Hike Your Own Hike

If you’re hiking a list, it might be time to stop

At my hiking presentations, there’s a moment before I kick things off where I announce, “because I come from the Internet, nothing I say really exists unless it’s in a list format.”

When I started doing this, it was a small joke about the BuzzFeed-ification of the Internet as well as an intentional bite of the hand that feeds me. I have, after all, certainly written more than my fair share of list posts to try to break through social media algorithms. These days, though, I wonder if a growing number of hikers are getting a little too list-focused.

Online lists have been in existence for a long time, and for good reason. They condense lots of information into a digestible format and can serve as an easy introduction to deeper archives or a method for presenting items in a fun or interesting way … but too often in the outdoor online world, I’ve found that people just see these curated catalogs as a to-do checklist and end up doing them just because someone said to. Where’s the fun in that?

Let’s face it – at some point in your life, you have searched for the “best” or “hidden” trails and wound up at the top-Google ranked “X Best Hidden Gems in Park Y” page, right? I definitely have. We’re always looking for undiscovered places and various numbers of places to see before we die, but if we all end up going to those same places, they’re not really that off the beaten path anymore. Frankly, some of them are getting beat to death.

Recently, I headed to the high San Gabriels to hike Mount San Antonio. It was the first time I’d hiked in the region since doing field work for my book, and even in those few short years a lot had changed. The previously busy-but-not-insane parking area for Icehouse Canyon now sprawled well outside of the extended parking area, starting in Mount Baldy Village and slithering north past the first switchback toward Manker Flat. Friends on the trail that weekend said the crowds went all the way to Cucamonga Peak – a summit that you’d maybe see a handful of folks on just a few years ago.

Up at the San Antonio Falls Trailhead, it wasn’t much better. Even more concerning, on the trail itself, the approach to the summit of Baldy on the Devil’s Backbone Trail had become a spider web of use trails. Heading down the Ski Hut Trail was even worse – the number of use trails switchbacking toward the Baldy Bowl was so great I couldn’t even spot the original trail grade anymore.

Looking down the Devil’s Backbone Trail in 2010 – trail grade is clear and hikers stay on it

hikers heading toward the Baldy summit, 2018 – note the new mess of rough ridgeline trails (the proper route heads toward the trees and manzanita to the right)

I know that people hike for different reasons, and there’s certainly no “one right way” to hike other than following Leave No Trace principles. So if you want to hike to the high point of every county or state, or hit the steepest trails in a mountain range, or if someone’s list of trails gets you outside and exploring a new landscape – that’s awesome. But lists and challenges that focus on only a handful of hikes can end up doing more harm than good to these places we love. So once you’ve gotten a good feel for an area, ditch that checklist and try this time-honored method of finding your next hike:

First, find a big table and clear it off. Next, get your map out (you do always hike with a map, right?) and lay it flat. Spend a few minutes looking at the map. Really just stare at it. Daydream a bit. Follow some contour lines, look for rivers or old mining roads, for a long stretch of trail in a place you haven’t been yet, or just find the name of a place that’s calling out to you. Guess what? You just found your own hidden gem.

Do some research to see where you can safely hike in that area, and then just enjoy whatever the hike has to offer you. Don’t think about where it might rank on some arbitrary list or as a notch on some metaphorical belt. The trails will thank you, and I promise: the outdoor experience is much more meaningful when you’re hiking your own hike.

A beautiful photo from a summit I have never seen another human on. It took me multiple tries to reach. As far as I can tell, it’s not on any list or challenge, either.


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