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Four Incredible Fall Backpacking Trips in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands

With fall foliage that rivals New England, a unique topography reminiscent of the Alaskan and Canadian tundra, and a bevy of wilderness areas flush with epic views but lacking crowds and complex permit systems, the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia possess some of the finest fall backpacking trips in America. From a quick and easy overnight to a multi-day odyssey far from official trails, it features some of the best backpacking you could find anywhere, for backpackers of all ability levels. Put these trips at the top of your backpacking to-do list this fall.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Table Rock

For an easy introduction to what fall backpacking in the Potomac Highlands is all about, head to the Canaan Mountain Backcountry Area and tackle the 2.4-mile roundtrip trek to Table Rock. With a short distance, minimal elevation gain, and astonishing views, Table Rock might be the best bang-for-your-buck hike in the entire state.  Even better, this trail receives surprisingly light hiking pressure since the majority of backpackers head to the nearby Dolly Sods Wilderness.

From the small trailhead parking lot on Canaan Loop Road, take the Table Rock Trail through a pretty forest of hardwoods that will be bursting with color in late September and early October. After 1.2 mostly flat miles, break out of the forest onto appropriately named Table Rock, and behold a 180-degree view of mountains and the Cheat River Valley. Be mindful of crevasses in the rock as you explore, and then set up camp at a protected campsite back in the woods that was passed just before reaching the overlook. Or, if the weather is clear and calm, consider sleeping under the stars out on Table Rock. Wherever you decide to camp, be sure to pack in all the water you’ll need, as there isn’t a water source on this trip. Rise early the next morning to have your coffee while watching the sunrise illuminate the fog-filled valley and colorful autumn foliage before making the return trip to the car.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Dolly Sods Wilderness

Dolly Sods Wilderness is one of the most popular and well-known wilderness areas in West Virginia, and for good reason. With a vast network of trails, a bounty of campsites and several overlooks that provide panoramic views of nothing but seemingly endless wilderness, there are countless routes in Dolly Sods that are perfect for a fall backpacking trip. Since Dolly Sods is a designated Wilderness, be prepared for minimal or no trail markings and to ford creek crossings, all of which helps to preserve a true wilderness feel as much as possible.

For a 19.4-mile (3 nights is best) lollipop loop that showcases the best of Dolly Sods, take the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail north from the Dolly Sods Picnic Area on Forest Service Road 19. In 2.5 miles, the first great views of the trip can be had from a rocky outcrop just off the trail. This overlook on the edge of Red Creek Canyon provides some of the best views in Dolly Sods, with Red Creek Valley below framed by Breathed Mountain and Rohrbaugh Plains. While only 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the view from here is so astounding that it’s worth spending a night at one of the campsites dispersed in the woods near the overlook. Sunsets from here are incredible, and on cool fall mornings fog often fills the valley below, making for truly dreamy photo conditions.

After breaking camp, continue on the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail and pass the Wildlife Trail on the right at 3.1 miles. Continue straight and drop down into Red Creek Canyon and cross Fisher Spring Run at 3.4 miles. Follow Fisher Spring Run Trail down to Red Creek, and pick up the Red Creek Trail to begin a 10-mile counterclockwise loop. Reach Rocky Point Trail on the left at 4.4 miles, which makes for a great side trip (add roughly 2 miles roundtrip) up to Lions Head, a rocky overlook that provides one of the best views in Dolly Sods, and possible campsites nearby. Continuing north from the junction with the Rocky Point Trail on the Red Creek Trail, reach the Breathed Mountain Trail at 6.0 miles. This trip takes you left down the Breathed Mountain Trail, but one could also continue straight down the Red Creek Trail to arrive at a fantastic and popular camping area near some waterfalls on Red Creek called “The Forks.”

Back at the junction with the Breathed Mountain Trail, take this trail west for 2.4 miles and travel through a beautiful forest of spruce and blueberry bogs. This combination of forest flora is more commonly found in the boreal forests of Canada than the Appalachian Mountains, and is especially beautiful in autumn when the berry bushes turn bright red and are a perfect contrast to the dark green spruce forests.  Arrive at the Big Stonecoal Trail at 8.5 miles and turn left to head south down this trail for 2.4 miles before arriving at a trail junction with the Dunkenbarger Trail. Excellent campsites along Big Stonecoal Run can be found here.

Continuing south on Big Stonecoal Trail, the western end of the Rocky Point Trail to Lions Head is passed on the left at 11.6 miles, and in 1.4 more miles ford Red Creek and arrive back at Red Creek Trail at 13.0 miles. The banks of Red Creek possess several wonderful campsites, and Red Creek (named for the reddish-brown tint of the water caused by a high tannins concentration from decomposing red spruce and hemlock needles) is perfect for cooling tired feet after a long day on the trail. Continue heading northeast along the Red Creek Trail for 1.5 miles before hitting the intersection with Fisher Spring Run Trail, at which point you’ll be retracing your steps from the start of the trip back to the parking lot.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

North Fork Mountain

For fans of ridge hikes with near constant views, it doesn’t get any better than an autumn trek along North Fork Mountain. The full length of the ridge hike is 24.7 miles in total from end to end and makes a great shuttle hike if a car can be dropped at both trailheads (it’s about a 40-minute drive one-way between the north and south trailheads). It’s also possible to break this up into smaller shuttle sections, especially if starting from the northern trailhead. From the northern trailhead on CR 28 (Smoke Hole Rd.), ascend switchbacks for 1.6 miles to gain the ridge. Once up on the ridge, views and campsites abound, and there is minimal elevation change. Hike south and take a short side trail on the right that leads to Chimney Top, which provides a spectacular view of distant mountains and autumn foliage peppering the pastoral countryside far below. Countless other vistas await further down the trail, as the ridge never strays far from a clear view.

Three quarters of a mile further south, pass another fine vista, Table Rock (not the same Table Rock as the one previously discussed at the start of this article). If short on time or energy, this makes for a great stopping point, and several nice campsites can be found dispersed in the forest not far from the trail that provide easy access to sunset views from the ridge. From Table Rock, the trail ambles south and passes two spur trails that descend east off the ridge: Landis Trail and Redman Run Trail, reached 4.1 and 8.2 miles from the north trailhead, respectively. Taking either of these trails would provide a shorter shuttle hike alternative.

The main disadvantage of being up on the ridge is the scarcity of water. Save for a semi-reliable spring that’s passed halfway through the trail, there’s no water sources up on the ridge, so it’s best to pack in enough water to last the length of the trip in case the spring is dry.

The views continue on the southern portion of the trail, with so many overlooks that they don’t even have names. While the north half of the trail is more interesting, the southern half to the southern trailhead is still beautiful, and completing the full length of the trail is a rewarding and recommended experience.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Roaring Plains

For the seasoned backpacker looking for a trip that’s as challenging as it is scenic, there’s no better destination in the Potomac Highlands than a part off-trail wilderness sojourn in the Roaring Plains West Wilderness. Backpackers with the necessary skills are rewarded with some of the most incomparable solitude, views, and campsites to be found not only in West Virginia, but the entire East Coast. Given the largely off-trail nature of this route, it’s wise to budget extra time in case you get turned around, and to pack a map and compass and know how to use them. A GPS could also be incredibly useful for this trip.

