Brothers Find Inspiration on the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian inspiration

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the July/August issue of Nature Conservancy magazine we asked you to nominate your favorite hike. Read Nature Conservancy manager of film and video Ethan Kearn’s account of his A.T. thru-hike and then make the case for your top trek in the comments section below. The most persuasive comment will run in an upcoming issue of the magazine.


June 7 – Day 24: “I guess we should have seen it coming, but we didn’t, and now we were stuck on the top, in the open, in the midst of a thunder storm. We kept looking for a good place to set up our tent, but we didn’t want to stay in the open, and when we dipped briefly back into the trees… there was nothing. When we re-emerged into the open I just started running, with my 40lb pack and everything. I don’t know how, but I was moving. Ethan called out. He had spotted a place in the woods just down the road past a parking lot (all gravel mind you). The rain was pouring down and the thunder was right over us; the lightning wasn’t far off. I was freaking out because of the time on Giant in the Adirondacks (lightning struck the mountain while we were on top and traveled through the ground up through my legs throwing me off my feet). But we managed to put the tent up, strip down and jump in. We were both soaked and sitting naked in the tent, which struck me as pretty humorous at the time.” - Excerpted from my brother Jesse’s Appalachian Trail journal.

I’m not sure I remember the first time I set foot on the longest stretch of wilderness in the Eastern United States. But I am sure of the exact moment I made the commitment to walk its entire length from start to finish: It was my junior year in college and I was sitting in a tattoo parlor while a local artist emblazoned the letters A.T. on my left shoulder blade forming an arrow pointing north, the sigil of the Appalachian Trail. I had gone there to support a friend, but instead, a long-held but privately pondered goal was now shouting from my skin for all to see. Looking over my shoulder as the tattoo artist finished her work, I knew I had to make my dream a reality — or forever keep a shirt on.

It was easy to convince my younger brother join me. He was 19, I was 21, and we were both Division I college athletes who rarely turned down a physical challenge. As I stood among the mountain of food and gear in our parents’ living room and prepared our drop boxes, I thought to myself: We’re ready. What could go wrong?

May 17 – Day 3: “I thought yesterday’s foot trouble was bad… Today was a walk through hell. They say that it takes two weeks for the body to adjust to the miles, and I can’t wait to be at that point. We started out from our campsite, which was three miles past Neels Gap, and we had high spirits to reach the Cheese Factory. However, we soon discovered how devastated our bodies were. We made it 10.5 miles by lunch and my feet hurt more than anything. I honestly believe that it was one of the worst pains that I have ever experienced. We cut back on our plan and decided to stop at Blue Mt. Shelter, six miles short of our hopes, but on target with yesterday’s goal. The last two miles before the shelter were a death march. At the shelter Ethan just passed out for a half hour and I soaked my feet. Unfortunately a group of annoying middle schoolers arrived, and there were mice warnings everywhere. We decided, after a good foot soaking to head on.”

Along the way we experienced blisters, bears, bruises, rattlesnakes, coyotes, rain, stomach bugs and pure exhaustion. In Georgia our packs weighed in at 50 plus pounds; in Maine they weighed less than 30. Our bodies followed suit. Boots became trail shoes. Clean shaven boys became grizzled mountain men.

The effort that has gone into protecting this transformative trail is one of mammoth proportions. The Nature Conservancy, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and numerous other organizations have been pivotal in keeping this footpath wild and vibrant. Places like Moosehead Lake and the Delaware Water Gap belie the small towns and growing suburbs that abut this band of forest that runs nearly unbroken for more than 2,000 miles.

August 20 – Day 98: “It was cold this morning, cold last night too. When we climbed into our sleeping bags Ethan was acting like it was Christmas… This morning we were up at 6:10am and on the trail by 6:50am. I hiked the first four miles in my hat and fleece… Lunch was great at the beach and the next shelter had a sweet spring which was good because we ran out of Agua Mira three days ago. We made great time — only 38.2 miles to go. 33 miles tomorrow and then 5.2 up Khatadin. Hard to believe that we are so close. Time is slipping away from me… I’ve lost the time… I’ve lost the time.”

Most thru-hikers take months to complete the trail, section hikers take years. We hiked the trail in 99 days. I don’t believe you truly know yourself until you spend time in the great outdoors. On the A.T. we rediscovered ourselves and the nature around us. We developed a bond that can never be broken — a bond between brothers; a bond between man and nature. Whether it’s a picnic in a local park or a backpack trip into the wild, nature can energize your body, quiet your mind and renew your spirit. But you have to get far away from the city lights to see the stars.

