hike blog

SHT: day 6, McCarthey Creek to Castle Danger, 19 miles

Just as the sky lightens, or maybe before, a wood thrush begins in with his twittery uptalk. 

tweety-tweet?

tweetely-tweet? 

tweetle-tweety-tweet?

tweety-tweety-tweet?

It’s a conversation with himself. I get it. I talk to myself all day. 

So I’m up early and trot up to the latrine (long drop) in my homemade flip-flops. I feel clever and badass making my own, but they barely work. A castoff shoe bed and twine, they protect me from rocks and other sticky items, so maybe I shouldn’t judge. 

Other birds join in a morning chorus – the oven bird’s ktweet ktweet almost a north woods cliche and the black throated green warbler de de de doo deee?also a question. 

I love my mornings – dappled light, cool air, birds and yes, so many mosquitos. I’m surprised I sleep well on the blue mat. Along with a quilt, I can sprawl close to the ground. No one joined me last night, and I love it all to myself. 

The trail is all alone too, through dense forest filled with more birds. I never see them, or rarely, and only hear their songs as if right above me. The Canada warbler ending a sassy flourish; the slurpy kiss of a red eyed vireo; a hollow ratatat followed by high-pitched chips of a hairy woodpecker. 

I can hardly believe everything is so loud, as if I walk from one room to the next and each is having its own party. 

The land begins to transform to rough rock piled thick with dark green moss and a lighter blue-tinged lichen, one plush the other crispy. Ahead are voices in a campsite, not nearly as good as mine but close to a stream. 

I slip by unnoticed into a maple forest, dense and dark. Blue jay sends an alarm before settling above me gulping loudly and with forceful abandon. I pass ponds reflecting what sky peaks through the trees. A warty toad hops away from my footfall. 

This is the mosquito nursery, and that  one over there as well as that one ahead. Ponds or just water collection in a marshy wood? An oily-black garter snake S’s into the grass. 

All along here are no trespassing signs warning hikers not to step one foot off the trail corridor and don’t even consider setting a tent. The Superior Hiking Trail passes through federal land, state forest, state park and a lot of private land with the permission of the owner. I can’t imagine how it’s possible to go off trail, it’s far too thick. 

A northern parula clears mucus from its throat as I pass from the sweet almost tasty scent of balsam to the earthy pungency of fern. Far off I hear my first loon. 

At the next site, I wave at two women packing up. They wisely wear dark colors to deter bugs, plus gloves and head nets. Would anyone survive in shorts? There’s not enough deet in the world for this trail. 

I giggle when I finally hear the Johnny One Note song of the small but mighty red breasted nuthatch. Like a car alarm or the sound you get when you misdial, it’s hardly a song. 

A weed whacker sits idle by the side but the evidence is stunning of a truly talented and persistent whacker. I thank this absent expert in whacking with a wide, clear trail before me. Jim and Sue walk towards me, he a trail worker but primarily with loppers. No trail workers means no trail. It would simply be swallowed up. 

A northern flicker guffaws hysterically and nearby I hear my first black capped chickadee. I come to a road under a trestle which likely carried taconite-loaded trains from the Iron Range down to the two harbors. 

It’s a long, hot descent on exposed rock leads me to Reeves Road, where I dodge puddles walking to Highway 2.  I need to make a decision whether to hitch to town for food or try and keep walking with what I have. It’s far, about eight miles, and I’d need a ride back.

The trail will provide, I say as I thrust out my thumb. The first car swings into the other lane as if to make a point, but the second car stops. Father and son plumbers out on the job. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re headed down to buy something at the store right next to the supermarket, then headed right back up. 

What luck, thanks trail! 

I throw my pack on bits of pipe and squeeze in back as Jason and Trevor let me babble on all about life on the trail. They’re used to hitchhikers, they tell me, all needing food right about now. We buy what we need, then wait almost an hour for takeout. 

I assuage my hiker hunger and back up the hill we go. At the trailhead I see another backpacker, fully decked out like me with his pants tucked into his socks for extra protection. At first I think it’s the guy I’ve been following who signs the trail registers with his life story, bragging about how far he’s come on the North Country Trail. 

Instead, it’s a mild mannered young thru hiker named Nick on his first big walk. We set off together straight into thick mud, the mosquitos equally thick as the afternoon heats up. He has friends plucking him off trail at the next road. 

I ask where he’s from and surprised he went to both school and church at St. Ambrose my flute gigging outlet. He then shares his why has something to do with serious hardship at grad school, although the trail too has been hard. 

My pace is faster, so I move on, but assure him we’ll meet again and send a prayer his way as I slosh into more mud. (I learned the prayer part from Susie) 

The mud continues, but the trail also begins the sudden, dramatically steep climbs – and equally intense descents – it’s famous for. They take me out of bug infested mud trenches high into white pine and icy air with views over all I’ve walked through. Note: it looks like a snap from above. 

It’s a shocking change on these rock ridges covered in soft brown needles and bunchberries. More signs emphasize this is private property one explaining camping is now forbidden after someone set a fire illegally. Backpackers can sometimes be real jerks. 

I head steeply down to the Encampment River and fill up a liter I instantly chug. Again, it’s back up then steeply down, this time the Crow River deep in a steep sided canyon. I fill up more, thirsty in the heat and get buzzed by a bird speeding a low altitude. 

It’s short but steep enough for three flights of stairs up and out to the road where I meet Elaine, Nick’s friend’s mom. I assure her Nick is just behind me and we begin chatting about the unusual heat and abundance of mosquitos. And then she invites me to join them. 

I have to think about it for a few seconds, wanting my outdoor experience. But I smell awful and my feet are damp and who wouldn’t prefer a bed?! 

Nick arrives and Elaine’s wife Sandy drives us to a restaurant. I’m almost finished just as it begins pouring rain and need to run for cover for the last bites. Would I have gotten set up by now? 

They offer showers and laundry – a hiker’s dream – and we sit in a screened-in porch for desert when I notice a large red oval-shaped rash on my thigh. Did I get bitten by a tick?! 

Elaine just happens to have doxycycline on hand and a quick search suggests a round of antibiotics is in order even if only as a prophylactic. So she sets me up with a baggie of pills. I guess I got in the car with the right people. 

Yesterday was my favorite day for weather and today the trail provided to perfection. The cherry on top was juicy conversations with cool people I loved hanging around with. So I got my fill of both – friendship, care, a rescue plus plenty of alone time with the birds. 

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SHT: day 5, Normanna Road to McCarthey Creek, 23 miles

I take a day to heal my toe. It’s red and oozing, so Susie calls one of her herbalist friends who suggests I make a poultice of yarrow and plantain (an opportunistic weed). I get to masticate the bitter greens myself. We first tincture the toe with an oily concoction of echinacea, lemon and other helpful ingredients I have forgotten, then squish on gobs of green goo and wrap it in a paper towel. 

I don’t know how it works, but those plants pull out the infection and everything quiets down. Good food, good beer and good conversation helps too and I’m up with the birds and back where I started, right into the swamp filling my clown shoes with water. 

The mosquitos are still here awaiting my arrival. I slosh through the muck and keep my bug net on tight. It’s chilly out with wild wind quacking every aspen leaf. 

Still I hear an American redstart and black throated green warbler through the din, their simple question-like song, the sound of this forest. 

I’m not on the ‘state trail’ long before cutting into the woods on a footpath. Two logs are set over a deep, almost still, creek. At the first campsite sitting high above heron pond, I pop in to use the loo. It’s a hole, of course, but with a fancy seat above that’s been closed so I keep a dry bum. 

Again, the trail is relatively flat, but undulates up to thick forest, leaves whooshing like a jet engine in wind gusts – then down to beaver ponds filled with dead trees, sentinel totem poles above bright yellow lily pads in sky-blue reflections. 

Today is my favorite day already because it’s dry, chilly and my feet feel amazing. I can’t believe their resilience. A bit of rest, some chewed up green leaves and correctly fitting shoes and I’m right as rain. 

I climb up to a knoll filled with giant oaks. I’m not sure I have ever seen ones like these before – extremely tall and straight. There’s not much below, so the feeling is like a manicured park. I catch a glimpse of Lake Superior, blue-gray and forbidding. 

This section travels far inland and won’t get close to the lake until Gooseberry Falls. That means a lot of woods, but these are really interesting woods. A sign tells me that recently, the trees – primarily aspen, birch, balsam fir, basswood, maple, and oak – were showing signs of distress and decay. 

As a remedy, the Department of Natural Resources has been thinning the older trees to allow for natural regeneration – although they are also planting white spruce and white pine. 

Every mile or so, a different sign pops up telling me when the public sale of timber happened and what the strategy is for regrowth. Happily, the forest is behaving just as intended, growing back lush and thick, though it will be another decade before all the scars are gone. 

I leave the new forest to dip low to a beaver pond, crossing on his dam and looking to a lodge thick with purple irises. The wind is so brisk, I don’t need my bug net. 

