Favorite Destinations: Mountains

“The mountains are calling and I must go…”

John Muir, 1873

Like John Muir I occasionally hear the call of the mountains. There is something both comforting and awe-inspiring about these lands that seem to be trying to touch the sky. Who hasn’t thrilled at the site of the Grand Tetons rising above the plains of Wyoming? Dreamed at least once of climbing Everest or at least of owning a mountain cabin in the woods somewhere? As a result, I’ve been to a few in both the United States and Canada (I’m presuming that Mont-Royal in Montreal counts) and have attempted to climb some as well. Though it seems that my climbing limit is somewhere around 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) and the only way I’ve gotten above that elevation is by car, Mt. Evans and Pike’s Peak in Colorado, I still enjoy the attempt.

I also find that if you are open to it you may encounter a new friend or two along the way. Hikers in general seem to be a friendly and helpful group. I think that they share the common knowledge that out in the woods we are all to some degree strangers in a strange land. If we don’t help each other “out there” there is a real chance that someone may not make it back to the comfort of their living room that night.

Here are a few of my favorite mountain hikes from coast to coast. Including a couple where I did not make it to the summit. We’ll start with the “urban” climbs:

The view straight down from Diamond Head. Photo by David P. Wahr

Diamond Head, 761′ (232m): located in Honolulu, Hawaii this ancient volcano crater may not technically be a mountain. However, it’s the only one I’ve climbed where I had to access it by going through a tunnel in the crater wall. Again, it’s another urban hill with stairs. There’s 165 of them in total both 99 steps straight up and another 76 from a circular staircase. The tropical heat can make this short climb deceptively difficult. Your reward is a stunning view of Honolulu, the Pacific, and some WWII era “pillboxes” and fortifications at the top.

A few of the stairs at Mont-Royal. Photo by David P. Wahr

Mont-Royal, 764′ (233m): located in the heart of Montreal, Quebec it is the mountain from which the city takes it’s name. It’s small by most mountaineering standards and even has a stairway leading to the top, but it’s worth the climb to see the views of the city. Don’t feel like climbing 550 steps? Don’t worry, you can drive to the top. Bonus, you’ll have plenty of time to see all of Montreal after your short hike!

Me after a refreshing hike up Stone Mountain!

Stone Mountain, 1,686′ (514m), the Atlanta metro area’s largest monument and tourist attraction to the Confederacy (what is this fascination people have with carving things into the faces of mountains? See also Mount Rushmore). Regardless of your feelings about the carving the park is pleasant enough and there are plenty of things for a family to do including a tram to the top. However, I chose to take the trail up the backside of the dome. Slippery when wet, you are climbing a large granite stone after all, it’s a gentle trail with a gain of about 700′ (213m) in elevation.

Camelback Mountain, 2,707′ (825m), when I first started going to Phoenix on a regular basis about 30 years ago I swear that this park was on the edge of the city. Now it’s surrounded by residential housing. Technically another short hike but it’s also a demanding one. Not only because of the desert heat but because there are sections that require some actual rock climbing. No gear needed, but you will be using arms and legs to scale the side of the camel’s “hump” at least from the Echo Canyon side. I don’t know if I would have made it except for the urging of a young woman (my “angel”) who took pity on the old man who looked so cute trying to climb to the peak like he was a real person. You’ll want to have plenty of water and the rangers are pretty serious about making sure that you know you need to be off the peak by sunset!

Mount Monadnock, 3,165′ (965m), is located in southern New Hampshire and the main reason I visited it was because I had played the Narrator in a production of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town in which this mountain is mentioned. Another relatively easy climb but a rocky one if I recall correctly. The mountain is surrounded by a state park and is isolated on the plain. In fact, the name comes from the Abenaki Native Americans word for isolated hill.

Blue Mountain Fire Tower circa 1993. A scary climb then for sure. Photo by David P. Wahr

Blue Mountain, 3,750′ (1,143m) is a more serious climb. Located in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, where the chairs come from, it is easy by mountain climbing standards in the sense that this is a hike not a technical climb I found it a little challenging when I climbed it nearly 30 years ago. There is a abandoned fire observation platform at the top which appears to have been repaired some since I visited.

Mount Pisgah, 5,721′ (1,744m), located in North Carolina outside of Asheville, this mountain is in the Appalachian Mountains and accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trail is about 2.6 miles (4.2km) roundtrip and has an elevation gain of only 750′ (229m). It’s rated as ‘moderate’ difficulty by most sites but this is another one that I found more difficult than it looked. It had been raining earlier in the day and the trail was very slick, a real issue on the steeper portions. This is another trail where I found an “angel” who kept an eye on the novice who seemed to be breathing too hard for comfort. I’m sure that he would have gotten up and back a whole lot faster if he hadn’t been keeping an eye on me. The view from the top is great – just ignore the broadcasting antennas and equipment behind you.

Sign post ahead. Next stop, the quiet zone. Photo by David P. Wahr

North Chilco Peak, 5,635′ (1,718m), located in the Idaho’s panhandle this climb was a more true wilderness experience for me. I only encountered two other people on the trail who were mountain biking. How they got to the summit, the final approach was through a boulder field, on bikes I’ll never know. But they said they did so who am I to argue. The view and silence were both spectacular! An easy climb with multiple switch backs and a well maintained trail. The trail is about 4 miles (6.4km) round trip and the elevation gain is nearly 1,500′ (457m).

At the Keyhole in 1988. I’m in the middle, my sister on the right and my brother-in-law’s friend on the left. Photo by Rodney D. Blanchard

It’s no coincidence that the peaks I’ve failed to summit are in the Rocky Mountains. Despite the best efforts of my cousin and his daughter, both avid outdoors enthusiast and climbers, I only made it to about 13,000′ (3,962m) on Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert which summits at 14,400′ (4,389m). The part of the mountain I climbed wasn’t difficult for most people who were used to the relatively thin air and , let’s face it, in better shape than I was. Thin air at least by this Michigan boy’s standards. The trailhead is at an elevation almost twice as high as any random mountain out East for gosh sakes! The trail was well maintained though and passed through lush forests before going above timberline. I may not have made it to the summit – which is a shame because I was actually fairly close based on the map. But, every foot at that altitude for me was felt about the same as trying to travel a half-mile. I was moving slow to say the least. I found the view so wonderful though that I was content to just sit and stare into space while my hiking companions went on ahead. At least the day was clear and calm.

I’m also sorry to say that I was never able to summit Longs Peak (14,259′ – 4,346m) in Rocky Mountain National Park. Realistically, I know that this goal is now out of reach for me. It is a climb which could require some climbing equipment, depending on conditions, and frankly my sense of balance probably isn’t up to crossing the “ledges” safely. I did make it to the Keyhole (13,200′ – 4,023m) in my youth and I’ll always savor that memory.

There have been other mountains and trails, of course, but these are the ones I remember best. What’s your favorite climb? I’d love to hear about it!

Onward and Upward!

The author enjoying the view on Mount Elbert.

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