Bacon-wrapped filet mignon sizzles in the frying pan and a bottle of zinfandel (about half empty) nestles in the sand next to a fresh green salad. Noses fill with the aroma of browning meat, and the chuckling lap of water massages away all cares.
The French Riviera? Nope. This isn't even southern California on a good day. I'm in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest potholed dirt road, leaning against my trusty pack. A beat-up canoe is pulled partially onto the bank of the placid Green River and tethered to a tamarisk deep in Utah's Canyonlands National Park. It's the evening of day 4, and so far we've paddled about 45 miles through some of the grandest, most majestic sandstone in the world. Tomorrow we head out under backpacks, up a seldom-seen canyon to Overlook Trail. Along the way, we'll enjoy views down to the Green and Colorado Rivers and across the Land of Standing Rocks to the Chocolate Drops and Lizard Rock, plus 100 other minarets and massive mounds of stone. We'll hike into The Maze, arguably the ultimate backpacking destination and challenge for champions of slickrock and utterly barren earth, before returning several days later to the river to continue paddling.
Of course, you don't have to take the river to get to this isolated spot. The Maze can be reached by 60 miles of the hottest, nastiest four-wheel driving this side of hell. Upon arrival at the remote trailhead, as the dust settles on the vehicle and you, you'll be about as relaxed as a rattlesnake with a backache. Then you get to commune with nature via a long, dry hike.
That's why I like to take the simpler, more relaxing way to the trailhead: by boat. Each time my paddle dips into the coffee-with-cream-colored Green, I am soothed. When I eventually dock my watercraft and don a pack, I'm rested and eager to explore areas where few feet have trod.
So gear up and shove off with pack and paddle. There are numerous pathways to follow that start on the banks of some of North America's finest wilderness waterways, trails that lead you to scenic splendor and utter solitude. Here are just a few.
Wild and Scenic Missouri River, Montana
The water: "The hills and river cliffs exhibit a most romantic appearance," Lewis and Clark reported of this section of the great Missouri River. Even today, the adventurous duo would recognize this part of their journey that's remained relatively unchanged by modern life. Paddlers can camp in the same rustling cottonwood groves that the Corps of Discovery occupied almost 200 years ago and stroke great, ponderous loops of water that coil through semi-arid country of sculpted sandstone cliffs and quiet coulees. The current flows steadily, but is free of rapids over the entire 150-mile length from historic Ft. Benton to Fred Robinson Bridge at US 191, making it a great 5- to 7-day trip for beginner and intermediate paddlers. Shorter 2- to 3-day trips can easily be arranged by starting at Coal Banks Landing (mile 42) or the bridge at Judith Landing (mile 88). The biggest hazard is frequent, and often strong, upriver winds.
The hikes: Established trails are rare, but explorations on foot away from the river are unlimited if you have decent bushwhacking skills. Besides, the Big Sky landscape is so evocative it's hard to stay in the boats. Some of the most spectacular hiking is in the White Rocks area, on river left, between miles 58 and 72. Hole-in-the-Wall is also easily accessed on river right, at mile 64. This dike of volcanic rock stands out in a formidable rampart, with a spectacular window near the top that hikers can scramble to. Many coulees and ridges lead off all along the river corridor, and almost all of it is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, accessible to the public.
Experience level: Beginner to intermediate paddling. Intermediate to advanced hiking, if you're making your own trail.
Season: The Missouri is floatable from spring through fall. Mid-June through late-July is your best bet for weather and good water levels. September is also beautiful and less heavily traveled.
Logistics: The best craft is a canoe, although touring kayaks are common, too. The put-in is 45 miles north of Great Falls at the town of Ft. Benton.
Guides: Floater's guidelines, Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River Floaters Guide Map Set ($8), and information on outfitters and shuttles are available from the Lewistown BLM office (see Contacts below). Good guidebooks to the area include: Floating and Recreation on Montana Rivers, by Curt Thompson ($24.95), and Paddling Montana, by Hank and Carol Fischer ($14.95), both published by Falcon, (800) 582-2665; www.falcon.com.
