The Most Haunted Hikes in the U.S.

16 Apr

The story goes like this: A young Mohican woman named Bash Bish, accused of adultery, was lashed into a canoe and pushed over the top of Massachusetts’ highest waterfall. Though the pool at the bottom of the falls is relatively small, her body was never found. Since then, more than 25 people have died at the waterfall, now called Bash Bish, primarily from misguided cliff jumps and falls—and rumor has it that their ghosts still linger around the boulder-studded pools. Hikers have told the website America’s Most Haunted that they have glimpsed the figure of a girl (Bash Bish, perhaps?) watching them from behind the falls.

Mist might explain that ghostly outline. So could crowds. Come July, this corner of Massachusetts’ Taconic Mountains attracts plenty of hot and sweaty pilgrims, so it’s conceivable that the figure behind that watery curtain is actually a living, breathing adventurer rather than a long-dead Native American.

Assuming you don’t add to Bash Bish’s tally of deaths, it’s a good idea to climb to the top of the falls for panoramic views across the mountains that separate New York and Massachusetts. Wire fences drilled into the rocky summit now keep hikers from swan-diving to their demise—from this highest perch, at least. Gaze down into Bash Bish’s rocky maw, then descend to the bottom of the falls to swim in the pool and conduct your ghost patrol.

You can track more paranormal activity at these, um, haunts.

Manoa Falls

haunted
(Ken Lund/Creative Commons )

Oahu, Hawaii

Tales of the night marchers abound throughout Hawaii, where people claim to have seen ghosts marching to an ancient and primitive drumbeat. These night marchers, or hukai’po, sometimes appear as warriors in armor. Other apparitions look like Hawaiian royals. Typically, they carry torches and walk in processions that hover above the ground, though some observers have reported seeing footprints in their wake.

As their name suggests, the night marchers generally appear after sundown, but a few sightings have been reported during daylight hours, and Manoa Falls is one of their hot spots. This 150-foot waterfall, reached via a 1.6-mile out-and-back hike, is also popular with tourists—but if you see the hukai’po, local wisdom dictates that you should play dead by lying on the ground and averting your eyes out of respect for the walking deceased.

Vernal and Nevada Falls

haunted
(God of War/Wikimedia Commons)

Yosemite National Park, California

Lots of people have died by slipping and falling near Yosemite’s waterfalls. The aptly named Mist Trail to Vernal Fall (three miles round-trip) and Nevada Fall (seven miles round-trip) leads hikers onto wet rocks, where footing is precarious—and the temptation to snap selfies becomes irresistible. But Yosemite area folklore blames at least some of those tumbles on an evil spirit named Po-ho-no.

The story takes its genesis from Miwok tales of Po-ho-no, a trickster figure that takes the shape of an impish wind capable of shoving people off cliffs. If you remain a sensible distance from any precipice, Po-ho-no can’t hurt you. But should you succumb to the temptation to creep to the edge and peer over? You just might feel a shove on your shoulder before your wingless flight.

Ghost House Trail

haunted
(Brian Stansberry/Wikimedia Commo)

Big Ridge State Park, Tennessee

Tales of heartache and woe abound in the southern Appalachians, where poverty and isolation have made life hard for the people who’ve hacked out a living in these hills. One such story documents how homesteader Matson Hutchinson lost his daughter Mary to tuberculosis in the late 1800s. But her cries are said to live on: People visiting the spot where the home once stood claim to have heard sounds of suffering from an invisible young girl.

The 1.2-mile loop also visits the family cemetery, which has given rise to even more ghost stories. Some hikers claim that their photos of the tilting headstones (dating from 1907 to 1929) included the occupants’ spirit shapes standing behind the markers. Should those not appear in your snapshots, search instead for a man in gray pants and a red flannel shirt—the apparition of Mason Hutchinson, who’s rumored to appear throughout the woods where he once worked.

