Because the best person to pick your next favorite trail is the one who maps them for a living
Growing up in Los Angeles, my family and I only dabbled in the outdoors. Yes, we went to Yosemite, Mammoth Mountain, and the Wasatch Range in Utah—but never to hike all day and return to our campfire and tents. My first real hike wasn't until 2008 near Interlaken, Switzerland. At the time, I was in business school, studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Little did I know I'd eventually become a cartographer and geographer.) Near the Jungfrau Region, I started an arduous hike from the town of Interlaken toward the summit of Augstmatthorn. We never made it to the summit that day—but with steady switchbacks, a trusted friend, and spectacular views of the lakes from the ridge, I was hooked.
Now I make a variety of maps, some of which are trail maps. When I get to work on topographic, recreation projects, I meticulously review data (trail, recreation, road, geologic, land cover, topographic, and hydrologic) from organizations like the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. National Parks Service, the Buereau of Land Management, State Departments of Natural Resources and Recreation, and U.S. Geologic Survey. I start to ascertain the natural and cultural components via each data-layer. As the map comes to form, the wild gaps start to emerge, and I begin to dream about its identity and dimensions.
It’s difficult not to dream about future adventures in these places, too. I’m immensely appreciative of the raw solitude and supreme beauty of the wild lands we have here in the West. Thus, my 11 dream hikes in the western United States are based on this feeling. This is my bucket list, stuffed with summits and solitude that are guaranteed to knock your wool socks off.
Lost Coast Trail: California
In a remote, coastal strip of California, you can approach the Lost Coast Trail from three main entry points. With tall ferns and trees that overhang the trail, the Northern Coastal Region calls to me slightly more than the more-traveled ones, like the John Muir Trail, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, or Redwood National Park. Having grown up in California, I never heard about this costal region, and judging by the pictures of Jackass Creek Campground—I'm sure to make it there eventually. I imagine this hike is so remote, I wouldn't see a single stranger. That means more possibilities for wildlife encounters, self-reflection, and connecting with my fellow hikers.
Wild Rogue Wilderness Loop: Oregon
Oregon has a strong timber industry history. Evidence from aerial and satellite images shows the patchwork forest from the outskirts of the Willamette Valley all they way down to southern Oregon. In order to avoid clear-cut forests—where the ecosystem might be degraded—I picked a hike in the Wild Rogue Wilderness Area of Siskiyou National Forest. This route should give you the feeling of solitude in shoulder season. I'd aim to go in early spring or late autumn to prevent overheating and dehydration. The Rogue River is famously known for steelhead and salmon fishing, along with whitewater rafting opportunities, both of which require permits. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot otters, dear, and bears while fishing and hiking.
Lightning-Desolation Peak via the East Bank Trail: Washington
Coming from lower latitudes, I've heard a lot about Mount St. Helens and the Olympic Peninsula, two premier volcanic-mountain destinations for hiking, camping, skiing, and fishing. What doesn’t get as much notoriety or as many visitors, is the Ross Lake National Recreation Area (just east of North Cascades National Park). My friend from Bellingham describes the hike to Desolation Peak as “probably the best hike I’ve ever completed in Washington. Upon reaching the summit, you'll be rewarded with views of Little Jackass Mountain, Hozomeen Mountain, Skagit Peak, Nohokomeen Glacier, and the lovely fjord-like Ross Lake." The lookout, says my friend, was made famous by Jack Kerouac, who spent 63 days there during the summer of 1956. He wrote about his experiences working as a fire lookout in this remote area.
Petroglyph Canyon: Nevada
The default hiking mecca for Nevada lies in the eastern shore trails near Lake Tahoe, but that’s not the landscape and terrain I dream about in the state. I want to walk on the moon, in foreign and desolate lands of the desert, near ghost towns, silver mines, and bristlecone pines. And if I only have 48 to 72 hours in Las Vegas, I’m going to day-hike the Petroglyph Canyon in the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. The trail sits on BLM lands where you’ll find locals trail running and climbing. This desert hike has hundreds of petroglyphs to view in the 6.6 miles (out and back).
Hiked it? Adopt and map it here.
