USA: LOUISIANA: Origins of Zydeco and Cajun Music

Origins of Zydeco and Cajun music

by Tom Dempsey, Seattle, Washington

Introduction.

My love for zydeco dancing inspired researching the history of zydeco music. I learned that over several generations, Acadians became “Cajuns” and the word “Creole” changed meaning several times. In rural isolation, the music of Creole and Cajun people evolved roughly in parallel until about the 1940s. After the end of World War II, rural Creole musicians of Southwest Louisiana adapted urban blues and jazz to their La La house party music and gave birth to what we now call zydeco. The roots of zydeco grow deep in the history of the various groups who have intermixed in Southwest Louisiana . . .

Acadian settlers were expelled.

Back in the early 1600s, French settlers immigrated to Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia, Canada), bringing with them old folk songs of medieval France. In 1755, they were expelled by the British. The Acadian settlers scattered across the world, and many regrouped in Southern Louisiana. Their brutal exile and frontier experience brought themes of death, loneliness, and ill-fated love to their music.

The Spanish governors of early Louisiana offered the Acadians choice land in the prairies of Southwest Louisiana, where most began raising cattle and subsistence crops. As the population of wealthier English-speakers grew, many Acadians retreated into the swamp and marsh areas of the Mississippi River Delta to eke out a living by fishing, logging cypress, and harvesting Spanish Moss (for use in bedding and insulation).

Spanish Moss

  • Spanish Moss is not really a moss, but a member of the pineapple family (bromeliads).
  • The Spanish called it “Frenchman’s wig,” while the French termed it “Spanish beard.”
  • Spanish moss is not a parasite, but lives off of air and water.

“Creole” changes definition.

In the early Louisiana settlements, the term “Creole” referred to people of French or Spanish parentage who were born in Louisiana. As the slave trade grew in the late 1700s, the word “Creole” referred to slaves born in the colonies (esclavos Criollos, in Spanish), versus those brought from Africa (esclavos Africanos). “Creole” also meant “homegrown, not imported.”

Many non-enslaved Creoles, light-skinned blacks, or mulattos formed an aristocratic society in New Orleans during the time of slavery. However, it was the isolated Creoles of the rural prairies of Southwest Louisiana who would later invent zydeco music in the 1940s.

Today, the nouns “Creole” and “Cajun” have the following common interpretations in Louisiana:

  • “Creole” usually refers to “a French-speaking black of Southwest Louisiana.” However, some whites also call themselves Creole. For example, some white Cajuns may call themselves “Creole” when speaking French, and may call themselves “a French person” when speaking English. Furthermore, “Creole” has different meanings outside of Louisiana.
  • “Cajun” commonly refers to “a usually French-speaking white who traces heritage back to Acadia and France.” However, some people having Afro-Caribbean heritage also call themselves Cajun.

Different people may have strong feelings around their chosen usage of the words “Creole” or “Cajun.” Intermixed heritage blurs any attempt at defining labels such as Creole, Cajun, black, or white. When you meet someone from South Louisiana, etiquette suggests that you find out what they call themselves before you call them Creole, Cajun, or any other label. For the sake of consistency, I use the most common meanings in the remainder of this article.

Gumbo, Gombo.

  • In West Africa, gombo refers to okra (the sticky green pod of the okra plant).
  • In Louisiana, gombo can refer to the okra-thickened soup or stew called gumbo, as well as to the name of the regional Creole spoken dialect, Gombo (or Gumbo).
  • French-speaking people of South Louisiana use the word gumbo to refer to okra when speaking French, but the soup called gumbo in English does not necessarily contain okra.

Acadian becomes “Cajun.”

Isolation, close family ties, and strong Catholic faith knit the Acadians into a tight cultural group whose style mixed with their close neighbors: Native Americans, Afro-Caribbean refugees from the West Indies, non-enslaved blacks, and various European immigrant groups. Isolated families had only themselves for entertainment, so most learned how to play musical instruments. Many Acadians made their own fiddles. The mostly-illiterate Acadians didn’t write down their French language, which necessitated passing on stories and legends through songs. The name “Acadian” slowly evolved into “Cajun.”

As the people of rural South Louisiana mixed, the “Cajun” musical style was shaped in important ways by Creoles, Native Americans, and others. In the late 1800s, German settlers introduced affordable accordions which were adopted by both Cajun and Creole musicians. Cajun and Creole musical styles at this time grew in parallel: mostly two-steps and waltzes meant for dancing, played by accordion and fiddle.

Internal and external influences on Creole and Cajun music.

Many black field workers prayed and gave thanks by singing, clapping their hands, and stomping their feet in a syncopated style called juré, which is an important root of zydeco music. By 1900, the juré songs merged with Creole and Cajun influences into a musical tradition called La La. Rural Creoles held musical house parties known as La La’s in prairie towns such as Opelousas, Eunice, and Mamou.

A Contemporary Anecdote

  • In 1995, I met a a Cajun craftsman, Johnny, at Acadian Village in Lafayette, Louisiana, USA.
  • As a child, Johnny was not allowed to speak French in school. He couldn’t even leave class for the bathroom unless he asked in English.
  • Over the course of his lifetime, public attitudes reversed towards speakers of Louisiana French. Ironically, his son could not graduate from high school without completing the four-year French requirement!

 

In 1928, phonograph companies began to record Cajun and Creole music to sell more record players. These early recordings melded French contredanses and Anglo-American jigs and reels with the syncopated rhythms and vocal improvisation of black Louisiana slaves and the wails of local Native Americans. “Ah-yeeeee! … Et toi!”

The inflow of oil workers and their love for country and western music began Americanizing Cajuns and Creoles. From about 1935 to 1950, Cajuns and Creoles replaced the accordion with fiddle and steel guitar, and added bass guitar and drums. After World War II, a yearning for “old time” music brought the accordion back to Southwest Louisiana, about the same time that rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll caught fire nationwide. Creole and Cajun musicians also influenced each other, for example Creole musicians Amade Ardoin and Canray Fontenot made essential contributions to Cajun music.

Cajun revival.

CODOFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, was founded in 1968 by the Louisiana state legislature. CODOFIL is empowered to “do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana for the cultural, economic and touristic benefit of the state.”

In 1974, Lafayette began a Cajun music festival which expanded into the present-day Festivals Acadiens held every September.

The beginning of Zydeco.

In the late 1940s, Louisiana’s Creole musicians became inspired by the rhythm and blues and jazz played on radio and juke boxes, so they eliminated the fiddle and brought out the rubboard. From then on, the music of Creoles diverged from Cajun music. Rural Creoles combined La La with the blues and jazz of urban blacks to create the rollicking and syncopated sounds of zydeco.

History of the Rubboard 

  • The vest frottoir, or rubboard, helps drive and define the music of traditional rural zydeco bands in Southwest Louisiana.
  • Precursors to the rubboard evolved in Africa and the Caribbean in the form of a scraped animal jaw, a notched stick, and later, a washboard.
  • In the pre-zydeco 1930s, sheet metal was introduced to Louisiana for roofing and barn siding.
  • The first rubboard was created for Clifton Chenier’s brother, Cleveland, in the 1940s.

 

In 1954, Boozoo Chavis recorded the first modern zydeco song, “Paper in My Shoe,” a regional hit. Unfortunately, a royalty dispute provoked Chavis to leave the music industry.

After Chavis left, Clifton Chenier popularized songs such as “Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés” (“The snap beans aren’t salty”). This title was a common expression describing times hard enough to provide no salted meat to spice the beans. The French words for “the snap beans,” les haricots (pronounced “lay zarico”), became “le zydeco,” which named this new musical genre. Clifton Chenier reigned as the “King of Zydeco” with a career lasting 30 years, featuring a Grammy earned in 1984. By the time of his death in 1987, Chenier had brought zydeco to international attention.

