Great day hikes near Boston: Hiking Mt. Wachusett

Today, for the first time in a while, I feel a literal spring in my step. Also a metaphorical one. For weeks now, I have felt strangely weighed down, either by my actual body feeling stiff and creaky, or my head feeling clouded into inertia. I’m not a fan of this feeling, which is why it feels good to write this post.

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The literal spring comes from my legs feeling like they finally got some use as I hiked up, down, and around Mt. Wachusett in Central Massachusetts this past weekend. More on the details of that hike can be found below, if you just came here for the hiking details and have no need to hear my philosophizing about life.

A lot of folks out there talk about the power of a detox – and I sort of feel like that’s what yesterday’s 4-hour hike was for me. It was a chance to worry about nothing more than a few immediate, real-time things:

Sucking in enough oxygen to keep climbing up;

Placing my shaky feet to avoid breaking an ankle on the way down;

Watching (and occasionally helping) my dog navigate her way down some pretty steep rocks;

Oh, and of course, letting the gorgeous blue/green colors of summer in New England wash over my pale, office-bound, city dweller’s body.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures, and failed at taking a panoramic photo (see the really long and skinny photo I posted here), proof that I probably shouldn’t even have taken out my phone as I enjoyed a nearly perfect summer New England Day.

We talk of hiking as therapy, and I guess, in my case, it’s true. I definitely felt like I’d hit the reset button on my soul this time around.

Now, for those who are interested, here are details of this hike.

Mt. Wachusett is the tallest mountain (just over 2000 feet) within a relatively short (just over an hour) drive from Boston. I have a hard time making the trip to NH (for Mt. Monadnock or the White Mountains) in a day, mostly because of how much my dog hates being in the car (plus I am SO BAD at getting up before the sun when I’m hiking solo), so finding something with a bit of elevation a little closer to home is always a bonus. I hiked this hill last year but took a relatively short route that left me feeling less than challenged. So this year I scoured the interwebs for other hikes and found a good one. Here’s an abbreviated description – I recommend getting a map of the Mt. Wachusett State Park so you can either follow this or find your own route. There was a whole box of them at the trailhead, or you can download it here.

From Boston, take Exit 25 (140 South) off of Route 2. Follow the signs to the Mt. Wachusett Ski Area. Avoid the first parking lot you see and turn right onto Bolton Road to the main Ski Area parking lot. Look for a light brown warehouse to the right of the main lodge. The trailhead is right next to it.

Your first leg is on Balance Rock Trail (yellow blazes). You will, after a relatively short and mild uphill hike, realize why it’s called Balance Rock trail.

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There are lots of rocks and roots on this entire hike, FYI, so be prepared.

A little way beyond Balance Rock you’ll come to an intersection – take the Old Indian Trail. This trail will cross a few other trails, and also a few (4) ski slopes, and one summit road, but basically, just stay on this trail as it’ll take you to the summit. It’s about 1.2 miles long. There are a few places that are fairly steep, but nothing truly difficult, although if it’s rained recently, there will be mud and the rocks could be slippery, so it’s worth proceeding carefully. This was my first real uphill in quite a while, so I stopped several times to…ahem…catch my breath, but the good news about this hike is that it’s never the same challenge for very long. If it gets steep, it’ll flatten out pretty soon. Unlike a hike into the Whites, for example, you’re not facing 3 miles of steady uphill until you get to the good stuff.

Right before you hit the summit you’ll come upon a ski lift platform with a lovely view of a lake – if one of the gondolas is open for lounging, take it, and remember that these summer days are what make the long, snowy winter bearable.

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Anyway, the good stuff on this hike is 360-degree summit views that on a clear day, will show you the Boston skyline, the Berkshires, and Mt. Monadnock. The summit is likely to be crowded unless you’re hiking really early, but the views are worth it. Definitely make sure you climb up to the viewing platform and snap some pictures of the prettiness. There are plenty of warm rocks to grab a snack and a drink on as you soak in the views.

