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Natural Awakenings

Happy Trails: Hiking and Biking Offer Economical Ways to Reconnect with the Great Outdoors

Jul 01, 2008 03:00AM ● By Beth Davis

Home to more than 200,000 miles of trails, America offers abundant opportunities for citizens to get out into nature, breathe fresh air, escape daily stress and support overall health. According to a recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association, 76.7 million of us take to these trails on foot, while 85.8 million others travel suitable routes atop two wheels.

Bobbi Sankey, communications manager for the American Hiking Society, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting trails and the whole hiking experience, credits the pastime’s popularity to its flexibility. “The wonderful thing about hiking is that you can choose your challenge,” notes Sankey. “Beginners can easily find trails with mild elevation gain and lengths with which they’re comfortable; you need not be a long-distance backpacker to be considered a hiker.”

In a fast-paced society, getting out on the trail is a good way for anyone to reconnect with the natural environment, relax, slow down and appreciate nature. “It’s a good family activity, a great way to introduce kids to nature and a fun outing with friends or a partner,” says Sankey.

Trails are found in every state, in national forests and parks, Bureau of Land Management designated areas, state and community parks and regional trail systems, as well as the National Trails System. Many resources exist to help us find the right one for any given expedition; many are free.

National park maps, trail guidebooks and Web sites dedicated to American trails typically describe routes in our own backyards and beyond, including where to call for details or advice and indicating which trails are best for hiking, trail running and bicycling, as well as which areas permit trail bikes. Enthusiasts will find maps of more than 43,000 trails at, including where to go for mountain biking. Information includes route details and custom maps, plus helpful hints for planning an adventure.

For anyone just getting started, Sankey recommends consulting a local trail guide as the best introduction. Hiking and bicycling both offer an inexpensive way to enjoy a refreshing break from routine.

Whether we’re up for a weekend getaway or more serious trek, the following highlights open our eyes to the endless possibilities:

• The American Discovery Trail stretches across 6,800 miles and 15 states, from Delaware to California. It is the only coast-to-coast, non-motorized recreational trail in the country. Linking communities, cities, parks and wilderness, it allows hikers and bikers to partake of anything from a sunny afternoon to a full cross-country adventure.

• The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee is the most visited national park in the country. A hiker’s paradise, offering 800 miles of maintained trails, the park boasts unspoiled forests similar to those encountered by early settlers. Like many other well-visited trails, guided tours are a common way to learn about the surrounding natural habitat.

• Located in northwestern Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park offers a landscape rich with mountains, lakes and extraordinary wildlife. This granddaddy of a system maintains 200 miles of trails through its picturesque valleys and mountains, tranquil lakes, streams and canyons.

• The Pacific Crest Trail boasts the greatest elevation changes of any of America’s national scenic trails. It passes through six of North America’s seven ecological zones, including high and low deserts, old-growth forest and arctic-alpine country. Adventurers can start in the desert valleys of Southern California and end in the Pacific Northwest rain forest.

Erik Plakanis is among the nation’s caring corps of tour guides who stand ready to assist visitors in making the most of their outdoor experience. For 10 years, he and his wife, Vesna, have operated A Walk in the Woods in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“We will help you use all of your senses to experience nature in a new way,” he explains. “All of our trail programs are interpretive.” This particular pair of avid naturalists share their expertise in the medicinal and edible uses of plants. They enjoy providing programs suitable for all ages and skill levels, from nature and birding tours to classes, seminars and overnight adventures.

“Hiking’s a wonderful experience, whether you’re in it for fitness, exploration, nature appreciation or all three,” observes Sankey. “It’s a great boost, whatever your level of exertion.”

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