Boozoo Chavis returned in the mid-1980s with a series of hits which helped ignite a zydeco revival that continues today. After the mid-1980s, both zydeco and Cajun music and dance burst into worldwide popularity.

Comparing contemporary Zydeco and Cajun music and dance.

The rubboard player often drives the energy of zydeco music by emphasizing strong, syncopated rhythms. Zydeco usually has no fiddle, and the music resonates with sounds from jazz, rhythm and blues, and more recently, hip hop. Cajun music, which usually has no rubboard, sounds closer to country music, often melodic and sweet. Cajun musicians tend to play two-steps and waltzes in alternation, whereas zydeco musicians play mostly two-steps, and few waltzes.

The distinctions between zydeco and Cajun music affect the dancing styles. Cajun jitterbug, with its many turns and unique broken-leg step, is smoother and more precise; but zydeco dancing is more soulful, as expressed through greater hip action. Small, crowded dance halls have kept zydeco dancers in place on the dance floor, rather than circling the room like Cajun dancers. Dancing in a tight space to the pulsing and syncopated zydeco beat promotes a bouncy, vertical style with few turns. In contrast, dancing around the room to melodic Cajun music encourages smooth, horizontal movements with more turns.

Dancing into the future.

When I danced in Richard’s Club near Lawtell, Louisiana in 1995, I noticed that older dancers danced zydeco more subtly. Younger folks danced zydeco more conspicuously, sometimes adding moves such as hip hop in the apart position, sometimes dropping their single held hand. One young couple gyrated with a flamboyant African style in the apart position. The hip hop variations spun off from the “New Zydeco” style, where they stepped on every beat and embellished with small kicks.

From Creole family dance halls in Southwest Louisiana, a two-step and a waltz evolved into the many styles of zydeco dancing found today across America. Traditional zydeco dancing is done subtly, smoothly and upright by couples in a closed position. But the “Boozoo Evolution” of the 1980s (named for Boozoo Chavis), made the dance bouncier, often open, bent-kneed, and lower to the ground. In the 1990s, the “Beau Jocque Revolution” added the flamboyant flavor of hip-hop. Zydeco dancing appears to be evolving from a couples dance towards individual free-style.

Just as the dancing styles change over time, zydeco (and Cajun) music continues to evolve as musicians tour the world and absorb new influences. This vibrant music will assuredly thrive as we dance in the new millennium.

— by Tom Dempsey, May 1996 — with books and link references updated on April 2012, below:

Recommended Cajun and Zydeco books and music:

Search for the latest “Louisiana travel books” on Amazon.com.

2003: 1999: 1999:

Other research used to write this article:
  • Rounder Records (buy on Amazon.com) (info on flyer for the 1995 “Red Hot Louisiana Music Tour”).
  • Tabasco home page: www.TABASCO.com
  • Cajun Music and Zydeco, photographs by Philip Gould with an introduction by Barry Ancelet (Louisiana State University Press, 1992). Dance-hall sights. The sounds can be savored in a Rounder compact disc with the same title.
  • “What Is A Creole: One Creole’s Perspective” by Herman Fuselier, Creole journalist from Opelousas, LA, 1995.
  • What Is Zydeco?” by Herman Fuselier, 1995.
  • “What Is A Cajun: One Cajun’s Perspective” by Shane K. Bernard, a Cajun historian of Cajun culture and regional music, 1995.
  • The Times-Picayune newspaper, September 9, 1995: “Steppin’ Out” by Katheryn Krotzer-Laborde. The author quotes zydeco dance teacher Diana Polizo-Schlesinger comparing zydeco and Cajun music and dance.
  • Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, 250 W. Park Avenue, Eunice, LA 70535. Telephone (318) 457-8499.
  • Charles Cravins, from Zydeco Extravaganza.
  • “Music: Hot Off the Bayou”, by Michael Walsh with reporting by David E. Thigpen, Time Magazine, May 8, 1995.

USA: Idaho

In Idaho, hike the Sawtooth Mountains, explore gold mining history in Custer and “Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park, and admire rainbows glowing in the mist of Mesa Falls.

Idaho favorite photos:

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Sawtooth National Recreation Area

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The Sawtooth Range (part of the Rocky Mountains) are comprised of the pink granite of the 50 million year old Sawtooth batholith. Drive, day hike, and backpack to impressive peaks and pretty wilderness lakes. Park your car/RV at one of the campgrounds, and at sunrise, see peaks of Sawtooth Wilderness reflect in Little Redfish Lake or Pettit Lake.

Sawtooth Wilderness

Sawtooth Wilderness, managed by the US Forest Service within Sawtooth National Recreation Area, has some of the best air quality in the lower 48 states (says the US EPA).

Backpack or day hike to scenic El Capitan, Alice Lake, and Twin Lakes. The pyramidal peak of El Capitan (9846 feet or 3001 elevation) reflects in the outlet stream of Alice Lake (Pettit Lake Creek) in Sawtooth Wilderness.

Backpack or day hike 11.8 miles round trip to Baron Lakes viewpoint: From Redfish Lake Lodge (redfishlake.com) take the earliest boat in the morning to Redfish Lake Inlet Transfer Camp, riding about 10 minutes. Hike 3.2 miles then turn right at the fork and begin climbing. At 4.2 miles see Alpine Lake, then switchback past three smaller lakes. At 5.9 miles, see the breathtaking view of Baron Lakes (Upper, Baron, and Little) and jagged points along the ridge of Warbonnet Peak (10,210 feet elevation). Optionally descend past the Upper Lake to reach the shore of Baron Lake at 7.9 miles one way.

Idaho history, ghost towns, Custer, Yankee Fork

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“Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park and Salmon-Challis National Forest Historic Area

Yankee Fork Gold Dredge operated from 1940-1952 near near Custer Historic Site, Idaho. This floating gold dredge chewed a wide swath of stream gravel leaving rocky dredge tailings along 5.5 miles of the Yankee Fork, a tributary of the Salmon River, near Stanley, Idaho. It recovered an estimated $1,037,322 in gold and silver at a cost of $1,076,100.

Explore the former gold mining town of Custer which dates from 1879-1910. Custer Historic Site now preserves this ghost town near Stanley. The city of Custer was named after General George Armstrong Custer, who was killed in battle in 1876. Custer is now part of the “Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park and Challis National Forest Historic Area. The past comes alive when you see old relics such as an ore stamping mill, old wooden rocking chair, plunge bath tub, gears of a hand cranked clothes washer, a foot cranked Singer sewing machine, lanterns, a wooden wagon (pictured in show).

The Sunbeam Dam, on the Salmon River, Idaho, was built in 1910 to make electricity for the Sunbeam Mine, which was abandoned in 1911 after bankruptcy. The dam and cliff were breached in 1934 to allow salmon and steelhead to migrate to their spawning beds.

Mesa Falls, North Fork of Snake River, in Caribou-Targhee National Forest

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Upper Mesa Falls plunges 114 feet over a 300 foot wide cliff face along Henrys Fork (also known as North Fork, a tributary of the Snake River) in Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeastern Idaho. Turn off Highway 47 on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway about 15 miles north of the city of Ashton. On sunny days from about 9 am until 1 pm, the mist from powerful Upper Mesa Falls creates a beautiful rainbow. The falls flow over Mesa Falls Tuff, which formed 1.3 million years ago. A cycle of rhyolitic volcanism from the Henrys Fork caldera depositing a thick layer of rock and ash which compressed and hardened over time. Between 200,000 and 600,000 years ago, the river eroded a wide canyon which was subsequently partly filled with basalt lava flows. The Henrys Fork of the Snake River carved a channel through the basalt to create today’s inner canyon.

See a more distant view of Lower Mesa Falls (65-foot plunge) along Henrys Fork from a roadside viewpoint, separate from the Upper Falls viewing area.

