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Hiking: Andrew Skurka's
Top Ten Trails - Long
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Skurka's Top Ten Favorite Hikes
—Long (Week or More)
Text by Andrew Skurka


Back to Ten Hikes Chart  >>

Easy - Northern Oregon Cascades, Pacific Crest Trail

This section of the Pacific Crest Trail passes through the best of Oregon's volcano country: the Three Sisters, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood. If you'd like to visit some of the attractions in the south, such as Crater Lake, Diamond Peak, or Mount Thielsen, you'll need to tack on another 130 miles (209 kilometers).

Hikers who have never traveled through volcano country before will be mystified by the freakish geological formations that punctuate Oregon's Cascade skyline. Whereas most of the range hovers around 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), the volcanoes shoot up 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) higher. This, combined with the notoriously heavy Cascade winter storms, makes several of them partly blanketed in (rapidly shrinking) glaciers. The sections between the volcanoes are dominated by beautiful, fir-hemlock forests (and sometimes not-so-beautiful forests that have been clear-cut or burned). Volcanic features, including cinder cones, lava fields, and pumice flats, abound.

Difficulty: Easy. It's mostly flat with gentle climbs.

Terrain: Alpine and fir-hemlock forest.

Distance: 190 miles (706 kilometers).

Time: 9 to 12 days.

Staging Ground: If going north, Elk Lake Resort via Bend; if south, Cascade Locks.

Best Time to Go: Mid- to late July through late October. Earlier in the summer, there will still be several feet of snow below treeline, not to mention the presence of the most ravenous mosquitoes outside of Alaska.

More Info: www.pcta.org/about_trail/overview/oregon.asp

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Intermediate - Pasayten Wilderness & North Cascades National Park via the Pacific Northwest Trail, Washington  

This is undoubtedly the longest stretch of top-notch backcountry along the Pacific Northwest Trail, a little-known route that extends 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) from the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park to the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park.

The route passes below Mount Baker, the second most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48 (behind Mount Rainier). You'll gaze upon the crown jewel of the North Cascades, Picket Range, tangle in vine maple and devil's club in the Little Beaver Creek Valley, and climb 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) from Ross Lake to the top of Sky Pilot Peak. Follow the perfect Pacific Crest Trail north to within four miles (6 kilometers) of the Canadian border. Finally you'll observe significant changes in vegetation as you move further across the Pasayten, due to the Cascades' rainshadow effect. For example, along Ross Lake, you'll be awed by enormous old-growth red cedars and mesmerized by gooey banana slugs. On the east end, however, you'll cruise through high grasslands and have to start watching your water supply closely.

Difficulty: Moderate. There are some big climbs and some of the trails are poorly maintained, but generally it's pretty good, especially the further west you go.

Terrain: Temperate rain forest, spruce-fir, sub-alpine, alpine, grassland.

Distance: 200 miles (322 kilometers), from Baker Lake Resort to Cold Springs Campground.

Time: 1.5 to 2 weeks.

Staging Ground: If going east, Concrete, WA; if west, Oroville, WA.

Best Time to Go: Late July through October. Because of the significant differences in snowfall between the west and east ends of this hike, it may be beneficial to hike west early in the season (to give the Cascades proper a few more days to melt out) and east late in the season (to have early-season storms die out over the Cascades before reaching the Pasayten).

More Info: www.pnt.org

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Hard - San Juan Mountains, Colorado, via the Continental Divide Trail: Cumbres Pass to Eddiesville  

My honest recommendation would be to take five to six months off from work, throw a backpack over your shoulder, kiss your significant other and children good-bye (or take them with you), and hike the entire 2,700-mile (4,345-kilometer) Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada. You won't regret it.

But, if that's not a realistic option, and you want to experience the best of Colorado and the best of the Rockies, then you should do the entire 210-mile (338-kilometer) San Juan section of the CDT, which has the longest continuous stretch of world-class trail and terrain in the entire lower 48. There is so much alpine ridge-walking in the San Juans that you will actually be looking forward to dropping back into the timber by the time you are done.  

Starting from Cumbres Pass, you climb through aspens, spruces, and sub-alpine firs. After about 10 miles (16 kilometers), you enter the South San Juan Wilderness and ascend a narrow, grassy ridgeline that pops you out onto the grassy plateaus with alpine lakes. The plateaus give way to large glacier-scoured drainages before you reach Wolf Creek Pass. Here you may want to get a ride on Hwy 160 to Pagosa Springs for supplies, because your next opportunity is not for another 115 miles (185 kilometers) at Spring Creek Pass.

This next section is absolutely phenomenal: you will be walking consistently at 11,000 to 12,000 feet (3,353 to 3,658 meters), usually right on top of the grassy, well-defined Continental Divide, which separates the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean watersheds. Route-finding is generally easy, though occasionally the trail disappears so you will need to be capable of reading a map. There are numerous glacier-carved alpine lakes located just below the Divide.

The climax of this entire trip is the last 25-mile (40-kilometer) section from Spring Creek Pass to the Eddiesville Trailhead. You'll climb up to Snow Mesa, which, at 12,500 feet (3,810 meters) and four miles (six kilometers) in length, is the absolute worst place to get stuck in a thunderstorm. Then drop into and out of the mineral drainages, and finally pass right below San Luis Peak, at which point (weather permitting) you can bag this remote 14er. 

Difficulty: High. This is rugged, remote country. Moreover, those not accustomed to the altitude will struggle until they acclimatize. 

Terrain: Alpine.

Distance: 210 miles (338 kilometers).

Time: 1.5 to 2 weeks. 

Staging Ground: If hiking north, Chama, NM; if south, Lake City, CO.

Best Time to Go: The high country is usually sufficiently melted out by late June, though early in the summer you will still encounter snowfields. Afternoon thunderstorms are a daily concern throughout the summer months. The likelihood of cold rainstorms and/or snow increases substantially starting in late September.

More Info: www.cdtrail.org, www.cdtsociety.org, and www.phlumf.com/travels/cdt/cdtmaps.shtml    

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