Monday, March 12, 2012

Top Five (well, six) Places I like to Walk

Proof I was atop Blood Mountain...or at least near the top, not sure if that is the actual summit.

This list merely represents places that I have walked, at least a few trails of any consequence. Thus some places like Sequoia/Kings Canyon, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Mt. Rainier National Parks are left off, as I have not taken any appreciable walks in these places.

Now on to the list, in no particular order.

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
Between family vacations and weekend getaways as an adult, this is the National Park I have visited the most in my life. I've yet to tackle any of the great trails, whether it is the 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail, or trails like Chimneytops and Alum Cave Bluffs. However, I've walked several of the quiet walkways spread throughout the park, and even with the roar of motorcyles in the background they have been tranquil walks through the woods. My favorite walk of all time in the park was when I tackled the 11 miles of the Cade's Cove Loop Road. Even with the hurt feet, exhaustion, and heavy weekend auto traffic, it was still a sight to see the valley crowned by snow-covered mountains.

2. Rocky Mountains National Park, Colorado
Lakes dominate my walks at what is possibly my favorite National Park. From the easy jaunts around picturesque Bear Lake and Sprague (home to my first moose sighting), to more challenging hikes to Cub Lake and Bierstadt Lake, I've enjoyed walking in this wonderland, even if the higher elevation and I haven't always gotten along.

3. Chattahoochee National Forest and Northern Georgia, Georgia
Here is where I walked up to the summit of Springer and saw the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. Here is where I tackled 625 stairs and walked to the top of Amicalola Falls. Here is where I took a frosty walk in serene isolation at Unicoi Bottoms, and saw what may be the largest buckeye tree in Georgia. Here is where I walked to the top of Blood Mountain, walking up the face of a large boulder to reach the top, the highest point in Georgia along the Appalachian Trail. Here is Fort Mountain, a place of legend and views across great valleys. Finally, here is where I walked up to the top of Brasstown Bald atop the state of Georgia. I hope someday soon I'll be able to return to this suprisingly awesome place to walk, especially in the winter.

4. Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, and Chickamauga, Tennessee and Georgia
The biggest thing I'll miss now that I moved away from Chattanooga (besides Champy's Chicken) is seeing Lookout Mountain about everywhere I go. The walk from Craven's House to the summit is still one of my favorite walks, as well as just walking to the edge atop Lookout Mountain. Atop the ridge to the southwest in Georgia is Cloudland Canyon, a beautiful place to walk, or just reflect at the scenery. For a flatlander struggling with the hills in the area, a more relaxing alternative was out at the Chickamauga Battlefield, where there were miles of trails through the forests and fields where so many Americans fought and died during that terrible September 1863. Even if you didn't leave downtown Chattanooga, the river walk provided a chance for a great walk along the Tennessee River.

5. Yosemite National Park, California
What can you say about Yosemite that hasn't already been said? I suppose I could just tell you to take a short walk, even if you only have a couple of hours to spend. Take the shuttle (or heck, walk) to Happy Isles and walk around. Walk out to Mirror Lake at get a nice view of Half Dome. Take the short trail to view Lower Yosemite Falls. None of these will take much time, and relatively little effort. All of them have interesting things to see and give you just that much of a closer view of the grandeur and majesty of this crown jewel of the National Park Service. Of course some day, when you are in better shape or have more time, walk past Mirror Lake, walk up to Vernal Falls or Nevada Falls, or even tackle the hike up and/or down to/from Glacier Point. When you are really ready for a challenge, the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails will be there waiting for you (assuming you have your permits in order).

Because it is my blog post, and thus my rules, I'll add another one.

6. Forest Glen County Preserve, Illinois
It would be dishonest of me to write this list without including that little piece of nature I've visited the most, and which is closest to where I live. The Vermilion River has nothing on the Tennessee River, and the views atop the ridges overlooking the river pale in comparison to anything along Trail Ridge Road. The burbling little ripples along Willow Creek are infinitesimal compared to the Yosemite or Amicalola Falls, and there are no Bison, Elk, Bears, or Giant Sequoia trees to view. Nonetheless, Forest Glen is still nature, and it is still a walk in the woods. Deer, squirrels, raccoons, and many other animals call it home, and sometimes even the bald eagle can be seen in or near the park. The eleven mile River Ridge Backpack Trail is a true trail, about as challenging as it gets in East Central Illinois. Although a popular park, there are enough trails spread across different parts of the park that it isn't rare to have the trail to yourself even on beautiful spring days. Hawk Hill, the main trail down to the Vermilion River would be at home in the climb up to Blood Mountain. Even as my hiking accomplishments grow more numerous and more impressive, I still imagine I'll find myself walking along the Deer Meadow trail, or the Old Barn Trail, or the hike up the "big hill" on the Tall Trees Trail. After all, a walk in the woods is still a walk in the woods. Unless you are walking through the tall grass prairie.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

