Confession time, and be honest now: You're a fair-weather camper, aren't you? Don't be afraid to admit it, because the truth will set you free. Do you know anyone who loads a pack and fights traffic for a few hours, then gets to the trailhead and gushes with joy at the prospect of hiking through soul-soaking rain or smothering fog and slug belly-gray skies or humidity so thick it feels like you're breathing through a warm washcloth? (Well, there was that weird guy in the college outing club who liked to pull the wings off flies....)
There's nothing finer than blue-sky hiking, and we all yearn for it. Problem is, Mother Nature isn't always cooperative, and in much of the country, waiting for good atmospheric conditions usually restricts you to three or four months out of the year. That leaves about eight months of sitting and thinking about getting out there.
Why wait that long? What follows are some great destinations that, chances are, will be fairly free of whatever nasty seasonal conditions usually come between you and the trail. So now you can carefully sidestep Ma Nature and stretch that four-month hiking season into a year-round endeavor.
Seattle/ Portland Area
Chemists know water exists in three natural states: solid, liquid, and gas. Hikers would add two other watery states to the list: Washington and Oregon. Here, virtually every trip is a textbook lesson in the many forms of water: rain in spring, trail-clogging snow from October to June, and cloudy weather just about all year-round.
Obstacle: Persistent rain
Solution: The Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness in eastern Washington is about as far from the soggy Cascades as you can get, in terms of both mileage and environmental conditions. This wilderness, which straddles the Washington-Oregon line near Walla Walla, receives less than 30 inches of precipitation each year-a thimbleful by Northwest standards, which means relatively rain-free hiking from late spring through early winter.
Try the Slick Ear Trail that descends through dry ponderosa pine and tamarack forests to the trout-rich Wenaha River. At river's edge, the Slick Ear intercepts the Wenaha River Trail, then rolls along the river for 15 miles through the heart of the wilderness to Troy, Oregon. Arrange for a pickup there or return the way you came. For a change of scenery, return via the Grizzly Bear Trail as it climbs steep, rimrock-lined grass slopes to the pine forests on the valley rim. You'll face a 4-mile hike on a dirt road back to Slick Ear trailhead.
Directions: The Slick Ear and Grizzly Bear trailheads are about 35 miles south of Dayton, Washington, off US 12.
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quads Godman Springs and Oregon Butte in Washington and Wenaha Forks, Elbow Creek, and Eden in Oregon.
Contact: Umatilla National Forest, 2517 S.W. Haley Ave., Pendelton, OR 97801; (541) 278-3716.
Obstacle: High country snow
Solution: The best way to deal with late-melting snow: Head west until the water tastes of salt. The Pacific Ocean keeps conditions temperate along the coast, and for lovers of all things wild, there's no better place than Olympic National Park. Here, you'll find the longest section of undeveloped wilderness beach in the Lower 48 and not a flake in sight.
A good trip is the trek from 3rd Beach to Oil City, which covers 17 miles of rugged coast. The route rambles along sand and pebble beaches, over jagged rocky headlands, and occasionally through lush rain forests. Scan the waves for seals, otters, sea lions, and whales. Peer into the tidepools and you'll see a variety of aquatic life. Watch the forests above the beaches for deer, red fox, and black bear, which often come down to fish in the tide pools. Hiking requires waterproof boots and an accurate tide table.
Directions: The 3rd Beach trailhead is just south of the Quillayute River, off WA 110, about 14 miles west of Forks, Washington.
Maps: Custom Correct map South Olympic Coast or USGS 7.5-minute quads Hoh Head, Toleak Point, Quillayute Prairie, and La Push.
Contact: Olympic National Park, Wilderness Information Center, 3002 Mt. Angeles Rd., Port Angeles, WA 98362; (360) 452-0300.
San Francisco/ Los Angeles Area
Can there be a downside to living in a state bristling with the likes of the Sierra Nevada, plus the Cascade and Klamath ranges? Is there a drawback to having the California coast at your boot tips? Most of the year, no. But come November, when storm clouds gather, far too many hikers head indoors.
Obstacle: Winter rain
Solution: As rock climbers have long known, Joshua Tree National Park in California is out of the loop when it comes to winter weather. The desert wilderness and its bizarre, namesake trees come complete with sunshine and starkly beautiful scenery. Squeeze through fantastic rock formations, awake to coyotes howling, and stick your nose into a funky-smelling Joshua tree bloom (usually present in March).