At the Sucker River I crack up wondering if they’re referring to me. Two cranky teenaged boys carrying enormous packs and smelling of smoke fly by with barely a grunt. The parents, Missy and Don, are not far behind and tell me they’re training for Isle Royale. Don’s theory is the boys are less cranky and more speechless running into a lone female hiker. 

I’m startled to see anyone after so much solitude the day before, only to realize this is a much prettier locale than the snowmobile swamps. 

Giant ferns grow as high as my chin and I meet a mother-in-law and daughter who call themselves Breathless and Bellows. They’re knocking off sections one weekend at a time and are so happy the humidity is gone today. 

Me too. Funny how weather can make or break a hike. 

It rains just a little, sprinkling up in the tops of the canopy and never reaching me. I reach more views of the lake far in the distance. Bright orange and yellow hawkweed along with daisies seem to smile as I pass. 

Seeing Gitcher Gumee puts that silly song my Neil Diamond in my head:

Gitchee Gumee,

Gitchee Gaddy,

Sit your laddy down on your daddy’s knee.

And ain’t it a nice place to be? 

I have no idea what it means but it’s a catchy tune. 

I keep singing and loving every minute of this very best day when I come upon Chris and son Wyatt in matching neon orange jackets and headnets,  their sweet lab, Reilly, leading the way. She immediately leans into me with her butt within scratching distance and Wyatt proudly tells me how far they’re headed today. It’s kind of a super highway out here in the blustery wind.

The drops of rain give way to sun which dapples the light in my green sanctuary. A grouse peeps, then panics, crossing the trail behind me, peeping all the way. “You’re never going to scare off predators behaving like that!” To which she crosses in front this time, the volume ever so much louder, and giving me the side eye before she chills out in the trees. 

The trees pull back to reveal a set of ponds with yellow flowers like fists reaching to the sky. A dragonfly with a turquoise body and velvety black wings flutters to a leaf at eye level. A from k’thunks. 

My campsite sits right on a bend of McCarthey Creek as it glissades down a moss-covered rock to a deep pool, the water tinted a reddish-brown from leaf litter. I set the alicoop and eat dinner under my head net, then head to the magic glade to soak my feet. 

Nymphs dance in the air above me eating or scaring away the mosquitos which only moments earlier swarmed me. I can hardly believe my toe looks totally normal as if there had never been a problem at all. A song sparrow fills the air with music of enough complexity to keep Messiaen in business. 

I think how lovely it was with my friends yesterday – Susie who sends prayers to anyone and everyone in need, and Brian of the infectious smile who said marrying Susie was the best decision he ever made. They left an impression on me of accepting the joy of each day as a gift, of looking for adventure in small things and of being full of gratitude. 

I am so grateful for whatever was in that healing elixir, and for the time I could take before starting again with new shoes and better weather. I’m entranced by this mystical grotto where my feet are soothed in the cool. 

But what is this? Leeches! Just two, well, four…I pull their long, slimy bodies off and head up to the tent. In bed before it’s dark and sung to sleep  by the forest.  

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SHT: day 4, Chester Creek to Normanna Road, 16 miles (more or less)

Overseeing cock at Lone Tree campsite

The day is overall a bit boring, a lot maddening and designed to destroy a hiker’s soul. Still, I found things to love.

I leave Susie and Brian’s as early and quietly as I can, instantly locking myself out with my trekking poles still leaning next to the flag inside. So I have to wake them up to retrieve them, but I’m toast anymore without my sticks.

It’s funny that it was right here in the Superior Hiking Trail so many years ago that I first realized I needed walking sticks. The terrain is wet and steep with a slip that could plunge you down a rocky chute close at hand most of the time.

Yet today, at least after I leave the Duluth section, is described as ”relatively flat.” Funny how I never considered flat to mean swampy, but that was still hours away in my future.

Now, it’s on easy path sidling the rushing river on a ramp. I’m continually amazed by the number of streams – many bonafide trout streams – rushing through this city. It’s a deep green in here of cedar and hemlock. The birds are awake and loudly letting everyone know. It’s already hot.

At the lot, I lose the trail fascinated by the Chester Bowl mini ski hill. A sign asks us to text what the water height is today and I see the trail heading straight up into more woods on rough stairs to a road walk. Who is this woman and why is she carrying a backpack?

I share the Bagley Nature Area with mountain bikes and dog walkers. A trail runner smiles as I trudge past a campground, but I have a small ’mountain’ all to myself, up and over with a glimpse of Superior, gray in soupy air, the horizon hard to distinguish.

I use the bathroom and fill my water bottle at the Hartley Nature Center. Stacks of skis, snowshoes and boots await winter which feels entirely foreign as the humidity rises a few notches. I’m soaking wet and my right toe hurts.

A young woman with black hair to her waist talks to a group of children while holding a leaf. I follow the parking lot to one stretch of woods followed by a road walk.

A beautiful cemetery surrounds me giving me the creeps. I understand monuments to our deceased loved ones and all but I can’t help imagining all those bodies laid in rows as mine moves on, alive to what’s interesting and also what’s causing suffering. I guess I’d prefer my physical self part scattered around rather than taking up space.

The road changes from paved to gravel and a car speeds past, uninterested in the dust cloud I’ll have to walk through. I’d love to scatter his physical self, I mutter just as the trail leaves the road.

The SHT probably could simply deliver the hiker through this part on road. It’s faster, but defeats the purpose of a quasi ’wilderness’ experience, even if the road noise is an audible din.

Yet, my wee step away takes me on a ridge, the trail full of pink rock. My mood changes from a gotta-get-there thru hiker mentality to, ”what do we have here?” I can’t see the stream below, even as I’m even with treetops. A few boards are placed over wet bits exploding with pale blue stickseed.

I glance at my phone as I approach Martin Road where the next section officially starts. Cars give me plenty of room and I see a 70% chance of thunderstorms just as I join a wide trail. Identified a ’State Trail’ by a faded yellow sign, a tamped down portion pushes through weeds up to my knees, hidden puddles beneath.

It’s a snow mobile route, utterly unmaintained for hikers while easy to follow. Blowdowns cover my path end-to-end, here a long time as evidenced by herd trails in mud around their exposed roots. A few I climb over, and you know how I love that.

I swear the humidity has notched higher and I’m wet through from the water I slosh through, dewy plants acting as car wash, and stinking sweat. Now, mosquitos swarm in high pitched death squadrons. Not one gets my permethrined coverings, so I approach the whole awfulness with a lopsided curiosity.

bzzzzzzzzzz, slosh slosh, bzzzz, slosh, bzzzzzzzzzzz, slosh, bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The birds must be punch drunk on the food supply and sing with a wild abandon. It’s New Zealand redux, but I can’t help comparing this particular nightmare as amateur hour since I’m really only wet and not muddy (much)

Needless to say, I don’t meet a soul in here and cackle all to myself. I stop for an early lunch near balsam fir, sweetly pungent and see my big toe is on its way to losing a nail. Aw, sh*t! My toes are deformed now, pushed on top of each other. La Sportiva discontinued my favorite shoes, but sent me another which must be exacerbating the crowding.

As I continue through the jungle, one lone bridge over the narrow deep chasm of the Lester River my only solace, I call a running store and purchase a pair of shoes with the biggest toe box on the market. It is a misery in here, even as I leave the wide shared track for a rolling one on pine needles, but I praise the goddess – and my friends – for a slackpacking day and the opportunity to return to Duluth, heal my toe and change out gear.

Drugs kill the pain and knowing I’ll be done with this soon. The narrow footpath heads up again to a hill clear cut five years ago. It’s regenerating and planted with spruce but feels so much in the middle of nowhere just 20 minutes from the city.

I’m surprised by the few, tidy campsites positioned near water with fire-ring, benches and flat tent spots along the way. One comes with a protective cock. But I’m cooked now and cut through private property for the road and call my friends to get me.

Two people stop to check on me as I sprawl on the median. Even the sheriff ensures I’m ok before telling me all about his favorite parts of trail, this not being one of them. There’s no mosquitos on the road.

My new shoes appear made for clowns, but my toes have room to expand. Thunderstorms are predicted and my friends invite me to zero and heal. I haven’t gotten very far, but I think back to major trails that all had hiccups at the start, events managed and utterly forgotten as I moved forward.

My toe’s been soaked, medicated, poulticed and elevated and darn it if the air just turns icy cold and I have to put on a sweater.

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SHT: day 3, Grand Avenue Chalet to near Chester Creek, 17 miles

Of course, we talk most of the morning after I take thirds on French Toast and sausage. Hiker Hunger strikes early on this hike. 

A late start means it’s already hot and I’m already damp. It’s a stiff climb up rushing Kingsbury Creek. Right here next to the ski slopes are cascades tumbling over dark brown rock. The veery disappear but white throated sparrow fill the space with their descending pentatonic scale, TWEEE-twee-tweed’dee, d’dee, d’dee. 