Contacts: BLM, Lewistown Field Office, (406) 538-7461; www.mt.blm.gov/lvo. National Wild. Scenic Rivers site, www.nps.gov/rivers/missouri.html.
Rio Grande, Texas
The water: Along that bump on the bottom of southwest Texas, the Rio Grande takes a sharp turn from southeast to northeast. For more than 100 miles-all of it spectacular and often very remote-the river separates the desert of northern Mexico from Texas's Big Bend National Park, passing through the outstanding canyons of Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas. Below Boquillas, the river leaves the park and slips into the Lower Canyons, the most isolated section of the Rio Grande (about another 100 miles of paddling). All along the river, you'll find limestone walls that reach as much as 1,800 feet above the water to the Chihuahuan Desert. Between long, calm stretches, rapids might reach Class I or II, sometimes III in high spring runoff. Water levels vary greatly during the year, to the point where river travel is sometimes impossible, so call ahead.
The hikes: About 10 river miles below the put-in at Lajitas, Texas, the Rio Grande enters Santa Elena Canyon with a good campsite located at the canyon's mouth. On the Mexican side, you can hike into a shady side canyon where you'll find a swimming hole, fern-cloaked walls, and an easy route to the top with grand views across Texas. On the park side, a rugged trail at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon ascends about 4 miles to more open country, excellent views, and a opportunity to spend a day or two exploring the desert off-trail (bring an accurate map). You can spend 3 weeks on the river, hiking any of the side canyons, and only scratch the surface of this vast wilderness.
Experience level: Novice to intermediate paddling and moderate hiking.
Season: Accessible all year, depending on water levels. Spring and fall are the most appealing seasons, weather-wise.
Logistics: From I-10, TX 118 runs south to secondary road 170, which leads west to Lajitas. Where you take out will depend on the length of your trip: it's about 2 days to Castolon, a week to Boquillas, a couple of weeks to La Linda. Sign up for a guided canoe, kayak, or raft trip with (or rent boats and accessories from) Big Bend River Tours, (800) 545-4240; www.bigbendrivertours.com; or Texas River Expeditions, (800) 839-RAFT; www.texasriver.com.
Guides: USGS topo maps are Santa Elena Canyon, Lajitas, and Mesa de Anguila. Check out Hiking Big Bend National Park, by Laurence Parent (Falcon, 800-582-2665; www.falcon.com; $12.95).
Contact: Big Bend National Park, (915) 477-2251; www.nps.gov/bibe/home.htm.
Chattooga River, Georgia
The water: Made famous by that '70s canoe-
combat film "Deliverance," the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River in Georgia's northeasternmost corner (Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest) is one of the classic whitewater runs in the United States. Intermediate boaters can canoe or kayak Sections II and III (20 miles total), a paddler's dream of ledges, drops, and rambunctious whitewater from GA 28 to Earl's Ford. Numerous good primitive camping spots dot the riverbanks. By joining an outfitted trip, you'll also have the option to raft the 7-mile "experts-only" Section IV down to US 76. Between cascading falls are quiet pools and sandbars where you can camp, swim, and fish for brown and rainbow trout and redeye (Coosa) bass.
The hikes: Right beside the river is one of the finest hikes in the Southeast-a 20-mile (one way) trip on the Bartram and Chattooga River Trails. The first 10 miles, from GA 28 south to Sandy Ford, are the two trails combined, and the last 10 miles, from Sandy Ford to US 76, are the Chattooga River Trail alone. No matter the name, between green wooded bluffs and sculptured rock formations, the trail skirts the river's ledges, drops, and rapids. Jump out of the boat at just about any spot and you can hook up with the trails within a quarter mile of the river. The remote and unspoiled Rock Gorge section, a bouldery, botanist's delight, teems with conifers and hardwoods, plus wildflowers and flowering shrubs such as violets, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Here you'll find wild turkeys, quail, raccoons, white-tailed deer, and even black bears.
