At Home in the Wild Sierra Club Outings leaders share their favorite backpacking destinations
by Dashka Slater
MOUNTAINS "ARE BEAUTIFUL TERRORS," writes George MacDonald in his classic children's book The Princess and Curdie. They are "portions of the heart of the earth that have escaped from the dungeon down below ... into the wind, and the cold, and the starshine." If valleys are for cities and settlers, mountains belong to weather and wildflowers, to glaciers and raptors. There is nothing tame about a mountain, no landscape more compelling. Each year, thousands of us strap on boots and packs and pant up the trail in search of the silence and sky that extend in all directions.
Sierra asked six Sierra Club Outings leaders to tell us about a favorite backpacking trip, and invariably each focused on or around a mountain. But there the similarities ended. We heard about alpine lakes and flower-drenched meadows, high desert plateaus and narrow canyons, wolverines and wild horses. The adventurers' choices stretch from the stormy White Mountains of New Hampshire to the gentle slopes of the Ansel Adams Wilderness in California to gear-intensive forays above the Arctic Circle. Whether you're an experienced peakbagger or still breaking in your first pair of boots, these are places that will inspire you to exclaim, as John Muir did during his first visit to the Sierra Nevada, "Who wouldn't be a mountaineer! Up here all the world's prizes seem nothing."
Ansel Adams Wilderness, California
Just south of Yosemite National Park, the Ansel Adams Wilderness teems with the granite peaks and crystal streams that inspired the famous photographer as well as countless amateur shutterbugs. Its complement of gentle slopes and accessible campsites--some less than an hour's hike from wilderness trailheads--make it an ideal destination for the beginner backpacker. Outings leader Carol Hake spent 15 years guiding Girl Scout trips into the area; now she brings women of all ages who consider themselves novices.
"Lots of the women have never backpacked, and many have never camped," Hake says. Anxieties fade quickly in the mountains, though, and it isn't long before the women are diving buck-naked into the park's alpine lakes. Having tossed aside both their clothes and urban expectations, many discover their inner mountaineer and become adept at reading contour maps, starting fires, and whipping up meals on the WhisperLite. "One woman came from New York City, and I had a feeling she'd never stepped off a sidewalk except to cross the street," Hake recalls. "Now I get postcards from her from Chile or Nepal--she's done something exciting every year since."
Carol Hake enters the Ansel Adams Wilderness from its gentler west side, using the Fernandez Pass or Isberg Pass trailheads. Mid- to late summer is the best time to go, but be prepared for rain and mosquitoes, and bring bear-proof food canisters. A wilderness permit is required for overnight stays, and because a quota system is in place year-round, advance reservations are essential. For more information, go to www.fs.fed.us/r5/sierra/passes.
Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Virginia
Put aside your preconceptions of what Virginia wildlands might look like. The rocky summits of Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area are topped not by trees but by highland meadows known as "balds." Confined to the summits and upper slopes in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounded by hardwood and evergreen forests, these treeless expanses are a bit of a puzzle--the product of a mysterious combination of rocky soil, high winds, grazing, logging, and fires.
Whatever the origin, this section of the Blue Ridge offers "the most spectacular backpacking in the region," according to Glen Gillis, who leads a 56-mile loop trip through the area using both the Appalachian and the Iron Mountain Trails. "As you hike along, all of a sudden you've got these wide-open meadows, with endless views," he explains. Adding to the visual feast are the wild ponies that roam Wilburn Ridge, and the Catawba rhododendrons that blanket the mountains with pink and purple flowers in June, giving them "a paradise look," Gillis says.
Traipsing the high-elevation balds exposes you to winds and sudden weather changes, but don't let that be a deterrent. "You're always a little bit wet and a little bit gritty," says Gillis. "But always grateful."
The town of Damascus, Virginia, is the best departure point. Buzzard Rock on Whitetop Mountain offers the most breathtaking views, while Wilburn Ridge boasts great wildlife and wildflowers. Glen Gillis suggests going in June to catch the best blooms, but be prepared for weather that can vacillate between windy and foggy and hot and humid. You can find more information at www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/mr.
Among the Great Whites
White Mountains, New Hampshire
Westerners accustomed to summiting 13,000-foot peaks may scoff at Mt. Washington's puny 6,288-foot stature--until they start climbing it. "The White Mountains are extremely rugged," explains trip leader Karin Tate. "The trails go straight up the mountain and straight down. Most of them are streambeds with rocks, water, moss, twigs, and tree roots." Combine the challenging trails with the rough weather--a sign on Mt. Washington proclaims that it has the world's worst--and you can understand why most through-hikers find their daily mileage drops by a third when they hit the White Mountains section of the Appalachian Trail.
The payoff is the scenery: craggy granite peaks; huge glacier-swept boulders; tumbling clouds; rushing waterfalls; and forests of birch, maple, aspen, and spruce. "It takes a little longer to get where you're going, but it's worth it," Tate says.