Recommended books for Idaho

Search for latest “Idaho travel books” at Amazon.com.

2011: 2010: 2007: 2008:
2001: 2004: 2005: 2007 map:
2009: 2010:

How to acclimatize to high altitude

Learn how to adjust to high altitude without getting sick:

Ascending too quickly above 10,000 feet elevation can cause nausea, headaches, or sleeplessness due to acute mountain sickness (AMS, altitude sickness, or soroche in Spanish).

For most people, the best way to acclimatize above 10,000 feet elevation is to “climb high and sleep low.” In other words, day hike to higher elevations, but sleep no more than 2000 feet (600 meters) higher each day. Take time to naturally adjust to higher altitudes without relying on a drug with side affects such as Diamox — compare with the safer Ginkgo Biloba herb below. How fast you acclimatize is unpredictable and can vary for the same person on different occasions. Descending quickly towards sea level is the best cure if you become altitude sick.

Ginkgo Biloba versus Diamox

If tight trip schedules restrict time available for safe acclimatization, try the natural herb Ginkgo Biloba (available over the counter without a prescription), which has fewer undesirable side effects than Diamox (Acetazolamide), the drug most commonly prescribed by doctors for preventing altitude sickness. Common side effects of Diamox include frequent urination (risks dehydration), numbness and tingling in fingers and toes, taste alterations, blurred vision, and risk of kidney stones. Ginkgo Biloba has far fewer side effects (though it may not prove as effective as Diamox, and pregnant women and people taking antidepressants should first consult their doctor). Don’t take Ginkgo Biloba and Diamox together, as they nuetralize each other’s effect.

Directions: Take 100 to 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 3-5 days before ascending, and continue for 2-3 days at maximum sleeping altitude. In the year 2000, a Ginkgo Biloba clinical study on Pike’s Peak with 40 college students reduced altitude sickness by 50% compared to the placebo group.

Starting at sea level, my sleep was significantly better in my first 2 nights in Cuzco (at 11,000 feet) when taking Ginkgo Biloba herb in 2003, compared to my trip in year 2000 without the herb. On our high altitude Huayhuash Trek in the Andes of Peru, most of our group of 11 men took 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 5 days before ascending, and no one experienced serious problems from mountain sickness. In Nepal, we extended acclimatization time by first trekking Annapurna Sanctuary before the higher Gokyo Valley (Mount Everest area) and felt no significant altitude problems.

Coca leaf tea (mate de coca) in South America

In South America, your risk of feeling nausea due to altitude may also be reduced by drinking local coca leaf tea (mate de coca), the mild, traditional Andean stimulant. I found it pleasantly helpful. A cup of coca leaf tea is comparable to the affect of tea or coffee (but without the caffeine withdrawal hangover). As of 2012, coca tea is legal in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador, most commonly served in the Highlands. But don’t bring coca leaves back home, as they are illegal in Brazil, the United States, and most countries outside of South America, despite the low coca alkaloid content. (In the USA, only a few companies are licensed to import and de-cocainize coca leaves such as for pharmaceuticals or soft drinks.)

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Acclimatization Example: Cordillera Huayhuash trek daily elevations

Before trekking in the high altitude Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru 2003, we acclimatized comfortably as follows:

  • A public bus from Lima drove from sea level over a 13,400-foot pass and down to Huaraz at 10,000 feet elevation.
  • We slept for three nights at 10,000 feet in Huaraz and did two higher elevation day trips:
    • We crossed a 14,900-foot pass twice on a bus tour to Chavin at 10,360 feet elevation on the other side of the Andes.
    • We drove to 13,400 feet and hiked downhill 10 miles to Huaraz.

That prepared us well for the following 8-day high altitude trek (the Huayhuash Reverse C Route):

Trek Day: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8
Highest/Pass 10,660 feet 13,448 15,580 15,370 15,250 15,744 15,700 15,700
Camp Height 10,660 feet 13,448 13,776 14,100 13,940 14,270 14,500 14,400 bus pickup

How high can humans live?

At 18,000 feet you breath only half the oxygen compared to sea level. Research indicates that humans cannot live permanently above an elevation of 18,000 feet without suffering a gradual physiological deterioration that eventually leads to death. Mountaineers who anticipate spending time above 18,000 feet must fatten themselves before the climb to offset their inevitable weight loss.

Workers at the Aucanquilcha sulfur mining camp in Chile lived for years at 17,500 feet above sea level, and ascended each day to work the mine at 18,800 feet. A settlement in Bolivia matched this 17,500-foot record altitude maximum for permanent human habitation. As of May 2003, National Geographic Magazine reports that 16,730-foot La Rinconada, Peru, is the highest permanent human habitation.

Air retains a constant 21 percent of oxygen content (the rest is mostly Nitrogen) throughout all surface altitudes. But as you climb to higher altitudes, the weight of the air column above you decreases, thus lowering air density. As you ascend, the oxygen available per lungfull decreases as follows:

Altitude | Available Oxygen, Compared to Sea Level (average observed at 45 degrees latitude**)

  • 0 feet (sea level) | 100% (base for comparison)
  • 5,000 feet | 80 % of sea level oxygen per lungfull
  • 10,000 feet | 69% of sea level oxygen
  • 15,000 feet | 56% of sea level oxygen
  • 18,000 feet | 50% of sea level oxygen
  • 20,000 feet | 45% of sea level oxygen
  • 29,000 feet | 31% of sea level oxygen per lungfull

**The above figures are averages that apply only to the mid latitudes (45 degrees latitude, North or South). Oxygen available per lungfull also varies slightly by latitude as follows: you will gasp for air about 5 percent harder when climbing at 20,000 feet on Alaska’s Denali (Mount McKinley) than when climbing at the same altitude in the Himalayas. Denali is at 63 degrees north latitude, the Himalaya at 28 degrees north latitude, and the Cordillera Huayhuash at 10 degrees south latitude. Denali rises to 20,320 feet but has the oxygen availability of a 23,000 -foot peak in the Himalayas.

The centripetal force of the earth’s spin shapes the atmosphere (and the earth itself) into an “oblate spheroid”, flattened at the poles and bulging at the equator. At a given altitude, oxygen available per lungfull is highest at the equator (0 degrees latitude) where the atmosphere is deepest (such as at Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa), and lowest at the poles (90 degrees latitude) where the atmosphere is shallowest. 

PERU 2000, 2003 treks, Machu Picchu

Peru delights your heart with spectacular mountains, amazing ancient ruins, and colorful cultures. In 2000 and 2003, I enjoyed trekking in Peru to Machu Picchu, Lares, Santa Cruz Valley (in the Cordillera Blanca), and Cordillera Huayhuash. We booked all trekking trips directly by e-mail and fax using the excellent Peru-based company Aventura Quechua. Peru is one of the best exotic travel bargains from the USA (much closer than Nepal). Visitors from the Americas will have little jet lag to Lima (Peru Time PET=EST Eastern Standard Time).

See also: my newer PERU 2014 article, when my family group trekked Around Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca and did the complete Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit.

Favorite Peru photos 2000, 2003, 2014

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May 10-30, 2003 Peru trip:
  • We trekked the awesome Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru’s second highest range, for 55 miles over eight days, with loads carried by donkeys. We averaged 7 miles and 2000 feet up and down per day. Our camps varied from 10,660 feet to 14,500 feet elevation. We crossed five 15,000-foot passes, the highest measuring 15,700 feet elevation.
  • Visit the important ancient ruins of Chavin (1000-300 BC), a long day trip from Huaraz.
  • Visit Machu Picchu 3 days plus the spectacular Inca Salt Pans at Salinas.
May 19 – June 12, 2000 Peru trip:
  • We trekked with friends to the following three areas:
    • Trek 4 days on the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, with loads carried by porters.
    • Trek 3 days from remote Lares to Patacancha (north of Cuzco), with loads carried by llamas and horses.
    • Trek 5 days on the Santa Cruz Circuit in the Cordillera Blanca mountains, Huascaran National Park, with loads carried by donkeys and bus.
  • We avoided altitude sickness by ascending gradually with each trek, walking a total of 85 miles over 12 days, reaching 15,600 feet elevation in the spectacular Cordillera Blanca mountain range.

