How did we get here?
I’d wanted to hike the Eagle Rock Loop in early January with buddies Vance and Max, but it didn’t happen. Vance and I managed to arrange the Grand Loop starting February 10th, a 3-day, 2-night, 30-mile loop following 18 miles of the Little Lake Creek Loop (LLCL) from LSHT Trailhead #1, and 12 miles back along the LSHT. It was a shakedown trip for Vance who had backpacked with scouts but was new to the ultralight world. I had some new kit I wanted to check out, and some food experimentation ideas. We hiked 6, 14, and 12 miles, and had some surprises along the way!
The plan was a leisurely six miles on the first day, starting after lunch, and arriving in time to make a fire and cook in daylight. It was an uneventful but very pleasant hike. It was dry, close to 70 degF, and we only saw one other couple walking their dog. Vance had reduced his pack weight from probably >50 lbs on his last hike to a bit over 30 lbs, and I was just under 20 lbs. Our goal was the pond at LLCL MM#6. There is a designated backcountry campsite there (Sand Branch Primitive Campsite) that we checked out and it looked fine, but we preferred to stay right next to the lake which had great water for filtering. Vance was convinced it would pass a blind taste-test at home if compared to Houston city water! Vance was chef for the first night.
Dinner was good and a learning experience! A great appetizer with some salami. The main was a red beans and rice with extra veggies that were frozen, ready for just adding hot water. The frozen veggies cooled the water too much, and then the rice needed cooking. So it needed to be transferred back into the pot from the ziplock bag. The result was tasty, and enhanced with tortillas! I’d found a downed tree for plenty of firewood not too far from camp, and Vance the master firestarter, with a special fire-blowing tube, had a blaze going soon after dinner. I’d brought some bacon wrapped in foil to see how that would cook and it worked!
Day 2 – Morning
The only sound during the night were the coyotes and they sounded a long way away, but all around. I’m not sure if evidence on the path about 1/2 mile from camp the following morning suggested they were closer! Today was a 12-mile day, with an optional extra, so we wanted to get going but got distracted by chatting so got away just before 9am. The LLCL is less used than the main LSHT trails, but it just made it feel a bit wilder. The path heads into the wilderness area which is even wilder, likely because they don’t have controlled burns (I think…). Weather was perfect for hiking.
Day 2 – Afternoon
A bit before mile marker 10 on the LLCL, we spotted an abandoned camp off the trail. Sleeping bag, underclothes, water filter, plastic bags. Looked like it had been abandoned in a hurry, but quite a while ago. We each had a large black trash bag, normally used as a seat, but this was a handy double-use! Everything was dry which made it lighter, and I had room in my pack. Fortunately, at the next trailhead, someone with a pickup was happy to take it from me! Fairly soon after the camp, we saw the pond which makes it a good site. It also started getting pretty wet, but we managed to stay dry. The path suddenly seemed to end, but we had missed how it crossed the river without a bridge! We found a couple of logs we could wobble over (I was much wobblier than Vance!), and someone has said there is a better crossing further up. We turned right where LLCL touches the Pole Creek Trail, passed through Trailhead 4. We felt good and had made good time, so we opted for the extra bit which was a side hike to Lake Conroe down an unmarked trail that is only on some maps, and it was a beautiful spot! It was time for me to serve my appetizer for dinner which was cheese and salami with British Cream Crackers and Digestives. There were lots of birds flying in formation over the water.
Day 2 – Late Afternoon
After Lake Conroe, we headed back onto the main trail, and negotiated another swampy patch around MM16, but still stayed dry! It was about here that we noticed some smoke, and then fairly soon saw some fire. There had been a Facebook post about a controlled burn in a completely different part of the forest yesterday, so I had assumed they wouldn’t “be around here.” Anyhow, we proceeded slowly and carefully and noted the fire wasn’t very big. Only the dead stuff was burning, and there wasn’t too much of that, because they do these controlled burns! The dead trees that were still standing were the scary ones, as they could burn on the inside. The path went back and forth between unburnt, burning, and burnt areas, but it never got too hot or smoky. There wasn’t much wind and it looked like it was dying out. We made it to the planned campsite at MM18, but it was only about 1/2 mile from the fire and downwind of it. So, we decided to keep hiking another 1/2 mile to the LSHT junction where there was lots of signage closing the trail! It seemed like a good place to camp. However, having made it through the fire, I would NOT recommend it. Looking back at the photos from Day 1 of my thru hike, I can tell these controlled burns normally burn a lot hotter!
Day 2 – Evening
That was plenty of excitement for one day after about 14 miles of hiking. I was on dinner duty, and I followed the earlier appetizer with a Shepherd’s Pie and a Texas Chili from Packit Gourmet meals in Austin. They had multiple bags so took a tiny bit more effort than your standard Mountain House, but they were so yummy! Last summer, we’d had some bad experiences with curries, but these were great. I also made a potato side using Idahoan, bacon bits, and some cheese, which was also very tasty (and about 1/10 of the price!!). Finally, I had what was needed to make a couple of smores and has fit a couple of wooden skewers in my pack frame. We started seeing a bunch more hikers now that we were on the LSHT. One was a group of about 10 scouts and leaders, who were planning to camp at the same site we had been. A couple of hikers passed by in the dark, but it was soon peaceful, and we slept, content we were far enough away from the fire!
The forecast had been a wet morning, blowing in a cold front. When I had last checked, it wasn’t due until evening, so I’d left my waterproofs behind (for weight). I was not looking forward to the rain as it was cold, but in the end, it thankfully stayed dry (but I won’t leave my waterproof behind again when it is cold!). With the fear of rain and a well-worn path, we kept a 3 miles-an-hour pace. A former boardwalk/bridge in the Wilderness around LSHT MM#6 provided a good table for lunch, which was another experiment. Nutella in a tortilla with dried bananas, trying to mimic a crepe. It didn’t come close to a crepe, but it was very yummy in its own right. My final surprise was a British Wispa chocolate bar. Around MM#4, we joined another hiker who had camped just East of us the night before, and we met Scott who was just starting his thru hike (and he instantly recognized the water bottle holder that I had bought from him) and a couple who were doing a shakedown hike. We make it to the car with energy to spare, but the temperature was dropping into the 20s, so a warm bed sounded attractive.
It was a great shakedown hike for Vance. Before we left, he’d weighed each piece of equipment for the first time, and that was an eyeopener. It was also the first time he’d used a water filter (and not carry). He realized, as I had, what a gamechanger that is. He’d left the camp chair behind and replaced it with a trash bag which was fine. I’m sure there were a few things in his pack he didn’t use, but a lot of weight remains in his pack and tent.
I was very pleased with my meal experiments. On previous trips, I’ve worked out what I thought would be good for a day and did that for every day. That is a mistake as variety is critical. Experimenting is great but it takes time, but the risk is worth it. I was trying a titanium mug for the first time instead of my plastic one. About the same weight, but I thought I’d like the idea of cooking in the metal mug. In the end I did not, and I don’t like how it gets so hot, and especially how it cools the liquid down so much quicker. So that was a failed experiment, but that is OK! A couple of other pieces of equipment are wearing out or need repair which can be expected, and I have gotten good use out of them. I have a new puffy which was perfect! Oh, and wet wipes are wonderful!
The Grand Loop was a great 30-miler. It was a good mix of vegetation types and trail, with adventure and peace and solitude. We were very lucky with the weather, and I sense the trail could be a lot wetter which would have made it different, but in the end once your feet are wet, you just go for it.
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