Some people like to hike around mountains. I am one of those people.
I am a thruhiker. Part of the charm of a thru is getting very far away from where you started. But this doesn’t mean you have to end there. Just ask anyone who’s done a yoyo. Just ask anyone who’s done the Great Western Loop.
And sometimes a thruhike just isn’t feasible. Sometimes you don’t have a spare six months lying around. Sometimes you only have a weekend. Some people, I’ve heard, have jobs! And sometimes there’s a plague on, and you’d rather not do a trail that requires hitching and townhopping and the risk of evacs – lest your new trailname be Superspreader – or Guy Who Went Into Respiratory Distress At Eleven Thousand Feet.
A loop trail is wonderful for 2020. Keep it to one food carry and you don’t have to worry about going into town to resupply; start and end at your car and you don’t have to worry about getting to the trailhead or back from the terminus. With these both eliminated, your need to interact with other people drops to almost zero. It’s not risk-free, but neither is living in lockdown. With care and planning I believe the risks can be about the same.
One single-carry loop won’t compare to a thruhike. But do half a dozen of them and you’re getting warmer. This year I took two months and did the Wonderland, the Northern Loop, the Timberline, the Goat Rocks Three, a thing in North Cascades that I haven’t named yet, a first draft of a thing that I’m calling Hell’s Backpack – and I would have done more if it wasn’t for those meddling wildfires. (C’est la thru.)
With this all in mind, I’ve given a lot of thought to loop thrus – how they’re similar, how they differ, how they can be classified – all with an eye to making the hiking of one after another as varied and wonderful as a thruhike.
First, here is SILVER’S ONTOLOGY OF THRUS.
A thruhike is a self-powered backpacking trip long enough to require multiple resupplies.
SELF-POWERED: There is thruhiking. Thrubiking. Thrupaddling. And there sure are Mixed Media Thrus; I won’t begrudge Te Araroa its canoeing section. Or its optional sections of kayaking, road biking, mountain biking… pack rafting… NOT swimming between the islands…
BACKPACKING: So not entirely slackpacking, O Trailrunner.
MULTIPLE RESUPPLIES: Is what separates a backpacking trip from a thru.
And here’s my next division: TYPES OF THRU:
A thruhike can be LINEAR, as is traditional; or it can end where it begins, and be a LOOP.
LINEAR THRUHIKES fall into three categories: the GEOGRAPHIC, the POLITICAL, and the ARBITRARY.
The GEOGRAPHIC start and end with some feature of the world – the Appalachian Trail following the Appalachian Mountains.
The POLITICAL start and end with some line on a map – the Pacific Crest Trail going from Mexico to Canada. (Some trails do both, because political boundaries are sometimes influenced by geography; Te Araroa, the GR20, etc.)
The ARBITRARY just connect two points on a map. No, I’ve never heard of such a thing – but since we’re waxing philosophic, let’s be complete.
LOOP THRUS are defined not by where they begin and end, but by what they go around. And yet, they fall into the same three categories.
GEOGRAPHIC LOOPS go around a topographic feature – a mountain, a canyon, a lake.
POLITICAL LOOPS go around some feature of humanity – a country, a city.
And an ARBITRARY LOOP is when you string together a bunch of trails so that you can end up back at your car. Is a thing. That I have done. Quite a bit!
Among the GEOGRAPHIC LOOPS are some sub-categories! Whee!
RIM TRAILS stay above something: a lake (the Tahoe Rim Trail), a valley (the Hat Creek Rim death-march), a river (the Rim Trail at the Grand Canyon).
ROUND-THE-MOUNTAIN TRAILS stay below something – which rather implies a mountain.
BOUNDARY or BORDER TRAILS go around something, such as the edges of a national park.
And LOOP TRAILS don’t go around anything in particular.
I think this is a useful system. Especially as a person who has a very large spreadsheet entitled “lists of things I could hike if I wanted to die penniless and also live penniless uwu.”
Why do you care if your loop goes around something?