Livingston Mill-Castle Divide: Idaho
Just an hour and a half north of Sun Valley is the Livingston Mill-Castle Divide, perfect for two- to three-day adventures. From the Germania Creek and Washington Lake trail, singletrack traces over high passes surrounded by the White Clouds and Boulder Wilderness areas. Most, if not all, wilderness areas in the United States have restrictions on group size and motorized or mechanic use—one of the strongest regulatory boons to forever protect wildlife and wild land. I’d take my time with this trek because it offers three mountain passes with access to over 20 alpine lakes off many connecting trails (Washington Lake Trail, Boulder Chain Lakes Trail, Baker Lake Trail, and Wickiup Creek Trail to name a few). No wonder it’s ranked the #1 trail in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
The Norway Flats to the TUNA Yurt: Utah
The Norway Flats of Utah and the “Greatest Snow on Earth” make up my dream destination for a snow-hiking adventure. Whether you're hiking in with skis, a split-board, or snowshoes, make a reservation at the TUNA Yurt in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest before you arrive. The Uintas is an atypical mountain range, horizontally oriented across the state, stretching from east to west. Depending on your elevation and location within the range, I could imagine a unique sunrise or sunset with northern and southern foothills and farmlands adjacent to the range. This particular yurt overlooks a the majestic Boulder Creek. Up the mountain from the yurt, icy alpine views of Hourglass Lake, Little Elk Lake, and Big Elk Lake await.
Hiked it? Map it here.
Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: Arizona
Grand Canyon is the oldest geological wonder of the world. Hence, the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim is one of my dream hikes. The 48.8 miles is rated very difficult, and only the most experience trekkers should attempt this journey. It also makes my list because I can imagine there are fewer people here than in other areas of the notoriously crowded park. Fall and spring are the recommended times for this canyon crossing, so I’d probably go a couple weeks before Memorial Day or Halloween. If you want to trek this one, too, plan accordingly, and make sure to stop in National Park Visitor Center before heading out. The Grand Canyon can be a very dangerous place: Over 770 deaths have occurred here since 1869.
If you don’t have time for an epic trek in the Canyon—or you’re hiking under the sweltering summer sun—the day-hike on the Fossil Springs Trail to Fossil Creek Falls also seems sensational. Make sure you acquire a permit before driving out there.
Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail and Slaughter Canyon Trail: New Mexico
When I think about New Mexico, the first things that comes to mind are art, indigenous communities, rattlesnakes, and caves. Hiking in and around the Carlsbad Caverns National Park sounds like the perfect place to explore the Land of Enchantment's highlights—especially after I started caving and speleology in 2015. I'd specifically love to tackle Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail and Slaughter Canyon Trail. The cave trail is only accessible on a ranger-led tour in an effort to protect the integrity and ecosystem of the cave. The Clansman, a massive natural geologic formation of the cave, is one of many must-sees of the tour, and I’d like to discover more gems throughout the park and the adjacent Lonesome Ridge Wilderness Study Area.
Lily Lake Trail: Colorado
I’ve recently been working on a series of trail maps here in Colorado. As such, I noticed the Lily Lake Trail in the Huerfano River valley. On a clear day, I can imagine you’d be able to spot the tops of Blanca Peak, California Peak, Little Bear Peak, Mount Lindsey, and Ellingwood Point. Blanca Peak (14,344 feet), the tallest peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range, and Little Bear Peak (14,035 feet) are two of Colorado’s most difficult 14ers to hike and climb. In addition, Mount Lindsey (14,042 feet), Ellingwood Point, (14,042 feet) and California Peak (13,855 feet), encompass the southern apex of the San Luis Valley—revered by the surrounding farming towns and villages of Southern Colorado.
This trail is somewhat short at 3.7 miles—and for a more challenging day, I’d summit Mount Lindsey or tackle a nondescript bushwhacking route up to Huerfanito. With free camping at the trailhead and primitive camping up along the Huerfano River, this seems like an ideal one-or two-night escape.
Titcomb Basin Trail and Indian Basin Trail: Wyoming
I'd be happy to hike just about any trail in the Wind River Range. The fame of Yellowstone and the Tetons often overshadow the Wind Rivers, and in my opinion, they should be mentioned in the same breath. The Wind Rivers have the #1 Gem in Wyoming, Titcomb Basin. Titcomb Basin and Indian Basin are two large drainage basins, which roughly 7,000 people visit annually. I can imagine the U-shaped valley, carved by glaciers and wind, surrounded by some of Wyoming’s massive peaks.
I'm also eager to trek the Big Sandy Cirque of the Towers. There are more than 200 miles of trails in the Wind River Range, most of them connecting to the CDT, on the west side of the range. For those adventurous souls in our hiking community, I request you to add more data and trails for the east side of the range—especially near the northern peaks (Yukon, Klondike, Philsmith, Desolation, and Gannett) and the Milky Lakes.
Hiked in the Wind Rivers? Map your tails here.
Slough Creek Trail: Montana
Talk about remote, wondrous, and bountiful. Although this trail starts in Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park, it quickly crosses into Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Few travel the full length of this marathon-distance route. Slightly edging out some stellar hikes in Glacier National Park, this hike makes the list because of its fly fishing, wildlife, and wildflower opportunities. Hiking Project contributor Tom Carter says, “The broad, open meadow of spectacular Slough Creek is a hiker’s dream and a fisherman’s holy grail.” Make this trek even better by crossing Independence Pass and returning via Buffalo Fork Trail (or visa versa).