Sunday was the perfect day of winter hiking. On Monday, it was sunny, 70 and springlike. I savored both, I didn’t know what to make of either.
I love winter hiking. Waiting for Sunday afternoon’s hike to start, I marveled at the perfect storm of conditions that would make for a great day on the trail: cloudless skies, crisp air scrubbed cleaner by a gusting wind, a temperature struggling to get much above 50. These were the conditions that stick in memory. One of my earliest memories is of a day like this: a Sunday afternoon in January of 1966 — a mite colder perhaps, but otherwise identical — exploring Cherry Creek on what was then the outskirts of Denver with Billy Skinner, reveling in the far-flung adventures (we were a quarter mile from home) of two 9-year-olds. The sprawling cottonwoods along the banks sheltered us from both the cold wind coming down the Front Range as well as the pressures of third grade. Bellview Elementary School never seemed so far away.
A day later — or 54 years, depending on how you’re counting — and I am again remembering my days at Bellview, this time staring out the window of music class into a similarly perfect winter sky in mid-February on the day baseball’s spring training began. At the time, that was my sign that winter was winding down, spring was within reach. Monday, on my knees in a bottomwood forest along the Eno River, I was getting my adult sign that winter is nigh: the first spring beauty of the season. This delicate white-petaled flower and about 20 others were pushing up through the leaf litter, taking advantage of a 70-degree day to endorse Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction of an early spring.
Winter still had 45 days to go, yet it appeared to be getting an early eviction. Three days into February was the earliest I could recall in my 10 years of spring wildflower watch.
If spring training had started on February 3, the 9-year-old baseball-playing me would have been ecstatic. But as a hiking adult, I have mixed feelings. I can remember, vividly, at least three other perfect days of winter hiking from the past four decades, from the Big Thompson Canyon in Colorado to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at Doughton Park, to Umstead State Park on day after I moved to North Carolina in January of 1992. Of donning a base layer and fleece, of keeping a brisk pace, of being able to hear a twig snap a hundred yards into the woods. But then there’s the sight of that first spring wildflower and all it represents, from watching the woods come slowly back to life to extended backpack trips in the Southern Appalachians.
As of today, according to the calendar, we still have 43 days of winter left. And if the next few days are any indication, we’re likely to continue to get the best of both seasons. Thursday, the temperature is expected to again top 70: pretty good chance I’ll be seeing my first trout lily of the season. Saturday, when our GetHiking! Triangle group hits the Mountains-to-Sea Trail the temperature will be in the mid-30s, rising perhaps to 40 by hike’s end. For our Sunday afternoon hike, we’ll be under mostly sunny skies with a temperature in the low 50s.
The best of both worlds. Who’s to complain?
GetHiking! MST at Falls Lake: The Long Haul. Saturday morning at 9 a.m., we hike the longest undisturbed stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake: 7.3 miles between Creedmoor Road and NC 98. A nice mix of lakeside and upland woods hiking, all under cool, winter like conditions. Learn more and sign up to join us here.