Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Top 14 Favorite Hikes: Part 1 - #12 to #14 (and honorable mention)

Part 2 is here
Part 3 is here

I have discussed my passion for backpacking and back country hiking on this blog before. I have also described my intentional discipline of embracing a new life stage that involves shelving the hobby for the better part of a decade. I have to say, kids are way better than backpacking. But as the season approaches I recently provided recommendations to a friend on some of my favorite trips. And I decided that our many and various adventures were worth documenting. So this is the first installment in a three to four part series (that I will post when I don’t have a philosophical/theological or cultural piece to run[1]) that I am simply calling, ‘My Top 14 Favorite Hikes.’ This post will start the countdown with the final 3 (#14, #13 and #12) and then hit copious ‘honorable mention’ entries.

#12 Porcupine Wilderness Loop (3 days, 28 miles)

Within a year of living in Madison, Amanda and I had exhausted our two hiking guides of everything remotely interesting within 4 hours of a town that was, otherwise, a fantastic place to live. So we headed north to ‘the UP.[2]’ This was Amanda and my first backpacking trip together. It would take more for us to learn to do it together well. But this is Midwest hiking at its best. The first day was a spectacular coastal hike along the boundary waters of Lake Superior.

The second day jutted inland following the river and climbing a number of dramatic water falls.

The final day ended with views of Porcupine mountain, the highest point in the quad state region…at ~2,800 ft. Lets just say that Midwest hiking is not about elevation.

This, of course, sets up this brilliant comic by ‘Toothpaste for Dinner’:

#13 Avalanche Pass to Colden/Algonquin (1 to 3 days, 18 to 22 miles)

Adirondack Park is the largest state park in the lower 48. They are also my ‘home mountains.’[3] This is where I fell in love with the air, the burn, the views, the miles, the solitude, the adventure, and the wonder the unmitigated brunt of creation. As a kid we made occasional outings but it was not until college, when I went backpacking with the Geneseo outing club and led wilderness trips in the summer that they became very familiar. Western hikers chuckle when I talk about the 46 peaks between 4,000 and 5,200 feet that New Englanders ‘collect’…or the long wooded hikes that only grudgingly relinquish their views in the final 100m. But there is still something magical about them. The ‘Daks are over a billion years old (some of the oldest rocks in the lower 48) and are such a good example of anorthosite, that the rare metamorphic often takes their name.[4] There is no equivalent to crossing a stream lined with the enormous, dramatic clasts of metamorphosed feldspar that glint rainbow sheens through the shallow flows.[5]

I took the famous trail through avalanche pass. Avalanche pass follows Avalanche Lake between mount Colden and Mount Algonquin. The novel thing about this ‘pass’ is that there are places where the lake fills the entire span between the granite cliffs, requiring special constructed bridges built into the side of Algonquin.

(Note: I got this picture off the is not from our trip.)

This was before I believed in tents[6] and was visited that night by a fox. The next day I went up the back side of Colden[7]. It seemed surprisingly difficult and I shook my head at how out of shape I was. When I reached the peak I was greeted with apparent surprise of a group of middle aged men. One of them was a guide who articulated their interest. “You came up the back side of Colden in full pack. That’s impressive, man.” It was a vindicating moment.

I have since learned the back sides of Colton and Algonquin are ‘affectionately’ nicknamed[8] “Three miles straight up.” A couple years later, Amanda and I did Algonquin (the second highest of the ‘Daks) back side trail, as a day hike, in knee deep snow. Let’s just say, she is not that happy with me in this picture. But it was still a fantastic day.[9]

#14 Notch Mountain: Rocky Mountains CO (1 day: 10 miles)

I had always suspected I wanted to live in the west…this was the day I knew it. I was in Denver on business and I stayed for the weekend, rented a car, and picked a couple mountains to climb. The fist night I went to a Colorado Rockies game before I headed out, so I arrived at the camp site in Vail after 11pm. It was full. So I drove the little rented Neon over the dark, washboard, dirt road for miles and napped in the car at the trail head. I was up and on the trail by 5. The first mile or so was familiar, a lovely wooded trail. But then something totally unfamiliar happened. I crossed the tree line near the beginning of the hike[10], giving me wide open views of vast alpine meadows and neighboring peaks for the vast majority of the hike.

