Here’s How to Climb Mount St. Helens

mount st. helens
A look at what’s to come

I’ve always wanted to climb Mt St Helens. The utter transformation after its early 80s eruption fascinates me, and provides a great reminder that the earth is still alive. But I’m not exactly good at the technical parts of scaling mountains, so I’m not sure if it’s in my skill set. Fortunately, I ran across Danny on Twitter. He’d just climbed Mount St. Helens, and he was pretty excited. I offered him a spot on WanderingJustin.com to share his story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 

Danny is a technician for , a wannabe outdoorsman and cyclist. He’s on Instagram, Strava and Snapchat as You should follow him.

It wasn’t easy for a noob. Looking back, I’m grateful that a layer of fog prevented us from seeing the peak on the way to Marble Mountain Sno-Park from Portland. A clear view of the task at hand mighta been the straw that broke the camel’s back of my nerves. The way I see it, I had the least amount of confidence among the three of us that I could make it all the way to the top; it was 2 miles longer and 4,000 ft taller than anything I had done in my life. I was nervous, and in my mind I was outta shape. Had any cog been out of place, I don’t know if I could have made it to the top.

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This photo is skipping ahead a bit – it’s not too much of a spoiler to mention that Danny and his crew make it. I mean, if they didn’t, they’d be like “let’s never speak of this again.” That’s Danny in the middle.

I had always been a geology nerd. Having moved to the northwest from CA in 2016, I quickly became fascinated in the architecture and activity of the Cascade Range. Shortly after I met Keaton in 2017 and learned we had similar outdoorsy interests, we agreed that someday we would summit Mount St. Helens. Our perspectives of the mountain were lopsided, but together we had a well-rounded interest in the volcano. What I didn’t know was that Keaton meant business, so it was determined we were doing the summit in the spring!

We learned that unless we were hiking in the winter, we’d need a permit to hike anywhere above 4,800 ft on the mountain. When the permits first went on sale Feb 1, 2018, we weren’t able to obtain ours as the website experienced a 300% increase in demand from the year prior, and subsequently crashed. Permits went on sale again on Feb 28th, and we’d learned that the new permit distributor supposedly had the bandwidth to handle more traffic. At 9am on the 28th, Keaton and I were sitting by our computers, trigger happy to obtain our permits.
The website crashed, again … persistence paid off however and after about 20 minutes of screen refreshing we obtained 4 permits to cross the 4,800 ft mark of Mount St. Helens — on the weekend of the 38th anniversary of the eruption (May 18th, 1980).

In the months that led up to our late spring trip to the mountain, I really did nothing physically to prepare myself for the hike. Like-- nothing. I had never hiked in snow, didn’t have any of the equipment that I needed, and my bicycle was still on winter vacation so I wasn’t even riding to maintain my conditioning.

I guess you could say I was unprepared.

Preparing for Mount St. Helens

In the weeks leading up to our hike, many desperate hours were spent researching the internet to familiarize myself with hiking up a snowy mountain, glissading down it, and what to expect. All things considered, I don’t think I spent a lot of money on equipment, and Youtube taught me how to self-arrest (more about that later). Micro spikes and trekking poles were sourced from a sketchy dude on Craigslist, hiking pants and boots came from the Columbia employee store at a FAT discount (work perks!), I had all my camping equipment already, boom. Lastly, I needed an "ice axe". I had only ever heard of that term while watching adventure shows on weekend tv. I think hearing me speak of ice axes and crampons gave my girlfriend anxiety, but anyway--

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Getting started on a foggy morning.

Our date with the mountain was scheduled for Sunday, May 20th, and Keaton, Nate and I decided to camp out the night before. We literally could not find a 4th person to summit the mountain with us, IKR? We arrived at Marble Mountain Sno-Park midday Saturday in low clouds and fog. The park is situated in the foothills of the mountain amongst densely wooded forest.

We were surprised to find that, at 2,500 ft or so, spotty patches of snow were still on the ground. I don’t know what that’s called-- it isn’t at all the powdery stuff as you might imagine, but it isn’t a sheet of ice either. If you’re like me and have minimal snow experience, it’s what happens when snow partially thaws, then refreezes, over and over and over again. It’s a sort of snow with an icy crust. It’s a slick, unstable hazard… and not fun at all to trek in. Anyway, we set up our tents and enjoyed an evening of laughs, food and alcohol.

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Still snow on Mount Saint Helens, even at lower altitudes!

The next morning we got up at 4am. It was still dark but light was beginning to make its way through the trees. More light was coming from the headlamps of hikers who were already making their way through the campsite and up the mountain. Feeling like we were already behind, we broke down our campsite while Nate made breakfast. I changed into my game day uniform that I had put so much thought into, but didn’t execute nearly as well as I wanted. It consisted of a long-sleeve base layer with a t-shirt up top, textile hiking pants, long cotton socks and my brand-new hiking boots. A cap and sunglasses were critical. I started with a light jacket as well but that quickly came off and was stuffed into the backpack.

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A great view of what’s to come.

Gear for Tackling Mount St. Helens

While on the subject of the backpack, mine was an old Dimarini adult softball backpack that I dug out of the garage and used last-minute because couldn’t justify budgeting for a nice day bag. In it were my micro-spikes, a handful of Clif bars, lots of water, sunscreen, and gloves. My trekking poles and ice axe were fitted to the exterior.

And Back to the Action

We started out at 5:30am from the Swift Trail and hiked through dimly lit forest and patchy snow to connect with the Worm Flows trail about a mile and a half in. The Worm Flows trail would be our highway to the summit. I believe the trail got its name from the winding canyons that were cut from lava flows having some representation of a worm. At least that was the conclusion the three of us came up with while conversing on the trail. An hour in, I was already having a hard time. My new boots had given me immediate blisters and my heels were in pain. My confidence was equally bruised. Keaton had packed a first aid kit and miraculously had some tape available to wrap my heels. After repairing myself, my socks, boots, and spikes were refitted and we were off again. The pain never went away but it was all I could do. If I hadn’t mentioned it yet ima mention it again …

I had no confidence!

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Here’s a sign that things are getting serious on Mount Saint Helens.

Not at the beginning, not after wrapping my heels, not after reaching the timberline, and not while getting passed by groups of snowboarders carrying more weight than me. I mean, it wasn’t until I couldn’t see any trees whatsoever that I figured I was in it for the long haul and the weight of my negativity subsided. Amongst few allies I did have was my determination to be able to say that I got to the top, and to see the sight of things like Spirit Lake and the rest of the Cascade mountains that I previously had only seen in Instagram pictures. At this point I developed a pace. I was making visible progress. We must have stopped 35 times for air, water or food on the way up. This was the only way I was going to succeed. Every time we resumed our trek, the blisters on my heels reminded me how discontent they were.

Natural markers, like rocks breaking through the melting snow atop ridges, made for checkpoints and rest stops for the 100 hikers who were allowed to purchase permits for the day. During our breaks we were able to turn around and really get an idea of how much progress we were making. It was a huge help because I had slowed to a snail’s pace and really didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. Also, the fog seemed to follow us up the mountain. Like a pulse, it was advancing and receding throughout the morning, but the receding fog made for the perfect excuse to stop and take in the view of the forest below (or catch my breath). The crusty snow was the single most discouraging obstacle on the way up. I couldn’t tell you if I would have rather been hiking up sand… but might as well have. For every few steps I made forward, one step broke the crust of the snow and left me knee deep in it. It took even more energy to lift my leg outa the snow and take the next step forward. My legs were yelling at me to end their misery. Thankfully there were steps pressed into the snow from not only the hikers in front of me but hikers from days, or weeks prior. It was hard to tell the age of the imprints.

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Looks cold! And those must be the glissade chutes.

As we got closer to the summit of the mountain, glissade chutes became visible. These are pathways cut into the snow that allow for hikers to slide down instead of walking. I was really excited to partake in more of that. Also, we noticed people were beginning to snowboard around us. This gave us the impression that we were nearing the summit--.

--.nah!