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There are several options to get down from the summit. You could turn around and go back the way you came, but I’m a loop person, so I chose a different way down.

Harrington Trail, my way down, gets pretty steep and rocky. It reminded me a lot of coming down East Oceola in the White Mountains. There were a few times when my pooch watched me slide down a big rock on my butt and gave me a look as if to say “I’m not jumping that.” Dogs should be on leash in the park, but on the hike down, I did let Sadie off occasionally because it was simply safer for her and me to let her find her own way.

This trail heading down was significantly less crowded than the Indian Trail heading up, but it was also later in the day so that probably contributed to the relative peace and quiet. Anyway, Harrington Trail will cross two “roads” as it descends, and you want to take the 2nd one and head right. This is West Road, and it’s flat and goes on for a while. I was getting pretty zen at this point, so I don’t know the mileage, but I’d say it’s at least a mile or a mile and half before you reach the gate marking the end of the road.

There, you’ll turn right onto West Princeton Road, which is open to traffic, so be careful. You’ll stroll along here for a bit, and then you’ll want to take a right onto North Road, also marked by a gate. This road climbs a bit, but it’s gentle.

There will be an intersection relatively soon, and you want to take a left onto it. This is Balance Rock Road, and soon you will find yourself back at the intersection of Balance Rock Trail. Take a left onto the trail and head back past Balance Rock to the parking lot.

I read that this hike should take 5-6 hours and is rated moderate/difficult. I would say that, unless you are with kids, stopping frequently, and/or having a several course meal on the summit, it’s more like 4+ hours. The total mileage was about 6.25 miles. There are only two parts I would call “difficult”: one stretch of Indian Trail near the summit, and coming down Harrington Trail. Otherwise, this is a pretty easy/moderate hike, with the benefit of a lot of different terrains so you never get bored, and plenty of flat strolling that allows you to just zone out and enjoy being in the woods.

So if you can’t make it up to the White Mountains, this is a nice alternative. It’s not a 4,000 footer, but it’ll get your heart pumping and give your legs a little challenge.

If you do this hike, let me know what you think in the comments! Have a great day, everyone.

A toast to the slow and average

I’m not gonna lie…I’m slightlyhugely addicted to my hiking and running tracking aps. I love logging my treks on MapMyRun and MapMyHike, I love trying to figure out my pace, and I love seeing what my (few) friends on the aps are up to. It gives me that little jolt of competitiveness: “oh, look, he/she ran/walked/hiked…I need to get out there and do it too!”

However, this also happens on a regular basis:

I finish a 2.5 mile run or maybe a 4 mile hike. I’m feeling good and proud of myself. And then my phone buzzes, and I see it:

So-and-so ran 5 miles at an 8 minute pace. 

Another so-and-so hiked 12 miles in 4 hours. 

Or Alex Honnold free-solos El Capitan.

And ugh, cue the wha-wha of a deflated-sounding trumpet. Because damn, I am SLOW!

When I first got into running in Boston, about 3 years ago, I figured it would be fun to find a running group. I stumbled on one right in my ‘hood, and I was excited, because they said on their facebook page “all levels welcome!” Then I started getting notices about runs with descriptions like “We’ll do an easy run on Tuesday. 5 miles, about a 9-mile pace.” A friend who was running a 10k said casually to me once: “Just train for an hour and you’ll be fine.” That’s basically a 10 minute mile, FYI.

I have been “running” for 3 years and the fastest mile I’ve ever run was 10:30, and I wouldn’t have minded getting some oxygen after I was done.

I am a slow runner.

The same can be said of hiking. I admit to being slightly terrified of joining a hiking group, because I’m pretty sure that their “moderate” pace would leave me gasping for breath within a few strides. It’s one of the reasons I like hiking alone, even as I’m lapped by children, dogs, and those incredible lean-legged mountain men/women.

