Three Lakes Trail: An Epic Winter Adventure

When we decided to hike the Three Lakes Trail at the Morgan Monroe State Forest over Valentine’s Day weekend we knew that it was going to be a test of our hiking skill and fortitude thus far. This 10.5 mile trail is nearly as rugged as they come in some spots. But in the spirit of making bad decisions so that we have cool stories to talk about later over beer, we decided to tackle this behemoth of a trail (by our standards) during a snowstorm and with day temps dipping down to around 18 degrees. Our plan going in to this hike was to complete the entirety of the Three Lakes Trail, then hike a mile or so into the back country where camping is permitted, as it’s not allowed on the Three Lakes Trail, so that we could test out our winter camping gear.

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So we got underway at about 2:30 on Sunday (valentine’s day) and got our first taste of the trail while the snow fell pretty heavily. Now, when we went into this, we knew that the trail was supposed to be tough. Definitely a test of our fitness level thus far. In any case, carrying a 50lb pack full of everything you need to survive in a subfreezing environment for a day or two is a test of anyone’s fortitude. On this occasion we definitely didn’t take into account how much the snowfall was going to slow us down. Having to trudge through 2-3 inches of fresh snow and deal with slick ledges on narrow portions of the trail slowed us to nearly a crawl at some points.

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As it was we had seriously underestimated this trail. After making it about 5 miles in and with night quickly closing in on us, we made the decision that we would have to find a suitable place to wait out the night, test our gear and hike out safely in the daylight on Monday. We could have tried to make it out and not break the no camping rule. But portions of the trail that we’d already been on had become so slick that we didn’t want to chance one or both of us getting injured in the dark with temps in the high teens. So we hiked as far off trail as we could and found a nice camping spot.

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The night went by without a hitch, we got a nice fire going, heated up some food for dinner and warmed up before turning in. We listened to the haunting call of the local coyotes in the distance bouncing off the trees of the otherwise silent forest. Our 0 degree sleeping bags held up to their promise of keeping us warm and alive through the frigid night.

The next morning we packed up and were back on the trail by 8:15. We rounded the second lake, snapped a few pictures of the scenery. Then both experiences our first winter hiking “oh shit” falls on the trail. Luckily no one was around to laugh at us except for a few hundred Cardinals and some rather unhappy squirrels. We had tackled the southern portion of the trail on day one, we hadn’t known at the time but most of the serious hills were now behind us as most of the northern portion of the trail is flat. This was a blessing for me especially, being over 300lbs with all my cold weather gear and my pack. My legs will be about the size of tree trunks before our next hike. But at this point they were screaming like kids in a toy store when mommy and daddy are on a budget.

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We kept a slow and steady pace for the remainder of the trail, stopped a few times to get water at some of the semi-frozen creeks and to try to talk the fatigue out of my very unhappy calves and quads. But we finished the trail after another 3 hours, we walked off the trail right around 11am on Monday. At this point we were greeted by one of the local DNR employees who told us he’d seen that my truck had been sitting overnight and was about to go check some of the shelter houses to make sure we weren’t stranded somewhere. We recounted the story of our miscalculation, lamented how tough the trail had truly been and got a bit of a scolding where we were told that under most circumstances there is a $200 fine for anyone caught camping on the Three Lakes Trail. But because of the situation he said he understood the necessity. We took the warning, dropped our packs at the truck and ended the first real epic adventure of the year for the Free Range Hikers.

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Complete photo gallery and the GPS map from this trek are linked below.

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