I was the first one on the trail so I saw all the Marmots and Pikas (merely mythical creatures of 3rd grade science reports to that point) I could ever want to. The summit yielded a gorgeous view of the famous Mount of the Holy Cross.[11] It was a beautiful day.

The next day I climbed Mt Massive.[12] This was a much more challenging climb and I got altitude sickness (the only time I ever have) and badly burned. But these were minor costs. It was even more dramatic than Notch. I was hooked. We were eventually headed west.

Honorable mention:

Macomb Mountain – I climbed the slide of this un-trailed Adirondack Peak with the Geneseo outing club[13]. It was October and you could see Vermont and a sea of peak, north eastern, deciduous color. We climbed two more peaks that day and then got lost, spending the night[14] by a river and a huge bonfire.[15]

Dinosaur National Park – On our first vacation together ever, we took this short evening hike along the green river, with great Uinta monoliths in the background. The trip to Dinosaur was far more about fossils than hiking. But we mainly went because I wrote a 50 page paper in undergrad on the geomorphology of this part of the park. I literally labeled and described the geologic history of each stream (there must have been about 300) within several square miles of the place where Amanda stands in the picture. Ah, the scientific education.

Rocky Mountain National Park – This was our first excursion to western peaks (same trip as Dinosaur above). It was a vacation to celebrate finishing my Wisconsin Masters degree. We did not realize how late western peaks stay snowed over so our hikes were difficult. We climbed flat top mountain in the snow and Amanda got a second degree sunburn. But the surrounding peaks were unlike anything we had ever seen[16] and when we woke up one our tent was surrounded by elk. I’m sure I remember it as more fun than it was, but I remember it as really fun.

Olympic ridge – One day 18 mile loop into the heart of Olympic National Park with spectacular views of Mt Olympus. We slept at the trailhead and hiked hard, but the ridge yielded views of the central peak for several miles.

Dix Mountain – Amanda and I climbed this peak in the fog. There was no view. It is the only peak I have climbed twice by different routes.[17] But we had a great day together. What could otherwise be considered a sub-par day on the mountain is one of my favorite days I have spent with my wife.
Lake Louise/Lake Agnes – The Canadian Rockies are seriously underrated. Canadian trails are more like European trails in that they have periodic ‘tea houses’ where you can stop for a snack and some tea. In a 16 mile day hike we encountered two of them. I have mixed feelings on these. They are really nice for breaks, but mitigate the wilderness feel. Tea houses aside, however, the Canadian Rockies are 100% worth the trip. The only reason they did not crack the top 14 is because the trail guides tend to be unhelpful and I did not make good selections.
LeConte Mountain - Speaking of Wilderness architecture, we were invited to the wedding when a guy Amanda dated in high school was getting married just outside of the Smokey Mountains, shortly after we moved to Buffalo. I thought it sounded fun but also pitched a few hiking days as part of the trip. The highlight was climbing[18] LaConte Mountain. We found great views, but we also fund a cabin village and a lodge serving gourmet meals.

The Final pre-Kids trip in the West Sierra – 3 days, Gorgeous peaks, expansive lakes, a pace that covered ground but was healthy for marital harmony. Before I moved to CA this would have been 3 of the best days of my life. Now it makes honorable mention. That’s a good thing.

Point Rays ‘Manpacking’ – 3 days, 21 Miles. This was, actually, only a couple months ago. I started preaching at College Life, our church’s on campus college ministry. 8 guys planned[19] a spring break backpacking trip in Point Reyes national park.[20] Amanda gave me the green light and I had a blast getting to know the guys and hiking some of the most dramatic coastal trails in northern California.
This post was prepared while listening to A Beautiful Lie by 30 Seconds to Mars

