The first major storm of the year recently blew through the Lake Tahoe Basin, bringing gallons and gallons of rain at the lake level and dumping one to two feet of classic Sierra Cement on the upper elevations. This brief period of unsettled weather makes it very tempting for locals and visitors alike to store away their summer toys, relegating them to gather dust for the next six months. As tempting as it may be to begin preparing for powder days, you may end up missing out on some of the best mountain biking of the year.
Fall in Tahoe is arguably the absolute best time of year for mountain biking. Squeezing in a few extra rides on the mountain bike means cool days, less crowded trails, and perfectly packed singletrack, dampened by the passing rain showers. This is the final opportunity to squeeze in that ride you’ve been dreaming about all summer but still haven’t gotten around to. Here you’ll find the lowdown on the best mountain bike trails to squeeze in before winter hits in Tahoe.
1. Kingsbury Stinger
The newly-minted Kingsbury Stinger trail represents an incredible partnership between the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association and the U.S. Forest Service, turning formerly illegal downhill trails into yet another professionally-crafted legal trail. The good community vibes created from the building of this intermediate trail match well with the flowing 4.5-mile downhill ride that drops approximately 1,400 feet. Because this trail is located on the drier southeast side of the Lake Tahoe Basin, it should hold good riding well into mid-November until snow starts sticking in the upper reaches.
From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 207 up Kingsbury Grade, After 2.8 miles, turn left on North Benjamin Drive and continue until the road dead ends at the trailhead. This trail is best done as a shuttle system with a second car parked at the former Kingsbury Middle School on Echo Drive.
2. Corral Loop
The legendary Corral and Sidewinder Trails provide some of the best singletrack for a range of ability levels in the Lake Tahoe region. Riders have until November 15 before the Forest Service gates close, cutting off the ability to shuttle and ride a few laps on this insanely fun network of trails. After November 15th, riders will have to earn their turns the old fashioned way by huffing and puffing for two miles up the paved road—though this seems to make the downhill even better. This ride is just under nine miles when you take both the Corral and the Sidewinder.
From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 50 toward Meyers, turn left on Pioneer Trail, right on Oneidas Street, and continue on to the service road at the end of Oneidas.
3. Tahoe Rim Trail—Tahoe City
Often lauded as one of the best contiguous segments of mountain biking in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the 20+ mile segment from Tahoe City to Brockway Summit features incredibly fun, flowing trails that weave through stands of pine and manzanita with breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe. It’s not for beginners, but this trail will be a cherry on top of a season for any intermediate rider who has been building their skill level all summer. This route is best done as a shuttle from Brockway Summit to Tahoe City to maximize the amount of downhill. The big reward here lies in the final five miles of trail that cruise through banked turns and amazing singletrack, dropping about 1,400 feet down to Tahoe City. Be a good ambassador for the sport and share the trail with other users on this popular segment—trail etiquette states mountain bikers yield to all other users.
From Tahoe City, take Highway 28 toward Kings Beach. In Kings Beach, turn left on Highway 267 toward Truckee, parking at the signs for the Tahoe Rim Trail trailhead near the top of the summit.
4. Van Sickle Trail
This technical singletrack might be South Lake Tahoe’s most accessible trail. Located in the Van Sickle Bi-State Park just behind the Casino Core area, this challenging route flows through dense forest and the open burn scar of the 2002 Gondola fire, providing incredible sunset views of Lake Tahoe on the descent. The Van Sickle trail can be ridden both up and down and provides the perfect opportunity for a quick outing or a full day of laps. Ambitious riders might even be able to ski Heavenly in the morning when they fire up their snowmaking mid-November, then trade in their skis for a mountain bike at the bottom of the gondola for an afternoon ride.
See the RootsRated guide for hiking the Van Sickle Trailfor directions to the trailhead.
5. Flume Trail
If you still haven’t biked the Flume Trail by now, stop reading and immediately go ride this incredible 14-mile downhill trail. It might just be the most scenic mountain bike trail in the country. With abundant fall colors lining the beginning of the trail and vertigo-inducing views of Lake Tahoe as you descend to Incline Village, this is one ride that needs to be done before the snow flies. A paid shuttle service operates at the end of the trail to take you back to your car at Spooner Lake through November.
For full details on the shuttle and detailed trail maps, check out the official Flume Trail page.
For two years, I worked toward a lofty life dream: to outfit a van and drive from California to Patagonia. By last winter, plans were finally coming to fruition. I quit my job, my boyfriend and I set a date to move out of our house, and our van was, well, a work in progress. But one month before we planned to leave, he called it quits on the trip—and ended our three-year relationship.
With no job, no place to live, and a travel dream that seemed impossible to pursue solo, I felt pretty lost to say the least. But I still had a van, a serious case of wanderlust, and a dog. So I rolled with the changes and started the adventure anyway, with my 30-pound heeler mix as co-pilot.
Rodi “Rodrigo” Herzog came into my life about a year prior to it turning upside down. He’s the kind of dog that wins over hearts with his rugged good looks and shameless penchant for cuddling, then turns a few heads by charging down trails and practically levitating over boulders. If Rodi could survive a puppyhood wandering the plains of rural Nevada on his own, he could survive living in a van with me.
But I was a bit less sure about my van. Less than a quarter of the way outfitted at the time I decided to take the trip solo, my Sprinter came with more than a few faults: shattered windshield, balding tires, two out of four functioning doors, and more dents than a recycled beer can. For three weeks I worked at an unrelenting pace to get that sucker running and built out with the poorly-leveled plywood that I now call home.
Van mostly functional, dog always primed for adventure, Rodi and I set off for a road trip of undetermined length, unspecified time, and half-baked purpose. Instead of heading south to Latin America, I decided to start east and figure out the journey one step at a time. Ten months, 24 states, and two countries later, we’re still on the move and still happily unsure of when and where we’ll land next. Nonetheless, life on the road with Rodi has taught me a thing or two about, well, life. Here are some of the quirks and perks of embarking on this type of travel with a dog.
Embrace the fact that your dog will likely be more popular than you.
Unless you walk around the campground passing out free IPAs and down jackets, most people will find your dog to be far more interesting than you—and they will want to quiz you about him, pet him, and hang out with him. Countless times now I’ve waltzed through the routine: guess what breed my mutt is, ask me how old he is, tell me that he looks like a coyote.
After enough of these casual encounters turning into friendships and climbing partnerships, I readily accept that Rodi is my better half, and that if people want to strike up conversation with me just to sneak a few cuddles with a cute pup, then so be it.
One August evening, I rolled into Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park campground after six hours of driving. I was tired, hungry, and a little unsure if this pit stop on my way to Yosemite would be worth it. In my weary and cranky state, I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and scarf down a Clif bar for dinner.
Van door open, I was left with nothing but the sound of Rodi’s tags as he trotted away, likely lured by the smell of roasting sausages. Wandering out by headlamp to retrieve my begging dog, I was greeted by Rodi’s new friends, a group of climbers quick to offer me a seat at the picnic table, complete with a beer and brat.
The next afternoon, I found myself with no plans and no climbing partners, so I embarked on my usual routine of walking around the crag with Rodi. At the very least, I get to see the climbs and Rodi gets an always-appreciated walk. Tail wagging, Rodi charged ahead to the open arms of a guy sitting on a bench watching his two friends climb.
A few minutes later I was tying my figure-eight and chalking up to climb with them. Without Rodi, I probably would have walked right by without a word, feeling too shy to ask if I could join their party of three. A couple months later, I’ve now shared summits in three different states with one of the climbers I met that day—all thanks to my dog.
Don’t swear off all national parks.
National parks in the U.S. are generally not the best places to go gallivanting around with a dog. In my experience, it all comes down to taking the time to research where a dog can and can’t go within a park’s boundaries and weighing that against what I hope to do while I’m there.
Take Yosemite, for example. Since I spend most of my time traveling to rock climb, it’s no surprise that this park runs high on my list. My first time going to Yosemite Valley with Rodi, I had little faith that he could endure the place for long. Thankfully, I found that the paved walkways in the valley offer plenty of opportunity for scenic dog walks, albeit usually in the dark after I finish climbing for the day. And driving outside of the park to camp every night gives Rodi enough space to let out excess energy, which is well worth the few extra dollars in gas.
Meanwhile, the much less-crowded Badlands National Park in South Dakota boasted one of the best camping deals for budget-conscious and dog-owning travelers: a wide open field with free camping where Rodi was welcome to enjoy the views too.
If all else fails, the surrounding towns near national parks usually offer at least one option for doggy daycare or overnight lodging. Places like these have saved me a few headaches, allowing me to explore national parks for a day or two without worrying about Rodi.
Know what your dog is capable of—and what’s too much.
This is undoubtedly the biggest lesson I’ve learned overall as a dog owner, and one that Rodi and I regularly consolidate through experiences on the road. I’ve been able to travel with very few dog-related challenges not because Rodi is the perfect dog, but because I know his needs, fears, and tendencies.