Have you hiked the Appalachian Trail? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.

Appalachian Inspiration
Kearns brothers on the Appalachian Trail

[Images courtesy of Ethan Kearns]

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Comments

  1. I enjoyed the well written segments from your blogs. It is hard to understand the many reasons and experiences on the Appalachian Trail until you have had your own experience. From one mile to 2200 miles the entire adventure is valuable. I particularly enjoyed:

    “I don’t believe you truly know yourself until you spend time in the great outdoors. On the A.T. we rediscovered ourselves and the nature around us.”

    thanks,
    Sean
    appalachiantrailfaq.com

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Ethan! I loved reading about your experience hiking the AT with your brother. What a fun/crazy/wild/transformative adventure!

  3. Amazing story Ethan! So inspiring, makes me want to go on a hiking adventure :)

  4. So glad TNC has staff practice what they preach and actually do things in nature. Enjoyed the piece.

  5. You inspire my existing desire to thru hike the AT! Thank you!

  6. Excellent blog, Ethan. Wish you and your brother would consider writing a book about your adventures. I’d read it for sure.

  7. Thanks for writing this; it was a great read. I was actually just on the AT for a brief hike yesterday and saw about five bears in just the short stretch that I did… a little nuts, considering I’ve hiked up and down parts of the AT my whole life and I’ve only seen three bears total on the trail! It certainly is a magical place, though.

    My “top trek” was probably the Kalalau Trail, which I did back in May. We did one-day-in, next-day-out (not advised) and I got seriously sick from the iodine water, but I’ve never felt more accomplished and I’ve never been anywhere more beautiful in my life. It’s not the easiest hike: it’s approximately eleven miles one way on a crumbling trail along a cliff about 400-800 feet above the ocean. The sun can be relentless and the heat oppressive, but it’s worth every moment–and not nearly as scary as the pictures can make it look, promise! The jungle is gorgeous, there are dozens waterfalls along the way, and I saw several white-tailed tropicbirds and a great frigate bird soaring along the trail. Looking up at those magical peaks and the waterfall from Kalalau beach, though, was by far the best part, probably only rivaled by watching the sunset. I was only there for a short while, but it was absolutely mesmerizing. On the way back, I kept looking behind me because I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye.

  8. My Best Hike

    The following hike was actually a combination of a hike/spring ski tour
    that took place in the Cascade Pass part of the North Cascades NP back in
    early May 1987. I was doing a mountain weekend will a fellow mountaineer
    colleague from Portland, Oregon. We both left our wives and young
    children at home, for a guy outdoor experience weekend.

    After about a 6-hour drive to the trailhead from Portland, we parked
    my old 1966 122S Volvo on the road at about 3000′ above sea level.
    To our right looking up the valley to Cascade Pass, the hanging glaciers
    of Mt. Johannesburg, elevation about 7,000 ft. We skied for a short
    distance, and then encountered a steep, icy section, for which crampons
    would have been nice. We waited for the icy snow to soften up a bit,
    and then were able to proceed past this treacherous section.

    We arrived at Cascade Pass around 2 PM – and dumped our heavier packs
    in the one bare spot where camping on dirt, rather than snow, was
    a possibility. We then day hiked, carrying our skis up the Sahale Arm,
    towards Sahale Peak and the Boston Basin, all covered with snow.
    As we ascended higher, we were able to put our skis back on and
    continue climbing. We probably made it up to about 7800-8000 ft,
    at which point we had views of 360 degrees of glaciated peaks, including
    Glacier Peak some 50-60 miles away.
    a
    Despite a desire to summit one of the icy spires, we retreated by turning
    Telemark turns on the way back to our camp at Cascade Pass. We enjoyed
    a nice steak dinner, and while eating, a lone deer came struggling through
    the snow on its way over to the Stehekin River drainage and Lake Chelan.

    It was an incredible day – going from looking up to Mt. Johannesburg, to
    getting above that and other peaks to see the fully glaciated peak beauty
    of the North Cascades.

    WHAT A DAY!

    I could find some pictures of this as well.

