What Makes A Great Hiking Trail

Most hikers are out there seeking that next high. We are after the zen that is that perfect un-discovered trail.  We know a good trail when we have hiked it, yet we often don’t stop to think what makes a trail great.  This post offers my opinion on what makes a hiking trail stand out.  

Scenery
This is perhaps the most important factor in a really enjoyable hike.  It is tough to dislike any hike that shows off natures beauty in a unique and interesting way.  Some areas of Colorado (like the San Juans) offer breath taking scenery on almost every hike.  In many other areas, you have to look a little closer.  I have found that I enjoy some of the front range hikes more on my second or third visit.  Perhaps a different season has increased the beauty of the area. 

Payoff
I try to subscribe to the philosophy that it is all about the journey, not the destination.  However, it is just more satisfying when the best scenery is at the apex of your hike.  It makes it seem like it was worth putting in the effort, and sticking with it to the finish.   Some of my favorite payoffs are: a stunning summit view, a thundering waterfall, a tranquil alpine lake, or a flower filled meadow.  

Variety 
Nothing makes the miles tick by like a new discovery around every corner.  This is why I love hikes with lots of variety. Some examples of changes that keep a hike interesting:

  • Breaking out of timberline to alpine tundra
  • Good lookout spots with views as you climb the side of a mountain  
  • Changes in forest types from pine to aspen …
  • Crossing through a nice meadow 
  • A trail that occasionally flirts with a stream or river
  • Wildflowers along the trail,
  • Coming across a mountain goat, marmot, or moose
  • Climbing out of a canyon onto a ridge-line   

Challenge 
For some reason nature’s beauty is more enjoyable if you had to work hard to see it.  As strange as it may seem to the non hiker, the aching feet and sore butt are a sure sign of a great hike. This is always a moving target, as you get in better shape you will constantly seek harder hikes.  

An exciting creek crossing, or a hands on scramble are also add a fun challenge to any hike.  If it is a little bit scary, and a lot hard, you will probably be glad you did it when it is over.  “The Challenge” is why climbing Colorado’s 14ers is so popular. 

Solitude
Solitude is abundant in the wilderness, it is the reason why many of us are drawn to the wild.  However, when it comes to great hikes solitude can be hard to find.  When we find a really great hike, we want to tell the world about our discovery.  Some of us blog about it, some tell their friends, and others write guide books.  In any case, the word gets out about the really good trails.  Thankfully this does not mean that your desire for solitude is for not.  You can still find great trails that also offer solitude. You are just going to have to work a little harder, and do it differently than everybody else.  Here are my tips for reducing your company while hiking outstanding trails.  

  • Not all great trails are popular.  If it is in every guide book, and listed on tripadvisor it may be a great trail, but everyone else will be out hiking on it.   There are many really good trails that few people know about.  The internet, and local sports shops are great resources to find these hidden gems.  
  • Try a different season.  Many people have not yet discovered how great it is to hike in the other three seasons. This is especially true for lower altitude trails. You will avoid the 90 degree heat, and see much fewer people if you go in the off season.  Plus you get a different perspective.  The same hike is often completely different in each season.  
  • Get up early on a weekday.  Weekend warriors clog the trails on Saturday and Sunday.  If you want to be alone get up really early on a Wednesday and do the hike.  I often hike before work in the popular Roxburough state park in Denver.  I may run into one other person on the whole hike.  On a Saturday afternoon you can’t even find a parking place.  Early morning is also the best time to see wildlife, and offers some the best light for taking photographs.  
  • Another great way to get solitude is to go farther. This means driving far away from big cities, and popular tourist destinations. Once at the trail head hiking more miles than the average person.  This extra work will payoff with the peace and quiet you desire.  

A Few Examples of a Great Hike
Coming up with a great example is tough. There are so many outstanding hikes in Colorado.  This hike to Ice Lake Basin in the San Juans is a good example of a great hike.

The Colorado Trail has it all, and is unarguably a GREAT trail.  However, at 500 miles long the great is mixed with the mediocre. 

This relatively unknown hike to Browns Creek Waterfall in Salida is another good example  

If you have a better example please share it in the comments.  I would love to go hike it and judge for myself. 

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2 thoughts on “What Makes A Great Hiking Trail

  1. Dereki, Chicago basin is full of awesome. I am sure you will have a great time!! Hopefully none of your stuff gets chewed up by the marmots.

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