Sometimes you feel like a walk…

7 02 2012

I’ve been out in southern California for the past week, scouting the area as a potential new residence. While much of this time has been spent visiting different parts of San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles, driving around, getting the feel of the place, I couldn’t leave without trying out the local hiking. The problem? I found that on my last day in the area, after nearly two weeks of traveling (I was in Austin, TX before this), I was sort of exhausted and not really up for the preparations or the doing of a long, difficult hike.

What I really wanted was a walk in the woods, or something like the woods. I asked around, and four separate people told me to check out Torrey Pines State Reserve for some easy, short hikes with fabulous views. Several others told me to check out Cabrillo National Monument, and I have a thing about National Park Service Sites. So I decided to do both. Today I’ll give you the skinny on Torrey Pines, and on Thursday you’ll get a recap of the visit to Cabrillo.

Torrey Pines is an easy 30-minute drive up the coast from San Diego, just north of La Jolla. The drive itself is pretty, especially once you get off of I-5 onto Carmel Valley Road. You enter through the North Entrance, pay your $10 all-day access fee (or find parking on the beach or on the road, if you can…I didn’t because I wanted to drive up into the park).

I decided on the Guy Fleming Trail, because I had another stop to make. It’s short, only ~2/3 mile, and mostly level, with only some brief climbs and descents, and a few stairways.

The first thing that worked for me about this trail was the views. I was promised fabulous and I indeed got fabulous. Going clockwise around the loop, you’re immediately greeted with a sweeping ocean vista, as the trail runs along the side of a cliff that drops down to the beach below. The waves at Torrey Pines are spectacular, and mesmerizing to watch. I found myself stopping every fifty steps or so to just look out at the water for a while. There are two designated “viewpoints,” but the entirety of the first half of this trail could be considered a viewpoint.

As an added bonus, there was a pod of dolphins just off the coast, so I watched them playing in the waves for a while. Then, I noticed that the birds — whatever kind they were, I didn’t have my binoculars and probably wouldn’t be able to tell anyhow…gulls of some kind? — were surfing. Seriously, they were gliding on the edges of cresting waves, and it looked like they were having fun.

The second half of the trail was inland, so the views were of the town of Del Mar instead of the ocean, but it was still pleasant. There were also some fun sandstone features, and I learned that the trail is named after the man who made Torrey Pines a state reserve in order to save the trees, which are a rare five-needled pine tree.

In all, the hike was nice, if merely a walk. It was perfect for what I wanted, and I could have spent hours just watching the ocean, so I felt like I got my money’s worth both literally and figuratively.

One word of caution: the road leading up to the trail is littered with people jogging and stay-at-home moms walking gigantic baby carriages. Because the road winds, it is hard to see the pedestrians lurking around corners, so please please obey the 15 mph speed limit, and go even slower around those hairpins.

That’s not “Hiking”

21 05 2010

You’re a busy person.  You’ve got a job, or school, to deal with.  Maybe you have a family.  You have friends, social obligations, cleaning to do and errands to run.  There’s that book you’ve been meaning to read, and you have really got to catch up on all those DVR’d episodes of the Vampire Diaries.  How in world can you find time to hike, particularly if you live in a city and hiking involves waiting for the weather to be nice, then driving out of the city and hoping the close-by hikes aren’t too crowded and you can find parking and anyhow won’t that just annoy you and shouldn’t you be doing laundry instead?

Or maybe that’s just me.

I struggle with finding time for “real” hiking.  Because I live in Boston, there aren’t a lot of mountains nearby.  Getting to a “real” hike — i.e., one that involves reaching a peak (or the bottom of a canyon), is at least several miles round trip, and requires packing a lunch — is not always possible, especially since I’m not naturally an early riser.

What is a city girl to do? 

Take your hiking wherever you find it.