Peruvian trekking season and climate

The climate is generally wonderful for trekking in the mountain dry season from May through September. Days are about 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit, and nights about 38 degrees. However, the classic Santa Cruz Trek (near Huaraz) and especially the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu can be crowded in June-July.

Weather forecast for Machu Picchu (or other specific peaks worldwide): www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Picchu-Picchu

You will encounter fewer fellow travelers in May or September, which have excellent weather. Many other equally spectacular destinations have few tourists all year, such as the Cordillera Huayhuash trek.

Coastal Peru is one of the driest deserts on earth, watered only by rivers descending from the Andes. Coastal Peru, which includes the capital at Lima, has a climate opposite to that of the mountains: a short summer of sunny, sticky days from January to March, followed by 9 months of gray mist called the garua.

Lima, capital and gateway of Peru

Visit the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia in Lima. The dry coastal air preserved ancient mummies for up to 1000 years. Flying from Lima to mountainous Cuzco gives a good aerial view of the coastal desert.

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Cuzco

The attractive town of Cuzco (or Cusco) nestles in a valley at 11,000 feet, and offers impressive Inca history, Spanish colonial architecture, high-quality handicrafts, comfortable lodging, and a pleasant year-round climate. The Spanish name “Cuzco” comes from qosqo, or “the earth’s navel,” in the Quechua language (Kichwa shimi, Runashimi, or Spanish Quichua)  Runakuna, Kichwas, and Ingas). In 1983, UNESCO listed the city of Cuzco as a World Heritage Site.

Although restaurant touts and craft vendors can be annoyingly assertive around the main tourist areas of Cuzco, you can’t blame them for wanting to make a living. Local products are often of high quality and inexpensive: fresh food, Cusquena beer, woven rugs, decorated ceramic plates, and various handicrafts. As of 2003, the city cleaned up the central square by banning roving vendors and moving them to a covered market building several blocks west.

Petty crime is high, but your your body is safer from harm in Peru than in the United States. Hang on to your valuables — one woman in our group lost a loosely secured small camera to a mother with children who distracted her and pressed closely. Be vigilant in cities, and you’ll find Peru to be safe and enjoyable for touring. Easily escape urban problems by trekking and visiting rural country. The campesinos (country folk) are friendly, conservative, and colorfully dressed.

Cuzco, the longest continuously occupied city in the Americas, is built upon the foundations of the Incas and several previous cultures. Many of the buildings incorporate Inca walls as a footing several feet high. Francisco Pizarro officially founded Spanish Cuzco in 1534. Santo Domingo Church was built on top of Coricancha (“Golden Courtyard” in Quechua language), Cuzco’s major Inca temple, and was twice destroyed by earthquakes, in 1650 and 1950. At Tambomachay, the Incas diverted a spring through impressive stone work. The Incas perfected stonecraft to a degree which amazes us today. Not even a piece of paper can fit between stones in the finer temples.

Lares to Patacancha Trek

This moderately strenuous trek through rugged, little-visited country in the Cordillera Urubamba, crosses passes at 13,800 and 14,200 feet between the towns of Lares and Patacancha. A five hour bus ride from Cuzco took us to Lares, where you can soak in developed hot springs. Llamas and horses carried our loads, and we camped at 12,500 feet for two nights. A woman said she weaves for a month on a rug which she sells for only $35 US. Her village is too remote for the government to extend electric lines and she subsists on raising alpacas, much as did her Inca ancesters. We met children who walked 6 miles each way to school. A flock of 30 wild Ibis birds flew overhead. We enjoyed trekking with Aventura Quechua.

Urubamba Valley

Visit the ancient experimental agricultural terraces of Moray.

Inca Salt Pans at Salinas: Since Inca times, workers have redirected a salt-laden spring onto these extensive terraces for evaporation into salt. At a small mill, workers add iodine to the salt and package it into different grades of purity.

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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Trekking is the most rewarding way to reach Machu Picchu. Or take the train to Aguas Calientes, where a bus climbs to Machu Picchu on the ridge above town (or walk for 1 to 1.5 hours one way). In 1983, UNESCO honored the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site.

The Peru National Institute of Natural Resources requires overnight trekkers on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu to hire a guide and pay entrance fees.

Our group of 12 hikers enjoyed great food on a tenting trek with Aventura Quechua who organized 2 guides, 2 cooks, and 22 porters. Trip leader Wilbert attracted us ever higher with his Andean flute. He played several more instruments, spoke eight languages, earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from a Peruvian university, and had a playful sense of humor. We trekked the standard Inca Trail 32 miles in four days, ascending a total of 8600 feet. A bus took us from Cuzco to the end of the road in the Urubamba Valley at Chilca (railroad kilometer 82), where we met our porters and began walking with day packs on a bridge over Urubamba River. Starting at 7700 feet elevation, we trekked as high as 13,770 feet (Dead Woman’s Pass), before descending on the fourth day to the sacred Inca city of Machu Picchu (8200 feet), where a bus descends to Aguas Calientes. Spaniards passed in the river valley below but never discovered Machu Picchu.

At Machu Picchu, climb a very steep, scary, exposed stairway to a great view atop Huayna Picchu, the main peak. Don’t ascend when steps are wet.

Huaraz, Peru

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Santa Cruz Trek

The Santa Cruz Trek is the most popular trek of the Cordillera Blanca range, which is the highest tropical mountain range in the world, reaching 22,205 feet at the top of Huascaran. We walked for five days in Huascaran National Park, crossing as high as 15,600 feet at Punta Union Pass. Donkeys carried our loads, and we camped at 12,100 feet elevation for one night, 13,800 feet for two nights, and then 13,100 feet on the last night. Read about acclimatization. In 1985, UNESCO listed Huascaran National Park as a World Heritage Area.

On day 2 of the Santa Cruz Trek, we walked beneath the ice wall of Caraz (19,700 feet). One of the most spectacular camp spots in Peru (at 13,800 feet) is surrounded by three major mountain massifs with spiky peaks reaching nearly 20,000 feet above sea level. Alpamayo (19,500 feet) must be one of the prettiest mountains in the world, and reminds me much of Ama Dablam in Nepal. Attractive lupine flowers bloomed on spectacular meter-tall stalks in Tingopampa Valley below Punta Union Pass and Mount Taulliraju (19,100 feet elevation). The next day, rain, hail, and snow extinguished our view of Tingopampa Valley as we crossed Punta Union Pass (15,600 feet). Luckily, rain affected us only 2 days out of 23 in Peru (May 19 – June 12, 2000).  We descended by bus to Llanganuco Valley and lakes (12,000 feet elevation), in view of Huandoy rising to 20,981 feet, the second highest mountain in the Cordillera Blanca. Hike by waterfalls to scenic “Lake 69” (14,600 feet) at the base of Chacraraju (20,052 feet), and see the immense twin-peaked Huascaran (22,205 feet), highest mountain in Peru.