In Sight of the Mount St. Helens Summit

We reached a ridge that exposed the true summit, another 1,000 ft or so up. The pace was such that it didn’t really discourage me. I mean I was already exhausted; taking breaks to rest on my trekking poles and catch my breath, but also to rest my screaming legs. In a sort of trance from the repetition of rest steps and squinty eyes from the brightness of the snow, I knew we were closing in on the top because of the updraft of clouds that were visible from the crest of the crater. We were approaching the steepest part of the climb. It had to have been like a 40 – 45 degree gradient. I recalled recently reading another hiker’s experience and remembered his logic: something like "10 steps, then rest." Until this point I hadn’t understood how 10 steps could justify a break, until I was stopping every 20 steps, then 10 steps, then 5 steps.

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It’s starting to get steep

Remember, every few of those steps ended in sinking snow. Ugh, it was hard. I couldn’t really tell if the exhaustion I was experiencing was due to the thinning air, or the incline, or both…

But, within 40 minutes or so of tackling the gradient, we cleared the hardest part and the summit was visible! We knew because we could see a group of 25 or so hikers hanging out at the top. It was closing in on noon and by now Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams were also visible. Bringing up the caboose of our 3-man party, I gave it all I could to push to the summit. Keaton and Nate stopped about 20 steps or so from the top to wait for me, then the 3 of us muscled to the crater together and were greeted by another couple of hikers once we reached the roughly 8300 ft summit.

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The awesome crater of Mount St. Helens!

We had done it, finally! After days of prep and months of hype, numerous Youtube videos and countless Google searches, we had finally made it to the summit of Mt. St, Helens. And she rewarded us greatly. By now the fog had burned off, exposing a beautiful sunny sky and picturesque views of the Cascade volcanoes, including Mt. Ranier, a clear view of Spirit Lake, and an actively steaming vent in the center of a ginormous crater spanning nearly my entire peripheral eyesight! It was huge! It was beautiful! And it was everything I expected it to be.

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If you don’t have a good beer at the top of Mount Saint Helens, Wandering Justin doesn’t want to know you.

Climb Mount St. Helens, Then Lunch and IPA

We reached the summit 7 hours after our departure time of 5:30am, just in time for lunch. My girlfriend had made sandwiches for us. Keaton and Nate had literally hyped the sandwiches up so much that I was afraid they were going to be disappointed — they weren’t. Keaton and I paired our bologna sandwiches with a locally-sourced Widmer upheaval IPA that each of us had packed into our backpack. Felt as though it was appropriate, also made for a cool photo. I tell you, a cold beer never tasted so good. We stood and watched as others made it to the summit, including a 64-year-old gentlemen who had never summited St. Helens before. (I wasn’t surprised to hear that he made it an hour faster than I did--) Also, a dog! A freakin dog accompanied a couple to the summit! It was an Australian Shepherd or something like that. We later saw the dog glissading with its owner down the mountain, pure awesome. Speaking of glissading, after about 40 minutes of sight seeing and catching our breath, it was time to make our way back to the car--

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One of the rare spots when rock poked through the snow. That’s our man of the hour, Danny, in the grey shirt.

I didn’t expect the descent to be as exciting as it was going to be…

We followed a couple of dudes with what seemed were Russian accents to a glissade chute. This was it! I was equally nervous as I was excited to slide down the mountain. I didn’t know what to expect and had never practiced any of it. We were to glissade (slide on our asses) down the mountain as far as we could go. It saves hours and energy, although it isn’t exactly a free ride. Glissading does require some effort and patience. Lastly, I was supposed to use my ice axe to slow myself down and stop. Remember that whole "Self Arrest" thing? The Russian dudes started and our group followed behind. The first few chutes were rather uneventful. I enjoyed my slide down at least 2,000 ft of snow, occasionally pushing myself to gain momentum then transitioning to another chute when it was necessary. What the 3 of us were worried about was that we were subject to following the path of the chute without really knowing if we were following the trail to the bottom, or where we were really going at all--

Our worries (or mine) were confirmed as we reached the end of a glissade chute and couldn’t find any more, or the trail. By this time we had reached the intermittent fog layer, which didn’t help anything. We did know that we were west of the trail, so the 3 of us and the two Russian dudes made our way across untouched snow back toward the trail.

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Looks exciting, right?

Glissading Down Mount St. Helens

The fog had become thicker as we approached a ridge accompanied by a relatively deep canyon. One of the Russians spotted a glissade chute — and did I mention these two dudes were crazy. Like the kind of people that would probably describe themselves as "extreme". He took one look at the glissade chute with no visible course and quite literally jumped right in as if cannonballing into a pool. He let out a loud "whooo" as he disappeared right in front of me. His buddy turned to look at me, chanted, and followed suit. I watched as he disappeared, then a few seconds later I spotted a small black dot traveling at breakneck speed off in the distance. It was that moment I realized the distance and depth of the canyon, and what I had in front of me to deal with. Had I had any other option I might have taken it but this seemed to be the only way down. I don’t like roller coasters, I didn’t like what I just witnessed, but I did have my axe in hand and hell, I had come this far right? I took my seat on the chute and I was off. I IMMEDIATELY picked up a lot of speed as I seemingly free fell down the chute. It was so steep, it all happened so fast I remembered what I had seen online and dug my axe into the soft snow, desperately trying to slow down. Unsuccessful, I dug the axe deeper, until the snow ripped the axe out of my hands. What I didnt remember to do was secure the axe to my wrist with a tether.

I was helpless. Using split-second emergency decision making, I assessed the danger of trying to use my hands and feet to slow down, then determined it was what I was going to do. I dug my hands into the snow on both sides of me, only to displace snow into the air in a rooster tail fashion. I bounced off hard bumps of snow and the compression of each bump on my body made my chest hurt. About 500 ft later I finally slowed to a stop. Russian 1 and 2 cheered as I came to a stop but I wasn’t happy. My chest was aching and I lost my axe. I wasn’t about to make any attempt to retrieve it-- I couldn’t even locate the chute looking back. Nate slid to a stop behind me and miraculously was able to retrieve my white water bottle that I didn’t even know I lost. I couldn’t believe that he spotted it, and grabbed it amongst the snow. I spotted Keaton sliding down and yelled to him to grab my axe! His only contact with the axe however was with the blade against his arm, and he reached the bottom of the chute bleeding. I apologized for his injury but I think his adrenaline was in such a state that he didn’t care. He was too excited about what he had just experienced.

We mingled at the bottom of the ridge for a while until I overheard Keaton and Nate asking about a noise coming from the chute. "What’s that sound?" I heard from Keaton. I knew exactly what it was though. It was the sound of sliding snow and ice. We had created an avalanche on our way down the glissade chute.

I couldn’t tell the size or distance of the small avalanche because of the dense fog. The sound it was producing was such that I wasn’t about to hang around and find out either. I proclaimed to the group that we needed to go! We moved eastward for about another 20 minutes before we found a park ranger, and the trail. Although distancing ourselves from the sliding snow, the sound didn’t seem to be getting any quieter. It didn’t matter though. We had escaped potential danger and were now far enough down the mountain that the rocky ridges we used to hike up the mountain were in abundance. I feel as though the park ranger, who was as useful at the time as a trail marker, had chosen his location on the mountain to post up knowing he would encounter people like us who had lost their way. He assured us that we had found the Worm Flows Trail, and just like that we were back on track. I don’t know how we got separated from the Russians but it was ok. I really just wanted to be off the mountain. We, tiresome, descended for what seemed like an eternity down the mountain, through intermittent snow and boulders,
through the rocks and dirt, all the way to the timberline. I was disappointed to see that after all the progress I felt like we made, we had only reached the 4,800 ft marker. The sky had cleared up for good at this point, it was warm, and I was too tired to take off my base layer.

Four hours after we started the first glissade chute at the summit of Mt. St. Helens, we returned to our vehicles at Marble Mountain Sno-park amidst warm sunny skies and beautiful lush forest. We were beat up, cut up, wet, tired, but also happy, accomplished and proud. Keaton and I celebrated with IPAs, and his favorite: gin and tonic. We changed out of our busted clothes and after a few minutes of reflecting, we were on out way out. I said my goodbyes to the mountain in my head as I connected to the local service road. It took us about half an hour or so to get out of the mountains and onto I5 South toward Portland. As soon as I had the opportunity, I glanced back at the mountain from the highway; this time I could see it clearly, standing out like a sore thumb amongst the greenery of southern Washington. I couldn’t believe that I had done it. I had left my mark on the mountain, as well as my axe. My axe left its mark on Keaton, and the three had a pretty cool story to tell.