I might be called an average hiker, whatever that means.

I don’t look like a runner. I don’t look like a hiker. And frankly, it’s easy to let such comparisons get you down. But to that, I’ve gotta call bulls#!%.

I don’t know the stats (and Google didn’t give them to me in 10 seconds of searching, so I gave up), but I do know that those of us who are out there hiking and running are NOT in the majority. We are a small percentage of the population. And again, I’m guessing, but I bet the slow/average folks outnumber the super fast folks. It’s just that the fast folks will win the races and get to the top first and generally be more visible (and usually less red of face and less out of breath).

And there is only one Alex Honnold.

So to my fellow 11, 12, 13 (or more) minute-milers…you go, friends! You are awesome and you should be proud of yourself.

To my fellow bringing-up-the rear/stopping-to-catch-your-breath hikers…keep on with your bad selves. You will get there eventually, and don’t let anyone ever make you feel less than proud of yourself for doing it in the first place.

To the slow and average among us, I salute you with my Nalgene bottle, and wish you happy trekking. I’ll be happy to high-five you as we are lapped by the gazelles at our next 5K, or stop to “admire the view” with you on our next hike. Anytime.

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Off the beaten path: Vermillion Cliffs National Monument

So, who knew that National Monuments were such a big deal on our national political stage? You may have forgotten amid the daily…er…activity coming out of the White House, but a while back, President Trump ordered a “review” of 25 National Monuments, as designated by Presidents (via the 1906 Antiquities Act) going back to 1996, amid talk of “giving control of the land back to the people.” Much as I’d like to, I’m not going to get into the political argument here, because, well, I am an unabashed lover of national parks and monuments and that’s that.

Instead, let me introduce you one of the monuments on the list, which I had the good fortune to visit on my trip out to Southwest Utah a couple of months ago.

I’ve already written about exploring a tiny part of the unbelievably vast and wonderful Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (which is also on Trump’s list). But this visit was unique in that I didn’t know I was heading into a National Monument. In fact, I didn’t really know where I was heading, period.

After quite a few days of planning our own itineraries, this part of our trip was surrendered entirely to a tour company (Dreamland Safari Tours –  I highly recommend them), which made me unreasonably happy. For a day, someone else was going to drive us; I didn’t have to worry about navigating or finding a good place to eat or what activity we were going to do next. We just got in our suburban and let our guide, Steve, drive us out to the middle of nowhere.

Now, it turns out that we were heading south and east from our base in Kanab, Utah, into the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. Apparently, somewhere near this part of the country, there is a famous place called The Wave; it’s so popular the lottery to get permits resembles that of Hamilton on Broadway. We, however, were heading in a different direction, to explore South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket. Those words meant nothing to me, honestly – I really didn’t know what we were about to see, but I had faith that it would be awesome, like most things we encountered on this trip.

So anyway, 6 of us piled into our monster vehicle and settled in for a 2 hour drive on a chilly, misty, cloudy day. We headed far, far out onto a dirt road, and when we stopped to let the air out of our tires in anticipation of a bumpier ride, we got to view these gorgeous red cliffs, that it turns out, are the Vermillion Cliffs for which this monument is named. Supposedly you could see endangered condors here sometimes; we didn’t.

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Photo by Shawn Bagci

This was our last chance for an outhouse, and then we headed deeper into the Monument, the road becoming more and more rutted, and the terrain more and more remote. We passed farms scratched out of the desert, saw jackrabbits, and even had to slow down for some horses that were sharing our road.

Eventually, we arrived at the trailhead for South Coyote Buttes, which was unremarkable – just a path through red sand with various shrubs and bushes surrounding us. We had about a mile to hike in, all flat, and still, I really didn’t understand what were about to encounter.

