Many components can comprise a great hike: degree of difficulty, sense of accomplishment, scenery, one’s companions, and variables such as weather conditions, wildlife, or uniquely memorable incidences, all of which can transform a routine or average hike into something spectacular. Just about every hike contains a degree of any one of these elements, although some hikes will always stand out as being exceptional for one, or in most cases, many of the afore mentioned qualities.
This top-ten list categorizes some of the once in a lifetime hikes I’ve taken. Many of them have occurred in the last two years, which leads me to believe that this list will look drastically different in a year’s time. That’s a healthy thing, since such a list regarding highlights of one’s passions should never remain static, lest one stop pursuing that which one is passionate about.
1. Observation Point Hike, Zion National Park, Utah.
The eight mile Observation Point trail winds its way up a formidably steep red cliff with a view of a waterfall several hundred feet high. The trail then flattens out as it attains the Echo Canyon slot, carved by sporadic torrents of rushing water. The trail then switchbacks two thousand feet up to the top of Zion Canyon, producing awe-inspiring views of every prominent Zion landmark – Great White Throne, Angel’s Landing, Temple of Sinawava, and the Patriarchs from numerous angles. If for only the scenery, this trail would easily crack anybody’s top-ten list.
I took this hike the morning after a snowstorm in late march. Water rushed in a torrent through the slot canyon, and I saw waterfalls around every turn. Snow painted the upper reaches of the landscape, and, although I sludged my way through three pairs of soggy socks, nothing did anything to hinder my mobility. At the top, I viewed thousand foot waterfalls pouring out of slot canyons and over the sides of sheer, vertical cliffs. I saw the canyon stretch for miles, opening out into a desert of red rock mesas and endless blue skies. The combination of difficulty – 3,000 feet in four miles, plus an equally knee-rattling descent, the effect of melting snow and running water in an otherwise dry, vertical landscape, the stunning views of one of the most spectacular canyons on the planet, and the quiet solitude made this the single greatest hike I’ve ever taken.
2. Haleakala Crater and sunrise, Maui, Hawaii.
The Haleakala sunrise is one of the classic tourist experiences on Maui. I had done it twice before the way the vast majority of people experience it; first, I had ridden up in a van with a small group and then rode a bicycle from the nearly 10,000 foot summit to the beach. The second time, I drove up in the early morning hours, watched the sunrise, then turned around and went back.
The third time I went, in August of 2011, I was determined to experience some of the crater close at hand. I arrived at the summit at 4:45am, and then hunkered down to witness the single most glorious sunrise I have ever seen. A layer of clouds just below my elevation created a ceiling over towers of puffy cumulus rising up from the ocean. As the sun rose, it painted the entire scene in pinks, yellows, reds, and yellows, before finally setting everything on fire.
As the sun rose, revealing the details in the barren, black and red landscape below, I began a descent into Haleakala crater, which covers roughly the same area as Manhattan Island. As I descended, I witnessed jagged black volcanic rock, dark red sands, cinder cones, shimmering silverswords, and what is considered by some audio ecologists to be the most complete silence on the planet. There are no insects, hardly any breeze, no cars, no planes flying overhead, and almost no people (I met two groups on the trail, once at the beginning and at the end).
I hiked half the length of the crater and all of the width, descending from the visitor’s center, crossing plains littered with jagged volcaninc rock reminiscent of Mordor, ascending and descending cinder cones, and exiting out of the more vegetated northern end over 2,000 feet of fern-draped switchbacks. As I left, a thick fog rolled in, obscurring most of the view but leaving me still well aware the space and causing the silence and stillness to deepen even further. I even hitchhiked for the first time to cover the three miles and 1,000 feet back to the crater’s summit.
The scenery on this hike is incredible, and possibly unique. If you ever find yourself in Maui, find a way to experience at least some of it.
3. Kings Canyon to Paradise Valley, Kings Canyon National Park
During the winter of 2010-2011, the Sierra Nevadas receieved from one and a half to two times the normal amount of snowfall. Much of that snow fell late in the season, making much of the high Sierras inaccessible until the middle of June. Right around the middle of June, however, a heat wave struck the range, causing much of the snow to melt in the span of a few weeks. This snowmelt drains through several major watersheds, including the Merced (Yosemite Valley), the Kaweah, The Kern, and, in the case of this hike, the Kings River.
