Magazine article Sunset

Walking the West

Magazine article Sunset

Walking the West

Article excerpt

Step by step, guided walking tours give you a vivid taste of the outdoors

There's no better way to get to know a place than by walking through it. On a stroll, you can stop to examine a particularly vibrant green fern, sniff a flower, or pinpoint the source of a birdcall. You can absorb a place with all your senses, and you can do it at your own pace.

This is why, I think, a weeklong walking tour taught me more about Washington's Olympic Peninsula than I know about practically any other place in North America.

Hiking under the massive Sitka spruce, hemlocks, and Douglas firs on the Quinault Loop Trail, eight of us learned about water bearsmicroscopic moss-eating creatures that can hibernate as desiccated flakes for decades. Later, we saw the tracks of a real, large-as-life black bear in the mud along the riverbank.

We felt the fine, sharply scented frass of a carpenter ant colony with our fingertips. We handled a twotoned leathery sheet of dragon skin lichen as one of our trip leaders, Kate Keehner, explained why it's a favorite snack for hungry elk. We even got a quick geology primer when Keehner created a miniature mountain range out of beach sand to illustrate the subduction zone of the Juan de Fuca plate.

It wasn't all natural history lessons, though. Sometimes we quietly absorbed the region's ancient trees, steep mountains, and damp, green glory. One sunny afternoon we looped through a forest of Sitka spruce trees whose giant burls resembled lumpy midriffs. We spent one morning hiking along a beach of smooth black stones, with massive gray tree trunks appearing through the fog on the bluff above us. The sky and sea seemed to merge into one on the misty horizon.

Hoofing it, but not roughing it

Writer Rebecca Solnit says walking is good for thought and conversation because it suits the tempo of our minds. "I like walking because it is slow," she writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking. "I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour."

The leisurely pace helped us get to know each other. Though we were a group of strangers at the trip's outset, conversations flowed exceptionally easily. Joanne from Northern California told us about treks she'd taken in Pakistan, Italy, and China. Peter from San Diego was an avid amateur mycologist; his stories were punctuated by detours to examine the forest duff.

The rhythm of walking also gave a natural order to our days, whether we were touring the Hall of Mosses in the Hoh River Valley or gazing down into the blue depths of tree-lined Lake Crescent: After breakfast, we'd have a walk, then a trail snack of fruit and cookies, followed by more walking. Next came lunch, another walk, and then a leisurely evening at a lodge with plenty of time for recapping the day's discoveries, such as the bald eagle we had spotted near Ruby Beach or the red-legged frog near Lake Quinault.

Outfitters say the popularity of walking tours has grown enormously in recent years, particularly in the West, where there's so much natural beauty to appreciate on foot. Cammy Richelli, regional manager for Country Walkers, which runs dozens of trips in the West, explains: "People want to go someplace that's off the beaten track. And they want to have an experience that's authentic."

Though some outfitters bill their trips as hikes and others offer walks, it's a fuzzy distinction; people use the terms differently. …

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