Walking and trekking
The United States is the size of a continent: it is therefore pointless trying to make any sort of dent into the amount of possibilities on offer to the walker in this guide as you can - quite literally - find anything here. In terms of a tour of terrain, beginning in the south west you have the arid canyons and desert mountains of New Mexico, Southern California and Nevada. Moving to the south east you have the swampy, vegetated states of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. Across America's northern longitudes, you begin in the west with the coastal volcanic ranges of Oregon and Washington, working your way high into the Rockies of Colorado, Montana and Utah, dropping into the largely flat central plains (dusty in the south, wet and green in the north) before discovering the country-spanning eastern ranges of the Appalachians towards the east. Then of course there are the peripheries: Hawaii, with its splendid, jungly volcanic terrain, and a gentle little place up in the far northwest called Alaska. The American walking culture has a huge following, be it simply for 'car hikes' (park the car and walk from it in a loop) or extended backpacking trips. The National Parks here have got their heads screwed on when it comes to preserving their natural splendour, and while some have slightly stiff rules and regs when it comes to what you can and can't do in the backcountry, the crowd control evident in some places (such as Alaska's Denali, which issues permits for backcountry wanderers) is quite often geared to give the walker even more of a pristine experience there. Which can't be bad.
What you do in America really depends on how much time you have. Starting big, three immediate enticements spring out which serve as handy threads which tie together much of America's grandeur - and will do their damnedest to show you as much variation as possible: the Continental Divide Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. The latter two are long-established stomping paths which bisect the USA in hugely entertaining fashion, whereas the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a slightly more intermittent, much more ambitious trail which is growing in popularity year-on-year. Make no mistakes, these are big trails in every sense: The Appalachian Trail is the most popular, requiring 2,186 miles of walking over mountains and through forests from Springer Mountains in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine - more or less the entire eastern extent of the USA, vividly described in Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods - to become a 'thru-hiker', as completers are known. Those who don't have several months to do the whole thing choose to pick off selected chunks in one of the Appalachian's many standalone attractions, such as the awe-inspiring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the remote Blue Ridge Mountains, the comely Shenandoah hills, the heavy forests of the Adirondacks or the Hundred Mile Wilderness of Maine, which is every bit as easy and accommodating as it sounds. Whatever level of challenge you're after, you'll find it on this trail. For those who want even more of a challenging day out, the Pacific Crest Trail is perhaps more your thing, oscillating jarringly over some of the Rockies' most demanding terrain as it winds its way north 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada via California, Oregon and Washington. Both of these trails are well-waymarked, and come with a series of rudimentary shelters of ropy repute, and usually frequently (though often not) peppered with blips of civilisation which allow restocking, refuelling and rehydrating. The CDT stretches through 3,100 miles of the mid-west, from New Mexico, through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, touching on the greatest outdoor features of America en route to user-defined levels of severity. All are fine ways to spend upwards of six months, and unbeatable ways to experience America's enviable outdoor variety.
In terms of individual areas, as mentioned, choosing is difficult given the sheer variety of outstanding, unique attractions on offer. To give a microcosm of the most outstanding is probably the following. If you're in the North West, Glacier National Park in Montana and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming are fairly convenient to link, combining a park rammed with some of the Rockies' most astonishing scenery with the beautifully veneered, simmering volcanic menace of one of the world's most famous attractions in one trip. Further west, the Cascade range is a rainy wilderness of forested volcanoes and mighty rivers, including Mount Rainier - the highest peak outside of Alaska - and the ill-fated Mount St Helens. If you're in the south west, a trip to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon in Utah, or walk some desert trails in New Mexico. Then there is California, home to the Sierra Nevada (home to the 30-day John Muir Trail), Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley and Yosemite, where you can walk to the top of Half Dome and look over the edge of one of the world's most famous vertical drops (yes, it is that sheer up close) or check out the climber's on El Capitan. In the East, the Great Smokies, the pristine wilderness to the east of Lake Superior and the endless, surprisingly mountainous forests of Maine each offer enough to keep you entertained. The South East is famous for its rivers, amongst other things (seen Deliverance?) and for those who like their danger, the Anhinga Trail in Florida's Everglades National Park offers the chance to get up close and scared with alligators. And if you want it wild and cold, trek a glacier in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National park, take the ferry across Prince William Sound then head north to Denali National Park, book a backcountry permit, walk in and and stare at Mt Mckinley - one of the Seven Summits and a monster to behold - before turning round in all likelihood to find a Grizzly Bear looking curiously at you. England may have the Lake District. But there's no denying it: America's got the lot.
In terms of the outdoors, you can do anything in America, from bear-watching to bare-back horse-riding. In terms of cultural experiences, eating a 15-ounce steak in a restaurant named after its proprietor, drinking Bud Lite at a bar playing country music and visiting a ghost town have to be up there - but other than that, you think of it, and you'll find it.
London is closer to New York than New York is to Los Angeles: FALSE. This oft-quoted description of the USA’s immensity is way out. New York is 2,443 miles from Los Angeles, but 3,470 miles from London.
Must see and do
- The John Muir Trail, Sierra Nevada, Californiawww.hikejmt.com
- The Wonderland Trail, Washington State www.nps.gov/mora/trail/wonder.htm
- Buckskin Gulch Canyon, Utah http://www.utahoutdoors.com/pages/buckskin_gulch.htm
- Denali National Park, Alaska www.nps.gov/dena
- The Grand Canyon, Arizona www.nps.gov/grca
- Yosemite National Park, California www.nps.gov/yose
- Glacier National Park, Montana www.nps.gov/glac
- Great Smoky National Park, Tennessee www.nps.gov/grsm
- White Mountains, New Hampshire www.visitwhitemountains.com
Walking and trekking
Canada is a land of legendary beauty, especially in the west, where the Rocky Mountains heave themselves into their most spectacular configurations.
Geographically Canada begins in the west with verdant, forested hills and islands, easing into an arid upland, shooting skywards to the Rockies, dropping suddenly into the desert badlands north and east of Calgary, then getting awfully forested, remote and wet for a thousand miles or so before the cities of Montreal and Toronto appear out of the plains. Canada has some very remote reaches, either of the mountainous kind in the Yukon of the North West, or the wind-stripped bleakness around Hudson Bay the eastern plains. All said, the best walking is in the west.
Vancouver is a hotspot for energetic people and the air is rich in outdoor enthusiasm, so anyone wanting to experience the best of Canada would do well to make either Vancouver or Calgary their base, given both cities’ proximity to the mountains. That said, there are a number of self contained towns within the Rockies themselves with more than enough ameneties to serve as a one-stop shop for the outdoor lover. Best of these is without doubt Banff, which is a bustling town on the Athabasca River. Despite being the primary tourist lure of the Canadian Rockies, Banff has an air of diligent prosperity when it comes to the outdoors, and is full of places to load up on kit, advice and gear before setting off out onto one of the many mountain trails near the town. Banff has many trails immediately adjacent to the town which make interesting diversions, particularly the walks up Tunnel Mountain, the Spray River Loop, the iconic Cascade Mountain and the tougher Cory Pass Loop. These walks give a great flavour for the immediate area around Banff which – being in the heart of the mountains – gives a pretty good flavour of the Canadian Rockies generally. To immerse yourself even more you could head north to the town of Jasper, which is kind of a non-commercialised Banff. Here the surrounding wilderness eats at the town, and it is even easier to wander off the main street onto a river trail that leads into the bush. Near to Jasper is a series of incredible, seriously challenging climbs on big mountains, such as the iconic, snow-striped Mount Edith Cavell (3,363m) which is a climb, and the more achievable Mount Columbia (3,747m), the second highest peak in the Canadian Rockies and a fairly straightforward glacier walk in summer up the east face. (The higest point in Canada is Mount Logan (5,959m) which is a frigid, remote and serious peak on the border with Alaska which is for experienced mountaineers only). Elsewhere in this part of Canada, the legendarily beautiful Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, the same lakes which adorn every Canadian Rockies calandar ever produced, lie in wait for explorers, and are surprisingly undeveloped once you break from the main tourist car parks. There are many routes and trails which lead off from these areas and they are well worth exploring, though do read up on what to do it you meet a bear: while not exactly common, grizzlies roam these areas and have been known to attack. The north of Canada – the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and the Nunavet Territory – is wilderness of the most pristine and remote nature. Areas around the major town aside, these are enormous stretches of forest, mountain and lakeland which are for lovers of total wilderness. If it’s non-expedition walking amongst other diversions you are after, these areas are possibly too serious and remote to consider.
Dropping from the rockies into the plains of eastern Alberta, the topography shifts from blue-white mountain terrain to sunburnt orange. These are Canada’s badlands, wind-gnurled deserts of peculiar rock and dramatic canyons. This is the Dinosaur capital of the world, and the canyons around the town of Drumheller make for fascinating walking that doesn’t fit at all with the public perception of Canada, and rather complies with that of Arizona or New Mexico. Horse Thief Canyon and Horseshoe Canyon are remarkable and unique walking areas to appreciate this weird landscape, with Drumheller a fascinating place to spend a couple of days. It’s not unusual to come across fossils as you walk, but don’t be tempted to nick them – the state claims all finds in the area.
Further east lies Saskatchewan, a prarie state with some good trails in beautifully forested, lake-studded scenery. Prime areas to walk in this giant state (all states in Canada dwarf the UK, therefore it is difficult to recommend specifics) are Prince Albert, Cypress Hills, the Canadian Shield and the Qu’Appelle Valley.
The state of Quebec is home to the majestic St Lawrence River, the Saguenay park, Parc des Hautes Gorges and the Grands Jardins, all areas of spellbinding beauty: rankled hills of moderate height, thick forest, virgin rivers and towns such as Jonquiere and Chicoutimi from which to discover these magical areas. Canada is huge, and the beauty limitless: so instead of trying to see it all, base yourself in strategic points such as this and dip in. However little you see, you’ll still feel like you’ve had a taste of the truly huge outdoors.
There’s tons to do in Canada, despite the somewhat sniffy approach Americans seem to have for their northern counterparts. If you’re basing yourself in Banff, one thing you must do is hire a canoe and take it down the Athabasca river; get it right and you can paddle out of town for a few hours up stream into gorgeous wilderness, then kick back and let the current carry you back. Also here are the famous Banff Springs, a geothermal spa complex where you can literally soak away your aches.
They are the reason the town was sited here in the first place, and the grand Banff Springs Hotel (www.fairmont.com/banffsprings) offer day spa admission. You can also raft hereabouts, and there are a number of excellent mountain bike trails.
Whale watching is a must if you are visiting Vancouver (you’ll regret it if you don’t, and some of these companies are so expert at the whale’s movements they’ll offer you your money back if you’re unlucky). There are some great dinosaur exhibits around Drumheller, and the cities of Montreal and Quebec are flavourful slices of Franco-Canadian which make wonderful city breaks if you’ve had your fill of the outdoors.
The Mounties are Canada’s National Police Force: TRUE. But they don’t always dress in red – the red uniform is typically for ceremonial or occasional use. They usually just dress like regular police.
French is Canada’s official language: TRUE – but so is English. The country’s national motto - A Mari Usque Ad Mare (from Sea to Sea) - is in Latin.
Must see and do
- Allow your jaw to drop at Lake Louisehttp://www.banfflakelouise.com/
- Spot an Orca off Vancouverhttp://www.vancouverwhalewatch.com/
- View the totems in Stanley Park, Vancouverhttp://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/parks/parks/stanley/
- Got in touch with your inner dinosaur at the Tyrell Museum, Drumheller.http://www.tyrrellmuseum.com/
- Hired a Canadian Canoe in the Grand Jardins park near Quebec. http://www.sepaq.com/pq/grj/en/
- Walk all, or part, of the 500 mile Bruce Trail from Niagara Falls to Tobermory http://www.brucetrail.org