The hike could have not been possible without the information provided from the following websites:

mshinstitute.org
mountsthelens.com/mount_st_helens_national_park.html
fs.usda.gov/recarea/giffordpinchot/recarea/?recid=81369

Why You Should Go to Finland

I can’t even tell you how many times I hear American travelers go on about Spain, Italy, France and England. You’ll hear about culture, history, museums and food (a little less so with England on that last one!). But I can’t say I’ve ever heard an American traveler all wound up about the idea of a trip to Finland.

And I just don’t get it.

Finland – and also Iceland and Norway – have a certain sense of community spirit that’s hard to define. But that spirit makes Finland an incredibly fun place to travel. And then you have the scenery, the events, the food, the public transit and the shopping. I’m not ordinarily a big shopper. But I always look out for things that will interest others, and I can tell you that any fashionista with an eye for one-of-a-kind items from small, independent designers will love Finland.

Let me share some information that gives you an idea of why you should go to Finland.

First Impressions

We arrived in Helsinki after a flight from Tromsö, Norway via Oslo aboard Norwegian Air Shuttle. I sat across the aisle from a young female rock band, one member of which got startled when my wife accidentally launched a gob of sanitizer directly onto her lap (pressurization, yo). Sharing a plane with young rockers reinforced my notion that Finland is a paradise for good, loud rock music; part of our reason for visiting was to go to the Ruisrock festival in Turku (the Ruisrock link includes a story about having several people convinced that I’m a rock star who performed at the festival).

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It’s early evening – soon, this park will be jammed with people on blankets hanging out.

I was a little surprised that the rail line from the airport to the city center was still under construction during our visit (it may be ready now, though). The bus ride was still pleasant, and I thought more than a few times of Minnesota as we cruised along through rolling plains and evergreen trees.

Downtown Helsinki, though, was all cool Old World architecture alongside sleek but welcoming new architecture. It’s a blend Finland wears well, just like so many other countries in the region.

First example of the community spirit I mentioned earlier – we asked a young Finnish woman for directions, and she walked us to within a few steps of our hotel and told us all about herself as we walked.

What’s So Cool About Finland?

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Helsinki could give Portland a few lessons in weird.

If American travelers knew what I do about Finland, it would be a huge, up-and-coming destination. It’s just that awesome. Let me break it down:

Absolutely Vibrant During Summer – Finland comes alive in the summer, with music festivals spanning nearly every genre practically every weekend somewhere in the country. Also, there’s a nightly tradition in the cities -- people fill up a cooler, grab a blanket, head to the nearest park and hang out with their friends and neighbors in the post-dinner hours. I imagine winter is a little less social, but I’d bet it’s still a picture-perfect scene of a holiday season.

Getting Around is Super Easy – Whether you walk, bicycle or take a train, the transit options are affordable and easy to navigate. Our two-hour trip on the VR train to Turku was a marvel of comfort and efficiency. We also used a combination of train and bus travel to enjoy a day hiking at the Nuuksion Koulu. Every leg of the trip went off without a hitch. And cyclists – be prepared for an astounding bicycle infrastructure.

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Finland has cool architecture a-plenty

History and Fun – We also took a quick boat trip out to Suomenlinna, where we spent a day enjoying the island’s history and sites -- be prepared for some gusty Baltic winds, though. I also got to try some bear sausage. Back in Helsinki, we took an evening trip out to the Linnanmaki amusement park.

Things to Know

  • You might be tempted to call Finland a Scandinavian country. Resist the urge. Refer to it as a Nordic country instead.
  • Also, Finland uses the Euro. That’s part of the reason its prices aren’t quite as high as Norway.
  • Try sahti. It’s a traditional Finnish beer that’s hard to find … and slightly hard to pronounce. Here’s everything you need to know about sahti.
  • If you’re a beer connoisseur, let’s just say Finland hasn’t quite hopped into the craft-beer movement just yet. There are a few places to get good brews, but you’ll mostly see fizzy, watery, pale-yellow lagers.
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Nuuksion National Park an easy combination of train and bus travel from Helsinki.

Finland in a Word: Liveable

I could very easily see living in Finland, even with its winters. There seems to be a work-life balance that allows the country to prosper, but it exudes a "work to live, not live to work" outlook. That’s healthy. The country’s fixation on sauna (pronounce it “sah-oo-nah”) is another healthy element, along with well-marked hiking trails serves by huts. Finland is the place to be for backpackers and cross-country skiers.

Other Details

My total time in Finland was about nine days – enough to convince me that you should go to Finland – split between Turku and Helsinki. Turku is built around a river, and it is so incredibly relaxed and pleasant that you might never realize that many of the world’s behemoth cruise ships are built there. As for Helsinki -- I could easily use a few weeks to dive into all that it offers. I’d love a chance to learn more about its heavy metal scene and to get out into the surrounding natural areas.

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Turku is a maritime city you’ll love … if you like strolling along rivers, walking on tree-shaded paths and meeting people.

Great Backpacking Destination: Iceland

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On one of Iceland’s best-known trails.

Iceland is made for backpacking. It has a wealth of trails that are supported by smart amenities and relatively easy to access. The country has embraced the backpacker, with plenty of touring groups, sports shops and hostels. Here are some other reasons why it’s a great backpacking destination.

Incredible Scenery

Icelanders realize what makes the country special: incredible scenery. Much of the land is young since it straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Some lava flows are just 20 years old. This creates some dramatic landscape unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. The scenery also changes quickly. Walk three miles, and the scenery changes completely.

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Trails everywhere. And lots of solitude.

High-Quality Huts

Major hiking routes have sturdy, high-quality huts ever eight miles or so. You can book reservations there, or just pitch a tent nearby (you’re not supposed to camp outside designated areas along the hiking routes). “Hut” is a bit of a misnomer since these structures actually have bathrooms and cooking facilities. Those who are tent camping can still use the bathrooms, but not the cooking gear.

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How’s that for a sweet hut? Amenities like this make Iceland a perfect backpacking destination.

Iceland isn’t the only backpacking destination to have incredible huts – New Zealand is also solid in this respect, as are many Scandinavian and Nordic areas.

No Dangerous Animals

I live in Arizona. Backpacking here brings the risk of rattlesnakes, scorpions and other potentially painful creepy-crawlies. We might have the Grand Canyon and very diverse scenery, but the state is just not set up to be backpacking destination. Iceland is a different story. Aside from sheep and harmless insects, the only animal you might encounter in the Icelandic back country is the Arctic fox – or possibly a Speedo-clad German taking a dip in a natural hot spring. In reality, the foxes are seldom seen and are too small to present a real threat.

Lots of Daylight During Summer

One of the challenges of backpacking can be the sudden drop in temperature when night falls. In Iceland, that’s not much of a concern. That’s because you’ll have about 22 hours of daylight. Even when the sun dips below the horizon, the sky still stays fairly light. That means no rushing to set up camp and dive into your tent and sleeping bag before the temperature turns frigid.

Solitude for Your Inner Hermit

Iceland is a decent-sized country. But it has only about 300,000 people in in it. So it’s slightly smaller than my home state, yet its population is about the size of a Phoenix suburb. That adds up to some empty space. Even at the popular Landmannalaugar hiking area, I hiked for hours at times without encountering another person. You’ll feel like you’re in some post-apocalyptic world with that sort of scenery, silence and solitude. Even areas like Dimmuborgir and the psuedocrater fields near Kirkjubaejarklaustur seem remote and rarely traveled.

Words of Warning

Though Iceland’s summer temperatures are often mild, things can change quickly. A driving rain can appear out of nowhere, with howling wind to accompany it.

The weather can do more than make you uncomfortable: It can kill you. In the mid-90s, a hiker died during a freak summer blizzard. He was just about a mile from the safety of the Hrafntinnusker Hut.

Plan ahead. Dress well. Bring the right gear. Then, you’ll be ready to have a great experience at any Iceland backpacking destination.