Chavín de Huántar ruins

As a long day trip from Huaraz, Peru, take a bus over a scenic 15,000-foot pass to visit the ancient ruins of Chavín de Huántar, at 10,300 feet elevation at the bottom of Cordillera Blanca’s eastern slopes halfway between the Amazon forest and coastal plains, in the Department of Ancash in Peru. 3000 years ago, the innovative Chavin builders engineered the Castillo with underground ducts for natural air conditioning. The most striking feature is the Peidra del Lanzón (“Stone of Lanzón”) or “Lanzon de Chavin“, a 13-foot-high carved white granite stele monument at the meeting point of four underground tunnels in the Castillo (or castle). The Lanzon, the supreme deity of Chavin de Huantar, intertwines the head of the feline deity of Chavin de Huantar and the human body of the shaman of the pre-Chavin period. In 1985, UNESCO listed Chavín de Huántar as a World Heritage Site.

The advanced Chavin culture of 1000 BC to 300 BC greatly influenced all later civilizations in Peru, including the famous Inca Empire of a millennia later, 1430-1572 AD. The farming city of Chavin became populous by controlling important trade routes which crossed from coast to interior and from north-to-south along the cordillera. Modern artist Pablo Picasso remarked, “Of all the ancient cultures that I admire, Chavín is the one that surprises me most. To tell the turth, it has been the inspiration for much of my work.”

Willkahuain

Willkahuain is an ancient Wari site near Huaraz, Peru. From 600 to 1000 AD, the Wari (or Huari) people conquered their neighbors in the central Andes. They imposed their way of life on local cultures, and also fashioned strong stone buildings with good ventilation and earthquake resistance. Wari influence gradually wained as local groups regained control. The militaristic and urban culture of the Wari may have influenced the remarkable expansion of the Inca from Cuzco Valley in 1430.

Cordillera Huayhuash Valley Circuit

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Trekking the “Valley Circuit” around the stunning Cordillera Huayhuash requires altitude acclimatization and good physical fitness (but you don’t need to be a climber on this non-technical trail). The Cordillera Huayhuash challenged mountaineers in the gripping 2003 British docudrama “Touching the Void.” Within Peru, only the Cordillera Blanca (Huascaran) is higher.

From May 21-28, 2003, I trekked with 10 other men for 55 miles in eight days halfway around the awesome Cordillera Huayhuash. Our route is known as the Backwards C, which is a portion of the complete Valley Circuit of the Cordillera Huayhuash. We hiked across the continental divide of the Andes into the remote upper reaches of the Amazon Basin, then back over the divide to a different road head. Donkeys carried gear and arrieros (donkey drivers) set up camp ahead each day, leaving us to carry light day packs. We averaged walking a moderate 7 miles and 2000 feet up/down each day in beautiful weather. We crossed six passes over 15,000 feet in elevation above sea level (as high as 15,700 feet). The scenery and thin air took my breath away!

See also: my newer PERU 2014 article, when my family group trekked Around Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca and did the complete Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit.

Before trekking in the high altitude Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru in 2003, we acclimatized as follows:

  • We took 100 to 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 5 days before ascending, and continued for 2-3 days at maximum sleeping altitude.
  • A public bus from Lima drove from sea level over a 13,400-foot pass and down to Huaraz at 10,000 feet elevation.
  • We slept for three nights at 10,000 feet in Huaraz and did two higher elevation day trips:
    • We crossed a 14,900-foot pass twice on a bus tour to Chavin at 10,360 feet elevation on the other side of the Andes.
    • We drove to 13,400 feet and hiked downhill 10 miles to Huaraz.

That prepared us well for the following 8-day high altitude trek:

Trek Day: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8
Highest/Pass 10,660 feet 13,448 15,580 15,370 15,250 15,744 15,700 15,700
Camp Height 10,660 feet 13,448 13,776 14,100 13,940 14,270 14,500 14,400 bus pickup

Cordillera Huayhuash is currently a Reserved Zone, which recognizes the rights and traditional land use by the eight communities of the area. Please respect the area by informing yourself before going. The following book helps plan a trek, identify routes, and name peaks during the trip:

Climbs and Treks in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru” by Jeremy Frimer 2005  ISBN #0-9733035-5-7

Touching the Void

Siula Grande (20,800 feet / 6344 meters) is the subject of the gripping 2003 British docudrama “Touching the Void.” In 1985, climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled the treacherous Siula Grande, one of the last unconquered mountains in the Andes, but after Joe broke his leg, their descent became one of the most amazing survival stories in mountaineering history. We photographed the east face, but they climbed Siula Grande from a valley on the other side (the west face). The movie is based upon Joe Simpson’s harrowing book, “Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival” (published 2004, 1993, 1989).

Cordillera Raura

We exited our “Backwards C” Huayhuash trek in the Cordillera Raura mountains. The source of the Amazon River lies on the east side of the Cordillera Raura, as determined by the Royal Geographical Society in 1950: the tiny glacial lake Laguna Niñococha feeds Rio Lauricocha, then Rio Marañon, then the Amazon. To reach the source of the Amazon, trekkers can depart from the regular Huayhuash circuit near Huayhuash village on Day 7, go eastwards to Caquish, wade across Rio Lauricocha, climb to Laguna Niñococha and finish at the mining town of Mina Raura, on the road head to Churin and Lima (8 days total from Chiquian). You can also hike a complete Huayhuash loop (11 days) or other worthwhile variations.

Strikes can delay buses, cars, and flights

Before, during, and after our Peru trip in 2003, teachers, truck drivers, and campesinos held frequent but peaceful strikes. The campesinos (country people) blocked most major highways with rocks and felled trees, threatening to stop our bus returning to Lima from our Huayhuash Trek. But our energetic guide Koki ran for nine hours round trip to the nearest phone to confirm that our bus had already driven to our meeting point two days early to avoid strikers! President Toledo called a national emergency and cleared the roads, fortunately allowing us to keep our original schedule. Many thanks go to Aventura Quechua, the excellent local guide service (with whom I have trekked to Huayhuash, Machu Picchu, Cordillera Blanca, and Lares).

Peruvian History

While Lake Titicaca (on the border with Bolivia) is an earlier and more important cradle of Andean civilizations, Cuzco Valley gave birth to the powerful Inca Empire. Peru’s greatest native legacy to the world is the potato plant, which is now a staple crop spread world wide.
An ancient mummy seems to cringe in sorrow or intense feeling at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia (National Anthropology and Archeology Museum), Lima, Peru, South America.)

The Inca Empire and Spanish Conquest

Archeology suggests that in a 700-800 AD military expansion, the Wari people may have settled the Cuzco Valley and become the Inca’s ancestors. Quechua oral history says that the first Inca, Manco Capac, the son of the sun god (inti), founded the city of Cuzco in the 1100’s AD. After 1430 AD, the Incas burst out of Cuzco and quickly imposed their culture from southern Colombia to central Chile.

The Incas used their absolute rule and organizational genius to build vast terraces for growing food on the steep Andes mountains in a moderate climate, away from the dry desert coast and above the mosquito-filled Amazon Basin. The Incas developed textiles, pottery, metals, architecture, amazingly fitted rock walls, empire-wide roads, bridges, and irrigation, but never discovered the wheel, arch, or writing. Despite their amazing accomplishments, the Inca Empire lasted barely a century.

Over in Europe, Catholic Pope Alexander divided Africa and Brazil to Portugal, and gave the Americas to Spain. With Church approval, Spanish fortune hunters accompanied by priests sought riches in the Americas. With lucky timing, conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532 at a moment that found the Incas vulnerable from a just-ended civil war. With just a few dozen conquistadors bringing superior weaponry, horses, and guile, Pizarro captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca. Despite receiving a fabulous a gold-filled room as ransom fulfillment, Pizarro soon killed Atahualpa. After realizing that the Spanish were here to stay, the successor Inca Emperor, Manco, met with fellow Inca chiefs at Lares in spring 1536 to plan a rebellion, raising an army of 100,000 to 200,000 to surround Cuzco against just 190 Spaniards (including 80 on horses). Despite vastly superior numbers, their clubs, spears, slingshots, and arrows were no match against armored and mounted Spanish Conquistadors brandishing steel swords. Manco Inca’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, and he was forced to retreat to Vilcabamba in the Amazon jungle, where he was killed in 1544. In 1572, the Inca Tupac Amaru organized another rebellion, but was also defeated and executed by the Spaniards. The Spanish Conquest lasted 40 years, from the ambush of Inca Atahualpa at Cajamarca, to Tupac Amaru’s beheading.