My (probably unfounded) worries #1: Inclement Weather Hiking

Watching the wet snow fall in Ridge Farm this evening got me thinking about hiking in inclement weather. For those who know me, you are probably aware I'm a bit wary about walking around in snow and ice. Part of this is my worrisome nature, but a part is based on personal experience, as I've had the misfortune of falling many, many times on icy and snowy terrain. Fortunately, its never been more than a few scrapes and bruises, a bit of humility, and the occasional ruined pair of pants.

It should be noted that most of these slips have happened in my own yard, driveway, or while walking to work from the parking lot. I've only slipped three time while walking in muddy, snowy, or icy conditions out in nature, at least in recent memory. One was because I was a dumbass who stepped right on to a frost-covered bridge without thinking (Fat Man Goes BOOM on his bottom at Unicoi Bottoms! This and more at 11), while another was walking down a small snow covered hill in Cade's Cove. The most serious was when I took a tumble on an incredibly slippery boardwalk in Okefenokee Swamp. There I felt tightness in my upper leg, which probably would have become serious had I not pulled my leg out from under me surprisingly quickly. It was a little sore walking around at Disney World (and the lovely Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve) with my sister, but other than that it was fine. All in all I've been lucky.

However, being lucky with my slips still doesn't abate my worries. That doesn't mean it controls me, as I've gone out hiking in rainy or even snowy (in the case of Cades Cove) conditions even fairly recently. Were it just a fear of falling down, I don't think I'd think that much on it.

Of course, there is more than just slips and falls to think about when it comes to hiking and inclement weather. When hiking in the winter, in wintry conditions, or when it is rainy and 60 degrees or colder, the ever-present threat of hypothermia is out there. When I think of this, I'm reminded of a short hike my brother and I did out at Rocky Mountains National Park. Although it started out nice and sunny, it turned cool and rainy as we finished up the hike. A good half-mile or more was in these conditions. Of course, that isn't that far, but when you are an idiot out-of-shape flatlander hiking without a jacket or any covering in pouring rain, it seems like 20 miles. I'm not sure we were ever in danger of hypothermia, although it certainly wasn't good for us. Still, had it been colder, or were we a couple miles deeper into our trip, I'm not sure how that would have turned out.

As you could probably gather from that only partially related tale above, another factor of hiking, at least on trails in mountainous areas, is the dynamic nature of weather. Having spent several weekends in the Smokies, and having taken several trips to the Rockies, I can attest to how quickly weather can deteriorate. Although the Appalachian Trail and its companions in the east aren't quite as exposed to threats of lightning (because of their lack of land above treeline), it still is something to think about, especially when hiking in balds or our ridgelines. And of course, especially out west, you have to watch out for normally gentle streams becoming death channels when heavy rain is dumped from above. Being as tall as I am, lightning and open spaces always makes me wary. However, most of this can be avoided by using common sense, not being stupid, and keeping an eye on the weather.

There are other worries related to hiking and inclement weather, but most of those are of a lesser concern. I'm not much of a winter hiker, so things like watching for possible areas of snow that could collapse or the proper use of an ice ax aren't really a concern of mine right now. While I would be worried of camping in a gap as a tornado comes through, I've grown up with that concern my entire life (living in IL, after all), so it doesn't really bother me that much. I'm sure getting caught in a hurricane would be awful, but that is something that you should be able to anticipate. If the track shows it going through north GA, don't hike in north GA around time it is expected.

In the end, I think it is good to be worried, provided it doesn't prevent you from getting out there and hiking. As long as you channels those worries into being prepared, it is a very productive thing to do. So I won't let a little ice, mud, rain, or snow get in my way. After all, there are much bigger things to worry about, like 'squatches and snipes.