There are several possible routes that can be taken into the Roaring Plains, with the eastern fork of the South Prong Trail (which begins just a half mile down FS 19 from the start of the aforementioned Dolly Sods Wilderness trip) offering a pleasant, relatively flat portal to the rugged terrain that lies ahead. After heading south for approximately 2.5 miles on the oftentimes wet and muddy South Prong Trail, the real fun begins. Look for an unofficial trail on the left, not marked with a trail sign but often marked with a cairn, which heads in a southwest direction through the forest. Take it slow, keeping an eye on your compass and be on the lookout for more cairns marking the way along the faint trail, known as the “Hidden Passage.” After almost a mile of picking your way through the forest, break out into an open meadow with expansive views. Soon after arriving at the meadow, the trail passes one of the finest campsites imaginable, nestled in the flame-red berry bushes and with the kind of expansive, open views that are hard to come by when backcountry camping in the East. This area makes a great basecamp option to do day hikes from, with the top hiking option being an off-trail journey along the rim of Long Run Canyon.

To get Long Run Canyon from the meadows campsite, follow a faint, unmarked trail for about 0.7 miles through the open meadows, until reaching the Pipeline Swath (essentially an old dirt road). A small trickling creek located at this junction is one of the only water sources if camping at the meadows and for the duration of the loop along Long Run Canyon, so top off water bottles here and be sure to treat the water. Take a left to head southeast on the Pipeline for about 0.3 miles until arriving at the remains of an old road, where the real adventure begins.

Turning right, dive into the bush and head in a west-northwest direction to reach the rim of Long Run Canyon. Scan for a faint path possibly marked with cairns or flagging, and budget extra time for this section of the hike, as it’s the sketchiest part from a navigation standpoint. Once you arrive at the canyon rim, the trail is much easier to follow. When in doubt, ensure that the canyon is on your left. The next 2.5 miles are some of finest hiking miles imaginable, with almost constant views out across the canyon into the vast West Virginia wilderness. Heath thickets, spruce, and rocky outcroppings combine to form an incredibly beautiful and unique landscape unlike anything else in the East. While there is minimal elevation change on this section of the hike, since this is an unmaintained trail, there will almost certainly be downed trees to navigate around.

While base-camping at the meadows will make the hike along the canyon rim easier, for the hardy backpacker there are several options for camping along the canyon rim. Although water is hard to come by along the canyon, the views and solitude more than make up for the extra effort of hauling in water. Some of the best campsites are just past possibly the finest view of the day, at a spot called “The Point,” reached 1.5 miles into the hike along the canyon rim. From The Point, head northwest and in one mile arrive at a large campsite with a fire ring. On the north side of the campsite, look for a cairn and the start of your journey away from the canyon rim on the Tee-Pee “trail.” Another unofficial trail that can be a pain to follow, it’s best to set a northeast compass bearing and do your best to follow the faint boot path while sticking to the compass bearing. A half-mile bushwhack will lead to the Roaring Plains Trail, which is an official Forest Service trail. Turn right (east) onto the Roaring Plains trail, and in 0.9 miles again reach the Pipeline Swath. Turn right onto the Pipeline, and head southwest for one mile before arriving back at the base of the meadows, where you’ll turn left and retrace your steps from earlier in the day to return to basecamp in the meadows, having completed one of the most rugged and beautiful fall hikes imaginable.


Staying "Low and Local" During Coronavirus

For all the unpredictability of nature, and the chaos that can be the wilderness, the folks that love it tend to be planners at heart. Meticulous planners even: the kind who take expedition logistics to the point of obsession; zealots, who pour over maps and read guidebooks cover to cover; lovers of order, who chart their itineraries to the minute, and wrestle with every gram that goes into their packs. That’s why when COVID-19 established itself in the Northeast, and all of that came to a screeching halt, many of us felt the whiplash.

As cities and states shut down so too did the crags and trailheads. Travel was heavily restricted, people were asked to stay home, and our priorities shifted from reviewing the weather reports of far away mountain ranges to the very immediate matter of trying to contain an outbreak.

And so, our lofty goals got a lot further away—but as the higher, more distant summits receded, the outdoors didn’t actually go anywhere—and as we were encouraged to stay “low and local,” it seemed that the outdoors actually got a whole lot closer.

A new perspective on a familiar trail. | Credit: John Lepak
A new perspective on a familiar trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Rolling with it

With the rest of the world suddenly off-limits, we had to turn our attention to our own backyards. We all have our go-tos in the neighborhood, and in the first few weeks we covered a lot of familiar ground. It was refreshing to hike the local preserves and neighborhood parks before or after work, or even on a lunch break. They were different than they are on the weekends, and it was rewarding to see winter transition to spring in real time—something that isn’t immediately apparent from a desk in an office from nine to five.

As time passed, and spring progressed, we gradually expanded our definition of local. A ten minute drive to a trailhead became twenty and opened up that many more opportunities to get outside. With the changing weather though came the people. Folks cooped up with nowhere else to go turned their attention to the outdoors, and with this surge in usage came crowds, trash, and—as popular state parks became overwhelmed—closures. Once-quiet trails more resembled Fifth Avenue at rush hour than peaceful woodland singletrack and the only thing that exceeded the annoyance was the hazard presented by large, maskless groups that can’t socially distance because of the terrain.

We began looking beyond the ‘usual’ spots, taking to the internet and to apps like AllTrails and The Hiking Project, trying to find somewhere new. We went early, or late, or watched the forecast, seeking clouds rather than clear skies knowing that our favorite spots would be more safely passed in rain. Sometimes it was about improvisation—stopping at a trailhead we’d never heard of after turning away from a full parking area. Other times, having a plan B—and even a plan C—was the way to go. Flexibility is always a requirement in the outdoors and rolling with it felt natural—and stoked a small bit of a sense of adventure along the way.

Old neighborhoods, new trails, and a lovely little run by the river. | Credit: John Lepak
Old neighborhoods, new trails, and a lovely little run by the river. | Credit: John Lepak

Mix it Up

Not being able to climb at the height of the pandemic in the northeast was rough. It took what felt like forever before local organizations like the Ragged Mountain Foundation lifted their no-climbing advisory—and longer still before the Gunks reopened—and not being able to climb, even locally, had us bouncing off the walls. Staying low and local—and exploring new places close to home by doing so—opened up a ton of new territory. And that got us thinking about how else can we expand that newness in our own backyards?

Some of us mixed it up a bit. If we typically hiked a loop clockwise, we’d try hiking it counter-clockwise. We started to trail run our hiking trails and to hike our running trails. We may have dusted off an old family canoe and took to the water for the first time in a while. We may have picked up a used mountain bike and taken to the trails, both new and familiar, in a fresh way. Within the restrictions the pandemic assigned us, we persisted in getting out and doing things.

When redlining the local trails yields a solid local crag find. | Credit: John Lepak
When redlining the local trails yields a solid local crag find. | Credit: John Lepak

New Goals

A ton of us had high expectations for 2020. We’d trained for this season, seeking a summit or a thru-hike or a trail race. We’d sustained injuries, healed, trained up again. It’s hard to talk about things like climbing, hiking, or running in the context of a surging global pandemic but, simply put, seeing these sought-after objectives grow more distant, after years of preparation, really sucked.

