Author Archives: benlcollins

Hancock Bike Tour on the C&O Canal

12 – 13 May 2023

Chuck invited me to join him on an overnight bike trip on the C&O canal, starting from Hancock, MD, heading up the river to Indigo Neck campground.

I haven’t visited this area since the 2014 tour with my brother, so I jumped at the chance to see an unfamiliar part of the C&O national park.

Day 1: Hancock, MD, to Indigo Neck Campground, 15 miles

It was blazing hot as we got ready in Hancock (around 85 F perhaps) so it was a welcome relief to start cycling and get into the shade of the woods.

It felt more remote and wild than sections of the towpath near Harpers Ferry. We only saw one other person the entire time.

With Chuck at the parking lot in Hancock, about to set off
Enjoying the shade along the C&O canal
Round Top Cement Mill
Sideling Hill Creek flowing into the Potomac river

It was hot and dry when we got to camp and thankfully the bugs were minimal.

With the long hours of daylight at this time of year, it was a leisurely afternoon setting up the tent and having dinner.

Indigo Neck hiker biker site
First job after getting the tent up: collect and filter water from the pump

Chuck brought a folding saw, which we put to good use cutting firewood for the campfire. (Pro tip: A squirt of lighter fluid helps get damp wood going!)

View from my tent towards the rest of the campsite

As the evening wore on, the birds became more vocal with the whippoorwills dominating the song.

The campfire was our focal point as we shared tales and watched the flames turn wood to ash as day gave way to night.

There’s something mesmerizing about a good campfire

Day 2: Indigo Neck Campground to home, 82 miles

I woke to light rain on the fly. I headed to the picnic bench and made hot granola and coffee for breakfast. The rain continued through the morning, necessitating a waterproof jacket but never heavy enough to be unpleasant.

Brenda, another bike tourer, was away first that morning at 8.30. Chuck and I were away a bit after 9.

Since we’d ridden the canal towpath into Indigo Neck campground the day before, we decided to ride the parallel Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) on the return to Hancock. The WMRT is paved, which was a benefit as the rain steadily increased.

Chuck on the Western Maryland Rail Trail

It’s a beautiful ride through mountainous western Maryland. Being an old rail line, there is virtually no ascent or descent, so it’s an easy ride.

It was much cooler than the day before with low mist clinging to the mountain sides, which made the whole place look like the set of Jurassic Park.

Crossing over Sideling Hill Creek
Looking out from the rail trail at the Sideling Hill Creek Aqueduct and Potomac River
Me and Chuck
An Eastern Tent Caterpillar (I think!)
Chuck riding past a giant rockfall on the Western Maryland Rail Trail

I said goodbye to Chuck in Hancock, where he stopped at his truck.

I continued, planning to ride all the way home, which would be about 80 miles total for the day, the furthest I’ve ridden since 2014!

Signs every few miles along the WMRT
Typical scenery on the southern end of the WMRT. I didn’t see a single other cyclist or walker outside of Hancock.
Smiling during a lull in the rain

I rode to the terminus of the WMRT, having missed the connection to the C&O canal about a mile earlier. I was loathe to backtrack so I rode through Fort Frederick State Park to regain the canal at the far end of Big Pool.

From there I rode the towpath along the river’s edge and in and out of the woods.

Aside from one large group, the trail was mostly empty and I enjoyed miles of solitude. The rain fell heavily at times, and the trail was muddy, but I love these kinds of conditions as they remind me of home.

Cliffs along the side of the Potomac
The impressive Dam 5
Beautiful riding along the newly restored section of the towpath near to McMahon’s Mill

The riding was super fun until around mile 70, once I was on familiar ground past Shepherdstown. Then my legs began to ache. And ache.

The last few miles into Harpers Ferry were hard. It doesn’t seem to matter how long a ride is — 50 miles, 80 miles, 100+ miles — the last 10 miles always feel hard.

The trails were rather muddy with the rain!
One filthy bike, sign of a good adventure!
Snake sighting! An eastern ratsnake close to Lock 37

Overall, this was an excellent mini bike tour with friends.

I explored a local area that I’ve only visited once before, many years ago, so it felt like new terrain. Plus, 80 miles in the rain on mostly muddy gravel was a solid challenge that had me digging deep, which is exactly the sensation I’m searching for.

Welsh 3000s hike with Alistair

15 – 17 April 2023

When Alistair and I were planning this trip he asked me: “what’s your preference for what we do?”

I replied: “I’d love to bag some summits and possibly do some scrambling, since that’s different to the type of adventures I do at home in the Appalachians”

A few days later he suggested we try backpacking the Welsh 3000 ft peaks.


