The first Saturday of June is National Trails Day, an annual celebration put together by American Hiking Society to celebrate our public lands and national trail system. Each year, 150,000 people from all 50 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico participate in National Trails Day events. I was honored to participate in a National Trails Day event held by Backpacker Magazine in the Heil Valley outside of Boulder, CO. The event was fun, completely free, and everyone walked away learning something about trails. It was wonderful to see so many people of different ages and backgrounds all hiking together and enjoying nature.
What I love about hiking, is that it gives me the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. Hiking is the great leveler—nature is a place where the CEO can be best friends on the guy out on his luck, the elderly can befriend teenagers, the one place in my life where I meet kids, and where Americans can connect with people from all around the world—foreigners here to enjoy the high quality and unique trail and landscape system found only in the US. In my everyday life, I rarely interact with children, and National Trails Day was so heartening to see so many kids getting out to explore the outdoors.
I know for a lot of people, especially families with small kids, the idea of hiking or going outdoors can be intimidating, especially if you never did it as a child or if you grew up in the city. If you’ve ever wanted to adventure, explore, and have fun in the outdoors, but aren’t sure how, I can’t recommend National Trails Day enough. It is great way to get out there in a safe and fun way, with experienced people who want to share their knowledge with you, no matter your experience level.
For seasoned hikers, National Trails Day can be really rewarding because we can start off the summer right by volunteering to work on the trails that we’ll be using later in the summer. By volunteering at National Trails Day events, we have a chance to spruce up trails, give back, and put a little love and sweat into something that we care so much about. Later this summer, when we finally do hit the trail, it’ll feel good to walk past a spot that we worked on and know that we contributed to making a little part of the world a better place.
So whether you’re curious about what this whole nature thing is about or you’re already an outdoors junkie, chances are there is a National Trails Day event tailored to your interest. There are gear demos, guided plant and wildlife hikes, wilderness skills and training—and it’s all free.
Although National Trails Day has passed, there are National Trails Day events all through June.
When it comes to trails, not only do I love hiking, but I also am a huge policy geek. I love understanding how our national landscape system has come to be, and as a result, have come to realize what an enormous privilege it is that we as Americans have long tracts of land where just any ol’ person can go and hike!
Part of what makes this difficult, though, is that there is often private land around the public areas we love to recreate. And while we hikers dream that one day, there will be more public access areas to hike, we have to do our part to be respectful to the people and ways of life associated with private land. While this is plain kindness, it also makes landowners feel more comfortable with hikers and helps our trail organizations maybe one day make an agreement to protect more scenic areas.
I wrote these tips based on my own experiences hiking near private land. I hope you will read this tips and think about them next time you’re out on a trail near private land!
For conservation policy geeks like me, a true highlight of the Outdoor Retailer show was the chance to see former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, speak at the Conservation Alliance breakfast. The Conservation Alliance is an organization funded by outdoor companies to protect the places where we recreate. For many years, CA had difficulty recruiting Babbitt, who served under the Clinton administration and is responsible for protecting areas such as Grand Staircase National Monument, creating the National Landscape Conservation System, and reintroducing the wolf into Yellowstone. Finally, today he spoke in front of 300 industry people to call for radical change from both the Obama administration and the Outdoor Industry.
Although not the most charismatic speaker, Babbitt’s speech gave the audience an insight into his sharp mind. Throughout his speech, he analyzed strategies the Outdoor Industry can take to make an otherwise ineffective Congress care about wild areas.
Babbitt called out Utah Governor Herbert and strongly criticized the Transfer of Public Lands Act, a bill that will “dismantle the BLM, scale back the Park Service, and remove 9 of every 10 acres from the Forest Service.” The bill, if passed, will move public lands from federal management to Utah state level management, including Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge, and Grand Staircase.
The former Secretary also criticized academics who support the Transfer of Public Lands Act. Several researchers have used economic evidence to argue that there are benefits of moving land from federal control to private oil and gas companies.
Specifically, Babbitt condemned these studies for leaving out evidence that outdoor recreation provides an economic benefit. The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation is a $646 billion industry. Yet Babbitt lamented that the Commerce Department, politicians, and the academics who wrote pro-Transfer Act reports, do not realize the size and power of the industry, and thus, have not been pushing to conserve land.
The speech ended with a call for the Outdoor Industry to have their voice be heard, and also for President Obama to take advantage of his lame duck period to conserve more land. In response to Obama’s most recent conservation moves—including the protection of the Montana Front Range (which benefits the CDT viewshed) and the San Gabriels and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (which benefits the PCT viewshed)—Babbitt replied, “We haven’t got that far. It’s not really that impressive.”
Of course, this is easy for the man behind the most expansive land protection record of any presidency to say. Yet, Babbitt believes that places that we recreate can and should be protected: “Public lands aren’t just the West. They’re national lands owned by all of us as Americans.”
Babbitt’s talk started and ended with a standing ovation. As hikers, we often don’t busy ourselves with the politics behind our trails and treasured landscapes. Yet, as an outdoors person, I was exceptionally honored to sit ten feet away from one of the powerhouses of conservation who makes my adventures possible.
Twice a year, Salt Lake City explodes with 25-40,000 people involved in the outdoor industry. Outdoor Retailer, the trade show for the outdoor gear industry, is a week of high energy pitching, buying, trading, selling, and everything in between. But, as a hiker who cares about the public land I walk in, I was most stoked to see this show’s opening speaker: Sally Jewell, current Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO. After a night of partying with hikertrash, I still had no qualms about waking up at 5:30 am to see the woman who leads the future of hiking.
As Secretary of the Interior, Ms. Jewell is now the head of the government agencies that manage the places I hike—she’s the honcho who oversees the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. Since Ms. Jewell was nominated for the position nine months ago, her job has differed significantly from her business days at REI—government shutdowns and sequestrations are among the new challenges of her position. Nonetheless, Ms. Jewell is adamant about maintaining public lands for the future by cultivating a love of the outdoors in the next generation.
Ms. Jewell isn’t the only person who has noticed that on many trails, it’s more common to see grey-haired babyboomers than young’uns: kids and millennial like me are becoming a rarity in the outdoors. Quoting Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, Ms. Jewell emphasized that people who love the outdoors (including the outdoor industry) have a responsibility to engage young people to appreciate public land and open space—to get more kids playing in and valuing the outdoors.
Programs that get youth outdoors—either by recreating, volunteering, learning in outdoor classrooms, or working seasonal ranger jobs—build an appreciation for open space that lasts a lifetime. In this spirit, the Department of the Interior is launching a program Ms. Jewell called the “Civilian Conservation Corps 2.0,” based on the 1930s model that employed 250,000 young Americans to build trails, roads, and other infrastructure that we still use today. Working with non-profits and the outdoor industry, the Department of the Interior is aiming to get young people outdoors again and building a connection with our country’s open space.
Public land, Ms. Jewell noted, can also be subject to the whims of politics. Outdoor enthusiasts need to express our love of public lands to elected officials and make sure that the people with power value open space, including places to hike. As an example, the Secretary explained how during the Cabinet nomination process, senators were eager to learn of the economic benefit of public land and outdoor recreation to states—equaling 6.1 million jobs in a $600 million dollar outdoor industry. To gain political traction, Ms. Jewell argues that outdoor enthusiasts of all types need to show solidarity and support for keeping wildlands wild: hikers shouldn’t be judgmental about who cares about conserving wild places—hunter, anglers, and ranchers can be great advocates for the outdoors, too.
Ms. Jewell is an inspiration—not just because she is a powerful woman who cares about the outdoors, but also because of her dedication to the future of wild places. Although the our public lands are subject to the whims of government and the changing values of youth, Ms. Jewell reasoned that as outdoor enthusiasts, we can work together to ensure that public land will always be places for peace and fun.
When Americans think of Fukushima, they don’t usually think of awesome hiking. Yet, this summer, I found myself walking in a place I had, until then, only associated with nuclear disaster. I had gone to Japan to hike and, despite being in a country known for its population density, to find wild places of solitude rarely visited by people, especially by other Americans. A friendly older local/avid hiker named Hoshi told me of a traverse of complex volcanoes along Mt. Nasu, renowned for its steep climbs, alpine views, and wildflowers. Although he had been hiking there for decades, he had never seen a foreigner on the Nasu Five Peaks. Despite understanding only about 70% of his rural-Japanese-accented description, the traverse seemed to meet all my hiking criteria. I hopped in Hoshi’s car and along with a tiny, vivacious 60-year old woman who looked 30 named Junko, we drove a few hours through monkey-filled forests to our trailhead.
Hiking culture in Japan is different than in America and I was not sure what to expect. So when Hoshi tried to flag down a car to give me a ride to the ridge, I had no idea what was going on. Was the road to the trailhead inaccessible to his golf cart sized car? Flat rice paddies surrounded me in any direction, with sidewalk-narrow roads separating the small family farms that mark the rural landscape of Japan. A heavy mist hid the steep, volcanically formed mountains towering above the villages. Hoshi finally flagged down a car, but after a short conversation with the driver, decided to park his car at what was either a community center or a temple—still not sure—and walk with me to a shrine at the edge of the mountains.
