Backpacking to Lake Mary

fall camping

I am just going to start off by saying that an adventure is not an adventure until plans change. We did “technically” go backpacking to Lake Mary, but we also went night hiking back. But first, let me explain…

Brighton and I don’t have much experience with backpacking. We’ve been on lots of day hikes in the Wasatch, and we decided that we’d go to a previous location we had day-hiked to during the summer. In late June, we went to the three lakes above Brighton Ski Resort: Mary, Martha, and Catherine (or Katherine) in Big Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake City. During that hike, we decided that we were going to continue all the way up to Sunset Peak, so we remember that hike as being harder for that reason– we think. We thought perhaps the hike up to one of the lakes would be easier given that it was much cooler and shorter.

We were wrong. Adding 20-30 lbs of weight onto our backs and walking uphill is not easy. Do not underestimate the intensity of any backpacking! I have a major respect for Cheryl Strayed right about now. And any thru-hiker for that matter.

sunset peak

View from Sunset Peak near Brighton Ski Resort – June 2015

Packing for Our Trip

We packed our backpacks with all of the essentials we thought were necessary along with the guidance of this REI Packing List. We generally followed the list, but our main concerns were were shelter, warmth, light, tools, food, hydration, and safety for 1 night.

The Ten Essentials (According to REI)

1. Navigation. We brought a basic compass with us. Since we knew where we were going and had experience in the area, we didn’t bring a map. Turns out, we also had cell service the entire time we were hiking and camping.

2. Sun protection. I always carry face sunscreen, regular sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and lip balm when I go hiking so it was already in our bags.

3. Insulation. This is one thing we did not pack enough of. We wish we had more layers with us. It was colder than we anticipated, but in the tent was relatively warm once we brought our body heat with us. I was wearing a light technical long-sleeve shirt, and a jacket that I use for skiing, plus leggings and rain/snow pants. It was enough, but if it got any colder then I would’ve been very uncomfortable.

4. Illumination. We brought a couple headlamps that I had bought previously for camping, and we were set! Tip: I like to bring an extra one to throw at the top of the tent as a lantern too.

5. First-aid supplies. Brighton’s mom bought us this first aid kit for hiking last year for his birthday, and it’s proven to be extremely helpful in our trips since it includes basic medications along with some other items to get us through small incidents. Note to self: Refill the ibuprofen section! It covers the basics and then some in a compact case. We take it on every hike now.

6. Fire. There are no open fires allowed in the area that we were in, but we brought this camp stove and gas. It was our first time using it, and it was extremely quick even with a breeze and the quickly dropping temperatures. We were very happy with our purchase since it was easy to use and efficient at boiling the water that we needed for our freeze-dried meal.

7. Repair kit and tools. This is Brighton’s favorite part of camping. He has a big machete that has come in handy a couple times. We also bought these Most Amazing Gear Ties from REI, and they have been immensely useful! They are cheap and versatile. I highly recommend them! (Of course, there are many more tools you can bring backpacking, which REI lists in detail on their site.)

8. Nutrition. We tried Beef Stroganoff with Noodles from Mountain House freeze-dried food. It was surprisingly good! Our expectations were low, but regardless, it exceeded our expectations. The only thing I would suggest is to measure out the water a little better than we did because it was more like soup than a sauce.

beef stroganoff

9. Hydration. We brought ample amounts of water in our Nalgene(s), a CamelBak bladder, and a Lifestraw Water Bottle since we had access to water where we were camping. Having a water filter with us made me more willing to stay hydrated knowing that our water was not finite, the way we’ve had in the past.

10. Shelter. We bought a Marmot Limelight 3P tent a while back at an REI Memorial Day Sale for a mixture of car camping and potential backpacking. I am no tent expert but it seems like the tent is versatile enough to do both, but generally geared towards short backpacking and car camping adventures. On Amazon, people have complained that this tent is too small for three people and I definitely agree that it would be a tight fit. The two of us and our packs comfortably fit without much extra room. We went camping with my very tall giant friend Cody in May, and we needed a second tent for that trip. To be honest, I don’t see three average sized people comfortably fitted in there. On a different note, our first trip out with it was during a torrential downpour/hailstorm and it kept everything dry! So far, no complaints.

I also brought my ENO Hammock for relaxing and reading. I’d like to camp overnight in it one day when it’s not quite as cold. I also plan to research the best methods, tips and techniques before I attempt this.

fall camping

The Trip

The hike to Lake Mary was only about a mile. Our first plan was to hike to Lake Catherine (the uppermost lake on the trail), but after hiking with our heavy packs we decided that it was not in the cards for our quick trip (and lack of experience). Another issue that we ran into almost as soon as we began was a couple hikers were on their way down, and they told us that Lake Mary was completely drained since they were doing work on the dam. We decided to continue up to see how dry the lake was considering we were already there and on the trail. We began around 3pm in the afternoon, and the weather was mild. The high for the day was about 70 degrees with a low of 45 overnight, and no chance of rain.