The Kings River carved out Kings Canyon with the help of glaciers over the past several ice ages. As a result, the U-shaped canyon is the deepest canyon in the United States – deeper than the Grand Canyon by nearly 1,000 feet at certain points. Instead of red, yellow, white, and pink cliffs and mesas, Kings Canyon is dominated by towering grey granitic cliffs, at the base of which is a mixed conifer forest and the Kings River, which can best be described with the overused adjective “mighty.”
Following the snowmelt, the Kings River was a torrent of such enormous force that the sound deafened, the sight quickened the senses, and its presence in such close proximity – the trail into Paradise Valley skirts the river and rarely strays more than 100 feet away – makes one aware of how fragile and close to mortality one really is. During that season, and not long after I visited, several hikers got too close to the Merced as it rushed over Nevada Falls. They fell in and died. Throught that summer, headlines were dominated by hikers being swept away. And while I was completely safe and did not take any foolish actions, I was at times mere feet away from some of the most dangerous rapids in the entire range.
I ascended the canyon seven miles and 1,500 feet to Paradise Valley, a point in which the canyon flattens out, and the river widens and ceases to rage. The river was still incredibly high, washing out sections of the trail and encompassing more than twice of the area it usually covers. I sat on the banks and watched millions of gallons – water that would irrigate, hydrate, and power a huge portion of California – flow past as the breeze fluttered the leaves of quaking aspens and water cascaded down nearby cliffs. The Kings River during a late thaw is the most powerful natural phenomenon I have witnessed so far.
4. Cottonwood Lakes Backpacking Trip, Golden Trout Wilderness, John Muir Wilderness, Sequoia National Park
Two weeks following the above-mentioned trip to the Sierras, my friend Kevin and I took a backpacking trip on the eastern side of the range. While not a single hike, the four day, our 25 mile trek began at Horseshoe Meadow, ascended Cottonwood Pass, stopped at Chicken Spring Lake, followed the PCT for a brief stretch before arriving at Soldier Lake and the above-pictured Miter Basin, then ascended New Army Pass and an aborted attempt on Mt. Langely, then descended into the Cottonwood Lakes basin.
Despite having hiked and camped for much of my adult life, this was my first successful attempt at backpacking. I unsuccessfully attempted it years before at the same location before a summer storm thoroughly soaked all of my gear, prompting me to turn around and go home. Strange how something so perfect for me would be attempted so much later in my life, much like mountain climbing, but some things do not happen until the conditions are perfect.
Snow again was a challenge, giving Kevin and I a serious adventure when we arrived at New Army Pass. The Pass descends two thousand feet down the nearly sheer cliffs of the Sierra Crest into Cottonwood Lakes Basin. However, from the top, the only portion of the trail that seemed uncovered by snow was some several hundred feet below. From our vantage point, it appeared we would have to slide down, likely injuring ourselves, and possibly killing ourselves. We weren’t prepared or eager for eather event, and so we waited until a group of hikers ascending showed us the way. Even then, we had to cross a patch of snow without crampons at a 45 degree slope, with both Kevin and I slipping at a few points. Granted, this isn’t a terrible challenge considering some of the insane things that people do on mountain tops, but neither Kevin nor I are thrill-seekers, and this was more than enough to get our blood going.
In the meantime, we experienced several pristine glacier lakes, immense solitude, vistas encompassing 14,000 foot mountains, the Great Western Divide, vast valleys, bubbling creeks, meadows full of wildflowers (and singing mosquitos), foxtail pines more than 3,000 years old, basins carved out of glaciers, waterfalls, and barren alpine country. The appetite for backpacking is more than whetted.
5. Mt. Wilson, Angeles National Forest
I’ve already detailed this trip here, so no further description is really necessary. My camera battery had died on this trip, which nails home the lesson one more time – be prepared! Be prepared with water, sunscreen, proper equipment, nourishment, knowledge of the topography and trails. And while not most importantly, but certainly crucial: make sure your camera is working! The above picture is from a previous hike of Santa Anita Canyon, and represents a cloudy day in which little view was available.