Maine’s Legendary Hiker Hostel Just Got Even Better

15 Apr

As an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker in 2008, Kimberly “Hippie Chick” Hester thought running a hiker hostel would feel like hosting friends for a party every day. Six years later, when Hester and her thru-hiker husband, Jerrod (trail name “Poet”), bought Shaw’s, the iconic hiker hostel on Maine’s AT, she put her hypothesis to the true test.

“There are no days off. It’s a crazy-busy, seven-day-a-week job from June through October,” says the 38-year-old Kimberly.

And the bit about transient hikers feeling like friends? “They definitely do,” she says. “There’s a wonderful camaraderie among hikers, so running Shaw’s does feel like having friends over all the time.”

Shaw’s Hiker Hostel has long been a community center of sorts. Monson is the first town southbound AT hikers reach after traversing the celebrated 100-Mile Wilderness. But in the 1970s, the town had no restaurants. So, in 1977, Keith and Pat Shaw started cooking lavish breakfasts for hungry thru-hikers at their Monson home, located just off the trail. Soon, “Old Man Shaw” and his hiker hostel grew into the stuff of legend.

“People have told me that you got this sense from Keith Shaw that he’d do anything for you,” Kimberly says. Shaw would drive out in stormy weather to pick up hikers on the trail. He cooked all-you-can-eat breakfasts ordered by number: Call out “four,” and you’d get eggs, pancakes, bacon, and sausage—four of each. “He was a total character from rural Maine,” Kimberly says, “and people thought he was hilarious.”

Shaw died in 2004. His son, “Junior,” ran it for a year before selling it to longtime Monson resident and retired schoolteacher Dawn MacPherson-Allen, who soon grew weary of hotelier life. In 2014, Kimberly’s parents, who run an AT hiker hostel in Millinocket, Maine, told her that Shaw’s Hiker Hostel was up for sale. Hippie Chick and Poet took the plunge.

These days, the Hesters, who had been working as schoolteachers in Florida, spend half the year in Monson, population 680. They take winters off to travel—Jerrod thru-hiked the Florida Trail last year—and to homeschool their two kids.

The Hesters are also keeping some of Shaw’s traditions alive. Belly-filling breakfasts ($9) remain part of the hostel’s experience; Jerrod even cooks them in Shaw’s original cast-iron skillets. Eggs are still cooked to order, only now “three” is the standard number for everyone. The pancakes now feature Maine blueberries and are served with fresh-ground coffee. “I didn’t want to drink lousy coffee every morning,” Kimberly jokes.

The Herrods also made a few other changes. They stocked the hostel with a banjo, mandolin, guitar, and steel drum to facilitate impromptu jam sessions. And they replaced the hostel’s flooring. “We wanted to keep the eclectic look, but the place needed a bit of renovating,” Kimberly explains.

Additionally, the couple created a gear shop so they could offer southbounders the same kind of gear makeover that the famous Mountain Crossings offers northbounders arriving at Neels Gap in Georgia. “Poet and I spent $1,000 there to replace our two-person sleeping bag and my too-small boots,” Kimberly recalls. Jerrod conducts load-lightening “shakedowns” at Shaw’s and sells lightweight performers from brands such as Big Agnes, Leki, Jacks R Better, and Hyperlite Mountain Gear.

The Hesters even established a new tradition of their own: Each hiker to arrive at Shaw’s (where doubles go for $60 and bunks cost $12 a night) is greeted with a complimentary PBR or soda. “We want to let people know it’s comfortable here, that we’re not all about rules right away,” Kimberly says. “People really appreciate it. And they’re glad that Shaw’s is still open, that someone cares enough about it to keep it open.”

Two Locals Share Their Favorite Hikes in New Jersey

15 Apr

Seventy-two miles of the Appalachian Trail wind through the northwest corner of New Jersey, and the comments hikers leave in shelter trail registers tend to express a common emotion: surprise.

“A lot of people write something like, ‘I didn’t realize New Jersey was this nice,’” says Monica Day, who, with her husband, David, has led the West Jersey Trail Crew since 2000. Sneer at their stomping grounds and you’ll get a lively tongue-lashing from people who spend a lot of time swinging sharp, menacing tools.

“It’s nice!” David says. “We don’t have 7,000-foot peaks and things like that, but there’s an awful lot of pretty.”

