised of three Aspire crew operating in specific roles: Sweep, Super, and Camp. A Sweep is always at the rear of any run. The Super begins from the “finish” and runs the day’s trail in reverse. And the Camp staff is waiting at a well stocked basecamp/ finish to welcome, feed, and celebrate with runners.  All three staff are experienced runners, trained in wilderness first aid, carry satellite communication technology, and are trained on safety and emergency protocols in the event of an incident or injury. 

a trail runner fords a river

Each day of running follows a similar template. After a hearty breakfast the groups starts their run. Runners may stick together initially, but within a few miles or less runners are spreading out over the climbs and trail. It’s common for runners to fall into small groups or pairs, but this happens organically. The Sweep follows behind the last runners. While folks are out on the trail, the Super and the Camp staff break camp, pack, load, and move all group gear to that day’s finish. Here they set up camp and prepare to receive runners. Once this post-run basecamp scene is dialed, the Super heads out of camp running towards the approaching group.  Typically, the Super encounters runners late in the day, and the interaction with each runner is a chance to address any blisters, nutrition needs, and provide a psychological boost at the end of a long day. The Super continues to run until they’ve checked in with every runner and met up with the Sweep. At this point all runners and staff are closing in on the finish and a waiting dinner, drinks, and hot showers. 

Given that many runners come from a racing background, they gravitate towards fitness as the main qualification for out trips. However, wilderness savvy is also critical. Because we aren’t keeping our groups together, we expect runners to navigate backcountry trails, ford rivers, cross snow fields, filter water, poop in the woods, and be responsible backcountry users. For some this is a new set of skills and for others this is simply part of their mountain running lexicon. Wherever runners find themselves on the spectrum of wilderness experience there are benefits from a supported style of backcountry running. Those most familiar with the complexity of logistics and preparation for backcountry trips will appreciate the local knowledge and logistical work we do for each trip. Those new to backcountry running will benefit from having experienced crew to teach these skills and provide a safety net as they begin exploring backcountry trails. Everyone can appreciate the post-run feasts and fireside festivities.

a person reviews a map by the campfire

Aspire offers a variety of courses both in terms of location, duration, and difficulty.  An honest evaluation of one’s ability, training, and experience and matching that to the right trip is key. To help runners do that, we provide maps, elevation profiles, and summary trail descriptions that include daily and overall mileage, elevation gain/loss, and the literary info for each trip. When selecting a trip, it’s important to remember that these courses are not races. We don’t run a clock or have cutoffs. We encourage runners to take take time to swim in  alpine lakes, savor the views, gawk at the wildlife, and connect with the landscape. Runners have all day to complete each day’s run and finish times vary greatly. We invite runners to play their edges, but not to get in too far over their heads.

a happy runner is laughing amidst a large group

The Safety Sandwich has proven to be an incredibly effective model to account for a wide range of terrain and abilities. We’ve applied the Sandwich to the Wonderland Trail, The Lost Coast Trail, The North Cascade Traverse, and many other incredible locations. It’s vital to keeping our runners safe and creating a culture where finish times aren’t the focus and everyone’s run is a success. At the end of each day, gathered around the fire, no one is talking about their pace. They are too busy celebrating the trail, the views, and connecting in deep and soul-satisfying ways.

Confronting Fear on the Wonderland Trail

Janel Lanphere was one of three recipients of our 2019 Women’s Adventure Scholarship. We were inspired by her essay about the power of adventure to accept her internal wild and remote spaces. We caught up with her this fall, after she ran the Wonderland Trail with us.

What do you do when something scares you?  Avoid it or confront it? What about those events that look amazing, but you don’t have the confidence?  Do you make a training plan and stick to it, like you know you should? Or do you put it off for when you have more time, or the kids are older, or when you have the money saved?  Well, none of these excuses worked for me. I won the 2019 Women’s Scholarship Award for the Wonderland Circumnavigation around Mt. Rainier in Washington State. I had to get on board, fast.

Wonderland trail stretches in front of Mt. Rainier
A rare flat section on the trail. Photo: Janel Lanphere

I learned that I won the Wonderland trip with only a few months before the mid-August trip, giving me  mere weeks of preparation time. It was a bit too close for comfort. The short story is that my training did prepare me well for the trip, but this discussion is about the mind.  The preparation I really needed was to start to believe in myself.

Piecing a big goal into smaller steps has always worked for me in the past, so I decided to try it here. Working on my training plan, I added two extreme days that were similar time commitments  to the expected days on the Wonderland trip.  

The Wonderland Trail doesn’t disappoint. Photo: Janel Lanphere

On my first extreme day I paced my friend Helen Galerakis in her first 100-mile race- The Bighorn 100.  Pacing her for around 20 miles wasn’t going to be enough of a time commitment, so I added a warm up/research run and a run to and from the last aid station. The cumulative running over the two days was eleven hours, which qualified as the most running I had ever done over that short time period.  My mindset was expanded on this run. Not only were the muddy conditions something to be endured, but pacing throughout the night and into the dawn was challenging, as well as beautiful. I was inspired by my friend’s grit and strength, and my body and mind handled it fine. I was feeling lighter and not as concerned about the Wonderland Trail.

