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Adventure Travel

Go Now! The Wilderness Life List

The 10 once-in-a-lifetime adventures any backwoods fanatic should have under his hipbelt before hanging up the ol' pack.

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The Appalachian Trail became a series of switchbacks down Temple Ridge into Nolichucky Gorge, the river growing louder and nearer. I’d gotten used to utter silence and the sound of wind in the trees, and had forgotten how noisy whitewater can be. As the trail headed into a hollow, the moan of a coal train on its way to Erwin, Tennessee, joined the river’s voice. I smelled wood smoke. A dog barked. Things that were once a familiar part of my day-to-day life suddenly caught me unaware. The trail was my world now.

For the first six weeks my thru-hike followed a familiar routine: Hike hard for a week, walk into a small town to resupply, repeat as necessary for 1,800 more miles. Then something changed. One day I realized I was measuring my days by how far I could walk between dawn and dusk. Each step meant something. It was about the going as much as the getting there. My rhythm was tied to the sun’s rise and fall, my calendar to the changing seasons. I felt comfortable, at peace in the woodlands and ridgelines and hillsides.

At the bottom of the hill that rhythm became irrelevant and the comfort faded. Distance in the nontrail world is measured in a different way. Time is space between items on a to-do list. Sure, I needed to go into town to pick up supplies and mail, to savor a pizza, to shower. But did I welcome leaving the trail behind, even if for just a short while? No. This was no longer familiar territory.

I tended to my business, then headed back out of town to where the trail poured out of the woods and crossed the road. I spotted the next blaze and followed it up the other side, back to where the wind played along a ridgeline, back where I belonged. Back home.

Contact: Appalachian Trail Conference, P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425; (304) 535-6331;

Where Else To Get Your Fix

The 2,158-mile Appalachian Trail is the most famous long path, but others will take you farther, higher, or even east to west.

Pacific Crest Trail: Stretching 2,665 miles from Mexico to Canada, the PCT is longer, drier, and higher than the AT, requires permits for much of the way, and you may need an ice axe early in the year. Contact: PCT Association, 5325 Elkhorn Blvd., Box 256, Sacramento, CA 95842; (888) 728-7245;

Continental Divide Trail: You might encounter grizzlies in Yellowstone, and some remote parts aren’t marked, but talk about an adventure! Some thru-hikers take two years to finish the CDT’s nearly 3,000 Mexico-to-Canada miles. Contact: CDT Society, 3704 N. Charles St., Suite 601, Baltimore, MD 21218-2300; (410) 235-9610; Or the CDT Alliance, P.O. Box 628, Pine, CO 80470; (303) 838-3760;

Pacific Northwest Trail: It’s not federally recognized, there are about 100 miles of roadwalking, and it runs east-to-west. But the PNT’s 1,100 miles from Glacier National Park, Montana, to Cape Alava in Washington’s Olympic National Park can be done in a summer. Only a few dozen people have thru-hiked it. Contact: PNT Association, 1361 Avon Allen Rd., Mt. Vernon, WA 98273; (360) 424-0407;

Robert Rubin’s trail name was “Rhymin’ Worm,” because of the verses he left in AT shelter registers during his 1997 thru-hike. The complete collection is available on the World Wide Web at

A bald eagle soared overhead, swooped down toward me, then cocked a wing and rode an updraft into the heavens. It was a fitting graduation ceremony after two weeks of hiking through one of the country’s premier slices of backcountry. The Buffalo National River lay before me, and Arkansas’ 165-mile Ozark Highlands Trail lay behind.

It was one of those hikes that I just had to do. I’ve lived in the Ozarks all my life, but never thought I really knew them. I wanted to find out what was beyond the view from the highway. I discovered a thousand sights and experiences accessible only to those willing to wear a pack. I stood atop towering sandstone bluffs at White Rock Mountain and looked across rolling hills stretching to the horizon. I passed countless waterfalls that plunged into deep, emerald skinny-dipping pools. I rested alongside giant moss-covered boulders surrounded by fields of ferns, wildflowers, and mayapples. I felt like I belonged, that I’d returned to a primeval place where I might have lived hundreds of years before.