Knowing what Rodi can handle has made our travels run smoothly, and testing what Rodi can handle has made for good stories (and plenty of lessons learned). The time when a cop came knocking on the van door to tell us to move from our not-so-stealth and not-so-legal camping spot in small-town Montana, it was clear that Rodi’s Mom!-Alert!-Danger! howl was imminent. One stern stare and a whispered command to stay quiet was (surprisingly) all he needed to curl back up in his bed and let me do the talking.
Afternoons spent romping around climbing crags in Utah? No problem. Tagging along for a few drinks at a bar in Tennessee? He’d never complain about that. Packrafting down Class II rapids in Colorado? Achievable and hilarious, but not his favorite. Attempting a Tyrolean traverse over a 200-foot-wide river with Rodi in a backpack? Well, that was a one-time thing.
Accept that sometimes it takes a village.
Taking care of a dog while constantly managing every other aspect of my nomadic life can get a little taxing without a travel partner. But, like most single dog moms and dads out there, I make it happen.
The important thing I’ve realized is that most other travelers have a Vitamin D(og) deficiency, and since Rodi is friendly and generally low-maintenance, I’m doing them a favor by letting him fill that void. In Squamish, British Columbia, for example, my sights were set on multi-pitch climbs that required being off the ground for up to 10 hours at a time—too long to leave Rodi alone in the van.
In these times of need, I turned to my community of fellow van-, truck-, and tent-dwelling climbers for a little help. It usually wouldn’t take more than five minutes of walking around the campground or the climbing area parking lots to find a group of new friends willing to hang out with Rodi for the day. They got to enjoy cuddles with my pup in between pitches at the crag; I had peace of mind knowing that Rodi wasn’t roasting away in our metal box of a home under the afternoon sun.
Don’t leave home without ‘em.
In the last 48 hours before leaving home, I wasn’t fantasizing about dream destinations, fretting over my lack of a steady job, or cursing how much cash I just dropped on new tires. Rather, my mind spun in circles wondering if it were smart, safe, or even possible to bring Rodi on the trip. I struggled to imagine how he would fit into my new, very uncertain lifestyle.
Now, almost a year and more than 18,000 miles later, Rodi has been there with me through it all, never once back-seat driving, complaining about a camping spot, or getting grumpy after a few too many days without a shower. To me, he’s the ideal travel partner.
On a deeper level, I credit Rodi with giving me the extra edge of confidence and much-needed companionship that has made it possible for me to travel “solo” for months on end. So here’s to Rodi, the pup whose playful spirit and unwavering affection helped push me out the door and into a life of adventure at a time when I had nothing to lose.
Imagine a land where the towering Rocky Mountains meet the sweeping horizon of the Great Plains. Where vibrant modern life is interwoven with a rugged, storied history, and where seemingly endless recreational opportunities are balanced by moments of historical and cultural exploration. Tucked between Yellowstone National Park to the south and Glacier National Park to the northwest, Central Montana is an intersection of authentic Western culture, remarkable scenery, and rich history. Central Montana is an exceptional destination for outdoor recreation, worthy of a spot on anyone's travel checklist. Here are a few of our favorite ways to explore the region.
Explore Unique, Charming Towns
Much of Central Montana is rugged, open country, which means the small communities throughout the region have developed their own unique charms. Lewistown, located at the very center of the state, has a rich gold mining heritage and is now a favorite destination for hunters, anglers and outdoors-folk. Choteau, called the "Front Porch of the Rockies," is also home to one of the world’s top paleontology sites, which has been instrumental in providing insight about dinosaurs from the Cretaceous Period. Fort Benton, known as the “Birthplace of Montana,” is located on the Missouri River. Steamboats would bring travelers there from St. Louis, and it served as a gateway to the northwestern U.S. and Canada. Whichever town you choose to explore during your visit, take in a variety of local cafes, restaurants and Western bars.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness
"The Bob," as locals call it, is a wilderness complex comprised of more than 1 million acres of protected wilderness land. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bob Marshall Wilderness is a bucket-list destination for hikers, backpackers, horseback riders, hunters and fly anglers. The complex, easily accessible from several points in Central Montana, follows the Continental Divide for 60 miles, encompassing terrain from conifer forests to craggy, high peaks. Do a bit of research and head in on a hike, join Dropstone Outfitting for a stock-assisted guided hike, or connect with one of the area’s many outfitters for a memorable mule and horse-packing trip into some of the wildest protected terrain in the lower 48 states.
World-Class Fly Fishing
Central Montana is a veritable paradise for those who love fly fishing. The region’s rivers flow through terrain unlike any found elsewhere in the state, dropping from high in the mountains to meander through the beginning of the Great Plains and beyond. These rivers, including the storied Missouri, Smith, Dearborn, Teton and Sun, are often quite remote and serve as home to significant numbers of rainbow and brown trout, as well as native whitefish and other species. Many outfitting services dot the region, allowing visiting anglers to book a guide who truly knows and understands the most productive locations — and ways — to fish at any given time of the year.
Incredible Road and Mountain Biking
Thanks to the varied terrain and often low-traffic roads, Central Montana is perfect for road cycling. Winding roads drop from the Rocky Mountains, leveling out into seemingly endless straight stretches that are an excellent option for logging your endurance miles. Mountain bikers will also find plenty of trails to entertain themselves, from Pilgrim Creek in the Little Belt Mountains to the Mayhem Trail on the south shore of the Missouri River near Great Falls.
Discover a Long, Fascinating History
Despite the area’s history as a leading paleontological zone—a wealth of dinosaur fossils have been found all over the region—our knowledge of Central Montana’s rich history began with the Plains Indians who inhabited the area, pursuing bison across the rich terrain. The Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived in April 1805 in what would become known as Montana Territory, later poling and towing their boats up canyon rapids and a series of waterfalls on the Missouri River. From 1820 to 1880, the area was with rife with trappers and fur traders, and later drew in multitudes of gold miners and then settlers. The rest, as they say, is history—a history that lives on in the day-to-day lives of the area’s residents.
Incredible Trail-to-Tavern Experiences
Montanans love to play just as hard as they work, and it’s a common sight to see people come off the trail or river and head straight to a local pub or brewery, regardless of work clothes and trail dust. Share your fishing stories with the guy on the next stool at any of the bars or restaurants in Cascade. Triple Dog Brewing in Havre is the perfect stop after a day tackling trails or a long day road biking across the seemingly endless horizon on Montana’s Hi-Line. Wherever you choose to recreate, rest assured there’s a locally owned pub nearby, ready to help you relax and celebrate a day of adventuring.
Get Your Feet Wet
Central Montana is crisscrossed by several famous rivers, including the Missouri, the Smith and the Judith. Whether your tastes lean more toward fly-fishing, rafting, stand-up paddleboarding or merely a leisurely float down the river in a canoe, Central Montana’s waterways offer a multitude of easy-access waterborne recreation. Looking for a truly unique adventure? Tackle a guided weeklong float down the famed Smith River (by permit only, but it’s an amazing trip for those lucky enough to snag a spot).
More than 250 avian species call the 13 counties of Central Montana home. Thanks to the area’s varied habitat—from the Rocky Mountain steppes to the sweeping grass and marshlands of the Great Plains — the region provides important habitat for migratory and resident birds. Visit Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area during the spring migration to see tens of thousands of snow geese gather on the lakes.
Driving through Central Montana, you'll see an amazing variety of scenery and wildlife. Take time and read the historic roadside signs. Enjoy a short hike in the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest, take advantage of pull-outs off the highway. It’s a beautiful place to visit—and a getaway you won’t soon forget.
Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated Media in partnership with Central Montana.
Ah, the desert: the “land of little rain”, the house of haboob and flash flood, the thirsty wilderness, the barren void wandered by nomads, exiles, spiritual seekers, bandits, prospectors, and UFO hunters—plus sidewinders, scorpions, tarantulas, and vultures, of course.
Taken collectively, the deserts of North America are still overshadowed sizewise by the Sahara—at 3.6 million square miles, the greatest (non-polar) desert in the world—as well as the Arabian, the Australian Outback, and several others. But in beauty, wilderness, and ecological uniqueness they hold their own with any desertscape on Earth.
We’re going to take a dusty, sandy, squinty-eyed look at the “Big Four” of North American deserts: the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan, which together cover some 500,000 square miles—from the lonesome sagebrush backlands of Oregon and Nevada, down to the cactus groves of central Mexico.
There are various ecological and climatological definitions of “desert,” a rough-and-ready one being somewhere that gets 10 inches or less of annual precipitation. A more precise one calls a desert a place where evapotranspiration (evaporation plus the water given off by plants) exceeds precipitation.
Lots of places that don’t meet the technical criteria get slapped with the desert label nonetheless; heck, a big chunk of the Great Plains, mainly the mixed-grass and shortgrass prairies, was once called the “Great American Desert,” though these grasslands are too well-watered to formally qualify. We should acknowledge that “desert” can be a subjective term more to do with mood—solitude, awe, fear, terror—than rain gauges.
We don’t have the space to go into the nitty-gritty of why North America’s deserts sprawl where they sprawl, but suffice it to say it mainly has to do with rain shadow-casting mountains, distances from moisture sources, the permanent high-pressure zones of the subtropics, and combinations thereof.