As we approached the lake, we could hear generators. Immediately, I was a little disheartened. All that wilderness with the sound of construction to ruin a good experience. We continued uphill and the lighting was just perfectly lighting up the yellow aspen leaves. (A photographers dream!) I forgot about the sound of the generators and enjoyed the crisp fall air with the colorful show that the leaves put on every year about this time.

lake mary drained

As you can see, the lake is non-existent on this side. But as we walked around to the other side, there was still water in the other half. I really enjoy seeing — I’m a little obsessed with the fall colors since in Florida we never have seasons, unless you count 1) hot and humid and 2) less hot. It’s something that I get really excited about and then quickly realize that summer is over and winter is coming. In a way, seasons keep things interesting since the activities and adventures change with the season just as I start to get antsy for a change in pace.


The view from our campsite

We continued around the lake and branched off the main trail to find a campsite with a view. We found an established campsite and followed the Leave No Trace principles, and used the established site instead of creating a new one. Unfortunately, the guests before us had created a campfire in an area that campfires are not allowed. We chose to use our camp stove for cooking purposes instead.


Our campsite at least 200 ft from the lake


After setting up our site, we cooked our delicious freeze-dried food and relaxed. For me, that was hammocking, bundled up in all of my layers and socks, reading my book about thru-hiking called Middle of Somewhere by Sonja Yoerg. For Brighton, that was attempting to warm up in the the tent and napping.


Another part of camping/backpacking that I’ve been looking forward to trying is night photography. I’ve seen some really cool pictures of the milky way and stars recently that I’d like to attempt. We waited until it got dark and tried our hands at the glowing tent shot. Since we happened to have cell service I was able to look up camera settings and tips and tricks on how to create these types of pictures. How do you think we did?

glowing tent

The moon was very bright that night, and apparently that negatively affects the chances of seeing the milky way well in photos.

After doing our night photography and eating dinner, we were a little bit at a loss of what we should do. I brought a book to read, but I can only read for so long before I want to do something else. In addition, the temperature was dropping quickly and Brighton had not come prepared for a cold night. What we really should’ve done was brought a deck of cards or a couple more companions to liven up the night. We eventually let our desire for a warm bed beat out our desire to camp overnight, and so our night hiking adventure began.

We packed up our campsite back into our backpacks and combed the site for all of our belongings to make sure we had not left any trace of our existence, and headed back down the trail with the moonlight and our headlamps lighting the way. After about 10 minutes of hiking and talking, we heard thump thump thump behind us. It sounded like a large animal. LIKE A MOOSE. When we began our trip, a hiker on their return trip told us that they had seen some moose around the area. My mind immediately jumped to a moose charging us. We also had not seen any other people in a while since it was a Wednesday night, after all. I called out to the dark night, “Hello? Is anyone there?” and there was no response. I tried to start thinking of an escape route but then I realized if a moose was angry, there was no way in hell that I would outrun it. (I looked it up later, I guess you’re supposed to run and hide..? Is this true?). We heard an exhale that sounded like a horse. I was starting to get pretty nervous.


Then, all of the sudden I saw a light (which at first I thought were animal eyes reflecting my light) moving towards us. The figure still did not say or make any noise except for heavy breathing. The figure responded to my first question– “hello guys!” It was just another friendly hiker coming down the trail. Cue my sigh of relief. He told us that he had been up at Sunset Peak trying out his night photography on a new camera, and he asked where we were going. We explained that we were just “not feeling the camping” that night, and were hiking back to the car. He understood our sentiment and continued on his way. The rest of our night hike was uneventful. I felt that if I was in a more unfamiliar area, I would’ve been a little more nervous.

Overall, our trip was not what we expected, yet everything we were out there to accomplish. It was a break from the busy city, on a crisp fall night, relaxing in the wilderness. We practiced some new photography and watched a sunset from our campsite. We also tried two new adventures– backpacking and night hiking. In my opinion, despite the fact that we didn’t stay the night we still got most of the good parts. Next time, we will need to plan a little better for our clothing selections and bring activities or friends to keep us entertained after the sun goes down. Or perhaps I just need to learn how to relax and unwind more– something that I have not mastered yet.

After telling my friend about this experience, she explained to me that she had felt the same way on her most recent trip. I want to research what others do to enhance the camping experience even more.

What are your suggestions for backpacking adventures? What do you look forward to while backpacking or night hiking?