Season: If you're not used to Southern summers (hot and humid, with the air often referred to as "thick"), opt for spring and fall.
Logistics: Take I-985 north to US 23. Exit at US 441, continue north 28 miles to US 76 (just south of Clayton, Georgia), and go east 9 miles to the Chattooga River. Parking is on the northwest side of the river at the Chattooga River Information Station. The Nantahala Outdoor Center Chattooga Outpost (800-232-7238; www.noc.com) offers guided raft, canoe, and kayak trips, as well as instruction.
Experience level: Suitable craft include rafts, whitewater canoes, and kayaks. Boaters should possess intermediate to advanced skills.
Guides: Chattooga Wild and Scenic River Map ($4.28) is available from the Chattahoochee National Forest. The Chattooga Wild And Scenic River, by Brian A. Boyd (Fern Creek Press, 706-782-5379; www.rabun.net/boyd; $9.95).
Contact: Chattahoochee National Forest, Tallulah Ranger District, (706) 782-3320; www.fs.fed.us/conf.
Noatak River, Alaska
The water: Its name means "deep within," and the Noatak does indeed flow from deep within Gates of the Arctic National Park in the heart of the western Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle. It's a clear, cold, shallow, winding river ringed near its headwaters by ice-castle peaks like 8,510-foot Mt. Igikpak, and on other sections by the immense, seemingly endless horizons of open tundra. Its length (227 miles) and its easy waters (Classes I and II) make it one of the premier wilderness rivers on the continent. Start at Portage Lake and you can float for 4 to 6 days down to Lake Matcharak (25 miles) or 16 days to Noatak Village (225 miles) for a longer trip, with many options in between.
The hike: Don't expect trail signs in this wilderness. Just tie off the canoe and hike in the tracks of grizzlies, wolves, caribou, even musk oxen. The best hikes head for the high ridges away from the bugs or follow the solid ground up one of the major tributaries. Head up the east side of the Kugrak River and search for warm springs. For a more ambitious overnight hike, have half your party hike 12 miles up the Kugrak over a nameless pass into the Igning River valley and return to the Noatak to be picked up by the others, who meanwhile have drifted downstream in the boats.
Experience level: Easy rapids; hikes require route-finding, map reading, moderate scrambling, and bear safety skills.
The season: Arctic summers are short. Ice-out may be as late as June; by September, snow is in the air. June and July are drier, but the mosquitoes are thicker. August is wet, with fewer bugs.
Logistics: This is a "fly in/fly out" river. Check bush flights out of Bettles, Alaska (try Brooks Range Aviation, 800-692-5443). Portage Lake makes a good landing spot for a float plane and put-in for a canoe. Canoes can be rented, but all craft must be flown in; Kleppers or other "break-down" boats make a good choice. For guide services or trip consultation, contact Arctic Treks (907-455-6502; www.arctictreksadventures.com) or Mountains and Rivers (907-373-5221; www.alaska.net/~mrguides).
Guides: USGS topos Survey Pass (C-5, C-6) and Ambler River (C-1, D-1, D-2, D-3, D-4, D-5, D-6) cover the Noatak from its headwaters to where it leaves the national park. The Alaska River Guide, by Karen Jettmar (Alaska Northwest Books, 800-452-3032; $16.95) describes the trip.
Contact: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, (907) 456-0281; www.nps.gov/gaar.
Upper Colorado River, Colorado and Utah
The water: Paddle the long, peaceful stretches of the upper Colorado River and you'd swear you were on a whole different waterway than the one of Grand Canyon fame. The 27 miles between Loma, Colorado, and West-water Ranger Station in Utah is a splendid float with a few small rapids that can be negotiated even by beginners. Enter Horsethief Canyon and look for a fine campsite that's at the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon, on the left (river left, in water lingo). After about 10 miles of river, Horsethief gives way to Ruby Canyon and the openings of Mee, Moore, and Knowles Canyons, all on river left. Watch for Black Rocks Rapid at mile 17, where the river surges through a narrow channel. In June's high water, you might want to scout this one first. The last few miles of river run through more open land. Take out at the Westwater Ranger Station, unless you have a Bureau of Land Management permit and the skills required for the spicy Class IV rapids of Westwater Canyon.
