In my corner of the world, Summer is beginning to poke it’s head around the curtain and already I can sense the changing energy of the place around me. Days are getting longer and warmer and the people who live in Bend, Oregon — the ones who moved here for the outdoor playground, who relish in all things sun and fun — are pasting smiles on their faces as they bust out the summer toys (mountain bikes, climbing gear, trail running shoes, backpacks, etc.) and I’m right there with them.
I got word recently that the Cascade Lakes Highway has opened — the snowy road leading up to the countless lakes and still-snowy mountains, which is accessibly only by snow travel for the whole long winter — and that means camping and hiking and backpacking in our beloved peaks isn’t too far off.
I don’t know what it is about nature that I find undeniably rejuvenating, but taking off on a dirt path bound for some end that is sure to reveal an epic reward is exactly that. And while it’s one of the many reasons I love to call Bend home, it’s also something equally exciting for me when I travel.
In fact, hiking in a foreign place can often add to the thrill of the unknown. Not always the most accessible activity, sometimes just getting to the trailhead when you don’t speak the language and don’t know your way around can be an adventure in itself.
While I was standing on top of the third tallest mountain in Thailand last Fall, I took in the sheer beauty around me, and thought about some of the other amazing hikes I’ve been fortunate to accomplish while traveling. While there have been many more than this short list of five, these made it to the top for their extra sense of adventure…something I know you’ll love.
And one of the biggest perks of choosing a trail that’s slightly off the beaten path and a bit more adventurous is…
…you’ll get it mostly or entirely to yourself.
Kennicot Glacier in Kennicot, Alaska
This may or may not be one of the most incredible glaciers to hike over, but it was my first and, so far, only, and it was absolutely incredible. But let’s back up to the adventure part…
To get to Kennicot, one leaves Anchorage and drives nearly four and a half hours, passing through only one small roadside town. The second half of the drive is on gravel road. The last third of that road is potholed and narrow. But everywhere you go in Alaska is gorgeous.
Eventually you arrive at McCarthy, population 28, an old mining community for what used to be the Kennicot mine (further up the road; now a museum of sorts). Park your car on the south side of the river, and enter the village by walking across the bridge and along the trail. Cars are only allowed for the residents here. Hang here for a day or two, soaking up the live music at the local watering hole and checking out the river. We visited for Fourth of July so the town was unusually lively.
Just up the road a few miles (by shuttle) is Kennicot, where the mine was operated, and the Glaciar sits in the valley just below, with visible lines of shrinkage. We rented crampons at the local shop in town and headed out for an overnight jaunt across the ginormous cube, camping on the other side and eating dinner and breakfast with it in full view. Talk about memorable.
Pole Creek to Green Lakes with Middle Sister Summit
Since I do live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, it would be sacrilegious not to mention one of our local hikes. While the Three Sisters are iconic around the state, with South Sister by far being the most popular summit trek, followed by Middle, it might not sound very “off the beaten path.”
However, we did a thru-hike from Pole Creek near Sisters to the Green Lakes trailhead on Cascade Lakes Highway, with a summit hike up the Middle Sister. The tricky part? To get from the base of Middle Sister at Camp Lake over to Green Lake, there is no trail.
It’s surprising, since the Deschutes National Forest has such a great trail system, but this connection has yet to be made (unless you want to backtrack and add on several miles….ummm, no.). Over the hills and through the trees you go, in the general direction of Broken Top (since you know the lake lies between South Sister and Broken Top), until you meet up with one of the most popular day hike trails in the area —Green Lake Trail — and hike on out.
This was so fun I think I’ll do it again this summer.
Chiang Dow in Northern Thailand
Everything will tell you that you need a park guide to summit Chiang Dao Mountain, and everything will be right. You can choose to follow the rules and pay 1,000 THB ($30) to have what I noticed to be more of an escort and/or porter than a guide (unless you speak Thai), or you can be a rebel and go without. There’s really no need for a guide since the trail is nicely maintained, and there’s really only one way to go (see directions here for specifics).
I rented a motorbike (which I highly recommend since a guy I met at then top said he was charged 1,200 Thai baht for a ride!) Plus it’s less of a guide and more of an escort since they speak no English and the trail is easy to follow.
I did a little research and figured out how I could do it myself, and though this was a bit of a jerk/rebel move (which adds to the fun of it all!), the hike was also very enjoyable, and the view was 20x better than I had expected. In fact, the last 100 feet or so were incredibly beautiful that I would have been happy stopping there… but still nothing prepared me for the top.
Kantishna Hills in Denali National Park, Alaska
There are few designated hikes inside the 8 million acre Denali State Park, but you are not discouraged from making your own. I met a guy at the Wonder Lake campground who had heard of the summit hike we eventually did and it was tear-worthy. From Wonder Lake, it’s four miles to Kantishna, an old mining community quite literally at the end of the single, 89-mile, out-and-back road inside the park. Tourists aren’t allowed to drive their vehicles past Mile 15, so old school buses converted into park buses serve as shuttles.
Camping at Wonder Lake was itself an adventure (since you have to bus all of your camp gear in and be without transportation) and 100% worth it with the incredible views of Denali we were afforded, but a hike was calling.
We walked the four miles to Kantishna (since we didn’t want to wait for the next bus) and just after the Kantishna Roadhouse (one of the fanciest all-inclusive resorts in the area) and directly across from the Kantishna Skyline Lodge (a friendlier, more affordable option with views), you’ll see an old forest/logging/mining road. Take that.
It’s steep and long and feels like it might be leading to nowhere, but keep going.
At the top, you’ll see it fork into smaller hiking trails. Go left. Follow it all the way to the top, and when you’re tired and stop to look around, and you think you could just be done now because it’s so gorgeous already…keep going. You haven’t seen anything yet.
Eventually, you’ll land atop the mountain you didn’t quite realize you were climbing, and you’ll have 360-degree views of the park mountains on every side. It will take your breath away (the photo seriously doesn’t do it justice).
El Yunque in Baracoa, Cuba
While not off the beaten path per say, it’s still quite difficult for Americans to get to Cuba, and for travelers to get around, so El Yunque made the list. From the small beach town of Baracoa, you’ll see a flat top mountain near on the eastern shore of the island. That’s El Yunque, standing only 1,886 feet above sea level, but given that the sea is directly below it, the trail is pretty much straight up. Add in the heat and humidity known to this Caribbean island, and you’re in for a tough trek (I’ve never sweat so much in my life!), but one that is totally worth it. Not only is the ocean view from the top totally outstanding, but there are several places to soak in the cool river on the way up (and/or down), and the majority of the dirt trail is through the forest so it provides some shade and serenity.
Hiking in itself can be an adventure with a reward for the challenge, but add in a little more excitement and you’re in for one (or five) unforgettable experience!
What’s the most adventurous hike you’ve ever done?