The Days should know. David, now 65, and Monica, 64, have spent the past 40 years hiking all over the state, from the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey to the mountainous northwest corner (their favorite). Now that the Highland Park residents have retired from their careers in computer programming, they go hiking at least once a week in all seasons. “That’s another great thing about hiking in New Jersey,” David says. “There are only a couple places that are no-go in the dead of winter, and almost everything is accessible with boots or snowshoes.”

Scenic beauty, however, isn’t what most hikers expect from the Garden State. Maybe it’s that nickname, which evokes flat plots of carrots rather than civilization-ditching adventure. Or maybe it’s because many people—residents and visitors alike—experience New Jersey largely through its turnpike, which spans 12 lanes in some places. “The standard joke about New Jersey is, ‘What exit are you from?’” Monica says. “People think it’s all just petrochemical farms.”

But there’s also Sunfish Pond, the Days’ favorite destination. Cradled in a glacial cirque located 1,000 feet above the surrounding valleys, its spring-fed water is as crystalline as any you’ll see in the Sierra Nevada, and its forested shoreline feels like wilderness. There’s the Dunnfield Creek Trail, which climbs along a protected trout stream that cascades down the mountainside. The Terrace Pond North Trail scales a precipitous rock ledge that overlooks rolling green mountains where only a few roofs poke through.

“Many people don’t realize just how much like wilderness New Jersey can be,” Monica says. 

And New Jersey trails can be spankingly steep. Whereas the Pacific Crest Trail and other western routes set grade limits so they’re accessible to horses, “There’s no such rule here,” David says. The Red Dot Trail up New Jersey’s Mount Tammany gains 1,500 feet over a half-mile. (By comparison, the famous Tuckerman Ravine Trail up Mount Washington in New Hampshire maxes out at 1,000 vertical feet per mile.) “We have trails that get there with a real attitude,” David says.

Then there’s the cumulative effort. Climbing 100 vertical feet might not feel like much, but repeat that up and down ten times—as trails tend to do in New Jersey’s rolling mountains—and the strain adds up.

The state’s trail crews have turned many of these otherwise impassable places into really cool hikes. The Days and their crews built a 110-foot suspension bridge over Pochuck Creek and 1.5 miles of boardwalk spanning the surrounding floodplain. Stand in the middle of those wetlands, where hawks soar overhead and red-winged blackbirds trill from the reeds, and you’ll feel immersed in New Jersey’s answer to the Everglades.

“We’re not like the Rockies,” David admits. “We don’t have Pikes Peak. But we’ve got serious piles of rock, and you can get up on them and, you know, do some real hiking.”

A Secret Ingredient for 5-Star Trail Meals

15 Apr

One August night in 2013, while the setting sun lit up pink and orange contrails across the sky above Tennessee’s Mount LeConte, Allyson Virden fired up her pizza oven. As the cook at LeConte Lodge, a hike-to cluster of mountaintop cabins in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, she had already served guests their evening meal of beef with gravy, green beans, and mashed potatoes. But as the hikers walked their weary legs to bed, Allyson still needed to prepare the shift meal for the lodge’s crew.

She and her husband, Chris, had worked as LeConte’s resident managers since 2003. Chris cared for the grounds, and Allyson cooked. But during their winters off, they chased good food around the world, visiting countries such as Laos, Panama, and Cambodia and later recreating those flavors for LeConte’s ten-person crew. On that particular pizza night, the jar of red pepper flakes that everyone shook over their slices seemed disappointingly generic.

“We always had at least ten open bottles of different hot sauces, and it became a kind of running joke at the lodge to argue about which hot sauce paired best with that particular dish,” Allyson explains. Chris wondered why there was no such variety in crushed red pepper. “There are a million bottled hot sauces out there, but with red pepper flakes, there’s just one,” he says.

So the couple began tinkering with their own chile blends. In 2014, they started coming down the mountain to sell their Olde Virden’s Red Hot at the Gatlinburg farmers’ market. The spice was an instant hit. By the end of that summer, the couple quit as resident managers to launch Olde Virden’s full-time.