We had to put those objectives on hold—so we found new ones. We redlined the hiking trails in our town. Or county. Or state. Or we sought and completed ridiculous virtual ultra-running challenges. Or we built our own hangboards and trained like crazy. There’s no replacing a Rainier summit or going end-to-end on the Long Trail but we found new challenges, we kept busy, and we made it work.

Fall’s starting to set in, and with it comes a whole new vibe to the local trails. | Credit: John Lepak
Fall’s starting to set in, and with it comes a whole new vibe to the local trails. | Credit: John Lepak

What Now?

Eventually, in the Northeast, we flattened the curve. Climbing started up again and trailheads reopened. Limited travel became a thing and we could get to the Whites and the ’Daks and Acadia safely. It’s still weird—we’re still masked up, taking separate cars, and sanitizing our hands until the skin falls off—but we’re still here and we’re still getting out. And while it’s hard to believe it’s been six months of this, and we seem to be staring down six more, it’s reassuring to know that staying low and local can still be rad. Now, as fall approaches, we’re going to keep on seeing what other cool, new stuff we can find in our own backyards. Winter’s just around the corner, and with any luck, it’ll be cold, long, and full of frozen waterfalls, deep powder, and bluebird days.


Explore Connecticut's Litchfield Hills This Fall

Nestled in Connecticut’s rugged Litchfield Hills, the town of Kent is the postcard-perfect image of rural Southern New England. From its charming center at the intersection of US-7 and CT-341, bucolic farmland gives way to dense second-growth forests, rocky hillsides, and pristine waterways—all a study in contrast to the densely populated suburban tableau that the Nutmeg State typically evokes.

What local hikers, trail runners, climbers, and paddlers already know though, is that Kent is more than just a pretty face. Miles of trails, awesome climbing, and plenty of water—both technical and flat—make Kent a full-value day trip. Throw in some excellent restaurants and a destination-worthy brewery, and you’ve got yourself a fine spot for a long weekend.

The views from the Macedonia Ridge Trail will have you forgetting you’re in the fourth most densely populated state in the country. | Credit: John Lepak
The views from the Macedonia Ridge Trail will have you forgetting you’re in the fourth most densely populated state in the country. | Credit: John Lepak

Hiking and Trail Running

From hilltop to hollow, Kent’s state parks, forests, and private land trusts provide access to miles and miles of high-quality trail fit for hikers and runners of all abilities.

The centerpiece, of course, is the venerable Appalachian Trail. 51 of the AT’s 2,190 miles run through Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills offering some of the loveliest low-elevation day hiking and backpacking options in the northeast. If you’re looking for an easy and scenic stroll, head south from Bull’s Bridge to Ten Mile Hill (4.5 miles, out-and-back), taking in a 19th-century covered bridge and a beautiful section of the Housatonic River along the way. For something a bit more challenging, head south from the Saint John’s Ledges trailhead on River Road, traversing Fuller Mountain, Caleb Peak, and Saint John’s Ledges while you catch views on your way to the AT’s junction with CT-341 (4.3 miles, one-way). Looking to fill your weekend? Just north of Kent, in Sharon, the AT–Mohawk Loop (39.4 miles, loop), is an excellent backpacking route that connects the Appalachian trails of the past and present—today’s Mohawk Trail actually traces the original path of the AT before it was rerouted in the 1970’s.

The AT isn’t the only game in town though. Just around the corner, Macedonia Brook State Park boasts an impressive network of trails that offer a not-so subtle reminder that “low-elevation” doesn’t always mean “easy.” Varied terrain, outstanding views, and a climactic rock scramble characterize the Macedonia Ridge Trail—a part of Connecticut’s Blue-blazed Trail Network and one of the state’s finest—as it works its way up and over Cobble Mountain (6.4 miles, loop).

A few miles northeast, Kent Falls State Park and its dramatic, stepped, eponymous cascade drops over 250 feet as it flows into the Housatonic River. Linking the Park Path up with the Red and Yellow Trails makes for a lovely, easy hike up and around the falls (1.5 miles, loop).

Trail Magic (5.9-) at Saint John’s Ledges in Kent is one of the most enjoyable single pitches of climbing in the state. | Credit: John Lepak

Climbing

Connecticut climbing has a reputation for short routes, steep traprock ridges, and incredible sandbags, but Saint John’s Ledges, rising above the Housatonic River in Kent, offers climbers a bit of a diversion: slab. Right along the Appalachian Trail, a quarter mile in from the trailhead parking area on River Road, are the Upper Ledges, a long stretch of friction slab reaching well over 100 feet high in some places.

There’s a good range of difficulty but the majority of lines register as solid, enjoyable moderates with a mix of heady slab moves and jammable cracks—and though some are leadable, protection can be sparse (or non-existent), and top-rope is generally the order of the day. A 60-meter rope alone won’t do it on some routes so be sure to bring a 70 or plenty of static line to build anchors with. Everything is east-facing, and the top half of the Upper Ledges are sunny and warm in the morning, so climbing here can comfortably extend late into the season. Must-do’s include Half Bling (5.8+), Falling Bodies (5.6), and the excellent Trail Magic (5.9-).

There are a handful of areas, and a good amount of climbable terrain, at Saint John’s in addition to the Upper Ledges, including the Lower Ledges, a short, beginner-friendly cliff just off the trailhead parking area. With a pair of super-easy routes like Wilderness Crack (5.3) and Try (5.2), this is an excellent spot for first-time climbers—and if its popularity with groups and classes is any indication, the Lower Ledges may well be the best such area in the state. There is a little bit of something for everyone here though, and more experienced climbers headed for the Upper Ledges will enjoy a change of pace (and some shade) on stout face climbs like The Graduate (5.10-).

The Housatonic River, known for its quality fly fishing and kayaking, as seen from Bull’s Bridge. | Credit: John Lepak
The Housatonic River, known for its quality fly fishing and kayaking, as seen from Bull’s Bridge. | Credit: John Lepak

Paddling

From its headwaters in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, the Housatonic River travels 149 miles on its course to Long Island Sound, effectively halving the town of Kent from northeast to southwest in the process. Like the surrounding hills, the Housatonic is emblematic of Connecticut’s Northwest Corner—it’s also one of the finest destinations in the east to fisherman and kayakers alike. The river moves quickly and can be technical at several points, the most noteworthy of which is the Staircase, an obstacle just south of Bull’s Bridge, that heralds rapids up to Class V when the water’s high.

Those seeking gentler waters need look no further than Lake Waramaug State Park. Situated on the border of Kent, Warren, and New Preston, Lake Waramaug is a gorgeous lake in a stunning setting—absolutely perfect for an early morning paddle. The state park also has an adjoining campground, a great spot if you’re in for more than a daytrip.

Kent Falls Brewing Company, located on a working farm in Kent Hollow, makes some of the best beer in the state. | Credit: John Lepak
Kent Falls Brewing Company, located on a working farm in Kent Hollow, makes some of the best beer in the state. | Credit: John Lepak

Eating and Drinking

For a small town, Kent does really well on the food and drink. Get started in the heart of town at Swyft, a cool little joint in a restored 18th-century home that serves up modern, seasonal fare alongside a robust tap list. A local draft and one of their wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizzas tend to hit the spot after a big day on the trail or at the crag.

No trip to Kent is complete without grabbing a beer at Kent Falls Brewing Company. Located in Kent Hollow, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Lake Waramaug, Kent Falls Brewing Company is a brewery on a working farm specializing in locally sourced ingredients. Their beer menu is wide-ranging, ever changing, and always excellent and the setting is as bucolic rural Connecticut as it gets.


10 Ways To Ease the Stress on Busy Trails

In recent months, more and more people have been turning to the outdoors for fun. While it’s great to see so many people hiking and trail running, it’s also stretching resources and threatening delicate landscapes across the Northeast, especially at popular destinations like the White Mountains and Adirondacks. Luckily, there are steps you can take to minimize your impact on these well-loved places. Here are 10 great ways to ease the stress on busy trails.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

1. Choose Less-Popular Objectives

The summits of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-footers and the Adirondacks’ 46 High Peaks will always draw a crowd. However, lesser-known summits like those on the 52 With a View deliver spectacular scenery, often without the crowds and elevation gain. If you just have to bag a 4,000-footer, try tagging one that most people avoid or one that doesn’t count toward the NH48.

2. Pick Less-Popular Routes 

Trails like Franconia Ridge and the Crawford Path are always popular destinations, but there are plenty of excellent trails that the masses overlook—many of which take you to the same coveted summit. Get off the beaten path and take the trail less-traveled to popular summits, or open your mind to a new type of adventure with a trip like Guy’s Slide.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

3. Travel Farther  

There’s a reason some mountains are busier than others—it often has to due to their proximity to people and ease of summiting. Selecting destinations that are off the beaten path—whether it’s a parking lot or summit—is a great way to find some peace and quiet in the mountains.

4. Plan for Flexibility 

It’s tough to tell how busy the trails are from your home—after all, you’re a hiker, not a mind reader—so always have a Plan B in place. The great thing about places like the White Mountains is the abundance of trails and peaks close together, which allows you to consider multiple trips from the same general area so you can quickly pivot in the event of an unexpectedly busy trail.

5. Pass Responsibly 

The current climate is a delicate balance between the long-term health of the trails and the health of their users. Staying six feet apart isn’t easy on busy, narrow trails, but stepping off of them disrupts ecosystems and can lead to widening and erosion—especially in above-treeline alpine zones. Keep your eyes peeled for other users, both ahead of and behind you, and try to step aside when the trail widens, or onto rocks or more durable surfaces. If you need to step aside, simply step off and wait rather than hiking outside the boundary of the trail and potentially widening it.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

6. Let The Trails Dry 

Normally, a rainy-day hike is one of the greta joys of the late summer, but with more people getting out, it might be best for the trails to dry out and full recover before being pounded by boots. Wait a day or two after it rains to avoid creating deep footprints, ruts, or doing other damage to water-compromised trails. Look for more durable trails—either paved or rocky—for your wet-weather adventures.

7. Practice Responsible Behaviors 

With so many hikers and trail runners in the mountains, it’s more important than ever to practice responsible behaviors in the mountains—both to reduce your impact and to serve as a role model for newer hikers. Understand and follow seven principles of Leave No Trace:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors
Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

8. Clean Up After Others

There are a lot of new hikers hitting the trails these days and they’re not all familiar with practices like Leave No Trace. While we can’t all become rangers, we can help minimize the impact of other hikers by picking up some of the trash that’s becoming an increasingly common sight on the trail. Pack a ziplock bag and collect wrappers, gel packets, and bottle caps that you come across. Picking up someone else’s trash with your hands sound gross? Try tucking a few rubber gloves in the hip pocket of your pack.

9. Bathroom Basics 

Hikers in the Whites have long benefited from the presence of the AMC’s huts for everything from refilling water bottles to a quick snack. The huts are also a convenient place to go to the bathroom. While they are closed, it’s always better to pack a wag bag and carry your waste out—the less we leave behind the better, especially as more and more people start digging cathodes. If that’s not an option, carry a toilet kit (trowel, TP, used TP bag, and hand sanitizer), make sure to “go” at least 200 feet from the trail and 200 feet from a water source, dig a hole at least six inches deep to go in, and cover the hole when you’re done.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

10. Give Back 

Many outdoor organizations are under-staffed and under-funded—leaving them stretched thin. From gifting your time by volunteering to work on a trail crew to making a monetary donation, every little bit helps. Additionally, while you’re out on the trails, be conscious of the little things you can do to help out, like removing downed branches that are blocking the path, keeping drainage ditches free of debris, and sticking to the main trail instead of the numerous side paths that have developed over the last several months.

With so many people discovering (or rediscovering) the outdoors, it’s an extremely exciting time for activities like hiking and trail running. By taking a few simple steps, we can help preserve these important spaces for the future.


Level-Up Your Fall Photography at the Adirondacks' Heart Lake

With all due respect to the other seasons, there isn’t a more exciting time of year for wilderness exploration and photography than fall, and there’s no better place to be this time of year than the Eastern United States. Blessed with a variety of hardwood species like sugar maple and birch that turn practically every shade of color imaginable during the autumn season, there’s no shortage of fantastic foliage destinations in this part of the country. That said, there are some locations that stand out from the rest, such as the Heart Lake area in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

Located south of Lake Placid in the High Peaks Region, Heart Lake is a perfect fall hiking and photography destination. While the main sights can be seen in just a daytrip, to truly appreciate this special area, nothing beats spending a few nights in a classic Adirondack lean-to, several of which pepper the lakeshore and surrounding forest. Or if camping isn’t your style, the charming and cozy Adirondack Loj is also near the lake and offers the weary hiker heated rooms and home-cooked meals.

Another big advantage of staying at Heart Lake is that some of the best fall photography imaginable is right at your doorstep. The following tips will help you make the most of a fall trip to Heart Lake and to take your fall photos to the next level. While this article is focused on the Heart Lake area, most of the photography tips can be applied to any locale.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Time it Right

The first consideration when planning a fall photography trip to Heart Lake or elsewhere is timing. While difficult to predict and variable from year to year, peak fall foliage in this part of New York typically arrives in the last week of September and lasts through the first week of October. Peak fall color at Heart Lake the past two years has been right around October 5th. Once September arrives and preparation for fall kicks into high gear, the Adirondack Mountain Club posts a weekly Heart Lake foliage report on their social media pages that is an incredibly useful resource for monitoring the color progression remotely. If looking to explore other areas in the Adirondacks or New York State, I Love New York posts a weekly foliage report for the entire state on their website and social media pages.

Even if you miss peak color, there can be advantages to being a little on the early or late side. In the days leading up to peak color, the prominence of some trees with green leaves that have yet to change color can make the ones that have changed pop even more. Post-peak when the leaves begin to fall is a great opportunity to experiment with detailed macro shots of freshly fallen leaves and can provide the opportunity to catch the first snow of the season as autumn color hangs on before succumbing to the white of winter.

