Sunday, March 18, 2012

Trip report — Northern Michigan’s VASA singletrack

VASA singletrack mountain biking

Moutain biking the VASA singletrack; image courtesy SteveF

I’ve been on the road for the past week, testing the Garmin nuvi 2495LMT 2497LMT and Oregon 650t, while visiting my wife’s family in Michigan. We got in a brief side trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and next year I want to do an extended hike there, so that may be a forthcoming trip report. For today though, I want to share our mountain biking experience on the VASA singletrack trail, just outside Traverse City. read more

Trip report – Rocky Fork, Tennessee

Rocky-Fork-Buzzard-Rock It was a little over a year ago when I learned about a new 10,000 acre public land acquisition located between Asheville, NC and Johnson City, TN. Described as remote, isolated and unmapped (as far as trails go), I knew right away where I’d be spending my play time for the foreseeable future. I’ve now completed most of the routes that can be mountain biked in Rocky Fork, and I’m happy to present my first trip report post since my son came into this world.

When I started out, there were no accurate trail maps of the Rocky Fork tract. Well no more. The clickable image below shows a fairly good trail map of the area (image captured from National Geographic TOPO software).

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Trip Report – Southern New Mexico and Mexican Gray Wolves

My posting frequency has been down a bit lately, as I just returned from a “working vacation” – how’s that for an oxymoron? Nevertheless, my wife and I had fun exploring New Mexico and a bit of Colorado, but our outdoor adventures were mostly in Southern New Mexico. I like describing and posting tracks of our hikes and bike rides (and how I prepped our GPS receivers for them), so if it’s your cup of tea, read on. If not, regular programming will return following this post!

My wife (who is also my partner in outdoor adventure) is five months pregnant, so this won’t be a report of crazy adventures, filled with mountain bike crashes and off-trail adventures in canyons. This trip was comprised of relatively sedate hikes. In addition to those listed below, we also did shorter jaunts in Petroglyph National Monument (Albuquerque, NM) and Garden of the Gods (Colorado Springs, CO), but the tracks there aren’t long enough to be of much use to anyone. So without further delay…

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Another geocaching Christmas, this time with travel bugs!


Last year I reported on a geocaching Christmas, now a firmly ensconced family tradition. For those of you not familiar with
geocaching, it’s a way to have fun with your GPS and get kids
out of the house and hiking. And if you just got your first GPS, geocaching is a great introduction to GPS navigation.

This year we found several caches while in North Carolina, including Decaying Tunnel which had a couple of travel bugs in it. My nephew took one to Indiana and I took the other to California.

Daisy Mae Duck is the lucky bird that hitched a ride to California, where she awaits her next trip at Ploverlook in MacKerricker State Park. According to Daisy Mae’s web page, she wants to travel and see places like Florence, Tuscany, London, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. If you can help her out, give her a lift.

Mountain biking Lake Tahoe and Downieville by GPS

Last week I posted about preparing my GPS and maps for a mountain biking vacation around Lake Tahoe, and it’s high time for a trip report. My wife and I got in four good rides, and here are the highlights and GPX track files for each:

Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) and the Flume

We were a little nervous about topping 8,000 feet our first day, but there was only a thousand feet or so of climbing, so what better way to acclimate to elevation? We took the Mt. Rose shuttle, and had a great deal of fun on top of the ridge on the TRT, even though we were feeling the elevation. The Flume Trail portion was a bit disappointing, and not nearly as scary as we had been warned. Then again, we were riding it on a weekday, so there was little traffic coming at us. The photo at right is  a shot of Sand Harbor, from the Flume Trail.

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Downloading tracks to your GPS for navigation


I returned a couple of days ago from a week long mountain biking vacation at Lake Tahoe and Downieville, California. I had wanted to ride many of these trails for years and since I had not ridden them before, prior to going I downloaded tracks that others had posted online. Most of them came from MotionBased, although I did get a file of the Tahoe Rim Trail from National Geographic TOPO!‘s mapXchange. Tracks from the latter are much easier to use now (even for non-TOPO owners), thanks to the newly minted ability of GPSBabel to convert .tpo track files from TOPO!

So I layered the downloaded tracks and waypoints on maps I then printed with TOPO!, constructed routes, transferred maps and tracks to my GPS, etc. But once on the trail, I was reminded what a useful tool these pre-loaded tracks are for navigation, especially when you are moving fast on a bike. The image at the left is one such track. Notice that I set the track color to blue.

The screen image to the right gives you an idea what this looks like in the field, as my actual track (in red) overlays the pre-loaded track as I progress along the trail. (These are reconstructed images, so the current position cursor is missing; I did not take my laptop on the ride to do screen captures!) With this sort of setup, it’s easy to see at a glance if you’ve taken a wrong turn.

Now I do have a few caveats:

  • This is no substitute for conventional navigation.
  • The downloaded tracks are representations of someone else’s experience, and may include a wildly inaccurate track, wrong turns, etc.
  • Check to be sure that the downloaded track matches up to written trail descriptions and maps of the route that you are planning to take.

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SiRFstar III reception under dense canopy

UPDATE: Here’s my 2010 take on SiRFstar III, which is rarely available these days.

My wife and I went on our weekly mountain bike ride today, and of course we took our GPS receivers along for the ride!  I was kind of excited about it; we were going to ride a trail in dense redwoods that I had never been able to map due to poor satellite reception. But today I had my Garmin 60CSx along, which has the SiRFstar III chipset on board.