Today their pepper mix is sold online and at 170 locations across the South. Some local pizza parlors have swapped out standard pepper flakes for Olde Virden’s Red Hot—but it has an irritating tendency to disappear. “People steal it, so we’ve got to find a way to get them to leave it on the table,” Allyson says.

What makes their mix so great is the freshness of its peppers. The Virdens source all their chiles from a local farmer in Grainger City, Tennessee. “We pick them up the day they’re harvested, and within 24 hours we’ve got them all dehydrated,” Allyson says. The original Red Hot blend combines serrano, habanero, jalapeño, long hot cayenne, and Thai chiles. The couple has also launched a Spicy Verde Southwestern mix of Anaheim, poblano, jalapeño, serrano, and habanero peppers.

Allyson likes to sprinkle it on watermelon, and it’s certainly delicious on pizza, but she says the mixes have also transformed her backpacking spice kit. “It really helps to elevate your typical Mountain House pouch meal,” she says.

And if you’re a gram-counting ultralight junky, there’s no need to worry: Olde Virden’s comes in easily packed one-ounce containers.

Trading a Large Salary for Bigger Mountains

15 Apr

By all measures, 37-year-old Laura Hattan is the mountain version of a supermom: She owns the Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale, the gateway town for Wyoming’s storied Wind River Range. She hikes, cycles, skis, runs, climbs, and fly-fishes in the mountains, often accompanied by her 15-year-old daughter, Sierra. She founded and directs the Wind River Mountain Festival, which combines an adventure race and music festival. It’s the life she always wanted—but getting it meant prying herself away from her life as a stay-at-home mom in the city and starting anew in a tourist economy. Here’s how Hattan took the plunge.

The Trigger to Change

I was born and raised in Nebraska, but my husband and I spent most of our weekends making trips to Colorado or up to Minnesota to go rock climbing. Then my daughter, Sierra, was born, and I felt like we had to make a change.

I’d read this book called Free-Range Kids, which talked about how, these days, most kids’ radius for exploration stops at the end of their driveway. That was just shocking to me. In Nebraska, I grew up in the country, but not on a farm. Until I went to college, I never realized that other kids didn’t grow up exploring river bottoms and wandering all around. I wanted that for my daughter—I wanted her to know what the outdoors was like.

So, when Sierra was six months old, we took a big road trip across the Mountain West to check out where we might want to live. Wyoming really appealed to us. We liked the quiet, and we liked the people. Then, in May 2005, we saw a job posting for an outdoor gear shop in Pinedale that was looking for managers. We interviewed with the owners over the phone and moved out here two weeks later.

The Cash Crunch

In Nebraska, my husband had been working as a computer programmer, and the job at the Great Outdoor Shop paid half as much. Meanwhile, our rent leaped from $500 a month to $1,500 for a two-bedroom townhouse. Living in the apartment above the gear shop was a key perk, because it helped us make that transition. It worked out so well with Sierra.

Plus, we liked the job. My husband and I worked the same shifts. Then, in 2014, we bought the business from the owners, who were looking to step back and had been mentors to us. Last year, my husband and I also bought Two Rivers, a fly-fishing shop and guide service just one block down from the Great Outdoor Shop.

My husband and I still make sacrifices to live here. We have to live really frugally and classify needs versus wants. To this day, I still have, like, three pieces of furniture—but there are only three of us, so we only need one couch. We don’t go out for smoothies, because Pinedale is expensive. It may not be on par with Jackson, but compared to Lincoln, prices here are shocking. Pinedale has virtually no growing season, so everything is trucked in from the interstate, 100 miles away. Everything costs more.

But it’s so worth it. The Wind River Range is incredible, a unique gem. Visitors come through and ask where our Tetons T-shirts are, and I think, no! This range is three times the size of the Tetons! It’s got the largest glacier in the Rockies! We don’t have a TV, but we go outside and play—that’s why we moved here.