[1] As if this blog wasn’t topically eclectic enough.
[2] Michigan’s upper peninsula. One of the enjoyable subplots of living in the Midwest was meeting someone from Michigan and asking them where they lived. They would put up their right hand like a mitten, representing the southern land mass of their state…and point. This became particularly hilarious when they lived in the UP because representing the whole state left them without appendages to point, and they would sometimes involve their nose in an elaborate way of conveying precise information of limited value.
[3] Every hiker has ‘home’ mountains. And while the Sierra has long since surpassed the Adirondacks as the mountains I know the best and am most comfortable in, the ‘daks will always be where I learned the skills and made mistakes and got hooked.
[4] E.g. adirondak anorthosite
[5] In undergrad, the guys who had jobs in the geology thin section lab, would use the rock saws to make gifts (like book ends) out of finished blocks of anorthosite.
[6] I used to believe that you should save the weight of a tent by just bringing a small tarp and a bug net.
[7] Coldon is nestled between the ‘daks two highest peaks, Marcy and Algonquin. To date, it is my favorite view (apart from the October summit of Malcolm that had more to do with foliage than rock – see Honorable Mention). It reminds me of that shot in the Lord of The Rings where you can make out Isengard and the Great Eye of Mordor ominously dominating the landscape.
[8] By my friend Brian Chapman.
[9] My friend Brian and I have considered writing a book called something like, ‘How to Take Your New Wife Hiking.’ Almost every guy I have ever talked to who has tried to introduce their girlfriend/wife to their passion for peaks and miles, made the exact same mistakes of too much too early.
[10] Up to that point I had only experienced the ‘Daks, where the only view was at the very peak. This was like an enthusiastic recreational pot user suddenly shooting heroin into his eye balls.
[11] So named because the geologic formation that retains snow in perpendicular cracks well after it has melted elsewhere, leaving the stark mountainside emblazoned with a cross for much of the hiking season (though it was mostly faded by the time I got there).
[12] The second highest mountain in Colorado by like 14 ft…actually, before the USGS updated the datum a couple decades ago, it was considered the highest.
[13] When the guy in charge of lunch busted it out it consisted of a block of cheese, a hunk of salami, and a huge chocolate bar. This became my tradition...until the enobling influence of marriage.
[14] Again, this was Columbus day weekend, so it was literally freezing (our water bottles formed ice). But I was lost with another geophysicist and a geochemist. We had all TA’d intro geology. Topos were second nature and we did just fine. There was a funny moment from that night worth relating. After it was clear we were lost in the dark with limited flashlight time I said to the other two guys (who were pretty good friends) ‘You know guys, when I get in situations like this, I like to pray’ (suggesting I take a moment to do so – Ah, more passionate and annoying days). Dave the geochemist responded ‘Do you get in situations like this a lot?’ This was also the trip in which I became a pants convert. Up to this point I did not believe in pants…hiking only and always in shorts. Lets just say…I now believe in pants.
[15] Oddly, there were three pictures from this weekend in the Geneseo yearbook (one of the photographers was on the trip). I only know this because my Mom secretly bought one.
[16] Amanda commented that it was like someone was doing a CGI feed for our vacation.
[17] I climbed the slide with the outing club in undergrad.
[18] We did not originally intend to climb the mountain. I was just going to be an easy hike to a big waterfall. But it was Fall and the waterfall had dried up, so we missed it and kept going. It was a beautiful day and a great outing, so we just kept going and before we knew we had climbed the mountain.
[19] This is one of my favorite differences between college ministry and youth ministry. I literally just packed my stuff and showed up. They had planned everything.
[20] A peninsula on the pacific coast literally formed by the San Andreas fault shearing part of California off into the ocean.


JMBower said...

As always, I remain impressed, jealous, and anxious to see what comes next. Some great hikes there. One of the things I've missed most since coming to Texas is any sort of meaningful change in elevation. You can only hike through so many NWRs on the Coast before they all blur into one indistinct salt marsh with no real horizon.

That being said, the Adirondacks can't help but be my "home mountains" as well...hwo could they not? We lived in a respite between a continent-draining river and an ancient or both was bound to shape us.

BrianA said...

The previous commenter said it perfectly... I too am impressed, jealous, and eagerly looking forward to the rest of the list. I can't believe there's 11 that rank above this list?!?

I think I'd die happy if I could do one of these someday :).

stanford said...

Thanks guys.

I feel the need to add to the Smokey Mountain post. We ended up bottoming out our car at one point and loosing our muffler.

The rest of the trip we repeatedly sang "We left our muffler in West Virginia...gotta get it we got, gotta get it." to the tune of the early 90's hip hop sensation "I left my wallet in El Segundo"