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Twelve Toughest Trails

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

Washington

Hoh-High Divide Traverse

The Olympic Mountains have it all, and the Hoh-High Divide Traverse samples it in rapid-fire succession: rain forest, raging rivers, lupine spiked meadows, deep valleys carved by vanished glaciers, and craggy summits.

But perhaps the crowning glory of this 45-mile adventure is the High Divide itself, a long, meadowy crest that offers close-up views of glacier-decked Mt. Olympus. From the Divide, the glacially scoured U of the Hoh Valley drops so far at your feet that 200-foot fir trees look like the nap on a shag carpet. Somehow, the bugling of elk manages to drift up from 4,000 feet below.

This route is not for the faint of knee, since it refuses to stay up once it gets up. First it climbs 4,400 feet, then descends 2,700 feet, then climbs 2,700 feet, descends 1,900 feet, climbs 2,300 feet, and descends 4,800 feet.

It ends gently, with a nearly level 9.5-mile walk through the primeval setting of the Hoh Rain Forest-perfect for contemplating a tough challenge well-met.

Where: Olympic National Park, starting at Lake Crescent trailhead on US 101 and finishing at the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.

Route: Not one trail, but several that lead to the following landmarks: Barnes Creek, Boulder Lake, Appleton Pass, High Divide, and Hoh River.

Grunt factor: 3. Elevation gain/loss totals more than 19,000 feet, but you have at least four days in which to tackle it.

The payoff: The whole schmear, from rain forest to close-ups of glaciated Mt. Olympus, with meadowy campsites and glistening lakes in between.

More information: Both Custom Correct maps (3492 Little River Rd., Port Angeles, WA 98363) and Green Trails, Inc. (P.O. Box 77734, Seattle, WA 98177; 800-762-6277; www.greentrails.com; gtrails@aol.com) sell informative hiking maps of Olympic National Park.

-R. Lovett

Oregon

Ruckel Ridge Trail

In case you were wondering what it’s like to run the obstacle course in Army basic training, the Ruckel Ridge Trail in the Columbia River Gorge offers a fair approximation. Earn your stripes on root ladders, near-vertical sections of trail, and "The Catwalk," an elevated basalt walkway so narrow that scooting across on your butt is an option.

The gorge is renowned for tough hikes, but none beats Ruckel Ridge. It soars 3,700 feet in 3.8 miles through a vertical landscape of hanging gardens and moss-carpeted Douglas fir forest. Portland mountaineers train for nearby volcanoes on Ruckel Ridge.

Once out of the gorge and up onto the surrounding plateau, you’re in for a treat as the hiking becomes downright easy. Interlocking trails offer creative hikers unlimited opportunities to ramble, but consider hiking the Ruckel Creek Trail (#405) to the Pacific Crest Trail, which you follow to Wahtum Lake. From there, either take the Eagle Creek Trail back to your car or backtrack all the way on the Ruckel Creek Trail. The descent is steeper, but the views from Hanging Meadows are incomparable: A riotous flower display aesthetically competes with Washington’s snowy Mt. Adams and the Columbia River cutting through the Cascade Mountains.

Where: Begin at Eagle Creek Campground, near exit 41 from I-84, east of Portland. The trailhead is at site #5, but directions are tricky and best explained in the guidebook below.

Route: You’ll need a guidebook to unscramble the first mile (a mess of campground, road, powerline, and spur trails). The trail, once located, is straightforward. Once you’re at the top, it’s easy going.

Grunt factor: 5 to the summit; 1 to 2 thereafter.

The payoff: Solitude and old-growth forest; the descent includes high, flowery slopes and incredible Columbia Gorge vistas.

More information:35 Hiking Trails: Columbia River Gorge, by Don and Roberta Lowe (1995; Frank Amato Publishers; 800-541-9498; www.amatobooks.com; fap@teleport.com; $15.95).

-R. Lovett

 

Florida

Bradwell Bay Wilderness

Are you sure alligators hibernate in winter?" I ask my companion. We’re thigh deep in tea-colored water and surrounded by bearded cypress trees that predate the first colonies in America.

"Yeah," he replies, "but keep your eyes open for snakes." Sometimes the difficulty of a hike is not its steepness, but what it does to your head.

The 22.5-mile stretch of the Florida Trail through Bradwell Bay Wilderness in the northwest part of the state slips into a mystical forest worthy of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Bony, primeval-looking cypress knees poke through the water, Spanish moss covers every tree, and wild orchids shine like jewels on islands of bright, white sand. Soggy socks and wet drawers are a given in the 8-mile swamp section, where water levels range from ankle- to waist-deep. Carry a full day’s water, and don’t get caught in the swamp after dark.

Where: From Tallahassee, take US 319 south to Sopchoppy, where you pick up FL 375 north. After about 7 miles, take the turnoff for Forest Road 314 north, which you follow for 1 mile to the trailhead parking area.

Route: You’ll need a car shuttle. From the trailhead, head east on the Florida Trail into Bradwell Bay Wilderness. Monkey Creek is a good place to camp for the night, then follow the Sopchoppy River to the trailhead at Forest Road 321 near Sopchoppy.

Grunt factor: 1 for physical demands, 5 on the psychological scale.

The payoff: Experience a beautiful cypress swamp, wildflowers, abundant wildlife, and solitude.

More information: Map 10, Apalachicola East (Tampa Reprographics, 3711 W. Grace, Tampa Fl 33607; 813-874-7711; $4.50). –Sally Kemp

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