Whether you’re going around a mountain or a crater or a nation, having a thing to circumnavigate gives definition to your hike. It provides a mote of purpose. Just drawing a circle on a map, or stringing together a series of random trails into a scruffy polyhedron, can be pretty arbitrary. And it will feel arbitrary. It won’t provide the feeling of accomplishment inherent in hiking between or around. And chances are, your motivation as a hiker will suffer.
Nor will it allow for reification. “I’m hiking a loop” will never be as good an explanation (given to the hot trailrunner you just met on some lonely summit) as “I’m hiking the so-and-so loop.” Nor will it allow for you to translate your accomplishment into a bumper sticker. Is a thing that is important. To some hikers. Or so I’ve heard ANYWAY-
But what are the actual differences – the practical, the spiritual – between a linear hike and a loop hike? Assume one day that the world won’t be ending. You can do either. Which do you do?
Going around a mountain is a very different experience than going up a mountain, just as walking around a lake is different from swimming across it. But it’s more than just the difference between hiking and swimming or mountaineering. When you go around a mountain, all the way around it, you get to see the big fellow from every side. A north face can be very different from a south face. A mountain can have many, many faces. Each has seen different winds, perhaps bears different glaciers, its melts and rains have carved different canyons – to say nothing of the effects of eruptions. It is a new mountain every time you look at it.
Round The Mountain trails can also give you great changes in perspective. Sometimes you’ll be right up on the mountain, and sometimes you’ll be miles away. And even when you’re off the mountainside itself, sometimes you’ll be on a high peak that gives you an incredible vantage – just as sometimes you’ll be down in a canyon that puts the mountain just towering up above you. Some climb so close to the top that tagging summy is trivial. On the Wonderland, you climb higher than any summit on the entire Appalachian Trail – twice! – and still never get even halfway up Tahoma.
On an RTM, you’ll also get to experience the terrain on every side of the mountain. This can be even more varied than even the mountain itself. Some mountains are as forested on one side, and bare on the other, as moss growing on a tree-stump. Some mountains cast a rain-shadow that turns their far side to barren desert, whereas others are so glaciated that their near side is a land of endless winter. Some mountains are so large that they span climactic zones. Some have one foot on land and another right in the sea. And sometimes your camp will provide you with just one hell of a sunset – and your next camp, sunrise. And back again.
There are tremendous differences from RTM to RTM, influenced by differences in the mountains, and the land below, and how the trail goes between them. This is a matter both of route and of construction. More than half of the Mt. Adams RTM is the highway that is the PCT, whereas part of it is nothing but route-finding through a wilderness. The Wonderland has frequent signs, the RTM Track at Ruapehu has markers, the Loowit mostly has cairns. The water crossings on the Wonderland are bridged; the crossings on the Timberline are emphatically not. Some of these mountains have so many trails around them that completely different circumnavigations are available. Any mountain can be rounded if you’ve got the desire and the know-how – the will, and the skill, and the ill.
The trails, too, are of wildly different lengths. The Loowit (around St. Helens) is about 30 miles; the Tour du Mont Blanc is nearly four times as long. The fastest known time for hiking the Wonderland Trail (95 miles) is 16 hours 40 minutes and 55 seconds (during which Tyler Green nearly ran me over, by coincidence), whereas the same hike took me four rather full days – and takes most hikers nine or ten. My personal FKT for the Timberline Trail is 18 hours 44 minutes, which is about three times the FKT. In my defense, I was not trying to set a record. I was also carrying a twenty-pound pack. I also had a terrible case of giardia. Also I am slow. So there.
RTMs can be thru-hikes. Most aren’t. They simply aren’t long enough. The Wonderland could have been twice as long and I still wouldn’t have needed to reup; putting it in the same category as the PCT is just injurious to the utility of the categorization. It does not make it less of an accomplishment – but the Wondy ain’t no thru. Whereas going around a giant mesa, like Boulder Mountain in Utah, might very well meet my definition for a thruhike. As would going around a Great Lake, or a mountain range.
