by Jeremy Schmidt
Maroon Bells Circuit, Colorado
Aspen leaves fall to the ground like gold coins. A breeze riffles the surface of Maroon Lake, shattering the reflection of high peaks covered with fresh snow. The end of September is perhaps a bit late to be starting a four-day hike through some of the highest country in the Rockies, but the risky weather keeps the crowds away. After all, this trail begins at one of the Rockies’ most clichßd vistas-Maroon Lake, echoing those postcard-classic twins, the Maroon Bells.
I have studied the Maroon Bells a thousand times in pictures and films, and twice in person, but now I want to see the country behind them. Could it be as fine as the front side? The answer, I’m finding out, is yes. The Maroon Bells circuit is consummate Rocky Mountain scenery from beginning to end. About 25 miles long, it encircles the Maroon Bells and a craggy stretch of the Elk Mountains. It crosses four passes, all of them at about 12,400 feet, and, except for the trailhead, never drops below 10,000 feet. Much of the route is rarefied big-vista terrain above timberline.
I follow a bull moose over West Maroon Pass. Fravert Basin, with its long meadow of golden grass and its meandering trout stream, cries out for a fly rod. Near Frigid Air Pass, I lie sleepily in sun-warmed wildflowers until dark clouds and a blast of cold air warn of an approaching storm. Indeed, it snows 5 inches that night. In the morning the sky begins to clear, and I cross Buckskin Pass under fast-moving clouds and sudden bursts of sunshine.
Superb views of Snowmass Mountain and its splendid cirque make me reluctant to head down from the pass, but the equally impressive wall of 14,018-foot Pyramid Peak lures me. Now I know why this trail is so good: It begins at a famous beauty spot and never lets down.
Duration: Three to four days.
Kaibab Trail, Arizona
Through a vertical mile and 1.7 billion years of geologic history, the Kaibab cuts a magnificent rim-to-rim cross section of the Grand Canyon. From the pi?on-juniper forest of the South Rim (the better side to start on), the trail passes through a variety of life zones, bottoming out at the Colorado River among hot-desert shrubs and cacti. Going down the 7-mile trail often skirts the brink of immense heart-thumping space. The ascent is more gradual, following sparkling Bright Angel Creek through its relatively narrow canyon for 14 miles of cottonwoods and cacti, ending in the cool montane forest of the North Rim. The trail is exceedingly famous, and you’ll overlap with sometimes comical dayhikers, but it’s a small price to pay for one of the finest walks you’ll ever take.
Duration: Three to four days.
White Mountains Traverse, New Hampshire
The New England climate is just harsh enough that any mountain with the nerve to poke 5,000 feet above sea level will get pummeled by some of the world’s most ferocious wind and cold. Only Mt. Washington dares to break the 6,000-foot barrier, and for its trouble it has been sideswiped by the highest recorded wind velocity in the world: 238 miles per hour. But summers are generally warm (beware the rogue storm), and extensive trails link tundra-bald ridgelines into a complex network of ruggedly gentle wilderness with lush green vistas. These mountains are old and worn, their forested slopes and rounded shoulders showing little in common with young, upthrusting peaks. But your knees won’t be fooled: Trails go up and down at a rocky pace every bit as challenging as anything out West. Paths spiderweb throughout the Whites, but if you’ve got the time, you might as well aim for the best, a 56-mile traverse of the entire range that hikers typically begin at the Appalachia parking area on US 2, following the Valley Way Trail up Mt. Madison and finishing at Crawford Notch. A system of European-inspired huts lets you walk the entire distance without a tent, if you choose. Or camp under the stars.
Duration: Six to eight days.
Olympic Coastline, Washington
Neither sea nor land, the surf-pounded beaches of the Olympic Peninsula are an in-between world where the tide fingers its way toward shore and basalt towers called seastacks march into the ocean. Orcas breach. Sea otters dive for shellfish. Lush rain forest presses against the driftwood-littered sands, and storms bring floating treasures from the Far East. There are two stretches of beach to choose from, one is 16 miles long, the other is 22 miles long. But distance seems meaningless. Dim forest paths lead to the exploding brightness of the seashore. From there, 5 miles can easily take as many days, but not because the walking is difficult. You can get stuck, spellbound, reluctant to move fast, perched on the edge of the continent, at the rim of Earth’s greatest ocean.
Duration: Two to four days.
Tombstone Towers, Yukon Territory
The cold, slab-sided spires of the Tombstone Range rise craggy and improbable above the sensuous contours of the Yukon tundra. If these are tombstones, they mark the resting place of mighty spirits given to dramatic gestures. The native name for this compact cluster of stone fangs is more cheerful: “sharp, ragged, rocky mountains.” Getting into the Tombstones requires a hard day of bushwhacking up Grizzly Creek from Kilometer 72 on the Dempster Highway, but once there the rewards are lavish no matter which way you wander. The scenery might draw you across Glissade Pass to Divide Lake; high and exposed, it feels like Patagonia without the guanacos. Instead, dall sheep and caribou mingle with moose, grizzlies, and black bears. A hop and skip through knee-high buckbrush takes you over Tombstone Pass to Talus Lake, hard under the fortress wall of Mt. Monolith, and dominated by decidedly life-inspiring views of Tombstone Mountain.
Duration: Allow at least four days or spend the summer.
Jeremy Schmidt has published 10 books on everything from the natural history of the Grand Canyon to his seven-month bicycle journey around the Himalaya. Among his works is Adventuring in the Rockies: The Sierra Club Travel Guide to the Rocky Mountain Regions of Canada and the U.S.