The Welsh 3000s is a challenge to walk all the mountains over 3,000 ft in Wales in a single expedition.

It’s a route that I’ve dreamed of for over two decades (!) but just never quite got round to doing. So I was incredibly excited to finally give it a shot.

Unbelievably, it’s been done in under 5 hours by elite runners, and under 12 hours by fast runners. I once harbored ambitions to try to do it in under a day myself, but not anymore. This time, we opted to do it over 3 days with 2 high camps, still a challenging itinerary. For me, it would certainly tick the “summit” box with 16 planned summits and since it involves at least one mandatory scramble, I’d also get to tick that box.

We chose to start our route from sea level, which meant our final peak would also be the tallest, Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). It made for a beautiful, logical line, around 38 miles in length.

See a recap video of the trip here.

Day 1: Llanfairfechan to Carnedd Llewelyn camp

10.2 miles / 3,879 ft ascent / 3 summits

We started our trek from the beach at Llanfairfechan, near Bangor

We left the town of Llanfairfechan and climbed up into the mountains. Behind us lay the Menai Strait and Anglesey, ahead lay the challenge of the Carneddau range.

Looking out to Penman Point and Puffin Island, an area I visited many times in my childhood
Alistair on the track up Drum, 770m

Day 1 was all uphill, since we started at sea level and climbed three of the 3000 ft summits. Once we gained the ridge proper though, the bulk of the ascent for the day was done.

Summit #1: Foel-fras, 942 m (3,090 ft)

Our first 3000 summit: Foel-fras, 942m
Walking across the high plateau of the Carneddau

Snow lingered on the north slopes of the mountains and ice lay in the puddles. Since it was above freezing, it was all slushy and we didn’t need to worry about winter conditions. The ground was wet and my boots eventually succumbed to repeated immersions to leave my feet damp.

Summit #2: Carnedd Gwenllian, 926 m (3,038 ft)

All smiles on our second summit
Alistair descending through the snow off the back of Carnedd Gwenllian

Summit #3: Foel Grach, 976 m (3,202 ft)

Still relatively mild conditions on the summit of Foel Grach
Crossing the high Carneddau plateau, looking for a spot to camp
Camped high on the saddle between Foel Grach and Carnedd Llywelyn. Alistair’s tent is the dark green one on the left, mine the light green one on the right.

After pitching the tents, we collected and filtered water from a stream at the col. Then back to the tents to cook in the dusk light and enjoy a hot dinner with a view of city lights sparkling in the distance.

Cooking dinner at dusk, with the lights of Liverpool in the distance
Recording the day before dropping off to sleep

It was a wild and windy night!

It snowed during the first half of the night, but it turned to rain as the night wore on. During the night the wind shifted direction so it was hitting my tent side-on and flattening it on me during the stronger gusts.

Suffice to say, I didn’t sleep much that night!

Day 2: Carnedd Llewelyn camp to Y Garn camp

11.8 miles / 5,121 ft ascent / 8 summits

Breakfast in bed!

The rain and wind lessened through the morning so the conditions were reasonably benign when we set off, just a tad chilly. Only the visibility remained poor through the morning.

There were still cornices along the ridge as we ascended Yr Elen

Summits #4 – 7: The central Carneddau

From camp, we skirted the shoulder of Carnedd Llywelyn and climbed Yr Elen first, to avoid having to ascend Carnedd Llywelyn twice.

We climbed the summits along the central ridge line of the Carneddau in quick succession, as they only have modest drops between them:

  • Yr Elen, 962 m (3,156 ft)
  • Carnedd Llywelyn, 1064 m (3,491 ft)
  • Carnedd Dafydd, 1044 m (3,425 ft)
  • Pen yr Ole Wen, 978 m (3,208 ft)
On the summit of Yr Elen, 962 m (3,156 ft)

The cloud thinned as we ascended the final summit of the Carneddau range: Pen yr Ole Wen.

We opted to descend the east ridge, a mild grade 1 scramble that we’d both done several times before (15 – 20 years ago though!). Although the direct descent from the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen to the west end of Llyn Ogwen tempted us with the promise of a cafe, it’s not a particularly pleasant descent.

We dropped below the cloud base as we passed Ffynnon Lloer at the base of the east ridge. The Glyderau were poking out of the cloud, which was rapidly thinning.

Tryfan and the Ogwen valley, seen as we descended off the Carneddau range

We elected to scramble the north ridge of Tryfan rather than the south ridge from the Bwlch Tryfan, which would have been a longer route. We made rapid progress up the steep trail but spent WAY too long route finding on the scramble itself.