I’ve stuffed in so much food, I already need to go to the bathroom and find a nice off-trail spot where I somehow stir up a nest of ants, angrily crawling on my gear and my pants already at my ankles. I’m quick, though, and flick them off before any find bare skin. 

Clouds move in and the sun disappears. I wouldn’t mind some shade, but the sky is a tease, turning robin’s egg blue as I break out of the trees. 

I learn a new word: depauperate. It means an ecosystem lacking in numbers and variety. Ash, birch, aspen on repeat with a few balsam fir, black spruce, eastern hemlock and white pine. Will I lose my mind on this hike? Another white throated sings loudly, this time his melody ascending. 

And I ascend too, up and around this creek, followed by creeklets and another biggie, Keene Creek. Duluth has thirty-seven named creeks, and, in this heat, I stop at nearly every one.  

The trail parallels Interstate 35, trucks like dorsal fins suddenly appearing above the trees. It’s a big drop to the lake and many use engine breaks that rattle like jackhammers. Cheery orange and yellow hawkweed reach to the sun as I melt in an open area. 

It strikes me as odd that from from woods, loud and wild, water crashing and ferns threatening to take over, I’m delivered to a road right under the freeway, then back under trees before another road and the Allyndale Motel. An SUV races out without stopping so as not to have to wait for me to pass. 

Trail workers pass me on their way to replace a long boardwalk through a wetland. 

“Are you walking to Canada?” 

“Not today!” 

I’m hot and exhausted, so stop at a tiny stream with a view of the city, the river arriving at the lake and the iconic lift bridge. A couple arrives with s sweet dog and asks why walk the whole thing. “Because things happen on thru-hikes.” 

They wish me luck with any ‘transcendental shit’ before moving on. I see them again near a group sitting right on trail in the shade. One is overcome by the heat and it’s a wakeup call to listen to my body. 

And it’s water and more water as I continue – plus views, though hard to relax looking down at the serpentine Bong Bridge under this sun. It’s 89 degrees and I’m wilting. I see the rescue crew come straight up the hill and point towards the group. They thank me when I offered all my water. 

It’s up and down, rocky and so steep the crew built stairs. I stop at a falls and douse my head and then at the next one, fill two more liters. My new friends Susie and Brian text me to call whenever I need a pickup. I’m starting to wonder if hiking in this heat is asking for trouble. 

I come to a soft pine-needle carpet that leads up some more to Enger Park and its peaceful Zen garden. I strike the peace bell with a large log-as-clapper and its ring oscillates before dying. 

Now it’s all down, easy trail but open to the sun. I pass remnants of an encampment, one still in place but abandoned. A pedestrian bridge takes me over the freeway then down to the lake, just as the sightseeing train disembarks. 

It’s a paved bike trail I’ve ridden before bringing me to Duluth’s heart. The wind is up, but hot, a rootbeer colored chop complete with foamy crests lap at the wall. 

The lift bridge comes into view and I ask a foursome of tourists which one is the paparazzi. There’s some fluster and confusion but one manages a reasonably well-framed snap just one of the others asks, “Who is she and why is she wearing s backpack?” <shrug> 

I don’t bother enlightening them but offer thanks before searching out a soda. So many restaurants. So many tourists. I find a coke right near the bridge as an Amish family passes, the women in full-on gingham. Everyone says hello as I continue along the shore, no relief at all even with more liquid. 

Just as I come to Leif Erickson park with its goofy stage bookended by medieval towers, a cool gust envelopes me. I tingle all over and thank the goddess before taking stairs to the rose garden (redolent of lilacs this early in summer) and follow the road towards Chester Creek. 

Why am I still thirsty?! I stop again at a coffee truck serving lemonade, then decide I’m done. Just this wee hill into the park and two blocks to my friends, who have read me often enough to know to put beer in the fridge. Absolute bliss! 

Both scientists, we speak about streams and trees and birds, then they offer to let me ‘slackpack’ tomorrow in more heat plus thunderstorms, though it appears those storms are building now and a huge streak of electricity followed by a crash send us indoors.

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SHT: day 2, Red River Valley to Grand Avenue Chalet, 26 miles

OK, I know, too damn far on a dangerously hot but, but just of those moments where I just started moving and didn’t stop for practically the entire day. 

The minute there’s even a hint of light, the veery chorus starts up – slide-whistles in stereo. One barred owl joins in with a hoo-hoohoo-hoowhaaaaa. I sit up and turn on my phone. 4:30. 

To be honest, a train woke me in a whoosh sometime when it was dark and absolutely silent. I never saw it but I felt as if on the tracks. 

My bear hang stayed safe overnight and I grab a bar before packing and retracing my steps. After 100 or so, the bug net goes on. Trippin passes me for her final miles near the parking lot, and suggests I grab a gatorade from her truck. What a lovely person. 

A short road walk deposits me in more woods, brilliant green and loud up a narrow esker. I feel the deep thumps in my chest from a ruffed grouse. A bridge trestle spans a chasm and I wonder if my midnight train goes that way. 

From here, the views are of far off mountains above a deep valley, but only for a moment before I’m swallowed up in forest, a bit of mud and buzzy bugs desperately trying to get my blood but barred by mesh. 

I enter Jay Cook State Park and the trail immediately gets wider. The geological makeup is slate and grawacke, which rises in rows of triangles like teeth from the St. Louis River, funneled into fast moving rapids, which I hear as a roar miles before seeing the water. 

I run into Scott loaded up and moving slowly from his site within the park. Long gray hair and 73, he points out the rocking chair with shade cover he’s packed. 

I cross the stunning suspension bridge with views to the magical rocks and make my way to the vintage 1930s all stone bathrooms – which are locked! A few expletives slip out and maybe a hand gesture before I head back into woods and make my own bathroom. Daisies and white throated sparrow cheer me up, as does a picnic table at a high point with absolutely no view, but it lets me rest. 

I skirt a dam and meet Tom wearing a Superior Hiking Trail hat. He tells me to return on May 20th for trillium and July 4th for lady slippers before “guaranteeing” I’ll hate Gill Creek coming up. 

I can’t imagine what could possibly be so bad as I slip back into the forest, noisy with birds and full of bright yellow lady slippers, the leaves twisted like carelessly untied laces. The trail briefly follows the paved Munger bike path before a sign announces Gill Creek. 

I take a deep breath and head in – down mostly, on hand built stairs of logs pressed in the mud. It’s zigzags and steep, but I’m down in less than a minute to the creek, burbling and cool. 

I fill up, realizing I’m parched, even in relatively easy walking and humid air. I wet my face, my hair, even dunk my hat luxuriating in cold freshness before heading back up. Nothing appears amiss and my only guess as to guaranteed hatred is the simple fact that to get to a stream within a ravine requires some serious work.

But this act is repeated all day – up and down and up some more. I follow the St. Louis again, now wide and placid. An azure sky and cottony cloud reflect in the stillness. Here I meet Tortoise and Bungee Cord, who is planning five weeks to walk the SHT. We cut our conversation short when the mosquitos find us. 

It’s a trade off with these thick woods – shade means mosquitos, but as soon as I climb out into sun, they leave, and I cook. I drink all my water before cracking up exposed rock towards Ely Peak. The river changes color to a dark lapis from up here, winding through the valley on its way to the big lake. A train toots its horn and I yearn for shade. 

But bright sun brings wild strawberries, tiny and succulent. A dark tunnel leads back into forest of ups and downs and obscured views. Perhaps better without leaves. 

I reach a road with warnings of a shoulder leading to oblivion. A bridge festooned with pointy rocks spans a chasm. At the end is a grotto dedicated to Samuel Frisby Snively, mayor, road builder and lover of parks. All this land up here was his and he gave it to the city. 

I’m beginning to run out of steam when a car comes by and Colin and Michelle hop out to load me up with cans of La Croix. I drank all day, liter after liter and I needed every drop. 

After last night’s spot, there’s no camping in this entire 50-mile section, so I arrange to stay with friends. Wanting to make the pickup easy, I plan to stop at Grand Chalet near the road. Lori and Stephen pick me up and take me to Clyde Works where I drink some more. 

All of this bit is new to me and I’m surprised how by much it rolls and works my body – but also surprised by how far I roam, listening to the birds sing and ratatat, the toads hop into the brush, some sort of crickets saw away and stream after stream call to me to dip in my head. All the while, I conversed with the spirit and sang, even exhausted and soaked through with sweat, joyous in this beautiful setting. 

And now, a shower and a bed after a day this full is about as sweet as it gets. 

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SHT: day 1, Wild Valley Road to Red River Valley, 2.3 miles

It’s fitting that the last bit of work today is a presentation about my New Zealand hike. I have a small but completely engaged audience at St. Andrew’s Village that laugh at my jokes, ask great questions and tell me I’m “a natural” at public speaking. 