For my second extreme day I registered for a 12 hr lap style race.  The Parhelic Circle Trail Race is hosted by local company Sundog Running.  I was a little concerned that this event was just two weeks before the Wonderland Trail trip, and would be my longest amount of time running.  It scared the crap out of me! In past long runs the pain started to set in around the 20-mile mark. The thought of continuing on for hours and hours after that seemed unfathomable.  In the end, I made it to 36 miles- which not only was the farthest I had run in a single day, but it also matched the longest distance (day 1) on the Wonderland Trip.  

In my essay submission to the Women’s Scholarship I wrote about conquering my inner demons from childhood abuse.  In last year’s Trail Marathon Championship race, I had no reason to be confident as I hadn’t been able to eat/drink due to nausea and in spite of that I was able to quiet those demons for the first time.  Accepting the situation and taking the Championship race one mile at a time allowed me to solve the nausea problem and get back in the race to finish as Master’s Women’s Champion. In the 12-hour Parhelic I dissected the race one lap at a time. This allowed me to put energy into the task at hand, instead of succumbing to anxiety and fear. I could feel a shift. I was starting to believe in myself and I wanted to do more.

trail runners after a long day on the Wonderland Trail
Sarah and Paula sharing the last piece of pie. Photo: Janel Lanphere

The night before the start of the Women’s Wonderland Trip we shared some of our stories and experiences that led us here.  The apprehensive tension was in the air but instead of hierarchical competitive energy focusing on things like who was the best among us, who had the most experience or fastest time, a sense of community was developing.  In the company of women I didn’t hear these intimidating questions. Each of us entering an unspoken pact to take care of one another and make our way together, each at their own pace. Looking back on it now, it makes me think of the lyrics:

I see you over there, on the internet. Comparing all the girls who are killing it.

Taylor Swift, “You Need to Calm Down”

 While training for this trip I spoke with several people. Some men who had taken on big goals and found their way to making it happen.  Those conversations focused on developing strength, finding my edge and taking chances. When I spoke to my female ultra-running friends the conversation was again, different.  The conversations focused around what was I going to find out about myself during the event and how this experience was going to change me. All of these points of view were helping me change the inner dialogue from one of fear from this unknown territory to preparing a space for something else. 

two trail runners crossing a bridge in Mt. Rainier National Park
Sarah and Paula happy to be getting started on day 1. Photo: Janel Lanphere

Ready or not, it was time to put one foot in front of the other.  Starting out with nervous energy, I had the good fortune of having a similar overall pace to Sarah and Paula-two inspiring women I got to know well over the trip.  We leap frogged many times over the miles, each having our strengths and accepting each other’s decisions to push or hold back the pace based on the terrain at hand.   Day one ended with a mind melting climb up to Mowich Lake Campground. I struggled hard. Having only taken one pole with me (with the inaccurate idea that one pole is really all you need) I was losing the battle.  Paula kindly lent me one of her poles as I was ascending at a much slower pace than she was. It was my turn to accept the community Paula, Sarah and I had developed over the miles on the trail.  

a waterfall amidst glowing green moss
A beautiful creek on the Wonderland Trail. Photo: Janel Lanphere

Day two went off without a hitch. Paula, Sarah and I again ran together.  It was a beautiful run in such amazing country with great company. For day three Paula, Sarah and I discussed our plans: Paula planned to push to do the entire distance. I planned to stop early at Box Canyon and Sarah was going to see how she felt.  Even though we had differing plans, we decided to start the day together. Within the first few miles I caught my last glimpse of Paula and Sarah and never met up with them again. This made for a day alone on the trail, and although my familiar mental demons stayed away, new anxiety came in its place.  

a trail runner selfie
Day three on the Wonderland Trail. Photo: Janel Lanphere

One of the challenges for me on this trip was the point to point nature of circumnavigating a mountain. While Aspire provided maps and route information, and the Wonderland Trail was marked at junctions,  I struggled more than I expected with the lack of trail markings and flags. As my mental control was declining on day three after hours of being alone in unfamiliar country, I had a long low point.  Fear of bears and cougars set in and took hold. As I neared the end of the day my mind starting playing tricks on me, but then I saw a pencil on the ground and my heart leaped at the idea that someone else was up ahead!  Seconds later I discovered it wasn’t a pencil after all, just a stick. It happened again with a rock- it looked like a pack. But it wasn’t, I was hallucinating objects of civilization just to calm my anxiety of being alone. 