Hiking a mountain range from one end to the other made me feel like I can now reach out and wrap my arms around each hill and valley. It’s a feeling I could get only by immersion in this wild cross-section of Arkansas’ Ozarks.

Contact: Ozark Highlands Trail Association, 411 Patricia Ln., Fayetteville, AR 72703; (501) 442-2799; Guidebooks (800) 838-4453;

Where Else To Get Your Fix

Hiking a regional trail gives you an intimate, microcosmic look at a slice of the United States that you won’t see any other way. You can find regional trails in just about every part of the country. Here are three fine ones:

Superior Hiking Trail: The SHT follows Lake Superior for 211 miles, offering amazing views of the largest body of fresh water in the world. Contact: SHT Association, P.O. Box 4, Two Harbors, MN 55616; (218) 834-2700;

Vermont Long Trail: The 270-mile Long Trail is the oldest long-distance hiking route in the United States, spanning the state along the Green Mountains. Blinding fall color anyone? Contact: Green Mountain Club, RR 1, Box 650, Waterbury Center, VT 05677; (802) 244-7037;

Colorado Trail: One of the longest, most challenging and rewarding regional trails, this one runs 500 miles from Denver to Durango through spectacular alpine scenery. Contact: Colorado Trail Foundation, P.O. Box 260876, Lakewood, CO 80226; (303) 526-0809;

Tim Ernst has thru-hiked the Ozark Highlands Trail more than 20 times and has spent more than 13,000 hours helping build it. In his spare time he works on other trails, writes guidebooks, and produces coffee table photo books.

Great heaping mounds of flaming-red soapberry scat, some of it still steaming. Crater-like paw prints along every tributary and game trail. Tufts of fur waving from the tips of alder branches. All around were signs that big bears owned this fertile slice of Alaskan tundra. A close encounter seemed inevitable. When it finally happened-a large female grizzly materialized around a brushy bend in the river-the landscape changed forever.

The encounter lasted only moments, but in my recurring daydream it stretches out in slow-motion, every blink, every ripple of muscle a reminder of the bear’s looming, graceful presence. I had traveled before through remote, undeveloped lands and seen wildlife, but this encounter was different, a visceral, electric, to-the-marrow link with everything primal and untamed. Few other scenes-my daughter’s birth, the first time I saw my father cry-have left as powerful an imprint.

Whether it’s the sight of a grizzly in Denali National Park, the spine-tingling howls of wolves in the North Woods night, or the hair-raising screech of a mountain lion in the Southwest high country, a wildlife encounter brings you face-to-face with nature in all its frighteningly awesome power and glory. It’s the closest we mortals come to understanding the true essence of wilderness. And yes, the claws and teeth will curdle your blood and loosen your bladder, but that’s part of the fun.

Contact: Denali National Park and Preserve, Box 9, Denali Park, AK 99755; (907) 683-2294;

Where Else To Get Your Fix

Tracking big game requires patience and caution. That means no blundering down the trail in mad pursuit of Yogi and his cohorts. Stay attuned to your surroundings and give any wild animal the space and respect it deserves. You’re almost guaranteed to encounter a large carnivore in one of the following locations.

Glacier National Park, Montana: Few wilderness areas in the Lower 48 boast such a concentration of brown bears. Contact: Glacier National Park, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, MT 59936; (406) 888-5441;

Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario: Your heart may skip five beats when this park’s wolves sing to you across the still waters of a small lake on a clear, cool, moonlit night. Contact: Algonquin Provincial Park, Ministry of Natural Resources, Box 219, Whitney, ON K0J 2M0; (705) 633-5572;

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta: Cougars regularly make their presence known in this rugged Canadian park, leaving tracks and sign near several popular trailheads, but these furtive, elusive felines are rarely encountered. Contact: Waterton Lakes National Park, Waterton Park, AL T0K 2M0; (403) 859-2224;

I’m wet and shivering, trying to recall why I wanted to visit this canyon alone, to travel from its waterless top through its claustrophobic narrows down to its gushing bottom. Another deep, dark pool, permanently shaded by towering orange rock, is at my feet. How many more? I fantasize about scrambling out of the impossibly steep canyon onto the parched mesa above. Then a swimming beaver beckons me, and I remember why I came here to Wet Beaver Creek, Arizona.

