Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Top 14 Favorite Hikes: Part 3 - The Final Countdown #5 to #1

part 2 is here
part 1 is here

This is the final installment of my top 14 favorite hiking and backpacking trips of all time. I am wrapping up with the top 5 and I thought I’d count them down in reverse order.

#5 Burgess Shale Hike: Kootenay, Canadian Rockies (1 day, 15 miles)

Of all the hikes on the list, this one was less of an adventure and more of a pilgrimage. The burgess shale was the first early Cambrian LagerstĂ€tten (which in an extremely fun side note is the German word for motherlode).[1] This providential[2] preservation of the soft body portions of organisms of the early Cambrian Sea provided our first window to the ‘Cambrian Explosion’. It seems to indicate[3] that only 30 million years elapsed between the development of multicellular organisms and the evolution of every major body plan that can be observed today (plus several others). But, most know the Burgess shale because of the seemingly improbable critters its consolidated, anoxic sediments record. These are critters that can decidedly cause one to ‘remember his name.’ It is also worth noting that Walcott himself and Simon Conway-Morris (the current authority on the shale) were/are both Christains.

The Burgess Shale is a world heritage site, in the Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies. We had to book a guided tour and were told that if we wanted to remove a rock, we were going to have to commit a body cavity to its concealment. The other hikers were, without exception, fascinating people. The most memorable one was an economics professor who studied how punctuated equilibrium could be used to predicatively model economic systems. However, while this hike might have been primarily about the history of life, it was still a fifteen mile round trip in the vastly underrated Canadian Rockies including the requisite glaciers and the trips finest waterfall. Just a thrilling day to wrap up our Glacier-Banff trip.

#4 North Lake to South Lake: King’s Canyon (4 ½ days, 55 miles)

This had to make the list simply because of its scale. It was the longest trip we have taken. It would have crept higher if we had taken longer to do it. But it is difficult to get more remote in the lower 48 than in King’s Canyon’s Evolution Valley. Hikers were scarce, passes were dramatic and the alpine meadows were pristine and unmatched. We also saw golden trout, which are famous and only life in a few lakes in the southern Sierra[4].

#3 Piegan Pass: Glacier National Park (1 day, 10 miles)

Almost everyone I know who has been to Glacier, lists it as their favorite national park, including Amanda and I. It is so startlingly original with the sharp, thin monoliths jutting wherever you turn, like the blades of an enormous gauntlet. This was our first time hiking where Grizzly’s roam and Glacier backpacking permits are notoriously hard to get so we decided to keep to longish day hikes. The whole trip was remarkable. We saw big horn sheep, mountain goats, strike-slip faults, and even a Grizzly at about 30 ft.[5] But I have never seen anything like Peigan Pass.

The soft colors and steep but rolling slopes of the landscape were offset by the stark, watchful presence of ‘the Garden Wall’. The Garden Wall competes with El Capitan as the most sublime geologic feature in the lower 48. It is a razor thin (by geologic standards), stripped[6], arĂȘte that runs through the center of the park. This is the first time I have been hiking and literally felt like I had entered a mystical parallel reality. Lakes are not supposed to be that blue. Cliffs are not supposed to be that shear. Geology is not supposed to be that mind blowingly sublime. Days are not supposed to be this full of wonder.

#2 Copper Ridge: Cascade Mountains (3 days, 25 miles)

There is a theme in the final two hikes. They are both multi-day ridge trips. Ridge hikes tend to be fantastic since you get sustained views for relatively little work (once you actually get on the ridge). We spent more time on the trail during this trip than we needed to and our packs were heavier than they had to be because Washington trails[7] are literally lined with huge blueberries in August. We would linger often to eat them and then not be hungry for meals.

Most of the trail and both campsites were well placed for extraordinary views of the Cascades[8]. The first night we looked out over the palisades range into Whatcom Pass and the second night we had great peaks to the South and our own secluded alpine lake to the North. The lake was unsurprisingly frigid, but a brief swim was still required.