  9. The Canadian Rockies from Jasper to Assiniboine,solo and often off trail was my greatest hike. I was 22 and the year was 1962, on leave from the U.S.Marine Corps. Ever since growing up in the canoe country of New England and Eastern Canada, I’d dreamed of someday hiking there. Following a lone Cariboo south from Jasper, through seemingly impassable peaks,unless climbing gear was used, I trusted that this native knew the way through. There were no human trails there then,where we went,and the experience forever imprinted me on the mountains of the North West. It also convinced me to pursue a graduate degree in forestry, specializing in wildlife and wilderness access management.
    A dual career, split between national parks and skiing,
    included many more similar hikes and ski tours, but none had a greater influence on my life. Ski Trails and Wildlife:Toward Snow Country Restoration was published in Canada in 2008, appropriately enough. It includes the lessons learned in Canada and the Pacific North West. They
    all involve the importance of skiing to the boreal forest, with its southern montane extensions introducing the earth’s largest forest biome to more skiers than any other group of recreationists. Although I retired in the North Cascades, partly to avoid the crowds at ski resorts, I hope my readers will be convinced, as I was, that ski trails -both alpine and cross-country- used year round as hiking
    trails too, are the key to restoring boreal wildlife.

  10. My favorite trail in Indiana is in Indiana’s first dedicated nature preserve, Pine Hills. I have hiked many trails in the west and didn’t expect to find a Devil’s Backbone Trail in Indiana. The trail runs along a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on either side and includes craggy hills, deep gorges and extensive sandstone bluffs covered with evergreens and hardwood trees including hemlock, white pine, old growth oak and virgin beech and maple, Although it is not as well known as nearby Turkey Run or Shades state parks, it is truly an outstanding natural area, and a great hike. It was the first project of the Indiana Nature Conservancy and deservedly so. Five miles of clear streams flow past overhanging cliffs which can be treacherous. Other backbones include Turkey Backbone and Mill Cut Backbone – which have drop offs of 70 -125 feet. The variety of terrain provides habitat for various species of wildflowers, ferns and other rare plants. This area is the most fun hike in the state because of the natural diversity and unusual features not found elsewhere in the state. Hikers can also canoe Sugar Creek with its beautiful limestone formations and enjoy the interesting small towns in the area such as Tangiers and Sylvania and Rockville which has an annual Covered Bridge Festival.

  11. I imagine that most of the people reading the above article would consider themselves hikers. Perhaps they like day treks, or maybe they prefer longer backpacking expeditions. Novice or avid hiker, they’ve seen a trail or two. So, what defines a “top trek”?

    I too have taken hikes to mountain elevations, to historical locations, and to points that can certainly be considered off the grid. However, my best hike, the one that I would teleport to on a moment’s notice, lies on the edge, barely outside the confines of civilization.

    It’s a short hike, only a mile to the turn around. It’s a flat hike; short gains in elevation and semi-level ground make it accessible to toddlers pushed in jogger strollers and the young-at-heart with off-road wheelchairs. Coastal scenes and smells, such as those from swaying, green marsh grasses, make an afternoon’s memories permanent. Trees form a canopy overhead for most of the trail, providing welcome shade on a summer’s day. A coastal breeze from the water delivers a quick dose of refreshment; the truly overheated are welcome to kick their shoes off and wade in. A spectacular view of Long Island Sound rewards those who commit to the full length. Pausing here, while exposed on the bluff, is an opportunity to reflect on the splendor of white crested waters and shifting barrier beaches. The eclectic panorama with brackish waters, marshlands, forest, rocky intertidal zone, plus boats and islands on the horizon, offers something for everyone.

    I have taken this hike by myself, with friends, with my beagles, and with rambling groups of school children. I’ve hiked it in sandals, wellies, boots, and barefoot. Rays of sun, gusts of wind, flakes of snow, and raindrops of all sizes have brushed my face along this trail. Still, I return for exercise, fellowship, and a spiritual kind of healing.

    The best hike that I have ever taken is the main trail at Bluff Point State Park in Groton, CT. This hike repeatedly inspires me to share and protect the shoreline. It provides access to nature for a diverse community and refuge for the native creatures. Its location and terrain invite people of all abilities. Bluff Point welcomes its visitors to a coastal environment and motivates them to continue exploring. It provides the sights, sounds, and smells that serve as an introduction to the natural world. A trail, like this one, that plays a critical role in shaping future generations of hikers is truly a top trek.

  12. Having hiked many trails in my 80+years, my favorite is the Chilkoot Trail over the mountains into the Yukon from Dyea, Alaska. I wrote this poem a few years ago:

    The Spirits of 1898 ©1997 by David H. Curl

    Alongside the trail, fortune hunters abandoned the useless and the burdensome:
    bottles, cans, nails, tools, stoves, sleds, books, boots, boats, coats, cables;
    carcasses of beasts driven to death in the haste of avarice,
    now bleached bones buried beneath a century of snows.

