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Hiking: Andrew Skurka's
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Skurka's Top Ten Favorite Hikes
—Short (1 to 2 Days)
Text by Andrew Skurka

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EASY: Superior Hiking Trail, Minnesota

The Superior Hiking Trail runs 245 miles (394 kilometers) from Duluth to Otter Lake Road, a lonely gravel byway coming out of Grand Portage, the northernmost town along Minnesota's North Shore. The trail can be linked up with the Border Route Trail and Kekekabic Trail (both running through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area) to form a 385-mile (620-kilometer) trek from Duluth to Ely.  

If you are looking for something shorter, the 18-mile (29-kilometer) stretch from Silver Bay to Country Road 6 is one of the best sections. You'll encounter several glacier-scoured lakes, excellent views of Lake Superior, beautiful groves of birches and maples (which peak in late September and early October), a strenuous climb up Mount Trudee, a 30-foot (9-meter) waterfall on the Baptism River, and the unique "D Rainpipe," a 50-foot (15-meter) scramble that can be dangerous in winter. On this hike, you will likely see deer, wolf, and even mountain lion tracks. Wolf populations are very healthy in Northern Minnesota, but there's never been a documented attack on a human, so don't worry about them.

Difficulty: Easy. It's mostly flat, with occasional small climbs and descents, sometimes steep.

Terrain: Forested. There are occasional views and campsite-friendly lakes.

Distance: 18 miles (29 kilometers), with the option of tacking on many more.

Time: 1 or 2 days.

Staging Ground: Silver Bay, MN.

Best Time to Go: Do not go here in May or early June, when the mosquitoes and black flies are at their peak. Spring conditions can be wet and muddy. Fall is probably optimal, with comfortable temperatures, few bugs, and colorful leaves.

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INTERMEDIATE: Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, Arizona

Cutting through Arizona's Galiuro Mountains, the perennial Aravaipa Creek has cut a beautiful 10-mile-long (16-kilometer-long) 1,000-foot-deep (305-meter-deep) canyon that is truly a desert oasis. The wildlife and vegetation are extremely unique in this region of Arizona—it's home to wild turkeys, blue herons, coatimundi, deer, peregrine falcons, big-horned sheep, and black bears. You'll see water-loving sycamores, cottonwoods, and willows growing along the creek banks, followed by saguaro and prickly pear cacti growing just 15 feet (5 meters) upslope, where the Sonoran Desert quickly takes over. It's quite the juxtaposition.

Aravaipa Canyon is managed by the Bureau of Land Management as a wilderness area. Only 30 people per day are allowed to enter it. (To get a permit, call the BLM office in Safford, +1 928 348 4400.) Because there is no official trail system in the canyon (though there are some short-use trails), hikers follow the path of least resistance, which is usually in the creek or just next to it. Expect to have wet feet from start to finish. Be sure to bring trekking poles for extra balance during the fords.

The canyon itself is superb. The eastern third is dominated by walls of conglomerate rock, a lush riparian corridor, abundant wildlife, and a wide and flat hard-packed creek bed that makes for easy and fast cruising. The middle third of the canyon is the most scenic. The canyon narrows to as little as 30 feet (9 meters) across and the sheer walls rise vertically 1,000 feet (305 meters). The riparian vegetation disappears (even moderate flooding will fill this section's canyon bottom and wash everything out), but the surrounding rocks make up for it. Deep red volcanic schist occupies the lower canyon, while orange and tan sandstone cliffs tower above. Car-size boulders, which occasionally break off the canyon walls, create obstacles for hikers and flood debris alike. The canyon opens back up in the western third and the desert environment again becomes dominant.

Difficulty: Intermediate. It's flat, but there's no trail, lots of fords, and a risk of flash flooding.

Terrain: Desert, canyon.

Distance: 20 miles (32 kilometers).

Time: 1 to 2 days.

Staging Ground: The only access point is the west trailhead, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Mammoth, which is 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Tucson.

Best Time to Go: Year-round. The temperatures are most comfortable in the spring and fall. Beware of rainstorms upstream, since they may cause flash flooding. 