Then…this came in to view:

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Photo by Shawn Bagci

As we got closer, I realized the formations were all some variation of this incredibleness:

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I don’t even have a frame of reference to describe these formations; they’re unlike anything I’ve seen before. We could tell they were shaped by water – sometimes it felt like we were walking on the ocean floor – and we could only imagine what the colors would look like on a clear day. But on this day, the peaks and swirls and lines were shrouded in fog that moved in and out around us, hiding and revealing a magical landscape that we could wander mostly at will. The light changed constantly; sometimes the base color was red, sometimes orange, sometime lavender. There were no trails; we just wandered and took pictures and slid down the sand and scrambled up the sandstone and generally had a blast. Here are just a few of my favorite shots:

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This was the entrance to a section called Hogwarts:

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When is saw this one, I immediately exclaimed – that’s the Sorting Hat! Which was not as big a deal to my fellow travelers, who apparently were not Harry Potter fans:

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I was completely enchanted by this little arch:

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Our guide said this section didn’t have a name, so we dubbed it The Kremlin:

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This is the Yellow Wave. A smaller version than the more famous one, apparently, but clearly the best:

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We eventually and reluctantly had to head back so we could get to our 2nd destination and have lunch. Which we did, bouncing on more rutted dirt roads as snow began to fall.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that we were expecting rain, but snow? Not on the itinerary. So, when we got to the parking area for White Pocket, our plans for a picnic were scuttled by a wet, slushy mess coming down. So we ate in the car – a sandwich buffet that, like always happens when you’re hiking, tasted divine. And then we set out to explore White Pocket.

It was snowing so hard that it wasn’t easy to get a sense of the entirety of this area, and full confession; I was really cold during this part of the trip, so I wasn’t paying as much attention. But my memory is of a large, ocean-liner like formation on the right, and a lumpy, brain-matter-like formation to the left. The place must be utterly stunning with a blue sky and sunshine, but did I mention we were basically in the middle of a snowstorm? Yup.

But intrepid folks that we were, we weren’t going to let a little snow slow us down. Except when it got all slushy and slippery on the gray rock…that definitely made us step more carefully. My favorite moment of this trek was when Shawn, my hiking partner, decided to go scramble up one of the tougher parts to get up out of a canyon, and the rest of us took a slightly easier route. I’m usually a follower when we’re out on hikes – it’s just my nature. But I was ahead of the group, and our guide basically waved me on and told me to find my own way out of the canyon while he waited for the others. “Just go right at that waterfall and you’ll be fine!” So up I went. There really was a waterfall pouring down the rock (it’s not there normally, but the snow/rain changed the entire nature of the place) making it really slippery. It took me a while, but I got myself up there and stood all alone, turning a slow, awed circle amid the silence until Shawn appeared on the ridge far above me.

I mentioned it was cold – I put my camera away for most of White Pocket, so the following cool photos are all by Shawn:

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Then it was back to the car and the blessed heater, and a long drive back to Kanab through a pretty serious snowstorm.

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As we drove, I couldn’t help but think about the math of this little trip. See, a permit is required to visit South Coyote Buttes, and according to our guide, the Bureau of Land Management issues about 40 of those a day. So, just for fun, if each group has 6 people in it, that’s 240 people a day who get to see what we saw. When you think about the volume of tourists that make their way through national parks and other attractions in our country, it’s a pretty elite club we joined that day. I found myself feeling incredibly grateful to know that such remote, amazing, unusual places exist, and that they are being protected. And that somehow, I got to see them.

Someday, I hope I get to go back, and maybe bring my niece along with me. Hopefully these magical places will still be protected when that day comes.

You should hike this*: Angels Landing

One lazy Sunday, a week or so before I left for a hiking/exploring vacation in Utah/Arizona (see previous posts here and here), I typed “Angels Landing images” into Google.

See, I’d heard things about this hike. My hiking partner was excited about it, but he’s of a more adventurous bent than I am, so I decided to read more.

For the next hour, I perused blog post after blog post about the Angels Landing hike. I read articles about people who’d fallen and died on this hike. I read posts that said “it’s not a hard hike at all!” and others that said they’d watched “hardened rock climbers weep and hug the path in fear.”