Rock. Water. Sun (or the lack of it). Size. This has been my world for I don’t know how many days. I feel small down here, always aware that I’m a hypothermia-prone biped, constantly in awe of what the sheer force of rushing water has created. The water is what makes this place so inviting, a rich bottomland that flows, drips, sparkles, and gushes while the desert far above bakes.

Pulling myself from the shaded home of the beaver, I break through a tangle of tamarisk and step into Eden. Sun is pouring into this section of canyon and water spills over a fern-covered red rock lip into a glittery plunge pool. I drop my dripping pack and jump in, indulging a frivolous urge to swim with a million dancing minnows. Now I am floating on my back, the sun warming my face, while my eyes climb the red and white highrise of slickrock and notice a hawk soaring above the canyon. Life is good at the bottom.

Contact: USGS 7.5-minute topos Casner Butte and Apache Maid Mountain cover the area. Coconino National Forest, Beaver Creek Ranger District, HC 64, Box 240, Rimrock, AZ 86335; (520) 567-4501; es/az.html.

Where Else To Get Your Fix

Slot canyons can be deceptively hazardous. Never camp in the bottom of a slot canyon, regardless of weather conditions. At least a dozen hikers were swept to their deaths last summer by flashfloods. Always check with land managers about weather conditions before entering a canyon.

Buckskin Gulch: The 20-mile trek from Wire Pass to White House Campground is only 3 feet wide in spots and requires serious scrambling down pour-offs. A permit is required and the waiting list is long. Contact: Bureau of Land Management Kanab District, 318 North 100 East, Kanab, UT 84741; (435) 644-2672.

Little Death Hollow/Wolverine Canyon Loop: This 20-mile, multicanyon hike to the Escalante River and back offers great Southwest slot trekking without the crowds. The route in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument takes you through narrow slots and under sandstone arches. Contact: Escalante Interagency Office, P.O. Box 246, Escalante, UT 84726; (801) 826-5499.

Virgin River Narrows: You’ll do plenty of wading on this 16-mile (one way) trek, but the water is rarely more than 6 inches deep. Lush groves of sycamore trees squeeze in between water and 2,000-foot-tall red rock walls. The waiting list for overnight permits is long. Contact: Zion National Park, Springdale, UT 84767; (435) 772-3256;

Annette McGivney lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where floating her pack through the many red rock canyons is a primary source of entertainment. She is searching for an air mattress that won’t leak.

Gurgling, bubbling, hissing, splashing-the sounds of the Earth coming to a boil surround me. No colorful crowds to cheer on the eruptions. No park naturalists to tell me when the next one might occur. I have to be patient, alert, and watchful, making careful notes as water levels rise and fall, as the steam increases and subsides. I measure time by these shifts and continue to stretch and sit and wait.

Deep in Yellowstone’s backcountry I’m far from the crowds, alone with the sounds and smells of sulfurous thermal basins that testify to the park’s volcanic past. This is the stuff of legends and yearning, of mysticism and pilgrimage. My boots have followed trails that were shaped by the feet of ancient people who once traveled to the hot springs. From the roads most visitors travel, I can walk 3 miles to a riverside camp near a beautiful geyser; climb the divide and descend to a lake with its own thermal basin; or pick my way along little-used trails to hot springs that are mere blue dots within the green of a topo map.

When I emerge from such trips I often stop at Old Faithful. I park among the sea of cars, walk straight to the semi-circle of benches surrounding the geyser, and wonder who I’ll sit near; perhaps an elderly couple from China, students from France, or newlyweds from Texas. We always chat about the park but I seldom speak of the places I hike, where I experience the Earth’s moods as few do, where I’m alone and in the heart of this place called Yellowstone.