Scout It Out

One of the best ways to get to know an area and to take the best photos possible is to get out and explore and scout out different compositions upon arrival, especially if never having been to the location before. Spending at least a couple days in an area is also advantageous as it provides more time to study weather patterns and to get a better understanding of how the light interacts with the landscape at different times of the day. Scouting is rather easy to do in the Heart Lake vicinity, but there are a few classic spots where photography is worthwhile:

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake

The lake itself offers a bounty of photo opportunities, and a hiking trail leads around the eastern half of it and provides several access points to the lake. Even better, snag one of the lakefront lean-tos, which can be reserved up to a year in advance, and your own slice of private lakefront will be just steps away. A sandy beach on the north side of the lake is an excellent spot to photograph mountain reflections or a canoe beached on the sandy shore with a background of colorful foliage.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mount Jo

Rising above the north shore of Heart Lake, 2,876-foot Mount Jo provides one of the most phenomenal fall views and is one of the best bang-for the-buck hikes in all the Adirondacks. A typical rugged and steep Adirondack trail leads from the campground to the rocky summit ledges. Partway up the Mount Jo trail, the trail forks into the 1.1-mile “Short” Trail and the 1.3-mile “Long” Trail, both of which ultimately meet below the summit after a 700-foot climb. It takes roughly 45 minutes to get to the top, where a glorious view of mountains and fall foliage spreads out below. The opportunities for landscape shots with a wide-angle lens are endless, and since the view looks to the south, great sidelight can be had at both sunrise and sunset. While views from the official summit are nice, some open ledges below the summit provide an even more panoramic view with a clear perspective of Heart Lake surrounded by colorful autumn foliage with Algonquin and other High Peaks rising from the valley further to the south.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake Campground

Spending the night camping at Heart Lake opens up additional photo opportunities. Campers by a crackling fire and tents or lean-tos nestled in the forest are great additions to any fall photography portfolio and help to fully paint the picture of what fall in the mountains is all about. Lean-tos, tent campsites, and bunks in the Loj can be reserved onlineat the Adirondack Mountain Club’s. Lean-tos and tent sites cost $40 to $45 per night, and Loj rooms range from $70 to $160. For all Heart Lake accommodations, Adirondack Mountain Club members receive a 10% discount.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mornings are Magic

As difficult as it can be to crawl out of a toasty sleeping bag to feel the cold slap of predawn air, there’s no better time of day for fall photography than early morning. Winds at Heart Lake are typically calmest at dawn, better facilitating the reflection of colorful foliage and clouds in the lake. Fog rising from the lake on crisp autumn mornings is a common occurrence and provides some of the most dreamy and mystical photography conditions imaginable, whether photographed from the shore of the lake itself or from a higher vantage point up on Mount Jo. On especially cold mornings, frost might even coat the flora, adding a special touch to an already extraordinary time of year.

Look Beyond the Grand Landscape

When color is at its peak, the most obvious way to capture the beauty is to use a wide-angle lens to capture grand landscape photos. To create a more diverse portfolio and to truly capture the full essence of fall, though, it’s important to look beyond the landscape and find the subtle beauty of fall. One of the best ways to do this is to use other lenses besides a wide-angle. Utilizing a telephoto lens is a great way to isolate smaller sections of a landscape, and it can be a fun exercise in creativity to start with photographing the landscape using a wide-angle lens and then switch over to a telephoto to pick out different compositions from within the wider shot. From the shore of Heart Lake, use a telephoto lens to create a frame-filling shot of the most colorful group of trees, or a lone red maple amid a group of evergreens. From the summit of Mount Jo, hone in on morning fog floating over the top of the forest canopy, or a canoe on Heart Lake dwarfed by the immense scale of the Adirondack wilderness.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from an expansive landscape photo, macro photography can reveal an intimate and abstract side of fall that often goes unnoticed. With macro photography, a small section of a single leaf can be as beautiful and profound as a grand vista filled with millions of leaves.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Pack a Tripod and Polarizer

Two of the most useful accessories for fall photography not only at Heart Lake but in general are a tripod and polarizing filter. Unless intentionally blurring some or all of a photo for creative reasons, it’s typically desirable for a photo to be in sharp focus from front to back. A tripod is often necessary to stabilize the camera and facilitate a sharp photo, especially at dawn and dusk when there’s less light and longer exposure times are required. A polarizer comes in handy throughout the year but is especially useful in fall. Much like the polarized sunglasses that you might own, putting a polarizing filter on a camera lens helps to decrease glare and haze. Using one helps to make fall colors really pop, especially when the leaves are wet. A polarizer also helps to deepen the color of a blue sky, although care should be taken not to overdo it and end up with an unnatural polarization gradient in the sky. To avoid this, twist the polarizer back and forth until the most pleasing effect is achieved, especially when photographing at a 90-degree angle to the sun, at which the polarization effect is most prominent.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Get Out and Explore

While there are enough interesting photography subjects at Heart Lake to keep a photographer entertained for days on end, there are also several other nearby locations that can all be reached on foot that are worth investigating if on an extended stay in the area. About a mile up the road from the Heart Lake Campground, a trail to Mount Van Hoevenberg begins off South Meadows Road and leads to another short mountain with an open, rocky summit that provides a different perspective than Mount Jo. En-route to the summit, pass a beaver pond that provides an excellent view of Mount Van Hoevenberg to the north. For a less strenuous diversion from Heart Lake, continue to the end of South Meadows Road by foot or car to photograph pretty meadows complete with a babbling brook.

Heart Lake also provides easy access to hiking some of the most popular High Peaks, such as Algonquin, Marcy, and Phelps. It should be noted though that while the tundra of these peaks can sport pretty autumn alpine grasses, the best fall colors will be well below these lofty summits.

For a more secluded leg-stretcher than hitting a High Peak, loop around the north side of Heart Lake to connect with the Indian Pass Trail. Reach beautiful Rocky Falls in a little over two miles, with the option to continue on approximately three more miles to rugged and seldom-visited Indian Pass.

On the drive to and from Heart Lake on Adirondack Loj Road, several open meadows are passed that make for perfect photography or picnic spots, just be sure not to encroach on any private land.

 

Whether spending just an afternoon or an entire week, Heart Lake is a perfect destination for fall photography. With the tips outlined in this article and an open, creative mind, you’ll be sure to come away from your visit with the best fall photos possible.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Rangeley, Maine: On and Off the Water

If your idea of a getaway includes the quiet sounds of kayakers paddling in the morning or loons calling at night, then you need to head to the Rangeley Lakes region in western Maine. Fishing on its pristine lakes in remote camps made it famous but today visitors head to the area to experience almost every outdoor activity whether on the water, the nearby peaks, or trails in between. The drive from central New England is about four hours and the cell service is suspect, but you’ll want to lie in that lakeside hammock for only so long before checking out what Rangeley has to offer. Here are a few starters to get you warmed up and away from camp, but still near the water.

IMG_0649
Credit: Sonja Murphy

Hike Bald Mountain

Bald Mountain is located in nearby Oquossoc and has the best views of Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic Lakes. The most popular trailhead is on Bald Mountain Road, about a mile off of Route 4. At 2,443 feet, this 2-mile round-trip hike offers a variety of features. Beginning in a hardwood forest, the path climbs steadily and is soon crisscrossed by a variety of frenetic tree roots. The trail then changes to rock, requiring a careful scramble to the top. At the summit there are picnic tables and an observation tower. The views include the surrounding lakes and mountains, like Saddleback and Mount Washington. This is a perfect hike for kids as it is quick and the location is easily accessible.

Credit: Rene Paquette
Credit: Rene Paquette

Lounge at Smalls Falls

Smalls Falls in Madrid is just 15 minutes south of Rangeley. Don’t let the typical off-the-road rest area and picnicking spot dismay you. Just beyond the parking lot is the Sandy River. From the bridge look right and you’ll see how the river above drops over four waterfalls into just as many pools. Once you cross, you’ll find a series of short trails to explore. The most popular trail hugs the rocks to the top of the falls. There are plenty of places to wade and enjoy the refreshing water. If you follow the trails that lead away from that spot you’ll discover a second artery of water. There the river has cut sharply into the earth and drops twenty feet below the trail to reveal a quieter place to explore.

Credit: Rene Paquette
Credit: Rene Paquette

Explore the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust Trails

The Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust is a conservation group that maintains trails throughout the region. The seven trails cover 35 miles and are designed for most skill levels. For example, the one mile Bonney Point trail leads to a quiet cove on Rangeley Lake. Along the way you’ll encounter old stone walls and other reminders of how the land was once used. Further south on Route 4, closer to Rangeley proper, is the Hunter Cove Wildlife Sanctuary. There are several loops to explore on this easy 1.5-mile path. This summer some of the trails are closed for repairs, but check out the cove to watch the loons and other waterfowl who call it home. The real gem in this system is the walk to Cascade Gorge and Falls. Located in Sandy River Plantation, the trail leads you a mile up the river. There are several spots to explore the rocks and water. Information about all of these hikes is available on the organization’s website.

Credit: Rene Paquette
Credit: Rene Paquette

Run the Mingo Springs Trail

A great place to trail run or leisurely stroll, the Mingo Springs Trail, is a 3 mile loop around the Mingo Springs Golf Club. A designated Audubon trail, the designers planned the trail with education and outreach in mind. Parking for the trail is near the driving range. Cross the street to the red blazes that lead you around the back nine of the golf course for 2 miles. The trail dips and turns through a variety of habitats. What begins as a damp forest eventually turns into a dappled meadow. The trail rises slightly through a patch of pine before meeting Mingo Loop. Follow the road back to the parking lot or cross the road to continue on the blue blazed section of the trail. This part of the trail dips into a hardwood forest then encircles a huge lupine meadow that is spectacular when in season. The trail finishes by crossing through the Golf Course parking lot and passing the clubhouse.

Do you have any offerings for what to do in the Rangeley region? If so, leave them in the comments.


Alpha Guide: Hiking Acadia's Precipice Trail

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Challenging and exposed with views for days, Acadia National Park’s Precipice Trail is mile-for-mile one of the best hikes in New England.

If there’s one trail in Acadia National Park you’ve heard about, it’s likely the Precipice Trail. It’s as “Acadian” an experience as viewing the sunrise from the summit of Cadillac Mountain, getting popovers at the Jordan Pond House, or consuming an unreasonable quantity of lobster rolls. At only 0.9 miles long it’s a short trail, but its renown—or notoriety, or even infamy—is about three things: the challenge, the exposure, and the views.

The challenge is clear: in those 0.9 miles, the Precipice Trail gains over 1,000 feet in elevation. As for exposure, the upper reaches of the trail ascend an open, airy, nearly-vertical cliff face. And, finally, for the views Champlain Mountain’s bare east face affords hikers a sweeping view of Frenchman Bay, Schoodic Peninsula, and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s also a ladder trail, using a strategically-placed—and extremely fun—combination of iron rungs, railings, and ladders to aid hikers to the top, making it a challenge for even the most experienced hikers.

Quick Facts

Distance: 2.5 miles, loop
Time to Complete: Half day for most.
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: Mid-August through mid-October
Fees/Permits: $30/vehicle park entry
Contact: https://www.nps.gov/acad/

Download file: Precipice_Trail.gpx

Turn-By-Turn

From Bangor, head east on I-395. Take exit 6A for US-1A, following the signs for Ellsworth, Bar Harbor. After 24 miles, continue straight onto ME-3 east. Keep on ME-3 for another 18.5 miles. From here, continue straight into Kebo Street until you reach the Park Loop Road in another mile. Turn left onto the Park Loop Road—the Precipice Trailhead’s parking area (44.34949, -68.18811) will be on your right in 2.7 miles.

Iron rungs mark the route on the upper reaches of the Precipice Trail. | Credit: John Lepak
Iron rungs mark the route on the upper reaches of the Precipice Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Precipice Trail

The Precipice Trail wastes no time getting down to business. Begin following the blue blazes up a concrete staircase and a moderately steep stone slab to an unmissable collection of NPS signage right on the trail. They’re warning would-be hikers of the challenge that awaits them, and they’re not kidding—the Precipice Trail is steep, exposed and absolutely not for folks who can’t handle heights or who aren’t prepared for a workout. Don’t let the short mileage fool you, this hike will get your blood pumping.

At 0.1 miles, the Precipice Trail presents its first iron aids: two rungs, mounted directly into the rock, on opposite sides of a left-facing corner. The rock is about six feet tall, and flat atop, with a third piece of iron—a handrail—just within reach. This is one of the more awkward moves on the trail, and its position a tenth of a mile in can’t be a coincidence—this is a test. A taste of what’s to come, and a final opportunity for hikers to reassess their decision. Take your time, trust your feet, and pull yourself up—it’ll be worth it later.

From here, the route comes out of the shade and enters a boulder field. Continue heading up, following the blue blazes and negotiating the boulders all along the way. At one point in this section, the trail actually ducks under two huge boulders before continuing on up over a wood bridge and some stone steps before it’s junction with the Orange and Black Path at 0.4 miles (44.35151, -68.18972).

Here’s where the Precipice Trail really kicks into high gear. The route follows an obvious system of cracks, corners, and ledges up a nearly vertical face—made passable by the placement of several iron rungs, railings, and ladders. Continue southeast, using the rungs and railings to take on short (but tricky) scrambles. As you get higher, these sections become more frequent until at mile 0.6 they blend together into one long mountainside jungle gym.

The going will likely be slow—this is a popular hike and it can be difficult (if not impossible) to pass slower parties. Take in the view, catch your breath, and enjoy it.

Eventually, the mountain will run out of curveballs to throw at you and at 0.8 miles, the trail levels out and opens up with panoramic easterly views. Keep following the blue blazes to one final ladder–scramble combo and gain the summit of Champlain Mountain at mile 0.9 (44.35083, -68.19401).

A view of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands while descending Champlain’s North Ridge. | Credit: John Lepak
A view of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands while descending Champlain’s North Ridge. | Credit: John Lepak

Champlain North Ridge Trail

In addition to marking the high point of the mountain, Champlain’s summit marker also marks the confluence of four trails: the Precipice Trail to the east, the Champlain South Ridge Trail to the south, the Beachcroft Path to the northwest, and the Champlain North Ridge Trail to the north. Each trail terminates at a different trailhead on opposite sides of the mountain, so find the Champlain North Ridge Trail and proceed carefully.