    The Klondike Gold Rush was an incredible migration of the curious,
    The opportunistic, the desperate and the lonely.
    They squandered their savings on dreams of wealth;
    they abandoned loved ones and logic, deserted slums, farms and mansions.

    Conceived in dreams of hope and profit,
    built quickly with blood, sweat and nails,
    their instant wood and canvas cities returned slowly to the earth;
    their machinery reverted to rust.

    The Taiya river changed its course many times in a century.
    Mountain snows erased the trail
    toppling cottonwoods that were struggling seedlings
    when stampeders slogged this way.

    Step by weary step my boots kick notches into hard-packed snow.
    Struggling up the Golden Stairs, I pause to rest.
    My labored breaths disturb the silence.
    I sense the spirits of travelers decades dead.

    Each of those men and women crossed their Chilkoot, now I must achieve my own.
    Those whose lives were linked by a single goal
    — to get to the goldfields,
    trudged thirty trips to tote their ton of goods past the summit to the lakes beyond.

    I tread those thirty-three miles but once and become a stampeder, too.
    My load is lighter and my spirit driven not by lust for gold,
    but by thirst for adventure,
    sense of place and feeling for history.

    Perhaps it was the same for some old-timers, too.
    I like to think they inched their way up the boulders just to know they could do it.
    Like me, perhaps they made the climb
    just to see the beauty on the other side.

  13. Alum Cave Bluff in the Great Smoky Mountains – This trail has terrific variety – mountain stream, rock bluffs, mt. bald and expansive views. You start out in a heavily forested section where the trail crisscrosses several times a perfect boulder strewn mountain stream. At one point you have to climb though the split in a huge boulder. Then you climb in elevation and enter a bald area. The first time I did it, there was a dense fog and it was like walking in a forest scene in Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast”. On sunny days it is your first expansive view. The Bluffs overhang the trail in an area that stays dry and protected. From there to Mt. Le Conte you are presented with above the trees views so typical of the Appalachians.

  14. MY HIKE

    It was October 1993 and I was up in Colorado near Aspen when I got the news. I rode my 750 Triumph TT Special up there from Sedona, Arizona to see Tom Collins, off-road legend and the North American team manager for the world’s most exclusive and exhausting off-road driving event, the Camel Trophy…1000 miles in two weeks over the most inhospitable route they could find in the world, for which I was an applicant. “Get back here as fast as you can,” my wife said. “I just signed you up for a free 18 day trip down the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Peach Springs. They needed someone who knows how to pull an oar. I volunteered you. You’ll be rowing the whole way.”

    A week later our flotilla of 3 twenty foot inflatable rowing rafts and 3 kayaks pushed off the beach at Marble Canyon on one of the world’s great adventures, exploring the Grand Canyon by floating the Colorado from one end to the other.

    Along the way were opportunities for several hikes a day. Silver Grotto in Shinumo Wash, named during a 1968 National Geographic Society expedition, was the first, followed by Redwall Cavern, a vast chamber that could seat 50,000 people if you could ever get them there. Around the corner, Nautaloid Canyon exhibited yard long fossils related to present-day squid and octopus. And so it went. Between mile 122 and 123 is Forster Canyon, home to exquisite hanging gardens. Tapeats Creek is a 6 mile semi-circle terminating at Deer Creek Falls. The falls impossibly leap out of solid rock and cascade over a hundred feet and rush down Thunder River to the Colorado. Barry Goldwater claimed it was his “favorite place in the world”. Many people refer to this hike as simply “Thunder,” and everybody knows where it is they’re talking about.

    By then I was pretty sure I’d seen it all. Nothing could top Thunder. But it was 42 miles further down the River where I first laid eyes on the hike of my dreams and of my nightmares, and the one that exceeds all the superlatives ever devised to describe trespassing over any kind of terrain anytime, ever. Even from the water there was nothing friendly about it, nothing welcoming. It felt like an ambush. Somewhere along those jagged walls was the trail, or more accurately, the route, since it was constantly changing, that wound down from the rim at Toroweap on the Arizona Strip to Lava Falls, the biggest, nastiest rapid in the Grand Canyon.

    We approached this apparition on the 13th day, a group of confident, tough, hardened, and maybe even a little arrogant, “rivermen;” honed by our experiences so far and ready for anything the River could throw at us. In my log I described my first impression of the rapid with a word I used only once in my entire 18 days in the canyon…”SCARY.” This malevolent monster with its 25’ standing wave and boat swallowing whirlpools and underhangs, found all of us looking up the canyon walls for a way around, or out. But the climb looked, if possible, worse than the frenzied water.