Alistair on the lower portion of Tryfan’s North ridge, with the cloud lifting over the Glyderau
Cloud inversion from Tryfan

Tryfan kept us guessing to the very summit. We were committed to a gully with an unknown exit. Thankfully, it snuck round a corner and popped us out right next to the summit rocks, Adam and Eve.

Looking towards the summit of Tryfan
Incredible cloud inversion over the east edge of the Glyderau, towards Capel Curig

Summit #8: Tryfan, 915 m (3,011 ft)

On the summit of Tryfan
The famous Adam and Eve stones on the summit of Tryfan
Looking back at Tryfan from the pass Bwlch Tryfan
Beautiful evening light close to the summit of Glyder Fach

The silver lining of spending all afternoon on the ascent of Tryfan was that we traversed the main Glyderau ridge in the glorious evening light. The thick clag on the summits earlier in the day was long gone, replaced by a magical cloud inversion.

Where the Carneddau are mostly boggy, open summits, the Glyderau are all shattered rock pillars (the name itself means “heap of stones”).

Most of the summits involve a degree of scrambling to attain the airy perches. We had good weather so it was a really enjoyable section of the walk, even despite our weary legs.

Summit #9: Glyder Fach, 994 m (3,261 ft)

The summit of Glyder Fach in the evening light
Alistair crossing the Glyderau
Looking across to the Snowdon group in the evening light
Some of the best conditions I’ve ever had up there

Summit #10: Castell y Gwynt, 972 m (3,189 ft)

On top of the airy summit rock pile of Castell y Gwynt
Alistair scrambling down off the airy summit of Castell y Gwynt
Gorgeous views looking west towards the Irish Sea
Looking back to the Carneddau and Tryfan
Looking west at sunset

Summit #11: Glyder Fawr, 1,001 m (3,284 ft)

A pair of tired hikers on the summit of Glyder Fawr
We needed our headtorches for the descent of Glyder Fawr. Y Garn in the distance.

Day 3: Y Garn camp to Pen-y-Pass

15.9 miles / 5,867 ft ascent / 5 summits

Having pitched our tents in the dark the previous evening, we had no idea just how scenic the camping spot was! It was a gorgeous morning, all the more so because we were up early at first light, to ensure we had time to complete another big day.

Our camp at Llyn y Cwn, with Y Garn in the background

This is one of the best wild camps I’ve had in a long time. Barely a breath of wind, no bugs, beautiful scenery, a hot breakfast. Basically, as good as it gets.

Breakfast on morning of day 3
One of the best nights sleep I’ve ever had in a tent!
Camp at Llyn y Cwm

We were walking by 7.30 am and immediately started the climb up Y Garn. It’s an easy ascent on a good path, so we just plodded along and enjoyed the incredible views.

Summit #12: Y Garn, 947 m (3,106 ft)

Perfect weather on the summit of Y Garn
Panorama looking towards the Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) group
Llyn Ogwen and Llyn Idwal in the Ogwen valley
Llyn Ogwen (L), Llyn Idwal (R), and Tryfan

The route from the top of Y Garn to Elidir Fawr is one of the finest high-level walks in Snowdonia I think. Especially on a day like this, with bright blue skies and a stunning cloud inversion.

After the rocky summits of the main Glyderau, the easy trails on Elidir Fawr were a welcome change underfoot.

On the shoulder of Elidir Fawr
Alistair ascending Elidir Fawr, one of my favourite sections of the trip
Looking across to the Snowdon group
Marchlyn Mawr reservoir, water source for the Dinorwig power station
Alistair on the summit slopes of Elidir Fawr

Summit #13: Elidir Fawr, 924 m (3,031 ft)

On the summit of Elidir Fawr (photo by Alistair)
View from the summit stone shelter on Elidir Fawr

The cloud filled in as we descended off Elidir Fawr down to Nant Perris. We passed the huge Dinorwig slate quarries on the way down. In the valley, some sheep had escaped into the single track road in front of us. Try as we might, we couldn’t get past them, so they kept running towards the main road, which would have caused a problem. Thankfully a passing local shepherded them into an empty field and alerted the farmer. Oh, the dramas of rural life!

Walking through the Llanberis valley as we cross from the Glyderau into the Snowdon group

Our route continued on an undulating path along the valley floor for a few miles, before heading up into the Snowdon range for our final group of three peaks.

On the way up Cwm Glas
Scrambling up to Cwm Glas

Somewhere during our ascent to Cwm Glas, we missed the left turn and continued following a trail that led us to far to the right, to the base of the Pearson arete (a classic hard scramble, one for another day!).

