Throwback Thursday: Dusk hike to Grotto Falls, #hike30 of the #52hikechallenge

So yeah, it’s been a little busy around my life, y’all. Finding/securing/moving in to a new apartment, figuring out a new job, hunting foliage and views in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s all good stuff, but it means I’ve had little time to do more than experience whatever event or emotion is right in front of me before moving on to the next…not a lot of time for blog-worthy introspection.

This is why I decided to force myself to write tonight. Because amid all the wonderful, I worry that I will forget the lessons and discoveries. So without any more ado, let’s dive in.

Exactly two weeks ago I was in the Smoky Mountains with a friend, enjoying one of our twice/thrice yearly adventures. It was day 7 of 12, but it was only our 2nd full day in the Smokies. Until the day prior, we’d been adventuring amid waterfalls and caves, but we hadn’t done any real hiking up anything worth writing home about. It’s worth noting that there had been a few uphill sections and those had pretty much kicked my ass, because, you see, I have been living at sea level for several months now. Not just on flat land, but literally next to the sea. I hadn’t been up a real hill since I’d left Boston back in the summer. Plus, living in a place where the only real way to get around is to drive, I’d let myself get out of shape. No doubt about that.

So, it was Thursday. The day before we’d done our first real “hike” in the Smokies, a relatively easy 4ish-mile trek that nonetheless killed me. On that Weds hike, I’d had one of my moments where I had to send my friend ahead because I was freaking myself out: about how slow I was, how tough the uphills were, how much of a loser I was. It got to the point where the anxiety in my head was defeating my determination to be cheerful, and my body was threatening an onslaught of tears that really had no basis in reality. I told my friend (who, incidentally, had been living and hiking in the Western mountains for the past 6 months, and thus was barely even breathing hard) to walk ahead for 5 minutes and wait for me, and I stopped and gazed, mostly unseeing, out at the gorgeous mountains, willing my throat to relax and my eyes to dry.

I have come to recognize that these moments are likely to happen any time I take myself out of whatever routine I’m in, and jump feet-first into adventure; they have happened on every trip and I’m sure they’ll happen again. That doesn’t make it any easier to cope with in the moment. After all, I’m supposed to be a fierce and strong and independent woman who can do anything, right? It’s tough to claim that when you can’t breathe after walking uphill for a barely more than a mile.

Anyway, I got myself together, set the slowest pace I could manage, and plodded on. I eventually found my friend lounging on the side of the trail. He gave me a smile and said “pull up a rock” as if absolutely nothing was wrong in the world, and I knew it would be ok. I would make it up the hill and through whatever else we planned to do. Maybe slower than I’d like, but I’d get there.

The next day, Thursday, I was feeling better. I had to work that morning, so that afternoon, we did a wonderful – and again relatively easy – trek up to a gorgeous place called Alum Cave Bluff. I’ll share pictures when I get them off my camera; that’s how busy it’s been around here! Anyway, I felt good about the hike – we weren’t speedy, but I didn’t suck wind quite as much. The views were lovely, and we enjoyed a leisurely journey down, stopping to take pictures of the river and the just-beginning-to-turn leaves. At the end of the 4ish miles, as late afternoon was turning to evening, we weren’t ready to be done with the day. So we decided to find a hike we could do in the dark.

My friend, fearless one that he is, would have been fine tackling another 5 miles or so of mountain, but I knew I needed to treat my newly-found confidence with care. So we hopped in the car and drove out a long, winding, one-way road to Trillum Gap, and the trailhead for Grotto Falls. By the time we got there, dusk was falling.

The whole reason I wanted to write this post can be summed up by the first few minutes of this hike. As we started up the trail, 2-3 groups were finishing up, and they all looked a bit askance at us. After all, it was getting dark. But you see, this friend and I have figured out the night hiking thing. Our first hike together ended as an unexpected night adventure, where I was so slow coming down from a NH White Mountain that we had to hike our last 1.3 miles out via one measly flashlight. We’ve climbed to the top of canyon overlooks to take star pictures, and there was that time we got separated, at night, in the middle of Arches National Park (a story for another time). We are prepared; we have headlamps, layers and batteries, plus a healthy appreciation for the invisible power of hidden tree roots.