Even though there was a trail sweeper behind me (likely hours back), I had completely forgotten about them. I sure was happy to find myself in Box Canyon at my chosen end to day three and to see the Aspire Adventure Running crew waiting. I sat down, started to eat and immediately felt myself falling asleep. I was more fatigued than I realized.  I was so happy with what I had accomplished and at peace with my decision to stop a few miles early.

the clouds fill valleys in Mt. Rainier National Park
Above the clouds. Photo: Janel Lanphere

Grit, intelligence and community are just a few of the qualities of the women I met on this amazing trip.  The qualities of people who work their way up, take on big challenges and find a way to make them happen. They speak up or provide care for the greater good. These are my people.  It was an honor and a privilege to share in the collective shift in consciousness as each of us moved into a space unknown, redefining how we think about running and really how we think about ourselves.

Join Aspire Adventure Running in 2020 for a circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier. Dates, pricing and more information can be found on the course page.

Early Summer Alpine Trail Running in the North Cascades

June in Washington has us trail runners feeling (and acting) like caged animals. We know the high country is there. We’re called by miles of accelerated alpine bliss so close, yet so much of it is still under a solid layer of snow.

A man trail running in front of Ross Lake in the North Cascades

Enter Ross Lake and Aspire Adventure Running’s Desolation Duo trip. This weekend adventure into the heart of the North Cascades is the antidote to those restless legs, and the high point of the course grants breathtaking views that rival any late-August jawdropper.

Basecamp for the weekend was the Colonial Creek campground, on the shores of Lake Diablo. The Aspire Crew and I set up the camp kitchen and cozy spaces as runners began to arrive. I’m always drawn to water and unobstructed views, so I set up my tent on the beach, before jumping into the kitchen to get the spaghetti and meatballs rolling. After dinner, a fire and some excited conversation, everyone turned in early. I took a little time to soak in the stars over Sourdough Mountain before crawling into my own tent for lights out.

French Toast is an Aspire breakfast classic. Topped with almond butter, strawberries, whipped cream, and maple syrup, it’s great fuel for a day on the trail.

camp french toast

The day’s adventure began with a quick shuttle to the trailhead and about a mile of running down to Ross Lake. At the lake, I rang the bubble gum pink phone on the old wood post by the dock to reach the Ross Lake Resort and let them know we had a group of 6 runners ready for transport. Within minutes we were loading onto the boat.

runners in the Ross Lake ferry in the north cascades

The ride up the lake was a gorgeous and refreshing experience. The morning wind whipped at our faces and I could feel the shared excitement for a gorgeous mountain day. 

The boat taxi dropped us off at the Desolation Peak trailhead and the group of us scrambled up the lake shore boulders to the packed dirt. We stopped for a moment at the trail sign for Desolation Peak before everyone broke and headed uphill at their own clip. My role from here would be to act as a “sweep” for those running the marathon distance, following the group and ensuring no runner was left behind.

In 1956 Jack Kerouac spent the summer on Desolation Peak, manning the fire lookout. He wrote his novel “Desolation Time” in part about his time on the remote summit. This novel, and more specifically this peak, was the beacon that drew me to the Pacific Northwest. Kerouac was an inspiration and guide to a younger version of myself, providing cultural context and encouragement to be bold and make the life I wanted to see. In some way this was a bit of a pilgrimage, and the views that were beginning to show themselves as we climbed out of the forest were equally inspiring. 

Perhaps two-thirds of the way up, I heard a crunch and cracking off to our right. I signalled for the other runners to be quiet, looked downhill, and there was black bear digging for grubs in a decomposing log. We were all thrilled to watch from our respectful distance above until the bear lumbered away downhill. 

We passed through vibrant lupine and Indian paintbrush as we climbed, and by the time we made the final push to the summit we had crossed only a few minor patches of snow at around 6000 ft.

five trail runners stand in front of the Desolation Peak Fire Lookout in the North Cascades

After several hours of ascent, our group pushed up the last climb and arrived at the summit of Desolation Peak. We met up with the runners that had pushed ahead and we all took it in together. From the summit, we were graced with 360 degrees of North Cascades bliss. Familiar peaks stuck out and Jack Mountain dominated the view to the south. Skies overhead were bright blue and we took our time eating lunch and stretching at the old fire lookout. My mind turned over some haikus that I didn’t write down as I took a moment to reflect on time, the energy of the beat poets, and all the alpine adventures I’d had thanks to Kerouac’s unique perspective. 

trail runners alongside Ross Lake in the North Cascades

We made one stop to fill water on the way down, and before we knew it we were cruising along the East Bank Trail south toward Highway 20. The trail rolls along the lake, providing stellar views and well-maintained single track for the 17 miles to the road. We crossed creeks flowing out of the Pasayten Wilderness over large suspension bridges. All to soon, we crossed the bridge over Ruby Arm and climbed up to the road. 

trail runners cross a suspension bridge

For the 40-mile route, runners had the option of continuing up the Panther Creek Trail, over 4th of July Pass, descending into the Thunder Creek drainage, and then running along the shores of Diablo Lake directly into camp. However, my day as the trail sweep ended with the marathoners. 

eating dinner in camp, north cascades national park

We were greeted at camp by the base crew cooking up burgers and everyone cracking beers and ciders. Tired legs gave way to the buzz of a great mountain day and good company, and everyone stayed up recalling stories and cracking jokes into the night. I believe everyone slept well and I enjoyed another night on the water with the stars. 

The Desolation Duo trip is a great opportunity to check out the Aspire experience and get in early season miles. Aspire provides easy access to some difficult to reach places and it pays off! See you next June! 

Trent Banks is a mountain rambler, a disc jockey, and father of two daughters, based out of Seattle, WA. He joined the Aspire Adventure Running crew in 2018. You can find him guiding trips, leading sponsored runs at running stores in the Seattle area, and working aid stations at races across the Pacific Northwest with the rest of the Aspire team. 

Trail running in Yosemite National Park

The four day Yosemite Backcountry trip is an incredible addition to the Aspire calendar. It’s hard to put into words the immediacy and immensity of this place. I really wanted to give anyone interested in the trip a better sense of the flow and what to expect, so I’ve written this post with my inherent biases, interspersing my own experience and presumed the perspective of someone showing up for the trip. Enjoy!

running in Yosemite, half-dome

Day 1: Intros

Pleasantries were lubricated by drinks pulled from the ever-present, ever-cold cooler and the plates of appetizers really hit the spot after the long drive to the park. It’s simultaneously impressive and obvious why a dozen runners from Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington states all converged on this campground with the same purpose: 100 miles of backcountry trails in one of the most iconic landscapes on the planet.

a woman grilling chicken

Tamarack Flats is one of the quietest campgrounds in all of Yosemite. 52 sites, no RV’s, no local store, and it’s well away from the hoards of people crammed into the valley floor. This little piece of the park would be home for the next five days. Rolling into camp, a few things were immediately obvious. There was a ton of firewood. There’s a lot of food packed into those beefy bear-proof coolers. That big tent would keep us us dry and cozy if the weather turns. And everyone here was speaking the same running language. 

The Aspire crew facilitated introductions, gave some valuable background on the park, and then dove deep on the details of the routes, safety plan, logistics, and flow of the trip. In essence, each day we would get shuttled to a different trail. Everyone would run at their own pace, and our guides/crew would consist of a “Sweep” who would always run behind the group at whatever pace and a “Super” who started their run at the “finish.” It was expected that runners would spread out and there was no expectation that we traveled together.

Dinner: Grilled Chicken or Tempeh, Rice Pilaf, Green Salad and Cheesecake. 

Day 2: Porcupine Creek to Tamarack Flat  22 Miles, Elevation Gain: 3,500′ Loss: 5,200′

Breakfast: Heaping plates of French Toast, homemade jams, yogurt, fresh fruit, and nut butters.

Waking up in the woods to a day of running sure beats the alarm cry for the office. The energy among the group at breakfast was palpable. Between bites of french toast there are the last clarifying route, gear, and preparation questions and suddenly it’s 8:00 and we’re piling into the shuttle van. 

a group of happy runners in front of a trial sign.

After a short drive to the trailhead and the obligatory group photo, we’re off. No ready–set–go, no pistol firing, no race clocks, just running.  It’s three miles of gritty single track to the first real views of the trip. The conifer forest of Lodgepole Pines and Red Firs fell away as the dirt trail turned to granite dome. Cresting a small rise, the valley appeared. Half Dome loomed large on the horizon with a deep chasm separating the south end of the valley where we stood, and layers upon layers of views. Granite cliffs, waterfalls, alpine peaks and winding rivers create a full frontal assault to the visual cortex. 

This was just the beginning. Our trail turned west, following the north rim of the Valley. Before the day was over we’d visit Yosemite Point, filter water from Yosemite Creek before it plummeted 2,425 feet to the valley floor, and stand on the summit of El Capitan. If all of that wasn’t enough, we finished the run with a swim in Cascade Creek, just two miles short of our finish at Tamarack Flat Campground where dinner was waiting.  

Dinner: Spaghetti with homemade meat or vegetarian sauce, Green Salad, Chocolate dipped Strawberries

Day 3: Ten Lakes Basin, 21 Miles, Elevation Gain:  +6,000′ Loss: -5,200′

Waking up the second day the edge of newness was gone. The uncertainty of “What am I getting into” was replaced with confidence and eagerness for more views. 

Breakfast: Breakfast Burritos w/ eggs, hash browns, bacon, avocado, salsa, and fresh fruit. 

