As part of Year of the Trail, the Great Trails State Coalition, the non-profit driving the observation, has designated themes for each month. Some themes aren’t necessarily tied to the month: August, for instance, has been “health and wellness” (as opposed to “sweating”). September is another matter. Its theme?
Goals are typically associated with January and the new year. But when it comes to hiking, goals is ideal for September, which for many marks the start of the hiking season. Cooler temps, drier air, blue skies, fall color — who doesn’t want to hit the trail? And to make sure you hit it as often as possible, why not set some hiking goals for the month? I have.
- Hike the Doughton Park Loop solo. I’ve done this hike, which ranges from 14 to 17 miles, 8 or 9 times, every time leading a group. Leading is fine, but when done right (see Goal No. 3, below) only a fraction of your attention is on the trail and scenic surroundings. This loop in particular deserves your full attention. The proper progression: Start from the Longbottom Road access and head up the Cedar Ridge Trail. You get about 80 percent of your climbing out of the way on this 4.5-mile trail, and 80 percent of that in the first mile. You also get your first views. At the top, take the Bluff Mountain Trail (a k a Mountains-to-Sea Trail) west for 6-7 miles, mostly through rolling mountain-top meadows. There are three ways to descend: the shortest (and most brutal) is the Bluff Mountain Primitive (very primitive, very steep) trail; the Flat Rock Ridge Trail, the longest, a generally mellow descent bordering game lands); and, my favorite, Grassy Gap, which crosses a gorgeous stone bridge and may require a knee-deep stream crossing near the end. The ideal way to spend a 70-degree September day.
- Hike a new (to me) trail. This is a bit of a challenge because I’ve been hiking in North Carolina 30+ years, writing guidebooks and leading hikes along the way. My resume is deep — but a little less so in the Great Smokies, and fortunately I’m attending a conference mid-month in Cherokee, the eastern entrance to the Smokies. I’ll be looking for something in the 5-mile range, something I can fit in between the last presentation of the day and the awards dinner. Since it’s a three-day conference, I might even be able to get in two new trails.
- Do a group hike that I don’t lead. I love leading hikes. I love exposing people to places they haven’t been, and to places they may have been but in a different season, or under different conditions. However, when you’re leading a hike, you’re constantly thinking about the hikers (or should be). About their safety, about whether someone is struggling, about whether the folks in the back are feeling pressured to keep pace with the speedgoats out front, about keeping everyone on track. It’s nice, for a change, to let someone else think about all that.
- Log a 40-mile week. Back when I was guiding full time it wasn’t unusual to hike 40 miles in a week. With up to four guided hikes a week, and the training to stay in shape to lead them, it wasn’t hard to log 30 to 40 miles. Now that I’m a dedicated State of North Carolina worker, it’s not so easy. My psyche and my waistline miss those 40-mile weeks. Now I understand why folks were amazed at my ability to rack up 40 miles in a week: it wasn’t the distance, it was finding the time to do it. Forty miles a week averages out to nearly 6 miles a day, or about two hours. Who has time for that? That’s why I’ll likely need to piggyback this goal on the week I tackle Doughton Park. Even so, I’d still need to average nearly four miles a day for the remaining 6 days. If it’s to be done, September’s the month to do it.
- Lead a night hike. I started night hiking in the mid-1990s, started leading night hikes a decade ago. Until last year, I was leading one a week. In the past year, though, I’ve led one (and that one gets an asterisk because it ended before official sunset). Night hikes are especially rewarding with first-timers, who often view the notion of entering the woods after dark as something out of a Grimms’ fairy tale. And yes, that first hike can be a little scary — but scintillating as well. I can’t recall a single soul I’ve led on a night hike who ran from the woods screaming, never to be seen again. It’s so rewarding. And yes, while one goal is to not lead a hike this month, another is to lead one.
Keep that last thought in mind as you set your own Year of the Trail hiking goals for September. Goals are often associated with only the highest of bars. In fact, a goal should simply be something you want to achieve. Forget about how a goal may look to others, it need only make sense to you.
I’ll talk more about that next week as I set out on a sixth September hiking goal. One that involves a Pop-Tart.