So as one outgoing hiker suggested we bring carrots to help our vision, and another asked warily, “Um, do you have lights?”, I felt a sense of tremendous satisfaction that we never broke stride, just smiled and said “yes, we do”, and headed off into the evening. How far we’d come…how far I’d come in the years since we started these adventures, that I was actually planning on and really looking forward to a hike up a hill in the dark.

Because, you see, we were heading for a waterfall, and I’d never seen a waterfall at night – at least not one that I’d hiked to. The trek was easy, muddy, and quiet…I don’t remember talking much. As always, I watched my feet and concentrated on breathing. Before long, we could hear the rush of tumbling water, and a few careful steps on slippery rocks later, we glimpsed Grotto Falls. It was lovely, and after a few moments of looking, we both agreed that we needed to get closer, so up we went, this time over some slightly more serious wet, rocky terrain. In fact, we went all the way up and UNDER the falls, and had a riot shining our headlamps on the water to try to take pictures. Well, my friend did, at any rate. For some reason, I left my fancy camera in my bag and on a whim, just held up my iPhone to see if I could capture the contrast of white water reflecting the last smidgen of light left in the day.

I got this:

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When I looked at it on my phone, I gasped. Magical, I thought to myself, then tucked my phone away and headed back to the falls to run my hands under the water.

Then, it was back down the hill by the light of our headlamps. I joked with my friend that this was one time I would not ask him to go ahead of me. I wanted to lead the way down, to enjoy knowing he was right behind me and not likely to wander off, to appreciate the feeling of dawning strength in my legs, and to ponder how incredibly lucky I am to get to see waterfalls in the dark.

When we got back to the car, I didn’t really want to drive away. I stood for a moment, looking up at the black sky, smelling the trees, and wishing I could freeze time so I could always feel how I felt at that moment. But we did have to leave, back down into the reality of what to cook for dinner and the knowledge that life can’t be entirely about wandering in the woods. That’s ok, really. I’m just glad I get to have moments where I know for a fact that no one, other than us, got to see the world as it was on that night. That night, the world was nothing but a waterfall and some rocks to clamor over, and it was more than enough for me.

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Hike 20 of the #52hikechallenge: Mount Monadnock

Two years ago, Mt. Monadnock kicked my ass.

So, when a break in the heat was forecast, and with an office-mate eager to join, it only seemed fitting to try again.

We set out “early” from Boston, in an effort to beat what we knew would be big crowds. We only marginally succeeded, but on a nice weekend, hikers everywhere flock to Monadnock.

Monadnock means “mountain which stands alone”; it’s not part of a mountain range. What an appropriate 20th hike for a girl like me, generally adrift alone in the world. Because while it may stand alone, it also stands tall and proud and is worth every minute you spend with it. Kind of like me. 😉

Having been roundly smacked down by the Red Dot trail in my 7-ish mile hike last time, this time I decided to go with the crowd and do the White Dot to the White Cross Trail loop. This is the hike that everyone does, with good reason. For example, while the hike is pretty darn steep, it only lasts for about 2 miles. Even stopping and starting as we did, it simply can’t take all that long to get to the top of a 2-mile hike at less than 3000 feet of altitude.

Also, once you get up high, there are incredible views every 5 feet, which offers plenty of chances to “admire the view” while gasping for air.

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Monadnock does this little head-fake that crushes the souls of unprepared hikers: after slogging up some pretty serious rocks and boulders, hikers reach what “should” be the top – a nice open space just at the edge of the treeline – but instead, it gives you a view of the summit, which looks at least 5 miles away. In reality, it’s only .5 miles.

On this hike, I was prepared for that tantalizing view, and even could appreciate the dad warning his pre-teen daughter that, when they reached the open spot they would “have a discussion” about if they were going to go on. It’s worth pointing out that this little girl was hiking about twice as a fast as me, so I had no doubt she’d make it all the way to the top. We’d also been lapped by a troupe of boys and their handlers, as well as a dude who thanked us for letting him pass by proclaiming: “It’s just hard for me to stop once I get going. And I’m carrying 25 lbs of climbing gear”, thus making me want to smack his smug ass right into the woods.

But soon we reached the point in the hike that makes most folks wonder “why do I do this again?” The slab of granite stretches above, with nothing for it but to trust our shoes, enjoy the calf stretch, and get it done.