Contact: Backcountry Office, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190; (307) 344-2160;

Where Else To Get Your Fix

Here are a few gems that display their unique charms only to people who are willing to use their muscles:

Olympic National Park: More than 600 miles of trail access 60 miles of wild Pacific coast, as well as glacier-capped peaks. Contact: Olympic National Park, 600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, WA 98362; (206) 452-4501;

Big Bend National Park: Explore the Chihuahuan Desert or the Chisos Mountains, landscapes central to Big Bend. Bring lots of water, your binoculars, and check in with rangers when you arrive. Contact: Big Bend National Park, P.O. Box 129, Bend National Park, TX 79834; (915) 477-2251;

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: This park protects the heart of the Appalachians. You can easily escape the crowds by simply hiking down a trail. Contact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738; (423) 436-1297;

The four of us take turns breaking trail through the deep snow. In the subzero air the landscape is still and silent. The only motion is the swing of our poles, the only sound the swish of our skis.

The trail snakes through a mixed evergreen forest. Here and there we cross the great plunging tracks of moose-tales written in the snow for us to read and ponder. Chickadees flit cheerily among the white birch. Ahead, through the branches and the blue shadows, I see the sawtooth ramparts of Mt. Katahdin-“greatest mountain” of the Penobscot-rising above the forest into the flawless sky. The sight thrills me and with renewed purpose I kick and glide toward the distant peak.

The throngs of summer-human and insect alike-leave with the first signs of frost, and the wilderness expands. Frozen lakes and rivers make perfect highways for fast and easy travel. The land is transformed magically by the sparkling blues and crisp whites of winter.

The next day the snow is bright white as we crunch across the ridge to the summit cairn. And then we are there, atop the world, looking out across millions of acres of empty, snowy Maine woods stretching beyond the horizon deep into Canada. Bundled in our down parkas, we share mugs of hot cocoa and savor the view unobstructed by leaves or summer haze. A thousand feet below, our tents are bright spots of color on a pristine canvas. It’s the best time of year.

Contact: Baxter State Park Authority, 64 Balsam Dr., Millinocket, ME 04462; (207) 723-5140.

Where Else To Get Your Fix

There may be a great winter camping trip waiting right out your door, or try one of these three top destinations:

Voyageurs National Park: Features the great Northwoods, reliable snow, and myriad frozen lakes. Contact: Voyageurs National Park, 3131 Highway 53, International Falls, MN 56649; (218) 283-9821;

Grand Teton National Park: Some of the most spectacular high mountain scenery in the West in any season. Contact: Grand Teton National Park, P.O. Box 170, Moose, WY 83012; (307) 739-3300;

Sierra Crest: More than 200 miles of unbroken mountain wilderness along the crest of the Sierra Nevada with perfect snow and lots of bright sunshine. Contact: Information Center, Eldorado National Forest, 3070 Camino Heights Dr., Camino, CA 95709; (916) 644-6048;

One minute the Alaskan sky was dark, a black quilt beaded with late summer stars; the next minute, it was on fire.

As I sat on a nameless ridge in Gates of the Arctic National Park, it took long moments for my mind to register the sight: northern lights. I had waited all my life, staring for hours into blank backcountry night skies. And now, right above me, curtains of jade-green, flickers of flame-orange, streaks of white. The colors swirled and rippled from horizon to horizon like wind-blown ribbons.

To the Chippewa they were the “ghost fires,” the shimmer of heavenly campfires where the souls of dead hunters danced. To scientists, they are the product of electrons spewed from the sun in solar winds, colliding with oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere. To a hiker they are a glimpse of the divine. Watching a luminous patch of sky 600 miles high shimmer like ripples on water awes us and humbles us to silence. To stare up at the northern lights is to stare directly into the wondrous.

I watched for a long time, alone, before I ran back down the ridge to camp to wake the others. “Hey,” I whispered in their sleeping ears, “wake up, the sky is dancing.”