Although we were some way off route, it wasn’t a total disaster as there was a faint traversing trail that took us back towards Cwm Glas. However, with time pressing, we opted to go to Bwlch Coch, the col between Crib Goch and Garnedd Ugain, rather than try the full traverse of Crib Goch (our original plan, but a longer route).

The final steep climb up to the Bwlch Coch

This meant we would do an out-and-back route to tag the summit of Crib Goch. One benefit to this was that we could leave our bags at the col to do the scramble. However, it also meant we had to do the hardest scrambling over the pinnacles in both directions.

Alistair on Crib Goch ridgeline, the most airy and difficult summit

I’m really out of practice scrambling, so it was vaguely terrifying in a few places. The moves are simple, but the route is very exposed. So we took our time and made sure we were safe.

Summit #14: Crib Goch, 923 m (3,028 ft)

On the summit of Crib Goch, maybe I closed my eyes to avoid looking at the drop?
Can you spot Alistair climbing over the exposed 3rd pinnacle of Crib Goch?
View from col of Llyn Llydaw (L) and Glaslyn (R) nestled in the Snowdon group

The cloud layer descended again, so we lost visibility going up the penultimate mountain.

We tried to avoid some of the scrambling to save time, by using a traversing path, but we ended up having to climb a heinous scree gully to get to the summit.

Ascending a steep scree gully to attain the summit of Garnedd Ugain

Not a particularly fun route, but I was still smiling because we were so close to achieving our objective. Only a short walk from the summit of Garnedd Ugain to Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) remained.

Summit #15: Garnedd Ugain, 1,065 m (3,494 ft)

At the crumbling trig pillar of our penultimate top: Garnedd Ugain

All that remained was the highest of the lot: Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). It’s the highest mountain in Wales and can be a tourist magnet on summer weekends. As it was a misty, windy, Monday evening, we only saw a few other groups on our way to the summit.

Summit #16: Yr Wyddfa / Snowdon, 1,085 m (3,560 ft)

Success! Standing on the summit of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) the final 3000er and also the highest.

We had the summit to ourselves, just the wind and thick cloud for company.

It was hugely satisfying to knock this one off and complete the 3000s. I was relieved that my right knee and lower back didn’t give me any trouble.

We had a taxi booked for 8 pm from Pen-y-Pass car park so we had to dash down the Miner’s track to make it in time. We arrived at 8.02 pm. Not bad timing, given that we booked it a few hours earlier on the summit of Garnedd Ugain and had to estimate our pickup time.

Descending The Miner’s Track off Snowdon
At the finish line! Pen-y-Pass car park where we caught a taxi back to Alistair’s car at Llanfairfechan

What can I say to wrap this up?

A brilliant, brilliant trip!

Undoubtedly I have some recency bias because it’s been a long time since I’ve been backpacking in the UK like this, but I would say this was one of the best short trips I’ve ever done.

It had a bit of everything: a classic and challenging route, wild camping, scrambling, full variety of weather, great companionship, and stunning scenery in one of my favourite parts of the world.

March mid-week bikepacking overnighter to Big Woods hiker biker campsite

28 – 29 March 2023

At Big Woods Hiker Biker campsite, along the C&O Canal

One of my goals this year is to camp out for at least one night every month. I managed it in January (see January bikepacking overnighter) but missed February (life and work were busy).

It looked like March was going to be another miss, but right at the end of the month, after launching a big work project, I was able to sneak out for another sub-24 hour overnighter.

Day 1: Home to Big Woods, via dam 4, 27.5 miles

Like the January trip, I rode from home along the C&O Canal towpath to one of the backcountry campsites: Big Woods hiker biker site.

I got away at 3.30 pm, headed upriver on the canal towpath. I’ve ridden this section countless times, but I always enjoy the meditative experience of riding in solitude alongside the river. There were only a handful of dog walkers out on the trail on a mid-week afternoon and I enjoyed the quietness.

Enjoying easy miles along the canal towpath
Loving the comfy ride of the Surly Grappler
It won’t be long until the towpath is a green tunnel again

Although Big Woods is before dam 4, I decided to prolong the riding into the early evening and ride on to see dam 4. It’s an impressive low-head dam that I stopped at with my brother on our north east tour in 2014. A great place to enjoy the river and appreciate its power.

Dam 4 on the Potomac River

Big Woods campsite is set back from the towpath, down by the river. It’s one of the more secluded, smaller hiker biker campsites. There was no-one else here, so I had the campsite to myself.