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As we were trudging up this, we ran into the leaders of the troupe of boys, on their way down, who seemed genuinely delighted to see us, which of course made me wonder if they thought we wouldn’t make it at all.

But we did, with a few dozen of our closest friends.  We reached the top of the world, with 360 degree views of NH, VT and MA, and a cold, whipping wind that felt great after the sweaty heat of walking above tree line in the sun.

I didn’t get very many photos from the top, because, to be honest, I just wanted to look at the view. At one point, I actually felt my head sag with relief, and it’s not exaggerating to say I felt all the crap of my daily life fall away with a huge sigh that took me by surprise. There is something about the view from the highest point – there is something about it that makes me feel better, no matter where I am.

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We spent some time agreeing that the payoff was worth the effort, and then it was back down those pesky rocks, which is a different kind of stress on the legs. By the end, I was longing for the sandstone of the canyons of Utah, because even if you’re going up or down out there, more often than not the stone is somewhat forgiving on your feet. In the granite mountains of NH, each step jars, and by the time you’ve done 2+ miles of clamoring down, you’re just glad you don’t have 2 more.

Hike 20, even thought it was short, was the hardest one I’ve done yet of the 52 Hike Challenge, and I hope that the rest of the year brings more such challenges. As anyone with a bit of math skills has figured out, I’m pretty behind on this challenge, and moving to the beach in a month isn’t going to make finishing any easier. But I am going to stick to it, because, well…I started, so finishing is the next thing to do.

When you have no choice but to go slow: #hike14 of #52hike challenge

All around me, everything is changing…fast. Once spring arrives, it passes in what seems like a blink. My friends’ kids, whom I knew when they were in elementary school, are suddenly going to prom (and college, but somehow prom is more disconcerting). New jobs, new babies, new marriages, new cities, new adventures…it seems like everyone I know is making some kind of change.

And here I sit, doing none of those things.

Contentment has never been in my DNA. 4 years is usually my limit; after that, either deliberately or with a little shove from the universe, I tend to make big life changes like choosing to go to grad school, moving to a house and getting a dog, or maybe even moving to Boston. This is my 5th year in Beantown, so, you do the math.

Cue feelings of restlessness and fernweh (look it up – it’s a wonderful word). Normally, I’d work these feelings out (or at least keep them at bay for a bit) by hiking up to the top of a tall mountain.

So, was it some kind of sign that last week, while doing nothing particularly exciting in a volleyball game, I suddenly had zinging little bolts of OW in my knee? And that the next morning, I woke up barely able to hobble downstairs to let my dog out?

It’s no great revelation to say that we really don’t notice what we have until it’s no longer there. My ability to get from point A to B using only my feet and legs is one of those things that, as a single city-living gal, is essential to daily life. When I suddenly can’t hop nimbly off the bus and trudge the .75 miles home from the station…that’s kind of a bummer. It certainly forces me to slow down.

The same is true for my dog, who found herself straining at the end of a leash as, on Saturday – a most glorious, spring-like Saturday when the whole world was exploding into color, and just begging me to take a long, long hike – all I could do was hobble down to the nearby Arboretum to see the cherry blossoms. We barely got a mile and a half of walking in. This is not normal for us. Weekends are for multiple miles so that we are tired and jelly-legged when it’s all said and done. When we don’t get our miles in, the whole rest of the week feels off.

So, on Sunday, I couldn’t take it anymore. I ran through all of my favorite local hikes, searching for those that would involve Sadie being off leash, and me being on fairly level, non-challenging ground. It was supposed to rain; I didn’t care. I didn’t know how far my knee would let me go; I didn’t care. We needed to get in motion.

Thus, we headed to Noanet Woodlands, another Trustees of Reservations property, and one of my favorite places locally. It’s my favorite because of the wide, well-maintained trails, and the variety of stuff to see:

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The remnants of an old Iron Mill Works site that has long vanished from this property. It only flows when the pond above it is full, and with all of our rain this spring, it was!

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The view from atop Noanet “Peak” – that’s Boston way off in the distance.

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Sawmill Pond, one of my favorite places to sit and reflect…except when my bench is drowned by the pond.