There are few designated trails here, so let the Joshua trees point the way. Or stay on the 21-mile California Riding and Hiking Trail, if you prefer a maintained route. (Note: A wildfire burned the Quail Mountain area in 1999, and that could mean a banner year for wildflowers this spring.)
Directions: Joshua Tree National Park is in southern California, 140 miles east of Los Angeles. The trailhead on Keys View Road is 13 miles southwest of the park's West Entrance.
Map: Joshua Tree National Park.
Contact: Joshua Tree National Park, 74485 National Park Dr., Twenty-Nine Palms, CA 92277; (760) 367-5500.
Obstacle: High country snow
Solution: While the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) lies buried under snowpack until June, you can be pitching your tent in the Ventana Wilderness' Santa Lucia Range right now. It's low enough to be snow-free in winter and spring, but steep enough to make your leg muscles long for the PCT. Sweeping views of the Big Sur coastline and redwood-shrouded canyons provide ample compensation on the west side of the range.
Head to the east side, however, for solitude and dry weather. A 24-mile loop on the Lost Valley and Coast Ridge trails, with a jaunt to the top of Marble Peak (allow time to stop and stare drop-jawed at the Pacific Ocean panorama), will put you on the path less traveled. (Note: At press time, a wildfire had just burned a significant portion of the wilderness area north of this route. The trail itself was not affected.)
Directions: Ventana Wilderness is on the coast, 130 miles south of San Francisco. The Lost Valley trailhead is 50 miles west of US 101 on Arroyo Seco-Indians Road.
Map: USFS Ventana Wilderness map (see contact below).
Contact: Monterey Ranger District, 406 S. Mildred Ave., King City, CA 93930; (831) 385-5434.
Gazillions of sparkling lakes, a mess of peaks higher than 12,000 feet, trail networks that would take three lifetimes to explore-the Colorado Rockies serve up enough summertime spoils to make any backcountry junky drool. Come fall, though, the drool freezes to your chin and stays frozen until well after the calendar says spring has sprung.
Obstacle: Early winters
Solution: Trade the snow-choked mountain trails for a 39-square-mile, solar-warmed sandbox. Great Sand Dunes National Monument and Wilderness, Colorado, is a no-man's-land in summer, when 140°F surface temperatures can melt Vibram soles, but by fall, this otherworldly landscape is transformed. The contrasting beauty of the Saharalike Great Sand Dunes beneath the towering snow-clad Sangre de Cristo Mountains is wildly seductive to hikers.
Wander at will among these massive dunes, including a 750-foot behemoth that's the tallest in North America. The sea of sand undulates along the horizon, convening into steep ridges that plummet to small, camp-friendly basins anchored by rice grass. You can use primitive sites on the eastern flanks near Medano Creek or wander headlong among the dunes and camp a couple of ridges in. There's no water in the interior, and, thankfully, no noisy off-road vehicles-just you and the shifting sands.
Directions: Great Sand Dunes is in south-central Colorado, 38 miles northeast of Alamosa on CO 150.
Map: All you'll need is the official map and guide that come with the free backcountry permit (address below).
Contact: Great Sand Dunes National Monument, 11999 Highway 150, Mosca, CO 81146; (719) 378-2312.
Obstacle: High country snow
Solution: Spring's snowy grasp on the Rockies seems worlds away from the 75,800-acre Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Study Area in western Colorado, where mountains meet desert. A relatively low elevation of between 4,500 and 7,500 feet means any snow that falls here is usually spotty and melts quickly.
Laugh at winter along a remote, bushwhackable trek that starts at Dominguez Campground and follows Big Dominguez Creek downstream. For 14 miles, the creek carves through 600-million-year-old Precambrian schist and sandstone mesas topped with pi?on-juniper forests. You'll wander along benches and lush canyon bottoms, where choosing a campsite is simply a matter of deciding which cottonwood alcove suits your fancy.
Directions: Dominguez Canyon WSA is in western Colorado, 15 miles west of Delta off CO 141.
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quads Triangle Mesa, Jacks Canyon, and Keith Creek.
Contact: BLM, Grand Junction field office, 2815 H Road, Grand Junction, CO 81506; (970) 244-3000.