This past Sunday, I had one of those days where I decided not to set an alarm, and I clearly needed sleep, because I didn’t wake up until after noon.  The night before, I had told myself that if the timing worked out, I would drive up to southern NH and get in a “real” hike, but at that point it wasn’t a real option.   By the time I got going, stopped for food, and got up there, it would be after 3, and I wasn’t comfortable starting a hike that late in the day.

The Minute Man NHP Visitors Center

Instead of throwing in the towel, however, I decided to try something a little different.  I went to the National Park Service website and looked up all the NPS sites in Boston and the surrounding area (there are twelve of them, in case you’re curious).  I’ve been to most of them, but since the weather Sunday was amazing, I wanted to go somewhere where I could hang around outside, even if I wasn’t hiking up a mountain.  I chose Minute Man National Historical Park.

Now, I’ve been to Minute Man before, but, as it turns out, I’ve only been to one corner of this site (the one in Concord by the North Bridge).  This time, I started at the main visitors center at 250 North Great Road.  The center itself was gorgeous, but more on that another time.  I didn’t stick around there long enough to watch the film — it was beautiful outside, remember? — but instead set out on the Battle Road Trail.

Battle Road Trail

The Battle Road Trail stretches five miles, connecting historical sites from Concord to Lexington, following much of the path the British soldiers took on April 19, 1775 culminating in the battles of Lexington and Concord that mark the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  Along the road are sites such as Hartwell Tavern, Wayside (which, among other things, is the house where Louisa May Alcott wrote her first published work), and the place where Paul Revere was captured during his famous ride to raise the alarm that the British were coming.

The trail itself is level and wide.  There isn’t an elevation gain, you don’t have to be careful of your footwork, and you’re unlikely to run into wildlife (aside from a squirrel or two).  At some points along the trail, you can see cars whiz by on Route 2A, though for the most part the trees mask the auto road and muffle the sounds.  Walking on this trail won’t give you a hard workout.  You’re likely to run into other people, but even if you don’t, you’ll never feel like you’re far from civilization by yourself.


Even so, the Battle Road Trail gave me what I needed last Sunday.  I was outside.  I was moving.  I was surrounded by beauty, and when no one else was in sight, that familiar calm settled over me — even though I didn’t feel like it was just me and nature, the quiet of the park and the absence of others in front of me or behind me gave me time to think and be.  (Also, I got to see a reenactment with muskets being fired.  Serene?  No.  But very neat.)

Sometimes, you have to take your hikes wherever you can find them.  You don’t always have to be climbing a mountain.  Figure out what it is you’re seeking from your hike — solitude, being outdoors, whatever — and find a place where you can get that.  You’ll be glad you didn’t just throw in the towel because you didn’t have time for a “real” hike.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

Daydreaming About Zion

3 03 2010


One of our readers let us know that she’s planning a trip to Zion National Park in May.  Since Zion is one of my top three favorite National Parks, I thought now would be a good time to give some pointers…

Zion Trip Tips: Part One

Zion National Park, just north of Springdale, Utah, is captivating.  Perhaps it’s the lush greenery set against a backdrop of russet, pink and white cliffs.  Perhaps it’s the Virgin River that winds its way through the base of the canyon.  Perhaps it’s Weeping Rock, or the Emerald Pools, or the Court of the Patriarchs, or the Narrows.  Perhaps it’s Springdale itself, or the Mt. Carmel tunnel, or the wildlife, or the rangers, or…

There’s a lot to love about Zion.  Here are a few recommendations about enjoying your time in the park itself.

Utilize Zion’s shuttle service.  Actually, you don’t have much choice, since personal autos aren’t allowed into the park unless you’re staying at the lodge.  The shuttle runs frequently, quietly, and efficiently, and the shuttle drivers are like tour guides.  So sit back and enjoy your trip to the trailhead of your choice.

Hike Angel’s Landing.  I don’t care how afraid of heights you are, or how nervous you are about an intense climb.  Just do it.  Start early in the morning, when the trail will be quiet.  Pack a lunch to eat atop the peak and enjoy the spectacular views.  When you reach the final ascent, keep your eyes peeled for peregrine falcons which nest up there.  Do this early in your trip — it will inspire you for the days ahead.