Adventurous Ideas to Go to Iceland

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A hike you shouldn’t miss if you go to Iceland.

I started this blog for one reason: to give people ideas for finding the right adventure for them. My favorite days as a blogger are not when an advertiser throws some cash my way. It’s when someone writes and says something like "Hey, I got the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe using your tips."

So I was fired up to get a message from a friend who decided to go to Iceland -- and promised to mine my blog for ideas.

Rather than make my friend Katie leaf through dozens of post, I decided to compile some ideas to help her go to Iceland. These will be perfect for anyone who plans to go to Iceland. Katie did say "you probably went more rugged than I will go." Fair enough -- I think I can help Katie find the right adventure for her taste.

Katie has her plane ticket and her new hiking boots -- let’s see what we can do for her! (And be sure to check out a more recent post with even more Iceland info!)

Go to Iceland, Go Inside a Volcano

I love volcanoes, especially if they’re still spewing something. But an extinct volcano can offer something, too. Especially Thrihnukagigur volcano, which is just a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik. It’s the only volcano in the world that I know that is extinct, yet has a its magma chamber fully intact. The Inside the Volcano tour takes you more than 400 feet into the depths of Thrihnukagigur.

I was in Iceland before this tour started, and I wail at my misfortune on a daily basis. This is not something any visitor to Iceland should miss.

Sign up for the Miđnæturhlaup

June 23 is the date for the MiÄ‘næturhlaup, a great race in Reykjavik with 5k, 10k and half-marathon distances. All the races start and finish at the Laugardalslaug geothermally heated pools – a perfect way to kick back after running -- and to meet locals. It’s also a good shot at glory: I love telling people that I was the first American finisher the year I ran. Of course, there were only three Americans, and my wife would’ve cooked me if we’d run the half-marathon instead of the 10k.

Since this is right in the middle of Reykjavik, it’s easy to sign up and get to the venue.

Glacier Lagoon, go to Iceland, Jokullsarlon
The Jokullsarlon, or glacier lagoon. Awesome!

Blue Waters, Ancient Ice

Just try pronouncing Jökulsárlón like an Icelander: I dare you. It translates into "glacier lagoon," and you’ll see the word "Jökull" all over the place. Anyway, the word sound cool – but seeing the Jökulsarlon in person will blow you away. Check the image, and bear in mind that it’s straight out of my camera. No photo editing or processing whatsoever. I’d also recommend the boat tour. Our guide fished a hunk of ice out of the glacier lagoon and chipped bits off for everyone to taste. We did a full day of glacier hiking combined with a visit to the glacier lagoon, which we arranged through Glacier Guides. I recommend them highly, especially if they’re still cruising around in a yellow school bus with a cute dog named Hekla.

Jökullsarlon is a haul from Reykjavik. We spent a night camping nearby at Skaftafell National Park, and a second night further west in Vik. Vik is nice, but not a must if you’re crunched for time when you go to Iceland.

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My GPS track for a hike in Landmannalaugar.

Be a Highlander

OK, I know Katie thinks she doesn’t want to go too rugged. But I think she must get out to the highlands. I’d recommend that she takes a morning bus from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar. From there, she can do an eight-mile hike on the Laugavegur trail through some of the most unearthly scenery she’s ever seen. By the time she arrives at Hrafntinnusker Hut, she’ll have hiked past volcanic plugs, fumaroles, Technicolor rocks of all sorts, an incredible field of glossy, black obsidian boulders and the scenery used in the opening shots of the movie Prometheus. What’s really funny is when a ranger at the trailhead says "Oh, it’s really crowded today" and then you don’t see another person for the next two hours. Have a look at this post for more photos.

You can turn this into a three-day hike by pressing on toward Thorsmork, or you can return to Landmannalaugar and catch a bus to Skaftafell National Park or Kirkjubaejarklaustur (aka Klaustur, for short).

waterfall iceland
One of Iceland’s many waterfalls. But this one freezes in winter to become The Wall in the HBO series “A Game of Thrones.”

It takes a good four hours to get to Landmannalaugar from Reykjavik. Much of the trip is over bumpy dirt roads that have, by early June, been open for less than week (many of the highland roads are closed during much of the year – the terrain is that rugged). But I can’t in good conscience tell anyone to go to Iceland and give this area a miss. If you don’t travel with a tent, you can book a bunk at Hrafntinnusker hut.

To the North

66°North is an Icelandic clothing brand you’ll see everywhere – at trailheads, at coffee shops, you name it. Icelanders seem to pride themselves on enduring the north, and doing themselves up in 66°North was a manifestation of that pride. But there’s north and then there’s NORTH! To get further up the globe, I recommend that Katie hops on a plane to Akureyri, and then either rents a car or takes a bus to the area near Myvatn (which means Midge Lake). There are hotels and hostels around the lake, but I’d stay on the north side near the Vogar Farm Guesthouse campground. From there, Katie would be close to the Myvatn Nature Baths (a less-touristy and less-expensive Blue Lagoon), the Dimmuborgir lava field, Hverfjall crater and other cool spots. It’s also a very serene area. Do avoid the chocolate-covered black licorice at the gas stations, though.

Something else cool: The road from Akureyri to Myvatn passes a waterfall that freezes in the winter; when it’s frozen, it stars as The Wall in the HBO series A Game of Thrones.

City Living

Reykjavik is as cool and artsy a city as Katie will find anywhere. She likes coffee shops if not coffee, and the city is loaded with them. And they are all regional – as far as I know, Iceland has kept the Starbucks invasion at bay. Katie is a reader, so she’ll love all the bookstores. It’s hard to walk a half-mile without running into one, a sign that this is a very literate society (another sign – all the beds have reading lights on both sides). Reykjavik also has a huge interest in fashion; women there cruise around in some pretty wild styles. And I saw a huge number of independent fashion businesses selling their wares for reasonable prices.

OK, so I hope this gets Katie started on her plans to go to Iceland. Next up, I’ll share some advice on gear for her trip.

Find out even more in my Quick Iceland Travel Guide.

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Glacier Hiking – Why You Should do It

glacier hiking
Heading into a crevace.

I’ve written about glacier hiking a few times in the past. I started with some tips about Franz Josef, and added a look at Falljökull in Iceland.

But looking back at the posts, I could’ve done better. I want to take another shot at it. So let me swing back to the glacier hiking on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand.

Look, I really want you to go to Franz Josef Glacier. I think you’ll take something incredible from the experience. If you’re fit enough, sign up for an all-day session on the ice (You can’t just go glacier hiking on Franz Josef unguided – I was skeptical of the need for guides at first. But you need them, for real).

glacier hiking
Epic size. It took us 3 hours to get just past the black rocks. Click the photo for a bigger look – and try to find some people for scale.

Part of what amazes me about this is that Franz Josef is one of the few places on the planet where you can go from hiking through a tropical rainforest to glacier hiking in, oh, about 30 minutes. That’s right.

This isn’t a very technical glacier experience. You won’t need training or ropes or anything crazy. At some point, you’ll strap crampons to your feet. A short way into the day, you’ll need ice axes. And you’ll always need to mind your guides to the letter and keep your wits about you.

glacier hiking
High up on Franz Josef glacier.

OK, I have that out of the way. But here’s the really big deal about glacier hiking: It’s a chance to see the Earth -- alive, changing, noisy, real. And to feel something about it.

I am convinced that every person needs this sort of connection to the world. Think about how many of us live among concrete. It’s all so static, so dead. It’s easy to see how a person can forget that we’re on a giant ball of interlinked organisms and matter. It’s easy to see how a person can just shrug and say "screw the environment."

Here’s my promise: If you stand on a glacier, you will change. You’ll hear the water rush under you. You’ll feel the vibration as ice grinds against rock. And you’ll desperately wish that most of the world’s glaciers weren’t disappearing. And just maybe, you’ll think about ways you can help reverse the process.

glacier hiking
Starting from the bottom of Franz Josef Glacier.

If you’re like me, you’ll spend some time feeling like a hypocrite. I drive too much. I fly too much. I wish I rode my bike to work more.

But hey, maybe you’ll do something smaller and less grand -- and it will start to add up.

When I look at my day glacier hiking on Franz Josef, that’s the real takeaway. It’s far important than the beauty – though I promise the views will captivate you.

Now, go. Take a trip to New Zealand. Book your tour. Come back, and tell me what your day at Franz Josef Glacier did for you.

glacier hiking
Looking out from a high point on Franz Josef Glacier.
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Overlooked Arizona Hikes – Red Mountain

I hiked less than a mile before I decided that Red Mountain is one of the most overlooked Arizona hikes.

Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. The sign-in sheet at the trailhead listed fewer than 20 names for the day I hiked the trail – which was a day of stupifying heat in the Arizona desert. Yep, a perfect getaway near Flagstaff from a 119-degree day -- yet few people took advantage of it.

Red Mountain Arizona Hikes
Entering the amphitheater at Red Mountain.

So what brought me here? Well, it’s a geological oddity – a 750,000-year-old cinder cone with its innards exposed. The volcano’s interior is an amphitheater-shaped maze of red-tinted spires and hoodoos. Geologists aren’t sure exactly what forces created the amphitheater that makes Red Mountain so distinct. Hey, a little mystery is good for your hike.

You’ll get something here that you can’t get at any other local hikes -- a look at a volcano’s interior, eroded over nearly a million years. Want to check out a few more photos? I have a slideshow with more shots. And be sure to watch the video at the end.

Red Mountain Arizona Hikes
Among the lava.

Judging from the meager traffic on the trail, that’s not enough. Maybe it’s all the other well-known Arizona hikes nearby -- the San Francisco Peaks, Lava River Cave, Sunset Crater and its lava flows, Walnut Canyon, just to name a few.

I’m not saying you should skip a bunch of other great hikes near Flagstaff. But if you want to find a less-traveled spot that offers something unusual, think about Red Mountain.

It is an easy hike, though. You’ll put on about four miles hiking there and back, plus crawling around in the amphitheatre. On the way there, I hiked past hundreds of buzzing cicadas and managed to scare a few bunnies. The trail eventually turns up a wash, so you’ll have to slog through some sand.

Red Mountain Arizona Hikes
On the way to Red Mountain

One of the cool things is how your perspective will change during the approach. The amphitheater seems fairly flat from a distance – kind of eye-catching, but not that spectacular. As you get closer, though, you start to see the scope of it. It becomes more of a landscape and less of a simple backdrop. My wife said it reminded her of the Valley of Love in Turkey crossed with Sedona.

Red Mountain is definitely on my list of favorites Arizona hikes. Weird geology is one of my favorite reasons to hit the trails, and this is a great example of what you might find in an ancient volcanic field.

To get Red Mountain, head north on Highway 180. The turnoff is about 30 miles from Flagstaff. It’s marked with a sign. You’ll follow a dirt road – nothing your typical passenger car can’t handle. It leads to a parking lot. There’s no fee to use the area.

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Remember Peru – A Hint for the Adventure Traveler


A llama (Lama Glama) in front of the Machu Pic...
A llama (Lama Glama) in front of the Machu Picchu archeological site, Peru. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does travel feel like?

Alright, it varies for most people. For some, it’s hot sand and being lazy on a beach. For others, it’s a round-the-clock buffet aboard a cruise ship.

And then there’s the active outdoor traveler: A video starring Peru captures the essence of travel for those who prefer adventure. The Remember Peru video taps into the mindset of a traveler who isn’t about luxury pampering – but it presents the message with a novel twist that I won’t spoil for you.

With Machu Picchu, high altitudes, epic volcanic landforms and wildlife (one word: monkeys!), Peru earns a place on my "must visit" list. As I write this, I have a friend trying her hand at mountain biking during a trip to Peru. Between her and two other friends who lived in Peru, I have enough information to plan a trip that fulfills everything I look for in a vacation. They can all expect some questions from me in the near future. Guidebooks are great, but there’s nothing like first-hand opinions from those who have been there -- especially when we share interests and preferences.

With the Remember Peru video, the country plays to strengths familiar to many outdoor travelers: It says yes, this is a destination for those who always travel with a pair of well-worn hiking boots, who take their cameras off the “Auto” setting and who think a few nights sleeping under the stars make a trip perfect.

And there’s another kind of adventure I could find in Peru: a chance to eat cuy and alpaca. The first one? That’s guinea pig. According to National Geographic, alpaca has a taste in the gamey family of buffalo – not as exotic as guinea pig, but still good for a few tales for the squeamish eaters back home.

What do you think of the video? How does it affect your opinion about a visit to Peru?

This post is sponsored by Marca Peru.

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Inside My Head – Fear of Heights

Looking into the crater - for scale, note the people in the left side of the frame.
Looking into the crater – for scale, note the people in the left side of the frame.

I wish I could stride along the rim of this volcano’s crater. After months of waiting, endless hours looking at photos of it, and then finally marching from the Rangipo Desert up the thick scree on its slopes, I’m here.

And I’m too afraid to appreciate it.

I find an off-camber lip. The wind pushes me toward the inner lip, and every rock seems to slip out from under my feet. The very ground under me frightens me -- it buttresses out
unsupported, ready to crumble and swallow everyone on the rim.

A wind-swept ridge.
A wind-swept ridge – with a steep drop on either side.

I don’t how to put my fear in a neat compartment with the right label. Am I afraid of heights? Hmm, I love to fly -- helicopters, airplanes, from a Cessna 172 to a 747.

No – it’s a fear of falling from a high place. And imagining the anticipation of hitting bottom.

Here at the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe, it nearly freezes me. I hunker down to lower my center of gravity. I grit my teeth through a few photos and then plunge down the slope – which is steep, but covered in cinders that won’t let me fall far or fast.

Just try finding a better view. Oh, and this is the start of the drop down the scary ridge.
Just try finding a better view. Just be sure you can enjoy it past a fear of heights.

I can count on this sort of paralyzing, stomach cramp-inducing anxiety at least once per trip. There’s always some sort of epic hike everywhere I go. And epic hikes usually mean some high place with lots of exposure.

What I felt that day in New Zealand has already repeated itself. On the Laugavegur hike in Iceland -- there are plenty of spots where a false step could send me sliding hundreds of feet down an icy slope with an 80-degree angle. Near Busan, South Korea, scrambling up a rope headed to the peak of Geumjeongsan. On the Besseggen trail in Norway’s Jotunheimen, the trail plunges more than a thousand feet in barely a half-mile. The hand- and foot-holds leave me little margin for error. Straight down, a rocky pitch. On either side? Two frigid glacial lakes.

I know this is something I’ll never master. My gut will clench every time I look down and envision possibilities that could lead to the last few moments of my life. I wish I could not only contain my fear, but also keep it to myself. But I also project it to my wife, who handles this sort of thing so much better than I do. As I worry for the both of us, it scrubs some of the shine from what should be perfect moments in life -- I anticipate these places so much. I think about them every day leading up to a trip, and the anticipation makes it hard to think straight or get any decent sleep the night before.

Like they say in Battlestar Galactica, all this has happened before and will happen again. No matter where I go, there will be a high place that waits for me, someplace where I have to just keep moving forward.

My goal isn’t to be free from fear. No, that’s too much to ask. All I want, all I will try to do, is to not let my fear ruin the moment.

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Travel Blogs or Guidebooks: Who Do You Trust?

The guidebook promised a fairly flat, easy, short hike.
The guidebook promised a fairly flat, easy, short hike.

It’s one of those days when I feel like torturing a travel guide editor. I imagine stuff involving ants, honey, jumper cables and possibly a Weed Whacker.

“A short, mostly, flat hike,” the guide book entry promised.

Hours ago, I planned for that short, mostly flat hike near Busan, South Korea. I skipped my typical day pack, its 120-ounce water bladder and its snacks tucked into multiple pockets.

I want to find this writer. And bury him up to the neck in sand. Smack him in the head over and again with one of my 24-ounce water bottles … but frozen. Between each hit – “Did you even go there, jackass?!”.

The Hangul characters on these signs are about as helpful as some travel guidebooks.
The Hangul characters on these signs are about as helpful as some travel guidebooks.

