East Coast vs. West Coast (Hiking)

We Belong to the East…But Our Hearts are in the West

We’ve been talking lately about some of the best hikes in the Southern Appalachians. All of these hikes have one thing in common…they all lead to places with great views.

In fact, one would be hard pressed to find ANY list of great hikes by any author that does not include great viewpoints, or at least some interesting terrain features such as cliffs, boulders, waterfalls, cascades etc. After all, if you want great views of trees, you could hike almost any trail (or rural road) in the Southeast and come away with a smile on your face.

Sylvia and I began our hiking career together with a trip to Hemmed in Hollow, a popular hike to a very tall waterfall at the bottom of a box canyon in Arkansas. But that hike had great views from ledges along the way, not to mention the views of the falls itself.

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Hemmed in Hollow was our first hike together.

Brian’s first REAL hike years ago was a trip to Mount Chocorua in New Hampshire. This is one of the most popular summits in the Northeastern USA, eclipsed in popularity only by the very similar Mount Monadnock. The reason Chocorua is so popular? A completely exposed granite summit, offering a grand view (which includes that serial killer among mountains, Mount Washington.)

I can’t find a single picture from my White Mountains days so…here’s a stock one of Chocorua that shows its rocky granite summit. by JohnJHenderson,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=481482

Needless to say, people would not hike to the summit in such numbers if it were not for the view. If the summit was treed in, it’s unlikely there would even be a trail there.

There are as many reasons to want to be outdoors as there are trees in the forest, and by no means is hiking the only one of these. For the true outdoorsman (or, to the use the truer term, ‘woodsman’ or woodswoman’) the forest is an ideal place to be because it provides every possible resource a person could need to survive…if they know where and how to look for it.

The forest provides fuel for fire, means to build a shelter and tools, game that itself provides food and clothing, cover behind which to hunt game, relative protection from strong winds, water from fast flowing streams, etc. Therefore, to the true outdoorsman, the woods are far better than windswept mountain peaks that are exposed, offer no shelter, game or building materials apart from rock. The Native Americans, who were the ultimate outdoorsmen, lived in the forested valleys, not the high peaks.

But then the peaks were often spiritual places to the Native Americans, and it’s not hard to see why. Modern hikers take to the mountains for spiritual reasons as well…modern life provides us with everything needed to live comfortably (and a lot not needed) but cannot adequately provide for our spirits. In fact, modern life seems to come with some sort of spiritual cost attached. Most people would never give up the things that make modern life comfortable and would frankly be hard pressed to do so, since few people posses the skills required to live without them anymore. But the majority also seem to be wanting to get as far away from modern life as they can, at least for short times.

Brian’s evolution as a hiker began with him walking around the very walkable city of Boston, then in the woods nearby, then in bigger hills, and finally in the mountains…on Mount Chocorua and bigger peaks. In the early stages he was content to merely be in the woods…it reminded him of his youth, of family trips to Maine and the White Mountains, an it was a break from the routine of the city.

In fact, the early hiker Brian rejected the idea that summits and views were what it was all about; this was partly because he felt it was the experience and not the view that was the point; but also probably because hiking to the top of a mountain is a lot of work, and the younger, less active Brian was not yet used to the idea that things worth doing have price tags, and the price tag for hiking is often pain, sweat and effort.

As we evolve in life our thinking changes, and so Brian’s opinions shifted. He began to more readily embrace the idea that while the total experience is important, great views are critical to the experience. In short, the views really ARE what it’s all about.

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There are great views to be had on the slopes of Mount Rogers…but few places in the Southern Appalachians are so blessed.

Or to put it another way, if you had a choice between two hikes of equal length and difficulty, but one has tremendous views and the other does not, wouldn’t you pick the ones with the views? And if you had ten hikes to chose from, and each one had an increasing level of views ranging from none to spectacular…wouldn’t you naturally chose to hike the spectacular ones first, and the one with no views last (or maybe never?)

Brian is of the opinion that most hikers think this way. That’s why most of the pictures on our (or any) hiking web site look more like this…

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Every darned view in the Alps was ruined by a spectacular mountain standing in the way.

And less like this…

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If this panorama of muddy, forlorn trail doesn’t get you off the couch and into a pair of hiking boots I simply don’t know what to do for you.

The views matter.

Another thing that matters is that the views be of striking, impressive terrain. Mountains, coastlines, rock formations, canyons, cliffs, etc.

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Coastal California is the definition of ‘dramatic scenery’

We are not alone in our thinking. Hence, our most popular National Parks are located in the painted deserts of Arizona, the mountains of California and Wyoming, and the rugged tundra of Alaska. And not in the Oklahoma Panhandle, The Texas Pineywoods, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the swamps of coastal Georgia or (sorry to beat up on you once again, guys…but it’s fun, by gum!) Rhode Island.

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Terrain does not get much bigger than the Peruvian Andes. 

In short, Big Terrain matters.

And this is how we get to the subject of East Coast vs. West Coast. Brian was born and raised on the East Coast of the United States and greatly enjoys it. He lived first in the Northeast, later (and presently) in the Southeast. Both regions have fine mountains.

He also lived for a time on the plains of Texas, which belongs partly to the Southeast and part to the Southwest, partly in both but really neither, a vast area unto itself. Texas, by the way, also has mountains.

Brian’s heart, however, belongs in the Western US. Why? Well, he’s always been fascinated by the folklore and mythology of the American Frontier West. But central to that mythology is the land itself.

Big Sky Country. The Range of Light. The Red Rock Country. Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, Yosemeti. Monument Valley. Just the names and descriptions of the places fire the imagination. These are places that most American yearn to see, and this is for a reason. These are Big Views. These are Big Terrain.