It turned out to be a lovely, non-rainy day in the woods. The trees hadn’t started to turn green yet, but the water was high, as you can see above. I discovered that my knee fared just fine on uphill and downhill climbs; it was the long, straight, flat paths where it started to bother me again.

Is that a metaphor for my life? Maybe.

I had to slow down because I had no choice, a good reminder that there are some things we have control over, and some we don’t, and we should stay focused on the latter. And yes, sometimes things hurt, but when it got too bad, I would stop, utter a few choice words, take a moment to adjust my stride, and keep going.

If you want self-helpisms, there are a couple of obvious ones for ya. 🙂

Anyway, it took me longer than it ever has before, but I got in 3 miles. I wasn’t even limping too badly at the end. Plus, Sadie got to run and romp and chase sticks and wade in muddy ponds. So, I find myself pretty darn proud of this little hike.

And ready for a bigger hill pretty darn soon, I hope.


Hike 14: Noanet Woodlands
Location: Dover, Massachusetts
Date: April 29, 2018
Distance: 3 miles
Wildlife:  Squirrels, robins, the occasional dog/human pairing

Sometimes hikes just aren’t awesome: #hike8 of the #52hikechallenge

Hang out on instagram with the hiking community enough, and you might think we all tramp around through pristine nature with artfully mussed ponytails and impeccably coordinated gear and the perfect partner.

I’m here to tell you it just ain’t so, folks.

Sometimes, hikes aren’t awesome. Sometimes, they almost suck. I say almost because even the worst hike is better than a lukewarm day almost anywhere else. But sometimes, all the things we love about hiking seem to abandon us.

#hike8 of my #52hikechallenge fell on my birthday. It was the first sunny, above 45 degree day we’d seen in this long, gray, slog of a New England winter. I was so excited to get outside with my pooch and stretch my legs and lungs.

I wanted distance, not elevation, and I immediately thought of a hike I did back in 2017, one that had me tramping unexpectedly through the woods in the dark. This supposedly 6-mile loop (that wound up being closer to 8) had been pretty at sunset, but I’d been so busy trying not to get lost in the dark that first time that I wanted to try it again. And, I wanted to correct whatever error I’d made that tacked an extra 1.5ish miles onto the hike last time. So off I went to Hopkinton, MA, to hike the Whitehall State Park/Whitehall Reservoir Loop.

I studied the map at the trailhead intently to make sure I wouldn’t go astray this time. Above the map was a wooden sign that read “Reservoir Trail: 6-mile loop.” Excellent.

The first mile passed easily. I noted the dismal state of the trail, with needles and roots and dried leaves making footing uneasy, and evidence of recent nor’easters that had toppled many a large tree onto the path. The lake shimmered with that wonderful sky-reflection shade of blue, and my phone buzzed occasionally with happy birthday messages. I stopped to snap a pic to tell a couple of friends who’d asked what I was up to:

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It felt so odd to be in the sun that I was squinting too. 🙂

Anyway, the trail around Whitehall Reservoir is pretty varied; sometimes it’s a road, sometimes it’s nothing more than a foot of packed dirt hugging a steep slope next to the water. It requires attention even though it’s not particularly hard. I noted right away that this was the kind of trail that would get me and my bum ankle if I wasn’t careful.

At almost exactly the 1.5 mark, I started to feel pretty good, and figured I’d pick up the pace at 2 miles and get my heart rate going a bit more. My legs felt strong and I looked up to check out the view and then rrrrwomp…over went my ankle.

Those who know me know this happens often; the remnants of a high school basketball injury that comes back to haunt me, usually just when I’ve started to get cocky. It’s happened so often that I usually just swear loudly for a few minutes, hobble for a few steps, and then proceed under the assumption that it’ll work itself out. It usually does.

On this day, though, it didn’t. The initial pain subsided, but as I waded through muddy creekbeds and hopped over rocks, things hurt more than they usually did. My stride was off, and I saw each new patch of slippery leaves as another mine to be avoided, as it no doubt was hiding another tree root just waiting to take me down.

Oh, and that mud? It was gross enough to swallow the trail on more than one occasion, which meant getting pricked by spiky branches as we sought alternate routes, and having to yell at Sadie not to drink the stank water.

