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).
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Minong Ridge barely tops 1,000 feet above sea level, yet it soars above the trees for long stretches, offering uninterrupted views of Lake Superior and Canada. It's surprisingly rugged, bouncing up and down more than a car with bad shocks. The Minong Ridge Trail runs about 30 miles from McCargoe Cove to Washington Harbor (both trailheads are reached by ferry) and can be hiked in 4 to 5 days. Connecting trails permit loops of up to 2 weeks. More information: Isle Royale National Park, (906) 482-0984; www.nps.gov/isro. Isle Royale National Park #240 map (Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95).
Continental Divide Trail (CDT)
Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado
A traverse of Colorado's largest wilderness epitomizes my dream ridge hike. From Stony Pass to Wolf Creek Pass, the CDT travels nearly 95 miles and ascends a cumulative 16,000 feet—without crossing a road. It rarely dips below 12,000 feet, and it roams as far as 15 miles from the nearest trailhead. More information: Columbine Ranger District, San Juan National Forest, (970) 884-2512; www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan. Colorado's Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide, by Tom Lorang Jones (Westcliffe Publishers, 800-523-3692; $24.95). Weminuche Wilderness #140 map (Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95). "One Step From Heaven," October 1999.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Many ridgetops in the North Cascades cannot be reached without a rope, which makes the nontechnical walk along Copper Ridge so special. Views of Mt. Shuksan, the wild Picket Range, and peaks in British Columbia are almost continuous for its 6-mile length. Trip options include the 20-mile, out-and-back hike to Copper Mountain Lookout, a 34-mile loop returning on the Chilliwack River Trail, or combining that loop with a 1-day side trip up spectacular Easy Ridge. More information: Glacier Public Service Center, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, (360) 599-2714. North Cascades National Park, (360) 856-5700; www.nps.gov/noca. 100 Hikes in Washington's North Cascades National Park Region, by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; $16.95). Mt. Shuksan #14 and Mt. Challenger #15 maps (Green Trails, 206-546-6277; www.gtrails.com; $3.60 each).
Deer Park to Grand Pass
Olympic National Park, Washington
The Grand Ridge and Grand Pass Trails connect two broad ridges, broken only by the beautiful Grand Valley, for 13 miles of high-country strolling. Views of the Olympics, mountains that appear twice as big as their actual elevations, are stunning. Return to Deer Park either via Cameron Creek for a 27-mile loop or, for a trip of about 40 miles, hike through three passes—Cameron, Lost, and Gray Wolf—and return via the Upper Graywolf and Three Forks Trails. More information: Olympic National Park, (360) 565-3130; www.nps.gov/olym. Olympic Mountains Trail Guide, by Robert L. Wood (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; $18.95). Olympic National Park #216 map (Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95).
Razor's Edge Higher Risk
Baxter State Park, Maine
Scampering over three rock buttresses known as the Cathedrals and the mile-long Knife Edge, this 9.3-mile hike across Maine's highest peak may be the airiest in the Northeast. The route follows trails all the way: the Chimney Pond, Cathedral, Saddle, Knife Edge, and Helon Taylor Trails. More information: Baxter State Park, (207) 723-5140. New England Hiking, by Michael Lanza (Avalon Travel Publishing; $18.95). Baxter State Park and Katahdin map (DeLorme, 800-452-5931; www.delorme.com; $4.95).
Presidential Range, New Hampshire
The Castle Trail rises above dense forest and traverses a series of three "castles," or rocky towers, along a narrow, quarter-mile section of the Castellated Ridge on the way to Jefferson's summit. 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). New England Hiking, by Michael Lanza (Avalon Travel Publishing; $18.95).
Lone Eagle Peak
Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
The nontechnical south ridge of this 11,920-footer narrows to just a few feet wide, with precipitous drop-offs and spine-tingling views of Colorado's rugged Front Range. From Monarch Lake, the Cascade Creek Trail leads 9 miles to Crater Lake, at 10,500 feet; scramble to the ridge and then to the summit. More information: Boulder Ranger District, Arapaho National Forest, (303) 444-6600; www.fs.fed.us/r2/arnf. Guide to the Colorado Mountains, edited by Randy Jacobs with Robert M. Ormes (Colorado Mountain Club Press, 303-279-3080; $18.95).
Elk Mountains, Colorado
A 100-foot-long, exposed knife-edge is the highlight of more than a mile of serious scrambling along the northeast ridge of Capitol Peak. If that's not enough, feast your eyes on the panoramic view of the incomparable Elk range, with a half-dozen 14,000-foot peaks. From the Capitol Creek trailhead, go 13 miles by trail to Capitol Lake, then 4 miles off trail. More information: Aspen Ranger District, White River National Forest, (970) 925-3445; www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver. Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach (Fulcrum Publishing, 800-992-2908; $18.95). Maroon Bells, Redstone, Marble #128 map (Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95).
Yosemite National Park, California
The final 300 yards of trail over the northeast ridge of Clouds Rest get mighty skinny, with drop-offs of 1,000 feet on one side, 4,500 feet on the other, and a sea of Sierra Nevada rising in every direction. It's 7 miles from the Tenaya Lake trailhead, with several multiday loops possible. More information: Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-0200; www.nps.gov/yose. Yosemite National Park: A Natural-History Guide to Yosemite and Its Trails, by Jeffrey P. Schaffer (Wilderness Press, 800-443-7227; $18.95). Yosemite National Park #206 map (Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95).
Bugaboo Provincial Park, British Columbia
The west ridge is a wildly exposed and incredibly scenic rock climb or scramble. Along the way, you'll straddle the granite crest, your feet dangling a couple thousand feet off the ground. Technical climbing skills and gear required. More information: British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Parks, (250) 422-4200; www.gov.bc.ca/elp. Bugaboo Rock: A Climber's Guide, by Randall Green and Joe Bensen (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; $16.95). Canadian National Topographic System maps Howser Creek (82K/10) and Bugaboo Creek (82K/15; Centre for Topographic Information, 800-465-6277; http://maps.
nrcan.gc.ca; CDN $9.95 each).
North Cascades, Washington
A maintained trail ascends nearly 4 miles to Stujack Pass, and then it's an airy scramble for 1.5 miles to Pugh's 7,201-foot summit. Your reward is sweeping views of the serrated and glaciated North Cascades. More information: Darrington Ranger District, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, (360) 436-1155; www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs. 100 Classic Hikes in Washington: North Cascades, Olympics, Mt. Rainier & South Cascades, Alpine Lakes, Glacier Peak, by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; $19.95). Sloan Peak #111 map (Green Trails, 206-546-6277; www.gtrails.com; $3.60 each).
All guidebooks are available at www.backpacker.com/bookstore.