Avoid Emerald Pools in the middle of the day when it will be crowded.

The Narrows

Check out the Narrows.  The Narrows, for those just joining us, is a hike that takes place in the Virgin River, at a spot in the canyon where the walls are incredibly narrow.  You can hike it from the bottom up (at the end of Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava trailhead), exploring until you decide to turn around, or you can hike from the top down with a permit.  May is supposed to be one of the best times of the year to take this in-the-river hike, but you always have to check with the rangers regarding the likelihood of flash flooding.  Long term Narrows hiking (and top down) require some research and special gear can be rented from nearby outfitters, but a couple of hours of exploring from the bottom up only requires fortitude and hiking poles.

Find some ranger-led programs.  Zion rangers, like rangers in any of the parks, are helpful, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic.

Any questions?

Next time: what to do in Springdale and farther afield…

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

Let It Snow

6 01 2010

Back in early December, I made you a promise.  I promised that I would try snowshoeing and report back.  Well, last Saturday, while in the Berkshires, I did it.  And I loved it. 

We — I wasn’t alone, I had two friends with me — arrived at the Arcadian Shop in Lenox, MA, in the early afternoon.  We rented snowshoes and poles for $20 and proceeded into the woods behind the shop.  The original intention was to go up to the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, but Kennedy Park, the area right behind the shop, seemed like as good a place as any to dabble in snowshoeing for the first time.  We spent a little over an hour tromping around the various park trails, figuring out snowshoeing technique, and being quite cold (it was in the teens or colder and blowing snow all afternoon). 

Specifically, if you look at the map of the park, we started out on “Woolsey Road” (27)  then transferred to “Overview” (11), then to “Weaver Olympics” (20) and up to the Lookout, then the return trip on “Deer Run” (5), and finally “Greenfield” (28).  Afterward, we went to the Arcadian’s coffee shop to warm up, poked around the store, and went home, all having decided that snowshoeing was an experience we’d like to repeat.

Some observations:

  • Snowshoeing isn’t that different from hiking.  Yes, there is snow on the ground.  Yes, your steps have to be adjusted (a slightly wider stance) to accomodate for the shoes.  And yes, there are some techniques (like throwing your weight onto your toe while going downhill so that the spikes under the shoe dig into the snow) that are counterintuitive, but they aren’t hard to figure out and once you do, you’re pretty much taking a walk in the woods — albeit with appropriate footwear for the terrain.
  • Appropriate clothing (as with any outdoor activity) is very important.  I didn’t have it.  I had warm gloves, and head covering, and a good warm coat, and you can snowshoe in your hiking boots, but there was one major fail.  If you look at the photos of my feet, you’ll see that I’m wearing jeans.  Of all my choices, this was probably the best, but it wasn’t good.  When you snowshoe, the rear of the shoes scoops snow and kicks it up toward the back of your legs.  This means that, after not too long, the calves of my jeans were drenched and then frozen.  Since I’m not a winter hiker, I don’t have weather-appropriate pants, so I made do with what I had.  This was okay for our dabble in a well-frequented area, but in the future I’m going to acquire and use more appropriate clothing.  Some long underwear, for one, to wear as a bottom layer, and I’m planning to purchase a pair of gaiters, which I think will solve the problem:


  • Wintersports don’t have to be complicated.  Much like I have said that hiking doesn’t have to be complicated, neither does snowshoeing.  Sure, you need that bit of extra equipment, but there are lots of rental places around that make it easy to acquire with very little fuss.  And if you own snowshoes (which I intend to do very soon), you make it even easier, so that snowshoeing is no more complicated than strapping on your hiking boots and hitting the trail.  This is a revelation to me, since I always viewed winter activities as a hassle.  I’m going to try to drop my preconceptions here and try other things.

