I Wanna Go Back: What this Scouter learned from 25 treks at Philmont Scout Ranch

A collage of photos from Robert Hostetter's Philmont adventures. All photos courtesy of Robert Hostetter.

It’s a sentiment so common that it’s been turned into a book, emblazoned on a bumper sticker and shared on social media.

“I Wanna Go Back to Philmont.”

For Robert Hostetter, the magnetism of Philmont Scout Ranch’s mountains and trails has been pulling him back for more than three decades. 

After his first trek at the New Mexico high-adventure base in 1985, Hostetter hasn’t just wanted to go back to Philmont. He’s gone and done it — again and again and again. 

Hostetter just returned from his 25th Philmont trek. Even more interesting is that all 25 of those treks were taken as an adult.

“In my BSA youth, I had heard the tales and adventures of returning crews from my fellow Scouts,” Hostetter says. “But for miscellaneous reasons, I was never able to attend as a Scout.”

Hostetter, who was a Life Scout in his youth, is now the Scoutmaster of Troop 93 of the Indianapolis-based Crossroads of America Council.

Experiencing Philmont for the first time

When Hostetter’s district was planning a Philmont trek in 1985, a group of volunteers approached the avid backpacker to see if he’d be willing to spend 12 days hiking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

He needed less than a second to say yes.

“How fortunate for me that they helped me to fulfill a dream,” Hostetter says. 

Hostetter remembers that his ranger — the Philmont staffer who joined the crew for its first few nights in the backcountry — was a woman from Utah named April Davis. He remembers being so impressed that she carried in her backpack a full-size Dutch oven so she could surprise the crew with cobbler on their first night on the trail. 

As the trip progressed, Hostetter watched the Scouts — who came from several different home troops — grow closer together.

“Within a few days, they were working so well as a unit,” he says. 

Seeing how Philmont had changed these young people, Hostetter made a personal vow.

“I would try to give every Scout I could the opportunity to have that mountaintop experience,” he says. “Not only for their benefit but for the units they were associated with.”

Going back time after time

Hostetter has been an adult volunteer for 19 standard Philmont treks and six Order of the Arrow Trail Crew treks. 

Many of Hostetter’s treks in those first few years were of the “super-strenuous” variety — totaling more than 100 miles of hiking. His toughest was a 107-mile journey where each day’s hiking began before daylight and ended with setting up camp in the early evening.

That one was “certainly a test of endurance for a flatlander trying to keep up with long-legged teenagers,” Hostetter says.

Later trips included some in the 50-mile category, which afforded Scouts more free time for programs at staffed backcountry camps. 

“And, if I was fortunate, a late-afternoon nap,” he says.

Hostetter’s rainiest trip happened in 1990 and featured three days of cold, monsoon-level rains. He remembers eating every meal under a dining fly and setting up wet tents day after day.

“I remember vividly the cheer that went up when the first Scout up woke up to a sunny morning,” he says. “Certainly one of my toughest treks but now one that is still talked about by those that were a part of it.”

As memorable moments go, Hostetter says it’s hard to beat climbing Baldy Mountain with his two boys — both of whom went on to be on Philmont staff.

“Climbing Baldy with my Scout sons is an irreplaceable experience,” he says. 

What to know before you go

Hostetter returns to Philmont again and again because he’s seen the magic it holds. He’s felt the transcendent power of its special places, like Cathedral Rock overlooking the Cimarroncito Reservoir or Clark’s Fork, a Western-themed camp that’s always been one of his favorites.

“Philmont is the place where Scout spirit can be really understood,” he says. “The challenges, the skills, the teamwork — it’s a place where individuals learn more about themselves in 12 days than in any other environment.”

While some frequent travelers are loathe to tell the world about their favorite places — lest they become overcrowded and “hidden gems” no longer — Hostetter wants as many Scouting families as possible to visit Philmont. 

Here’s his advice for planning your own Philmont adventure.

  • Let your crew make the big decisions, but offer your help. “Find another advisor who has been and get advice and ideas.”
  • Understand your crew’s dynamics and capabilities and don’t ask them to do more than they are able.
  • Use Philmont’s videos and info to help visualize what’s ahead, “so that, upon your arrival, you won’t be surprised or overwhelmed.”
  • Get your crew together often and do as many shakedown activities as time will allow.  “Practice the skills you will have to know.”
  • Work with your crew leader so that they have the same info you do. “Give them your best advice, and then let them lead.”
  • Learn to relax and enjoy your surroundings. “If you are having a good time, most likely they will be, too.
  • Don’t press too hard or bite off more than you can chew. “Don’t let the trek’s challenges become more important than what you’re there for.”

Why he does it

Yes, Hostetter returns to Philmont again and again because it’s a magical place filled with beauty. Like someone rewatching a favorite film or revisiting a beloved book, Hostetter finds something new to love about Philmont every time.

“Every trek I have been on, even as an adult, I have learned something about myself,” he says. “When I was younger, the mountains were smaller. Now that I’m older, the challenge is greater. The mountains are taller, and the packs seem heavier.”

But he goes back not for himself as much as for the young people for whom he helps deliver life-changing experiences.

“How gratifying it is to meet someone you took on a great adventure 20 or 30 years ago,

and their first comments are about our adventures together in mountains of Philmont?” He says. “How could I not want that opportunity for all Scouts?

“You just have to do everything you can to make that happen for them. That is why I wanna go back to Philmont.”

Plan your next high-adventure trip today — and start making your own memories.

About Bryan Wendell 3282 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.