Sadly, the near-socialistic support system of the Inca was now destroyed by the cruelty of feudal Europe. The “Indians” (now known as Andeans or campesinos) were now triply-exploited by 1) their native chief (curaca), 2) their Spanish governor (encomendero), and 3) their Spanish priest, who all exacted undue tribute payments. The Incas’ mita system of forced labor for the common good was misused by the Spanish for mining gold and silver for the Crown. Eventually the Spanish forced 80% of the former Inca Empire to work for tribute, mines, or textile mills, stopping just short of slavery. After the Spanish Conquest, Peru’s population declined from 7 million to 1.8 million due to disease, war, famine, culture shock, and demoralization.  Read The Conquest of the Incas (2003), first published in 1970 by John Hemming.

Politics and Economy

President Fujimori, Three-Term President

On election eve in May 2000, my wife Carol and I joined the thriving crowds of Cuzco’s night life who bustled without incident around the intimidating police clad in full riot gear who surrounded the main square. Although Peru is officially democratic, the sole opposition candidate, Toledo, protested alleged poll-rigging by dropping out of the presidential race, leaving Fujimori for a third term, making him the most senior leader in the Americas after Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Corruption allegations heightened after Fujimori’s intelligence chief Montesinos was caught red handed on video, and in November 2000 Fujimori resigned from office and fled to Japan. Although he ruled more autocratically than democratically, the United States plus many Peruvians appreciated Fujimori for eliminating the Maoist “Shining Path” terrorist organization, improving Peru’s economy, building schools, and expanding electricity to rural areas. However, Peru’s campesinos (country people) felt more hurt than helped by Fujimori’s austerity programs, and would have voted for Toledo.

President Toledo in 2003

Toledo rose from poverty to become a Stanford-trained economist, and in 2001 proudly became Peru’s first democratically elected President of Andean descent. Unfortunately, his campaign promises to reduce poverty and create jobs failed to bear fruit. When I returned in May 2003, campesinos, teachers, truck drivers, and health workers were striking (peacefully) every week. One day I witnessed the main Avenue del Sol in Cuzco fill with thousands of peacefully striking teachers (maestros) plus another group. On day 7 of our 8-day Huayhuash Trek, we heard on the radio that campesinos had blocked most major highways with rocks and felled trees for the past 2 days, which might block our bus returning us to Lima. Upon learning this, our energetic guide Koki ran for 9 hours round trip to the nearest phone to confirm that our bus had already driven to our meeting point 2 days early to avoid strikers! Toledo declared a national emergency on May 27 and reopened the roads, allowing us to keep our original schedule. This national emergency put about half of the country under the control of the military and weakened many civil rights, allowing the government to detain protesters and enter homes without search warrants. President Toledo desperately reshuffled his cabinet in June 2003, which did nothing to help his minimal control over Congress. Our three different guides in Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Huaraz all yearned again for the strong, effective hand of Fujimori.

Peru’s Economy in 2003

The upper classes in Peru mainly earn their income from exports of gold, copper, zinc, natural gas, textiles, and agricultural products. Strong exports in 2002 gave Peru a trade surplus for the first time in over ten years. From 2001 to 2003, Peru had low inflation, good economic growth, and a thriving black market, at the expense of heavy regulation, worker dislocation, and social unrest. The disparity between rich and poor is very large. Half of Peru lives on less than $2 a day. The “Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act” gives Peru preferential tariffs to the U.S. market and boosts agricultural and textile exports, but also suppresses the livelihood of poor Coca leaf farmers, whose traditional product dates from pre-Inca times.

Despite turbulent politics, Peru makes a wonderful vacation. Allow two extra flex days in your schedule to handle delays in transportation due to frequent strikes.

Recommended books for Peru

Search for latest “Peru travel books” at Amazon.com.

May 2013: 2010: 2013: 2014:
2011: 2011: 2004: 2004:
2008: 2003/1970:

AUSTRALIA

Australia travel tips and photos:

Carol and I left Seattle’s winter for 7.5 weeks exploring some great forest parks in southern Australia in the southern summer January 26-March 18, 2004. We most enjoyed Australia’s exotic animals and plants. Best weather for a separate trip to northern and interior Australia (the “Red Centre”) would be September or October.

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In hindsight, we could have shortened the trip by flying straight to certain highlights instead driving extra distance. The size of Australia challenges the traveller to prioritize visiting far-flung areas of interest. To make best use of your time, fly to each major city (such as with Virgin Australia Airlines), rent a camper (Apollocamper.com) or car (Bayswatercarrental.com.au), and stay at convenient Caravan/Holiday Parks. Camping vehicles can show up in most parks without a reservation, provide a kitchen, and carry all you need without reshuffling luggage. We enjoyed Melbourne and Perth via separate round trips in campers. A more relaxing way to explore Tasmania would have been renting a camper instead of a car. Without a camper, we had to worry about making lodging reservations several days in advance despite traveling in non-peak (“shoulder”) tourist season.

Within two days we adjusted to the minus 5 hours jet lag (plus one day) to Sydney from Seattle. We adjusted to driving on the left side of the road within a day or two. Traffic flows smoothly around the many roundabouts instead of being impeded by stop signs. Be prepared for narrow bumpy roads with fast traffic.

January-March: Suggested southern forest itinerary for Australia

  • For a great short trip, go to the beautiful Sydney area for a few days, then fly to Tasmania, which offers wonderful variety and lovely wilderness on a compact island.
  • To extend the trip, consider flying to Adelaide and visiting Kangaroo Island for wildlife, coastal scenery, and geology.
  • Fly to Melbourne and visit Wilson’s Promontory National Park for great wildlife, estuary, and coastal scenery. If you like beaches and waves, drive west of Melbourne on the Great Ocean Road.
  • The flight to Perth, Western Australia, is pricey and the driving lengthy before you reach interesting places, but once we arrived in the Walpole area, I really enjoyed the old growth forests of amazingly tall tingle and karri trees, which are found nowhere else on earth.
  • You will be thoroughly fascinated by native Australian birds, marsupials, reptiles, and eucalyptus. Visit Australian parks and wildlands for enrichment beyond zoos and gardens.

Sydney and nearby parks, New South Wales

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  • Visit the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbor Bridge, and Taronga Zoo.
  • One of the many pleasures of Sydney is an abundance of weird flying creatures: Sacred Ibis, parrots, Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, and big fruit bats (flying foxes) roosting in the downtown Royal Botanic Garden. The call of the Australian magpie is full of fascinating bells and whistles, and is found throughout most of Australia.
  • Sydney Aquarium is worth visiting for an overview of sea and freshwater life found around Australia.
  • Before heading for parks outside of Sydney, check the latest fire reports. Fire is a necessary and natural part of the lifecycle of eucalyptus forest, but can impact your trip.
  • Royal National Park: Located between the towns of Loftus and Stanwell Park, this reserve was established in 1879, making it Australia’s oldest national park — the world’s second-oldest. Hike a wonderful loop 11 kilometers (7 miles) through native Palm Forest, bluffs, and beach as a convenient day trip by rental car or train, south of Sydney. A 3-foot long goanna (monitor lizard) surprised me with its boldness and size. Forest parrots impressed us with their huge size. Best of all, a rare Lyrebird ran silently across the path before me. Notice the eucalyptus tree bark pealing into colorful patterns.
  • Blue Mountains National Park is a good a day trip west of Sydney, with many nice hiking opportunities. Walk the “Grand Canyon” 3-mile loop through a slot canyon which shelters a spattering stream, tree ferns, tree grass (with blooms), and unique plants. In 2000, UNESCO listed the Greater Blue Mountains (of which one quarter is Blue Mountains National Park) as a World Heritage Site.
  • Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park is worth visiting, 14 miles north of Sydney. Fire had burnt the eucalyptus forest in several areas in 2004, but will regrow as part of the natural forest lifecycle.