Richard dozes while I drive the two hours north, the maple and oak replaced by spruce and white pine, the hot and humid by a cool breeze. We leave the interstate for a two-land highway along verdant fields and woods, a vibrant early-summer green. Earlier in the day, we reserve a table at Brick’s Pub and Grub in W? but the place is only half-full. 

A pint and a blue cheeseburger fuels my start, only a few minutes away on an ungraded farm road where Richard immediately bottoms out. We took bets on how many cars we’d see and if anyone was camping in the one site at the Wisconsin border. It’s hard to say if either of us lose as there’s just one truck with a thru hiker planning to camp inside it. 

“Trippin” has just the two miles left to finish and is too hot and tired for anymore tonight. Her day was long under a hot sun with this glorious wind only showing up after she arrived. 

A narrow, dark hole cuts through the thick foliage the few miles to the Wisconsin border. Like the PCT and the AZT, to head to the start requires hiking in the opposite direction first. 

Richard joins me for a bit, the ferns up to our chests. I wisely picked up a long sleeved shirt and treated it with permethrin, but he’s getting chewed up by mosquitos, so we kiss goodbye on a boardwalk crossing a dry creek and I push on. 

The forest is loud with veery thrushes and their two-toned spiraling scale. 

The sun still shines at the tallest bits of birches shaking in the breeze. I’m sweaty as the trail rolls up and down. A train creeps by in the distance. 

I pass the spur to the campsite, then cross a bridge where coffee colored water burbles below. It’s a good pull on switchbacks, the packed dirt secured with wooden beams and a few stairs. And there it is! A simple wooden gateway with a sign welcoming me to Wisconsin. 

The Superior Hiking Trail is part of the North Country Trail which passes through ? states. I just touch my foot across before heading to the campsite. Mile 0. It may be the longest day of the year, but it’s almost 10 and the sky is getting dark. 

The site is lovely high above the water. I’m all alone and claim the spot open to the breeze. Someone brought a couple of plastic chairs and I use one for my gear as I set up the alicoop 2 trying not to allow any mosquitos inside. 

I surprise myself with a perfect bear hang on a high limb just as the land begins to descend to the stream, then crawl in as thrushes give way to frogs that give way to crickets that give way to fireflies and finally, just the wind in the trees. 

hike blog

Superior Hiking Trail

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee

–Gordon Lightfoot
The Superior Hiking Trail, also known as the SHT, is a 310-mile long hiking trail in northeastern Minnesota that follows the rocky ridges of the Sawtooth Mountains through forests of birch, aspen, pine, fir, and ceda and overlooks Lake Superior and the boreal forests of the Boundary Waters.

Beginning next week – on the longest day of the year – I plan to walk the Superior Hiking Trail end-to-end in one fell swoop. Over the years, I have walked everything north of Two Harbors bit by bit, but without any plan, and often repeating favorite sections. Somehow, with a tagline of “solo female middle aged titanium reinforced long distance backpacker,” it only makese sense for me to walk this glorious track as a thru-hike – a part of the much longer North Country National Scenic Trail – and one that’s close, nearly in my back yard.

It’s not glamorous, it’s definitely not distant or exotic, and I already know the trail so well, I might get bored, but there’s a curious pull to it to anyway. I want to see what happens to my body, mind and spirt on this thru-hike, end to end. 

All romantic notions aside, in Saint Paul it’s pouring rain and thundering – oh, and now it’s hailing. I could have plenty of that – and more – as well as ticks, mosquitos, black flies and mud. Let’s just hope I don’t start calling the trail the SH*T!

So plan to join me beginning next week on the longest day of the year for whatever might happen on a thru-hike of the SHT.

CDT

on being with bears

The best way of being kind to bears is not to be very close to them.

Margaret Atwood
Bear hang in Glacier National Park.

Do bear bells work? Is it best to play dead if you’re attacked? Is a gun just as effective as bear spray? Should anything that might possibly have come in contact with food be packed into a hard-sided bear canister including your clothing??

By the time I strapped on my first can of bear spray for a hike through Glacier National Park, I’d pretty much heard all the conventional wisdom passed down from hiker to hiker on managing bears while walking through their habitat, some of it contradictory. 

And those contradictions left me feeling pretty nervous because I couldn’t sort out what works from what doesn’t, and determine if I had the right tools should I meet a bear on trail. So I decided it was best to talk to an expert, a bear biologist who has studied human-bear conflict for decades and possesses the best data on the subject –Tom Smith. 

Dr. Smith is a Professor of Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He’s conducted research in Alaska, India and in bear country throughout the lower 48 states promoting bear safety and conservation – and has written, or co-written, nearly every important paper on the subject. What he shared with me underscored much of what I assumed, but also surprised me. 

Here’s what I learned. 

Number One: avoid meeting bears

In Smith’s work, he’s found that the vast majority of black, brown and polar bears want nothing to do with us.  It’s when we surprise bears at close range that they may respond in an aggressive-defensive manner. 

“I’ve come around a corner many times and a bear will be two meters away, I mean it’s right there,” Smith told me. “It startles the bear, it startles me. But in most cases, I just kept walking and the bear stayed there and nothing happened. That being said, bears come unglued when something approaches their food cache, something that represents weeks of foraging.”

That same response, of course, goes for a mother and her cubs. 

With only about 40 bear attacks per year worldwide, of which only about ten proving fatal, you’re far more likely to be killed by lightning or even a shark than by a bear. Still, heading into a bear’s home increases the likelihood of encountering one. As beautiful and majestic as bears are, we need to keep a safe distance and avoid meeting them. That’s why Smith encourages making noise while hiking. 

To prove his point, he conducted an experiment while leading a group of bear researchers in Katmai National Park. He sent a small group to walk about a quarter of a mile through thick brush without making a single sound. What happened was frightening – the researchers startled grizzly bears sleeping on their day beds, who huffed and grunted as they ran off in a mild panic. When Smith walked the same distance clapping his hands and yelling, “Hey bear!” the bears simply moved off ahead of him, without being seen or heard. 

Fortunately for the experimenters, these bears were just napping. Had they sensed a threat, the scientists could have been in serious danger. So the very simple act of making noise to alert bears of our presence allows the bear time to get out of the way. 

But do bear bells work or playing music? “From a biological perspective nothing in their world trains them that tinkling means anything,” says Smith. In one of his experiments, he used a recording of voices at 70 decibels, about the volume of a typical conversation. Bears hear it, but they ignore it because it’s unimportant. When Smith increased the volume level to 110 decibels, everything changed –the bears became alert, their ears pricked up and their heads began moving towards the source of the sound. 

So it’s a burst of sound – a clap, a “hey!” – that gets a bear’s attention. Of course, this is not to say when hiking you should be constantly making noise. “A hiker should make appropriate noise,” Smith emphasizes. Part of the beauty of being outdoors is the sound of birds, the wind, the water. But when approaching blind corners or brushy areas, these quick bursts can become the difference between safe passage and a surprise encounter.

I met a solo hiker on the CDT who played music from her iPhone while walking alone in Glacier National Park. Aside from the fact that playing music goes against all low-impact ethics, Smith pointed out that the sound is probably too soft and uniform to attract much attention. But headphones are not a good idea either, because you want to be alert to sound in the wilderness. Being alone also puts a hiker in a unique category that may encourage an attack. 

“The simplest thing to do is hike in groups of two or more,” Smith says. “Bears are much more likely to engage with a single hiker.” Hikers in groups make more noise just with their footfall as well as talking. They’re also more visually intimidating. 

In all of Smith’s research, he told me he’s seen no data on an attack of two people standing their ground. When I asked about a bear attack on a group of seven NOLS participants in Alaska, he commented that the victims were fleeing in different directions and the bear attacked each individually as if unique single threats. So grouping up also tends to discourage a meeting. 

Another important factor is managing odors that are attractive to bears. “We have a saying that ‘bears are where they find you,’” meaning if you attract bears, they will come!

That’s why it’s critical to properly store food in a bear-resistant container like an odor-proof Ursack/Lopsak combination or a hard-sided container like a Bear Vault, or by hanging your food ten feet above the ground and ten feet from the nearest tree. Incidentally, bears are attracted to bright colors, too, so it’s wise to store food in neutral colors. Other smart behaviors include cooking and eating away from where you sleep, not storing food inside your tent and never putting food scraps in the fire ring. 

“Humans and bears have an inverted priority of senses.” Smith reminded me. “Whereas ours is sight, sound and scent; theirs is scent, sound and sight. Bears learn the world through their nose.”

What was most interesting to me were his set of experiments with freeze-dried dinners, placing them in varying degrees of accessibility – inside ziplocs, closed, and opened.  It’s not that the bears didn’t smell them, but the food rarely produced enough of a scent to attract attention. And neither did clothing with food spilled on it. “Some of the things people say like strip off your clothes and put them in your bear canister is just crazy!” 