I hate being underprepared. I would’ve had my pack, my GPS receiver, probably a windbreaker. It turns into a wonderful hike, from Beomeosa Temple to the forlorn out-of-season Geumgang Park. We have to watch our water, and there’s that nagging “what if we really screwed up?” worry in our heads. We meet friendly Korean hikers – which is redundant, I guess – who show us the way to the highest peak. They also seize our camera and make us pose for a few hundred shots.

As nice as our hike is, this episode marks an important shift in travel preparation. It makes me trust guidebooks less, and bloggers more.

A rare shot of Sarah and me in the same photo.
A rare shot of Sarah and me in the same photo.

If you read Smile While You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, you’ll be convinced that guidebook writers can’t make a living without being on the take. And that they can’t possibly do everything they write about. But they have to write about it whether they’ve done it o not.

Which is why guidebooks are only helpful for getting a few ideas. When it comes to activity and seeing the truth first-hand, I say “rely on the bloggers.” Sure, not all bloggers are great. But find one that speaks to your destination, and you have yourself a major leg up in planning your trip.

And that is the point of everything I do here. I want someone going to one of my destinations to search for information, find me, grab some ideas and have the best time possible. At least they can use my writing with the confidence that I’ve been there, for real, and not concocted something to satisfy the publishers paying my bills.

Rise Energy Foods, Tested On the Besseggen Trail in Norway

A perfect place and perfect time for testing the Rise energy food bars.

A boxful of Rise energy foods got me through two of my big days in a recent trip to Norway. It was only my second experience with the Rise energy bar – the first was the time I found one of its “Crunchy Carob Chip” bars at a local bike shop. I am a sucker for carob (the pudgy 12-year-old me used to love carob ice cream from Haagen-Dazs).

The interesting thing with Rise energy foods is that they’re formulated for different purposes – breakfast bars, energy bars and protein bars. I tried to stick to the formula during my trip. Though being vegetarian, kosher and gluten-free don’t really enter my testing calculus, some of you might want to know about that. And some bars are dairy-free and vegan. I do, though, like that the Rise energy bar is minimally processed. See the Rise FAQ page for more info.

There was one particular day that really let me put the hammer down on the sampler platter of energy bars that the folks from Rise sent me for review. That was my 8-hour hike in Jotunheimen. The bars would have to fuel me through steep climbs, through snowdrifts and in pelting sleet and heavy winds.

Sarah

Burning energy on a climb on the Besseggen trail in Jotunheimen, Norway.

and I both sawed through the various flavors. What we found is that the Breakfast and Energy+ were our favorites. They had a nice moistness that made them easy to eat – and you got the feeling of eating real food. There was an unprocessed vitality to them. The Cherry almond, Crunchy perfect pomegranate and Blueberry coconut energy foods topped our list.

Flavor-wise, I had no qualms about the protein bars. A hike in Norway is bound to be cold – and Jotunheimen and its 9-mile Besseggen trail didn’t disappoint. The cold temperatures made the protein bars harden. My solution was to shove them into my gloves for about five minutes before eating. Even then, I’d gnaw off a small chunk, let it warm up in my mouth, chew, swallow and repeat. The protein bars were tasty enough when warm, and actually had a trace of moisture (unlike many protein bars).

They propelled us to the end at Memurubu, keeping the calories coming without weighing us down. That just made more room in our bellies for a post-hike pile of ham, mashed turnips and potatoes.

A few days earlier, the Rise energy bar also powered me through a 10K run in Tromsø , a city in Norway above the Arctic Circle. I ate a bar about an hour before the start. I had a nice, sustained supply of energy and no growling stomach.

We all know there’s no shortage of energy foods in the world. And I know why we have our old stand-bys. If those flavors are getting a little stale, though, be sure to check the Rise energy bar a shot.

The minor towers next to the citizen.

Scandinavia – My Travel Packing List

Epic trips require epic backpacks. Store that away for a rainy day, eh?

Scandinavia is less than a month away. Well, same for Finland, which is really a Nordic country. No matter what you call this trip, it’s time to mentally pack my bags for a trip through Sweden, Finland, Norway and possibly a bit of Estonia.

We like camping and hiking when we travel, which adds challenges people who go on laid-back beach vacations won’t ever encounter. So, what’s on the packing list for Scandinavia? Pretty much the same stuff I brought to Iceland with a few new additions …

  • Cook stove (MSR Whisperlite International) – I’ll never go on a camping vacation without it after seeing a French family whip up a gourmet meal with one -- while I choked down a cold military MRE pack. It sounds like bottles and fuel are readily available in Scandinavia. There’s no reason to eat bad when you travel!
  • t-shirts and underwear (tasc Performance) – I wind up wearing the same stuff for many days. The bamboo blend of the tasc Performance gear resists funky stench. And it’s super-comfortable. tasc sent me some of its latest bamboo/merino wool blends to test out above the Arctic circle. It’s not on the tasc website yet, but you can check here for other tasc goodies. Watch for a full review later. I expect they’ll be great for hiking and camping.
  • Shirts (Kuhl Breakaway Cafe) – These follow the "no stink allowed" theme. They’re made from something called Coffeenna, which incorporates recycled coffee grounds to beat the stink. Also comfortable to the max. I flogged them without mercy in the humidity of Asia and stayed fresh the whole while. A perfect travel shirt.

I’ll also bring a few packets of freeze-dried foods to get us started. But we may switch to canned stuff once we’re on the ground … I imagine all sorts of canned fish products in Scandinavia. Lutefisk, anyone?

And my travel pillow stays home this time. I’ll bring an inflatable pillow instead, and use a stuff sack as either a pillowcase or a second pillow. I might also skip my infamous hat and just roll with a decent stocking cap instead. But that should do it for the big Scandinavia trip.

Adventure in the English Lake District

Buttermere - Lake District
A spectacular view of Buttermere in the Lake District.

It shocks more than a few people that I have never been to the UK. Believe me, it’s on the list! Even though I can’t tell you anything first-hand about traveling in the UK, I fortunately have some people who can. Guest writer Amanda Andrews shows us the more rural and adventurous side of the UK in this post. Caving? Hiking? Biking? Yes!  Enjoy, and take a few ideas from Amanda. -Wandering Justin

I didn’t really know much about the English Lake District until recently. Now, it’s near the top of my must-visit list. It’s known for being one of the most picturesque areas of the country, with the quaint little towns and the stunning scenery of the famous lakes, but it’s also a haven for the adventurous. There’s an activity for every traveler.

Walking

The Lake District is time and again listed as one of the top UK destinations for hiking, or just walking as the locals call it. There’s no end to the trails and routes that you can take on a walking holiday in the area. There are trails here for every level of walker, so you can take a leisurely stroll across green fields and around the lakes. Eager for a more substantial challenge? Try The Cumbrian Way or The Coast to Coast walk, which is 191 miles long and takes you from the Irish Sea to the North Sea through three National Parks!

Biking

On two wheels is really the way to see the Lake District. The area again caters to all experience levels. Cumbria is a quiet, rural county so it’s great for travelling around on bike - you’re unlikely to be chased off the road by speeding cars, and travelling the country lanes by bike is a great way to see the real Cumbria. If you’re looking for something a little faster moving then check out one of the local bike shops and sign up for a mountain biking course, or just grab a map if you want to give it a go solo. With a combination of bridleways and man-made tracks criss-crossing the county there is something to suit everyone. From low valley trails to high mountain passes, this is the place to test your biking mettle in the UK.

Climbing

The Lake District is considered the birth place of modern mountain climbing and has been the training ground for many with Everest aspirations. It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete novice or a fully fledged crag-rat: The adventures are endless. Don’t let their modest height fool you. Many of the climbs in the Lakes are incredibly technical. And it’s not a bad idea to head out with a guiding company at first just to get the lay of the land.

If you’d rather go down than up, try caving and canyoning. Both of these give you a completely different perspective of the landscape and allow you to explore areas of the world that most people have never seen. Just one warning: Claustrophobics need not apply.