    I need to pause here to tell you that from October 1st on, engines are not allowed in the canyon. If you want to float the River, you have to row, or paddle. So for about 18 days you usually follow about an hour behind the group that left before you, and everyone travels at more or less the same speed. So there we stood next to the group who had been in front of us for the last 12 days, all of us feeling nervous, apprehensive… never mind that… we were reduced to cold, wet, scared, inexperienced, and anything but arrogant rivermen. Or so we thought.

    The group in front of us that we overtook once in a while when scouting a particularly tricky rapid, was composed of a dozen Scandinavian girls in six 2 man inflatables of about twelve feet, with one set of oars per boat. They travelled very light, with apparently only one set of dry clothes each. So in the interest of comfort and practicality, seeing as how no one was going to be dry at the end of this run, they stripped naked, totally naked, and brazenly attacked that rapid wearing nothing but their life preservers (required by law). My companions, who had run the mighty Snake and mastered it, were speechless. Our fears evaporated. An alternate route out of our predicament was forgotten. How could we falter in the face of such courage, beauty, and nakedness? With the spectacle still fresh in our minds, we strutted confidently, even arrogantly to our trusty boats that had delivered us so many times from the River’s worst, and conquered that mighty man-eater that day. And as I looked back on that wild passage, the picture of those rugged cliffs made me vow to someday return and climb, if possible, down the face of that seemingly vertical rock, and revisit that remarkable place.

    Six years later, again in October, the opportunity came to do just that. One hundred days before the Greatest Hike Ever, my wife Marty was on the operating table donating one of her kidneys. Leading up to this operation she had been hiking at least five miles and swimming a mile every day to be in shape for this incapacitating operation. She returned to hiking and swimming as soon as she could to recover from her ordeal. She worked back up to five miles and a mile swimming and we decided it was time for Toroweap. After all, it was only a mile and a half each way, straight down and straight up to be sure, but she was ready and I had waited long enough.

    The Lava Falls rapid is contained in a narrow canyon between almost sheer cliffs and is formed by hard black volcanic rocks choking the River from Vulcan’s Throne, a volcano’s chimney at the rim. You sign in and sign out so they know where to look for the body. You will not be helicopter rescued from anywhere near the crevasse since it is so steep a chopper can’t get close enough to drop you a line without scraping the rotor blades on the wall. You have to cache water on the way down to use on the way back. Most people who make this hike, and there have been some according to the book, hike down in the early morning, spend the night at the bottom, and hike back the next morning. It takes about two and a half hours down and three and a half hours up. We decided to travel light and do it with one six hour effort with a one to two hour rest added at the bottom. We each carried daypacks with 105 ounce Camels with an extra quart each on fanny packs. We cached another gallon about one quarter of the way from the top in the shade of a significant rock for the way back. Although we went in October when it was supposed to be cool, it was 95 degrees and we had to wear work gloves since the volcanic rock was too hot to touch with bare hands. They were indispensible when the ash covered slopes gave way and caused you to slide down feet first on the bottoms of your boots and the palms of your hands, face pointing towards heaven, in 5, 10, and sometimes 20 foot landslides. We had to move sideways almost as much as down. There were cairns all over the place, none of which seemed to indicate a trail, and I suspect the reason for them was to let everyone know that you weren’t the only crazy one to make the trip, that others had also succumbed to the trails’ Siren song. The sharp, black rock emitted scorching heat and the autumn sun in the cloudless sky beat down unrelentingly against the North wall. The rocks were so hot we couldn’t even sit on one to rest, and the heat seemed to radiate up through the soles of our boots and spread right through our bones. The opposite wall, when we imagined an object the size of a man placed on it, was a constant reminder of how totally small and insignificant we were.

    Upon reaching the bottom we wobbled a short distance to the rapid to watch the boats and kayaks. The water was higher than when I shot the rapid and was much more benign on this day. We cooled our muscles in the icewater, and refilled our water containers with a PUR hand-pump water purifier, along with the gloves, our most important piece of equipment. We drank water laced with powdered Gatorade until we were bloated as ticks. For the next three and a half hours we more or less crawled up that jagged wall, sometimes taking three steps and sliding back two. A life saving fact is you don’t have to use the same muscles going up as you do going down. We finally reached the spot where we cached the gallon of water with a quarter of the climb still to go. We were completely out of the water we carried up, and Marty was chilly and prickly and dangerously close to heat stroke. It would have been nice to rest awhile in the shade but there wasn’t any, and time was water. We drank our fill, dribbled too much of the precious stuff on our heads and wrists, washed down a handful of trailmix, and pushed on, finally making it to the top over an hour later without a drop of water left. When we signed our names in the book it was with gratitude, exhaustion, relief, and not a little amazement.