Tate's trips take advantage of the White Mountains' eight high huts, which are situated seven or eight miles apart. Because the huts provide meals and bunks, hikers can travel light and know that whatever they encounter on the trail, there's a dry bed awaiting them at the end of the day. Tate remembers crossing Franconia Ridge near Mt. Lafayette, usually one of her favorite parts of the range, in a rainstorm. "It was pouring and the wind was about 40 or 45 miles per hour," she recalls. "It was miserable. But we didn't have to make camp. That combination of hard hiking and then the luxury of being warm and coddled and fed in a hut is really fantastic."
The high huts are owned and operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club; you can make reservations at outdoors.org/lodging/huts. Most open in June, but Karin Tate recommends going later to avoid the black flies that swarm the area in late spring. Whatever the season, be prepared for sudden squalls and chilly temperatures. For more information, visit www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/white_mountain.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Two hundred and fifty million years ago, western Texas was underwater, covered by a tropical ocean. Floating within it were algae and sponges whose lime secretions created a 400-mile-long horseshoe-shaped reef. The ocean evaporated, and the ancient reef was buried under sediment. Then, about 12 million years ago, forces deep within the earth pushed the ancient limestone skyward, where it became the Guadalupe Mountains, one of the world's best examples of a fossilized marine reef.
Outings leader Melinda Goodwater had been curious about these mountains since reading Track of the Cat, a murder mystery set there, so last fall she led a backpacking trip that explored the range's rocky peaks, pine forests, and subterranean chambers. She found the landscape surprisingly varied, with desert giving way to brightly colored maple stands, sheer-walled canyons that looked perfect for hiding outlaws, and toothy stalagmites and stalactites in the Grotto, a limestone cave. Even in the peak foliage season, the group encountered only two other hikers in the backcountry.
"From those peaks you can see mountain ranges all the way to Mexico," Goodwater says. "At night you might see a few little lights from a ranch house, but that's about it. Civilization is a hundred miles away."
Since temperatures can soar over 100 degrees in the summer, it's best to visit in spring or fall. There's no water available, so you'll have to pack in your own. And the range's wind gusts can reach 90 miles per hour. ("There were a couple of nights when we couldn't even cook because the wind was so ferocious," Melinda Goodwater recalls.) With a permit, you can backpack through McKittrick Canyon, visiting the Grotto along the way, and stay at McKittrick Ridge Campground. Otherwise, the canyon is open for day use only. More information is available at nps.gov/gumo.
Conquering the Divide
Wind River Range, Wyoming
Forming the spine of the Continental Divide, the Wind River Mountains offer the kind of scenery that can turn even the most jaded urbanite into a frolicking flower child. With 1,800 lakes and tarns, 51 peaks higher than 12,500 feet, and seven of the ten largest glaciers in the U.S. Rockies, there's enough for a lifetime of adventures here.
Outings leader Chris Plummer describes one particularly memorable day that began with a trek up to Hailey Pass. A few hikers decided to take a side trip to bag Pyramid Peak, a summit that looks as if it might have a pharaoh buried beneath it. When the group didn't return, Plummer and the others went searching, only to find them bathing in Pyramid Lake after a walk through a luxuriant field of wildflowers.
Summer blooms include shooting star, columbine, yarrow, lupine, arnica, sticky geranium, monkey flower, and arrowleaf balsamroot. "The really spectacular flowers are accompanied by really spectacular amounts of mosquitoes," Plummer confesses. "When they're bad, they seem to chase you around even in the daytime." That's when the yarrow comes in handy: If you brew it into a tea and apply it to your clothes, it acts as a natural mosquito repellent.
Avoid the worst of the bugs by coming in August or September. Snow can fall in August, though, and it becomes increasingly likely in September--some hikers report breaking trail through waist-deep drifts--so make sure you pack a map, a compass, and cold-weather gear along with your mosquito net. Start out from the Big Sandy Trailhead on the west side of the range, which offers the gentlest approach. For more information, visit www.fs.fed.us/btnf.
De Long Way Around
De Long Mountains, Alaska
Above the Arctic Circle, the summer sun shines continuously, dipping low at night to infuse the landscape with what trip leader Rebecca LeCheminant calls "a more settled, photographic light" and blazing during the day with such intensity that resting hikers hide in the shade of their packs. Even after a full day of slogging through marshy tundra and mounded tussocks (which LeCheminant compares to walking among bowling balls), the constant solar charge gives backpackers an unexpected vitality.
"People hike after dinner and come back at midnight," LeCheminant says. "You find you can go farther, and you're inspired to because you have all this light."
Part of what keeps backpackers energized over a 110-mile trek in near-constant wind is the landscape--remote, dusted with wildflowers, and surrounded by snow-clad peaks. While traveling through the De Longs, LeCheminant and her group have encountered herds of calving caribou, loping grizzlies, nesting owls, and wandering wolves. Once she watched two wolverines--some of the Arctic's shiest creatures--frolicking, blithely unaware that she was there. "They were dancing across the tundra," she says. "Who can sleep after a sight like that?"
Rebecca LeCheminant's De Long Mountains trips are in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which is accessible by bush plane. Unless you have already backpacked in the Arctic and know how to handle grizzly encounters, this is a trip to take with an experienced guide.
Dashka Slater is a frequent contributor to Sierra. She is the author of The Wishing Box, a novel; and two children's books, Baby Shoes and Firefighters in the Dark.