A lonely Ranger manned a shelter on the highest point of copper ridge. He said that one to four groups passed through each day and was starting to get a little desperate for human contact. We also got ‘charged’ by a black bear.[9]

#1 Teton Crest Trail: Teton National Park (3 Days, 32 miles)

This was part of a 10 day Yellowstone-Teton trip[10]. The Teton hike was so spectacular; it left us feeling underwhelmed by Yellowstone. Still early in our backpacking careers, I pitched this one to Amanda by sharing that it starts with a ski lift deposits you at a starting elevation of 10,450 ft. The hike was not without elevation gain, but there was no grueling first day as is common with ridge trips. The highlights of this trip included happening on a moose[11] and cresting the ridge so close to the three stark peaks you felt like they were in reach. The loop ended at Jenny Lake where a water taxi picked us up and took us back to the parking lot.

It is hard to articulate why Teton is our favorite. But it was not even really close. Maybe it was the towering, triangular peaks. Maybe it was the lush canyons which seemed to simply be a string of one waterfall after another. Maybe it was the satisfaction of getting and staying so high and taking in so many dramatic views while skirting the pesky 4,000 foot first day. Maybe it was just 3 sweet days with my wife touching the sky and huddling under a little tarp, warming hot chocolate as the hail beat down. But the Teton Crest trail is the winner of a VERY worthy field.

[1] Since its discovery by Walcott in 1909, similar sites have been discovered in China and Greenland.
[2] Yeah, I believe that. I’m not sure who would be more offended, Fundamentalists or Atheists.
[3] Being a punk-eek (punctuated equilibrium) guy, I unsurprisingly agree with Gould in this assessment. But our guide simply would not buy this. He champions the alternate hypothesis that multicelular evolution was going on at thermal vents for millions of years before, but was just not recorded in the fossil record. His commitment to gradualism, however, also gave rise to an awkward resolution of the problem of the surprisingly early development of life. He credits extra-terrestrial migration. He could be correct on both counts (though the former seems more likely than the later). But, I say, let the rocks tell the story.
[4] We spent the last night at Golden Trout Lake. I took a picture of one and sent it to my brother. Got a one word response. ‘Jerk.’ I think he thought I was gloating. He might have been right.
[5] We were coming back from Ptamagain Pass on a trail that also leads to the more modest destination of Ice Lake. The trail had been closed our whole time there because of bear activity, but I desperately wanted to do it, and it opened up on the last day. The hike was stunning, but on the way back, within a mile of the trailhead, there was a crowd of Ice Lake day hikers who had been rounded up by a ‘Bear Ranger.’ (Glacier has special rangers dedicated to grizzly ‘situations.’) A bear had taken up residence in the middle of the trail. The Ranger made us wait about an hour until the bear had moved 30 ft off the trail and then had us quickly ferry by while he stood between us and the completely unpulsed beast with one hand on his mace and the other on his sizable side arm.
[6] I find the stripe to be just startling…and beyond fascinating from a geologic perspective
[7] This trip also included extended day hikes in Olympic where we ran into the same thing.
[8] Maybe the most underrated mountains of the lower 48.
[9] What actually happened was that hikers farther up scared it in our direction. It changed course as soon as it saw us. But for a terrifying few seconds it looked like it was charging us on a thin ridge with few places to hide.
[10] This trip started oddly, as I spent time in all 4 major US timzones in a span of 48 hours. I was teaching a class in Jefferson City Missouri the week before. But my grandmother died at the end of that week, so I flew directly from Kansas City to Syracuse, drove late that night to Norwich, NY for the funeral, then caught the red eye from Syracuse to Sacramento, and then drove to Wyoming the next in time to use our permit which had been locked in months in advance.
[11] The moose was so quiet that we were surprisingly close when we noticed it. But…we only saw the moose because we took a wrong turn and got lost for a mile (loosing ~800’ of elevation in the process). I called it our moose diversion. Amanda was not as willing to rename it. We also saw a whole family of mountain goats. The kids were really young and incredibly cute.


Nic Gibson said...

This is the Brother. I was just responding generally to Stan communicating with me and stating a general fact. There was no reference to the trout.

You with us said...

I have loved this series. Your hikes with Amanda are inspiring. Guide book, someday?

I have not logged nearly the mileage the two of you have, but this post brought back very fond memories.

Hush, hush -- I am contemplating an anniversary gift (in 5 years or so) of going back to hike Mt. Whitney so redeem (cough) our last trip there. I might need your help serving as a decoy, etc.

Also, your mention of Walcott and your hilarious reference for "providential preservation" remind me to ask you if you have any book recs regarding discussion of intelligent design. I would be interested in reading something that compares 6-day creation and a longer view and/or God-behind-it vs. chance-behind-it. Thanks!