Contact: Gates of the Arctic National Park, P.O. Box 74680, Fairbanks, AK 99707; (907) 456-0281;

Where Else To Get Your Fix

You don’t set off to see the northern lights the way you set off to climb a mountain or run a rapid. It is a gift, unexpected and treasured. Still, you can increase your odds by traveling north in the fall when the nights are getting deeper, by getting away from the urban lights, and by looking up.

Isle Royale National Park: An island out in Lake Superior, it is miles from city lights and offers wolves, moose, and some of the darkest night skies anywhere. Contact: Isle Royale National Park, 800 E. Lakeshore Dr., Houghton, MI 49931; (906) 482-0984;

Glacier National Park: Rugged, beautiful peaks as a backdrop for all that Montana big sky makes Glacier a prime spot for sky watching. Contact: Glacier National Park, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, MT 59936; (406) 888-5441;

Kluane National Park: A lot of wide-open tundra and mountain ridges make the sky in this Canadian national park seem as close as the glaciers. Contact: Kluane National Park, Box 5495, Haines Junction, YT, Canada Y0B 1L0; (403) 634-2251;

Iinch to the edge of the canyon wall and look down. Two hundred feet below, the river swirls, transparent as air, tinted the bright, surreal blue of water in a dream. Above, crags of naked gray limestone brush against the clouds. In this narrow, unnamed valley 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle and deep in the Brooks Range, the only trails belong to the caribou. This secret place isn’t found in any guidebook. Slip and fall 1,000 feet and only the ravens will know.

This is backpacking reduced to its most essential. The absence of any sort of safety nets-signs, rangers, campgrounds, other humans-stirs feral instincts I’d forgotten. I find myself focusing on flickers of movement, subtle variations of terrain, the angle of the sun. It’s just me and the vast, trackless land.

I move on, clambering across gullies so steep I sometimes lower my pack with rope. At the bottom of one ravine, scattered bones and wolf scat mark a kill. Taking off my boots, I ford a knee-deep icewater sluice, one of a dozen I’ll cross.

As the summer twilight deepens, I unfold my topo on a pinnacle carpeted with tundra flowers. Deciphering brown contour lines, I discover I’ve come 8 hard miles. Enough for today. Except for the rush of wind and water, the silence is complete.

Contact: Gates of the Arctic National Park, P.O. Box 26030, Bettles, AK 99726; (907) 692-5494.

Where Else To Get Your Fix

Alaska is an obvious choice for exploring untracked wilderness; here are three in the Lower 48.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area: Montana mountain country on a grand scale, complete with big predators. Contact: Flathead N.F., 1935 Third Ave. E, Kalispell, MT 59901; (406) 755-5401; and Lewis and Clark N.F., Box 869, 1101 15th St. N., Great Falls, MT 59403; (406) 791-7700.

Allagash Wilderness: Hone your long-distance canoeing skills in pristine wilderness. Contact: Bureau of Parks and Land, 106 Hogan Rd., Bangor, ME 04401; (207) 941-4014.

Marble Mountain Wilderness: More than 200,000 acres with plenty of untracked territory. Contact: Klamath N.F., 1312 Fairlane Rd., Yreka, CA 96097; (916) 842-6131.

The first time I witnessed “hiker’s envy” I was paddling beneath some low cliffs along Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The July day was calm and quiet. Lake Superior was heaving gently against the iron-colored sandstone. Near shore the water was so clear I could make out the contours of boulders a dozen feet down.

Then I heard people talking above me. Four hikers stood at the edge of the cliff overhead, and even from a distance I could see sweat on their faces. I watched them swat at flies and could almost feel the burden of their heavy packs. We were separated by 30 feet, but we might as well have been gazing at each other through the looking glass.

I was bug free, enveloped in the cool breath exhaled by Lake Superior, no pack pressing against my sweaty back. With paddle in hand I could easily explore the caves and crannies in the sheer walls of enduring sandstone, or I could pull ashore and wander miles of dunes and beach, following one of the forest trails inland if I chose.

We said nothing to each other, as if the gulf between our experiences was too great to bridge. But in that momentary tableau, I realized that it was me who was getting the full lakeshore experience.