By Water

Open water swimming, canoeing, gorge walking, kayaking, wind surfing-being that the area is famous because of its lakes it isn’t surprising that water activities abound! Lake Windermere is the venue for the Great North Swim, the UK’s biggest outdoor swimming event, and holds ½ mile, 1 mile, and 2 mile events and is currently open for entries. What an amazing way to spend part of a holiday in the UK, jumping in the water with some 10, 000 other swimmers from around the world! Don’t expect tropical water temperature here though, it’s the north of England and you won’t want to hit the water here without a wet suit.

Where to Stay

Now that your appetite has been sufficiently whet, you want to know where to stay on your trip. There is no shortage of accommodation in the Lake District and there will be something for you no matter what your budget. Camping and hostelling are probably your cheapest options, though the weather in the Lakes can be a bit unpredictable so camping might not be to everyone’s taste. A great option if you’re looking for an outdoor based trip is renting a self-catering holiday cottage in the Lake District and the cost may be less than you’d expect. Splitting the cost between a group of friends can really cut down the individual cost and if you’re looking for a really great deal then travelling in the off season can save masses. Web cottages are an online holiday cottage rental agent with independently owned cottages throughout the UK and Ireland and are a great option if you’re looking for Lake District cottages.

All of this makes the Lake District a must-see location on my next trip to the UK. The area is ideally located to stop at when you’re doing a trip around the little island of Britain, it’s just north of Liverpool and Wales and not too far from the Scottish border. If it’s as good as it sounds I think a holiday in the Lakes won’t soon be forgotten.

Amanda enjoys traveling and has traveled extensively both in the UK and abroad. Amanda writes regular travel articles for Web Cottages and its partners, including blogging about interesting travel news/stories when they crop up. Her experience traveling and excellent ability to research means her articles are both informative and enjoyable.

This post is featured by Web Cottages. 

On the List for Next Trip: Scotland and Wales

This great photo by Dave Dunford shows the majesty of Pen Y Fan.

It never fails – before the afterglow of my latest trip wears off, someone asks me "where are you going next?"

My official answer? "Hey, give me a chance to savor Korea and Japan -- if not the flavor of the boiled silkworms."

The truth is, I’ve already thought about my next trip. I’ve never been anywhere in the UK before, and as a soccer fan it’s definitely on my list. But where to go? Yes, London is the obvious choice -- which means it doesn’t really suit me.

But Scotland intrigues me. I can picture swinging further north and checking out some Glasgow hotels. There, I could take in Celtic versus Rangers if I timed it right. And I could finally bring my five-year quest to eat haggis to a final and successful conclusion (really, all my failed attempts to eat haggis are worth a post of their own).

What else might Scotland have for me? Well, the scenery looks spectacular. I’ve seen photos in FourFourTwo that really made me want to visit Scotland. Oh, and let’s not forget BrewDog, the crazy craft brewery that does insane things like release limited-edition beers stuffed into a squirrel carcass. Oh, and a little break from Arizona’s angry sun would be nice. Sometimes I forget that clouds and greenery occur naturally in other places.

Glasgow looks like a nice city for some strolling - with a warm jacket!

I could also head an entirely different direction -- Wales. Word is that it’s an up-and-coming destination with castles and hiking drawing visitors in. I’m sure I’d satisfy my itch to hear interesting new languages. I’ve heard bits of Welsh and really enjoyed its sounds and cadence.

And Pen y Fan looks like some incredible hiking. Better yet, the Pen Y Fan race in mid-July takes runners straight to the 2,907-foot summit in just 3.5 miles. A cool t-shirt or medal for finishing would put this right on the list with the Hi Seoul Marathon or the Miđnæturhlaup in Reykjavik.

No matter where in Cardiff I’d stay, it would be pretty easy to get to a Swansea City match to check out some Premier League action. And there’s still Cardiff City in the League Championship. Either way, I’m bound to catch some enthusiastic fans in a great atmosphere. Of all the hotels in Cardiff, though, I’ll admit the St. David’s Hotel & Spa wins some points for having the word "spa" in the name.

So, U.K., I might be headed your way soon. Save me some haggis and lobscows!

This post is featured by eurobookings.com, which helps travelers find hotels in Europe – at the lowest rate possible. Browse more than 140,000 hotels in thousands of locations in Europe and across the globe until you find the hotel that is right for you.

"Hell Walking" and Tramping – How to Hike Abroad

Iceland, hiking, Wandering Justin, Landmannalaugar
Right, mates ... who's up for some hell walkin'?

When Sarah and I were in Australia, we met a traveler from Ireland. She was single, in her late 20s, active.

She told us about all the trouble she was having getting other lone travelers to hike with her.

Well, she didn’t actually say "hike." That’s not the Irish vernacular for "stomping around in the dirt in big boots." For our Irish buddy, that’s known as "hill walkin‘."

Wandering Justin shows us how to tramp.
But, you pair this with an Irish accent, and you get -- "hell walkin’."

So she was probably scaring everyone away with the threat of walking into Beelzebub’s own nature preserve.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to witness any such mix-ups in New Zealand. There, "hiking"/"hillwalking" is known as -- wait for it -- tramping! Yes, you and your best friend can spend weeks tramping around New Zealand.

You can make what you will of the phrase Australians use -- bushwalking!

"Trekking" is another word that’s common for long-distance hiking. But really, it’s nowhere near as fun as these others.

A Day in Iceland: Kirkjubaejarklaustur – Hof

pseudocraters iceland Kirkjubaejarklaustur
Sarah and Dokna in the pseudocrater field near Kirkjubaejarklaustur.

Dokna could easily allow herself to be the world’s saddest dog. She loves sticks – but some cruel twist of fate has put her in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland.

Klaustur, as it’s often called, has as many sticks as Arizona has native species of whales. Trees? The people at the Hotel Laki Efri-Vik where Dokna lives have planted some, but that’s about it. They rarely shed branches. Those that fall to the ground are limp and perhaps a bit unsatisfying. When she does find a stick, she bounces side-to-side on her front paws until you throw it for her. This happens often enough to keep her happy.

Dokna – whose name I am probably misspelling and is the Icelandic word for "Spot" – also amuses herself by latching onto hotel guests and walking around with them. Continue reading

New Phoenix Trails Bring Recreation – and Dose of Controversy

Rusty Angel Deem Hills Wandering Justin
A look up the Rusty Angel Trail at Deem Hills.

There’s not much in the way of hiking and biking trails west of I-17 in Phoenix. That’s bad news for hikers and mountain bikers living in that area.

That makes the opening of Deem Hills Recreation Area, a great piece of news for people wandering around Phoenix, right? Right?

Um, maybe.

First, a small group of litigious homeowners halted trail construction for a few months, as reported in The Arizona Republic. Fortunately, a Superior Court judge didn’t buy their argument (“The suit claimed the building of trails violates Environmentally Sensitive Development Areas Policies Design Guidelines and the city’s own Trail Management practices and procedures,” wrote Republic reporter Betty Reid.).

Conversations with some hikers on the trail convinced me those arguments are a smokescreen: What really had the plaintiffs POd was:

1. They could see the trails from their backyard, a sad reminder that they’re not in an exclusive enclave but rather in a sea of tile roofs.

Deem Hills Google Earth
A Google Earth Views of Deem Hills and my routes.

2. They’re worried that trail users might be able to see into their yards.

Hmm. I drove about 30 minutes from central Phoenix to ride the Deem Hills trails for the first time. At no point did I peer into the yards of homes flanking the south side of the park.

You see, I was a little busy TRYING TO STAY ON THE TRAIL AND NOT WRAP MYSELF AROUND A CACTUS OR THREE!

Seriously, I’d love to know what these lawsuit-happy nabobs are doing in their backyard that has them so worried? Perhaps they’ve mistaken themselves for celebrities – they’ve forgotten that they are Joe and Ethel Suburb, and thus of little interest to the outdoor lovers enjoying the park.

Everyone I encountered on the trails was friendly, hikers and bikers alike. Many said it was their first time on the trails. But one of my talks with the hikers disturbed me: I mentioned that I saw some room for improvement on the trails.

Deem Hills Wandering Justin
A look at the trails in the hillside at Deem Hills.

“We don’t want it too nice,” she said. “We just live over in the neighborhood.”