Tasmania

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In comparison to the rest of Australia, Tasmania offers a greater variety of sights closer together for easy travel, our favorite place in Australia. A short ferry ride from Tasmania takes you to little Maria Island which offers surprising variety — spectacular sandstone patterns, interesting history, important fossils, hiking, and biking. Tasmanian parks are beautiful, wild, and exotic. Fortunately, 37% of Tasmania lies in reserves and national parks. In 1982, UNESCO listed the parks of Tasmania as a World Heritage Area, including: Southwest National Park, Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, and Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park.

Tasmania tips

Explore Tasmania for at least a week, or two weeks as we did. Booking a bed for the night can be problematic even in “shoulder season” in Tasmania, partly due to an overnight ferry bringing cars from Sydney. We rented a car and stayed in cabins and lodging booked a few days in advance, which took some extra worry and phone calls. Renting a camper would have let us show up in most parks without a reservation, provides a kitchen, and carries luggage without reshuffling (as we did in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia). Note that roads are extra narrow in Tasmania, which might seem harrowing in a camper. We enjoyed the following hikes and sights:

  • We hiked most of the world-class Overland Track from Lake St Clair to Cradle Mountain, which provides backcountry huts and tent pads. Day hike around Dove Lake and up Cradle Mountain.
  • Mole Creek Karst National Park: On a rainy day, see massive columns and straw stalactites in King Solomon Cave.
  • Mount Field National Park: Don’t miss Russell Falls, an icon of Tasmania.
  • Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park: Walk to Nelson River and Falls. Tannins from trees color the Surprise River brown, as in many other Australian forests.
  • Freycinet National Park: Climb a rough trail to Mount Amos for a views of Coles Bay and Wineglass Bay wilderness.
  • Tasman National Park: See the Dog Line Memorial, on Eaglehawk Neck. Tessellated Pavement is a unique natural geologic wonder. An easy hike takes you to a striking view high above Cape Raoul. Tasman’s Arch was carved by the Tasman Sea.
  • Port Arthur Historic Site was an English prison from 1830-1877 on the Tasman Peninsula.
  • South Bruny Island: The Fluted Cape is a pleasant hike. Nearby in the evening, we watched cute Fairy Penguins come ashore to feed their young in sandy burrows, while predatory Shearwater birds swooped overhead.
  • Maria Island National Park:
    • Catch the ferry from Triabunna to Maria Island, Tasmania. Note the piles of chipped old growth Tasmanian forest being shipped to Japan to make high grade paper — surely they could find a farmed tree substitute instead of destroying ancient forests.
    • The Commissariate, built in 1825, is now a museum in Maria Island National Park.
    • Don’t miss the colorful sandstone Painted Cliffs walk along the shore.
    • Cape Barren Geese were introduced to Maria Island National Park in 1968 from Bass Strait Islands to help ensure their survival as a species. Now they thrive and are no longer endangered. They naturally range across the coasts and islands of southern Australia. The Cape Barren Goose, Australia’s only native goose, was first sighted on Cape Barren Island (second largest of the Furneaux Group of 52 islands, located northeast of Tasmania). Cape Barren Island has the distinction of being “the largest island of the largest island (Flinders Island) of the largest island (Tasmania) of the largest island (Australia).”

Tasmania resembles lower elevations of New Zealand and Washington. The sightseeing equivalent to Tasmania in the USA might be the state of Oregon, except for the added pleasure of unique Tasmanian and Australian wildlife and plants, isolated on a remote yet civilized island.

Victoria

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Drive two hours from Melbourne to reach Wilson’s Promontory National Park in the Gippsland region. Wilson’s Promontory, or “the Prom,” offers a beautiful variety of coastal scenery, magnificent and secluded beaches, spectacular rock formations, tidal estuaries, cool fern gullies, and an abundance of easily seen wildlife. Photographers love where tannin-stained Tidal River reflects attractive orange lichen-covered boulders and lush green forest. One night in Tidal River Campground, our camper van rocked us awake in what we though was an earthquake. The rocking soon stopped and the dark shape of a wombat (a marsupial “bear”) wandered off into the night from underneath the van, where he had been licking our tasty sink drain! We were delighted to see wallabies and the Common Brushtail Possum. Visitors also commonly see echidnas, koalas, bats and sugar-gliders.

Conservation Hill Koala Centre on Philip Island gives close views of cute, sleepy koalas. Koalas move and metabolize very slowly, resting or sleeping motionless for about 16 to 18 hours a day, and feeding on eucalyptus leaves usually at night.

Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park has nice hiking trails and an impressively rich variety of native birds and animals. Stay at Halls Gap Lakeside Caravan Park. Look for the colorful Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius), a parrot native to southeast Australia and Tasmania (and introduced to New Zealand where feral populations are found in the North Island). The bird can grow 30 cm long, with a red head and upper breast and white cheeks. The rest of the breast is yellow becoming more greenish toward the abdomen. The feathers of the back and shoulders are black with yellowish margins, giving rise to a scalloped appearance. The wings and lateral tail feathers are bluish while the rest of the tail is dark green.

For close contact with captive wildlife, camp at Emu Park Holiday Park, in the Wartook Valley, in the Northern Grampians.

The large Eastern Grey Kangaroo, also known as the Great Grey Kangaroo or Forester, has a soft grey coat, and is usually found in moister, more fertile areas than the Red Kangaroo. Indigenous Australian names include iyirrbir and kucha. The Eastern Grey Kangaroos live in open grassland and bushland near the major cities of the south and east coast of Australia, and are much more commonly seen than the Reds, which live in the outback. Like all kangaroos, it is mainly nocturnal and crepuscular, mostly seen at dawn or dusk.

Melba Gully park is a remnant of the rainforest which formerly covered large portions of Victoria.

Cape Otway National Park: Stay at Bimbi Caravan Park, and hike 5 miles round trip to Rainbow Falls, a stunning orange travertine waterfall on a remote coast with wild white beaches. We observed wild koalas sleeping in trees during daytime.

12 Apostles Marine National Park: Walk the beautiful wild beach at Gibson Steps. The 12 Apostles are a spectacular formation of seastack rocks (or haystacks) on the Victoria coast. The number of Apostles changes with time as old castles of sand collapse and new monuments are cut.

South Australia

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Use one company to book your camper (Apollocamper.com) or car (Bayswatercarrental.com.au) at different flight destinations to get a discount for the total length of time rented within Australia. Make sure that your Adelaide car rental agency allows you to take the car ferry to Kangaroo Island, forbidden by some.

Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island is one of the best places in Australia to view wildlife and remarkable geology. Our two nights were insufficient — a week would have been better.

