It’s that time of the year for retrospection.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2021 and Top Ten Books of 2021, I’m following the pattern that I established in previous years, turning my attention to hikes that I’ve been privileged to enjoy in the past year. Hiking has remained one of my favorite ways to experience the world, and to experience intimacy with God.
The way that the COVID-19 Pandemic fluctuated throughout the year made it so we got to travel pretty extensively in United States. And America’s National Parks were kind of the perfect recreational destinations for this year, providing entertainment while still minimizing the risk of transmitting COVID-19. So this was a particularly good year for hiking!
In addition to some of the far-flung trails we got to hike, I also made it a goal to hike every public trail in Portage County over the course of 2021. And I actually met this goal earlier than expected, in August! Consequently, I also got to start in on my next quest to hike every public trail in Geauga County (just to the north of Portage County).
So anyway — without further ado, here are my Top Ten Hikes of 2021, in ranked order:
- Paradise Skyline Spur (Mount Rainier National Park in Washington), on June 7th
- Hoh Rainforest Spruce Trail (Olympic National Park in Washington), on June 12th
- Spatter Cones to North Crater (Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho), on June 15th
- Clatsop Loop to Tillamook Head (Ecola State Park in Oregon), on June 9th
- Golden Valley Sunset Stroll (just outside of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota), on June 3rd
- Chimney Tops Trail (Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee), on May 17th
- Appalachian Trail to Dragon’s Tooth (just outside of Roanoke, Virginia), on April 30th
- Nelson-Kennedy Ledges State Park (northeast section of Portage County, Ohio), on January 29th
- Woodland Loop Trail at the Lucia S. Nash Preserve (central Geauga County, Ohio), on October 22nd
- Easter Son-Rise Sunrise Hike at Towner’s Woods (Portage County Parks in Ohio), on April 4th
And again, for those who would appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
Towner’s Woods is a local favorite. I bet I visited these trails twenty or thirty times over the course of 2021, but my favorite visit was on Easter Sunday this year. I hiked out to the Hopewell Mound, where I’d have a good look at the sun coming up over the lake. While I was there, I saw a large animal (maybe a porcupine!) rustling in the underbrush. And after I finished watching the sun come up, I saw a bald eagle, too. So it was an interesting day for wildlife — and for spiritual reflection.
#9 – Woodland Loop Trail at the Lucia S. Nash Preserve (central Geauga County, Ohio), on October 22nd
This place feels like buried treasure. It doesn’t appear on most maps. And even when you know that it’s there, it’s hard to find! The benefit of all this obscurity, though, is seclusion and stillness. It’s one of the most quiet places I’ve ever experienced in Northeast Ohio. I couldn’t hear car traffic, or trains, or even airplanes. Just pristine forests and wetlands, with well-maintained, well-marked trails. I hope to go back again someday and finish exploring everything that this nature preserve has to offer… as long as I can find it again.
We were in the middle of a deep freeze at the time that I made this visit to the Nelson-Kennedy Ledges. That made the experience all the more memorable, though. One of the park’s waterfalls was completely frozen. The other was partially-frozen. Everything was covered in snow and ice, which made the naturally-dramatic landscape even more dramatic. All of the caves and crevices of the area’s rock formations make for fantastic exploration and adventure. Especially when there’s no one else out there because of the cold.
Marci and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary with a trip to America’s newest National Park in the New River Gorge of West Virginia. Our best hike, however, happened outside of the park after we did some window-shopping in Roanoke, Virginia. It was a brilliant Spring day, as we hit the trail. We got to see a bunch of wildflowers in bloom. And when we finally made it to the ridge that included the “Dragon’s Tooth,” we were impressed by just how rugged the landscape was. It was a special hike with a special woman.
I struggled to decide which hike from the H2O Smoky Mountain Retreat to include in this list. Our big group hike to the summit of Mount LeConte was the other serious contender. But I decided to select Chimney Tops as the Smoky Mountain representative for this list because it was a more subtle, sacred, solitary experience. I got there close to sunset, so I had to hike hard and fast. It was my evening off from H2O responsibilities, so I got to stop and look at the things that I wanted to stop and look at. The circumstances allowed me to maintain a very prayerful, contemplative rhythm on this hike. And the view from the Chimney Tops was amazing. I half-ran back to the parking area, in order to beat the darkness, but it was totally worth it.
#5 – Golden Valley Sunset Stroll (just outside of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota), on June 3rd
This one barely qualifies as a “hike.” But we were traveling by foot over a rugged natural landscape. And I liked this spontaneous evening excursion better than any of the daytime hikes we did on the established trails within the National Park. It was cooler (daytime temperatures were close to 100° Fahrenheit). More casual, too. It felt like we were the only people within a 100-mile radius. It was just an epic evening — and we got some epic pictures of the experience by which to remember our time together in North Dakota.
I got to do this hike with my older two children, Elliot and Olivia. We kind of went the “wrong way,” where we started with a long, relentless, inland, forested, uphill slog and then ended up a little bit pressed for time on the meandering route with all the spectacular views out over the Pacific Ocean. Even so, it was a Top Five hike. If you’re thinking about doing this hike, though, I would highly recommend doing the loop “clockwise.” You’ll be rewarded with magnificent views of the rocky coast and the Tillamook lighthouse while you have to pause and catch your breath.
I don’t even remember how I heard about the Craters of the Moon National Monument. It’s definitely off the beaten path, in the middle part of Idaho. But I’m so glad we discovered this gem. It really did feel like a visit to the Moon! On one day in Idaho, I got to go running, hiking, spelunking, kayaking, and cliff-jumping! I hope I get to visit Idaho again sometime in the future.
Hiking through the Hoh Rainforest is like a hiking through a different planet. Everything is impossibly-vibrant green. Moss clings to every tree limb, and ferns the size of Volkswagens crowd the forest floor like a traffic jam. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Such a special place to visit together with my family! This hike was also special because of its proximity to my favorite hour in the Pacific Northwest.
We didn’t get to see the top of the mountain until we were on it. Even after several days in the region of Washington’s Mount Rainier, our family just couldn’t get a glimpse of the famous mountain. Because it was always covered by clouds. Still, my kids and I decided one day to explore a few sections of its National Park: the Grove of the Patriarchs… the Blue Hole of the Cowlitz River… and, after lunch, the higher elevation area called Paradise. Just as we were driving up to the parking area, the clouds parted enough for us to get our first look. We yelled in surprise and delight. Everything was covered with a thick layer of freshly-fallen snow. So we weren’t able to hike very far (just about a mile). Still, it was such a good memory with my kids.