(Oh, and before we dive in: The Arctic and Antarctic are polar deserts, getting as little yearly precipitation as many sand-and-cactus ones at lower latitudes. But we aren’t going to be considering the dry tundra of Alaska, Canada, or Greenland in this discussion: We’ll stick to the temperate and subtropical zones of North America.)
The Great Basin Desert
Encompassing the better part of 200,000 square miles, the Great Basin Desert is the largest desert in the United States and the second-largest in North America after the Chihuahuan. This ecological realm covers most, but not all, of the physiographic realm of the Great Basin itself, the biggest component of the Basin-and-Range Province.
The Great Basin Desert stretches between the Southern Cascades and Sierra Nevada (source of the rain shadow that forms it) on the west and the Rocky Mountains on the east. To the north, it grades into the semiarid sagebrush and bunchgrass steppes of the Columbia Plateau and Snake River Plain; to the south, it drops down into the lower, hotter Mojave Desert. It takes up most of Nevada, while its fringes lie in northeastern California, southeastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho, and western Utah.
The Great Basin Desert is a cold desert: both a descriptive and formal term. It’s the northernmost major desert province in North America (again, non-polar) and gets most of its scanty annual precipitation in the form of winter snowfall.
Mountain range, basin, mountain range, basin: rinse and repeat. That’s the basic topographic story of the Great Basin Desert. Relief often on the order of 5,000 or 6,000 feet separates high mountain crests from the bottoms of the intervening sinks, or bolsons, which typically lack drainage outlets. Ephemeral lake beds (playas) lie on the floor of many of these basins, and of course there are few permanent water bodies here, too, like the Great Salt Lake and Pyramid Lake—remnants of larger and more numerous Great Basin lakes of the Pleistocene.
If you’re into botanical variety, the Great Basin Desert gives you the least of the Big Four deserts. Sagebrush, especially big sagebrush, dominates the scene: They don’t call this heartland of the American West the ‘Sagebrush Sea’ for nothing. Greasewoods, saltbushes, saltgrasses, and other salt-tolerant plants take over on saline flats, scrawny gallery forests of cottonwood and willow line some streamways, a blackbrush realm helps segue the Great Basin Desert into the Mojave, and of course non-desert woodlands and straight-up forests grow in the mountains, but generally speaking this is a blue-gray sagebrush kingdom. But to some folks (count me in that number), an unpeopled Sagebrush Sea islanded with mountains has a siren’s call.
Vast public lands, mostly BLM-managed, serve as adventure gateways to the Great Basin Desert, which includes its share of iconic destinations: Nevada’s Black Rock Desert (Burning Man H.Q.) and the Bonneville Salt Flats among them. Much of Great Basin National Park lies in the wetter heights of the Snake Range, but its lower elevations show off fine desert wilds.
The Mojave Desert is the northernmost “hot desert” in North America and essentially a transition land between the Great Basin and Sonoran. It’s the smallest of the Big Four, covering some 54,000 square miles of southeastern California, southern Nevada, and itty-bitty strips of southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona.
Like the Great Basin Desert, the Mojave gets most of its precipitation in winter; unlike it, most of that falls as rain. Springtime blooms of ephemeral Mojave wildflowers are awesome; sometimes they’re superblooms and all the awesomer.
Roughly speaking, the Great Basin Desert yields to the Mojave at the northern range limit of creosote bush, the defining shrub of North America’s hot deserts; its distribution essentially outlines them. You can rightly think of it as the hot-desert equivalent of big sagebrush.
But the trademark plant of the Mojave, the one whose geography basically maps out this desert, is the Joshua-tree. This outsized yucca actually flourishes best on the Mojave margins, reaching peak development on middle slopes of foothills and bajadas (the characteristic rubble-aprons edging desert mountain ranges).
Good places to wander among wacky and wonderful Joshua-tree forests are California’s Joshua Tree National Park (straddling the Mojave and Sonoran/Colorado deserts) and Mojave National Preserve. A stone’s throw or two from Zion National Park on the margin of the Colorado Plateau, meanwhile, you can check out some of the northernmost Joshua-trees—and the northeastern frontier of the Mojave Desert—a few miles south of St. George, Utah in the Woodbury Desert Study Area (also a popular rock-climbing spot).
The pinnacle of the Mojave Desert is Death Valley, although “pinnacle” is a dumb word to use for North America’s lowest piece of terra firma (282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin). As we’ll get into, the Sonoran is, on average, the hottest and driest North American desert, but the 156-mile-long trench of Death Valley stands apart: Its summer mercury readings are among the most extreme on the planet, and by some counts it boasts the hottest-ever recorded air temperature, 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10, 1913.
Besides its fearsome weather, Death Valley dazzles with bizarre, beautiful, and forbidding landscapes: from the Zabriskee Point badlands to the corrugated saltpan of the Devil’s Golf Course. Death Valley also encompasses one of the most impressive elevational gradients on the continent: That basement of the continent, Badwater Basin, is only 15 miles from the summit of Telescope Peak in the Panamints, more than 11,000 feet above sea level.
The Sonoran Desert
The roughly 100,000-square-mile Sonoran ranks among the superlative deserts of the world: not for its size, but for its botanical and scenic splendor. The Sonoran Desert’s comparatively “lush” plantlife stems partly from the two rainy seasons that prevail in its eastern and southern sectors, which get both summer and winter precipitation.
More than two-thirds of the Sonoran Desert lies south of the U.S.-Mexico line, encompassing most of Baja California and a big chunk of the state of Sonora. In the U.S., the Sonoran Desert mostly occupies southern Arizona, with a small extent, the Colorado Desert, in southeastern California.
The epitomizing sight of the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro: that long-lived, skyscraping cactus that forms the stately desert woodlands starring in most people’s go-to mental image of Arizona—or, really, the American desert as a whole. The Sonoran is sometimes called an “arboreal desert” on account of those tree-sized cacti, mostly found east of the Colorado River; they’re prominent in the Arizona Upland, one of two Sonoran Desert divisions in the United States. Saguaro National Park, it goes without saying, is a standout destination for appreciating these kingsize celebrities among cacti.
The saguaro may be the best-known in the U.S., but the Sonoran Desert is an all-out cactus funland: There’s a crazy variety of species, shapes, and sizes, including, in the Mexican portion, the mighty cardon, an even bigger (but rangier) cousin of the saguaro. Then there’s the wild-armed ocotillo (or coachwhip), the fuzzy-but-stabby teddybear cholla, the chunky fishhook barrel cactus, and the multi-pillared organ pipe cactus that barely edges north of the border (where it plays a starring role in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument).
And the rich floral quilt of the Sonoran isn’t confined to cacti, either: There’s also the creosote bush, the white bursage, the blue palo verde, the elephant tree, and the big California fan palm, which bristles in select washes and gulches in southeastern California and northern Baja, plus Palm Canyon in southwestern Arizona’s Kofa Mountains. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, famous for its wildflower blossom blowouts, is also a great place to hike palm oases—and scout for desert bighorns, too.
Mostly sitting below 2,000 feet and positioned well south, the Sonoran is hotter and drier overall than the other North American deserts. The infernal core of the continent’s drylands—Death Valley notwithstanding—lies in the Sonoran Desert’s lowest and harshest reach, the Lower Colorado Valley (the other section along with the Arizona Upland that reaches the U.S.). It’s the region swaddling the head of the Gulf of California, and it includes California’s Salton Trough, the Colorado River Delta, and the vast, desolate Pinacate of northwestern Sonora, about which Edward Abbey had this to say (approvingly, of course):
This region is the bleakest, flattest, hottest, grittiest, grimmest, dreariest, ugliest, most useless, most senseless desert of them all. It is the villain among badlands, most wasted of wastelands, most foreboding of forbidden realms. At least in the Southwest, the Pinacate desert is the final test of desert rathood; it is here that we learn who is a true rat and who is essentially only a desert mouse.
Along with the hardscrabble volcanic outback of the Pinacate Shield, this Sonoran outback harbors the Gran Desierto de Altar, basically North America’s Sahara: Here you’ll find the continent’s biggest dunefield, built up from sediments deposited upwind in the Colorado River Delta, and its only active sand sea, or erg. The Algodones Dunes in California’s Yuma Desert are basically a northern extension of the Gran Desierto de Altar erg.
The Chihuahuan is the biggest desert in North America, slightly edging out the Great Basin, and also the easternmost and southernmost (it extends a little bit farther south than the Sonoran’s Baja quarter). More than 90 percent of its 200,000-plus square miles lie in Mexico, where the Chihuahuan rolls between the Sierra Madre Occidental and Sierra Madre Oriental.
North of the border, the Chihuahuan comprises a series of north-south lobes in southern New Mexico and, depending on whom you talk to, spills into a little bit of southeastern Arizona. A subtle but important gap occurs between the easternmost Sonoran Desert and the westernmost Chihuahuan in the U.S.—an expanse of high semiarid grasslands along one of the subtlest stretches of the Continental Divide. (The separation continues south into Mexico, so the Chihuahuan is the standalone desert among the Big Four: The Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran are contiguous.)