The hikes: Mee and Knowles are canyon systems, easy to find on the topos and seldom visited, with enticing side drainages that run deep into the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Study Area. Although only 8 to 10 miles long on the main canyon floors, these systems lead to magically balanced rocks, towering spires, marvelous rock formations, and deep pools of water. Exploring them can involve several days of backpacking.
Season: Accessible all year; spring, summer, and fall are best.
Experience level: Easy to moderate paddling and easy hiking.
Logistics: Take the Loma exit on I-70. Turn south and almost immediately east for a short drive to the launch site. The take-out is farther on I-70 at the West-water exit. Follow the dirt road west to the ranger station. The route is runable by canoe, kayak, or raft. Sign up for a guided trip, or rent canoes and arrange a shuttle with Rimrock Adventures (970- 858-9555; www.rradventures.com).
Guides: USGS topo maps are Mack, Ruby Canyon, Bitter Creek Well and Westwater. Check out The River Runners' Guide to Utah and Adjacent Areas, by Gary C. Nichols (University of Utah Press, 801-581-6771; www.upress.utah. edu; $14.95).
Contact: BLM-Grand Junction District Office, (970) 244-3000; www.co.blm.gov.
Lake Superior's Apostle Islands, WIsconsin
The water: Lake Superior is as big as water gets, short of the ocean. It's also frigid, pure, and intensely picturesque. Among its greatest scenic gems are the 22 Apostle Islands off the shore of northern Wisconsin. The islands run the gamut from raw wilderness exposed to changeable lake weather to sheltered-but-accessible Northwoods beauty. Much of the trip is big, open water where storms can pounce without warning, waves can build quickly, and the shoreline has miles of forbidding cliffs. At the same time, paddling is the most intimate way to experience the sun-glinting beauty of Lake Superior and to explore the coast and island shores, with wave-smoothed beaches, bald eagles, and fantastic, storm-eroded "sea caves."
The hikes: Several of the larger islands have extensive hiking potential. Oak and Stockton Islands are the most notable for their trail networks. Oak Island boasts the highest point in the Apostles-commanding Overlook View at its northern end-as well as an 8-mile loop trail. Stockton Island is the largest within the national lakeshore, and 15 miles of trail lead through a tremendous diversity of northern environments, from swamp to white pine forest to pretty beach. Stockton Island is also home to several historic sites, including an old sandstone quarry. Several other islands, especially Sand, Outer, and Basswood, hold trails that pass old settlements, lighthouses, and abandoned fish camps.
Experience level: You must have at least intermediate skills to paddle the lake. The hiking is easy.
Season: Summer is the best time to visit the Apostle Islands, and July is the most reliable month in terms of avoiding stormy weather and cold temperatures.
Logistics: Three major boat launches access the Apostles (Bayfield, Red Cliff, and Little Sand Bay). From Red Cliff, 3 miles north of Bayfield on WI 13, Oak Island is a 2-hour paddle and Stockton is about 4 hours away. Some people canoe on Lake Superior, but sea kayaks are by far the safer, more preferred crafts. Kayak clinics, rentals, and guided tours are available through Trek and Trail, (800-354-8735; www.trek-trail.com). Established campsites complement wilderness sites, and permits are required for overnight travel.
Guides: Survey Chart #14973 or #14966 are the best maps ($15.65 each). A Visitor's Guide to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, by Dave Strzok ($10). Apostle Islands: Official National Park Handbook ($5.50). These books and maps are available from the Lakeshore office listed below.
Contacts: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, (715) 779-3397; www.nps. gov/apis/. Bayfield Chamber of Commerce, (800) 447-4094; www.bayfield.org.