The Outdoor Payoff

Backpacking is my favorite. I love to put on a pack and get some really long days in, so for me, the Wind Rivers are perfect. I also ride road and mountain bikes, and I run—although I’m like a slow, fat beagle. I’ll fish if I’m catching fish, but I won’t stand there for four hours if I’m not catching anything. In winter, I ski and snowboard and Nordic ski.

The benefits of being here are hedonistic: I love playing in the mountains. But there’s also a greater benefit in watching my daughter grow up in the mountains, in an environment that’s almost endangered in this country.

Raising a kid in a small mountain town is the best. Sierra started going to the local ski hill on her own when she was six. For her tenth birthday, she asked to climb Fremont Peak, which was an 18-mile day—the longest she’d ever done. Having a tiny person with you and watching them experience the joy of something like that is pretty incredible. I like to say we’re late locals. We weren’t born and raised in Wyoming, but we got here as soon as we could.

Meet Minnesota’s Lumberjack King

15 Apr

John Elliott could tell that the newbie was afraid of the chainsaw. He held it way out in front of his body, so that only the tip of the blade bit into the cedar tree that had toppled across the trail. To make the chain cut into the trunk, the guy was tiring himself out by pushing hard on the saw.

“We get people who come from the Twin Cities and tell me, ‘I’m in great shape. I work out in the gym,’” Elliott tells me later. “But it just blows them up, working on the trail. They’re generally using muscles that they haven’t used before. And they work inefficiently,” explains the 72-year-old, who has headed up trail-clearing efforts along Minnesota’s Border Route Trail for 40 years. Noobs watch Elliott melt away an 18-inch pine in just ten minutes—on his best day, he dispatched 102 trees in just two hours—and scratch their heads at the older man’s speed.

“I just kill these young kids, and they can’t figure out how,” Elliott chuckles. “But I’ve been cutting in the woods since 1975.”

Elliott doesn’t exactly look like Paul Bunyan: he’s tall and scarecrow gangly and sports a graying moustache. “He’s jovial and open and loves to teach what he knows,” says Jeremy Nordling, the mechanized trail director for the Border Route Trail Association, a volunteer group that maintains the path.

Without Elliot and the volunteers he’s led on biannual trail-clearing missions, the Border Route Trail would cease to exist. The 65-mile path follows the U.S.-Canada border between Minnesota and Ontario. Thirty-five miles of the trail cross the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

The only enduring open spaces in these thick northern woods are the region’s lakes. Everything else quickly becomes a thicket of brush and saplings. Even the elegant, slender poplar trees that proliferate in these forests start their lives as hiker-thwarting shrubs. Every year, blowdowns bury sections of the trail beneath a tangle of pick-up-sticks.

So, like Sisyphus, trail crews arrive every spring and fall to push their proverbial boulder up the hill. Only by having volunteers hack away downed trees and scrub does this trail remain passable to hikers.

The brush is the worst, because instead of sawing away at one trunk, crews have to snip away at thousands of whip-thin branches. “It’s slow work,” Elliott says.

Progress moves faster on the eastern and western ends of the Border Route, where crews can use power tools. Their power brush-cutters roar through tangled undergrowth and fit into backpack harnesses, so crews can easily haul them to a work site. Volunteers also wield compact, 15-pound chainsaws that melt through the region’s soft pines and poplars. “You just rest the saw on the tree and let it ride down, guiding it with your fingertips,” Elliott says. Anything else is wasted effort. “A lot of people make the mistake of moving the saw back and forth, which does nothing.”

But such tools are verboten along the segment of the Border Route that runs through the BWCAW. There, crews have to use a two-person crosscut saw. These two-handled, five-foot blades are remnants of the region’s earliest logging days—and they’re dangerous, Elliott says. “They’re razor-sharp. You hear stories of saws falling on people’s legs and killing them.” (The Border Route Trail Association, however, maintains a spotless safety record.) Crosscut saws are also tricky to use, since operators have to coordinate their movements. “You can’t push it at all, only pull, or it’ll bind up,” Elliott says.