So what’s next?  I think cross-country skiing is in my future…

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

Thanks for 2009!

28 12 2009

Acadia NP in Winter

Her Side was on hiatus last week in the madcap dash to Christmas (and I still have gifts to wrap and ship…I don’t know how this happens to me), and will be checking out again after this post until January 4, but I wanted to take this opportunity to say:

Thank you.

Thank you for reading, for commenting, for emailing me and telling me that I have inspired you.  Thank you for allowing Her Side to spend the last few months of 2009 figure out how the heck to do this blog thing.  Thank you for providing feedback, making requests, and sticking around.

A look back at 2009:

  • September 8: Her Side of the Mountain launches with a post entitled “Carpe Diem,” a photo of Buffy and Willow, and a joke about carp.  Let’s keep carpe-ing the diem in 2010.
  • September 27: Ken Burns’ documentary series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” airs.  Someone says to me, “I thought I’d be bored but I couldn’t stop staring at the footage.  There are places that look like that for real?”  Yes, Virginia, there is a Yellowstone.  And not just in our hearts.
  • October 5: Her Side posts a photo of Henry Ford (beside a quirky and topical quote attributed to Ford), and thereby receives a vast influx of visitors because a LOT of people search for Henry Ford each and every day.  Each and every day. 
  • November 7: A couple of Her Side’s friends get lost in the woods in the dark and  provide Her Side with its first real-life reason to say “I told you so.”
  • December 28: Her Side gears up for the new year, makes lots of resolutions, and comes up with loads of brilliant new ideas (see below!).

Coming up in 2010:

  • New Year’s Resolutions.  Yes, let’s make them, and let’s make them fun to keep.  Who’s with me?
  • The completion of posts about the Rules and the Good Stuff.  We’re about halfway there.
  • More (hopefully many more) hike reviews and guides (with photos!).
  • Food.  I’ve been digging into some hiking/camping food sites and cookbooks…once I’ve had the opportunity to try some of this out, I can pass some suggestions along to you and we can discuss.
  • I respond to your requests and suggestions.  So keep ’em coming.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Photo Friday

20 11 2009

This week, through the magic of photography, I take you to Badlands National Park, in South Dakota.  Some think of western South Dakota as nothing more than home to the Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, Wind and Jewel Caves, and Wall Drug.  (Note: Detect sarcasm when I say “nothing more.”)  In my opinion, a visit to this beautiful area of the country is not complete without exploring the Badlands, which are like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

For example, here is a view from the “Door” Trail:

No, that’s not the surface of the moon with some newfangled atmosphere created by NASA.  It’s the Badlands.  It’s actually a trail, although I can understand if you’re squinting at it and asking, “But how do you know where to walk?”  I can answer that for you.  There are these teeny little flags.  You look for them, like you would look for cairns.  They are difficult to spot.  I learned the hard way that you never want to leave one without finding the next, because there are gaps and chasms (not too deep, but deep enough that you’d have trouble getting up out of them without assistance or being a spider-person) between these crags, and it’s sort of like solving a maze.  On more than one occasion, I ended up at a dead end and had to pick my way back to the last flag and try again.

The slightly longer, more varied trail is the “Notch” trail, and I photographed one particularly interesting spot:

Yes, I’m terrified of heights.  Yes, I climbed that ladder.


Happy Friday, everyone!

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Hike to an Oasis: Zion National Park

12 10 2009

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

Zion National Park, in Utah, is one of my favorite places in the world.  There are reasons for this: it’s got a landscape of heart-stopping beauty, is an oasis in the middle of arid country, has a rich history (ask me about the man-made tunnel sometime), and is spectacularly well-managed and maintained.  It’s also a very easy park to visit, whether you’re solo or traveling with company.   The trails are well-marked and detailed descriptions are available in the Zion newspaper or from the helpful rangers.  The little town of Springdale, at the base of the canyon, has shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, and safe private campgrounds, and provides a free shuttle that runs up the main street and right into the park.  The park itself does not allow private automobiles to drive up into the canyon, but rather runs a squeaky clean and frequent shuttle that stops at all the main trailheads.

