At Enchanted Rock, test backpacking waters with beginner-friendly trip

Backpackers can hike in just 2 miles to primitive campground

Despite the raw dough we ate for breakfast, and the cactus thorns embedded in my leg, the Great Enchanted Rock Backpacking Shake-Out Trip officially goes down in the record books as a success.

I love to backpack. I’d rather sleep in a tent in a national park than a five-star hotel in a city, and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” tops my list of favorite books.

If you’re not experienced, though, the mere sight of a tent can conjure up images of dirt, blisters, snakes and physical misery. Which is why I enlisted the company of Leilani Perry, director of marketing and communications for YMCA Austin, to join me on an overnight trip to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. She’d backpacked as a youth in California, but hadn’t hoisted a pack since. I needed to remind her of the joys of hauling a bunch of gear into the backcountry.

“What I’ve done as an adult has been ‘car camping,’ so I haven’t had to carry the essentials in with me,” she said.

She was about to get a lesson in the difference. Our plan? Cook gourmet meals over a very tiny camp stove. Test out some new gear I got for the three-week backpacking trip I plan to take next summer. Enjoy the wide-open spaces.

We set a date, picked a destination and packed our bags. Then, when I went to pick up Perry, we unpacked and did it all over again.

The number one rule of backpacking? Pack light. And remember that water weighs more than 8 pounds per gallon.

We traded her heavy-duty sleeping bag for an ultralight backpacking one. We ditched the extra clothes. (Backpackers have to be prepared to wallow in each other’s stink.) We left out her pillow and packed an inflatable one the size of a breakfast burrito instead. Then we loaded up a gallon of water each.

But because we knew we’d be hiking just 2 miles into the primitive camping area on the backside of Enchanted Rock, we decided to do some things I wouldn’t.

Perry had searched online using the key words “camping food hacks” to create a menu of pasta and apple crisp for dinner, and sweet rolls baked inside hollowed-out oranges for breakfast. It all sounded so much better than the feather-light freeze-dried meals I’m used to eating that we agreed to strap metal pans and baking racks on our backs.

Then we made the hour-and-a-half drive to the park.

Enchanted Rock makes the perfect training ground for newbie backpackers. You need to be reasonably fit to slog up the slick rock with even one night’s worth of stuff on your back, but you’re never far from civilization in case something goes awry.

The park has three hike-to primitive camping areas. We marched, sweaty and breathing heavily, to Moss Lake, where we picked a spot underneath a sprawling oak tree and popped up our lightweight two-person Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 tent. We unfurled our sleeping pads and bags, then poured a glass of wine (a Platypus water bag weighs much less than a wine bottle) for a toast as we watched the sun light the granite dome like a giant copper penny.

By then we were hungry, so I sparked up the Snickers-sized Snow Peak Gigapower camp stove. We stacked a metal pan on top of the stove, balanced a wire rack on top of that to create a flat space, and piled on packets of precooked pasta and sauce. Fifteen minutes later, voila — gourmet pasta.

For dessert, Perry mixed sliced apples, oats, butter and brown sugar and cooked it over the stove in foil packets. In 20 minutes, we were spearing gooey, baked apples with our forks.

One of the best parts of backpacking comes after the sun sets, when the critters sing, the stars pop out and you realize your own insignificance. At Moss Lake, frogs rule the night. When they started croaking, we thought someone had started a lawn mower. Then Perry pulled out a surprise — footie pajamas. I zipped up my fuzzy, red-and-white-striped set and danced a little jig before crawling into our very cozy tent.

At about 5 a.m., I crawled out into the dark and staggered sleepily around in the bushes for a few minutes, apparently encountering a cactus or two. I pulled spines out for two days.

I got up for real a couple of hours later, tugged on a pair of running shorts and shoes, and headed out for a 4-mile trail run, which is another reason Enchanted Rock makes a nice camping destination.

Back at camp, it was time for breakfast. Perry unwrapped a roll of instant sweet rolls, and tucked them into hollowed-out oranges. We set them on the stove and covered them with foil, then left them to bake while we admired the surroundings.

That’s when the stove ran out of fuel, crushing our dreams of pillowlike, orange-infused sweet rolls. We ate the raw dough anyway and braced for the bloat, which was totally worth it.

Relaxed and satisfied, we packed up camp, buckled on our mobile homes and hit the trail again.

“The best part about backpacking is simply being outdoors and being reminded how extraordinary our natural world is,” Perry told me later. “The sounds of nature are grounding, calming and the best nighttime lullaby.”

Camping reminds you what’s essential and important, she said. It helps you reconnect with yourself and your friends.

Mission accomplished.

Perry wants to camp again. But maybe with lighter equipment.

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