To my surprise, the trailhead was lined with what looked like race registration tents and a dozen people! Following Hoshi’s lead, I paid a fee and signed in (everyone was shocked and surprised that an American was at the event—this was the first time they’d seen a foreigner on this range either). They gave me a red ribbon to attach to my pack—I suppose a symbol of luck for hikers—as well as a box that looked like a matchbook. Then, I was handed a paper cup filled with sake and some purple knitted socks, which I apparently had won as part of my registration.
Everyone else, including the locals I had driven with, got on a bus that was going to another trailhead, but they pointed to let me know that to complete the full range, I should start right at the shrine. At this point, I expressed some worry over not having a map. Hoshi handed me a heavy guidebook completely in Japanese with a topo-less map of the region. As it was raining rather hard now, the pages immediately got soaked. Putting the book away, I headed on the wide, paved path behind the temple, a bit incredulous that this would actually lead to the mist hidden mountains.
The paved path quickly turned to a former logging road, and then followed a steep, rocky route straight up a stream. It was quite slippery in the rain and I was immediately reminded of the Long Trail in Vermont, except that this was a thinner, more primitive path, without the impeccable maintenance. Despite the weather, I quickly warmed up with the vertical ascent.
I reached a fork on the trail, and although I could not read the Japanese lettering on the sign, hazarded a guess that my route continued uphill. As I ascended, the deciduous trees slowly turned into deep scented Japanese cedar. The trail hugged a ridge with steep drops on either side. Much like the Appalachian Trail, I climbed roots hand-over-hand. I even scaled a few rope ladders over particularly steep sections. In the mist, it was easy to imagine I was the only hiker who had walked this trail in years. Looking at my watch, I realized that at my usual speed, I should have reached the first peak already, yet was not finding a high point. Had my inability to read the sign meant that I had walked the wrong way?
I finally reached a signed peak where I was surprised to find two drunken, older men downing beers on the rainy, grassy summit. They were shocked to find a woman hiking alone in such a remote place. I dug out the soaked guidebook and tried to match the name of the first mountain in the book with the lettering on the sign (actually, since I couldn’t read the name, the shape of the lettering). They didn’t match. I had gone the wrong way. I finally mustered enough courage to ask the drunken men if they could find our location on the map. Miraculously, they pointed at the range’s first mountain. I was in the right place! Apparently, there were multiple names for that mountain and the map name did not match the sign name. As I left, feeling elated, the drunken men handed me some candy.
I continued on the range, hitting several peaks along the way, until I reached the grandest mountain of the range, the former volcano Sanbonyari Peak. Despite the rain, many people were gathered at the summit, where a dog-house sized shrine marked the top of the peak. Again, people were surprised to see a woman hiking alone.
From here, the range became crowded and physically much easier. The trail itself was a narrow tunnel through shoulder-high brush and there were no clear places to pull aside for a bathroom break. I was supposed to meet Hoshi and some of his friends on top of a mountain and was counting peaks and crests along the route, worried that I might miss him.
Surprisingly, I almost tripped over Hoshi and six other people pulled over on the edge of the trail at a bump which hardly warranted the name IshiYama!Hoshi’s birthday crew were huddled in a clearing free of bushes barely the size of a solo tent’s footprint, gathered around a stove cooking ramen. In 12,000 miles of hiking, I had never seen anyone so intent on cooking ramen that they’d squat in the mud and bushes in the pouring rain! I put on all my layers and the hot broth barely took off the chill. Eventually, enough of the group was uncomfortably cold, so we continued on.
The trail now traversed a ridge through the alpine zone. The views would have been great if the mist had not been so thick. But as far as I could see in any direction, there were Kisuge-daira, mountain day lilies. We were traveling in a sea of yellow. In Japan, hanami, flower viewing, is a national past time, and the lilies attract people from across the country to hike the Nasu Five peaks. I felt honored to partake in the cultural tradition to catch the Kisuge-daira during its short peak bloom.
Although this trail was very popular, its maintenance standards were different than trails in America. This part of Japan receives so much rain and its soil is so loose that trail upkeep emphasizes width over stability. As a result, I found the path steep and muddy. Slipping was inevitable. I passed another hiker who had fallen on the traction-less mud and blood was rushing from his hands and face. Never before had hiking poles seemed like such a grand invention! As we descended the ridge to an unpaved forest road, a bus was waiting to take us back into town.
A survey of radiation levels after Fukushima showed that Mt. Nasu had much higher radiation than natural; areas not too far from the peak had 50 times the limit (search the interactive map for “Nasu”). Suddenly, my hike became more than a walk through a remote, unknown mountain range. It became a walk steeped in international significance and controversy.
Despite the earthquake and radiation, people like Hoshi continue to hike these mountains as they have for decades. As a foreigner, I was honored to walk the Nasu Five Peaks. Despite all the bad news that we’ve heard about the Fukushima region since 2011 and all the damage that has been done, the joy of walking mountains doesn’t change.