Today is a scouting day. Of my many tasks as a hiking guide, scouting the trail in advance is among my favorite. If I’m leading on a trail I haven’t hiked in a year or longer, I go out beforehand and hike it. I like to make sure the trail is passable, that a hurricane hasn’t laid a stand of trees across the trail, that recent rain hasn’t turned a key crossing into a Class III rapid, that—in the case of a National Forest—the trail hasn’t been closed for logging or another form of resource development. As a guide, I don’t like surprises when trying to get hikers from Point A to Point B safely.
Winter is the honest season. Stripped bare of busy ground cover and a blurring canopy, winter is incapable of keeping a secret. Stone foundations from homesteads long abandoned lie exposed. Distant mountain peaks are revealed. Critters have nowhere to hide. It’s the perfect time to be in the woods.
You love your trails. You can’t imagine what life would be like without them.
For starters, life might be a little more adventurous.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my trails as well. The Sycamore Trail at Umstead (especially during a rain, when its namesake creek is roiling). The trail network at Horton Grove Nature Preserve, which seems perpetually bathed in ethereal light. The 14-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail north of Carvers Gap, which is one stunning 360-degree view after another.
But sometimes, the terrain beyond the confines of the well-maintained, blazed path beckons. The hollow where the distant sound of crashing water suggests a cataract. The distant rocky summit promising great views. The woods that call for no apparent reason other than you’ve never paid a visit.
The lure of the unknown.
Trails exist for good reason. To keep you from getting lost tops the list. They also help minimize our impact as visitors, keeping us from trampling sensitive ecosystems and basically letting the land, for the most part, be. Yet every once in a while … .
Yesterday, we shared a recent … wilderness wander at one of our favorite local haunts. We feel comfortable making an occasional trail departure, in large part because we follow a few simple rules that all but assure we will make our way back to civilization. The best testament to these rules: we’re here to talk about them (rather than still in the woods, wandering, looking for the way out).
Before we share those simple rules: exploring off trail is something you should ease into. It’s best to head out your first few times with someone experienced, someone such as Rod Broadbelt, who this Saturday leads his annual Ruins Hike at Umstead State Park. Nearly all of this 10-mile hike, which visits 20 historic sites in the park, is off-trail. Rod’s done this hike for more than 20 years and knows the park well; hang with him (if you can) and learn his approach to off-trail exploring.
That hike meets at 8 a.m. Saturday morning in the Umstead lot at the end Harrison Avenue in Cary, off I-40 (exit 287). Questions? Contact Rod at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, some tips for off-trail exploring on your own.
Monday — never an easy time for the outdoors enthusiast. After a weekend of adventure, returning to the humdrum work-a-day world can make one melancholy. To help ease the transition, every Monday we feature a 90 Second Escape — essentially, a 90-second video or slide show of a place you’d probably rather be: a trail, a park, a greenway, a lake … anywhere as long as it’s not under a fluorescent bulb.
Maybe you’ve been fishing, maybe you’ve kayaked — but have you fished from a kayak? Maybe you consider yourself an avid hiker. But how many times do you venture off the trail for some real exploring? Or maybe it’s time you tried the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of cycling: cyclo-cross. An array of new experiences await this weekend in North Carolina.