Walking gets a bit more challenging when you take it on trails, especially uphill, but the trails are often in beautiful settings. I like to use hiking poles because it keeps some of the impact from my hips when going downhill. It also makes me, a naturally clumsy person and prone to ankle sprains in my youth, more sure-footed.
Hiking is great with a group. If you don’t have friends that like to hike, you can find good groups on meetup. Hiking is a good choice for noncompetitive people because you can still challenge yourself to get stronger. The reward is being able to go places where you couldn’t otherwise be able to, earning yourself some killer views in the process.
I first got introduced to hiking when I was a plebe at West Point. We did long hikes during “beast barracks” the summer before the academic year starts for plebes, as part of our “army stuff”, with heavy packs and carrying our M14 rifles. I loved it. The oppressive discipline loosened up a little when we were off post, and I really enjoyed some of the great places we got to see in that part of u upstate New York. I got to see the Milky Way for the first time with my head stuck out of a little two-man pup tent. I think it took me about an hour to finally get tired of looking at it and go to sleep.
I made it through plebe year, doing well academically. Unfortunately, this was not a good time to be a West Point. Morale in the army was low because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, and that had spread to the academy. So I got disillusioned and decided to quit even though I made it to the end of plebe year. I have a lot of respect for people who serve in the military and for West Point, but I was just there at the wrong time.
After that I attended Rutgers University back in my home state of Jersey, and did more hiking with a group led by a cool old professor that had a vacation mobile home in the Catskills in upstate New York and would take students up there to hike some of the “3500s” (peaks in the Catskills over 3500 feet). A few years before John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” came out I had a “Catskill Mountain” high watching the sun set from the top of Slide mountain. The scenery did not just take my breath away, it took my thoughts away! Spontaneously experiencing an absolutely still mind was awesome. I think I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.
After graduation I hiked from time to time in places that I lived, including central Pennsylvania and Northern California, where I went to grad school at Stanford. But it really took off when I took a job at the National Bureau of Standards (since renamed the National Institute of Science and Technology) in Boulder, Colorado. I could walk for a quarter mile, from the townhouse we rented to a trail in the Boulder mountain park system, then about 45 minutes later I’d be at a vantage point where I could see peaks of the Continental Divide. Fitting that in in the morning before work is a great way to start your day.
On longer hiking trips, friends and I did three of Colorado’s 14’ers (fourteen thousand foot peaks). Long’s peak was the most challenging. The first time we tried it was with a mixed group of fitness levels, and the pace wasn’t fast enough, so we ran out of time: We were within view of the summit but got turned away by a thunderstorm that was striking the top with lightning. Thunderstorms are a common summer occurrence in the front range of the Rockies. On a second try, the guys I was with were all in good shape and we set a fast pace but it still took several hours. The altitude really got to me as we neared the peak. There’s a last steep section called “home stretch”, that’s like climbing a few flights of stairs, which took forever. Step, step, gasp, gasp, repeat. It turned out to be a nice day at the top that day so we hung out there for a while, and I ended up with a bad altitude headache.
My favorite 14’er was Mt. Missouri. I remember it had a long narrow ridge you had to scamper along near the summit with spectacular views- just don’t look down if you aren’t fond of heights. And on the way down one of my buddies, an experienced rock climber, taught us how to glissade down a scree slope. You take giant steps and intentionally slide before the next step. Fast and fun! I didn’t have as much trouble with altitude on that hike because we’d been backpacking a couple of days at over 10,000 feet so I was better acclimatized.
I also hiked rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon with my brother Bill and his friends. That took all day, and the logistics were also tricky. A friend of my brother’s was going fishing north of the Canyon, so he offered us a ride. We drove up from Phoenix, dropped a car off at the south rim, then he drove us all the way around to the north rim, through the night, while we tried to sleep in the back. Starting on the North rim in the morning, we hiked across, and came up the South Kaibab trail, which, by the time we got to it, was in the dark. Not a good idea, as this trail is used to take tourists up from Phantom Ranch at the bottom on mules, and mule urine smells pretty nasty. Bill’s friend was in the lead because he had the only flashlight. So we’d hear him call out warnings. “Mule piss, left!”… “Mule Piss, right!” Then he’d miss one and we’d hear a splash followed by “Oh, x!@x&!”.
Karen and I ended up moving back to Northern California after 3 years when I took a job at IBM in the bay area, and we’ve been here ever since. Most of my hiking has been in Northern Ca since then, with highlights including Half Dome in Yosemite and Mt. Tallac in the Lake Tahoe basin, numerous local trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Santa Lucia range, and the Pinnacles. I’ve also done some beautiful dessert hikes when I visit Bill.
The views from the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Longs Peak, Mount Missouri, Half-done, Mt. Tallac, and other places are very fond memories for me. But at 65 I am not just looking back. There are lots of challenges in my local area and beyond that still await. Recent views from the Pinnacles, Mt. Umunhum, and Sentinel Dome in Yosemite rank right up there with any from the past, and that’s just scratching the surface of what I’d like to do. I take to heart the advice I read somewhere recently: “never let your dreams get smaller than your memories”. Hiking will always be a big part of my activities.
Hiking is an interesting mix of local, regional, and further away adventures. I’m fortunate to have a lot of open-space that forward-thinking people have passionately fought to set aside in the bay area. But I think lots of areas, even if they are urban, have some great hiking close in. So I do a local hike pretty much once a week, and there are two local meetup groups I often go with. For this local stuff I often do a combination bike-hike, and now that I have electric assist it is reasonable to get to trailheads up to 20 miles away. Not much more than an hour away there are other great regional places like Monterey, Big Sur, and the Pinnacles. I like to get to some of those at least a few times a year. Then there are the big beauties like Yosemite, which is only 3 hours away. And I always like to sneak a hike or two in when we are on vacation.
For hiking as a fitness activity, the first tip is to get good shoes. They don’t have to be big leather klunkers like the classic hiking boots when I was younger. There are great options in lightweight trail running shoes, and lightweight hiking shoes and boots. The line between trail running shoes and hiking shoes is a bit blurred, with quality companies offering both. I’m a Hoka man through and through, personally, because I love their lightweight cushioning. But there are lots of good choices. A good store like REI or equivalent will fix you up with shoes, water carrying solutions, backpacks or daypacks, and hiking poles.
Aside from equipment the only other tip I have is try not to be only a weekend warrior. I have some friends that love to hike, but it’s all they like, so they often go only once or twice a week and it’s their only exercise. Try to at least sneak in some brisk walks midweek on your lunch hour or whenever convenient. You can motivate yourself by telling yourself you are in training for hiking.
There’s a blog devoted to hiking tips: Hiking Guide for Beginners which I recommend. There’s also a good post there with tips on getting fit for hiking.