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The Red Rock cliffs outside Sedona, AZ. Now, that’s Big Terrain.

With the exception of Niagra Falls, almost all of the truly Big Terrain in the United States lies west of the Mississippi. There’s some terrain in the east that tends toward bigness…like the Appalachians…but doesn’t fully reach the epic scale of the west.

It’s not just the size of the mountains, either. Several factors are at work here.

Size of Mountains. There are 302 major summits over 3000 meters high in the United States. (Major meaning, at least 3000 meters – 9843 feet – of topographic elevation and at least 500 meters – 1640 feet – of topographic prominence. The actual number of named summits over 3000 meters is much greater.) ALL of these peaks occur either west of the Mississippi or outside the continental US (the top ten are all in Alaska.) NONE occur east of the Mississippi. You would have to go HUNDREDS of spots further down the list to reach Mount Mitchell, largest in captivity in the East. Size is not everything…but it matters. A lot.

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This view from the summit of Mt. Mitchell confirms the fact that trees do in fact grow right up to the bloody top.

Tree Line. An important but underrated point, and the one that causes the Southern Appalachians to suffer so in comparison to other mountain ranges, is the edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing, AKA tree line. Wikipedia has a very interesting table showing where the tree line generally exists in various mountain ranges of the world. Basically, the further north or south from the equator you go, the lower you hit tree line; and the closer to the equator, the higher up you will encounter trees.

In Scotland for example, Tree Line is encountered at just 1600 feet (the British Isles are well North of the US mainland) meaning that while Scottish mountains are ‘low’ by American standards, they ALL have views. On the other hand, in Sylvia’s native Peru, trees can be encountered up to as high as 12,000 feet in some places. No big deal though…Peru has higher mountains than that.

In the Appalachians, tree line is surprisingly low in the northern part of the range. The Alpine Zone starts at about 4400 feet in Northern New Hampshire, and in Northern Maine, at 3800 feet. Therefore, many Northern Appalachian peaks have large, bare, windswept summit zones that look and feel like the wilds of Northern Labrador.

Not so the South. Technically speaking, there is no tree line south of the Mason Dixon line…or more correctly, you would need to fly the trees up in an airplane to find it. It is estimated that tree line in the south should naturally occur at about 8000 feet, the same as it does in the Alps or Rockies. Since the highest Appalachian peak is well under that height, trees grow right to the tops of all Southeastern Mountains.

Rainfall Arid conditions can also impact where the trees grow and don’t grow. Obviously the most extreme examples are desert areas, where a sort of ‘reverse tree line’ will often exist…trees grow only in the cooler highlands, not in the hot lowlands. The Sky Islands of Arizona are examples of this. You can also directly observe this phenomenon at the Grand Canyon.

Needless to say, the South is not dry. There’s plenty of rain falling all year long for the growing of trees.

Steepness of the Terrain Younger, more recently created mountain ranges and other geologically ‘recent’ formations such as river canyons tend to be much more steep and rugged than older mountain ranges which the forces of erosion have had time to work on. The Appalachians are quite old by the standards of Mountain ranges, being on the order of nearly half a billion years of age. Once, they were as high as the Alps or Rockies, and just as abrupt and jagged…but time and the elements has worn them down and rounded them off. Today’s Appalachian Mountains have the gentle appearance of pleasant rolling hills (which actually belies their more rugged true nature.)

This is important because rolling terrain presents far less opportunities for great views than abrupt, dramatic terrain. Think about it…it you wanted to see a ball game or concert, where would you rather be seated…in a box high above the stage, or 40 rows back in the cheap seats?

That’s the major difference between the Alps and Appalachians, folks. The tapering nature of the Appalachians turns them effectively into grandstand seating, where the most dramatic views come when you encounter a rock ledge that juts prominently out, or a slide zone. Even when the tops of Appalachians peaks are shaved, the view is often somewhat subdued. We have often spoke of being underwhelmed by the tame nature of Southern ‘Balds’ and this is why…it’s grandstand seating, not a balcony.

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Above…a study in contrasts. Top picture is the Appalachians photographed in May from Elk Knob. Below for comparison is the Olympic Mountains of Washington State photographed in 2016 from Hurricane Ridge. Note in the more abrupt nature of the slopes, the dramatic V-shaped valleys, the presence of glaciers and snow fields in the bottom photo…the two ranges are not greatly different in height.

These four factors together combine to make hiking in the Appalachians – and especially the Southern Appalachians – a sometimes frustrating experience. You might well hike five miles through tough terrain to reach a single view, which may be less impressive than hoped…or may not even be there at all if the clouds have their way.

On the other hand, Sylvia and I have hiked in the Alps, in Peru and in the Western US and had continual views for hours or even days. For Brian, who grew up an Appalachian hiker, the experience was like being let out of a closet. You don’t have to hike TO a view…you hike WITH continual views! It’s a revelation.

Sylvia grew up in Lima Peru, which is in the Atcama Desert, one of the driest deserts on Earth. Virtually the entire city is surrounded by barren, rugged hills that look similar to the surface of the moon. She did not grow up with views blocked by trees.

Brian grew up in the city of Boston, which is surrounded on all sides by treed residential neighborhoods. To the residents of the Northeast, trees feel right, and green rolling hills seem like life itself. There is something soothing about a walk in the woods, and Brian will always enjoy it. He will always associate being among the trees with peace, solitude and tranquility.

But we have both evolved as hikers and our direction is set. Big Terrain is where it’s at. This is why we wander far in search of new adventures. We live in the East and we love it, but our hearts are in west…or, in other places further still.

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Dang it all if our hearts ain’t in that there consarned infernal west!

One thought on “East Coast vs. West Coast (Hiking)

  1. Pingback: The Best National Parks for Hiking(?) – BecauseItzThere

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