My day on Mt. Wilson was clear and sunny, but nothing is available for representation. This hike was special not just for the scenery, which is all the more stunning considering the proximity to such a massive metro area, and not just for the accomplishment, which saw me completing my first mountain and my most difficult hike so far. It was special because it represented the first major step of accomplishing an ambitious set of goals this year. This is the first step in training for Whitney and the High Sierra Trail, both of which I hope to accomplish this summer, as well as the six pack of peaks, which I hope to accomplish this spring. Finally, I did this hike with sore, tired legs, which proves to me the value of tenacity, patience, and steadiness, qualities that I have often lacked in life. The lessons taken from this hike – one step at a time at the pace that works, don’t turn back when things become difficult, rewards match the effort – are lessons that I hope to apply to all aspects of my life going forward.
6. Giant Forest Dawn Hike, Sequoia National Park
I’ve been going to Sequoia National Park for a long time now. Earlier on, I would often drive up from L.A. in the afternoon, or even in the middle of the night, park my car in Wolverton or along Crescent Meadow, sleep for a bit, and then wake up with the dawn and wander aimlessly throughout the forest. I would do this at least once, often several times, a year, and then I would turn around and drive home. To say I love the Seuoias is an understatement; this place is as much a second home, refuge and respite from the noise, static, confusion, and anxiety of daily life, and an island of ancient beauty that I continue to come back to every year while falling in love more and more each time.
One particular hike stands out above all the rest. It was a dawn hike on the loop that circumscribes Crescent Meadow. I hit the trail just at 6:00 am, just before the sun was beginning to make its way past the eastern barrier of the Great Western Divide. As I took to the trail, the shafts of sunlight caught thousands of beads of dew clinging to leaves, branches, and spiderwebs along the trail. Early morning bird song echoed through the long amphitheatre of the meadow, and towering, vast Sequoias loomed gently overhead, giving an air of benevolence that exists in no other place I have ever visited.
Crescent Meadow exists because several streams have converged in a depression that has become dammed by accumulated silt and fallen trees. The depression has filled up with soil, and during the summer, it becoms a massive, crescent-shaped marsh filled with thousands of wild flowers, animals, butterflies, and sunlight. At various points throughout the meadow, giant Sequoias have lost their footing and have fallen into the marsh, creating “bridges” upon which one can walk, sit, or use to cross the meadow width-wise.
That morning, I walked onto one of these massive fallen logs and sat down, eating my breakfast and taking in the magnificence surrounding me. As I sat, a deer wandered into the meadow, searching for its own breakfast. It came to stop about ten feet away, and regarded me silently and calmly for what must have been several minutes. The tranquility and peace of that moment has never left me, and it epitomizes the magic of Giant Forest, as well as nearby Redwood Canyon grove.
7. Wonderland of Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park
In November of 2009, I decided at midnight that I wanted to watch the Leonid meteor shower. I knew that the best places to view the shower would be in the deserts, away from the light pollution of Los Angeles. There are stretches of desert closer to where I was living, but none of them matched the beauty of Joshua Tree, even though, at 150 miles, was quite a trek.
I drove out, arriving at about 3:00 in the morning. I found myself a bench, laid some blankets down, and watched the peak of the shower. As the sun rose, I felt that such a brief trip to Joshua Tree would be unsatisfying wihtout a hike, and so I found the Boyscout Trail, portions of which I had hiked on several previous visits.
I set out towards the jumbled hills that lined the nearly flat trail. I stopped at an outcrop of boulders and watched the sun rise over the desert hills. At a certain point, the trail forked. The left fork set out for the remainder of the trail, which would ultimately deposit me in the town of Joshua Tree some fifteen miles away from my car. The right fork ventured into unknown territory, about which I knew little. In the spirit of spontaneity that had characterized this little sojourn, I took the right fork.
The trail gradually became replaced with a wash basin that wound its increasingly tortured and sinuous path through a maze of granite boulders known as the Wonderland of Rock. The sun was rising, lighting up the sky in pale blues and pinks and drawing the twisted Joshua trees in sharp relief. As I went deeper into the canyon, it became apparent that this was lonely and little-visited country. It was also somewhat confusing given the myriad turnings of the stream bed, as well as junctions with numerous tributaries. Finally, the stream bed began to approach areas which could easily leave me lost, and I decided to cease my exploration by climbing up onto a pile of rocks, from where I took the above picture.