The Chihuahuan Desert is, like the Great Basin, a true high desert, much of it above 3,500 feet. Though it’s far southern stretch hosts tall cactus, the cacti roster here isn’t as significant as the Sonoran’s. Creosote bush and tarbush prevail over big stretches of the Chihuahuan, but the emblematic plants are agaves and yuccas; ocotillo and honey mesquite are also widespread.
The scenic centerpiece of the U.S. portion of the Chihuahuan is West Texas’s Big Bend National Park, named for the canyon-chuted swerve taken by the Rio Grande along this length of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. This remote Chihuahuan wilderness showcases plants and animals rarely seen north of the border and offers a whole lot of spectacular backcountry to explore, from the three great canyons along the Big Bend to the high country of the Chisos Mountains.
The greatest pile of gypsum dunes, meanwhile, lies in the U.S. portion of the Chihuahuan Desert: the famous White Sands of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin.
But what does it all mean? Should you know each and every geographic, botanical, and whatnot name about North American deserts? Or the ecology and biogeography of where exactly the Mojave bumps up against the Sonoran, or what the sagebrush steppe is versus desert shrubland? No, not necessarily.
The important thing is to get out there, out in the barren backlands, and explore them for yourself; to develop a better understanding of their terrifying beauty; to study how sand grains whip over the spine of a dune; the way stony mountains look under full moonlight; the way an old twisty sagebrush creaks in a cold desert wind. Tread lightly, taste just a little of the healthy and blood-deep fear the high white afternoon sun inspires on a summer afternoon, rekindle your gratitude for water, and shake out your boots in the morning in case it’s the one time out of 50 some glossy arachnid has taken up residence inside.
When I first suggested hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to my husband, Adam, it was, if not exactly a joke, at least an off-the-cuff idea. We were on a short section hike at the time, rambling along a 5-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail near New York City. In that environment, with the birds singing and leaves rustling in the wind, hiking for an additional 2,575 miles sounded romantic, a shared adventure that we would remember for the rest of our lives.
But it didn't take long for that off-the-cuff remark to turn into a shared reality. For nearly five months in 2014, we embarked on the intense emotional and physical journey of thru-hiking the PCT, travelling from the desert of southern California, through the high reaches of the Sierra Nevada, and along the volcano corridor of the Pacific Northwest before ending in the remote wilderness of the North Cascades at the Canadian border. Along the way, we shared more than we had planned: tears, sweat, base layers, and even toothbrushes. But we were in love, so no problem, right?
It’s easy to let the romantic and adventurous appeal of a thru-hike cloud out the reality of its emotional and mental challenges—and that goes double for couples hiking together. On a thru-hike, your partner will see everything: the good (you’re likely in the best shape of your life), the bad (bonking after your first 25-mile day), and the ugly (who knew you could get a blister inside of another blister?).
There was a lot from that first thru-hike that we learned about each other: our strengths and weaknesses, how to lean on one another when the going got tough, and what foods we didn’t want our partner to eat before climbing into the tent. Here’s what we learned along the way.
This one’s a no-brainer when you’re travelling as a team, right? Not exactly…
Laura: You’d think it would go without saying that couples would share everything they can on-trail to save weight. But we knew couples who carried their own stoves, separate food stores, and even separate tents. And some of them thought we were crazy for sharing as much as we did—we eventually got a two-person sleeping bag (turns out I don’t kick as much in my sleep as a certain someone was worried I would) and stopped carrying separate toothbrushes (hey, everything weighs something, right?. Although it wasn’t really a conscious decision—we just realized at one point that we had forgotten whose was whose.)
Adam: The biggest reason not to share your gear is if you think you won’t always be hiking together, which is something you’ll want to talk about in advance. Sometimes people want the opportunity to hike alone, or maybe one of you is a morning person who likes getting an early start and the other is a night owl who tends to sleep later. Another reason is that some people prefer to be responsible for their own stuff, like water and food. If you prefer to make decisions about what you’re going to be eating or how much water you’re going to be drinking without any spousal wrangling, it may make sense to keep track of your own nutrition essentials. But most couples prefer to make those kinds of decisions jointly.* *
Divvying Up Who Does What
Splitting up chores might be as much of a pain in the backcountry as it is in the frontcountry, but, hey, at least there are fewer of them.
Laura: It can take longer to do chores at first because the routines you had in the frontcountry kind of go out the door on a thru-hike—there’s no trash to take out or bed to make, and the lawn doesn’t need mowing. But when you get to camp at the end of a 20-mile day, putting up the tent can seem surprisingly overwhelming for what a small task it is. Basically, the more you can communicate about what you’re doing, what still needs to be done, and what you need help with at the beginning of your hike, the faster you’ll fall into an automatic routine where you get to camp and start getting set up without needing to talk at all.
Adam : I agree that frontcountry routines don’t always apply in the backcountry, but it can help to try to split up chores by what you are both most apt do. For example, if you’re the one who makes coffee in the morning, make coffee on the trail. If you make the bed at home, be the one to set up the inside of the tent. That being said, it’s also important on a thru-hike to stretch yourself from time to time and switch it up. Don’t let your partner be the only one to handle a particular chore. At the very least, this will help you to appreciate the person who is making the coffee all the more.
It’s also helpful to remember that splitting chores is just as important in-town as it is on the trail. Maybe more so, as the faster you can get through town chores like laundry, the sooner you’ll be able to relax and enjoy a beer with your new trail friends.
The couple that hikes together, stays together. (Or you can just enjoy your together time when you meet up later).
Adam: I’m not a fast hiker, so I’m rarely hiking far out in front of other people. I think it’s a good safety precaution to keep your hiking partner in your line of sight. If I’m the slow one in a group, I try to make sure I can still see the person if we’re not actively having a conversation. If I’m the fast one, I try to look over my shoulder every so often to make sure the other person is in sight.
Laura: We’re pretty lucky, in that Adam and I match pace pretty effortlessly and tend to want breaks around the same time. And that was something we knew beforehand, from years of hiking and running together. I think it does help to have a background of shared backcountry travel experience or even just training together.
Since we know that our tendency is to match one another’s pace, if we see that one of us dragging, we’ll have that person hike at the rear. We find that usually helps release that person from the not-insignificant mental load of trying to set their own pace. If one of us is really dragging, we’ll slow down and reevaluate our plan for that day or section.
I think it’s fine for a couple to hike separately during the day and meet up at camp. It just requires an extra layer of communication (such as picking out a campsite in advance for the next day), and knowing it will be tougher to stop early or hike longer. And you’ll have to double up on some gear like a water filter or maps, which can increase the weight you’re carrying. But, in the end, your pace is your pace and there is only so much you’re going to be able to do to adjust it to the other person.
Every so often you meet a couple who swears they never fight on trail. Don’t believe them.
Adam: It will happen—you are going to fight at some point. Sure, thru-hiking is about digging deep into yourself (and maybe your relationship), but it’s also about addressing elemental bodily needs. If you aren’t fighting over something that’s actually wrong in your relationship, you’re going to fight for less significant but still pressing reasons: You’re hungry, or you’re tired, or because you need to use the bathroom. So before you start a fight, try to ask yourself: Am I angry because I’m hungry? Am I angry because I’m tired? And know that you need to ask your partner those questions too, and to not take offense when they ask you. The simple act of asking your partner if she needs a snack could mean the difference between a pleasant stroll and a rage hike.
Laura: Thru-hiking is sometimes really hard, and exhaustion can bring out the worst in people. You aren’t always going to be as supportive or understanding of what your partner is going through as you would want to be. Try to remember that if you feel like you’re on your last legs, your partner might be too, and cut them some slack if you can.
Something that also worked for us was to get really attuned to our partner’s cues and behavior, so that we could prevent bonking whenever possible. I now know all the different ways my husband can say "I’m OK" and which ones mean he is not OK, and it’s time to adjust accordingly.
Finding Your Trail Family
This will be one of the best parts of your thru-hike. For your relationship? Not so much.
Her: We met some amazing people during our 2014 PCT thru-hike, and I wouldn’t take back a single mile we hiked with them. But we didn’t end up hiking with anyone but one another during our Colorado Trail, and we enjoyed that experience too, in different ways. One reality of thru-hiking is that, for the most part, the herd is following the same two-foot wide path, at the same time. It can be surprisingly difficult to find a few minutes alone together, and if you’re hiking with a trail family, it can be impossible. But it’s important to carve out that time together, even if it means missing a section of trail with your new friends.
Him: It’s pretty incredible how you can meet someone on trail and, within a week of knowing them, feel as if you’ve known them for years. That can also make it hard to have a private conversation with your partner, who you have actually known for years. Your trail family, just like a real family, won’t always know when you need space, so you need to do what you need to in order to keep your relationship a priority.
Months on end of backpacking with your favorite human makes for the best conversations.