Clearly, the interwebs were not of the same mind on this one.

But hey, it’s the era of fake news, so I’m getting pretty good at cobbling together some truth out of all the hyperbole. At least, I think I am. You’ll have to fact check me on that.

When I set my computer down and pondered what I’d just read, I realized that I had every intention of doing this hike – that I really wanted to be able to say I’d done it. I noticed a real, honest-to-goodness flutter of butterflies in my stomach at the thought. And to be honest, I welcomed the flutter. There’s not much that gets my blood flowing (in a good way) these days.

Fast forward a week or so, and I’m nursing a sprained ankle, acquired the night before, and it’s a gorgeous sunny morning, and it’s Angels Landing day. I remembered all the images, all the warnings. I waffled. I hemmed and hawed, and finally, knowing we needed good weather to do it, said “Fine. Let’s go for it.” And off we went.

As we hopped off the Zion bus, this is what we saw.

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Photo credit: Shawn Bagci

“We’re going up that,” my hiking buddy said delightedly, and I probably said some variation of “Are you #^%ing kidding me?”

The first section is relatively low-key, consisting of long, fairly steady uphill switchbacks; the path is wide and almost paved, for lack of a better term, and there are stunning views around every turn. As long as you can trudge uphill, you can do this part of the hike. Just wear sunscreen and a hat and bring water – there’s not a lot of shade.

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Next you’ll come to a lovely little section called Refrigerator Canyon, where temperatures drop and the terrain rolls a bit more rather than just heading up.

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Then you’ll come to Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 20 or so switchbacks that take you up the cliff, in a hurry. Again, the path is wide and obstacle free, so really, most hikers can do this. Just stop and take pretty pictures/breathe whenever you need to.

Zion 2017 Day 2 (6 of 32)After about 2 miles, you’ll arrive at Scout’s Landing, which has lovely views and provides a nice place to pause and ponder if you’ll continue on to Angels landing.

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If you don’t, head back down and pat yourself on the back for your sensibleness. Because the next part of the hike is nothing to joke about.

For the final .5 of this hike, you’ll be climbing up a fin of rock with sheer 800-1000 foot drops on both sides (stop reading here, Mom & Dad).

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There are chains and steps in the rock, which help, but you are exposed in many places; *if you fear heights or get vertigo or are hiking with kids I don’t recommend this. You may also have to navigate around other hikers, as there’s only 1 way up/down and the hike is popular.

While there are a few places that made those butterflies come back, and might take your breath if you look over the edge…

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…in most cases, the path is wider than the fearful bloggers would have had me believe. And unless you’re climbing really early, you’ll be taking it slow as your fellow hikers make their way up and down.

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Photo credit: Shawn Bagci

After you’ve scrambled and hauled yourself up the ridge, the views at the top are just…worth it.

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Zion 2017 Day 2 (17 of 32)It’s worth pointing out that this is a hike you should avoid in rain, snow, lightening, or high winds. We knew a storm was coming, so we headed back down a little sooner than I’d have liked (plus, it gets crowded up there around midday). As you head back down the way you came, I recommend giving thanks for those who installed the chains, and then enjoying Walter’s Wiggles on the downhill.

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Before you know it, 5 miles will have passed and you’ll have conquered Angels Landing.

So here’s the bottom line if you’re considering this hike; I’m not an amazing hiker. I’m slow, cautious, and prone to sucking wind on extended uphills. And I loved this hike…the challenge of it, the variety, the incredible views. It does have risk, but so do most things in life. So if you’re in decent shape, careful, but still open to a little adrenaline rush, I recommend it.

I hope I get to do it again someday, so I can look up from watching my feet a few more times.