The shuttle ride from camp to the May Lake trailhead was great for digestion. Clear skies and smiles on our faces were the norm. Our trip through the Ten Lakes Basin was marked by a lingering snowpack that required attention to navigate, but provided a landscape devoid of any other travelers. We kept the group tighter, route finding together and chatting as the miles unfolded.

Our route took us around Tuolumne Peak and deep into the South Fork of Cathedral Creek Canyon. By mid-day we were scanning the long blue horizon with lines of receding peaks in the background and a foreground full of deep granite valleys. 

It’s easy to feel small and vulnerable wearing only a vest in this wild remote place. The three big climbs of the day challenged our legs, but as we reached every high pass, dropped into a new river valley, or stumbled upon an alpine lake, the hard work was absorbed by the beauty of the scenery.   

Dinner: Burger Night! Meat or Vegetarian. Corn on the Cob, home fries, and Dutch oven Apple Crisp. 

Day 4: Pohono Trail, 18 Miles, Elevation Gain +2,000’ Loss: -4,500’

In 2019 the Sierra’s experienced a record snowpack. Heavy winter accumulation and late season/spring storms left the high country blanketed in snow well into July. This led to some variations in our original itinerary. Rather than a 30-mile day through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, our route would take us along the South Rim of the Yosemite Valley. While there were no complaints, it didn’t reflect the backcountry feel we were shooting for. Note: We’ve adjusted this day’s itinerary for 2020, check out the details on the Yosemite Backcountry Course Page

Breakfast: Pancakes, from regular or GF flours, Yogurt, Fruit,  Maple Syrup, and all the fixins with sides of Bacon or Veg Sausage

In 1903 John Muir spent 3 days camping with President Theodore Roosevelt atop Glacier Point. It’s the trip in which Muir convinced Roosevelt to protect and preserve Yosemite as a national treasure. It’s a cool spot, and the start of our 18-mile run along the South Rim of Yosemite Valley. Here the exposure of the valley is BIG. Taft Point sits 3,500’ above the valley floor and juts out of the rock face like a diving board. Stepping up to the edge, or a close as is reasonable, the reality of life, death, and gravity are all mashed into one clear line. 

From Taft, it was a net down runnable day on trail that felt fast and smooth after a day deep in the backcountry.  Since this was the short day of the trip, we capped off the afternoon with lunch spread out under a large oak tree on the bank of the Merced River while we lazily swam, ate, and drank with El Cap Looming over us.   

Dinner: Bratwursts (Meat or Vegetarian), baked beans, and coleslaw with Dutch Oven Brownies

Day 5: Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley, 21 Miles, Elevation Gain: +2,500 Loss: -6,500′

Waking up on the last day of the trip, time was all skewed. The rhythm of existing to run and explore felt normal. The body was sore, but the soul was full. The other runners are friends, a gypsy trail family brought together under a tent for a week of trails, laughter, and good food. It didn’t really seem possible that the real world was looming somewhere outside of this magical park. 

A man gazes over an alpine lake in the High Sierra

Breakfast: English Muffin and Egg, Ham, or Veggie patty, with greens, salsa, and heaps of Avocado washed down with Orange Juice. 

a man running down a rocky trail with a waterfall in the background.

This day was a classic. Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. Here we followed the same path by which ancient alpine ice fields spewed forth from the Sierras and formed the deep glacial chasm of Yosemite. It’s a special run. Following the creeks and drainages of the high country, runners find themselves along the shores of the Merced River and the steep granite steps alongside Nevada and Vernal Falls. Reaching the falls puts the valley floor into view and a long sightline of granite faces glowed in the setting sun. 

Having reached the Valley, drinks, appetizers, and the abundant dinner fare that’s become a norm of the trip was waiting at a nearby picnic area. It was a celebratory scene as runners finished, then headed off to the nearby Curry Village for showers, gift shopping, and merged with the rest of the crowds who had been drawn into the Valley’s tight orbit. 

Finishing hardly seemed real. The juxtaposition of so much beauty in larger world paved over with progress and a simplicity of purpose contrasted with the responsibilities of an outside world. It’s a hard reconciliation and it’s precisely this disorientation of re-entry that marks the certainty of having been away from it all. What a fantastic feeling to have at the end of four of the most incredible days of living. 

Dinner: Tacos w/ Chorizo and Vegetarian fillings, Rice, Fresh Salsa, and bottomless Guacamole.

Sign up to run with Aspire in Yosemite National Park this summer. 

Running the Wonderland Trail with Aspire Adventure Running

Mt. Rainer is an icon of the Pacific Northwest. A looming 14,410’ mass of rock and ice rising up from the sea in an immense display of majestic beauty. Less obvious is the thin ribbon of trail circling the mountain: the Wonderland. The trail hugs the mountain’s glaciated flanks, weaves through ancient forests, flows through flower-filled meadows, and climbs the many ridges cut by Rainier’s glaciers and rivers. Ninety-three miles long and rising and falling for 21,810’, this trail is easily on the shortlist of the world’s most inspiring footpaths.  