In spring and fall, there's no topping the hiking in the southern mountains. You'll encounter more species of flowers and trees than a veteran botanist could name, and the jumbled mountain ranges would take generations to explore. But in summer, even the most devout trail animals succumb to the overbearing swelter and head for the nearest air conditioner. Winter isn't much better: drizzly gray days, with temperatures just cold enough to hover around the hypothermia zone.
Obstacle: Gloomy winters
Solution: In the panhandle of Florida, there's a paradise of rare flora and fauna, and during the fall and winter months, it's a mosquito-free, mild-weather wilderness haven.
Like any good Eden, Torreya State Park has something new and tempting-in this case, a wide variety of ecosystems-over every hill. The best way to appreciate all the land has to offer is along a 21-mile route that begins on the Torreya Trail. Cross the Stone Bridge, head up through the high pinelands, and trek to the edge of a 25-foot ravine. Hike west to the 150-foot bluffs and take in the view of the Appalachicola River. Finish the loop at Gregory House, then head to the Rock Creek campsite.
The next day, take the Torreya Challenge Trail to the south, hike through hardwood hammocks, and eventually camp at the Challenge campsite. Don't miss the rare Torreya trees scattered along the trail's ravines. This short, conical evergreen with dark green needles is just the type of tree an apple-bearing serpent might feel perfectly at home in.
Directions: Torreya State Park is about 65 miles west of Tallahassee, off County Road 1641, about 6 hours from Atlanta.
Map: Trail maps are available at the ranger station (address below).
Contact: Torreya State Park, Rt. 2 Box 70, Bristol, FL 32321; (850) 643-2674.
Obstacle: Humid summers
Solution: The Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) section between Craggy Gardens Visitor Center and Black Mountain Campground in North Carolina stays above 5,000 feet for 19 of its 23 miles. In other words, you stay high and cool. The trail tops out at 6,359 feet on Blackstock Knob, and peakbaggers can drool over three other 6,000-footers a short bushwhack away.
This section of the MST requires strong legs and some planning because you can't camp within the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor hereabouts. Look north of the MST in Pisgah National Forest, where you'll find good campsites near Balsam Gap along the Big Butt Trail. Water is scarce, however. Since you'll need to shuttle cars, consider stashing water at Balsam Gap.
From the 700-million-year-old rock at Potato Knob, savor one of the trail's newest sections, complete with intricate rock steps lacing through the fragrant fir forest. A bonus is the incomparable vistas of this steep, rugged country.
Directions: Craggy Gardens Visitor Center is on the Blue Ridge Parkway, 20 miles northeast of Asheville, North Carolina.
Maps: Trail Profiles: The Mountains To Sea Trail (Alexander Books, 65 Macedonia Rd., Alexander, NC 28701; 800-472-0438; $16.95).
Contact: Carolina Mountain Club, P.O. Box 68, Asheville, NC 28802; www.carolinamtnclub.com.
Imagine lakes and rivers almost everywhere you look; rich, vast forests where wolves roam; and green, hardwood-covered hills that can bewitch even dyed-in-the-wool mountain lovers. Sounds great, eh? Now imagine extremes of heat and cold that no sane person would dare hike in, and you have a fix on the Upper Midwest state of affairs. Fortunately, we have a fix for the weather.
Obstacle: Snowy winters
Solution: In the Upper Midwest, when the icy wind starts to whip and the snow flies, you either hibernate and dream of an early spring or break out your snowshoes and cross-country skis. But what if you're not ready to hang up your trail boots? Head south from Chicago across corn country to Illinois's more temperate Shawnee National Forest. When the road starts to resemble a roller coaster and you can open your windows without catching a chill, you'll know you're getting close.
Shawnee National Forest boasts 270,000 acres of rough-and-tumble territory that the glaciers never touched. For a great weekend stomp, head out on the 17-mile Kinkaid Lake Trail, and prepare to be wowed by wild rock formations and the oak-and-hickory-filled uplands. The trail begins on a 90-foot-long footbridge that crosses Johnson Creek, then skirts the wild western shores of the picturesque 2,800-acre Lake Kinkaid. The rest of the route is nothing to be trifled with. Ridge to creek-bottom to ridge runs will test even high altitude hikers' stamina.
Directions: The Kinkaid Lake trailhead is in the Johnson Creek Recreation Area just off IL 151, 16 miles northwest of Murphysboro.
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quads Oraville and Raddle.
