It’s about that time of year where everybody with any kind of opinion is throwing together a completely arbitrary and subjective list that reflects what they think is good and in what order. There is, of course, no science to this, because everything you’ll ever see on a “Best of” list is nothing more than an opinion. But now that I’ve taken the piss out of the good ol’ top ten list, I’m going to add one more to the pile with my completely subjective, unscientific takes on what I thought were the 10 best hikes I took this year and why they were the best.
The hikes I list here are rated in order according to how I feel at this moment, and there are no specific criteria beyond how I feel about the hike in retrospect that determines the order. Granted, each of these hikes occurred in a spectacular setting or under spectacular conditions or both. Each title will link to the individual write-up.
Honorable Mention: Methuselah Walk, Mt. San Jacinto via Devil’s Slide Trail, The Lakes Trail, Spitler and Apache Peak, Dry Lakes Ridge.
10. Kearsarge Pass
This hike gets points for being the highest point I reached during the year. It also was one of the few times where I really got up into the wonderland of the High Sierra. What set this one apart from something like the Lakes Trail, which was also excellent, is the epic scope of the entire trail. I walked past numerous subalpine and alpine lakes, through forests of foxtail pine, while enjoying breathtaking views of the Owens Valley. At the pass, I enjoyed a view the Kings Canyon high country landscape that I hope to walk through while tackling the John Muir Trail.
Bonus points for friendly co-hikers thru-hiking the Rae Lakes Loop and fall color at the start.
9. Split Mountain
The weathered buttes of Elephant Knees and the curious split between two mountain ranges had held my imagination for over a year before I finally got out to this far-off destination in the extreme backcountry of San Diego. This bizarre landscape of mud hills, slot canyons, washes, and buttes comes colored in soft shades of yellows, golds, browns, whites, greys, and reds. Moreso, this alien landscape offered a lovely sense of isolation and separation from crowded Southern California in a way that few other hikes often do.
Bonus points for spectacular light bringing out the color on Elephant Knees.
8. Reyes Peak
Another hike that stuck in my imagination for most of the year. My first attempt to hike Pine Mountain Ridge to Reyes and Haddock Peaks was aborted due to lack of preparation, as Taylor and I arrived to find the road closed. On our second attempt, biting winds and bitter chill almost turned us back until we were able to warm up sufficiently. This ridge, which towers over the rolling wilds of Los Padres National Forest, features mixed-conifer forest, much of which was iced-over, ocean views, and unusual sandstone formations. There are a lot of great campsites up there too, which invites more visitation or even some backpacking.
Bonus points for the clouds rolling in and out, turning this into a misty mountain hop.
7. Whale Peak
The first hike of the year was also one of the most memorable. This was also my first foray into Anza-Borrego, and this hike is a fine example of what an adventure the region is. This hike started up a long, shifty sand road that became completely unpassable. Then, the trailhead began with a rock scramble over a dry waterfall. After that, a series of staircase plateaus featuring grassy meadows, pinyon-juniper woodland, and cacti alternated with snow-frosted, rocky slopes that did not yield any obvious trails. After hours of route-finding and even a little guess work, I arrived at the summit with the entirety of Anza-Borrego in one direction and the snow-capped Peninsular Ranges in the other.
Bonus points: coming within inches of taking a faceplant into a cholla cactus.
6. Kalalau Trail
One of two epic hikes on the north shore of Kauai, the Kalalau Trail is the world-famous 11 mile trail along the Na’Pali Coast, which was made famous by Jurassic Park and by being awesome. I only hiked the first two miles of the trail, which I then supplemented by hiking back to a towering waterfall through a primeval jungle. At the halfway mark, I enjoyed a romp on a sandy, secluded beach. This landscape is both dramatic and intimate, as well as awe-inspiring and terrifying. With surf roaring several hundred feet directly below the sheer cliffs to which the trail clings, this is not always for the faint of heart. It is, however, a fantastic hiking experience.
Bonus points: the random king of the jungle cat that was sitting around on a boulder next to the trail.
5. Pihea Trail/Alaka’i Swamp
These two hikes would be interchangeable in ranking were it not for the fact that the one and only Kelly “Peep Peeperson Tidbits” Turner joined me. While Kalalau hugs the shoreline, Pihea follows the top of the ridge before veering off to the wonderfully weird Alaka’I Swamp, which is billed as the highest elevation swamp in the world. This hike occurred mostly on a weathered boardwalk designed to keep the hiker dry on what is one of the wettest stretches of land in one of the wettest places on earth. While it was bone dry the day we went, we still enjoyed the muddy swamp as well as spectacular views down canyons to the shoreline 4,000’ below.
Bonus points: seeing a five year old taking this trail like a boss.
4. South Kaibab Trail
Were it not for the other three hikes on this list, this would have been a stellar, once in a lifetime hike full of iconic, awe-inspiring, humbling, ankle-busting views. However, as the first day of a backpacking trip there-and-back again across the Grand Canyon, this was merely an appetizer. It was also a fitting introduction into the wonders that come with viewing the canyons changes slowly and intimately. South Kaibab runs from the South Rim to the Colorado River, and thus exposes most of the rock layers in the canyon, which each have their own distinct character. Factor in that first breathtaking glance at the Colorado River in the Inner Gorge, and this would be a top hike for anybody… unless of course that anybody kept going to the other side of the canyon.
Bonus points: watching a bighorn sheep lounge in the warm April sun.
3. Blue Lake/Lake Sabrina
There are thousands of alpine glacial lakes scattered about the high country of the Sierra Nevadas. I can only claim to have seen a dozen or so of them, which brings along a cautionary caveat to what I will claim here. However, I think Blue Lake may be the loveliest lake I have ever seen, here or elsewhere. The lake itself would have made the list on its own, but the addition of the most spectacular fall color I’ve ever seen in the form of fiery orange and yellow aspens made this one of the loveliest and most memorable hikes I took all year.
Bonus points: basking in the October sun on a rock overlooking aquamarine waters.
2. Giant Forest Snowshoeing
6 degree starting temperatures aside, this hike allowed me to enjoy one of my favorite places decorated in a shroud of icy, silent winter beauty. My friend Kyle and I endured some truly cold and uncomfortable camping conditions to have a shot at taking this 7.5 mile loop around the snowshoe trails at Giant Forest. The snow-bound forest stood in stark contrast the usually verdant and vibrant greens, browns, and grays of the summer.While we never quite got warm and had to walk the last 1.5 miles on the road while a number of people passed us by, this stands not just as my second favorite hikes of the year, but as one of my favorite hikes ever.
Bonus points: trudging across a frozen meadow under moderate snowfall.
1. North Rim of the Grand Canyon
This hike gets points for the sheer “holy shit” factor. 17 miles, 4,400′ of elevation, and ecosystems ranging from desert to pinyon-juniper woodland to mixed-conifer forest. All through sheer canyons, gushing torrents pouring from the canyon walls, patches of snow, and epic views of the multitude of layers comprising the Grand Canyon. I can’t think of a landscape as dramatic as this one, and the trail itself, which often clings to the side of cliffs in feats of engineering triumphs, is a marvel to hike and behold. Difficulty aside, this is one hike that any serious hiking fanatic should take as this is hiking at its most spectacular. I also enjoyed this hike with my friend Kyle as part of a traverse/return of the Grand Canyon.
Bonus points: Enjoying my lunch at the deserted Grand Canyon Lodge while overlooking the 25 miles I had just crossed.
Double Bonus points: The older gentleman who was taking the entire Grand Canyon, there-and-back, as a frigging day hike!