Picture a hamburger sizzling on a backyard barbeque. It may look too well done, but when you bite into the flame-kissed beauty, you find a tasty, juicy middle beneath the crunchy outside. Bite into it, lick the grease from your lips, and savor what fire has transformed from mundane to magnificent. Now look west to where flames have blackened a few of your favorite trails, but only enough to spice up the scenery. Here's our list of places where you can witness the lessons of fire ecology, and "kick some ash" by lending a hand as volunteers rehabilitate trails.
1. Cerro Grande-Los Alamos-Bandelier Fire, New Mexico
Cause: Controlled burn escape
The 47,000-acre Cerro Grande-Los Alamos-Bandelier fire began the 2000 fire season with a bang and lit a media firestorm. In all, 97 miles of trail were burned, "but the vistas are more open," says Miles Standish of the Espanola District of Santa Fe National Forest. "In 20 years, there'll be more fall color from the aspens."
Hot Hike: "The Guaje (WA- ji) Ridge Trail takes you through every type of burn intensity," says local guidebook author Craig Martin. "The route starts at Arizona Avenue and 45th Street in Los Alamos and follows the Mitchell Trail to the top of Guaje Ridge. The first 1.5 miles are fried, but then you enter mosaic burns, where the fire jumped from place to place. Walk east along the ridge until you pick up a road heading south (right). That eventually intersects the Perimeter Trail around Los Alamos, which was a firebreak that didn't work." Return to Mitchell Trail for a hike of 11 miles.
Kick Some Ash: The entire region needs trail construction, dead tree removal, and erosion control for the foreseeable future. Contact: Gaylyn Meyers, Los Alamos County Volunteer Project Coordinator, (505) 662-8403;
2. Pumpkin Fire, Kendrick Mountain Wilderness, Arizona
The 17,050-acre Pumpkin Fire burned about 90 percent of the 7,000-acre wilderness, says John Eavis, recreation and wilderness specialist for the Kaibab National Forest. "Fifteen of 16 trail miles were damaged, but the trails are functional, and in places, aspens are sprouting already."
Hot Hike: Follow the 4-mile Kendrick Mountain Trail on the south side of the mountain through charred ponderosa pines. The 3,400-foot elevation gain makes for a strenuous hike out and back, which is best done as an overnighter or as part of a longer cross-country hike. The fire burned in a mosaic pattern, with 20- to 100-acre intense burns among the less severely impacted areas.
Kick Some Ash: "Our big challenge for the next 10 years will be blowdown. We'll have to cut a lot of trees out of the trails," says Eavis. Contact: Williams Ranger District, Kendrick Mountain Wilderness, (520) 635-5600; www.fs.fed.us/r3/kai.
3. Valley Complex Fire, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Montana
The Valley Complex fire west of Hamilton and Missoula, Montana, was the second largest blaze of 2000, charring many of the eastern approaches to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. "We ended up with about 350,000 acres burned, 44,000 of them in the wilderness," says Dixie Dies of Bitterroot National Forest.
Hot Hike: Enter the Bitterroot Range from the east entrance and get on Blodgett Canyon Trail. "For the first several miles, you'll see intensely burned forest," says Dies. "Beyond that is a patchy, much lighter burn. Most trails going on to the western side of the Bitterroot Range, into the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness, are cut into granite, so we don't expect them to wash out." (Visitors should call ahead for current conditions.) Blodgett Canyon Trail runs 12 miles to the ridgeline, making for an aggressive overnight or a more relaxed 3-day excursion. Or, hop onto one of numerous side trails from the spine of the ridge to extend your stay.
Kick Some Ash: Clearing away blowdown and stabilizing soil will go on for years, as will noxious weed-control efforts, since invasive weeds compete with native vegetation much more intensely after a fire. Contact: Bitterroot National Forest, (406) 821-3269; www.fs.fed.us/r1/bitterroot.
4. Helen Creek and Lewis 2 Fires, Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Montana
"We had about 25,000 acres burn in the Bob this past season," says Al Cost, wilderness manager for the Spotted Bear Ranger District in Flathead National Forest. Cost says of these two fires, "In some areas, it burned hot, but in areas with lighter burn, the bear grass will sprout back, and we'll have a good shot at a really nice wildflower season in 2001."
Hot Hike: "You get good views of the burns from the West Side South Fork Trail (#263) between Black Bear Ranger Station and Salmon Fork," says Cost. "You can clearly see the mosaic pattern. The fires would climb a ridge, but skip the low points in the drainages, where it was wetter." The Main South Fork Trail (#80) along the eastern bank of the South Fork of the Flathead River runs about 6 miles before entering roughly 10 miles of on-and-off burn, then continues for almost 40 miles, offering round-trip options of from 3 to 10 days or longer using spur trails.
