I have this recurring dream in which I’m walking along an impossibly narrow crest of clean granite. To either side of me, the earth falls away thousands of feet into valleys where tiny trees form a solid green quilt. In the distance, jagged peaks poke through a carpet of cumulus. I hike on, enraptured by the scenery and sense of walking on thin air.
This dream isn’t a nocturnal concoction of a frustrated mountain-lover’s psyche. It’s a wide-awake daydream, the place where my mind wanders as I sit inside, in front of a blinking computer screen. It’s the obsession that sends me to my guidebook shelves and map files, scheming my next trip.
My quest for the perfect ridge has led me to far-flung corners of the continent. I’ve tiptoed along some of heaven’s own high wires (Clouds Rest in Yosemite and Katahdin’s Knife Edge in Maine come to mind), ridges so wafer-thin, a mountain goat might rope up and ask for a belay. I’ve found great pleasure, without feeling so exposed, strolling long, broad boulevards in the sky from New Hampshire’s Presidential Range to Washington’s Olympics, reveling in the sheer joy of staying up so high for so long.
I’ve watched hawks soar on thermals a thousand feet below me, and felt twinges of anxiety as I stepped along a gangplank of stone. I’ve escaped hordes of insects and hikers unwilling to scale the windy heights. And I’ve gazed out at an upside-down world where a sea of clouds was not overhead, but at my feet.
What goes up, we all know, must eventually come down. You descend through the trees to the car, and the endless ridge soon becomes a sweet memory, the source of daydreams. To help fuel your fantasies and fill your trip itinerary, here are a few prime ridge routes—all of them backpacking adventures sprinkled with great campsites. Most of the routes require nothing more than strong legs and lungs, but a few will test your balance, and one or two require scrambling skills and a safety rope.
Accessible Low Risk
North Fork Mountain Trail
Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
For 24 miles, this trail winds along the lee side of a long ridge, occasionally rising to the crest. Numerous rocky outcroppings provide increasingly spectacular views of the cliffs at Seneca Rocks and surrounding forestland. The trail can be hiked end-to-end in 2 or 3 days, but you’ll need to plan for the lack of water along the way.
More information: Potomac Ranger District, Monongahela National Forest, (304) 257-4488; www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf. West Virginia Hiking Trails, by Allen de Hart (Appalachian Mountain Club, 800-262-4455; $16.95). Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide, edited by Allen de Hart and Bruce Sundquist (West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, 304-284-9548; $12.95).
White Mountains, New Hampshire
Sure, it’s a popular place, and for good reason: Nowhere else east of the Rockies can you hike 15 consecutive miles without dropping below timberline. The route crosses alpine tundra and nine summits, including the Northeast’s highest—6,288-foot Mt. Washington. The Gulfside Trail and Crawford Path ride the ridgecrest, and numerous side trails—including the Castle Trail over the Castellated Ridge (see page 74) —access those two arteries. Finishing on the spectacular Webster Cliff Trail makes the one-way traverse about 24 miles. More information: Appalachian Mountain Club, (603) 466-2721; www.outdoors.org. White Mountain Guide: Hiking Trails in the White Mountain National Forest, edited by Gene Daniell and Jon Burroughs (Appalachian Mountain Club, 800-262-4455; $21.95).