Descending this trail is incredibly pleasant: wide open views, massive granite slabs, and the occasional stand of pitch pines—a characteristically Acadian summit scene. Bar Harbor, Frenchman Bay, and the Porcupine Islands set the scene as you follow the cairns down, and the trees close in again. After the Precipice Trail, the Champlain North Ridge is downright leisurely. Enjoy it while it lasts—at 1.5 miles, when the trail meets up with the Orange and Black Path (44.35779, -68.19184), the work resumes.

Narrow stone steps and some scrambling are a reminder that you’re not out of the woods yet on the Orange and Black Path. | Credit: John Lepak
Narrow stone steps and some scrambling are a reminder that you’re not out of the woods yet on the Orange and Black Path. | Credit: John Lepak

Orange and Black Path

From its junction with the Champlain North Ridge Trail, the Orange and Black Path reverses course and heads south along Champlain’s steep eastern slopes. Though not as aesthetic as the Precipice Trail, the Orange and Black Path also packs a lot of value into a short distance, with plenty of elevation left to gain.

At 1.7 miles (44.35662, -68.19098) the trail splits: to the left (east), it descends to the Park Loop Road; to the right, it continues south, around the mountain, to its junction with the Precipice Trail. Should you not feel up to taking the first half of the Precipice Trail back down, here’s your bailout point. Head left for 0.1 miles to the Park Loop Road, turn right, and walk 0.6 miles back to the Precipice Trail parking area.

Proceeding to the right, though a bit more of a challenge, will avoid the roadwalk and will take you down a lovely bit of trail, replete with tricky scrambles and cool stone staircases, some cut into the rock, just wide enough to squeeze through. There’s what feels like a whole lot of up and down, but you’re essentially following a contour line back to the Precipice Trail, which you’ll hit at 2.1 miles.

The boulder field marks the beginning (and the end) of the Precipice Trail’s more challenging terrain. | Credit: John Lepak
The boulder field marks the beginning (and the end) of the Precipice Trail’s more challenging terrain. | Credit: John Lepak

Precipice Trail (Reprise)

Head left from the trail junction and retrace your steps back to the parking area. The terrain is familiar, but you’ll be hiking against the tide, so be prepared to wait for uphill traffic where the trail bottlenecks. Take the time to enjoy the views and catch your breath because, at 2.5 miles, it’s over before you know it and you’re back in the parking area.


Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

The Kit

  • The Precipice Trail is not officially listed as a hiking trail, but rather as a “non-technical climbing route,” and while trail runners or hiking boots will do the trick, a good pair of approach shoes, like the Scarpa Crux (men/women) will have you stepping with confidence on iron rung and granite slab alike.
  • This hike is a bit like a European via ferrata route and, like a via ferrata, it’s not a bad idea to use a pair of gloves. Try the Petzl Cordex Belay Gloves—they’re comfortable, dextrous, and will keep your hands from getting shredded.
  • At 2.5 miles, this isn’t the longest hike, but it is on an easterly face and can get hot on a sunny day. Make sure you have water—if it comes in the form of a hands-free hydration pack like the Salomon Agile 6 Set Hydration Pack, even better.
  • There are narrow ledges and scrambles on this trail where social distancing is simply not possible, so bring a face covering, like the Buff Original Neck Gaiter, the EMS Heritage Bandana, or the Hanes Face Mask.
  • Acadia has miles and miles of trails, and even though the Precipice is a shorty, getting lost is still possible and would be a real bummer. Bring the National Geographic Acadia National Park Map and make sure you’re going where you want to be going.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Keys to the Trip

  • The National Park Service regularly closes the Precipice Trail to protect resident peregrine falcons, a Maine endangered species, during their mating and nesting seasons. This typically lasts from March to mid-August and the fines—and incredibly bad karma—for violating the closure are steep. Be sure to check the NPS website for up-to-date information.
  • Acadia is regularly one of the most visited parks in the National Park system and the Precipice Trail is one of its main attractions—it draws a crowd. Go early, go late, or go prepared for company.
  • Bar Harbor is just a hop, skip, and a jump away and the Lompoc Café is a fine place to kick back for a post hike beer and banh mi in the shade.

CreditL John Lepak
CreditL John Lepak

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the Precipice Trail recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


Staying Clean on an Adventure: Trail Hygiene 101

If you love to hike, you probably don’t mind getting a little dirty. Muddy feet, sweaty shirts, and grime under your fingernails are all part of the trail experience. But there are a few good reasons to practice good hygiene while out in the woods. Poor habits like not washing your hands can spread diseases, and excessive dirt can cause bacterial infections in even small wounds like cuts and scrapes. Not to mention, not filtering your water can cause serious gastrointestinal problems. Not to mention, on longer backpacking trips, keeping good hygiene just makes you feel more comfortable and keeps you happy. A clean hiker is a healthy hiker, and a healthy hiker will enjoy many more miles on the trail.

Hikers should brush their teeth 2 to 3 times per day, just as they would at home. | Credit: Karen Miller
Hikers should brush their teeth 2 to 3 times per day, just as they would at home.
| Credit: Karen Miller

Clean Your Teeth

Hikers have a tendency to eat sugary snacks on the trail, so brush your teeth 2 times a day, just as you would at home. Pack a tiny toothbrush and a roll of floss, or carry a titanium toothpick instead of floss. Did you know you don’t need toothpaste to clean your teeth? A good brushing with clean water does the trick. If you prefer to use toothpaste, try an all-natural brand like Tom’s or Dr. Bronner’s, or take along a tiny container of baking soda. Swallow or spray your foam to prevent large globs from sitting on the forest floor. If you use floss, be sure to pack it out!

Above the Waist

To keep your hair clean, wear a buff or bandana. If your hair is very long, braid it tightly. Give your hair a good brushing before bed to remove debris that may have collected on the trail. For general above-the-waist hygiene, use a damp bandana to wipe down your body. Bathroom wipes are okay, but be sure to pack them out. Even if the package says they’re flushable, they are not biodegradable. Scented deodorant and soap attracts animals, so leave these items behind if you can.

A bandana, biodegradable toilet paper, reusable bathroom wipes, and hand sanitizer will keep you clean and healthy on the trail.  | Credit: Karen Miller
A bandana, biodegradable toilet paper, reusable bathroom wipes, and hand sanitizer will keep you clean and healthy on the trail.
| Credit: Karen Miller

Below the Waist

Carry only biodegradable toilet paper and use it sparingly. If you have to poop on the trail and there’s no privy available, choose a site that’s at least 200 feet off the trail, away from any water sources. Dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep, and 4 to 5 inches wide. (Follow local guidelines if they are more rigid or specific.) It’s always preferable to carry out used toilet paper. If you choose not to do so, bury it. For feminine hygiene products, always pack them out in an odor-proof bag.

