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Backpacker Magazine – October 2012

Killer Trips: Wildlife

Our favorite high-risk, high-reward adventures in North America.

by: Kelly Bastone

Bird Ridge Trail (photo by Matt Hage/
Bird Ridge Trail (photo by Matt Hage/
Mill Creek and Big Cottonwood Canyons (photo by Austin Cronnelly)
Mill Creek and Big Cottonwood Canyons (photo by Austin Cronnelly)

Bird Ridge Trail, Chugach State Park, AK
The hike
Top-of-the-world views over wild, untouched mountains make Bird Ridge feel remote—yet the Bird Ridge trailhead, on the Seward Highway 16 miles southeast of Anchorage, is within easy reach of the city. Instant access doesn’t mean effortless hiking, however: The lung-straining, 2.5-mile hike climbs a whopping 3,450 feet. Starting amidst the hemlocks and spruces bordering the highway, the trail immediately angles skyward, clambering over steep, unrelenting hills and jumbles of roots and rocks requiring hand-over-foot scrambling.

Still, this is one of the most popular hikes in Chugach State Park, which is a testament to the payoff. At treeline, you’ll strike out across tundra-topped slopes offering euphoric views of Turnagain Arm, a knife-like strip of sea slicing through the Kenai Peninsula. Opposite the water, the glaciated, 4,000-foot Kenai Mountain saws into the sky.

The risk
Near-town convenience lulls hikers into disregarding the threat of bear encounters, a common menace in Alaska. “You get cavalier,” explains Randy Taylor, an Anchorage hiker who’d glimpsed plenty of bear scat on this trail but rarely packed pepper spray. “I’d done so many hikes and never needed it,” he says. Yet on Labor Day 2010, he grabbed his neglected can of UDAP bear spray to hike Bird Ridge with his wife and six-year-old granddaughter. And on the descent, the trio surprised a sow, which fled from their shouts of “whoa, bear!” but quickly turned to charge.

“I shoved my granddaughter Ashley behind me and thought, ‘This is it—this is how we’re going to die,’” Taylor recalls. Fumbling with his bear spray, he accidentally aimed it at his own eyes and blinded himself, then reversed the can’s direction and fired again—this time into a snout snarling three feet from his own. These days, Taylor always hikes with bear bells and keeps his bear spray on his hipbelt. (907) 345-5014;

Mad Creek Trail, Routt NF, CO

This water-hugging route into the remote Mt. Zirkel Wilderness cuts along a rocky, south-angled slope riddled with rattlers’ dens. In April and May, the snakes slither from their holes to bask on the sun-soaked path. (970) 870-2299;

Whitewater Creek Trail, Gila NF, NM

Traverse suspension bridges, rock staircases, and a canyon-to-canyon boardwalk on this 20-mile loop through shady sandstone gorges and sandy riparian zones—perfect bark scorpion habitat. Three inches long and sand-colored, it has the most potent sting of any scorpion in North America. (575) 388-8201;

Mt. Aire Trail, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache NF, UT

Winding among ponds and berry bushes, this 1.8-mile (one-way) route is a summer oasis from the baking desert below—for hikers and moose. The 1,000-pound ungulates have charged several hikers here, so keep dogs leashed and eyes peeled for Bullwinkles in thick brush. (801) 236-3400;

Gregory Bald Trail, Great Smoky Mountain NP, TN

This 8.8-mile out-and-back leads to a sprawling 10-acre mountaintop meadow ablaze with blooming flame azaleas in June. It’s also a favorite lunch spot for wild boars, an invasive species known for rivaling black bears in size and for charging unsuspecting hikers. (865) 436-1200;

Rocky Run Trail, Brandywine Creek State Park, DE

This two-mile loop scales rocky hillsides, wanders old-growth hardwoods, and hugs one of the state’s most pristine streams. The hitch? Ticks. Delaware is tops for Lyme disease incidence. (302) 577-3534;

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