TCT Day 1: Hermit Gulch to Black Jack
Updated: Sep 4
My thru-hike begins today! This promises to be my longest day with the most elevation gain; getting the tough stuff out of the way early is good.
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I encourage you to follow my journey as it unfolded, enjoying the articles chronologically; however, for ease, these links allow you to jump between specific days. All links open in a new window so you won't lose your location.
TCT Day 1 Statistics
Date: January 22, 2023
Distance: 9.43 Miles
Total Elapsed Time: 7h 16m
Total Moving Time: 5h 41m
Highest Elevation: 1,555 Feet
Elevation Gain: 2,398 Feet
Trailhead: Hermit Gulch Campground
Building My Morning Routine
The benefit of solo hiking is that I set my schedule; at this time of the year, the midday temperatures are still moderate, so there isn't the urgency to start hiking early to beat the heat of the day. I am usually an early riser, consistently waking between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m., so it might make sense to keep that schedule and start early every day. However, this is my vacation, and my only hard deadline is to be at my next campsite at the end of the day.
I woke at 6:45 a.m. and began (what would become) my morning ritual; get dressed, pack my sleep system, have breakfast, take the tent down, and load my pack. This morning's breakfast was the Peak Refuel Breakfast Skillet, the best freeze-dried breakfast skillet meal I've ever had (and I've tried several!), with coffee. I thought it best to start Day 1 with a high-calorie and hearty breakfast; it was also the largest packaged meal in my BearVault, another reason why it was planned for the first day.
After breakfast, I put all my gear on the picnic table and struck the tent. I prefer to use a hydration bladder inside my pack; for ease of packing, it has to be the first item in my pack. I find it easier to start with an empty pack every morning and load each item to ensure a balanced load for that day. This is my basic template for repacking each morning:
3L Osprey Hydration bladder
Sleeping bag in the bottom compartment
Attach the tent using the exterior straps at the bottom of the pack. This allows the pack to stand up independently, making loading more manageable.
Folded camp towel at the bottom of the main compartment
BV500 (food) lying on its side
Dual-sided clothing cube (clean clothes on one side, dirty on the other)
Sleep pad, JetBoil, and fuel canister
My trail chair stayed in one outside pocket, a Gatorade bottle with electrolytes in the other.
Large Ziplock with my crossword puzzle book, Anker 10000mAh, battery pack, charging cables, permits, map, pen, UA Beanie, and gloves in the front easy-access pocket. I also put my lunch items in this pocket so I wouldn't have to unpack everything to get lunch out.
Restock snacks in my hip belt pockets.
Items attached outside my pack: Puffy (compressed), Luci solar light (to recharge), Xero sandals, trowel, survey mark recovery kit, bandana, small towel (to dry), SPOT X satellite communicator, and Gossamer Gear UL sun umbrella.
Attach the "brain" (the top lid to the back, which can also be converted to a day pack if needed). Items stored in the brain; headlamp with extra batteries, extra tie-down straps, repair kit, first aid kit, Kestral weather station, Anker 26800mAh battery, spare Ziplocs, wallet, keys, and a ball cap.
I contemplated taking the Avalon Canyon Road back up to Divide Road, the route I descended yesterday, only because walking on a graded dirt road with a 48.5-pound pack would be easier than hiking up the steeper Hermit Gulch Trail (HGT). However, passing through the Gardens from this direction meant I'd have to pay the admission fee, and I wasn't planning to stop and view the gardens, so I left the campground on the HGT. Even with my loaded pack, the climb was fine, and I covered the 1.8 miles and 1,232 feet of gain in under two hours.
Survey Marks: Zero for Three
Today was a day of missed opportunities regarding survey marks; I had three marks designated on my route and bypassed all of them. The first on my list was DAKIN 2 RM 3 (PID: DY2950); the station mark is located within the fence surrounding a microwave tower and building; reference marks 1 and 2 were suspected of having been destroyed during the construction of the tower, but RM 3 appeared to be outside the fence.
The next few miles along Divide Road had minor ups and downs but nothing significant; however, the bright, sunny morning gave way to heavy low clouds ahead of me. The wind was picking up, and with my sweat-soaked shirt, I felt chilled. I knew no rain was in the forecast, but even a quick squall would be a nuisance. My main focus was getting off the hill and out of the clouds, and I knew I had to turn off the road soon. I found the trail and began the slight descent out of the clouds; it was still windy, so I stopped to put my jacket on and check my progress on GAIA.
The signage on the TCT is good; it's not difficult to follow, so I had to laugh 🤣 when I saw this make-shift sign to go through the "gate" to the right. The not-so-funny part was that I could not fit through this opening with my pack on; it was too wide! 🙄 I took it off, held my pack over my head, and walked through (it truly is narrower than it looks).
