It was fall 2015, and I had just been laid off from a soul-sucking job at Microsoft. I definitely needed a lift to my spirits. So I hit the road in the West with a carload of camping gear, two bikes and my hiking boots. My only plan was to “experience joy and beauty.”
My Spirit Quest found unlimited joy and beauty in our National Parks. As I think back on that trip, it’s hard to pick out a highlight.
Was it Crater Lake National Park, where I did my favorite bicycle ride ever one gorgeous day? Or perhaps it was the day I rode in Arches National Park and then did two incredible hikes to immerse myself in the mind-blowing rock formations? And what about all the rides and hikes at Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, Rocky Mountain, Teton and Yellowstone National Parks?
On top of it all, the National Parks are an amazing bargain. An America the Beautiful Pass costs just $80 for an entire year, giving you access to the most beautiful places in our country.
If you’re 62, a Senior Pass gives you unlimited access for just $10 — for the rest of your life.
You may complain about the federal government, but tell me what agency delivers more at such a bargain?
I’m not the only one who knows the secret of a National Parks road trip. As my Spirit Quest went on, I met so many people doing just what I was doing. Most were retired, doing trips on the cheap by camping, and spending days really exploring these stunning places. In our individual quests, there was an immediate connection.
So happy birthday, National Parks. Whenever I need a lift to my spirits, I think of you.
Snow falls over Crater Lake National Park.
Sunset in the Windows section of Arches National Park.
I’ve been coming to this spot for the last three years. With the Perseid Meteor Shower in full swing, I decided to come back, take in the show and let the beauty of Mount Rainier wash over me one more time.
It’s high season on Mount Rainier right now. The parking lot was jammed and spots were scarce on the very busy dirt road coming into the lake.
The route to Echo and Observation Rocks starts on the very popular Spray Park Trail, and dozens of backpackers and day hikers were out enjoying the wildflowers and views of Rainier.
That all changed about four miles in. Taking a well-marked climbers’ trail, I headed to great camping spot — my happy place — that I discovered several years ago at the base of the Flett Glacier.
It’s in a wonderful, protected bowl with a view of the glacier stretching toward the Willis Wall on Mount Rainier and framed by Echo Rock on the east and Observation Rock on the west.
Once there, I saw one other hiker for the rest of the day. That evening, I had the mountain, the meteor show and a perfect camping spot to myself.
Getting your permit: You’ll need an overnight permit for backcountry camping on Rainier. To do this, you need to say the magic words at the ranger station: “I’d like a cross-country zone permit for Ptarmigan Ridge.” Cross-country permits are allowed in certain areas on Rainier, allowing hikers to camp outside of established backcountry camps.
It’s cold up there: Because you’re camping at 7,300 feet next to a glacier, you’ll be surprised how quickly things cool off at night. Pack warm clothing for the evening. I arrived to a 70-degree high, followed by freezing temperatures that night.
Blister rating: Three out of five stars. The Spray Park Trail is a freeway. It has a difficult climb about two miles in, and then once you’re at Spray Park, the route keeps going up. Near the camping spot, a bit of fairly easy boulder-hopping is necessary.
Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia
Total distance, plus side trips: 45 miles
When you hike to uber-popular Mount Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies, expect to share the scenery.
Is that a bad thing? Not at all.
Hundreds of hikers joined us at the “Matterhorn of the Rockies,” but the crowds didn’t detract from the beauty of this very special place. In some ways, the diverse crowd — which included Japanese tour groups, American dirt-baggers, families with dogs, wealthy fly-in lodge lizards, and straight-up hard-core backpackers — seemed to add to the experience.
No bad actors ruined the scene, which felt a little like attending a backwoods good-vibes music festival filled with peace and love.
The best way to take this journey is point-to-point, from Sunshine Village ski area to the Mount Shark trailhead more than 36 hiking miles away to the south.
Our group — Dale Delong, Ken Sands, Doug Orr and the SkiZer — rendezvoused in nearby Canmore, Alberta, a popular mountain town just southeast of Banff. We left one car at the exit point at Mount Shark and then headed in one car to Sunshine.