Take Care of Your Feet

Your feet are your greatest asset when you’re hiking, so give them the treatment they deserve. When it comes to feet, a bandana is your best friend! Dip a clean bandana in water and use it to wipe your feet, especially before you go to sleep at night. This practice will keep your sleeping bag cleaner, too. Try a pair of toe sock liners which keep your feet cleaner than socks alone—they also help prevent blisters. If you come across a brook or stream, take off your boots and socks and give your feet a good, cold soak. If you don’t have access to water or have a limited water supply, use bathroom wipes to clean your feet. You can also make your own reusable wipes, and wash them out when you return home. Boil two cups of water with a tablespoon of coconut oil and a teaspoon of vinegar. Cut bandanas into wipe-size squares and soak in the liquid. Let cool and squeeze out excess liquid. Place in ziploc bags. Use separate bags for above-the-waist and below-the-waist cleaning. Used wipes can go into an odor bag to be washed when you return home.

Mud season is especially challenging when trying to practice good hygiene on the trail. | Courtesy: Joe King
Mud season is especially challenging when trying to practice good hygiene on the trail. | Courtesy: Joe King

What About Soap?

Do you need soap on the trail? Not really. You can wash your hands and face with plain water, and use a squirt of hand sanitizer on your hands and fingers. Trim your fingernails as short as possible before your hike and your nails will stay cleaner. But if you’re a soap person, only use a biodegradable brand, and never use soap in a stream or lake. Your choice of cleaning products helps maintain a “clean” trail, so think twice about what cleaning products you carry and whether you really need them.

Should You Wear a Mask on the Trail?

Evidence has shown that the virus is much more difficult to transmit outside, but social distancing and mask-wearing should still be big parts of your outdoor activities. While you probably don’t need to wear a mask when no one else is around, wear a Buff or bandana around your neck and quickly pull it up over your mouth and nose when you pass others, especially if the trail is too narrow to maintain 6 feet of distance. Although lots of hikers prefer to stay in shelters, this may not be the best time to do that. Carry a tent, pitch it away from other hikers, and be respectful of your fellow campers.


A Beginners Guide to Hiking in the White Mountains

At almost 800,000 acres in size, containing approximately 1,200 miles of hiking trails, and topping out at 6,288 feet—higher than anywhere else in the Northeast—the White Mountain National Forest offers nearly limitless possibilities for human-powered exploration. Hiking options in the White Mountains expand with the inclusion of adjacent state parks like Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch (which includes the nation’s oldest continuously maintained hiking trail—the Crawford Path).

The proximity of the White Mountains to many of the Northeast’s biggest cities makes them an attractive option for the region’s hikers, but one barrier remains for some who want to explore this dreamy destination: where to start?

On top of Mount Eisenhower in the Presidential Range. | Credit: Tim Peck
On top of Mount Eisenhower in the Presidential Range. | Credit: Tim Peck

Start Small to Go Big 

Epic hikes like the Presidential Traverse, Pemi Loop, and Franconia Ridge are at the top of seemingly every hiker’s White Mountain bucket list, but they aren’t the best trips for hiking novices. Start small, build fitness, get familiar with the weather and terrain of the Whites, and start figuring out what gear works for you.

Some great 1-3 hour hikes for getting your feet wet include:

For a little more of a challenge, consider these moderate hikes:

  • Middle and North Sugarloaf
  • Welch-Dickey
  • Mount Willard
  • Hedgehog Mountain
  • Mount Pemigewasset

Ready to start ticking off 4,000 footers? Here are a few of the easier ones:

  • Mount Hale via Hale Brook
  • Mount Tecumseh via Tecumseh Trail
  • Mount Waumbek via Starr King Trail
  • Mount Pierce via the Crawford Path
  • Cannon Mountain via High Cannon
Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Carry Essential Items 

The “10 essentials” serve as a basic guideline of what you should carry in the event of an emergency or an unexpected night outside. The concept originated in climbing classes taught by the Mountaineers—an outdoor recreation organization founded in the Pacific Northwest—in the 1930s. However, it wasn’t until 1974 that the 10 essentials actually made it to print, when the long-standing tome of American climbing, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills included the list in its third edition.

In the near-century since their development, the 10 essentials have evolved to encompass modern technology but still fulfill their original intention. The 10 essentials are:

  • Navigation: Study your route before you leave home, then bring a map and compass, GPS, or a smartphone with a navigation app like Gaia.
  • Headlamp: Hikers are encouraged to carry a headlamp with extra batteries, but we live by the maxim that the best place to keep extra batteries for your headlamp is in another headlamp—after all, a powerful headlamp like the Black Diamond Spot only weighs three ounces.
  • Sun protection: Sunglasses for your eyes and sun-protective clothes and sunscreen for everything else.
  • First aid: Check out the goEast article How to Restock Your First-Aid Kit for ideas on what to carry.
  • Repair kit: A small knife or multi-tool and some duct tape for making trailside repairs like fixing a broken zipper or tapping the sole of a shoe back on.
  • Fire: Waterproof matches and a firestarter.
  • Shelter: A lightweight bivy to hunker down in the event of an unexpected overnight or while awaiting rescue.
  • Extra food: Our article Staying Fueled Up on Long Hikes outlines some basic nutritional principles for powering your adventure—as a rule of thumb, bring more than you need.
  • Extra water: Water is heavy, but tablets or a lightweight mini-filter offer safe, easy ways to stay hydrated in an emergency.
  • Extra layers: Everyone has different needs—some people run warm, some cold—but bring more layers than you think you need. Get an idea of what your hiking kit should look like in our article Top to Bottom: Gear to Hike the NH 48.
Crossing the Alpine Garden below Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck
Crossing the Alpine Garden below Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck

Mountain Weather 

The weather in town is often a lot different from what you’ll find in the mountains. Strong, chilly winds are commonplace on hikes above treeline, as are intense sun and even the odd out-of-season snow. Rather than trusting the weather app on your phone, check out the higher summits forecast from the Mount Washington Observatory for a clear idea of what’s happening weather-wise in the Whites.

Trail Conditions 

Weather isn’t the only difference between town and the mountains. For example, snow can linger in the woods for weeks after it has melted from sidewalks and backyards. Another thing to keep in mind before hitting the trail is water crossings, as spring snowmelt and heavy rains can turn small streams into raging rivers. The website NewEnglandTrailConditions.com is a handy resource for learning what conditions to expect on your hike.

Lake of the Clouds hut, below Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck
Lake of the Clouds hut, below Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck

Find Some Friends

Joining a more experienced partner or two for your first few outings is a sure way to get all the benefits of the Whites without any of the stress. An experienced friend can provide critical beta—like directions to the trailhead or which way to turn at the unsigned trail junction—while also offering feedback on questions you have about appropriate gear and your fitness level.

Stay Safe

A good reason to hike within your abilities, carry the 10 essentials, and know what you’re getting yourself into is that the State of New Hampshire has recently started charging people for rescues if they’ve demonstrated negligent behavior. To insure yourself against a bill for a rescue, and to support NH Fish and Game search and rescue efforts, consider purchasing a Hike Safe Card for $25 a person or $35 for a family. Don’t think you’ll need a rescue? The NH Fish and Game on average participate in 190 search and rescue missions per year.

Have any tips for new hikers? If so, leave them in the comments below.