Contact: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, P.O. Box 40, Munising, MI 49862; (906) 387-3700.

Where Else To Get Your Fix

Some places are best experienced from a watery vantage point. Here are three destinations suitable for paddlers of novice and intermediate ability:

Everglades National Park: This place is more water than land. Good canoe trails, some outfitted with camping platforms called chickees, include the short Noble Hammock loop and the park-spanning Wilderness Waterway. Winter is the best season because bugs are few, the weather is cool, and migratory birds are in residence. Contact: Everglades National Park, 4001 State Rd. 9336, Homestead, FL 33034; (305) 242-7700;

Upper Missouri National Wild & Scenic River: Here you’ll find about 150 miles of easy paddling through scenic Missouri Breaks country. You’ll also find desert bighorn sheep, white pelicans, and loads of hiking potential. Contact: Bureau of Land Management, Lewistown District Office, Airport Rd., Lewistown, MT 59457; (406) 538-7461.

Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons on the Green River: There are almost 125 river miles without a significant rapid between Green River, Utah, and Spanish Bottom at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. Plus the hiking and camping are absolutely incredible. Contact: Bureau of Land Management, 125 South 600 West, Price, UT 84501; (435) 636-3622. Canyonlands National Park, River District, 125 West 200 South, Moab, UT 84532; (801) 259-7164;

My legs felt like wet noodles, my lungs like balloons on the verge of popping, and I had the mother of all headaches.

All in all, I never felt better.

I was a mere 300 vertical feet from the summit of Mt. Rainier, the third highest peak in the Lower 48, and even though my body was complaining, my spirit was triumphant and soaring higher than the peak in front of me. Since 4:30 a.m. my four teammates and I had been toiling up the steep, glaciated shoulder of the hulking mountain. The morning was a blur of adrenaline-tinged thoughts, sounds, and feelings: the sun rising over the Cascades, painting the blue glacier a warm yellow; the reassuring crunch of crampons biting into the snow; the crevasse, three-stories deep, I shakily stepped over. The gentle but persistent tug on my harness threaded through it all and kept reminding me to keep a steady pace.

As we neared the summit we climbed into the gut of a blizzard. The cold grew even more intense, and so did the wind and the noise. The mountain was rejecting us. As I began my descent, I was angry. So close. All that effort. All that pain. Then, as if walking through a wall, we broke out of the storm. The sun was warm on my face and comforting, and suddenly my legs were strong as a bear’s. My mind was clear, sharp, and I felt there was no problem, no dilemma that I couldn’t shrug off.

Despite the discomfort, I knew I’d come back and try again. When it comes to aching muscles, ragged lungs, and life’s petty problems, there’s no better cure than the view from the top.

Contact: Mt. Rainier National Park, Star Route Tahoma Woods, Ashford, WA 98304; (360) 569-2211;

Where Else To Get Your Fix

Because of its lung-shriveling altitude (14,411 feet), abundant glaciers (34 square miles of them), and upredictable weather, Rainier is a favored training ground for Everest climbers. Whether you set your sights on Rainier or one of the other equally challenging peaks listed here, your chances of successfully reaching the top increase with the amount of time you can spend acclimatizing up high.

Mt. Shasta, California: The second highest peak (14,162 feet) in the entire Cascade Range, Shasta is attempted by some 10,000 climbers every year, with about 3,500 signing the summit register. Contact: Mt. Shasta Ranger District, 204 West Alma St., Mt. Shasta, CA 96067; (916) 926-4511.

Mt. Baker, Washington: At 10,781 feet, this heavily glaciated dormant volcano is the highest of the Pacific Northwest’s North Cascades range, and one of the most popular peaks due to its easy accessibility. Contact: Mt. Baker Ranger District, 2105 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284; (360) 856-5700.

Colorado Fourteeners: The 54 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet offer widely varying challenges, all different from the climbs offered in the Cascade mountains. Some of these are “walk-ups,” while others demand bona fide climbing skills. Contact: Colorado Mountain Club, 710 10th St., #200, Golden, CO 80401; (303) 279-3080;

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