 

 

 

You must go here: Lower Antelope Canyon

For those who don’t know, I recently returned from 8 days of exploring the southern parts of Utah (with a few side trips to Arizona). Blog posts about the adventures will trickle out over time, because, well, writing them helps me cling to shards of that vacation buzz…you know…the buzz that real life tends to squash pretty darn quick. Here’s the first one, about squeezing through slot canyons in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

For the second one, I’m going to show you a place that, if you are anywhere near it at any point in your life, and you are physically able, you MUST visit. It’s that cool. I mean it. It’s called Lower Antelope Canyon, and it’s located in Page, Arizona. Here’s a teaser photo just to keep you reading:

The night before our scheduled tour of Lower Antelope Canyon, we bunked in Kanab, Utah. Kanab is a tiny border town with perhaps 4 decent restaurants (the one we ate at, the Rocking V Cafe, was wonderful and I highly recommend it). Kanab’s proximity to all the cool things in Utah and Arizona make it a good place to base a trip out of.

We had a few hours to kill, so I tried to find a movie theater within shouting distance; there was a one-screen old-style theater and after that, you’d have to drive 90 minutes to find the next one. I mention this because I gave fleeting thought to chucking it all and just moving there, but yeah, I find I like a bit more civilization.

Anyway, the next morning, we hopped in the car and headed east toward Page. The drive is a bit over an hour. Page is right on the edge of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, which is full of vacation-y activities. It really does feel like the middle of nowhere out there in the desert.

Lower Antelope Canyon is on Navajo Land. There are two tour companies within shouting distance of each other. We used Dixie Ellis. Ken’s Tours is also nearby.

Fair warning – if you don’t like crowds, this might not be for you, but honestly, I’d recommend you suck it up and do it regardless. The place is that magical. At any rate, this is not a rugged hike like you’ll find in other parts of Utah and Arizona. If you’re able to climb up and down a ladder, you can do these tours.

You’ll be assigned to a group of about 15 and then you’ll take an easy walk through sandy rock to the entrance to the canyon. There, a bunch of metal ladders will drop you down probably about 25-30 feet into the earth. And then, just like that, you’re in the canyon.

Slot canyons are cracks in the earth that have been carved into canyons by water and time. This photo, taken after we climbed out of the canyon, gives you a sense of the scale.

Looking at a Slot Canyon from above

Lower Antelope Canyon has been made “famous” by a photo that appeared on Microsoft desktops at some point. Because of the way the light falls through the cracks in the rock down to the canyon floor, the photos you will be able to take down there, even if all you have is a smart phone, are nothing short of incredible. Our guide, an aspiring photographer, was eager to show us tricks on how to play with the light. His biggest bit of advice for those of us with DSLRs was to play with our white balance. In the photos that will follow you’ll see two color palettes, orange and purple. The orange was achieved by shooting in Daylight mode, and is most true to what it actually looked like.

The purple/pink is achieved by shooting in Fluorescent mode. The first time I did this, I laughed out loud because the result was so unbelievably beautiful.

The shot below is closer to what it actually looked like down there. The magic of the place comes from seeing the light beaming down from above – you can see the sky but you’re deep in the earth, and it’s breathtaking. Our guide told us not to photograph the sky because it would screw up the exposure, but I couldn’t resist.

The canyon is wide and the floor is sandy; the walking is easy. You have to watch your head occasionally, but really, the hardest part is not bumping into your fellow explorers because you’re gaping at the beauty and taking a million pictures. Here are a few of my favorites:

Below is the exact same photo taken with the two different white balance settings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you see the lady with her hair blowing back?

It looks like fabric, doesn’t it? I promise, it’s solid rock.

I suspect this might be the place where the Microsoft Desktop shot was taken. Minus the bird poop.

What I find most cool about these photos is that many of them don’t actually look like what I saw down there. I have to use my memory for that. Which is why you shouldn’t just rely on my photos to show this place to you. You need to go. If you are at Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Glen Canyon Recreation Area, even the Grand Canyon…this place is worth the drive.

Do it. You won’t regret it.