Antiquated tools aren’t the only reason progress is slow through the BWCAW. There’s also its distance from major population centers. Most Border Route volunteers commute from the Twin Cities, some 340 miles away. Journeying to remote sections of the trail requires additional time. Before they can clear the 6.5-mile section of trail between Gogebic Lake and the Pine/West Pike Portage, crews must first paddle seven miles and then hike a mile farther to base camp. So, in a typical weekend, most crews manage to clear only 1.5 to two miles before they have to return home for work on Monday morning.

The U.S. Forest Service also requires that volunteers get certified to use certain tools. The chainsaw certification courses Elliott teaches take a full day, as do the courses on using two-handled saws.

“It’s involved,” Elliott admits. “And it’s hard, tiring work, but I like that. I don’t go backpacking anymore. Now I only hike with a purpose.”

The Best Food Hacks for Thru-Hikers

15 Apr

By the time Christopher Cage completed his Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2013, he was a whip-thin 155 pounds. Like many long-distance hikers, the 5'11" Cage just couldn’t consume enough calories to replenish the 5,000 to 6,000 he’d burn each day for months on end. And most trail foods rank as processed, low-nutrient junk: Spam, Snickers bars, and ramen noodles are popular because they’re readily available at convenience stores where thru-hikers resupply.

So, as soon as he left the AT, Cage started inventing a better fuel. His first attempts resembled a seed-studded slime—and tasted terrible. But after consulting with a food scientist and establishing his Atlanta-based company, Greenbelly, in early 2014, Cage debuted his ultimate trail food: a shelf-stable, nutrient-dense energy bar that delivers a whopping 650 calories (the equivalent of a full meal) and actually tastes good.

Most hikers (especially thru-hikers bent on maximizing mileage) don’t bother to stop, fire up the stove, and cook a proper midday meal. Usually, lunchables such as tortillas and summer sausage provide low-nutrient calories. That may be fine for a weekend, but when you’re living on trail food for a thru-hike that could take up to six months or more, Cage says, “You need some fiber. You need healthy fats, carbs, and protein.” And so Greenbelly’s Meal2Go—which requires no cooking and provides 17 grams of protein, 100 grams of carbohydrates, 22 grams of fat, and nine grams of fiber—solves the constant question: What to eat for lunch?

The company’s business has doubled every year and attracted the attention of some of the biggest names in hiking. Heather “Anish” Anderson (the first woman to complete the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails in a single year) is a Greenbelly devotee; so is ultrarunner Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer

Most sales are via online channels; Meal2Go isn’t sold in the C-stores lining the AT and other long-distance routes. So, for now, health-conscious hikers must include Greenbelly in the mail drops they ship to themselves along the route.

But as a thru-hiker who has spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to fuel, Cage has worked out other food hacks that add up to better eating on long-distance trails.

Spiked Oats

Forget instant oatmeal, which has most of the fiber stripped out of it to make it cook superfast. For longer-lasting fuel, Cage starts his day with uncooked rolled oats moistened with cold water and embellished with nutrient-dense additions, such as chia seeds, protein powder, olive oil, almond flour, and brownie mix. “I call it the concoction,” Cage says. “It checks a lot of nutritional boxes, tastes good, and there’s minimal cleanup.”

Seaweed

“It’s really hard to get many greens while on the trail,” Cage says. And yet green vegetables provide key vitamins, minerals, and other antioxidants that help build and repair muscle. Cage shipped himself packets of freeze-dried green beans and bought seaweed from supermarkets along the trail. “Seaweed is easily sourced at a lot of grocery stores, and it’s high in calcium and minerals,” he says.

Superfuel Shooters

Oil is one of the most calorie-dense foods hikers can carry—olive oil registers 120 calories per half-ounce—but Cage didn’t down his straight. Instead, he prefers to mix a high-calorie cocktail made of one part olive oil, one part creamy peanut butter, and one part honey. “Eat it in small spoonfuls with water,” Cage suggests. “Or to make it a meal and eat it on a big handful of kale inside a tortilla.”

Pork Rinds

Here’s one convenience store staple that actually provides hikers with worthy fuel. High in fat and protein, pork rinds are also lightweight and tasty.