But Smith pointed out that it’s not the food odors in and of themselves that cause problems, but the connection of humans with the availability of food. Everything we touch has a human scent. That’s why you never want bears to get your food because it trains bears to see people, tents and backpacks as a source of food. That all sounds obvious, but Smith’s research changed the way the national park service and all natural resource agencies started managing their garbage – including putting up fences and bear proof containers.

On the other hand, sweet smelling soap like Dr. Bronner’s or Herbal Essence shampoo drew bears in, as if coming for a “150-pound strawberry.” So while food smells aren’t everything, it is important to limit your use of fragrances and secure scented items (not just food) at night. And, shockingly, he found cooking gas and capsaicin, the active ingredient in bear spray, were unusually appealing to bears. Imagine 100 700-pound grizzlies coming close just to check out those odors! 

Other scents matter too, like poop and pee, which should be left (for obvious reasons) far from your tent. But you also may want to check the wind direction before digging that cat hole, because any interesting odor can invite a curious bear. 

“A grizzly bear will see you, but the first thing they do is stand full height, wag their head and huff to pick up scent. They’ll run at you, circle, trying to figure out what you are. Once they have the scent, they might leave right away, even after they’ve been looking at you.”

Bears have a bimodal activity pattern and are mostly active at dawn and dusk. That means if a bear is hanging around after dark, you have a problem on your hands, because that is not normal. 

Neither is a bear that doesn’t move when you haze it with a “hey bear!” 

In the Grand Tetons with bear spray at my hip.

Which brings us to –

Number Two: deter bear encounters

“It’s basically irresponsible to go into (grizzly) bear country without a bear deterrent because you’re attracting these animals in their own home.” Smith said. “If you get involved in an incident it’s always bad for bears. It’s often bad for people too, but let’s not set them up to fail.”

Bear spray is a non-lethal deterrent designed to stop aggressive behavior in bears. Its key ingredient is capsaicin, a chemical compound derived from chili peppers. When delivered to the skin, it elicits (temporarily) intense burning, causes involuntary spasms that forcibly shut the eyes and restricts the bronchia, making breathing exceedingly difficult. 

If a bear charges, a hiker can deploy a cloud of spray (which is easily seen because manufacturers add a dye) and it hits the bear at a distance of about 30 feet. “That changes the bear’s agenda. He’s no longer interested in attacking because he needs to breathe!” Smith just laughs when I tell him I’ve heard advice to check the wind direction before deploying bear spray. “With a bear that can run 30 miles per hour, there’s no time. Just spray!” 

Smith is adamant about carrying bear spray and having it always at your fingertip whether on a pack strap or on your hip. Sadly, a recent double-fatality in Alaska occurred and it was discovered the victims kept their spray wrapped in plastic. I met a backpacker in the Grand Tetons who stored his spray deep in his pack and only pulled it out when he saw a bear at a distance. When Smith walks in areas with a high probability of surprising a bear, he actually keeps the clip off and swings the spray from his finger. 

I asked him about guns as a deterrent. Smith’s research showed hunters are hesitant to use lethal force, and often, hunting weapons like bolt-action guns, require too much time to ready to shoot and are not as accurate as a wide cloud of capsaicin. Ninety-eight percent of people who used bear spray escaped injury (with 2% being knocked over but not killed) as opposed to only about 50% of people using guns.

“With a deterrent, now you’ve got at least a little calmness and peace of mind to deal intelligently with this animal rather than last ditch crazy things like climb trees, run, or play dead.”

Speaking of “playing dead,” this was an area where I heard the most contradictory advice. Smith underscores that playing dead does have a place in the suite of bear safety messages, but should be the absolute last option. “If there’s no immediate threat, it’s akin to a sacrifice.” 

This goes back to the idea of hiking in groups. Standing your ground as a group represents a counter-threat to an aggressive bear and unloading a can of bear spray usually stops a charge. But most important of all is to leave the scene. Smith was called to help investigate a fatality in Montana where a hiker sprayed a bear then laid down to play dead. Smith felt he would have stood a chance of survival had he remained standing.

But without any spray at all, the chances of outrunning or out-climbing a bear are minimal. “The analogy I like to make about carrying bear spray is that I’ve driven a car for forty years and never had a wreck, so why bother with a seatbelt? People think it will never happen to them. But for a $30 product, it’s just not worth taking the risk.”

That being said, if bear spray doesn’t stop an attack, what does one do?  

A hard-sided bear canister like a Bear Vault keep out bears as well as “mini-bears.”

Number three: survive a bear attack

“As a general rule I don’t let hairy four-legged creatures make significant decisions for my life,” Smith quipped. He pointed out that it’s important to know the difference between black and brown bears. Black bears roam most of the United States and are very active in the Sierra, the Appalachians, the North Woods and many of our favorite trails. Brown Bear or Grizzly live in Canada, Alaska and in the lower 48, mostly in Montana, Wyoming and the Northern Rockies. 

One rule of thumb for dealing with a black bear who approaches: never lie down, ever. Black bears do not protect their young or animal carcasses and normally do not aggressively interact when surprised. Hazing usually works best to force a retreat, but if attacked, you should be prepared to fight. 

With brown bears, if threatened they may aggressively charge. Smith advises emptying your bear spray and if the bear keeps coming, turn away at the last moment so it hits your backpack and not your face. “Bears are four-and-a-half times more likely to bite your neck and head. That’s how they fight, because their biggest and most lethal weapons are their teeth.” 

But let’s say you’ve been knocked to the ground and your spray is out of reach. That’s when you use your last ditch effort: lying face down, hands behind the neck and legs akimbo so it’s difficult for you to be turned over. Smith suggests staying absolutely still (playing dead) until the bear leaves because his data shows that at this point, the bear perceives the threat has been neutralized. This means you should not check to see if the bear is still there because that could set it off again. However, if it begins nipping or biting, you should be prepared to put up the fight of your life – and hope a hiking friend has bear spray at the ready. 

Feeling terrified by Smith’s descriptions of bear attacks, I asked one more question that puzzled me. A hiker in Alaska told me there was no need to make noise until I actually saw a bear. While this runs counter to his studies, I was curious if Alaskan bears were different from the ones living in Montana. 

They are quite different and need different handling, he said. “Bears require a dynamic distance around them that is a function of the underlying resource.” Alaska is resource dense with about 30 giant bears able to share just a square mile of space. “If there’s food everywhere, fighting doesn’t make any sense because it’s dangerous. Their personal space amongst other bears is about the size of their paws.” 

In Montana, it’s inverted with grizzlies roaming large ranges of about one bear per 30 square miles of relatively resource-poor land. They’re smaller than Alaskan bears and far more protective. While it’s reasonably safe to simply sit and watch an Alaskan bear outside of 50 yards, their southern cousins require at least 100 yards. (Incidentally for polar bears, it’s 500)

The trouble with breaching this distance to get a closer look or a photo, is that it agitates the bear and it can charge. This is a conservation issue as well as one of public safety – when a bear mauls someone, the animal likely has to be euthanized. 

But keeping a distance is not all there is to bear safety. “The fact is, we don’t care about good bears who see you and flee. It’s the bear looking at you with no surprise, not running off, sizing you up and approaching that’s a problem.” 

Though they make up only a small percentage of bear attacks, predatory bears do exist. Oftentimes they’re called “garbage bears” that hang around a campsite until the auditory and visual cues stop. They need to be managed with the tools mentioned above like having a deterrent at the ready, hiking in groups, and making appropriate noise, as well as choosing paths and campsites carefully to make it more difficult for bears to approach. It’s also important to be prepared with a flashlight and bear spray should they come close to your tent, and to create a plan with the rest of your group. 

All this talk left me a little spooked and I wasn’t feeling so sure anymore about backpacking in bear country at all. Could I even enjoy bears in their natural habitat? Dr. Smith offered tips on using portable electric fences and “critter gitters” before assuring me that it is possible to share this natural space, even if I didn’t want to carry that extra weight. 

“You can take an entire wilderness with no bears and there’s just something fundamentally different about it. We love these animals; they’re wonderful. So I would never avoid going into bear country and I’m confident if you just do these simple things you can avoid a confrontation.” 

you can listen to our conversation on the Walking Distance podcast


hike blog

Water, water, everywhere…

The waterfall falls but shamelessly and joyfully.

Unknown
Celebrating our twentieth anniversary, Richard and I head “up nord” where the Boundary Waters drain into Lake Superior.

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, Richard and I celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary in a place we love – Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. A very generous friend loans us her house on-the-rocks above this monstrous inland sea. And even though it rains and hails for more than half our visit, we relish that perch as if captain and skipper at the prow of our own private love-boat above the crashing waves. (I’ll let you work out who’s who in this scenario)

Knowing full well the weather will not be conducive to much outdoor activity, we cram in walks and bike rides between the raindrops and take in some of the most dramatically overflowing cataracts we have ever seen, beginning at Gooseberry Falls, where a lovely young man patiently snaps photo after photo of us near the root beer-tinted water in varying degrees of sensual and silly.