Mt. Rainier National Park and the Wonderland Trail has long been heralded as a backpacking destination and every year hundreds of pack-laden hikers spend close to 2 weeks in orbit around the mountain. This is by far the most popular approach, but increasingly the Wonderland trail has been exercising its own gravitational pull on the ultra running community.

Ryan Ghelfi of Ashland OR, currently holds the record for the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the trail, an 18 hour, 27 minute, and 42 second sprint.  This record amounts to an average pace of just over 12-minute miles for nearly 19 straight hours. This kind of time or for that matter, any single 93-mile push is remarkable and generally reserved for the elite and/or very determined runner.  However, between the extremes of the long slog and the relentless sprint there is the increasingly popular, reasonably accessible, and genuinely adventurous 3-day supported circumnavigation. 

The elevation profile for the Wonderland Trail is a jagged saw blade. A line cut by glaciers advancing and retreating over centuries and carving pattern of deep valleys divided by ridgelines on every aspect of the mountain. Atop each ridge an unobstructed mountain view awaits and in each valley lies a ribbon of river melting out from the icy flanks of the mountain. Between them are old growth forests, meadows of wildflowers, cascading creeks, and lots of switchbacks. 

Here’s what to expect when running the Wonderland trail with Aspire:

Day 1: Longmire to Mowich Lake (34 Miles, Elevation Gain/Loss +9,755/-7,600) 

This section of the Wonderland is the longest and most remote push between campgrounds. We favor attacking this section with fresh legs. It’s a humbling and tone-setting day that consists of 5 significant climbs and long sections of downhill.

Hallmarks of the day are: 

Man running with Mt. Rainier's Tahoma Glacier in the background
Views of the Tahoma Glacier
Mt. Rainier National Park's St. Andrews Lake
Swimming in St. Andrew’s Lake
Crossing the South Mowich River
Crossing the South Mowich River

A fast runner could cover the distance in 8 hours. 12 hours is very common. 14 hours is not unreasonable. The longest we’ve had a runner out there was 17 hours. It’s not a day to push super hard. Find an uphill pace that can be sustained, a downhill flow that won’t result in twisted ankles, and pause for pictures at every high point. 

Camp is at Mowich Lake. 2,300’ up from the South Mowich River, by far this is the remotest front country campground in the park. The Aspire tent, generally a glow in the evening light, is distinct from the small enclave of backpacker tents. A feast is waiting, a hot shower, and a well deserved rest after a long day.  

Day 2: Mowich Lake to White River (26 Miles, Elevation +5,871’ / -5,900’)

Waking up at Mowich Lake, one is immediately aware of their sore legs and the fact that this only one third of the way into the trip. The key is to eat a good breakfast, ignore the soreness, and to start moving. The body is wise and inevitably the aches felt in the first few miles of trail melt into the rhythm of movement and the beauty of the surroundings. 

On the day’s agenda is:

The Carbon River Suspension Bridge
The Carbon River Suspension Bridge
dropping into Mystic Lake Valley
Lunch in the Mystic Lake valley
Skyscraper pass
Skyscraper Pass

Day two, we usually see runner come in between 6-10 hours. This is the short day of the trip. We celebrate in camp with a bonfire, burgers, and a dutch oven crisp. 

Day 3: White River to Longmire, 32 Miles, Elevation +6,800’/ -5,900’

If waking up on day 3 of a Wonderland the thought of with 31 miles still ahead doesn’t make you question your capacity/sanity, you are superhuman. The mere mortals among us can take comfort in the promise of at least hike/hobbling through some pretty spectacular views. This last day is the crux day, and it’s divided into two halves. The first 20 miles connects White River to Box Canyon. Arguably, this is the most scenic section of the entire Wonderland loop.

Panhandle Gap
Panhandle Gap
Indian Bar
Indian Bar
Cowlitz Divide
Cowlitz divide

At Box Canyon, the Wonderland Trail touches asphalt for the second time in 83 miles. Road access equals aid. Cold drinks, watermelon and replenishing salts accompany the motivational mojo to finish.  

The last 12 miles from Box Canyon back to Longmire are separated by one last climb, a few waterfalls, and more encounters with humans than every other mile of the trail combined. The trail doesn’t lack in beauty, but compared to what’s been accomplished and the relatively few miles remaining, the mission is to finish.

Reflection Lakes
Reflection lakes

The last six miles of trail from Reflection Lakes to Longmire are literally, with a few minor exceptions, all down hill. The trail widens, the downhill grade softens and barring any debilitating pain it’s somehow easy to open up the stride and really run the last few miles to Longmire.

At the finish are there aren’t any rachous crowds or chintzy medallions. The fanfare of finishing are simply the good eats, cold beverages, and friends who’ve been there throughout the entire journey.   