You have to love a hike that starts with a gondola ride at a ski area. By taking the Sunshine gondola (open only on weekends in summer months), we saved ourselves about 3.8 miles of hiking and easily 2,000 vertical feet of climbing.
Exiting the gondola cabin, we did a short climb to Sunshine Meadows and started what would be a stunning first day of hiking mostly above-treeline along the Continental Divide.
It was all scenic fun for the first 6.4 miles, but when we reached Citadel Pass (elevation 7,700 feet) it got serious. We took a knee-buckling 2,000-foot descent over 2.7 miles to Porcupine Campground, our first night’s stop.
The campground was overrun when we arrived, but a friendly, help-your-neighbor vibe prevailed. We eventually found a place for the tents and settled in.
Day 2 was a 10.5-mile grinder to the base of Assiniboine. Much of the hike is done in the woods, but eventually we hit treeline near Og Lake and got a taste of what we were in for when we finally got a view of the great peak.
Mount Assiniboine (11,870 feet) is an amazing sight. Jagged, vertical rock, hanging glaciers, cascading waterfalls — the Matterhorn of the Rockies has it all. It stands above a gorgeous basin dominated by the high-mountain Lake Magog where we would spend our next three nights.
The Lake Magog Campground was our base for exploring the area on some excellent day hikes. It’s a huge place, complete with several cooking areas (including a covered shelter) and several pit toilets. The scene is festive and cooperative — everyone is there to enjoy the beauty.
Our journey out to Mount Shark would span 16 miles over two days. We stayed at Big Springs (10 miles from Assiniboine), an excellent forested campground with a frigid spring-fed river made for soaking sore feet.
The final day was a sprint for the car, followed by showers and a burger run in Canmore, the perfect end to a week in the Rockies.
Assiniboine Lodge “tea time”: The rich folks fly in and stay at Assiniboine Lodge, about 2 km (1.2 miles) from the Lake Magog Campground. From 4-6 p.m., the lodge hosts a popular tea/happy hour where cakes, tea, lemonade, beer and wine may be purchased. It’s fun (the SkiZer heartily enjoyed his three $7 beers) and quite a people-watching experience.
Helicopter services: If you don’t have the juice to make it to Assiniboine on foot, you can purchase helicopter transport. Many at the Lake Magog Campground were doing just that, saving their energy for day hikes around the area. In addition, if you want to lower your hiking weight, you can also send gear via helicopter (our group sent 30 pounds of food) and pick it up at the Assiniboine Lodge.
Best day hikes: We did two excellent hikes — “The Nub,” a beautiful 1,200-foot climb just north of Assiniboine, and Wonder Peak, a taxing 2,250-foot scramble to a spectacular viewpoint to the southeast.
Bear worries: Considerable time and energy are spent worrying about grizzly bears in this area. We saw none. That said, we carried bear spray and saw some hikers carrying air horns.
Blister rating: Five out of five. Doug can attest to the pain.
I was dubious about the riding on Lopez Island before I visited.
Not anymore. I spent two excellent days riding on Lopez and its rep as the best place to ride in the San Juan Islands of Washington state is well-deserved. With rolling terrain and rural roads, Lopez is made for exploring by bike.
I wasn’t the only one doing the riding. I arrived at the 9:30 a.m. ferry from Anacortes and got in line with about 20 other cyclists. Most were doing day trips on the island and planning to return on a later ferry.
I was camping. After docking, I rode the five miles to Spencer Spit is a great park, with an pretty beach to explore and many walking trails. Once I got my bearings, I hit the road for a 20-mile ride to the Lopez Village and a loop around the west side of the island.
Eagles soared, harbors looked quaint, farmers bailed hay. Very little auto traffic intruded on the lovely scene.
The next day, I went to the southern end of the island for a lovely 26-miler. More of the same: I topped rolling hills, saw small island farms and picturesque harbors.
Long stretches went by when I saw no cars at all, only deer, forests, farms and other cyclists. At one point, I stopped to snap a picture. A friendly islander out for a walk stopped and said, “Oh, look up there — it’s the baby!”
She pointed out a nest high in a Douglas fur tree where a fledgling eagle tested its wings.
“Cool,” I said.
We parted and I headed back to Spencer Spit, flying along in the good vibes of Lopez Island.