Somehow our absurd posing convinces a few other couples to line up and that poor guy is left snapping their photos too.

Located on the Canadian Border, the Voyageurs took a nearly ten-mile portage to climb around these massive falls and access the inland lakes superhighway.
The spectacular view from Mount Josephine looking towards the Susie Islands and Thunder Bay. Out of the frame is the lump of Isle Royale, rising like a sea serpent from the cold depths.

We walk over muddy and exposed roots on an undulating path lined with tender green shoots. White Throated Sparrows and Veery Thrushes sing loudly, both to establish territory and to show off for the ladies. Narrow falls carve through ancient volcanic basalt and rhyolite, dark but for a lace of fluorescent green lichen inches above the waterline.

Cedar, Red and White Pine plus Birch thrive in this humid, fog-drenched climate – at least now, after the long cold silence of winter. A spray of Spring Beauties catches my eye, trillium still in tight buds. This is the Superior Hiking Trail and I feel an urgent pull to walk its 310 miles all at once, even after ticking off those miles piecemeal over the years.

At “Middle Falls” on the Pigeon River, we realize why the Voyageurs named this area Le Grand Portage, since it required a nearly ten mile hike to avoid impassable rapids. Those intrepid little men carried 100 pounds of compressed furs by tumpline at their forehead, a birchbark canoe like a hat. We only carry lunch and eat it on the rocks right above the boiling cauldron.

It’s a steep and muddy 5-mile hike to these rapids on the international boundary Pigeon River, but you can sit right above the action.
The trails are muddy, rooty and steep – a bit like New Zealand, but on a far smaller scale.
200 stairs down and back up to Stair Step Falls in Northern Minnesota, dumping millions of gallons of water a day into Lake Superior. What a sound!!

The ranger warns us we will get wet at High Falls, and so we do, the mist in our faces the same mist that creates a perpetual rainbow. “I wonder what this looks like from the Canadian side?” I query and we attempt to enter, only to be thwarted with a crashed website and long line of cars.

Fortunate for us, as it gives us the time to bag Mount Josephine. Likely the best bang-for-the-buck on the North Shore, it’s a 1,000-foot climb in a single mile that brings us to a perfect sitting place of exposed granite above the sapphire lake dotted with the uninhabited Susie Islands and the beast that is Isle Royale, 12 miles off the coast.

In our four days, we visit more rivers in spate – the Devils Track, Baptism, Cascade and Kadunce – and end the celebration atop a favorite – Lookout Mountain, the scene now back to thick boreal forest as the weather clears for just a moment before we need to retreat to our ship-at-sea deck and the sky above the “Big Lake” Gitcheegumee fills with lightning.

Lookout Mountain high above boreal forest in early spring.
Hidden and winding around on itself, the Kadunce River in Northern Minnesota enters rocky grottos that can be scaled in drought.
Part of the Superior Hiking Trail in Northern Minnesota, the Devils Track River rushes through steep canyons to Lake Superior.

hike blog

SF Crosstown Trail

One day, if I go to heaven… I’ll look around and say, ‘it ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.

Herb Caen
All smiles on the mosaicked Hidden Garden Steps in the "Stair Section" of the SFCT.
All smiles on the mosaicked Hidden Garden Steps in the “Stair Section” of the SFCT.

An urban thru-hike

A week ago Thursday, I was visiting my dad and his wife Ding for the week in the city, and thought I might squeeze in a bit of walking since the weather was unusually wonderful. I headed up Telegraph Hill and down Lombard Street; through Fisherman’s Wharf, China Town, Crissy Field and the Castro; across the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin Headlands then all around the fantabulous mansions of Pacific Heights that look right down upon a row of tented homeless in the Filmore.

But nothing felt quite as much like real life in the city-by-the-bay as a “thru-hike” from end-to-end.

The San Francisco Crosstown cuts a diagonal from southeast to the northwest, almost purposely avoiding the biggest hits and instead sharing hidden gems well-known to the locals. Urban greenways, mosaicked stairs, deep ravines and stunning views characterize this 17-mile walk, one imagined by an avid group of volunteers in 2012, recognized by the city in 2014 and finally, opened to the public in 2019.

Oddly, no signage marks the way. But there are three options for staying on track – paper maps, downloadable GPX or my favorite option, the Outer Spatial app which partners with your phone’s GPS and keeps you from taking too many wrong turns…

Stats

  • Length: 17 miles
  • Trail grade: 45% roads and sidewalks, 15% paved off-road paths, and 40% trails
  • Mode of transport: hike, run, or roll (some variation for wheels, obviously due to stairs)
  • Elevation gain: 2,600 feet
  • Sections: five
  • Public transport: plenty
The SF Crosstown Trail is a little over 17 miles long and takes the hiker from Candlestick Park to Cliff House.
The SF Crosstown Trail is a little over 17 miles long and takes the hiker from Candlestick Park to Cliff House.

Section 1: Candlestick Point, Visitacion Valley, McLaren Park (5.2 miles)

Carlos picks me up at the Towers around 6:30 am and races me across town. It’s mostly freeway to the start and I feel a knot tightening in my stomach. This is so farhow does one walk through this concrete jungle? The driving app breaks the mood, singing out bossily, “In one mile, drop off Alison.”

I was warned about that this area, Bayview Heights, might be a bit sketchy, but so early in the morning, it’s quiet, even a little ghostly.

Named after a long-billed curlew with candlestick-length legs, this piece of land was the only one large enough to house professional sports in the 1970s. Both the Giants and 49ers played at Candlestick Park well into the 21st century, even if they wanted to move out the minute they started playing there.

The reason being, its location right next to the bay was often the victim of strong winds that would pick yo and swirl around the field. Needless to say it created adverse playing conditions. The entire park was demolished in 2015 including 10,000 parking spaces.

Right now, it’s empty. Just a stretch of road stopped short by a chain. I tip Carlos and head out into the early morning light. “I’ll pray for you!” he yells. Of course I have to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into here. The pockmarked road is relatively free of garbage, but signs loom above pointing the way to the highways and home.

I walk along the water, then turn abruptly uphill. Is that how I get out of her, I wonder, uphill?

I take an Uber to Candlestick Park, in a state of limbo after the sports arenas were torn down seven years ago.
I take an Uber to Candlestick Park, in a state of limbo after the sports arenas were torn down seven years ago.
Every bit of open space is enjoyed by locals whether creating art or exercising.
Every bit of open space is enjoyed by locals whether creating art or exercising.
A typical home along Leland Avenue, quirky and making a statement.
A typical home along Leland Avenue, quirky and making a statement.

The road leads to the official start, though no sign indicates it. So I walk on without fanfare in the ornage light, Sunrise Point Fishing Pier absolutely empty. Restoration of native plant life has started, so I’ve been told, and redevelopment will start…someday. Still I find it in its limbo state, full of hope and promise before I leave the road and meet a trail that fronts an apartment complex.

I’m officially walking in a State Recreational Area. Picnic Tables are set at jaunty angles inside wind blocks taking in million-dollar views of the bay as two impossibly huge container ships head out to sea. Animal-proof garbage receptacles offer a choice of landfill or recycle. A sign tells me the willet is the largest and most common of in the Aves family, Shank.

A Chinese Man uses a fist-sized piece of orange chalk to scrawl characters on a snaky piece of concrete before doing deep knee bends looking out towards San Bruno and Oyster Point. Here I cross the road and leave the shore behind, duck under Highway 101 and enter a working class neighborhood of stucco row houses in lavender, lime, rose and teal.

A woman washes her second story windows with a sprayer, but stops when she sees me coming then wishes me a good morning. A group of Chinese men confer in guttural exchanges. Fanciful paintings adorn the buildings.

Red Vein Indian Mallow growing along the fence in the stunning urban pocket parks in the Visatacion Valley.
Red Vein Indian Mallow growing along the fence in one of the stunning urban pocket parks in the Visatacion Valley.
The entrance to the children's park.
The entrance to the children’s park.
A Sudanese-American runner full of energy.
A Sudanese-American runner full of energy.
Looking back from McLaren Park.
Looking back from McLaren Park.

It’s steep walking on sidewalk until my app points me across the middle of a street and up into a garden. This is the Visitacion Valley Greenway, a set of six slender parks snaking up the hill. In one, there’s a profusion of flowers before I cross a road and enter another with individual raised beds of vegetables behind chain link fence.

Still another brings me through whimsical wrought iron gates where Chinese women gather to stretch, all of them slapping their thighs. Each smiles and says, “Good morning!” before I head to the final pocket park up a twisting path with an overlook framed by columns.

I’m sad to leave these lovely parks behind, ones well cared for and often used by local residents. Up and up I go to an empty expanse of hill, gold now too early in this season of drought. It’s McLaren Park, the third largest at 313 acres and the largest grassland in the city. As far back as 1905, this mound was set aside for recreation, though it soon got a bad reputation as a prime location to dump bodies.