Sign up to run the Wonderland with Aspire in 2020. View dates and learn more here.

Wilderness: The Pathway to Community and Connection

Instead of emphasizing competition and comparison, Aspire seeks to create space for community and connection by running– not racing– in the world’s most spectacular landscapes.

“I want to run there.”

That’s how it begins, and it’s almost too obvious. What trail-loving runner wouldn’t want to lace up for miles of single track through Mt. Rainier, Yosemite, or the North Cascades? But location alone is not the whole story. The real depth, meaning, and enduring quality of mountain time comes from sharing the experience with others. How that happens matters. Our trips draw an audience of runners from across the country. Chances are high you’ll be good friends with these folks by the end of the week, but it doesn’t happen by accident. Here are five ways that we build our community with intention.

Two women prep gear for their run ahead.

No Competition

Aspire trips aren’t races. We don’t track times, publish results, or adhere to any competitive traditions. This is intentional. No timing means runners are free to literally smell the flowers, jump in the lake, pause for lunch, and simply allow for the experience of being immersed in nature. 

When people aren’t racing each other, it creates a fundamentally different relational dynamic. Without any underlying questions of “Who will come in first?” or “Will I be faster than this person?” there’s simply more space to engage with people as fellow souls sojourning into the wilderness. People aren’t there to be beaten, but to connect with, to learn from, to support when they struggle, and to receive encouragement from when you inevitably need it. Each blister taped, supportive smile shared, distracting story told, and meaningful connection made weaves the thread of community. 

The Wonderland Circumnavigation was like being dropped into a roaming gypsy mountain family for three days of exertion, love, and self renewal. I’m an old doughy slow untalented back of the packer, the most underwhelming thing to happen on two legs, really. The Aspire crew and other runners rallied around me (and each other for that matter) as if I were some rock star. They wanted me to finish as much as I wanted me to finish. Zero ego contamination during the experience.

Sean- Seattle, WA

Food, Really Good Food

After 10, 20, or 30 miles in the mountains, it’s time for real food. Bars, gels, and hydration powders have come a long way in the past few decades, but even the most scrumptious of trail foods can’t compete with a fresh grilled salmon, garlic roasted potatoes, and a steaming dutch oven cobbler.

Thick french toast with fresh strawberries and blueberries, topped with whipped cream.

Meal time isn’t just about replenishing the body. It is a soulful celebration where each runner gathers to recount the day’s adventure, highlights from the trail, and to laugh at the pain and suffering that only a few hours ago had you questioning the sanity of any running-related decision. No one will understand your experience better than the dozen or so other runners gathered around the table, whose legs are just as sore as yours. 

Time- Multiple Days Worth

It’s great to go for a run before or after work or to dedicate a morning or even a whole day to a race. These kinds of runs fit neatly into the calendar and can be easily balanced with life’s other obligations.

It’s another thing entirely to dedicate a week to a running project. Unplugged from the rest of the world, each day on the trail has a specific purpose. To run, move, hike, crawl, doing whatever is necessary to cover the miles. The simplicity and immediacy of purpose is refreshing, empowering, and rewarding.

On our trips this singular purpose is shared with newfound friends who, unlike some of your colleagues back home, get it. They share in your success and suffering, they wear the same short shorts and funky vests, they speak the language of salt, sweat, suffering, recovery, and accomplishment. Within the short span of a few days and some very long miles, these people become your tribe, your family. The specifics of the trail will fade, injuries will heal, but shared camaraderie built over days on the trail will persist in memory’s most meaningful depths. 

A group gathers around camp, lounging after a long day.

Destination: Wilderness

The wilderness is a timeless space separated from the cares and constraints of our deadlines and deliverables. Dedicated to the preservation of an ideal and to the protection of natural processes, wilderness areas are sanctuaries. Here life follows nature’s rhythm and humankind are visitors who travel through these mysterious lands seeking adventure, inspiration, and wisdom. Whatever face nature reveals–sun or snow, rain or wind, forest or desert–wonder and beauty are gifts these lands bestow. 

I came to run and see the mountains. I left feeling like a part of something bigger than the mountains, family.

Ryan- Tillamook, OR

No man or woman ever conquers a trail, a mountain, or any feature of the landscape. Wilderness is an opportunity to experience with and through the land a greater understanding of our fragility, our limits, and our connection to the world.  Sharing in the struggle, adventure, and beauty of the wilderness is the substance of deep relationships. Seeing the smiling faces of friends reaching a summit after trudging up the same switchbacks reflects and amplifies our own joy of being in that wild place. Witnessing the beauty together binds people as stewards and protectors of these spaces. 

A woman and a man laughing while sitting in camp chairs.

It’s a deep kind of experience, to leave behind the ego, to get beat up and broken down by the trail, and to share that experience with others. The mountain shows us where we are weak and our friends can remind us where we are strong. It’s a process of building connections and community. It’s what drives the whole Aspire experience.