    You think you can plan for everything but you can’t…. There are still places you can go where your cell phone doesn’t work, your GPS is useless, and where you are really on your own and pushed to your limits. We thought about carrying sleeping bags and more food with us but it would have meant much heavier packs and less mobility over that treacherous ground. It was hotter than expected. There were things we could have done, changes we could have made. Like a lot of things, ignorance played a large part in helping us achieve our goal. We even count time by this one: “Was that before Toroweap? Or after?” Mostly when I think of it I just look at my wonderful wife and say, “How’d we ever do that?” And after all, that’s really what makes it the Hike of Hikes doesn’t it.

  15. I especially love your 8/20 post. Bringing your own humanitarian experience into a memory. I love your quote ‘I’ve lost the time’. Right on. Nice goin!

  16. El Yunque is the rain forest 40 minutes drive east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It looms on the horizon and beckons to you. You drive through a little town named Palmer to get there and as you climb higher and higher you must turn the A/C off and put the windows down. The temperature grows noticeably cooler, the frogs are chirping, the impatiens are 3 feet tall along the side of the road.
    I lived in PR 5 years, and went to El Yunque many times. Always parking the car and taking a different little path.
    There was one that led to a thunderous waterfall and beautiful swimming hole. What a fun place to take a dip!

  17. One of my best hikes has been Mauna Loa. I was on a three week trip to go caving in the fantastic lava tubes there, and had it in my head that given the opportunity, I’d spend a few days hiking. I’d packed mostly for caving and not for backpacking, and it took a while to convince the ranger at the permit station that I’d be fine by myself with a couple lite weight bags and several layers of clothes rather than the heavy weight stuff they recommend for the cold nights on the summit.

    I said goodbye to my friends at the parking area with an arrangement for them to pick me up at sunset in three days. I passed two people on their way out in the first mile of the hike while still under tree cover and then I as it turned out, I had the whole mountain to myself for three days. Not another person, or really much any life for that matter once I got above the tree-line and into the harsh reality of a really big volcano. The hike is two days up, with every step being up with an overnight stay at the Red Hill Cabin, appropriately named for the red color of the lava in that area. That is one of the most striking parts of volcanoes, up close, they are full of color.

    Even though I wasn’t supposed to, and solo caving is a serious no-no, I just couldn’t help but take a break and walk around in a lava tube for bit just to say I’d been caving above 10,000ft. A few hundred feet back there was a natural skylight that created it’s own little eco-system and in the middle of it was a little fern growing. At home in Indiana we think of ferns as delicate little plants that live in the damp, darkness of heavy forest, but here, a fern is a tough little survivor that found a quiet place mostly safe from the harsh environment of a volcano way above any other plant life.

    The second day of hiking, up and up and up, was brutal. Maybe two places along the trail where enough of an overhang created some shade, but both times unthinking hikers before me had used them as toilets! So slight relief from the sun, but stinky. Along the way many steam vents reminded me that Mauna Loa maybe dormant, but she is still very much alive.

    Being a shield volcano, while hiking up, you never actually see the summit, just the gentle curve of the mountain stretching into the sky. Then all of a sudden, there you are at the top with a misleading sign that tells you the summit cabin is a mere two miles away. Longest two miles of my life! The cabin is located within a few feet of the crater and is an unbelievable place to spend the night by yourself. There is a reason they put the observatory on nearby Mauna Kea. You will never see a more crystal clear view of the night sky than that high above the world on a volcano in the middle of the ocean. The solitude and beauty of it all was one of those life moments that are beyond my ability to describe. Made me wish I could spend another day on top just to see the night sky one more time, but alas, I’d made arrangements for a pick-up and I didn’t have enough food for another day. So up early to eat in the pre-dawn twilight and ready to go with the sunrise, I packed up and prepared to head out after a quick stop at the best out-house I’ve ever seen. No way to dig a
    “pit” up there, so they perched the outhouse over one of the deep cracks a few feet from the edge of the crater. The view from the seat was a spectacular vista of the sunrise over the massive crater at 13,000+ ft. By far the best outhouse experience of my life.

    After the first two miles back across the mostly level top, the rest of my last day was a brisk walk down hill for 20 miles or so to reach the parking area by sunset. Near perfect timing, I made it there 15 minutes before my ride back. All in all a great adventure, hiking in an environment as close to another world as I will likely ever be.

