MacRae Peak, Grandfather Mountain, NC, August 2010

The June 2011 Outdoor Blog Carnival poses two simple questions: what makes a great trail, and what’s your favorite example? Carnival host Outdoor Vancouver nails the first one in Top 8 Qualities of a Great Trail (and Brooks-Range Dispatch has a worthy follow-up), obliging the rest of us Outdoor Carnies to dig a little deeper.

Update: Check out all 9 entries in the Outdoor Blog Carnival.

Here’s what I came up with: we all know hiking’s good for the heart — the real one and the figurative one. And that the same things which build muscle on the trail also strengthen the spirit. So I figured, why not describe how the best trails give the soul a workout?

Grandfather Trail sign

One trail in Western North Carolina is guaranteed to leave every electron of your being feeling exercised: Grandfather Trail, whose 2.4 miles across the jagged summit of Grandfather Mountain are simply unforgettable. It’s the toughest hiking I’ve ever done, but no matter how wasted I feel when I’m finished, the next thought in my mind is: how soon can I try it again? (If my blogging duties didn’t oblige me to try other fascinating trails, I’d be up there almost every weekend.)

So with Grandfather Trail as my guide, these are my top 6 emotions inspired by the best hiking trails:

1) Aggravation

The best trails make you want to snap your hiking staff in two at least a few times. They push you further than you wanted to go, they run your water supply dry, they make you shout to the wilderness “when will this damn hill ever end?” Grandfather Trail is especially bedeviling: here’s one example:

Rocks, roots, arrow on Grandfather Trail

The blue arrow points you toward a subtle series of steps up this short rock face; after that, it’s a snaggle of roots and one of the many legendary ladders. And what comes next brings us to the next emotion:

2) Fear

Fear is a logical response to danger. Here’s a section of the Grandfather Trail where a slip could kill you dead.

Ladder and sky, Grandfather Trail

Hikers can’t see what’s beyond that cable to the left of the ladder. You grab hold, remind yourself that nothing bad can happen as long you’ve got solid footing and a strong grip, and work your way to the next obstacle. Only a fool feels no twinge of fear up here — the key is to use that fear to guide smart decisions. When it’s over you realize why people do things that seem so inherently dangerous: because they’ve learned to let their skills manage their fears. First time you do it, it’s quite a …

3) Surprise

The best trail always features the unexpected.

Trail through boulders

For example, how many trails seem to tunnel through solid rock? This is just one of the many “what’ll-it-throw-at-me-next?” qualities of Grandfather Trail.

But a great trail is more than an obstacle course. It must also elicit ….

4) Appreciation

Whether it’s a showy flower, a subtle mushroom, a leaping deer or a fleeing bobcat, you’re bound to see something on the Grandfather Trail that nurtures the sublime, in-the-moment pleasure of being out in nature.

Rhododendron, Grandfather Mountain, NC, June 2010

In the spring, Grandfather Trail is ablaze with wildflowers like this rhododendron, but any time of year will have some example of …

5) Wonder

The views along Grandfather Trail are mind-boggling, though not always photogenic.

Overlook from Grandfather Trail

Your senses experience things a camera misses: breezes hitting your face as clouds float past, views stretching to peaks you’ve hiked on another day; too far off for a camera to make out, but your eyes trigger a memory and your brain knows.

Finally, hiking Grandfather Trail to the summits of MacRae Peak and Calloway Peak is bound to inspire:

6) Exultation

There’s nothing like the sense of triumph from standing on the highest point for miles around.

High point at Grandfather Mountain

And just as a camera captures so little of the experience of hiking the best trails, a GPS unit reveals only a glimmer of how high you are when you’re standing at the top.

Best to leave it there and let other Outdoor Blog Carnies take their best shots at the June Challenge. Go here to find out how to contribute.


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