In Dream Hikes Coast to Coast, Your Guide to America's Most Memorable Trails author Jack Bennett has done something more than a few folks would like to do: Head out on some great hikes, and then write about them.
In assembling his hiking list, though, Mr. Bennett took an approach that is both laudable...and disappointing.
In surveying the Highpointers Club, a 2,700-member group of hikers, climbers, and "list keepers" to settle on his collection of 30 hikes, Mr. Bennett set some tough guidelines for candidate trails: They had to be day hikes. No cross-country bushwhacking jaunts. No geographic requirements; in other, words, it didn't matter if his entire list wound up comprised of hikes in one or two sections of the country.
The downside to this approach is fairly obvious: The Appalachian National Scenic Trail couldn't be considered, nor could the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier National Park, or the Under-the-Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park. How could you not consider those -- or many others, for that matter -- when compiling a list of Dream Hikes, one that purports to be Your Guide to America's Most Memorable Trails?
No question, the list that Mr. Bennett compiled has some good day hikes, and more than a few are in national parks. There's the Devils Garden Primitive Loop in Arches National Park, Zion Narrows in Zion National Park, and the crater rim trails to be found at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Then, too, he writes on the Tomales Point Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, the Telescope Peak Trail at Death Valley, Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, the Precipice Trail to Ocean Path in Acadia National Park, the Billy Yank Trail in Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Alum Cave Bluff Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And there are others.
The narrative is folksy and at times reads more like a personal journal than a guide to some of the best hikes the country can offer. At times it's lacking in actually describing the landscape you pass through. In describing the Devils Garden Primitive Loop, Mr. Bennett talks of the trail continuing "across a high rock fin" and writes of the "dramatic desert landscape" and "secret fin canyons," but fails to place the reader in these landscapes by more thoroughly describing the walk across that "high rock fin," or explaining what makes the landscape "dramatic," or sketching for us "fin canyons."
Other passages, however, help you imagine what you might see if you take the hike. Of making the final climb to the summit of Half Dome he writes:
At the bottom of the ladder was a large cache of gloves of all types, colors, and sizes for use on the ladder. Finding two gloves that matched was impossible, so I just settled for two that fit. The look straight up the ladder was intimidating, but this was what I had come for, so I assumed the identity of an ant and took my place in the queue the ladder. I soon found that my gloves were slipping on the steel cable and were more trouble than they were worth, so I stuck them in my back pocket. Eventually I developed a rhythm: Pull hard up the cable to reach the next step, rest five to ten seconds, and then pull again. The ladder was jammed with people, making it necessary to pass others going up, coming down, and just going nowhere. Finally I walked, panting, onto the summit of the Half Dome at 12:30 p.m. The climb from Happy Isles had taken me nearly five hours.
There was a great camaraderie among those who had achieved the summit, and what a view I was privileged to share with them. The valley was spread out at my feet like a grand cathedral whose roof had been stripped away. The thin plume of Yosemite Falls swayed silently in the wind across the valley. The view straight down the sheer northwest face was stomach-dropping. Royal Robbins, Jerry Gallwas, and Mike Sherrick first climbed this face in 1957, which is still considered one of the great classic climbs of North America. But from this vantage point it looked like madness. To the east I could see Clouds Rest, the Cathedral Range, and the great ramparts of the Sierra Nevada.
Does Dream Hikes Coast to Coast (MSRP $24.95) catalog America's most memorable trails? No. But it does snare some of them and overall captures 30 wonderful day hikes, including more than a few jaunts that every dedicated hiker should know about.