Once through the fence, I realized I had blown right past the DAKIN 2 survey mark 🙄
I turned toward the towers and decided it wasn't worth retracing my steps to look for the mark. Sure, I could have dropped my pack at the gate and quickly covered the quarter of a mile back to the towers, but I have a mental thing about going backward on a trail, and I wasn't thrilled about going back into the clouds and wind. 🤷🏻♂️
The following two marks showed up on my map as being between the trail and the road; knowing how these marks are typically established, I figured they'd be closer to the road. As I approached the areas where L 993 (PID: DY2135) and HIFIX (PID: DY2951) were located, I quickly assessed the terrain and decided to pass; to go off trail to look for these marks wasn't worth the effort.
I followed the trail down to the Haypress Reservoir. The Ranger had given me a heads up as I left camp this morning that the reservoir was full of water for the first time in a long time, and I would need to skirt the edge of it by going through a nearby playground or take the road. I stopped at the playground for lunch, then resumed on the temporary trail until I reconnected with the main trail. The photo of the reservoir below was taken after I'd walked around it; the playground is out of frame on the left side, and the trail, when there's no water, would have come straight across on the right side of the photo.
The next mile and a half was a comfortable walk over rolling terrain. After the reservoir, a local day hiker, Tristan, caught up and passed me. Ultimately, I caught up with him and hiked together for most of this section. He was very knowledgeable about the local birds and plants and was fascinated to learn about survey marks, so we enjoyed sharing our hobbies. Imagine my surprise to learn he was also from Connecticut, growing up about 50 miles from where I did!
At the 6-mile point, I could see the tower on Black Jack Mountain, and Tristan told me the campground was located in a stand of pine trees just below it; I still had 3.5 miles to go and knew I had two more descents and ascents ahead of me. After another mile and a half, I was on the final high point, looking across Cape Canyon toward camp. I'd heard the last climb to Black Jack was a grind, but I was almost there! The first image below looks ahead to Black Jack Mountain (and the campground in the stand of pines, below and to the left). The second image is the view of the trail I just completed, looking south-southeast.
Two miles to go! One mile down, one up. 😬 When I looked back to take the second photo above, I could see two hikers not far behind me, and indeed, they caught and passed me before we headed down to Cape Canyon Reservoir. When I reached the reservoir, they were navigating the water crossing blocking the trail; when I say navigating, I mean walking through it!
The water was too deep for my boots; they had trail runners which would dry faster than my AKU Alterra GTX Gortex lined Suede boots. Once across, one of them pointed out a potential game trail on the edge of the water; I backtracked up the hill a few hundred feet, went around a stand of trees, and dropped back down to the water's edge, quickly spotting the game trail, and bypassing the worst of the deep water.
Black Jack Campground
I finished the final climb and arrived at camp just after 5:00 p.m. The campground was large, and the sites were spaced apart well. There was a free-standing, open outdoor shower (cold water only) between my site and site #6; however, by the time I arrived and got settled in, it was a little too cold for that, so I passed.
After setting up my tent and situating my gear, I visited with Don and Donna, my neighbors in site #4 (and a very cool couple.) Both retired from careers in the outdoor industry in Alaska (National Outdoor Leadership School, program management and training) and are now living what they used to teach. We chatted about kids, grandkids, their experiences in Alaska, and gear until it was dark; then, I excused myself to make dinner.
I tried a new brand of dehydrated food for dinner; Heather's Choice Grass-Fed Beef Shepherd's Pie and hot chocolate. This was the best Shepard's Pie trail meal I've tested yet, although next time, I will add 1/2 cup more water and let it soak 5 minutes longer than the instructions recommend.
I cleaned up after dinner, and since I had my own Fox Box (Bear Locker if you are in the Eastern Sierra), I stored my food there and put my pack and the rest of my gear in, making my tent more spacious.
As I was changing clothes for bed, I noticed the seam ripped out of the seat of my pants. It was clearly beyond repair, and I was amazed that I didn't notice it earlier. I mean, it's not like I felt a draft or anything! 😂 I'd hoped to get 3 or 4 days out of each pair of pants, but these went into the trash can, and I had one pair left to last me the rest of the week.
Relive® 3D Video of Today's Section
Day 1 was in the books, and it would be my longest day with the most vertical gain. The initial climb and roller-coaster nature of the rest of the day made this a challenging day. I worked on a crossword puzzle for a while, then fell asleep to the sounds of the wind whipping through the campsite, thinking about what Day 2 would bring.