At 3.5 miles, just past my supposed halfway mark, I’d planned to stop and eat my sandwich. But there was nowhere to sit, the ground still being wet from recent rains, and the gorgeous views I’d been admiring earlier had receded into swampy woodlands. We pressed on, and as I eyed our progress around the reservoir, I started to suspect that my 6-mile loop was once again going to be more like 7.5.

Usually I love hiking alone in the woods with Sadie at my side. But this day, for some reason, I was feeling lonely, not an emotion I let myself experience very often. I was grumpy that it was my birthday and no one was hiking with me. I was pissed that I couldn’t let Sadie off leash because of the park rules. Those fluffy, nasty, gnat-like bugs swarmed along the trail just waiting to be inhaled. And to top it off, I’d worn the wrong socks; they were too thick, which made my boots fit too tightly…yeah, it was all a mess.

Fast forward to 5.5 miles, and everything hurt. I stopped looking at the views because I had to watch my feet and it was just swamp, anyway. (Not true, but by this point I wasn’t exactly feel charitable toward the Reservoir Loop.) My knees and back were most unhappy with me and there were still clearly a couple of miles to go. 6-mile loop, my ass.

I did stop to take in a couple of ducks swimming near a dock, and that was pretty. In fact, looking at it now, it was downright idyllic:

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But by that point, I just wanted to be done. I had plans for the evening, and the extra miles were making it likely that I’d be late. I needed to walk faster, but my legs were not having it. And with every ridge I cleared, there was another one standing between me and taking off my hiking boots and freeing my sore feet.

Finally, at long last, we made it back to the car and headed home; even Sadie sat quietly in the back of the car as if exhausted by a hike that should have been wonderful, but just wasn’t. As I hobbled up the stairs to my apartment and the bliss of a hot shower, I couldn’t help but chuckle that sometimes, no matter how perfect the blue sky might seem, the universe just doesn’t give us what we think we need. Was that rolled ankle a sign that I should have turned back, driven home, and watched some Netflix for my birthday instead of pushing through 7.5 miles of woods?

Maybe. But as I think about it now, I think it’s a good lesson in reality. While hiking may be therapy for many of us, sometimes, therapy just doesn’t work. But hopefully we choose to go back for the next session, because, well, we need it, and the alternative is worse.

So take heart, fellow hikers, if you’ve been feeling like everyone else’s adventures are so much better than yours. I promise, it’s not all as perfect as it seems. There are bugs and mud and fallen trees and rolled ankles. And supposedly 6-mile loops that are clearly longer. I still don’t know why the trail is mis-marked (or where I went wrong in my trail-finding), but it’s a good thing I was so tired, and running so late. Otherwise, I might have taken out my Swiss Army Knife and fixed that damn 6-mile loop sign myself. With my luck I’d have been arrested for defacing state property. 🙂

Location: Whitehall Reservoir, Hopkinton, MA
Date: March 31, 2018
Distance: 7.81 miles
Wildlife: Squirrels, ducks, dogs, and the occasional human
Notes: If you see someone who looks like they know the area, ask about the 6 mile loop. Or prepare for 7.5.

Kilauea Iki Crater Trail: #hike6 of the #52hikechallenge

Let’s talk craters y’all. Like actual real volcanic craters in the earth that still have steam coming out of them. Did you know there are such places that have hiking trails into and around them? I didn’t, but I do now!

Every book or blog about the Big Island says that Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of its best hikes. I was a little dubious coming in because it was only 4ish miles long and it seemed like much of it was on flat terrain. But I couldn’t deny the coolness of descending into a volcanic crater. It was pouring rain, and it was still awesome. I guess that’s the mark of a great hike.

Speaking of pouring rain, on the east/Hilo side of the Big Island, it apparently rains all. the. time. We were there for 3 full days and it rained steadily. But that didn’t stop us.

The us, in this case, is me and my former college roommate. Since today is International Women’s Day, I feel justified in pausing for a moment to reflect on us two women, and the fact that, on this trip, we realized that we’ve been friends for 23 years. We met when I was a sophomore and she was a freshman in college. We are partners in pale skin and curly hair, though I think she looks more like a greek goddess with her blond curls and great smile. Though we haven’t lived in the same state since a brief NJ stint in 2003, we’ve managed to stay in touch through good times and bad. She’s smart and awesome and beautiful, and I’m grateful for our long friendship.