There’s some correlation between the size of a mountain and how long it takes to walk around it. The real question is – what do we mean by ‘size’? At 2,717′ the Burj Khalifa is taller than the highest mountains in 17 US states (including two that the AT passes through!), but its triangular shape is only about five hundred feet per side. Whereas Cedar Mesa is only about a thousand feet above the Valley of the Gods at Muley Point, but at four hundred square miles its perimeter trail would be at least as long as the Wonderland. (And, like, #bucketlist.)
Even for the more conical mountains, it’s not very useful to talk about their height in terms of absolute elevation. It’s much more useful to talk about their heigh relative to what’s around them. This measure is called prominence.
Take Mount Whitney.
Whitney/Tumanguya is the tallest mountain in North America at 14,505′ above sea level. However, it is pretty far from the sea. You could start a hike on the Pacific Coast and end at the summit. You could start in Death Valley at below sea level – a not uncommon hike! But you could also start in Campo. Or Manning Park. Or Fort Lauderdale. For a thruhiker, “Tallest mountain in the Lower 48” is really only useful if you’re planning on hiking said 48.
The nearest lowland point around Whitney is the foot of the Anderson Valley. Whitney rises 10,000′ above the town of Lone Pine. Which is incredible. Impossible. And already less than the prominence of some other mountains in the Lower 48.
You could start a hike in Lone Pine and go right up to Whitney. This honestly sounds like something I’d enjoy. But I enjoy climbing mountains. Which is quite a different thing than thruhiking. Also I want my Cause Of Death to be listed as “crushed under the weight of his own damn calf muscles.”
For those of less specific Todestrieb, it’s hard to ignore that if you approached Whitney from any other direction, you’d be starting from much nearer the summit. Whitney peaks a mere 3,500′ above Crabtree Meadows on the Pacific Crest Trail. That’s how I “climbed Whitney.”
And yet I still quite feel like I climbed it. Not the least because I started over seven hundred miles away.
When you’re thruhiking, it’s not about your highest point, and it’s not done in one day. It’s about your total elevation gain, as spread over a series of days. This doesn’t reduce your total climb. It probably increases it. You might well climb more per day to go around a mountain than you would to climb it. (On the Wonderland, I did over 7,000′ of elevation change per day, and each day I was at my highest point about 7,000′ from the Rainier summit. Bananas. That hike, and that mountain, are absolutely bananas.)
But even so, I went straight up Whitney and then back down it. If you’re going round a mountain, you have to look at the mountains nearby it. There are literally a dozen mountains of similar size within a mere five miles of Whitney. Being the tallest mountain in the Sierras makes you the biggest fish in a comically well-stocked pond. Do you go over them? Do you go around them? On the Wonderland I achieved an elevation higher than that of any mountain on the Appalachian Trail… multiple times…. without ever getting halfway up the mountain I was rounding.
Let’s compare Whitney to Rainier – and the Wonderland to a possible Whitney RTM.
Rainier/Tahoma is slightly shorter than Whitney at 14,410′, but its prominence of 13,212′ is significantly larger. Preposterous, even. And also unquestioned; Rainier bestrides the land like a colossus. Because stratovolcano.
Going round Whitney – say the Portal to Trail Peak to Whitney Creek, then up the creek to the base of Mt Russel, then down the North Fork of the Lone Pine back to the Portal – would only take about 10 miles. Heck, that’d take you around Mount Muir and Wotan’s Throne as well. And the only reason you’d have to go that far out of your way is because of Pinnacle Ridge. If you have the skills and the rope to traverse pinnacle, you could start and end at Trail Point in about 6 miles.
Whereas the Wonderland is 95 miles long.
Now a mountain summiter might say that climbing Whitney from Crabtree Meadows (10,802′ -> 14,505′ for a gain of 3,703′) is the least satisfying way. A better way would be to start at the Portal (8,374′ -> 14,505′, gain 6,131′), or even from Lone Pine (3,727′ -> 14,505′, gain 10,778′), or even to do the Lowest To Highest Route beginning in Death Valley (-280′ -> 14,505′ for a supersummit gain of 14,785’… over 120mi).
