John Werner: Deep Cuts from a Backpack Veteran – Waco Tribune-Herald | Dauktion

I was late for backpacking.

At 46 I decided to try my first backpack. It wasn’t just a quick trip to Enchanted Rock or Dinosaur Valley. It started with a big bang in the great ditch better known as the Grand Canyon.

My wife Karen and I have been doing long day hikes for about 10 years, so we weren’t new hikers. But backpacking brought a whole new level of planning. How do you pack everything you need for a few days — provisions, tent, sleeping bag, rain gear — into a 35-pound backpack and lug it up steep, winding trails?

John and Karen Werner continued their backpacking adventures this summer with a hike to the Blue Lakes in western Colorado.

John Werner, Tribune Herald

That three-day backpacking trip in the spring of 2004 down the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and back up the Bright Angel Trail was a revelation. You can backpack far more places than you ever could on a day hike, and pitch your tent amidst beauty that no five-star resort hotel can match.

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With adventurous genes fueled enough, we kept venturing into the wild to learn more. We’ve been backpacking for 18 years now, our newest coming this summer in Blue Lakes outside of Ouray in western Colorado.

So, like an aging rocker, I compiled my greatest hits. Or deep cuts could be more accurate.

page one

Four Pass Loop

The Maroon Bells outside of Aspen have been called the most photographed place in Colorado, and with good reason. But most people don’t see these spectacular peaks until after a short hike to Maroon Lake.

The Four-Pass Loop takes you all the way around the Bells via a quartet of 12,000-foot passes for 26 miles. Along the way, see bright wildflower meadows, waterfalls, and Snowmass Lake, a great place to camp on the third night of a four-day trip.

These 14,000-foot peaks are nicknamed the Deadly Bells because they are among the most treacherous peaks in the state. But hiking around them and enjoying their beauty is a true backpacking experience.


Karen Werner completes the four-pass loop that circles Colorado’s Maroon Bells.

John Werner, Tribune Herald

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim

After our first foray into the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we always knew we wanted to come back and do the entire rim-to-rim hike.

So in June 2013 we took a shuttle to the North Rim and hiked 5,800 feet down to Bright Angel Campground and 4,400 feet back on the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. With a few detours, we hiked 28 miles in four days.

Man, it was sweltering hot.

On our first day, we didn’t get to the Cottonwood campground until 12:30 p.m., and we were on fire. So for the next three days we set out before dawn and finished before 10am to avoid the worst of the heat.


There’s no better way to see the Grand Canyon than the rim-to-rim trail from the North Rim to the bottom and back up to the South Rim.

John Werner, Tribune Herald

Below the thermometer showed 130 degrees. We spent most of the day at our Bright Angel Creek campsite in the shadow of the canyon and were treated to $55 steak dinners booked at Phantom Ranch. Definitely the best backpacking meal we’ve had.

Only one percent of Grand Canyon visitors hike to the bottom. Despite the heat, it’s worth every step as you see the different geological layers of the gorge and see how the colors change throughout the day.

You will never see a better sunset than on the Tonto Plateau in Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail, and you will never eat a more rewarding breakfast than the feast at El Tovar on the South Rim after completing your journey.

North Loop, Mount Rainier

The 93-mile Wonderland Trail is the most well-known backpacker in Mount Rainier National Park, but the Northern Loop is a rugged alternative.

The 35-mile loop offers sweeping views of the massive mountain from the meadows of Grand Park before the trail heads through a narrow pass at Windy Gap to the Yellowstone Cliffs, one of the most scenic places we’ve camped.

Half of the hike is on the Wonderland Trail where you hike near the Carbon and Winthrop Glaciers. Fortunately, expecting wind, rain and fog, we had four sunny days in a row in the summer of 2014, but the mosquitoes were merciless.


The 35-mile Northern Loop Trail offers stunning views of Mount Rainier while passing the national park’s glaciers.

John Werner, Tribune Herald

Great Teton Loop

As with the Maroon Bells, it’s hard to take your eyes off Grand Teton National Park’s rugged skyline.