Laura: One of the best things about thru-hiking is that it eliminates so much of the background noise of the real world, and leaves you alone for days and weeks on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You’d think that would mean you end up having a lot of really deep insights about the direction of your life, for example or how to be a good person. Sometimes that does happen, but for us, we found ourselves paying attention to all the weird memories, ideas, and emotions rambling around in our minds and sharing them.
During our first thru-hike, we made up songs for the trail towns we hiked through, named our future children, tried to imagine what our cat was up to without us, and dissected fights that had happened years prior. And sometimes we didn’t talk at all—one of the key lessons we learned was how to be mere feet away from one another and still give that person space when they need it.
Adam: Maintaining an open mind about conversation is key. Start with the day-to-day, then do a deep dive, and end by talking about your innermost thoughts or dreams. In between you will probably talk about things that are objectively boring, or gross, and that’s fine as long as it’s interesting to you. You’ll develop theories about everyday events you know nothing about, like how water comes out of the ground, and talk for two hours about it.
You don’t need a shower or clean clothes every day, but making an effort is an important way to show your partner that you still care about your appearance (and, just as importantly, not repelling them).
Laura: Your idea of what clean means will change over the course of a thru-hike. Sometimes that’s a good thing, other times it’s not. I try to do the best I can with what I’ve got and to encourage Adam to do the same, even if he doesn’t always listen. If there is a stream, use your bandana to wipe some of the dirt off your legs. If there is a lake, jump in it. But there are going to be times when you get pretty gross, and there isn’t going to be much you can do to clean up all that dirt and sweat and grime. You just have to go with the flow (and the B.O.) and embrace this part of the adventure. * *
Adam: It’s important in a relationship to be look good for the other person, and that doesn’t just go away on the trail. I really strive to be cleaner than I think I need to be on trail. I try to wash up a little bit more than I would ordinarily. For instance, I wouldn’t normally care about how clean my feet are at the end of the day, but I know it’s important to Laura, so I try to clean them up for her—even if she is less than thrilled at the job I do. I was also pleased to see that my insistence on carrying extra wet wipes "just in case" meant that we had another way to keep clean when water resources were scarce.
It’s Just You and Me, Baby
One of our biggest lessons from our first thru-hike is that there is a big difference between hiking together for five miles and hiking together for 2,600 miles. The easy rapport we had during that initial conversation was helped by the familiarity of our surroundings: being close to civilization, with hot showers and comfortable beds waiting back at our apartment. Once we were out in it, there were some rough waters to navigate before we got into a groove with another.
Laura: It can be tempting to see how you fare on a thru-hike as a microcosm for your whole relationship—if you’re able to get through this together, then you can get through anything, and if you can’t, well, maybe it’s better to cut your losses now, right? While there may be some truth to this, thru-hiking is only loosely related to the "real" world. Some couples with strong relationships find that they are incompatible hiking partners, and some couples who meet on trail find that they are incompatible in the real world.
One of the best things you can do for your relationship before an adventure like a thru-hike is promising to take the good with the bad. And to be flexible. If hiking with your trail family isn’t working, set out from the next town without them. If splitting your pack weights evenly is slowing one of you down, let the other person take a larger share of the load. There isn’t a right way to thru-hike as a couple—there is just the way that works for you.
Adam: Yeah, and I was right that what works for us is to always carry extra wet wipes.
Laura: If nothing else, at least that way we’re always able to wash our feet at night.
Nestled amid the rolling national forests of the Rocky Mountains and not far from the edge of the Great Plains, Helena is a quintessential example of Montana at its best. It’s also the logical home base for fly fishing many of the region’s great rivers—including the Missouri, Blackfoot, and Clark Fork rivers. Many smaller streams crisscross the local rivers, offering diversions for those more inclined to chase blue lines in the backcountry.
For a long time, the rivers surrounding Helena have been home to healthy populations of sizeable fish. For anglers chasing brown and rainbow trout, the area first became truly popular in the 1990s, thanks to a surge of editorial coverage of fly fishing on the Missouri River. Thanks to impressive fish numbers—averaging 6,000 fish per river mile—and a year-round fishery (winter angling requires ambition, but it can be productive), the Missouri was soon on most anglers’ bucket lists. The small town of Craig, 44 miles north of Helena, is a shining example of the river’s fame. Home to three fly shops, one bar, one restaurant and not much else, the town’s economy revolves around the bustling fly-fishing industry.
The Missouri’s most productive stretch of river is from Holter Dam to the town of Cascade. The diverse waterway offers a variety of backdrops—from rolling meadows filled with cattle to sheer cliff walls that are home to bighorn sheep, and then eventually the edge of the Great Plains—while offering classic trout fishing in riffles and long, flat pools. Without a doubt, the tailwater is a must-fish for any angler visiting Montana.
The Blackfoot River is easily reachable from Helena, often drawing anglers searching for a remote-feeling river with strong insect hatches and the opportunity for world-class terrestrial fishing. Made famous in Norman Maclean’s writing, "A River Runs Through It" the freestone Blackfoot is home to a healthy population of brown and rainbow trout, as well as native westslope cutthroat trout and the rare bull trout. Pack your dry flies: the Blackfoot is a strong dry fly fishery and once runoff has subsided, the river fishes well with terrestrials, salmon flies and large indicator dries. The upper half of the Blackfoot is smaller water suitable for wade fishing, while the lower river is better suited to rafts (it’s still potentially technical water, and for those unfamiliar with the river, a guided trip is highly recommended).
The Clark Fork River is a bit of a drive from Helena, but it can produce consistent mayfly and caddis hatches, as well as strong stonefly and terrestrial fishing in season. The river winds from the town of Butte to Missoula, joining the Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers just south of Missoula. The upper river is small and winding with a healthy population of small, feisty fish (and some big ones!), while the lower is home to fewer, yet larger fish per mile. The Missouri and Blackfoot offer stellar fishing closer to Helena, but for those seeking a change, the Upper Clark Fork can prove to be an enticing distraction.
The best way to explore any new waterway is with qualified, professional fishing guides, who can provide a float trip in a raft or hard-sided drift boat, bring lunch, and often supply flies and other terminal tackle. They also make it easy— just show up with your fishing gear, get in the boat, and go. Good guides are booked upward of 150 days a year, and spend nearly every day in season on the water, meaning they know where the fish are and what they’re eating. Translation? A far more productive fishing day. Local shops can provide information on booking guides, though be sure to book early—many top guides are booked up to a year in advance.
Helena is home to several quality fly shops ready to help visiting anglers find a guide. CrossCurrents has a shop in Helena and one on the Missouri River in Craig, ensuring they can service anglers wherever the need may be. Headhunters Fly Shop is a favorite fly shop located in Craig and serves up fly-fishing advice with a bit of island attitude. Montana Fly Goods in Helena is also a local resource, and both Pro Outfitters and Montana Fishing Outfitters can help organize guided trips.
Wondering what to pack? If you’re coming any time other than the peak of summer, plan to pack waders, wading boots, and lots of layers. The Missouri River especially is notoriously windy, and there’s nothing worse than being underdressed during a long day on the water. In July and August, the warmest summer months, most anglers can be found in wading boots or sandals, though a rain jacket should always be nearby for summer thunderstorms.
Most anglers will use 4- to 6-weight rods: 4- and 5-weights often for dry fly fishing, and 6-weight rods for nymphs and steamer fishing. Floating line is chiefly used, and bring along 3X, 4X and 5X leader and tippet. Stop in a local fly shop to see what flies are popular in-season, but it’s always a good idea to have a few boxes brimming with classic dry flies, nymphs and streamers ready to go. Many of the local shops feature special patterns tied by local anglers who know what works on certain waterways. And don’t be afraid to call ahead. Most fly shops and outfitters are happy to help you prepare for a successful trip to Helena’s many trout-rich rivers.
Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated Media in partnership with Helena CVB.
Nestled in the rugged Animas River Valley, Durango, Colorado, has everything an adventurer could possibly want: serious mountains, a big river, and a friendly mountain town vibe. It’s also home to six craft breweries, plus a winery and distillery. With so much adventure potential, it’s tough to narrow down the absolute best things to do, but you can bet a trail-to-tavern pairing is the most quintessential way to experience Durango at its finest. Here are six of our favorites.
1. Animas City Mountain | Durango Brewing Company
The challenging six-mile loop up and around Animas City Mountain is a real lung buster: whether you head clockwise or counter-clockwise, you’re in for a minimum of 2.5 miles of strenuous climbing. It’s a popular hike with locals, and for good reason. When you make it to the highest point on the mesa, you’ll forget all about it. The panoramic views of Durango, the Animas River Valley, and the rugged La Plata Mountains from Animas’ high point will have you sticking around for a few extra minutes. There are several options on the mountain in addition to the main loop, but the trail is well-signed.
After a tough hike to the top of Animas Mountain, you’ll be ready for a refreshing beer. Head south back to Durango, where Durango Brewing Company has been brewing a variety of beers since 1990. (Their history actually dates back much farther than that to 1886, when they were known as Durango Beer and Ice Company.) The brewery has continued to expand since then, and its facility was fully renovated in 2016.