The Mountain Cycle

I’ve just returned from the Territory Run Camp, hosted/presented by Aspire. This seasonal celebration showcasing my backyard trails is staged out of a mountain lodge on the edge of the Mt. Baker Wilderness. This event captures the community, ethos, and placed based connections that Aspire exists to support. Inspired by Ian Ramsey’s presentation on beat poets in the North Cascades, I took some time to play with my own trail lyricism and interspersed the words with a few photos from the year.

Mt. McGreggor, Stehekin, WA

It’s not a voice. It’s not audible. Unnamed, but not unknown. A frequency, emanating from an ancient psyche, juxtaposed against the static of modernity. Spoken by an orchestra of wind. Riding on echoes from the collision of continents. Originating from a wild place, far from the packaged, plasticized, polarized, politicized, punctual pretenses of comfort and security.  An invitation, an allure, a call to venture, to the mountains, to places further and deeper into the hills than I’ve traveled before. 

In hearkening to this siren song, suffering is my sacrifice. The terms are clear: only what I can carry. My choice, light, fast, and exposed. My physio-psycho capacity is my only currency. What will I receive in exchange? Miles of trail, relentless climbing, and access to the cathedral. 

Church Mountain, Mt. Baker Wilderness, WA

Initially, the miles are easy. I move swiftly, but reserserved, on wings of anticipation and fresh legs. The trail is familiar and well trodden by those holding close to the borderlands. However, as the day lengthens and the miles accumulate, I approach the junction, the furthest point, the beginning of the new, the point separating where I’ve been and where I’ve yet to trod. The edge of my experience.

Here every ridge crest, summit, and turn in the trail is a revelation. Running in a state of perpetual unfolding. Childlike, everything is captured in itself, and I remain in that eternal present so long as I can persist and resist the intrusion of anything that is not now. In this liminal space I can hear the universe. The sounds of creation unfolding. Here I receive the gifts and the questions the wild holds for me. Here my self is revealed to myself. Here I can make peace with my demons and my dreams, reconcile my ego, and clarify which concerns and commitments I most want to attend. 

Panhandle Gap, Mt. Rainier, WA

Alive, alert, and attuned, I negotiate the trail, submit to the unfolding landscape, and seek an impossible balance to continue while also face to face with the constraints of time and ability. My legs and lungs always falling short of the pace I envision, but persisting nonetheless. Continuing, I find my movement, my form, my gait, my imperfect but own perfect negotiation of pain and progress. 

The miles fall away and inevitably I turn towards home. I crave the finish and the permission I will give myself to stop. My mind jolts in and out of focus on my feet, the trail, the forest, my home, my family, my responsibilities, my feet, my form, the encroaching darkness. Any pretense of enlightenment muddled by a desire for the comforts I so recently forsook. 

Summerland, Mt. Rainier, WA

In a long anticipated instant, the trailhead is in sight signaling the end of my interancy. The satisfaction of stillness washes over the ache and fatigue. A celebration with waiting refreshment. Negotiating a jumble of gadgetry and amenities through the tunnel of my headlamp. The ritual donning of dry clothes. Satisfaction ringing with every ache and stumble. 

Sitting. Collapsing.  A long exhalation. It is a sweet but restless peace. Already the beckoning has been heard anew.  

Stehekin Valley Ranch, WA

Nick Triolo: In Praise of the Snaggletoothed Places

those ragged, dank, unmarked, up-mountain, down-creek corners of the planet where few people venture. Let us celebrate the wild nooks that remain, those countercultural, punk rock ecotones tugging at our dreams and screaming their anthems in a language older than words. Landscapes sculpted, not by man, but by the collision of continental plates, the rupture of volcanoes, the clawing glaciers and the relentless washing of waves, rivers and winds echoing and eroding. These are our nation’s vast wilderness areas, undomesticated and unconventional. These are lands which disavow race results, reject conveniences like port-a-potties and almond milk lattes. They are the anti-modern, the disconnected, unplugged, analog refutation to the digital distractions of our lives. 

Wilderness, by design, is a place where man himself is a visitor who does not remains.  As such, our time in wilderness is ephemeral, a retreat from our otherwise “normal” lives. Wilderness reflects back on each traveller an authentic self. In the wilderness pretense and posturing are crushed by the contours of the land. Wilderness holds no malice, only mystery. Moving through these spaces we become self-willingly human and alive. We move to the rhythm of some ancient dance, aligning with the reverberations of forces that shaped the land. As we run, scramble, duck, and leap through their rugged terrain, we remember that all life works this way: the sharp swerve, the occasional log leap, the challenging chug-a-lug of a never-ending uphill section followed by the rewards of a downhill whoosh that makes you feel light and free and childlike. Adventure: it’s out there, just as it exists inside us. Our hearts beat most happily in shared cadence with these—the snaggletoothed places.