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This is us at the start of the Crater hike, when the dripping rain was more of a fun challenge than a pain in the butt.

Anyway, the hike began in the pouring rain. We chose the counterclockwise route, which I would highly recommend. The first section is along the Crater Rim Trail, a mostly flat trail that should, per its name, offer amazing views of the Crater and its rim. For us, the views lacked a certain…something.

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As you can see, the rain cloud was basically right on top of us. Eventually, we were able to see a bit more of the crater, and if you look carefully, you can see the trail way down below; that faint white line in the grey.

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The Crater Rim Trail actually goes for about 12 miles around the Crater itself, a hike I’d like to do someday when it’s not raining.

Pretty soon, we left the so-called views behind and found ourselves in what can only be called “lush rainforest”, filled with dripping greenery and huge fern plants.

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The descent through the forest was pretty easy. Eventually, we started clamoring down some steeper, clunkier rocks that likely give this hike it’s “moderate/strenuous” rating. If it’s not raining, there should be no issue, but in the rain, we had to pay close attention to our feet! We also had to go through that process of realizing that yes, our boots would grip the volcanic rock even though it looked black and slick and like it was ready to send us tumbling.

After just a few hundred feet of steep downhill, we emerged from the trees and found ourselves staring out at a vast, grey, steaming wasteland that looked like what I imagine the moon might look like, if it wasn’t white. This was like nothing I’d ever seen before; I stood in the rain and goggled. Because of the rain, I don’t have a lot of pictures of those first moments in the crater, but I did get this one; look at those red flowers springing up out of the rocks!

28423776_10155894307231900_6649769202190451279_oAfter we picked my jaw up from the crater floor, there was nothing for it but to strike out across the lava field, wending our way through craggy mounds of blackness. Ahu is apparently the Hawaiian word for cairn (piles of rocks used to mark trails); following the ahu led us down onto the flat, asphalt-like bottom of the crater, where the trail widens a bit. This terrain is not hard to walk on, but we did it at a snail’s pace because it was just so amazing to look around at the landscape. Parts of the lava looked like it had just broken apart in an earthquake, other parts were smooth and rounded, and steam vents dotted the terrain. For a brief moment, it stopped raining and we were able to get a few good pictures, and we both remarked that we felt like we were about to either win a prize or get eaten by a monster in a Young Adult dystopian novel.

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It started raining again as we neared the end of the lava field, and then it was back into the forest, but this time the trail up was a series of gentle switchbacks rather than steep rocks. From here we got the clearest view of the Crater yet.

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As the switchbacks ended, we found ourselves in a busy parking lot near the Thurston Lava Tube, so we added that the hike.

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This is a short little walk through a dark lava tube, which was fun, but would have been more fun if we’d not gotten caught in the middle of a senior citizen tour group. Several of the group were wearing bike helmets, and it took us a second to realize it was because there was a chance they might bump their heads. This seemed like an overabundance of caution, but it was still pretty cool that they all found their way down the steep and slippery stairs into the tunnel. It was so loud and crowded in there that I was content to zip through pretty quickly. Then, it was back to the Crater Rim Trail for a final flat trek through the woods. There were some pretty cool views of the Crater from this side.

And then, we were done. By this point, we were both pretty soaked, even with raincoats and hats, so drying off in the car felt great. We drove to another lookout at the head of a different trail, where we could look down on what we’d just hiked from a different angle. Can you see the tiny, tiny person in an orange jacket down there?

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The moral of the Kilauea Iki Crater hike? Don’t let rain stop you. Though I would have loved to see this place in the sunshine (you can check out this flickr gallery if you’d like to as well), it was still an astonishing journey through landscape I’d never seen before. I was exhilarated when I was done even though it wasn’t a huge challenge for my legs. I would do it again in a second.

Summary: Hike 6 of the 52 hike challenge (read more about the challenge here)

Location: Volcano National Park, Hawaii.
Date: February 25, 2018
Distance: 4.4 miles
Wildlife: None except for whatever rustled the leaves in the forest part of the hike.
Notes: Do the hike counterclockwise. If it’s sunny, sunscreen, water, and a hat would be a must for the crater floor. And always remember:

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