In other words, “let’s prevent this amenity from rising above mediocrity so that I won’t experience any inconvenience.” And make no mistake about it: the trails at Deem Hills are merely OK. You can find out more in my review at Examiner.com. They’re not the best nor the worst – and they’re a huge score for West Valley mountain bikers, who will get some great training on the many climbs in the park.

The area is a bit unusual because it seems to be one of the few spots in the Valley of obvious volcanic origin. The park is littered with large black volcanic bombs. I’d definitely be curious to know more about its geology from those in the know. I’d have to guess the hills are heavily eroded cinder cones. I also spotted some agate-like minerals strewn here and there.

As for the controversy, let’s hope this is also the end of the legal drama and that the “don’t look in my backyard” NIMBY crowd gets over itself in all due haste.

Escape Winter’s Clutches in New Zealand

New Zealand’s scenery is unforgettable, from glaciers to volcanos.

Snow is great when it first starts falling. But give it a month, and you’ll be ready to get away from it. So where should you go?

New Zealand, no contest. Here’s why.

1. It’s summer down there. But to most of us in the United States, a Kiwi summer is like a mild spring. You will only see snow on the tallest mountain peaks. Otherwise, it’s swimming/hiking/outdoor weather!

2. It’s cheap. One US dollar gets you about $1.26 in NZ dollars. And prices down there are just reasonable all around.

3. The scenery is off-the-hook spectacular. Tongariro National Park. The Southern Alps. Franz Josef Glacier. Queenstown. You won’t believe your eyeballs at any of these places – and I’m leaving out dozens of scenic spots.

Our “room” at Woodlyn Park. We even had the cockpit!

4. It’s relentlessly laid back. Want to relax? Even if you spend your whole vacation stomping around with a backpack, you will feel the easygoing Kiwi nature.

Getting There

You’ve got your choice of Qantas or Air New Zealand. Pick whichever has the best deal and schedule at the time. They’re both a treat if you’re used to flying domestic airlines. Don’t like long flights? Well, harden up, as the Kiwis would say!

 

The Skinny on Hotels

Hotel rooms in New Zealand often have kitchenettes. There are very few huge chain hotels. There’s also a lot of novelty (look no further than Woodlyn Park and its Hobbit rooms and the Bristol airplane converted into two suites).

Highlights

glowworm, waitomo
Wiggling through the Glowworm Caves

The Glowworm Caves in Waitomo are worth spending half your day underground. Rap, Raf ‘n’ Rock can set you up with a great tour. I also loved hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – if you’re up for it, you can summit the volcano that portrayed Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Even two years after my visit, I’m still blown away by the full-day hike on Franz Josef Glacier, where Franz Josef Glacier Guides will walk you from tropical rainforest to the snout of a glacier before strapping on some crampons and hitting the ice.

Food

If you like fresh fish, lots of fruit and a heavy Asian influence, you will have no trouble eating in New Zealand. There are plenty of exotic and flat-out weird tastes, like possum pie and whitebait. Craft beer is also getting big among the Kiwis: Check out Croucher Brewing in Rotorua – they were not yet open during my visit, and I’m curious about them. Oh, and coffee! You’ll find a classy cafe with a skilled barista in even the tiniest towns. I guess I should mention the wine – I’m not a big wine guy, but people who like wine love what the Kiwis have to offer.

 

franz josef, travel, wandering justin, new zealand
An epic day on Franz Josef Glacier.

City Scene

Kiwis would have you believe Auckland is a dystopian megalopolis straight out of Blade Runner – or nearly as bad as Las Vegas. In reality, it’s got a very pleasant, Seattle-like vibe. Wellington is cosmopolitan and fun, with music, arts, food and museums aplenty. Nelson and Queenstown on the South Island are much smaller, but with active nightlife and plenty to do, both indoors and out.

Getting Around

Rent a car on the North Island. I’d recommend buses for the South Island … the roads are a bit tricky. The occasional bout of rain and driving on the opposite side of the road won’t help you any.

 

possum pie, wandering justin, new zealand, sandfly cafe
Have a bite of possum pie, mate!

Odds & Ends

Bring some rain gear – New Zealand weather can change instantly. Sturdy boots are a must for the hikers. And bring a good camera. You’re not doing this scenery any justice if you’re using a cell phone camera, and I absolutely do not care how many megapixels it has.

Another thing: lighten up. Kiwis are talkers, and they’re very welcoming. In the U.S., I realize that their amped-up friendliness could seem weird. Maybe even creepy. Down there, it’s just the way people are. We could stand to learn from it, really.

How Did I Get on Anti-Park Fee Group’s Email List?

A website called nofee2hikeaz.com is now online fighting the Phoenix government’s proposal to charge for parking at 5 of its most-congested trailheads. Check my earlier post for some of the details.

Let me get this straight: The people who launched this site have the time and resources – in both time and cash – to design, code, launch and administer a website complete with YouTube videos. Yet they don’t have an extra $60 for a yearly pass for unlimited usage of those five trailheads. And they can’t park anywhere else, either.

That is just risible.

I also love the name: nofee2hikeaz.com.

How disingenuous and misleading can they get?

This is about five trailheads in one city. Let me repeat that: five trailheads, one city. Not even an entire city. It has nothing to do with the state of Arizona. Classic scare tactic from some local with delusions of Karl Rove grandeur.

But hey, what’s a little misdirection when there are $60 at stake!

I can’t help noticing that the video shows some awfully slick SUVs and sports cars in the parking lot. Maybe they could just skip a latte or two a week and apply it to the park fee? Nah, that’s crazy talk.

And here’s an interesting addition to the equation: Two days earlier, I received an email from Councilman Sal DiCiccio, the same one who railed against the proposed park fees, two days ago.

I have no idea how the councilman acquired my information. And I have absolutely no idea how the Webmasters of nofee2hikeaz.com acquired my information. NOTE: They did not use the email address associated with this Web site, but my private address.

This was the first email I ever received from Councilman DiCiccio. And the first I received from this group.

Is it a far stretch to conclude that the councilman provided the group with my information? I wonder if he was equally cavalier with the information of any other city resident.

And he has the nerve to talk about “stewardship” of tax dollar. As of right now, I don’t trust him with my e-mail address. Or yours.

Outdoor Adventure in Iceland

Find out about the incredible outdoor adventure you can find on the Landmannalaugar - Hrafntinnusker hike in Iceland.
Ice covered in fresh volcanic ash from the recent eruption.

On most trips, Sarah and I have allowed ourselves a few days to settle into our surroundings before an outdoor adventure. Not this time. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Iceland, we had our packs loaded again. And we were walking back to the BSI terminal to catch a bus to the centerpiece of our trip.

Outdoor Adventure
On top of the lava flow, less than a half-mile into the hike.

The roads to the Landmannalaugar region had just opened when we arrived. They were finally free of snow and mud – at least enough to allow buses to get through. And when I say "roads," for much of the trip that means dirt roads. Narrow dirt roads.

We quickly left Reykjavik behind – Sarah and I were already starving since we had to leave our guesthouse too early for breakfast (this caused a bit of consternation – they told us that they’d be willing to pack sandwiches for us next time -- very nice of them!).

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Pass Mountain Trail at Usery Park

pass mountain trail
The view north about two miles from the Pass Mountain Trailhead.

Pass Mountain and many other county trails get overlooked often. And unless you live in the Phoenix area, the only time you’ve probably heard the phrase “Maricopa County” is in relation to its relentlessly self-promoting sheriff, Joe Arpaio. I’m not going to dive into that can of worms except to say that he doesn’t exactly do much to foster warm, fuzzy feelings for the county government.

That’s a shame for the Maricopa County Parks crew. This system of more than 10 parks isn’t perfect – but it is outstanding. I am constantly thankful for the county parks department, and all it has done to provide a lot of quality outdoor recreation for residents and visitors alike. I feel like it’s a bargain to hand over my $6 whenever I go into a county park (See a complete list of fees). Huge props to the county parks staff, especially for McDowell Mountain Regional Park. That one’s my favorite by a long shot.

Today, I’m focusing on Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa (we’ll get to McDowell in a future post) and the Pass Mountain Trail. This is getting you close to the famous Superstition Mountains, and within very nice sight of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area.

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