All of these factors mean that visiting Zion can be very relaxing (you don’t have to worry about traffic, like at Yellowstone, and parking, and finding your way), and it’s also a great place to travel solo.  There will be other solos, and the shuttle, trailheads, lodge, and museum (and Springdale) provide many opportunities to interact with other travelers.

However, it’s not just these very practical reasons that make Zion so amazing.  There’s a certain extra something about the park and the area that gets the blood pumping and…just sort of wakes you up.

One hike at Zion that’s a great starter hike for a solo hiker is the Emerald Pools Trail.  It’s populated (sometimes too populated, see below), it’s accessible, and it’s not a huge commitment.  Hiking the entire loop and the branch to the Upper pool is approximately 3 miles round trip, a 2-or-so hour hike.  Most of it is easy to moderate, with the exception of the moderately strenuous Upper pools branch.  So grab your gear and your camera, have breakfast (or lunch) at the Zion Lodge, and go for it.

The Emerald Pools Trail has three sections: Lower, Middle, and Upper.  The Lower and Middle section start from the same place, at the Zion Lodge, and meet up at the Lower Emerald Pools, while the Upper section branches off for a one-way short but steep climb to an upper pool.  The trail is so named for the algae in the pools that, particularly when the sunlight is just right, give the pools their emerald brilliance.

The Lower trail is an low-intensity trail that meanders along the Virgin River and then one of the tributaries, protected by the shade of the lush Zion greenery.  After just over half a mile, you’ll reach the Lower pool.  In the spring, waterfalls from the Middle pools up above cascade into the Lower pool, but even in the drier months this section is quite beautiful.

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

The Middle trail climbs at the start from the trailhead at Zion Lodge and then levels out, and while not difficult, the hike offers incredible views of the canyon as the path winds along the side of the canyon wall parallel to the Lower trail below. After about a mile, you’ll reach the middle pools, which cascade into the Lower pool.  Between the middle and lower pools is a series of switchbacks that take you between the falls — and the pools, so that the Middle and Lower trails can be done as a loop.

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

The Upper trail branches off from the Middle pools and heads up a steep, rugged path to the Upper pool.  Many people choose to forgo this section because it is strenuous, but it’s worth the effort.  There will be scrambling (particularly if you’re short like me) over dusty boulders, but after just a quarter mile (and another couple hundred feet of elevation gain), you’ll reach an oasis set in the side of the canyon.  The sheer canyon walls stretch straight up over the pool, and in this spot, it’s easy to forget that you’re still, in fact, perched on the side of a canyon.

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

Make no mistake: this is a popular trail.  Its location, just across from the Zion Lodge, makes it an easy hike for people to find.  It’s also somewhat iconic, a classic Zion hike, and people (I was one) are anxious to see what the fuss is about.

I have hiked this trail twice, once on a Thursday in mid-September and the second time on a Saturday morning in August.  The first time, I encountered others on the Middle and Upper trails, and the Lower was more crowded, but I did have moments to myself.  The second time, it was a bit like hiking in a shopping mall — I had to pay more attention to not stepping on the heels of the people in front of me than I did to the scenery, which isn’t ideal.  Even the Upper trail was crowded the second time, making finding a spot to sit and eat lunch difficult.

The lesson I learned: the Emerald Pools is a great hike for a solo hiker if you go mid-week while school is in session (I don’t hate kids…I actually like them; but in droves when their parents aren’t teaching them proper trail etiquette it can be a bit much).  There will still be other people, which is what you want as a solo hike when you’re just getting into it, but you’ll also be able to find yourself alone every now and then.

