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October 1999

Twelve Toughest Trails

Twelve trails that'll chew you up, spit you out, and have you begging for more.

New Hampshire

King Ravine Trail

Picture a trail roughly as steep as the backside of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, line it with shifting, lichen-coated boulders, and you’ll get some idea of what to expect on the King Ravine Trail. Still, nothing prepares you for the real thing. Panting like a steam engine, eyes flitting from map to slope, you’ll undoubtedly wonder, "The trail goes up there?!"

It does, climbing 1,100 vertical feet in half a mile. That’s why the King Ravine Trail is considered one of the hardest-and not surprisingly, least-traveled-trails in the Presidential Range. Hike the King Ravine, and any footpath thereafter will seem tame.

But before reaching the steep stuff, you’re treated to a subterranean obstacle course called the Subway, which will have you clambering over boulders inside a cave, and the Ice Caves, which will send cooling shivers down your spine in the heat of summer.

Where: Start at the Appalachia trailhead on US 2 in Randolph, New Hampshire.

Route: Follow the Air Line and Short Line Trails to the King Ravine Trail, which reconnects with the Air Line below the summit of Mt. Adams. For an extremely rigorous and beautiful 23-mile loop, continue on the Air Line to the summit of Mt. Adams, descend the Star Lake Trail to Madison Hut, and take the Osgood Trail over Mt. Madison and down into the Great Gulf Wilderness. Follow the Great Gulf Trail to the Gulfside Trail and back to the Air Line, which you descend to the trailhead.

Grunt factor: 5. The climb from the trailhead to Mt. Adams is a back-breaking 4,400 feet in 4.5 miles.

The payoff: Squeezing through cool boulder caves and scrambling up a headwall that would satisfy any seasoned mountaineer.

More information: The AMC White Mountain Guide (1998; Appalachian Mountain Club; 800-262-4455; $21.95).

-Michael Lanza


Paintbrush Canyon

From Jackson Hole, the Teton Range issues a taunt straight out of a Clint Eastwood script: "Go ahead, just try it." Of all the trails into these dauntingly vertical mountains, none climbs higher or more relentlessly than the route through Paintbrush Canyon to the 10,800-foot divide above. But the rewards are doled out in equal measure to the effort. Or as Clint would ask, "Are you feeling lucky?"

On the way up, you can be excused for feeling beset by all of the forces of nature as the air thins, the high-altitude sun beats down, and switchbacks go on and on like a bad acceptance speech. Even gravity seems to tug a little harder.

But stick with it because, with walls "painted" in bands of brown, gray, and white rock, Paintbrush Canyon is regarded as one of Grand Teton National Park‘s most stunning sights. When you stand at Paintbrush Divide, you look up and down the Teton Crest, as well as across Jackson Hole to the Gros Ventre Range. It’s a sublime view usually achieved only by tying into a climbing rope.

Where: String Lake trailhead is off of Teton Park Road in Grand Teton National Park, 25 miles north of Jackson, Wyoming.

Route: The Paintbrush Canyon/Cascade Canyon loop is 20 miles. For a 36-mile trek, follow Paintbrush Canyon to the Teton Crest Trail and finish through Death Canyon (vehicle shuttle needed).

Grunt factor: 4. You’ll lose count of switchbacks on the 8-mile, 4,000-foot climb to Paintbrush Divide.

The payoff: Mountain views normally reserved for technical rock climbers.

More information: Both Trails Illustrated (P.O. Box 4357, Evergreen CO 80437-4357; 800-962-1643; and Earthwalk Press (5432 La Jolla Hermosa Ave., La Jolla, CA 92037; 800-828-6277) publish maps.

-M. Lanza


The Three Apostles

Mt. Everest it ain’t, although winded backpackers who reach Huron Peak’s 14,003-foot summit will tell you the journey is just as epic.

Huron is the high point and last leg of a four-day, lung-searing loop that orbits The Three Apostles, a snow-creased masiff just shy of 14,000 feet. This rough-and-tumble patchwork of trails and informal paths clambers twice over the Continental Divide before scaling a tricky boulder field to Huron.

Expect sweaty switchbacks and a continuous pageant of mountains that can induce vertigo. Twelve-thousand-footers are so common that many are unnamed. Lingering cornices and snowy cirques flout summer’s warmth. Lush green meadows are smothered with a painter’s palette of wildflowers.

Be forewarned, though. This sojourn is rugged and will challenge even the most experienced trekkers. Count on a daily spanking by thunderstorms. Loose scree and ill-defined paths demand the tenacity and route finding skills of a mountain goat. If you visit in spring or fall, definitely pack crampons and an ice axe, then let the elevation celebration begin.

Where: The Three Apostles are located in central Colorado. From Leadville, drive south on US 24. Just south of Granite, turn right (west) onto Clear Creek Canyon Road (FR 390). Continue 2.7 miles past Winfield to South Clear Creek trailhead.

Route: Six trails create a 27-mile loop. Take the Lake Ann Trail to the Timberline Trail, veer southeast to Texas Creek Trail, then head up an unmaintained path along North Texas Creek to the Pear Lake Trail. Cross to Huron Peak trailhead north of Cloyses Lake and follow the faint trail up and over Huron Peak. The switchback descent to the west leads to the trailhead.

Grunt factor: 4+, for climbing a total of 7,500 feet.

The payoff: Unequaled alpine scenery, including top-of-the-world vantages of The Three Apostles, and five of the Collegiate Peaks’ 14,000-foot pinnacles.

More information: The best map is Buena Vista/Collegiate Peaks, #129 (Trails Illustrated, P.O. Box 4357, Evergreen, CO 80437-4357; 800-962-1643;; $9.95).

-Ted Stedman

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