Contact: Murphysboro Ranger District, Shawnee National Forest, 2221 W. Walnut, Murphysboro, IL 62966; (618) 687-1731.
Obstacle: Hot summers
Solution: During the steamy dog days of July and August, head for Nicolet National Forest, where temperatures are often 10 degrees cooler than downtown Chicago or Minneapolis. Best of all, it's smack in the middle of Wisconsin's lake country, where cool waters and generous evening breezes make midsummer tenting enjoyable.
A good place to whup summer's swelter is Hidden Lakes Trail, a circular 13-miler blessed with 10 lakes. At day's end, dive in, wash off dust and dirt, then listen for loons. In August, watch for fledgling bald eagles and ospreys testing their wings. Don't miss the stand of stately 200-year-old white pines at the Franklin Lakes Nature Trail near the trailhead or the handsome old-growth hemlock near Four Ducks Lake. If you're looking to put together a two- to three-day outing and are willing to log some tough miles, be sure to check out the Luna and White Deer Lake loops. Later, wander the connecting Nicolet North and Anvil Trails, where you'll work up a sweat on the rolling terrain and more than earn your evening plunge.
Directions: Hidden Lakes trailhead is in the northern Nicolet in northeastern Wisconsin, off WI 70 and Forest Road 2181. Look for the Franklin Lake campground, just 11 miles east of Eagle River.
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quads Alvin NW and Anvil Lake.
Contact: Eagle River Ranger Station, Nicolet National Forest, P.O. Box 1809, 4364 Wall St., Eagle River, WI 54521; (715) 479-2827.
New York/ Boston Area
The Northeast offers a full menu of trail treats. Want to scramble above treeline? Stroll through a verdant forest? Bag a few peaks? Great, if you don't mind Old Man Winter covering the landscape with ice and snow. Then there's the small matter of the sizzling summers. What's a fair-weather hiker to do?
Obstacle: Snowy winters
Solution: New Jersey's Pine Barrens is a mystical place with a name that belies its wonders. The area is rich in local legends as well as gentle sandy trails and hundreds of nameless roads. Oddly shaped pitch pines with their pungent turpentine scent stretch as far as the eye can see, looking rather like an endless parade of chimney sweeps. River otters play along the winding riverbanks, where you can lose yourself in thought for days.
Begin your trip at historic Batsto Village on the Batona Trail, then head north for 12.4 miles to the Caranza Monument. Eventually, you'll jump off the Batona Trail and follow the rail corridor west for 1 mile before connecting with a dirt road that hugs the banks of the Batsto River as it meanders south, back to Batsto Village. Total trip: aproximately 26 miles.
Directions: The trailhead is on NJ 542 at Batsto, off US 30 in south-central New Jersey, about 11/2 hours from New York City.
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quads Atsion, Jenkins, and Indian Mills.
Contact: South Jersey Outdoor Club, P.O. Box 455, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; (856) 234-5298.
Obstacle: Hot summers
Solution: Drink in the coolness as you trek through Gulf Hagas Gorge in central Maine, where champagne waterfalls tumble beneath 400-foot, moss-covered cliffs in this magnificent gorge. Begin cooling your heels by fording the West Branch of the Pleasant River, then head north on the Appalachian Trail 2 miles to the junction with the Gulf Hagas Trail. Descend into the always chilly gorge, arm hairs standing on end, and scramble along the 5.2-mile rollicking trail up, over, and around green boulders with patches of ice that linger in crevasses long into summer.
The river is your constant companion until you leave the gorge and head north along the AT for about 10 miles. Plan to spend some time soaking up the views atop Whitecap Mountain before returning to the trailhead via the AT, which skates along the rim of Gulf Hagas's slate cliffs.
Directions: Gulf Hagas is north of Dover-Foxcroft, off ME 6/15 near Greenville, about 6 hours from Boston.
Map: Gulf Hagas Trail map (available at the address below).
Contact: North Maine Woods Association, P.O. Box 425, 92 Main St., Ashland, ME 04732; (207) 435-6213; www.northmainewoods.org.
Custom Correct Maps, 3492 Little River Rd., Port Angeles, WA 98363.
Trails Illustrated, P.O. Box 4357, Evergreen, CO 80437-4357; 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com.
USGS Information Services, Box 25286, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225; 888-275-8747; www.usgs.gov.