Second lesson: Hike the Middle trail, and not the Lower.  The Lower trail is an easy, paved, low-intensity stroll, and this route is therefore popular with families and those with less mobility.  Many people will stroll the Lower trail and reach the first pool, take photos, and troop back, making this section of the trail the most dense, particularly during the summer.

Because many people start on the Lower and return on the Lower, and others start on the Lower, climb to the Middle pools and then return on the Middle, I prefer to do the reverse — going against the flow of traffic, it allows, even when the trail is crowded below, for some quiet time on the Middle trail.

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

That Sounds Like “Work”

18 09 2009


If you’ve been reading, so far you’ve learned that there are rules, and cautions, and lists of equipment (which I’ll address soon, I promise) to consider when you’re going to solo hike and camp, and you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed about the sheer effort that seems to go into hiking before you even get to the trailhead.  But listen closely, because this is very, very important:

Hiking doesn’t have to be complicated.

This is not a rule, exactly.  It’s more of a truth.  Realizing this is often the first step for those of us who like the outdoors, who may have done some hiking in groups, but are a bit intimidated by the hiking culture to try it on our own.  I felt that way for a long time.  Avid hikers are so into gadgets and gizmos and trappings (I know I am, at least) that it can squash the dreams of someone who just kind of wants to take a walk in the woods and see how that goes before committing to equipment and mustering up courage to tackle a challenging ascent.

Today, I’m here to tell you that you can.  Absolutely, 100%, you can take a walk in the woods.  Just pick a place that is relatively populated, clearly marked, and not too lengthy of a trail.  Bring a water bottle, and your cell phone.*  And go for it.

One example of the type of hike that is perfect for someone just starting out solo and who wants to ease into it is Walden Pond in Concord, MA.  Yes, that Walden, the one made famous by Henry David Thoreau.


by joanarc4

The loop around Walden Pond is a just-under-two-mile, easy yet pleasant walk, that gets your blood pumping and whets your appetite for spending time in the outdoors.  The views of the pond are beautiful, and it is easy to see why Thoreau would have chosen this spot for his year in the woods.  The trail has some ups and downs — but nothing too steep, and there are no scrambles — and it passes by the site of the old Thoreau cottage, where you can imagine the views with which he was greeted every morning (and if you’re a literature geek like me, it’s a little thrill to stand in the spot where the cabin used to be).

The shortness of the trail (I get around the Pond at a decent but not hurried pace in about 35 minutes) and its accessibility (just outside city limits and easy to find) make it appealing for the “uncomplicated” hike.  Because it is a popular spot, you don’t need all the safety trappings that you would need on a longer, less-populated trail.  You will run into people at Walden…although even at its busiest times I have found myself alone at spots in the trail.

The biggest downside to Walden is — you guessed it — also the population.  During the summer, the parking lot can fill to capacity and the rangers will close the lot until some of the crowd thins.  Sometimes they won’t let you walk in because there are too many people already at the pond, usually swimming and hanging around on the tiny beach.  I avoid that by going as early as possible, shortly after the parking lot opens, when the population of the park is me, a few other enthusiasts, and the people who swim across the pond in training for triathlons.  The crowd is also thinner in the spring and fall.  The key is finding the right balance between overcrowded and crowded enough that you’re not truly alone.

The point is, there are places, usually state parks or local conservation lands, that you can take a hike with a bottle of water and your cell phone and feel (and be) safe.  It’s a good way to try hiking solo to see how it feels, or, if you’re a busy urbanite like me, to just get outside and get some activity without having to devote too much time and effort into preparation and planning. 

What hikes have you found to be the right level of populated, the right length, and the right accessibility for “uncomplicated” hiking?

*At some point, I will explain that First Aid Kits are absolutely non-negotiable and you must have one with you when you hike solo.  In this rare exception case, if you take a hike like what I describe here, where there will be lots of people around and you’re not that far from civilization…well, just use your judgment.

**That photo at the top is from, which sells lots of “demotivational” products.  Go ahead, click on the photo, have fun shopping. 

(c) Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.