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New Frontiers for Hiking

Go for a walk outdoors. Reconnect with the feeling of the wind blowing through your hair. Listen to the birds that live in a tree in your yard. Watch the sunset. Take time to smell the flowers that bloom in the park during the summer. The natural world is just as natural as it ever was, except there's less of it than there was 25 years ago — and most of us don't make a point of enjoying it often enough. ― Skye Alexander

Yes, I'm still here. Spending time organizing everything I neglected in the rush to finish the parks, catching up on overdue doctors' visits, and handling thousands of dollars in repair bills. In spare moments, I think back to the beauty and diversity of this great land, and the experiences I had...

Did you catch the news last week touting that we now have "three new National Park units" in the park system? Well, sorta. Currently, the system consists of over 420 official units (parks, monuments, rivers, seashores, recreation areas, historic site, etc.), and several more 'affiliated units' - areas for which NPS provides marketing and administrative help. The three new units are all National Scenic Trails - but they existed as 'affiliated' NSTs until getting upgraded to 'official' units. They are the New England NST, Ice Age NST, and the North Country NST - of which I hiked a small portion in September en route to Isle Royale NP. (It passed through the scenic Copper Falls State Park in Wisconsin.)

Perhaps a real-life example will make it clearer. For the two years Sue and I lived together, I was 'affiliated' with her. Once we married, I became an 'official' unit of the NPS (Nominally Preferred by Sue) system. To carry the analogy further, our cats are the National Parks - the crown jewels of the system - and I'm a National Recreation Area.

For the REAL park system, I found a 20-question quiz online at . I should be ashamed - I actually missed one question. Go ahead, beat my score, if you can.

And as long as we're talking about trails, I'll share a baker's dozen of my favorite trails across the NPS, for warm thoughts to keep me going during these cold months:

13. Fundy National Park: Matthew's Head and Dickson Falls Trails.

Yes, Fundy is a Canadian NP - but I detoured here after visiting Acadia in June 2022. I still remember the verdant forests on Matthew's Head, with pullouts looking over the Bay of Fundy to watch the world's highest tides come and go. Dickson Falls remains the most other-worldly falls I can remember ever visiting.

12. Guadelupe Mountains NP: McKittrick Canyon Trail. What can you say of a spot that some people call the most scenic spot in Texas once the leaves change color? (Sounds like a subjective opinion to me.) You can definitely see an eyeful in late October or early November, and McKittrick is a premier spot to visit.

People interested in a challenge along with their leaf-peeping can also hit the Devil's Hall Trail, which ranks among the top trails in the park system from which people need to get rescued.

11. Glacier NP: Hidden Lake Trail. At Logan Gap, the highest point on the Going-to-the-Sun Highway, several trails branch out to explore the territory. One which I hiked only a short portion of this summer takes you to an scenic lookout perched above Hidden Lake.

As a bonus, this trail often features mountain goats ambling along. A two-fer!

10. Canyonlands NP: White Rim Trail. This long trail, running for many miles on the shelf below the Island in the Sky, is best tackled on a mountain bike. When I signed up for a supported tour with my friend Tim over 15 years ago, it translated into a five-day journey through spectacular eroded scenery.

9. Katmai NP. Rather than walking on an actual, well-trod trail, hiking in the backcountry of Katmai requires route-finding to traverse the tundra to find where those bashful bears are slurping up their salmon.

To see those massive mammals up close and very personal truly elevates any walk across the land into a wildlife adventure.

8. Pacific Crest NST. One of the three branches of hiking's Triple Crown (with the Continental Divide and Appalachian NSTs). Despite its importance and national significance, you won't find this one (or the Continental Divide) on the NPS website - those two are established under the auspices of the National Forest Service. Running through CA, OR, and WA, the Pacific Crest passes through several NPs such as Sequoia and North Cascades. My friend Bill and I hiked a stretch of it in Washington state 14 years ago. Seeing the trail snaking across the slopes miles away took our breaths away.

7. Arches NP: Devil's Furnace. Yes, there is a trail here - but you have to find it! The park service limits visits to this untrammeled area in Arches, so my nephew Justin and I had to watch a video before venturing in. Once inside, most trail markings are subtle and well-concealed. They warn you to remember where you walk, as you will end up backtracking every time you end up in a dead-end corridor.

Adventure personified!

6. Appalachian NST. The grandaddy of the long-distance trails. I hiked a very small portion of it inside Shenandoah NP early in my challenges, but I spent several days and nights on it, on different segments, during my cross-country Litterwalk. Those stretches include a few miles inside Delaware Water Gap NRA, which has support to become the country's 64th National Park.

5. Redwood NP: Damnation Creek Trail. Ron and I had a hard time finding it, but thankfully we persevered. This park, situated on a lush coast of northern California, hosts a great stroll through these magnificent tall trees. The steepness in parts exercised us, but provided a nice, flat side trail over the original alignment of the Pacific Coast Highway. The weather gave us a huge bonus: in the beginning, coastal fog filtered through the trees. On our return stroll, suddenly the fog lightened, and streams of sunlight came filtering through the trees to illuminate the remaining mists.

I can't recall ever seeing such a splendid display of the Fingers of God.

4. Rocky Mountain NP. The park I grew up in. The park in which I got married. So many great trails... pick one, any one. Alberta Falls.

Upper Beaver Meadows. Bear Lake. Pedal a mountain bike up Fall River Road to the Trail Ridge Visitor Center before it opens to automobiles for the year. Hear elk bugling during the autumn mating season. So many incomparable memories.

3. North Cascades NP: Cascade Pass Trail. This is one hard park to reach, and is so worth the effort. You can treat the whole park complex (including the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan NRAs) as all part of the National Park, but if you want to experience the actual NP, you must either hike in or drive Cascade Park Rd (which at this moment is closed for the winter). The Cascade Pass Trail offers sublime scenery at the expense of close to twenty switchbacks to approach the top. My day there went from fog through more Fingers of God to bright blue skies shining over the surrounding peaks and glaciers.

One of the most astounding landscapes I found during my challenge.

2. Mt. Rainier NP: Wonderland Trail. My attempt to backpack a long stretch of this 93-mile trail didn't turn out as expected - but I still have memories (and photos) of earlier trips to this dazzling venue.

I certainly hope to return there to see more of it in the future.

1. Zion NP: Virgin River Narrows. My favorite hike from all of the parks. I fondly recall the overnight backpack I took through the entire 16-mile expanse of the canyon with friends: the initial crossings of the river as we tried to keep our feet dry (until the crossings became strolls down the river);

dog-paddling the stretch where our feet couldn't touch the bottom; feeling miniature as the canyon wall towered many hundreds of meters overhead,

while only a few yards of river separated them; the splashes of autumn color in places where the canyon widened. If I had to choose only one NP trail to return to, it would be here.

That's my walking list. Does your favorite appear here? Or do you long for a trail I passed by? I would love to hear about the trails that draw you.

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