In one memorable exchange on "Sex and the City," an ex-boyfriend tries to coax the entrenched urbanite and inveterate indoorswoman Carrie Bradshaw into accompanying him on a hike. "I don't really hike," she says. His reply? "Neither do I. But I will fill you in on something I discovered. Hiking is walking."
Well, yes and no. For many city-dwellers, a stroll through a nearby park will do just fine. But for those who have discovered the well-earned pleasures of climbing mountains, crossing rivers, traversing canyons, hopping boulders and dodging bears, en route to a particularly spectacular view or awe-inspiring natural wonder, hiking counts as a sacred pastime. And the journey is every bit as important as the destination.
"A lot of people hike because it's their connection with nature," says Margie Cohen of the American Hiking Society, an organization that advocates for protection of foot trails and surrounding natural areas. "There's a spiritual component to that. Stripping away the cell phone, the TV, the Blackberry. Getting back to basics."
Kevin Myatt, hiking columnist for the Roanoke Times, agrees. And then some. "Hiking represents peace, tranquility, connection with God," he says. "Pulling yourself out of daily life and connecting with something important and peaceful. I can't imagine a vacation without at least one little hike somewhere."
"I feel most spiritually alive when I'm connected with the earth." That's Brian Robinson, the first person to complete the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Appalachian trails (the hiking "Triple Crown") in one year. He adds, "I need to get my heart and lungs pumping and muscles moving to feel that intense joy."
Tom Stienstra, too, waxes poetic on the importance of hiking in his life. For this prolific outdoors author, newspaper columnist and radio/TV host, even Los Angeles can provide a favorite mountain trail. "There are so many people in that area," he says, "you start to feel like a speck of sand on the beach. But you climb to the top of that peak, you realize you're still important to the world."
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, more 29 million Americans day-hiked in 2006; that's nearly 11 percent of us. And not everyone is traveling hundreds of miles to reach a desirable destination. "People want to recreate close to home," says the American Hiking Society's Cohen. "A current phenomenon in hiking is the availability of trails really close to urban centers. Lots of cities have a big push to bring hiking and other recreational opportunities closer to where people live."
Hardcore hikers, of course, will gladly go further afield to experience a world-class trek that leads to awe-inspiring landmarks and views. But it's a big country. From the mountains to the prairies, from the ocean to the shore, vast tracts of American wilderness, wedged between interstates and fast food franchises, still exist.
But some avid day-hikers lament the fact there just isn't enough time to hit all the trails worth doing. So we asked ten experts to consider all the places they've ever hiked in the U.S. and weigh in with their favorites. In compiling our list, we tried to include a diversity of different types of hikes and geographical areas. In some cases, we point you to a large area that includes a multitude of trails and hiking experiences. In others, we recommend specific trails.
Bear in mind that most of these hikes require a good deal of preparation, skill and above all, will. Contrary to Carrie Bradshaw's ex, hiking is not just walking. You must know what weather to expect, which supplies to bring and what safety precautions are necessary. Before heading off to, say, rural Alaska's Wrangell St. Elias National Park, make sure you're comfortable with negotiating glaciers, fighting dense brush and fording glacial streams. If you're attempting Northern California's Lost Coast Trail, expect to scramble over wet rocks while contending with moody wet weather (not to mention an active bear population). The American Hiking Society provides reference material on hiking essentials, but also check local Web sites—especially for seasonal trails.