8. Tokopah Falls Snow Hike, Sequoia National Park
Sometimes a good idea can go comically awry. Two friends set out for a weekend camping trip in Sequoia National Park during the spring. The foothills will be green and plastered with exuberant wildflowers. The forest will be covered in snow and full of beauty. The friends will bring their guitars along, jam out a bit, eat some good food, drink some good coffee, have some laughs, and take a few leisurely hikes.
And, while we’re at it, who wants to see a frozen waterfall?
That was the question I posed to my friend Sean, after we had hiked a stretch of trail along the bottom of Kaweah Canyon. It was beautiful foothill hiking through long green stretches of sycamore-lined creeks, manzanita, oaks, and fog rolling in from the San Joaquin Valley. Sean was game, even though we had experienced the pleasures of sinking into the snow on a brief jaunt through Giant Forest the previous day. But the hike to Tokopah Falls is a short one – 3.4 miles round trip, and the snow can’t be that bad? We wouldn’t really need snowshoes, would we? Nah. Let’s try it anyways.
Sean and I set off, but not before Sean lined the inside of his shoes with plastic bags in an inovative, but ultimately ineffective attempt to keep his feet dry. We sloshed, sank, trudged, slid, and clomped our way through Tokopah Valley, covering a short piece of distance in an absurdly long period of time. At numerous times, I felt stupid, foolish, and rude for dragging Sean, a good sport from start to finish, along on this tomfoolery. However, I didn’t feel those things enough to stop and turn back.
And perhaps that is all for the good, despite the cautionary tale that is inherent in the experience. Not only did we ultimately have a lot of fun in spite of the discomfort and ridiculousness we brought upon ourselves; we also witnessed a half-frozen 800 foot cascading waterfall draining into a wide, snow-covered glacier basin. We witnessed an avalanche on the side of the canyon as the relatively warm spring air started to unsettle the ice clinging to the crags above. We saw a creek carving its way through four foot drifts of snow accumulation. And we got to witness the forest in winter, which is something neither of us knew much of.
Socks dry. Shoes air out. Fires warm the feet. Campers eventually pack up and go home. It all worked out, even though my idea was a dumb one. Granted, I won’t do anything like that without snow shoes ever again, but for all of the dopiness, this hike will long remain a favorite due to the unique conditions and all the fun I had with Sean, who, according to a resident picnic table, has a deep and abiding love for the Lord.
9. Palomar Mountain State Park
I have already described this hike previously, but it belongs on the list for one major reason: the pleasure I had in sharing this with Kelly. Kelly is somebody with whom I have fallen deeply in love and intend to spend the rest of my life with. We shared this hike on New Year’s Day of 2012, and as an opening act for what figures to be an exciting year full of milestones, changes, love, and happiness, it could not have been any better. This hike also helped reinforce that I can enjoy one of my principal passions with the person whom I love, which, although not strictly necessary, is a huge bonus on top of what already promises to be a beautiful relationship.
10. Malibu Creek/Forest Trail Dawn Hike, Malibu Creek State Park
Malibu Creek State Park has long been a go-to hiking locale due to its close proximity, its ease of access, its numerous trail options, and in the way its variety epitomizes several of the things I love about the Santa Monica Mountain Range – riparian woodland, oak woodland, grasslands, vistas, creeks, ponds, and sandstone rock formations. All of these features are available in a short stretch from the Grasslands trailhead to the M.A.S.H. site in a six-mile out-and-back trip. It’s easy, relaxing, and beautiful, and I take this trip often.
However, on one particular morning at dawn, following a major rainstorm, I set out to find the Forest Trail, about which I had recently read, and about which I had been completely unaware. The Forest Trail lies on the south shore of Century Lake, and for half of a mile, it offers a serene stroll through oak woodland, dotted with redwood trees planted by whoever owned the property before it was deeded to the state.
On this morning, the moisture in the warm soil was evaporating into the cold morning air, resulting in a fine mist that covered the ground, but did not obscuring the crags and hills surrounding the valley through which the trail traverses. Water was everywhere in evidence as Malibu Creek wound its lazy way through the valleys in the park and the water in Century Lake spilled over its retention damn. The mist caught the light in a thousand different ways – dew on the spiderwebs, through the branches of coast live oaks like the one pictured above, and in long slants through the mist. I sat on the banks of Century Lake and watched the rising sun slowly burn off the fog and marvelled at the way a soaking from a rainstorm can transform a familiar landscape into something magical and new.