And this is for a mountain that only has one hiking route to the summit. Katahdin has seven (Abol and Hunt from the west; Helon Taylor/Knife Edge, Cathedral, and Saddle from the east; North Peaks and Northwest Basin from the north) – just as Rainier has something like 38 (Disappointment Cleaver… and 37 others).
By the same token, a mountain rounder might say that a better way to go around Whitney would be to go Lone Pine Campground to Crabtree, up on the PCT, then back via Wallace Creek and Hogsback Creek. That would be a hell of a 26 miles. Especially the part where you had to get over Mount Tunnabora, you know, somehow. Whereas Lone Pine to Horsehose Meadows, to the PCT, to Kearsarge, to Independence, and back to Lone Pine, would be 75 miles of established trails and roads. If you pushed it out further, and followed roads from Sherman Pass up to Tioga Pass and back, you would have a bicycle trip of exceeding masochism – 600 miles, 50,000′ of gain. Whereas to go around the entire Sierras would take 1,200 miles, though by stayinging in the valleys you’d cut your vert to a modest 34,000. (This route would take you from Weed to Reefer City by way of Trimmer. You’re welcome.)
And Whitney’s actually a pretty terrible example, because of all the damn stuff around it. A more lonely mountain would suffer fewer obstructions to a multiplicity of circumnavigations. Which is why RTMs are often associated with volcanoes.
Number one, the nature of volcanoes tends to encourage geographic isolation. One lava chute produces one mountain (Rainier), whereas the lifting of an entire tectonic plate causes lots of damn mountains (the Sierras). And number two, the nature of volcanoes tends to encourage social isolation. You’re much less likely to have to hike through a town if that town would have to be built in a lahar zone. (Though it’s not impossible. See e.g. Whakapapa… or the entire southeast shore of Puget Sound.)
The Cascade Range is famous for its great volcanoes, each a study in splendid isolation. The PCT makes one quite familiar with most of them. From south to north: Lassen and Cinder Cone, Shasta, The Artist Formerly Known As Mazama, Bachelor and Three Sisters, Thielsen and Three Fingered Jack, Broken Top, Jefferson and Washington, Hood, Adams, What’s Left Of St. Helens, Old Snowy (RIP), Rainier, Glacier, Baker and the Black Buttes… and Medicine Lake, Newberry, and Mount McLoughlin, none of which I ever heard of before this Wikipedia page. Go figure.
Many of these mountains have established RTM trails: Three Sisters (the Three Sisters Loop), Hood (the Timberline), Adams (Round The Mountain Loop), St. Helens (the Loowit, the Boundary), Rainier (the Wonderland). Some have RTMs that people have made up, such as The Orbit around Glacier Peak. Some would be roundable if not for political considerations (Jefferson and Old Snowy border indigenous land). And some are definitely roundable by car (Lassen) and so they have to be roundable by foot – even if that involves some good old fashioned roadwalking.
I think that every one of these mountains should be circumnavigated – where possible, in such a way that they can then be gone round by hikers of average competence – and, where possible, by me.
As a step towards this, I made a list. I kept it to US mountains, because COVID. And I’m going to discount Alaskan mountains because I don’t understand how Alaska works at all – pretty sure that going around all of Denali’s glaciers would take five hundred miles. (Hell, a trail around just the Kahiltna Glacier would be as long as the Wonderland, which I mean, what, I don’t even).
As an arbitrary cutoff, I used Mount Katahdin in my home state of Maine – elevation 5,267′, prominence 4,293′. This gives me a list of an even 100 mountains – all the most prominent mountains in the Lower 48 and Hawai’i.
I’m then going to see which of them have established circumnavigation routes; which of them have trails around them which could be looped into circumnavigation routes; and which of them just plum need explorationin’.
Consider it a first step towards some first steps. Because, like I said: I like hiking around mountains.