The only body I see if alive and well, sprinting up the path. She proudly tells me she trains every day and was part of the Sudanese National Team. I wish her luck joining her adopted country’s team, then walk to the lookout where I meet another group of Chinese women, slapping their thighs in the cool shade of eucalyptus.

Philosophers Way drops me past Yosemite Marsh into Excelsior where I walk for a fair piece on concrete passing numerous front yard gardens full of succulents and roses as big as softballs. A man on his hands and knees digs weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk. I lost the traffic in the park, but now I’m next to it, bumper to bumper. I remember living in California and the narrow freeway entrances taking far too many commuters onto far too crowded highways.

I move faster than the cars towards a fenced-in pedestrian bridge that looks out on four lanes of Interstate 280 in sequential stair-steps, loud and fast. And with that, I enter Section 2.

Four lanes create a staircase of highway, busy and loud, separating Portola and St. Mary's Park.
Four lanes create a staircase of highway, busy and loud, separating Portola and St. Mary’s Park.

Section 2: Glen Park Greenway, Glen Canyon Park, Laguna Honda Trail (3 miles)

It’s steeply up past St. Mary’s Playground. A man launches a ball for his off-leash dog next to a sign warning of coyote activity. The trail keeps me, for the most part, off major roads and I enter a quiet residential street, the houses slightly larger, looming over garages and a square of lawn.

I don’t carry a backpack and instead cram a wad of bills, my lipstick and phone in my pocket. There are plenty of food choices along the way. This is a terrific article that lists a bevy of options, though I don’t agree with them on their assessment of the trail itself, so be warned!

I grab a drink at a corner store in the confusing section near Glen Park where the sidewalk dips below San Jose Avenue. At no point do I feel nervous or afraid. The sidewalks are full of people and I use the map app to find my way even as I cross Diamond street twice heading the wrong way.

Tip: Here, I’ll pause to make the suggestion that you take a battery or paper map backup. I used my phone for navigation, and the GPS drains the battery fast!

Belinda with her dog on a mission to meet his buddies in park.
Belinda with her dog on a mission to meet his buddies in park.
Ride 'em cowgirl in the eucalyptus canyon.
Ride ’em cowgirl in the eucalyptus-lined Glen Park Canyon.
I saw this sign in nearly every park I ventured into, though never saw a coyote in person.
I saw this sign in nearly every park I ventured into, though never saw a coyote in person.

Once I find my way, I again enter a greenway in the process of being restored with native grasses. The park serves its purpose well, blocking out the sound of cars, many with mufflers removed to make their presence even more annoying.

Honking, in my experience, is de riguer in the City by the Bay, and who can blame them? At only seven square miles, San Francisco is the second mostly densely populated city in the United States. (New York is number one). It’s beautiful, desirable and crowded. My 91-year-old step mother drives like Steve McQueen on these tightly packed roller coaster hills and is too polite to allow expletives to fly from her lips, though more than a few stopped cars and illegal U-turns warrant it.

The aggressiveness is on display when walking and another tip would be to ensure you clear the intersection before proceeding. That being said, Californians stop for peds in crosswalks with unusual patience. I never at any time felt at risk for getting whacked.

The short, thin greenway spills into a neighborhood where I meet Belinda walking her beautiful German Shepherd, or rather he walking her. The dog park is only a block away and he’s on a mission to see his pals and smell the smells. She’s excited I’ve walked so far already and that I’ll head into the canyon ahead, a real treat in this teeming neighborhood, described less as a city and more a village-within–a–city.

The beautiful tree-lined Glen Park Canyon saved from becoming a freeway by the "Gum Tree Girls" in the mid-'60s.
The beautiful tree-lined Glen Park Canyon saved from becoming a freeway by the “Gum Tree Girls” in the mid-’60s.
Vine maze in Glen Park.
Vine maze in Glen Park.
Houses above the canyon.
Space-age houses jut out on stilts above the canyon.

I wave goodbye at the dog-park and pass a soccer field next to the public art fronted Wild Roots Forest Playschool, where a group of children are being prepped by their adult chaperones for a walk. Soon, I’m surrounded by the sweet, menthol fragrance of massive eucalyptus trees, shedding their bark in long strips.

Eucalyptus are not native to California, but were planted here early in the last century in the hopes of making a quick buck. Sadly, speculators knew only that the eucalyptus is a principal hardwood tree for the timber industry – not which variety of eucalyptus. The Blue Gum planted in every spare pocket of land in the Golden State isn’t really good for much of anything. So they were never harvested and grow on in their ubiquity.

It should be no surprise that the name of the tree was attached to three activist women who tried to stop a freeway from cutting through this very canyon back in 1965. A city engineer used “Gum Tree Girls” derisively but they loved it, using it as a rallying cry for all sorts of acts of civil disobedience.

It would take a dozen years for the battle to end in their favor, and here I am in a natural setting, crunching through bits of bark, leaves and nuts, a gentle sawing in the distance. Houses loom over me above bouldering-worthy rock outcroppings. I lose my fellow walkers as I duck into a tunnel of overgrown vines and bushes. The trail is dry and dusty, but a stream gurgles nearby.

This bit of trail was created for the SFCT to keep it a continuous path, hacked out bit by bit much to the dismay of the neighbors. I don’t see a soul though pass by an abandoned basketball court slowly being swallowed up by foliage. A concrete structure tagged with graffiti towers over the stairs. Ruth Asawa School of the Arts looks empty but I hear voices.

A typical front-yard garden on Portola Drive.
A typical front-yard garden on Portola Drive.
A nut from the Tasmanian Bluegum, a eucalyptus varietal that was introduced to California in the early part of the 20th century.
A nut from the Tasmanian Bluegum, a eucalyptus varietal that was introduced to California in the early part of the 20th century.
Creative tagging on water tanks near the "Steep Ravine Trail."
Creative tagging on water tanks near the “Steep Ravine Trail.”

I pop out onto Portola Avenue, the houses crammed in rows with fanciful gardens filled with succulents. I’m excited to see Twin Peaks Boulevard and start flying up the mountainside towards 977-foot Sutro Tower. Red, white and three-pronged, the tower is used by 10 TV and thee radio stations.

I may not go so far as to call it an icon, but it’s certainly recognizable. The peaks themselves were colorfully named by the Spanish as Los Pechos de la Choca (maiden boobs) and I’m excited for the spectacular views from above.

Of course, that’s not at all where the trail goes.

Instead, they wander below the towers into a recently resurrected trail system through Laguna Honda. Affectionately known as “Bedpan Alley,” the Steep Ravine Trail was also one hacked out of bramble right next to the hospital by a group of bikers who kept their work a secret before the staff embraced their work.

The trail takes a dog leg through an area once used as the hospital dumping grounds – for old, useless items, not dead bodies! It’s a magical spot of shade under magnificent trees, and a warm up for the series of stairs to come. I pick up a gumnut and breath in the freshness. I’m so lucky the day isn’t warm and there’s still a breeze, because next, I’ll be all out in the open.

The Moraga Stairs in Golden Gate Heights is one of the highlights of the trail.
The Moraga Stairs in Golden Gate Heights is one of the highlights of the trail.

Section 3: Golden Gate Heights Park, Grandview Park, Tiled Stairways (2.1 miles)

I come back onto sidewalk and head into of the most stunning neighborhoods in the city – Forest Hill. As it sounds, it’s a hill and requires climbing, first up the wide and gracious Pacheco Stairs. There are 116 of them, but who’s counting, right?

It draws me into a series of steps that cut switchbacks in the road. The homes are stunning, perched on the side of the hill with a 180-degree view toward Ocean Beach and the Pacific beyond. Each street has a flight fancifully tucked in about midway and I zigzag higher and higher.

Surprisingly, as I rise towards Grandview Park, the houses become more tightly packed and slightly shabbier. It makes no sense. It is a bus thoroughfare and I take care crossing the street before I hit the Moraga stairs, over 100 leading to the tip top.

It may be a tiny space of just an acre, but Grandview – known by locals as Turtle Hill – is incredibly special. A mound of sedimentary chert, it’s crowned by glorious Monterey cypress and filled with native plants. I’m surprised by the sandy trail, perfect habitat for coyote bush, bush lupin and dune tansy.

The views are superb all around. Downtown sprouts up over the green hills of Golden Gate Park. The green of the Presidio give way to a tiny glimpse of the Golden Gate and the houses of Inner Sunset pour out, bleached by the intense sun.

The Pacheco Stairs mark the beginning of the "stair section" that will take your breath away both literally and figuratively.
The Pacheco Stairs mark the beginning of the “stair section” that will take your breath away both literally and figuratively.
The Moraga Stairs just below Grandview Park. Remember to turn around after you descend because the art is on the risers.
The Moraga Stairs just below Grandview Park. Remember to turn around after you descend because the art is on the risers.
The spectacular Hidden Garden Steps, a volunteer-driven community art project in the Inner Sunset district.