  18. I must say that the most arduous, awesomely painful, and fulfilling hike I ever went on was while I was hiking through the Cucunati cordillera in Panama.

    I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the town of Barriales, Darien and I needed to get to Santa Fe the following Monday for a meeting. On top of this, I was flat broke and had no means of paying the fare to get there- a whopping total of $10. So I had to walk.

    I had knew of some trails that lead over the mountains, the trails went to Bajo Bonito, then to Cana Blanca, but there was a split in Bajo where you go up the Cucunati mountains and down into the town of Cucunati and then a short hike to Santa Fe. A total of 4.5 hours walking: that is if I hadn’t gotten lost, or lost my shoes.

    It was summer at the time of this hike so my side of the mountains was clay hardpan and I had gone barefoot over these roads and paths before. I figured for this hike I would just take my chancleta, they had been on several other hikes out of site and they seemed to be holding up fairly well.

    I hadn’t strayed that far on the other side of the river before so I also had a friend of mine draw me up a map and write down the directions he was telling me

    First go to Bajo Bonito, look for a river, go up it to a gate, take a right at the tree, go up that trail until you get to Cucunati. I don’t know why, but it made sense at the time. I had a map, too, what could go wrong?

    Walking on my side of the range was easy. It was just a flat, dry, clay road all the way to Bajo Bonito. I decided to do it barefoot, just to say I did. Bajo Bonito came and went and I walked straight past the river. I was looking the wrong way when I came and went past the river I needed. And walked another 1.5 miles in the wrong direction. Finally what little town there was gave way to jungle and a horse trail. Now I was starting to get nervous.

    I turned around and began to look for a homestead or something that indicated that another human was around. Making my way back to Bajo I ran into a small girl on a horse who seemed leary to talk to a strange gringo out in the jungle who was barefoot. She said I looked like a ‘narco’ but thankfully she led me to the river, the gate, and the tree.

    And this is where the hike turns terrible. I had left at 9 am when it was cool but with the added hour of getting lost it is now getting close to noon and it was getting hot and miserable. I see the tree that my friend was talking about and I walk through the gate of a Teka forest.

    It was a disconcerting scene but yet still demanded some kind of awe; the first hill up I could see hills of jungle butted up to cleared hills for cattle, cleared hills for corn, hills that were smoking from being clear cut, several patches of straight, matchstick trees of other teak forests. The final conquering of the Darien, it was the untouched part of Panama, the frontier. Human progress…

    But anyway, the first hill made it obvious that I needed shoes on since I was walking on gravel and broken up flint.

    I cleared two more hills in my chancletas and during that whole time only saw one homestead and five cows in a small ranch in the middle of the mountain and woods. We waved, and he knew my name. Small world. Turns out he had relatives in my community.

    Then came a mud patch. Trying to be graceful and jump over it, fully packed. I didn’t clear it and proceeded to sink pretty deep. Pulling free I lost both of my chancletas, and then began to desperately dig for them. I want to say I dug around looking for them for 10 minutes but never found them.

    It was time to keep on walking, now barefoot, with no choice in the matter. Ow…

    The next 45 minutes I was hiking up hill with no respite from the steep grade. And once I topped out on the mountains I could hear the sweet music of ballenato blasting out of the cantinas of the town below. I could even see the tin roofs and the surrounding pastures . But the summit was only half the battle. Now it was time to lose all that altitude on a muddy slope of a still forested mountain. And what little civilization I could make out quickly disappeared into the canopy. I proceeded to just sit and scoot down the hill using my hand to steer and control my speed down the mud hill.

    After the mud hill came crossing through the pastures and then into town. It felt as if I had walked into Hell’s furnace. My side of the mountains was nice and fresh and the summit was cool and breezy. The pastures of Cucunati were ovens; you could smell the cows cooking as they grazed. Plus by the time I made it into the pastures my feet were pretty sore and I had the gate of a drunk. But the sound of ballenato beckoned me to carry on as well as the storm clouds on the horizon.

    Finally out of the pastures I made it into town were I got the same kind of reception I got from the little girl in the woods. But another Peace Corps Volunteer was waiting for me and was kind of taken aback to find me in that shoeless state.

    That is by far my favorite hike I have ever taken. The scenery went from awe inspiring to gut wrenching. I hiked a part of Panama not many folks will never get a chance to. Plus I did it bare foot, who can say they did that? And I saw a lot of toucans and monkeys.