More Info:

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Hard: Gulfside Trail, White Mountains, New Hampshire

The three northernmost peaks in the Northern Presidentials (Mount Madison, 5,367 feet [1,636 meters]; Mount Adams, 5,774 feet [1,760 meters]; and Mount Jefferson, 5,712 feet [1,741 meters]) see a tiny fraction of the traffic of the massif to their south, Mount Washington. The highest point in the northeast at 6,280 feet (1,914 meters), Mount Washington attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year with its cog rail, toll road, extensive network of summit-bound hiking trails, and a highly developed summit area (with a weather station, parking lot, train depot, and a visitors center). The three craggy peaks to the North offer, perhaps, the best ridge-walking in the entire Northeast and are linked together by the Gulfside Trail.

The Gulfside Trail features about seven miles (eleven kilometers) of difficult alpine hiking, phenomenal views, and an opportunity to tag three 5,000-foot (1,524-meter) peaks. Water, food, and lodging are available at an Appalachian Mountain Club-operated hut below Mount Madison. There are numerous loop-hike options out of Pinkham Notch and the town of Randolph. Westerners may laugh at the puny elevations and elevation gains of these peaks. It's some of the most rugged hiking in the U.S. on account of the steep, relentless rock staircases, and the constant rock-hopping along teeter-tottering boulders of weathered granite.

In addition to the difficult footing and terrain, the northern Presidentials boast nasty weather. (Fans of Mount Washington are quick to boast its world-record wind speed of 231 miles [372 kilometers] per hour, set in 1934.) Be sure to check the weather, to bring adequate clothing and supplies for a range of conditions.

Difficulty: Hard. It's steep, rocky, and the weather is often bad.

Terrain: There are four distinct ecosystems in the Presidentials: northern hardwoods, spruce and fir, sub-alpine, and alpine.

Distance: It's a 14-mile (23-kilometer) loop-hike from Appalachia to Madison (via the Valley Way), to Adams (via Gulfside Trail), to Jefferson (via the Jefferson Loop), and back to Appalachia (via the Randolph Path, Short Line, and Airline Trails).

Time: 1 long day, or 2 days.

Staging Ground: Pinkham Notch or Randolph.

Best Time to Go: The friendliest months are in the summer, though this is when the crowds are there, too. There are nice days in the shoulder seasons (April and May, and September and October), particularly in the Fall when the surrounding hardwood forests are changing colors.

More Info:

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Hard: Cactus to Clouds Trail, California

If you're looking for an intense day-hike, consider this little-known route that climbs 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) over 11 miles (18 kilometers) from the Palm Springs Art Museum to the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. From here, you can hike another 5.5 miles (9 kilometers) and 2,400 feet (732 meters) to the top of San Jacinto, which at 10,834 feet (3,302 meters) is the second highest peak in Southern California. Here are a few precautions: the first 11 miles (18 kilometers) of this route are not maintained; an ice axe and crampons are required during the winter and spring to navigate steep ice chutes; and natural water sources are either infrequent or non-existent, depending on the season. If it weren't obvious already, this is a very strenuous hike. There may be no other prolonged climb in the Lower 48 that is this steep.

Besides the physical achievement and the sublime view from the top of San Jacinto, the reward of the Cactus to Clouds Trail is witnessing the rapid change in vegetation as you climb out of Palm Springs. You'll start in the harsh Colorado Desert, which is dominated by creosote and burrobush, and subsequently climb through chaparral, scrub oaks, ponderosa pines, and firs, before finally reaching the craggy windswept summit. This is a great opportunity to witness how temperatures and moisture levels affect plant communities.

Difficulty: Very hard. This is a steep and long climb on an unmaintained path, with few or no water sources.

Terrain: Colorado Desert, chaparral, scrub oaks, ponderosa pines, firs, and alpine. 

Distance: It's 11 miles (18 kilometers) and 8,000 vertical feet (2,438 vertical meters) to the tram; 22 miles (35 kilometers) and 12,800 vertical feet (3,901 vertical meters) up to San Jacinto from Palm Springs; and then back to the tram. 

Time: 1 or 2 days, depending on your fitness level and whether you want to climb to the top of San Jacinto.

Staging Ground: Palm Springs.

Best Time to Go: Fall. Temperatures will have mellowed out from their summer highs; and you'll avoid the ice chutes that make springtime conditions dangerous.

More Info:

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