I pop up and over then head steeply down a winding set of stairs that eventually take me to the more famous side of Moraga Street. Inspired by the tiled steps of Rio de Janeiro, a local group of artists created hand-painted tiles to adorn the risers of 163 steps. They tell a story in each flight, revealing daytime and nighttime, the stars and the sun, fishes and flowers.

I walk atop 2,000 tiles made of 75,000 fragments and am filled with wonder that this spot is so hidden from the typical tourist jaunts. In all the years I have been connected with San Francisco since first coming at the age of 13, I never knew about them.

But wait, there’s more!

A few blocks north as I work my way towards the park, is another set of stairs – Hidden Garden Steps. Filled with vibrant colors, and perhaps a bit more whimsy, the risers reveal butterflies, flowers, mushrooms and a newt, whose tail lays languidly along one flat concrete section.

A tour works its way up and seem a bit put off by my presence, although the guide offers to take my picture, tapping his foot when I pause to look at each tile. I eventually lumber on and stop for a take out sandwich and chips from a goofy corner store where the proprietress plays ’70s funk and laughs non-stop. From here, it’s only a few blocks to Golden Gate Park.

The stone bridge over Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park.

Section 4: Stow Lake, Rose Garden, Park Presidio Boulevard (2.2 miles)

Competing with New York, San Franciscans as far back as 1860 knew they needed a spacious public space comparable to Central Park. Originally called the “Outside Lands” because it sat outside the city border, the area was made up mostly of dune and deemed utterly useless. Over a million trees were planted to stabilize the land by none other than John McLaren, whose namesake park I walked through earlier in the day.

A music concourse including the Spreckles Temple bandshell was added as well as the De Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, a Japanese Tea Garden and Conservatory of Flowers plus a series of Dutch windmills along the beach to send fresh water back into the now thirsty park.

The trail misses all of that, sending me instead over a stone bridge onto an island in Stow Lake where I find a log in the shade to sit on and eat my lunch while. Paddle boats and ducks ply the calm surface and birds sing loudly. When I finish, I pass a cafe and enter a forest filled with some of those original million trees.

Along a lawn, I come upon a bronze statue, the only one of a women in a park full of statues. It’s a pioneer women in requisite bonnet and long skirts, holding out her arms in a motherly gesture to two naked boys. Created for the Panama-Pacific International Expo in 1914, it’s a tribute to women of the Oregon and California Trails and represents the hope that was carried by those who risked everything for a better life out west. Highly decorated buffalo skulls and, oddly, a two masted ship decorate her stand.

An artist works en plein air at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park.
An artist works en plein air at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park.
A buffalo skull and passing reference to Native culture decorates the stand of the Pioneer Woman statue.
A buffalo skull and passing reference to Native culture decorate the stand of the Pioneer Woman statue.
The rose garden was at its zenith in every imaginable color. My favorite is orange.
The rose garden was at its zenith in every imaginable color. My favorite is orange.
I quite literally stopped to smell the roses in Golden Gate Park.
I quite literally stopped to smell the roses in Golden Gate Park.

I can’t help but feel a whiff of patriarchy as I snap her picture, then join skaters and bikers on JFK Drive before taking a sharp left into the Rose Garden. I must be here at peak, as blossoms explode in all colors and sizes. This spit was chosen as a testing ground for new varietals and each bed is lovingly cared for. I quite literally take time to smell the roses.

As I leave the park, I follow Park Presidio Boulevard through the Richmond District. The path winds through a wide greenway under tall trees. It’s the first time on the trail I see homeless people, sitting amidst trash bags and shopping carts, maybe a small dog. One man leers at me and seems to want to approach, but mostly they appear harmless, part of a complex sociological problem no one seems to have a clue about how to resolve.

There are approximately 8,000 people living on the street in San Francisco, though the number declined some during the pandemic. Organizations have bought up unused motels to try and help these unfortunates find dignity and safety, but the problem is so entrenched and acts as a tragic reminder of widening inequality.

I leave the boulevard and walk into the Presidio proper, a stretch of land rising above the inlet of the golden gate that served as an army post for three nations. I immediately leave the historic section to begin the Anza Trail, named for Juan Bautista de Anza who sited a fort here for the Spanish in, ironically, 1776.


Section 5: Presidio, Sea Cliff, Lands End (3.8 miles)

Monterrey Pine line the sandy Anza Trail in San Francisco’s Presidio.

Heading west through Monterrey Pine, I again take a wrong turn into thick sand when I follow tourists heading deeper into the park. I backtrack to Lobos Valley and come upon a magical restored area of dunes and beach plants. Lizards do pushups in the sun before scurrying out of my way on a boardwalk through chamisso’s lupine, coast dandelion, dune gilia, yellow sand verbena, Indian paintbrush. San Francisco wallflower and cobweb thistle.

The lupine are in bloom, both purple and yellow plus California poppies, the state flower. I cross Lincoln Boulevard then head deep into forest again along a creek. A house abuts the ravine along with small decorative pagodas.

A fence keeps me hemmed in through a narrow path that suddenly opens out on Baker’s Beach and my first full view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The wind is up and most people wear jackets. I don’t see any fog, but I hear the horn anyway helping guide ships around the point and through the gate. A squadron of brown pelicans fly past, low and slow, their heavy wings lightly tipping to steer, heads tucked in and beaks in Buddha-like serenity.

I walk back up a stairway towards Sea Cliff, expansive houses lining immaculate streets. At one street, a colossal crane is at work. I joke with a few tourists that he’s in place to change a lightbulb. It’s beautiful here, but I’m aware this spot gets far more fog than the rest of the city and can be rather depressing. I remember that Robin Williams lived here and it send shivers up my spine.

Soon I reach a sign for Lands End and the coastal trail. It’s packed with tourists for obvious reasons – its outstanding location perched 200 feet high on cliffs above an azure sea, with a view back to the city, the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. I stop often to take selfies trying to line myself up just right with the view. It never occurs to me to ask someone to take my photo.

Framed by windswept cypress, the trail heads up and down on stairs and packed dirt. There are numerous alternate paths to take including one down to Seals Rock Beach though I’m getting tired and my parents will soon be picking me up. I take in the view including to the ruins of Mile Rock Lighthouse, now a bird sanctuary of their own choosing.

Chamisso’s lupine were everywhere in Lobos Valley on long delicate stalks.
Chamisso’s lupine on long delicate stalks were everywhere in Lobos Valley.
California's state flower, the poppy.
California’s state flower, the poppy.
The flowers along the restored dunes are here after much effort by locals.
The flowers along the restored dunes are here after much effort by locals.

At Eagle Point, visitors crowd in for an Instagram-worthy shot and I catch up to a dog walker playing a podcast at full blast. Somehow, even pulling back, I catch him up over and over, especially when his dog stops to sniff. He passes me and I begin making a kind of “blah, blah, blah” robotic sound at the same pitch as his phone. Am I being a complete jerk?

Up and over I go, the stairs steep but well used. He moves ahead quickly but I catch him at the bottom. The podcast is off finally and he very politely asks if I have the time. “My phone died, so I don’t know what time it is,” he explains, much to my amusement. He thanks me when I tell him it’s a-quarter-to-2 then adds he has time for a bit more walking. When he leaves, he smiles and wishes me a good afternoon.

Well, ok, I guess he got the point.

I soon lose the view of the bridge and look straight out to sea, passing under the USS San Francisco Memorial and above ruins of the Sutro Baths. The baths were a fantasy project of a mega-millionaires in Grecian style filled with slides, trapezes, high dives and 1.7 million gallons of sea water. All that remains of that era is the restored Neoclassical Cliff House, which sadly is permanently closed but marks the end of the Crosstown Trail.

At the lot, my dad and his wife await me, their Welsh Terrier Tammi Two poking her furry snout out the window. They’re full of questions about the neighborhoods I visited, my favorite moments, if I had enough to eat. In answering, I realize this was one of the coolest things I’ve done in San Francisco.

But would I recommend it to everyone?

Yes, thought a qualified yes.

San Francisco is filled with beauty and spectacular sites. This trail touches upon a walker’s need to feel the heartbeat of a city away (for the most part) from tourists and souvenir shops. It offers one a chance to see the city in a kind of total way, though I would suggest that it’s important to ensure you see some of the other famous neighborhoods to the east of the trail in addition to walking the Crosstown.

And how would you accomplish that?

You’d walk.

Looking back to the Golden Gate from Land's End on the coastal trail, section 5 of the trail.
Looking back to the Golden Gate from Land’s End on the coastal trail.
A sign warns me not to walk off the cliff.
A sign warns me not to walk off the cliff.
At Cliff House above the Sutro Baths, the northern terminus of the SF Crosstown Trail.
At Cliff House above the Sutro Baths, the northern terminus of the SF Crosstown Trail.