2. Narrow Gauge Railroad | Steamworks Brewing Company
The historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad first opened in 1882, and it has been operating continuously ever since. An extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, it was originally built to haul silver and gold ore, which were mined in the San Juan Mountains. These days, you can hitch a ride on the historic railroad from its depot in downtown Durango and get a glimpse of the local history, along with the gorgeous views of San Juan National Forest, from the vantage point of a restored vintage 1920s car. History buff bonus: Much of the classic Western *Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid *was filmed along the route.
Once you’re done with your Old West adventure on the railway, head to Steamworks Brewing Company, where the food is as scrumptious as the beers. There’s a beer here for everyone: Steamworks has 18 medals from prestigious competitions like the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. And they take it seriously—Steamworks servers are Cicerone certified, meaning they know exactly what they’re recommending to visitors.
3. Smelter Mountain | Ska Brewing Company
The steep, mile-long hike up 7,725-foot Smelter Mountain’s north shoulder is a Durango area classic, and the trailhead, immediately south of Santa Rita Park on the west side of Highway 550, is super-convenient from town. The peak’s unusual name is a throwback to the town’s mining heyday, when the smelting process was used to extract ore from rock. The trail gains 1,000 feet of elevation on its course from the trailhead to the summit, so you know you’re hiking toward an incredible view. The top-out delivers: it’s a phenomenal vantage point for the entire Durango area. (It’s also a beloved night hike—bring along some layers and a reliable headlamp to see the city lit up after dark.)
Another of Smelter Mountain’s best features is its trailhead’s proximity to Ska Brewing Company, one of the best-known breweries in Durango. This wind-powered facility has been around since 1995, when a couple of locals who weren’t yet old enough to purchase their own beer decided to brew it for themselves. Questionably legal beginnings aside, Ska has morphed into one of the best-loved breweries in the Centennial State, and their tap room is well worth a visit.
4. Animas River Trail | Four Leaves Winery
The paved, seven-mile Animas River Trail winds its way through town along the river and makes for a picturesque stroll—but it’s so much more than that. The path represents everything that’s awesome about Durango: it runs right through a whitewater kayak park, skate and BMX parks, and a dog park, and is bustling with bike commuters, joggers, and visitors at virtually all hours of the day. It’s so well-loved, in fact, that the town voted to implement a half-cent sales tax in order to maintain it.
Explore the town via the River Trail, then head to Four Leaves Winery, conveniently located near the southern terminus of Main Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the river. The historic building hosts tastings of its wines, made from fine grapes imported from all over the world. It’s also a fully equipped winemaking facility, so knowledgeable staff can help visitors create their very own blend of wine to suit their unique tastes.
5. Historical Hiking | Durango Craft Spirits
The Animas River Valley is chock-full of history, so there are plenty of ghost towns to explore nearby. Head to Graysill Mines Ghost Town, where miners began hunting for uranium and vanadium in 1945. It hasn’t been operating since 1963, but visitors can still head up CO Road 578 in a sturdy 4WD vehicle to check out the site. Or drive just a few miles farther north to Silverton, where you can tour the Old Hundred Gold Mine. The tour takes you a third of a mile into the flanks of 13,300-foot Galena Mountain. Visitors can pan for silver and gold—and keep whatever they find.
When you’ve had your fill of history for the day, head back into town to Durango Craft Spirits, whose liquors are hand-crafted, mashed, distilled, and bottled right in Durango. In keeping with the historical theme of your day, spirits have cheeky names like "Mayday Moonshine" and “Soiled Doves Vodka,” paying homage to the town’s Old West days. Hit the tasting room anytime after 1 p.m.
6. Float the Animas | Animas Brewing Company
The Animas is the lifeblood of Durango, so it’s no surprise that whitewater rafting on its many rapids is a beloved pastime. At high water, usually in early to mid-June, the Upper Animas is packed with nonstop action, including Class IV and V rapids. Later in the season, when things mellow out, it’s still an ideal adventure for adrenaline junkies and whitewater newbies alike. Several local outfitters take trips down the river. The Lower Animas is also a great spot for tubing, floating, and enjoying a picnic on the riverbank.
After your river trip, the obvious choice is Animas Brewing Company. Located in the heart of town and right on the river, Animas Brewing offers a host of beers, including the Class IV IPA, which is the ideal reward for a day spent on the river. They also have a perfect summertime patio, plus a full food menu, and locals love Animas for its perennially friendly service. Pro tip: Try the pasties.
Written by Emma Walker for RootsRated in partnership with Durango Area Tourism Office.
The planet is crisscrossed with epic trails, from the Alps to the Andes. There are snowy summit trips for fleet-footed peak-baggers, long and leisurely rambles for wildlife lovers, and everything in between. While the options are almost infinite, here are a few epic hikes to add to that ever-expanding life list.
One of the planet’s Seven Summits, 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain on Earth—and Africa’s loftiest peak. Despite the distinction, the glaciated summit is accessible courtesy of a number of a non-technical routes, leading climbers through five distinctly different climate zones. On the path to Uhuru Peak, trekkers traverse a lowland rainforest inhabited by colobus and blue monkeys, ascend the scrubby montane moorland of the Shira Plateau, cross hulking glaciers, and catch glimpses of the megafauna-loaded grasslands of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. At basecamp, vividly colored tents dot an unearthly moonscape, and climbers rest in the shadow of toothy 16,893-foot Mawenzi.
While the flat-topped mesa soaring above Cape Town is accessible by cable-car, the climb to the apex of 3,569-foot Table Mountain is one of the planet’s most spectacular treks—and a must-do for a visit to this dynamic city. Routes to the top of the 500 million-year-old massif treat ascending climbers to panoramic vistas of the pointed peaks of the Twelve Apostles, the azure water of Camps Bay, knobby Lion’s Head, and Cape Town’s bustling City Bowl. There are plenty of half-day routes to the mesa’s highest point, Maclear’s Beacon, including the three-hour slog through Skeleton Gorge, allowing hikers to encounter Cape dwarf chameleons, stealthy caracals, and vibrantly colored sunbirds. The climb can also be done as a multi-day trip along the Cape of Good Hope Trail or the Hoerikwaggo Trail, beginning at Cape Point.
Meaning "the long pathway," in Maori, New Zealand’s 1,864-mile Te Araroa Trail is the Kiwi version of America’s Appalachian Trail. Bookended by the Pacific Ocean, between Cape Regina and Bluff, the route runs through the heart of New Zealand, traversing both North and South islands and leading backpackers through a staggering diversity of landscapes: sun-drenched coastlines, subtropical rainforests, snow-dusted alpine passes, and river-braided glacial valleys. The epic trek also showcases many of New Zealand’s geological gems, including the Southern Alps, famed backdrop for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the still-active Tongariro volcano.
Besides Everest, the most idolized Himalayan foray is Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit. The nearly 130-mile route horseshoes the Annapurna range’s sea of glaciated summits, capped by 26,545-foot Annapurna I. The high-altitude tour takes hardy trekkers through highlands terraced with rice paddies, across surging whitewater rivers, through shadowy rhododendron forests, over otherworldly mountain passes, and past Buddhist gompas and Hindu shrines. While backpackers on the circuit must tackle challenges like 17,768-foot Thorung La, the route is dotted with cozy tea houses affording creature comforts like brief but heavenly hot showers and steaming plates of dal bhat, a traditional meal of steamed rice and cooked lentil soup.
Named for legendary naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, the John Muir Trail strings together two of California’s most spectacular natural wonders: the Yosemite Valley and 14,496-foot Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. Tracing the spine of the High Sierra, the 211-mile route moseys through three national parks and two federally designated wildernesses, leading hikers through a landscape of high peaks and passes, glassy alpine lakes, and sun-drenched mountain meadows. The trail skirts Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, and showcases natural wonders like the Devil’s Postpile National Monument and Evolution Basin in Kings Canyon National Park. Plus, hikers have ample opportunity to encounter black bears, mule deer, and curious marmots along the route.
The most photographed spot in Colorado, the snow-stripped twin peaks of the Maroon Bells are best celebrated on the epic Four Pass Loop through the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness. The aptly amed 26-mile circuit begins at turquoise-toned Maroon Lake, just west of Aspen, and takes backpackers over four alpine passes each higher than 12,000 feet, across airy meadows dusted with wildflowers, through spruce forests and copses of white-barked aspen, and past backcountry waterfalls and peak-framed lakes. Besides the Maroon Bells, the Elk Mountains sampler also provides trekkers the chance to gape at a handful of celestial fourteeners, including Pyramid Peak and Snowmass Mountain.
Ringing Ireland’s wind-pummeled Beara Peninsula, a 48-mile sliver of land bisected by the Caha and Slieve Miskish mountains, the Beara Way provides a quintessential taste of the Emerald Isle and forms part of Ireland’s longest hiking trail, the Beara-Breifne Way. The 122-mile trek cobbles together bucolic country lanes, highland tracks, and ancient roads, offering a glimpse of the peninsula’s colorful past. Following the path taken by Beara’s last chieftain, Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, as he fled hotly pursuing Elizabethan troops in 1603, the Beara Way takes trekkers past Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, through charming towns, and over craggy highlands. Fortunately, the lung-taxing climbs and knee-grating descents are greeted with panoramic vistas of the rugged coastline, including the shimmering waters of Bantry Bay, staging point for Theobald Wolfe Tone’s infamous but ill-fated 1786 rebellion.