Now when I say dense, I do mean dense. Redwoods are actually a low biodiversity plant community; very little grows on the forest floor due to their dense shade. I’ve heard it said that native Americans here didn’t like the redwoods — that they are downright spooky. More likely it was just the lack of game and edible plants, but you get the idea.

Manly_gulchThe trail we rode, Manly Gulch, is as challenging as it sounds — narrow and technical, with steep dropoffs. The photo at left is of me coming around a tight curve between two redwoods. The trail section pictured is a narrow perched run set between a cut redwood stump on the upper side and a retaining wall on the lower side.

But to make a long story short, the 60CSx and SiRFstar III performed admirably, as can be seen in the map posted at right. I’ve seen my 60CSx get a lock inside, and I knew it had greatly improved reception over the 60CS, but it was still nice to see it all work so well where it counts.

GPS Trip Report: Southern California Deserts

I’ve posted several PhotoFusion pages from the recent Southern California desert trip my wife and I took. Check this link out for more on geocoded photos, including how to use the PhotoFusion pages.  Here are the links along with the .gpx files for anyone interested:

Oh yeah, if you want the whole trip report, I’ve posted it over on the SoCal board.

GPS Reception in Canyons

Sheep_canyon_1I just returned from vacation, during which time I tested a Garmin GPSMap 60CS and Magellan Meridian Platinum side-by-side to check for accuracy in a canyon. Canyons, both natural and urban are notorious for the phenomenon known as multipath — the reflection of signals off canyon walls. GPS receivers work by calculating the time it takes for signals to be received from GPS satellites, so signals bouncing off canyon walls are delayed slightly, thereby introducing error.

The test was conducted in Sheep Canyon (picture at right), in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Sheep Canyon is not a tight slot canyon, but it is a canyon nonetheless. I must have had good satellite coverage, because I never lost the signal lock the entire day.

Anza_borrego_tracks_1To see visual evidence of the difference between reception in the two units, check out the tracks on the aerial photo to the left. The Garmin track is in red, the Magellan in blue. I have one caveat here…It appears that the Garmin collected much more detail, but the Magellan is my wife’s GPSr, and I’m not as familiar with it. Once I saw this image, I checked and discovered that the Magellan was not set to acquire as detailed of a tracklog as possible.   Apart from that, the most interesting thing I see is that both units recorded at least one stray track point, far away from our position. On the basis of this, I’d rate their performance as comparable.

This canyon wasn’t tight enough to reduce reception much, but the topography did contribute to the stray track points. You can visit my other website to see the entire tracklog and geocoded photos, and this page on GPS Tracklog provides more information on geocoding photos with TopoFusion. Finally, stay tuned; over the next week or so I’ll have some more posts related to our GPS vacation.

Trip Report: Using GPS biking Mt. Diablo

This post launches a new category at GPS Tracklog — Trip Reports. The point isn’t to provide a trail guide, but rather to exhibit some of the ways to utilize your GPS. This report focuses on a circumnavigation of Mt. Diablo, a 3849′ peak that dominates the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay region.

My wife and I were in the area this past week doing GPS mapping demos, promoting my book, GPS Mapping – Make Your Own Maps. Since our days were open, we decided to get in a mid-week bike ride.  Living on California’s heat-deprived North Coast, we opted for a ride slightly inland. Mt. Diablo was our target, and since I didn’t know the area very well, I turned to a message board on for help. I wasn’t disappointed. Several people, especially EBrider helped out, designing an awesome loop that incorporated technical single track, loose and steep fire roads, and nearly 2,000′ of elevation gain.

EB sent me a track in the form of a .tpo file, which is a National Geographic TOPO! (Amazon link) file format. This, combined with the trail descriptions provided by EB and others at, gave me almost enough info to plan the trip, though I will admit to picking up a hard copy of a trail map so that I had good access to trail names and other features. Too bad the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association doesn’t have this map posted online. Online trail maps (often PDFs), combined with mapping software and aerial photos, are typically adequate for my purposes.

I took the track that EB sent and exported it from TOPO via my GPS (a real pain since TOPO makes you convert tracks to routes in order to export them). I then imported it into TopoFusion, which allowed me to see the track on a color aerial photo. USGS posts color urban aerial imagery for major US metropolitan regions online at TerraServer, with more locations being added on a frequent basis. These images are readily available in programs like TopoFusion and USAPhotoMaps, which add a better user interface and allow you to transfer data to and from your GPS. The color imagery extends into natural areas in many cases, and the detail is amazing, going down to 0.25 meters per pixel. Notice the waypoint (MDNPEAKTR) in the image at the right. Mt_diablo_2 You can see a fire road going off to the north from the waypoint and, while the online image isn’t as sharp as the original, you can actually make out single-track going off to the northeast!  The single-track leaves the image near the top of the right-side.

With TopoFusion, I traced the single-track as accurately as possible, and created waypoints for major trail junctions. I then loaded the waypoints and redrawn track to my GPS, making the track blue so that I could clearly distinguish it from the tracklog being created as I rode.
The only things left were to create a route to guide me from waypoint to waypoint, and generate a printed map. I’ve posted the ride at 4 meters per pixel (black & white) using TopoFusion’s PhotoFusion feature, which apparently doesn’t yet allow access to the color aerial imagery when using their HTML Image Map feature.

EDIT: I asked at the TopoFusion message board and found out that you can capture a color aerial .jpg and replace the one generated by TopoFusion. My Mt. Diablo PhotoFusion page now shows the color aerial at 4 meters/pixel..

If you want to to learn more about how to use GPS and mapping software, check out my book. It has chapters on National Geographic TOPO!, USA PhotoMaps and TopoFusion. And for those of you who want to know more about the ride itself, read on…

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