I had enough light to pitch the tent and have dinner. It was cool, but not cold. The river was flowing fast, specked with foam.

Across the river, on the West Virginia side, I could see the lights of one house, but they might as well have been on the moon, for the mighty Potomac stood between us. Otherwise, it was just me and the woods.

Nemo Hornet 1P tent setup at Big Woods campsite
Cooking dinner
MSR Pocket Rocket still going strong after 10 years

It was a pleasant night and I slept well. The only drama was the camp pillow deflating on me but I survived somehow, haha.

What a strange pastime this bikepacking is. Riding to the middle of nowhere to lie in a tiny fabric coffin and read the same book I would have read from the comfort of home. But somehow it’s amazing and hard to beat!

Day 2: Big Woods to home, 24.2 miles

I awoke to birdsong at first light, around 6.30 am. I made breakfast outside — a weird boil-in-the-bag biscuits dish that had the consistency and texture of one of my son’s slime creations — and enjoyed it from the warmth of my sleeping bag.

Breakfast in the tent on morning of day 2

I watched the sun creep down from the tops of the tall sycamore trees, painting them gold, until finally hitting my tent and announcing the beginning of the day.

It was time to strike camp and get going!

The tent catching the first rays of sunshine.

My return route was a reversal of yesterday’s, minus the few extra miles up to dam 4.

It was a cool morning, so my extremities took a little while to warm up. There were only a few dog walkers out, so it was another couple of hours of tranquil riding alongside the bubbling river.

Departing Big Woods campsite on the morning of day 2.
It was cold in the shadows along the canal towpath.
Beautiful, easy miles along the C&O canal.

With every ride along the canal, one learns or notices something new. This time, I saw the cliffs along the Maryland shore in a new light. Of course, I’ve seen them many times before, but I’d never really appreciated their size and how remarkable it is that the canal company could build the canal between the cliffs and the river.

Cliffs next to the C&O canal. It’s impressive that they could fit a canal between the river and cliffs.

I was home by mid-morning and back at work by noon. It was another successful S24O (sub 24-hour adventure) by bike.

I’m already looking forward to the next one, perhaps I’ll head downstream this time, and stay at Marble Quarry campsite. There’s also 50+ miles of singletrack near Seneca that’s on my radar, but I probably need 2-3 full days to get there and enjoy that. One for the future though!

Winter Season 2022/23

Winter? What winter?

After many fantastic winter hikes in the 2021/22 season and 2020/21 season, I was psyched for more of the same.

But it was not to be this year.

Apart from a very cold week in late December, and two snowy-ish days (around 1 inch each time), winter was non-existent this year.

I believe we had a relatively normal amount of precipitation for this time of year but it all fell as rain because of the mild temperatures.

The silver lining was that I was able to get out on my bike more often this winter, which was a huge positive.

Some highlights from this season:

8 December 2022: Winter SUP Session

A few hours of cold-weather paddling on the Potomac River with my friend Chuck. Great fun! We put in at the River Riders campground boat ramp and explored a few miles upstream before returning.

More photos on Instagram.

22 December 2022: Loudoun Heights in the snow

One of only two snowy hikes this winter! There was about an inch of slushy, wet snow on the ground.

I took one of my favorite winter photos up on the ridgeline of Loudoun Heights:

More photos on Instagram.

January overnighter on the bike

One of my goals this year is to camp at least one night each month. I managed an overnighter in January and March, but was too busy in February.

In January, I did a sub-24hr overnighter (an “S24O”) and rode from home to Killiansburg hiker biker campsite along the C&O canal. It was a super little trip!

Long winter rides on the C&O Canal

I’m prioritising the bike this year, so I’ve been making an effort to get out for long rides along the canal and neighbouring roads solo and with friends.

1 Jan: 50 miles along the canal upstream from home to dam 4 and return. Cold!

7 Jan: 44 miles, climb of Mar Lu ridge, behind Point of Rocks.

18 Jan: 36 miles downstream along the C&O canal with Paul.

25 Feb: 60 miles along the canal upstream. Cold! Snow flurries on the return journey. Rode with the only 2 other cyclists I saw that day – Eddie and Hannah – for 10 miles or so, in the middle.

3 March 2022: Raven Rocks in the snow

The only other snowy hike this winter, a really enjoyable climb up to the Raven Rocks lookout on the A.T. with Lexi.

More photos on Instagram.

Otherwise, there were plenty of great hikes and bike rides on my local trails, with family, with friends, and solo. But none with snow 😦

Hopefully, this isn’t the new normal for this area and next season we’ll get a decent showing of snow.