  19. As a Sierra Club outings leader, I am often asked about favorite places to hike and/or backpack. At the top of the list is Glacier National Park (Montana) because it has a unique ambiance all its own in addition to spectacular mountains, waterfalls, lakes, wildflowers and wildlife.
    The trail from Swift Current Lake to Swift Current Pass that follows the ridge line, passes Granite Park Chalet and ends up at Logan Visitor Center on the Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the most spectacular in the US. I love high ridge line trails in the mountains, above the tree line, with patches of snow, a top-of-the-world view and the bonus of hiking above Gannett Glacier and Lake.
    Wow! That type of hiking …is what drives my soul!
    Kenny in Kentucky

  20. I’m from Alaska, where the mountains and landscapes seem larger and more expansive, and just generally more impressive. I live in North Carolina now, where the mountains are smaller, but access to memorable views is more easily earned. I’ve had memorable hikes all over the world including the Alps, the Inca Trail, and Mount Kilimanjaro, among many other places, but I can truly say my most memorable hike is the Routeburn Track on the south island of New Zealand.

    My wife and I were part of a group that completed the 32 kilometer Routeburn in three days, staying two nights in huts with stunning sunset and sunrise views. The views, terrain, and weather conditions varied constantly, and engaged us every step of the hike. There were snow-capped peaks, panoramic views of vast river valleys, towering waterfalls, swinging bridges, picturesque lakes, and a mystical beech forest we called the Hobbit forest as we hiked through it in a dense fog. Lake Mackenzie, with Emily’s Peak rising behind it was a revelation as we had purchased a painting in Queenstown without realizing we would soon see the exact same view depicted.

    One of our party was injured the first day and had to be rescued after we got him to a safe point for a helicopter to land. On our second day, after departing the beech forest, we hiked through near whiteout conditions, only to be turned back by an avalanche that covered the trail at its highest point. Then it was our turn to be transported by helicopter, to the hut we had almost reached on foot. The helicopter flew over Lake Mackenzie, and gained altitude so we could fly past Emily’s Peak for a ninety degree turn over a river valley that dropped off thousands of feet below. At the huts there were wringers to squeeze the moisture out of damp clothes, and hot water bottles for use in our sleeping bags (my wife used mine). At one hut we fell all over ourselves attempting a traditional over-the-shoulder pancake toss. In every respect, it was an incomparable experience we will never forget, even as we contemplate our next grand adventure.

  21. The best hikes bring a surprise. This one did. We were looking for bears, black bears feasting on fall berries. Heather and I were making the great circumscription of Mount Rainier, the Wonderland Trail. We were on day nine, moving from glory to glory. After 90 miles we’d found a rhythm and a routine in the simplicity of a long hike. We’d arrived at our reserved campsite–Golden Lakes–early, around two in afternoon. There was time to kill. All this time on Rainier and we had not seen a bear. Seemed everyone else had.

    We wandered off trail, exploring marshes, meadows and ponds. A mist covered the valley below us. Our upland world was bright and sunny. Rainier presided over us like a benign god, calm, her snowcap glowing through a thin haze of smoke from distant fires.

    We had complained to a ranger earlier in the day about our failure to see even one bear. He said if you haven’t seen one by Golden Lakes backtrack to a now unmaintained path, the old Sunset Park Trail. Take it up to its end. You’ll surely see bears.

    Now it was getting late. Heather found the trail on her map and we made fast for it, looking for a path to the left, obscured by branches, in the subalpine tundra. Here! We took it, scanning the berry covered hillsides for dark forms, climbing, breathless, toward Rainier herself.

    The trail began to level out, cresting, then an abrupt halt. An abyss gaped below us, the yawning South Mowich River gorge; above us the whole of the great mountain. At that moment the setting sun dropped into the mist behind us, bathing the whole scene in pink, lighting the underside of clouds, painting the top of the peak.

    Turning back, squinting into the brightness, all was golden, the carpet of orange leaves, a corona around each tree, the very air itself. Extravagant nature gifting just two of us with splendor that spun us around, and around again and again, until the apprehension of approaching dark broke our spell and nudged us, nearly running toward the light and our camp. Maybe we’d see bears tomorrow. But we would never see a scene more glorious.

    Want to go? The Sunset Ridge Trail is a spur off the Wonderland Trail, about two miles south of the Golden Lakes cabin. It’s marked on the Mount Rainier Wonderland map by Green Trails (269S). Best plan? Get a back country camping permit from the Park Service and perch your tent on the edge of the gorge. Watch out for bears. We’ve been told there are some there. For photos double click: http://www.flickr.com/photos/25150499@N03/sets/72157636309486834/

  22. One of my best hikes was in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.

    A great wilderness experience in a park surrounded by cities !

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