Kick Some Ash: "We've got 2,500 miles of trail in the Bob," says Carla Cline of the Bob Marshall Foundation, "so there's a continual need for maintenance. The 1988 fires still require us to clear blowdown and keep lodgepole saplings from filling in the trails." Contact: Bob Marshall Foundation, (406) 758-5237; firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Clear Creek Fire, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho
The Clear Creek Fire was second only to Montana's Valley Complex in size. "Four hundred miles of trail burned in the wilderness," says Ken Wotring, wilderness coordinator for the immense Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The Clear Creek fire frustrated 1,500 firefighters for nearly 4 months, burning 206,379 acres along important tributaries of the Salmon River.
Hot Hike: "Hiking the trails will be tough in spots," says Wotring, "but it'll be a vivid example of what happens following wildfires." For a backpack through the Clear Creek burns to the Bighorn Crags, start at the Clear Creek trailhead and hike the high Grant Ridge Trail past Indian Point-about 16 miles one way to the Crags. Bighorn Crags are also reachable via a 5-mile hike from Cathedral Rock, accessed from Panther Creek Road. From the Crags, head east down Clear Creek to see the burns. Four days should give you time for an overview of the area.
Kick Some Ash: "We'll have to do noxious-weed control in the burns," says Wotring. Replanting of game forage and erosion control also rank high on the list of rehabilitation priorities. Recovery efforts will be funneled through the Student Conservation Association, (360) 752-2479; www.sca-inc.org.
6. Boulder Fire, Gros Ventre Wilderness, Wyoming
"The good thing about this fire is that it ran primarily through conifers and open parkland," says Linda Merigliano of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. "Since aspens are incredibly valuable for wildlife, and the best mechanism for aspen regeneration is fire, this could help out the habitat." The 4,200-acre Boulder fire burned steep country between Granite Creek and Little Granite Creek, on the southern slopes of Pinnacle Peak in the Gros Ventre Range. "It affected the part of Highline Trail that runs from upper Granite Creek Road through the high bench lands along the south side of the Gros Ventre spine," Merigliano adds.
Hot Hikes: Jump on the 15-mile Highline Trail, which winds below numerous 10,000-foot summits from Cache Creek Road (FR #30450), immediately east of Jackson, to Granite Creek Road (FR #30500) off US 189/191 through Hoback Canyon. For a look at growth to come, head north for an overnight or longer. "In 1988, about half of the Teton Wilderness burned," says Merigliano, "so people can see later-stage succession ecology from Huckleberry Lookout, a steep (4-mile, 4,500-foot) hike from the Sheffield Creek trailhead, just south of Yellowstone National Park, on the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway." From there, a web of trails covers the Wildcat Peak/Bobcat Ridge highlands, offering round-trips of 5 days or longer.
Kick Some Ash: Not much rehabilitation needs to be done in the wake of the Boulder fire, but with its high recreation demands, Bridger-Teton National Forest still struggles with maintenance from widespread blazes since the "Yellowstone" fires. Contact: Teton Division, Bridger-Teton National Forest, (307) 739-5500; www.fs.fed.us/btnf.
7. Phillips Ranch Fire, Great Basin National Park & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada
The blaze was "really weird from a fire ecology standpoint," says Jim Schlinkmann, chief ranger for Great Basin National Park. "It was spotting ahead 100 yards at a time in timberline areas where there were almost no trees. We were worried about the ancient bristlecone pines on the East Ridge of Mt. Washington, but it never got into 'em." Generally, wildfires don't burn at high elevations, but the 2,500-acre Phillips Ranch fire looped around Mt. Washington and burned the west side at altitudes exceeding 11,000 feet.
Hot Hike: Head for the southern and western flanks of Mt. Washington, which are spectacular but remote. Access is via the Minerva Highway, south of Ely, and the Wheeler Peak Mine Road, which begins at milepost 5. From the mine, a defunct four-wheel-drive track (known locally as the Pole Canyon Trail) climbs southeast into Lincoln Canyon, then north again to the 11,676-foot summit, following the rough path of the burn. Pack in all your water and expect to spend most of a day climbing the 6 miles and 3,800 vertical feet one way.
Kick Some Ash: No direct rehabilitation is planned in the fire's area, but "if somebody wants to do a fire ecology research project, this would be a great one," Schlinkmann recommends. Contact: Great Basin National Park, (775) 234-7331; www.nps.gov/grba.
8. Chimney and Brushy Ridge Fires, Linville Gorge Wilderness, North Carolina
After the West fizzled out, the East caught fire in late October and early November, when two separate wildfires burned 10,081 acres in and around Linville Gorge, one of the Southeast's most dramatic and popular wilderness areas.
Hot Hikes: The Jonas Ridge Trail along the eastern rim of Brushy Ridge offers views of that fire's path. The 11.5-mile Linville Gorge Trail, along the Linville River's western bank, takes you to where the Brushy Ridge blaze began and shows how the Chimney fire climbed toward the ridgetops. Camping permits are required in Linville Gorge in summer.
Kick Some Ash: "Thankfully, most of the fire stayed in the leaf litter and understory vegetation, but we'll be dealing with erosion and blowdown for a long time," says District Ranger Mike Anderson. Contact: Bonnie Amaral, Grandfather Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest, (828) 652-2144; www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc.