America’s hardiest hikers blaze new long-distance trails
NEVADA CITY, Calif. ‑- It’s tough to find a tougher hiker than Mary Kwart.
The 64-year-old former wildland firefighter has tackled some of America’s roughest routes, including the Pacific Crest, Grand Enchantment and Hayduke long distance trails.
But Kwart, of Ashland, Ore., nearly met her match last year in the Siskiyou Wilderness, a 180,000-acre swath of remote mountains and forest in northwestern California.
That’s where she found herself dragging her backpack while crawling beneath dense brush during a through-hike of the newly-designed Bigfoot Trail.
“This was like probably the hardest section of hiking I have ever done,” she said of the stretch where it took her two hours to cover a quarter-mile of the route.
Such is life for people at the forefront of hiking and backpacking in America, many of whom gathered recently in Nevada City, Calif., for the American Long Distance Hiking Association West’s annual get-together.
They talked about finding alternative routes to some of the most popular long-distance trails in the country, such as the Pacific Crest, Appalachian and John Muir trails.
The newest contenders include the Bigfoot Trail, a 360-mile route between Red Bluff and Crescent City in California.
Outdoor and science educator Michael Kauffmann of Kneeland, Calif., designed the Bigfoot route and through-hiked it in 2009.
He pieced together existing, although often neglected, trails and forest service roads to make a remote route that would cover some of the most biologically diverse wilderness in the world.
The 32 species of conifer trees, for example, is an almost unrivaled level of diversity outside the tropics, Kauffmann said.
He called it the Bigfoot Trail because the region it traverses is also known as a hotspot for alleged encounters with the mythical, ape-like creatures.
It turned out to be a clever marketing ploy for the route, which he would like to see gain official recognition.
“It didn’t gain a lot of steam because of the conifer idea but it gained a lot of steam because of the name,” Kauffmann said. “Everybody loves to think bigfoot is running around in the mountains.”
The Bigfoot was just one of the newly-designed long-distance trails featured at the hiking conference.
Another was the Hot Springs Trail, a 2,421-mile route through California, Nevada and Idaho.
It was designed by a 40-year-old who goes by the name Aria Zoner who, until recently, “was too busy climbing mountains and stuff,” to bother with technology such as mobile phones or computers.
After hiking the Colorado, Arizona and Pacific Crest trails, the latter he’s hiked twice, Zoner was looking for a new experience.
Zoner, who calls himself the Whole Food Hiker, is a nutritionist and hot springs enthusiast and was dismayed by how few places there were to get natural food and soak on most long distance trails.
“I was always looking for where the health food stores were and where the hot springs were, and none of the trails had, really, either one of those,” he said. “I felt like I was lacking and I wanted to come up with a journey for myself.”
So he pieced together a route from the California coast near Santa Barbara to the Canadian border with Idaho.
Unlike many long-distance trails the Hot Springs route goes through towns so it’s easier for hikers to find farmer’s markets and natural food stores where they can refuel their bodies and refill their food supply.
Zoner also designed the route to go by an estimated 93 hot springs areas because, he said, he wanted a trail that would give hikers a chance to rejuvenate as often as possible.
“The hot springs trail takes you places that build you up, you know, healthy places,” he said.
Neither the Bigfoot nor the Hot Springs trail has achieved a national designation.
Trails designated as National Recreation Trails or National Scenic Trails can be eligible for official signage and tend to attract funding and volunteers that can lead to maintenance, improvements and more users.
Bigfoot supporters are hopeful a wilderness, rivers and trails proposal will get support from Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and lead to a potential designation for that route.
As for the Hot Springs Trail, Zoner has created a 605-page guidebook he hopes will generate enthusiasm for a future designation.
He’s hopeful people will use the book and discover that the trail, particularly in Nevada where it incorporates the Toiyabe and Ruby crest trails, has many surprises.
Zoner said he found more wild berries, fruit and greens on the route than on any other long distance trail he’s hiked.
During the Nevada portion he also said he saw an abundance of large wildlife, such as bighorn sheep, elk, antelope and mountain lions.
He also got a kick out of the reaction from people he met at a hot spring in the desolate Fish Lake Valley.
It takes several hours to drive to the valley from Reno or Las Vegas and even small towns are few and far between in the area.
Zoner said people he ran into at the isolated springs were shocked to find out he walked there.
“Their heads just exploded, it was just awesome,” he said.