One of the peaks in Ecuador’s Avenue of Volcanoes, 19,347-foot Cotopaxi soars above the high Andean páramo of Cotopaxi National Park. Although the peak is the second highest in Ecuador—and one of the loftiest active volcanoes on the planet—Cotopaxi is scalable without prior mountaineering experience. Ropes, crampons, and ice axes are required to reach the snow-capped pinnacle, but with the help of local guides (and after a quick hands-on introduction to mountaineering), the crater-pocked peak is reachable for most reasonably fit trekkers. Along the way to the summit, hikers have the chance to spot wild horses, llamas, and spectacled bears (the ursine species credited with inspiring the fictional character Paddington).
The most celebrated trek in South America, this Andean excursion takes hikers from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu, the stone-hewn urban center crafted by the Incas during the 15th century, a World Heritage site since 1983. Along the way to Machu Picchu, the 24-mile trek follows paths forged by the Incas more than 500 years ago, meandering through cloud forests studded with 300 types of orchids, over three cloud-shrouded mountain passes, and past pre-Columbian ruins. Stashed away at 7,972 feet, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is also a biodiversity hotspot, serving as an ecological corridor linking the Andes, Sacred Valley, and Amazon, and affording trekkers the opportunity to spot 370 different types of bird, including mammoth Andean condors.
Soaring above other peaks in Malaysian Borneo’s Crocker Range, 13,435-foot Mount Kinabalu is the loftiest summit in Southeast Asia. Gunung Kinabalu, as the peak is known in Malay, is also the country’s first World Heritage site, a global hotspot for flora and fauna. The mountain’s ecosystems harbor more than 5,000 types of plants, over 300 species of birds, and 100 different mammals. Along the path to the granite-tipped summit, which typically takes two to three days round-trip, lush lowland rainforests give way to cloud-bathed montane and coniferous forests, providing the chance to spot orangutans, Bornean gibbons, and long-tailed Bornean Treepies. The mountain’s six different vegetation zones also support a thousand different orchids and five endemic species of carnivorous pitcher plants, including the largest on earth, Nepenthes rajah.
While scaling 15,781-foot Mont Blanc requires extensive mountaineering knowhow, more casual hikers can still get an eyeful of Western Europe’s loftiest summit from three different countries—France, Italy, and Switzerland—on the Tour du Mont Blanc. The 105-mile route rings the entire snow-frosted massif, traipsing over seven alpine passes, past storybook alpine hamlets, along colossal glaciers, and through wildflower-freckled meadows. Besides the spellbinding scenery, the Tour du Mont Blanc also provides a snapshot of regional culture, taking hikers through historic locales like medieval Courmayeur. Best of all, while physically taxing, the route is scattered with cozy alpine huts, affording plenty of opportunity to swap freeze-dried fare for fondue.
Towering above the guanaco-grazed steppes of Chilean Patagonia, the trio of granite pillars dubbed Torres del Paine comprise one of the most iconic massifs on earth. The blue-hued granite cathedral tops out at 10,656 feet and crowns Torres del Paine National Park, a former sheep estancia declared a World Heritage site in 1978. Backpackers can gape at the granite monoliths from every angle imaginable along on a circuit trek on the national park’s non-technical trails. The more heavily trafficked ‘W’ configuration can be done in less than four days, while the more extensive ‘O’ circuit, takes about a week. Despite the rugged landscape of glaciated granite peaks, raging rivers, and iceberg-strewn alpine lakes, the Torres del Paine circuit can be done without forgoing creature comforts by cobbling together a route linking the park’s cozy refugios.
Showcasing Kauai’s rugged Nā Pali Coast, where fluted mountains meld into the glistening Pacific Ocean, the Kalalau Trail is among the most spectacular coastal treks on earth. But, the 11-mile trek is no walk on the beach. Between Ke’e Beach and Kalalau Beach, the trail winds through five different valleys, across more than a half-dozen streams, and along precipitous cliff sides, including a vertiginous stretch aptly dubbed Crawler’s Ledge, for the hikers duly daunted by the 500-foot drop. Grit and determination are mandatory, but trekkers are rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the Pacific and gems like the 300-foot Hanakapi’ai Waterfall. While the 22-mile out-and-back trip can be done in a day, the route is scattered with stunning camping spots, like the area near 1,400-foot Hanakoa Falls, about halfway through the trek.
Located southwest of Tokyo, the solitary summit of 12,388-foot Mount Fuji is one of the planet’s most recognizable peaks. Dormant for just over 300 years, the snow-dusted stratovolcano has served as an artistic muse for centuries, revered as one of Japan’s Three Holy Mountains. Religious pilgrims have been scaling the sacred mountain since ancient times, and the climb remains exceedingly popular. Climbing season for Mount Fuji only runs from the beginning of July to the end of August, but more than 300,000 trekkers make the approximately six-hour trip every year. While there are celestial views on the way to the summit, the trek has the distinction of being one of the few climbs on the planet that is more cultural experience than wilderness excursion. Each of the four routes to the top offers mountain huts peddling food and drinks, and there is even a post office at the summit where you can drop a postcard to a lucky recipient.
Rambling along the wild Sunshine Coast in southwest British Columbia, the Sunshine Coast Trail is a less-frequented alternative to the West Coast Trail. Built entirely by volunteers and maintained by the non-profit Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society, the 112-mile trail ambles from Desolation Sound to Saltery Bay, taking trekkers through old growth rainforests roamed by black bears, grey wolves, and cougars. Wildlife watchers also have the chance to spot the blubbery bodies of Stellar sea lions and harbor seals along coastal stretches of the trail, and the route’s highest point—4,821-foot Mount Troutbridge—is a hotspot for seafaring marbled murrelets. Best of all, the Sunshine Coast Trail is Canada’s only free hut-to-hut track, with no reservations or permits required.
It’s so secret that Boulder boasts a wealth of top-notch hiking. The foothills and mountains above town represent the eastern terminus of the Rocky Mountains, rising up to elevations more than 8,000 feet—meaning a great workout is almost guaranteed if you’re starting from Boulder, which is roughly 5,400 feet above sea level. Meanwhile, the mesas and plains in east Boulder offer mellow terrain rich in history and ancient geology.
It’s easy to see why Mount Sanitas is Boulder’s most popular mountain. Despite a modest elevation of 6,843 feet, this beloved hike is a real-deal workout with more than 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Spacious views of Boulder, sprawling plains, and Denver to the east are complemented by the dramatic panorama of the Indian Peaks to the west. The 14,255-foot Longs Peak dominates the mountainous skyline from the summit of Mount Sanitas.
The classic Sanitas loop features steep sections mixed with flat, shady, segments. Take the 1.1-mile Mount Sanitas Trail to the top, descend the 0.7-mile East Ridge Trail, and return via the Sanitas Valley Trail for 1 mile. For a more gradual ascent, the Lion’s Lair Trail is a smooth, shady 2.9-mile trail (one-way) to the top, ideal for runners (though be aware dogs aren’t allowed on this trail; they’re allowed on the other Mount Sanitas trails).
2. Green Mountain
Time to Hike: 3-4 hours
There are several ways to the top of 8,150-foot Green Mountain. The standard hike begins at Gregory Canyon and ascends roughly 3.2 miles to the top (there is a slight detour for dog traffic at the halfway point that can tack on an extra 0.2 miles). Take the Gregory Canyon Trail to the Ranger Trail for a tour that features remnants of the powerful floods that hit Boulder in 2013. From the top, hikers can link over to neighboring peaks via the Green-Bear trail. There is a fun, easy rock scramble to the summit of Green Mountain. If you’re looking for a unique way up Green, try going up Chapman Drive (a dirt road converted to a non-vehicle hiking/biking path) and connecting to Green by crossing Flagstaff Road at Realization Point. However you reach the summit, be sure to check out a metal disc on the summit shows the names of distant mountains that’s a Boulder icon in its own right.
3. Bear Peak
Time to Hike: 3.5-4.5 hours
At 8,459 feet, Bear Peak is the second-highest of the trio of the "Guardians of the Flatirons" peaks above Boulder’s famous rock structures, but it has the most exposed summit, complete with unobstructed 360-degree views. The three standard routes up Bear are Fern Canyon, Shadow Canyon, and the West Ridge. All are rugged trails with switchbacks, stone-stairs, steep segments, and passage through recent burn zones. To reach the summit, a brief and easy scramble with excellent hand and footholds awaits along iron-rich, red rock. On a clear day, hikers can see from Pikes Peak to Long Peak and the full range of the Indian Peaks in between. Linking up to nearby South Boulder Peak is a good option, as the hike between the two only takes about 20-30 minutes one-way.