This 34-mile trail allows you to see the Tetons from multiple angles as you hike through the striking Cascade Canyon via Hurricane Pass to the Alaska Basin, a campsite so remote it’s otherworldly.

We started with a ferry ride across Jenny Lake. As I got off the boat I saw a guy with a tambourine on his back to warn bears. Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” rang in my head for the next four days, which was music to my ears.


Grand Teton National Park’s rugged skyline is one of its most distinctive features.

John Werner, Tribune Herald

JMT: Yosemite National Park

It’s a fairly rare backpack going all the way down the hill, but this was an exception.

From Tuolumne Meadows we walked the John Muir Trail for over 20 miles past Cathedral and Sunrise Lakes, Half Dome, Nevada and Vernal Falls down into Yosemite Valley.

Having never seen a video of Half Dome in 2005 before the YouTube era, I took a detour and attempted to climb the fixed ladder up the steep vertical granite face. My boots were so slippery I couldn’t get traction and couldn’t reach the top.

Well, it wore me out and I slept like a log at a quaint campground above Little Yosemite Valley.


The John Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park offers great views of Half Dome.

John Werner, Tribune Herald

page two

Weminuche Wilderness

This 2015 trip was already an adventure before we started the five-day, 39-mile hike because you had to take the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to reach the trailhead.

With storms unexpectedly brewing throughout the day, it became the wildest backpack we’ve ever made. As we descended over 8,000 feet to the Chicago Basin, I felt weak and feverish. Karen nursed me all night as rain and hail pelted our tent.

Four months later, I found out why: I had two arteries that were 90 percent blocked. I guess I could have died out there, but God gave me a few more years to backpack.

JMT: Selden Pass

It took me four years to accept God’s offer, but Karen and I returned to the John Muir Trail in 2019 to complete the middle section, which included a climb up the 10,898-foot Selden Pass.

Although we had done many day hikes since the Weminuche, it felt great to be able to put the old backpack back on with my new cardiac stents intact. We spent a few nights up in the Sierra at the Vermilion Valley Resort where we met hikers of all ages who entertained us with their stories of adventure.

The most memorable character of all was a guy named Spirit, a surfer/heavy metal guitarist who came to the mountains to find his zen.

Blue Lakes Trail

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to hike the distances of our younger years, but geriatric backpacking is still appealing.

This summer we hiked to the Blue Lakes in western Colorado. We had done this trail as a day hike about 20 years ago but we always wanted to come back and camp by the lakes.

Watching the sun set over the cliffs surrounding the lower lake for two nights was fantastic. There were probably 50 campers up there, and we even saw a few tying the knot (and I don’t mean a rope).

I’m pretty sure I was the oldest backpacker to climb the 3,400 feet to Lake Superior. But it’s amazing how other backpackers cheer you on because I think most of them would love to still be doing the same thing in their 60s.

desolation wilderness

If there’s one place that doesn’t live up to its name, it’s Desolation Wilderness.

This 20-mile Lake Tahoe hike is anything but lonely, as beautiful granite peaks are complemented by tall pines and lush meadows along the Pacific Crest Trail.

The highlight was camping at Lake Aloha surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was difficult to drive a stake into the granite crevices, but luckily our tent didn’t blow into the lake.


Desolation Wilderness follows the Pacific Crest Trail near Lake Tahoe.

John Werner, Tribune Herald

South Rim, Big Bend

I couldn’t end this list without my favorite Texas hike. I’ve done the 12-mile South Rim Trail several times as a day hike, but it’s even more memorable as a backpack.

There is something mystical about Big Bend. Maybe it’s the dry desert air or the remote Chisos Mountains. Maybe it’s the idea of ​​standing high on the South Rim and looking across the Rio Grande to the wild lands of Mexico.

The Texans are lucky we can call it our own.


The South Rim Trail in Big Bend National Park is the classic Texas hike.

John Werner, Tribune Herald

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