4. Marshall Mesa
Time to Hike: Whatever You Like
Marshall Mesa in south Boulder has a network of trails that interconnect from the suburbs to the east all the way to the 8,000-foot peaks to the west, so your hiking day can be as long or short as you like. This modest mesa has incredible views of the Flatiron Rock formations, especially from the highpoint on the Greenbelt Plateau Trail. Besides the natural beauty, hikers can check out the towering windmills south of the trails or take in the twinkling lights of Boulder at twilight. There are informational plaques along the way that share the area’s geological and mining history.
Marshall Mesa offers a great family trek, trail run, photography playground, and casual hike, though it can get a bit hot in the summer due to a lack of shade. To connect to the western trails, a tunnel under Highway 93 on the Community Ditch Trail offers safe passage to the open grazing lands leading to the foothills.
5. South Boulder Peak
Time to Hike: 3.5-4.5 hours
A 8,549 feet, South Boulder Peak is the tallest of the summits above the Flatirons, and yet it’s the least-visited of the three. The standard route takes the Shadow Canyon Trail to the saddle between Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak, where ghostly stands of trees and charred ground remain from recent wildfires. Follow a winding trail through a high forest to the boulder-strewn summit, but note that views to the east will be blocked by pine trees. Many hikers link Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak for a two-fer—or add in Green Mountain for a three-fer, using the Mesa Trail below the Flatirons to loop back to the South Mesa Trailhead, where all the fun began.
6. Sugarloaf Mountain
Time to Hike: 1.5 hours
Even though it stands at 8,917 feet, it’s easy to miss Sugarloaf Mountain. Its bare summit blends into the undulating land between Boulder and the Indian Peaks, and it’s just far enough from downtown Boulder (roughly a 20-minute drive) to remain less popular than easier peaks. The large parking area is located at the convergence of the Sugarloaf Mountain Road and the dirt-road Switzerland Trail. The mostly unmarked but obvious trails start to the west of the parking lot and ascend a mile on a rocky but never-too-steep trail that gets better the closer you get to the top, where views are perhaps the best in Boulder County. Sugarloaf’s mountain community resembles a Swiss village, while expansive city views to the east and mountain views to the west highlight Sugarloaf’s station between worlds. This is an excellent winter hike on a bright, blue January day, as the snow adds a lot of character to the landscape. Sunset hikes are encouraged in the summer.
7. Joder Ranch
Time to Hike: 1-2 hours
Joder Ranch is one of Boulder’s newer trail systems, and its eponymous hike is a simple, 4-mile out-and-back that ascends a ridge and descends into a formerly "secret" portion of Boulder Open Space that connects with Olde Stage Road. It’s this second half of the trail that is worth the visit, though the initial views from Joder Ranch will likely provide a vantage of Boulder most have not seen before. The west side of the ridge is a peaceful, shady, pine forest with a few open meadows and plenty of solitude. Wildlife sightings are common, including black bear and deer. Mountain bikes are allowed on the trail, though traffic is fairly light by both two-wheel and foot traffic. To get there, access the interim trailhead off Highway 36 that has parking for about a dozen vehicles.
8. Flatirons Vista
Time to Hike: At Your Leisure
Another family-friendly destination with excellent views, Flatirons Vista is the sister-mesa to Marshall Mesa. Both can be connected either by crossing the tunnel under Highway 93 at Marshall Mesa or the road crossing that connects the Greenbelt Plateau Trailhead and Flatirons Vista. There are lots of loop options, though it’s worth taking the 1.5-mile Flatirons Vista-North Trail to the wooded Dowdy Draw Trail. This trail switchbacks down a hillside with impressive views of Boulder to the north. Hike back up, loop through the still forest of the Flatirons Vista-South Trail for an excellent one- or two-hour walk in the woods and over the plains.
9. Walker Ranch
Time to Hike: 3-4 hours
Walker Ranch’s full loop is 7.6 miles and starts just near the highest point of the ranch. Hikers descend roughly 600 feet to South Boulder Creek, where the rushing water can be particularly powerful in the spring. Passing through meadows and forests, the loop eventually reaches a rocky outcrop where a steep, sustained staircase accesses the second half of the loop (watching mountain bikers haul their bikes up these steps is quite interesting). There’s no better direction to go most of the time, though on hotter summer days it makes sense to descend to the right (counterclockwise) so you aren’t hiking on the sunny, exposed hillside as much. Be careful with afternoon lightning storms in the summer and autumn, as the start and finish of the loop is fairly exposed.
10. Betasso Preserve
Time to Hike: 1-2 hours
Betasso Preserve is a popular mountain biking destination, but on Saturdays and Wednesdays it’s closed to bikes—so if prefer your hikes without getting buzzed by hard-charging riders, aim to go on one of those days. The Canyon Loop Trail explores a portion of the old Betasso Ranch, with open meadows, shady pine forests, and small creeks running through the property. Hikers who want a longer day can tack on the 3-mile Benjamin Loop (and the 0.75-mile connector, one-way, between the two) to explore more deep forests, dotted with the occasional open view. Many species of wildlife call this area home, including fox, black bear, coyote, and skunk. Dogs are welcome but must be on leash at all times.
I’m not a fan of the phrase “hidden gem.” Beyond its rampant overuse, it’s not often all that accurate; most trails, peaks, or swimming holes either aren’t really that hidden or aren’t really gems. There’s no shortage of hyperbole on the internet these days, it would seem.
But hidden in plain sight, just outside Joshua Tree National Park, is a small cluster of mountain bike trails with no signs, no parking lot, no crowds, no trailhead kiosk with a map, almost no trace that they exist at all. Pedal into the rocks and sand here, though, and you’ll stumble upon a place that truly qualifies for that tired old saying.
Like most U.S. National Parks, Joshua Tree doesn’t allow mountain biking on singletrack (IMBA maintains a list of exceptions). Neither does the nearby Sand to Snow National Monument, nor the Cleghorn Lakes Wilderness, nor the Sheephorn Valley Wilderness, nor… well, you get the idea. Mountain bikers who find themselves at this fascinating transition between the Mojave and Colorado deserts also find a notable lack of locations to mountain bike.
Enter Jima Reed and the Joshua Tree Bike Shop, who have invested their time to maintain and improve an existing network of faint trails in a place the local BLM office calls “Section 6,” or (perhaps more poetically) the Desert View Conservation Area.
Just two miles from the town of Joshua Tree and literally adjoining the national park itself, Desert View features a network of dusty roads popular with off-roaders, a smattering of dispersed campsites, and the aforementioned offering of nearly-indiscernible MTB trails.
I showed up at the bike shop on a Wednesday afternoon, introduced myself and asked where to go ride. I didn’t expect much of an answer; many folks would rather their backyard trails stay secret, and I don’t blame them. Unexpectedly, not only was Jima happy to talk about which I’d likely enjoy, he had a map for me to take along.
The first time I tried to follow that map, my 2.3” tires bogged down in a series of sand traps, I hiked back to the road across a sand wash and managed to step directly on a cactus. I loved it immediately. There are only 5 or 6 miles of singletrack here, but most of the trails ride well in both directions, and the doubletrack criss-crossing throughout the area creates plenty of opportunities for different loops and link-ups.
It’s rare to find this much adventure in a trail system with so little total mileage. Mountain bike trails are often confined to sterile-feeling “bike parks” full of sculpted berms and roller coaster trails churned out by machine, but Desert View is a tiny slice of raw, backcountry riding.
Intermediate trails like Bad Manor, Southridge, and Long May You Run serve up a surprising amount of flow while snaking pleasantly through rocky outcrops. But the advanced trails, including Sidewinder and the blissfully-jagged Django, deliver a kind of gritty, occasionally-awkward technical riding that rewards precise front wheel placement and the ability to bend your bike around corners. I bonked my way around on a steel hardtail and felt right at home.
Most of the beginner trails, including the enticing-sounding Luge Trail, and many of the roads (especially on the north side), are too sandy to attempt unless you have a fatbike or 27.5+ tires. I don’t, and I found the intermittent sand traps to be the most challenging part of riding here, so I tried to stick with the rockier options.
Likewise, in lieu of signage of any kind, don’t ride here unless you’re comfortable with navigation. MTB Project and Trailforks are a good start, but many of these trails are easy to ride right past without even seeing them.
I spent a month working remotely from Indian Cove while trying to prepare for a 60-mile mountain bike race, which means I had the chance to log quite a few miles at Section 6. I came away with a genuine affection for the place, despite having the tip of a hedgehog cactus spine still lodged in the arch of my right foot. It’s a unique style of riding amid a unique landscape.
I’d love to see the California BLM work with local mountain bikers to develop this system further, giving area cyclists somewhere to ride in what’s otherwise a blank spot on the map. As Jima told me, “those trails keep on giving as you ride.”
Joshua Tree National Park’s official site says the following in regard to mountain biking: “The park’s Backcountry and Wilderness Management Plan designates approximately 29 miles of trails for non-motorized bike use, however, the new trails cannot be used until Congress gives its approval.” This article is NOT about riding mountain bikes in the National Park. RootsRated Media does NOT condone illegal riding on trails which are not open to bikes!