  • When to go: March to May and August to October are probably the best times to visit Kangaroo Island.
  • Getting there: To save time, fly to Adelaide and rent a vehicle to visit Kangaroo Island — or fly to Kingscote Airport on Kangaroo Island if affordable.
    • Compare the cost of bringing a car on the ferry versus flying directly to Kangaroo Island and renting a car there. For one person, flying might be a better value, but for two people, driving may be better, depending on your budget.
    • Book your car ferry to Kangaroo Island several days in advance to assure a spot.
    • Avoid the fatiguing drive from Melbourne to Kangaroo Island and back, unless you driv more than our 11 days. The best scenery on the “Great Ocean Road” in Victoria is between Melbourne and Port Campbell, with the 12 Apostles as the highlight, best seen as a round trip from Melbourne.
Flinders Chase National Park
  • The campgrounds at Flinders Chase National Park are some of the best places to view wildlife in Australia.
  • Flinders Chase Visitor Centre: The adjacent campground includes hot showers. All around the Visitor Centre and adjacent campground, we admired wild Kangaroo Island Kangaroos, cute Tammar Wallabies, brushtail possums, birds, echidnas, goannas, and more. A curious Common Brushtail Possum climbed atop our camper one night as koalas screeched in trees above.
    • Reserve the campground a day or two ahead if you can, or be sure and arrive early to get a spot. Phone (08) 8559 7235 or e-mail: kiparksaccom@saugov.sa.gov.au
  • We saw eight live echidnas (a spiny mammal resembling a porcupine but hatching from eggs) along the roadside as we drove just before sunset to see the Remarkable Rocks!
  • Don’t miss capturing dramatic photographs of the Remarkable Rocks, especially at sunset. Walk the short nature trail and admire every angle of what looks like modern art in ancient stone. Remarkable Rocks originally formed as a single granite monolith and became cracked and eroded by seashore weathering.
  • Walk near sunrise and sunset to best see wildlife: Ravine des Casoars, Platypus Waterholes & Rocky River, and Snake Lagoon.
Kangaroo Island Kangaroos

Upon landing in 1802, famous explorer Captain Matthew Flinders shot the first Kangaroo Island Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus). Not until the 1990s did taxonomists clarify that it was a subspecies of the large brown Western Grey Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus, a marsupial mammal species in the Macropod family, Macropodidae), which lives across the southern part of Australia, from just south of Shark Bay to coastal South Australia, western Victoria, and the entire Murray-Darling Basin in New South Wales and Queensland. It breeds year round with a peak during summer months. Be cautious of kangaroos when driving roads at night.

Side trips recommended north of Adelaide
  • If you like wine, be sure to visit the Barossa Valley and other vineyard areas near Adelaide.
  • Mount Remarkable Gorges: Walk 2 days in a loop and stay in a tent. Or drive to the middle of the trail and day hike a shorter loop. I haven’t been there, but the gorges and scenery should be fascinating — best August-October.
  • Coober Pedy: opal mines, photography, history, film settings

Western Australia

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We flew to Perth from Melbourne and immediately drove our rental camper southwards towards some unique ecological areas found nowhere else on earth. Swim in the Indian Ocean from smooth sand beaches. Watch for trucks pulling double trailers called “road trains” roaring along highways.

South of Perth, the enthralling Fremantle Museum succinctly portrays a vivid vision of Western Australia history: Early pioneers made their own lives much harder by ignoring the valuable live-off-the-land knowledge of local aborigines. Australians seriously worried about possible Japanese invasion in World War II, then Europeans dispossessed by war were imported en masse to populate the large empty continent.

Further south, swim with wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) at the Dolphin Discovery Center in Koombana Bay, off Koombana Beach at the town of Bunbury, Western Australia. On a cloudy day, we waded into chilly water and joined a line of a dozen tourists, as a single dolphin cruised around us. Volunteers in red shirts enforce the rule of not touching or feeding the dolphins, in order to keep them wild. We would have been more impressed with this dolphin experience if the day had been warm enough to snorkel more comfortably. (Much further north of Perth you can wade in warmer waters at Monkey Mia where dolphins approach more closely in greater numbers, but feeding makes the dolphins less wild.)

On Nancy’s Peak Loop in Porongurup National Park, we explored an impressive karri tree forest. On the high point of this short loop over some 1.1-billion-year-old granite domes, we spotted a huge kite, which turned out to be a big Wedgetail Eagle gliding in a strong updraft.

The Diamond Tree is a 51 meter (167 foot) high public Fire Lookout built into a living karri tree, located 10 kilometers south of Manjimup on the South Western Highway, in Western Australia. The impressive karri trees are only found in a few small parks in south-Western Australia, and nowhere else on earth. Ascend a breathtaking a ladder of thick rebar posted into the Diamond Tree. Anyone is free to climb and access is not controlled.

Walpole-Nornalup National Park

The “Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk” is a wide ramp (suitable for baby strollers) which reaches 125 feet (38 meters) above the ground in the course of its half-mile length, passing through a forest of exceptionally tall eucalyptus trees, worth experiencing near Nornalup.

Hike to the impressive Giant Tingle Tree. The tingle is a type of eucalyptus found only in south-Western Australia and nowhere else on earth. Look for Australian pelicans on Coalmine Beach.

Australia climate and when to visit

Best weather and timing for a tour of southern Australia forests is late January through March, as we did. A separate trip to northern (monsoonal “Top End”) and interior Australia (the “Red Centre”) is best in September or October. See Lonely Planet Walking in Australia (2006) and Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Australia destinations:

Optimal time to visit:

Climate Comments:

WESTERN AUSTRALIA, Perth

Southern WA: September-February (spring-summer)


Northern WA: September-November

Southern WA: good in spring to summer. Albany=70 high/50F low, Perth=85/63F.


Northern WA: June-August is the Dry season. (December-February is the Wet, with monsoon thunderstorms, high humidity, tropical cyclones, many roads impassable.)

VICTORIA, Melbourne

November-April

Visit Victoria’s Australian Alps in January-March (summer). Melbourne summer=77 high/55F low. Melbourne best Oct/Nov (spring). Inland best in winter.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA, Adelaide

September-November

Kangaroo Island best March-May and August-October. Hiking best in spring. Inland best in winter.

NEW SOUTH WALES (NSW), Sydney

all year

Good hiking in Kuscuiscko National Park and Australian Alps in Jan-March (summer), but hot at lower elevations. Sydney=77 high/66F low in February, 75/65F March. Inland best in winter.

CAPITAL TERRITORY, Canberra

spring-summer (September-February)

Visit Canberra’s Australian Alps in January-March (summer).

TASMANIA

October-April

Best weather is in March/April, with beech fall color. Jan/Feb/March has lowest rain in Cradle Valley.
December-March is peak tourist season.  Few tourists come in November, sometimes warm, but storms arrive weekly.

QUEENSLAND

May-October

March-November is best walking season in the Top End and Great Barrier Reef.  (Jan-March is the Wet in northern coastal areas, 91F and very humid.)  In Brisbane and southern Queensland, walking in summer (Dec-Feb) is okay but not ideal.

NORTHERN TERRITORY

May-October

April-October is the Dry season. The Red Centre and Uluru have best weather April-June (fall). September-October can have wildflowers in Centre.
(November-March is the Wet).

Recommended books for Australia

Search for latest Australia travel books at Amazon.com.

2011: 2006: 2011: 2012: 2011: 2001: 1988:

Fiction:

1950/2010: Movie on VHS tape: 2008 DVD:

NORWAY: 1981 solo hitchhiking journey

Norway solo hitchiking trip June 1 – July 29, 1981

Pulpit Rock (Prekestolen) 1959 feet above a car ferry on Lysefjord, Forsand municipality, Rogaland county, Ryfylke traditional district, Norway, Europe. Norway made a big impression on me in 1981 when I was 25 years old, as recounted below. I gladly returned to Norway in 2011 (see separate article) with Carol.

Contents:
  1. Introduction
  2. Begin: Around the World in 9 Months, Frankfurt to Oslo, DNT, Røros & Fabulous Huts, Scandinavian Languages, Hitchhiking, Trondheim, Sweden
  3. Northern Norway : Narvik, Lofoten & Vesterålen Islands,  Bodø
  4. Fjordland : Innerdalen & Trollheimen, Hike Lake Eikesdalsvatn to Åndalsnes, Geirangerfjord, Hjørundfjord,  Briksdal Glacier, Southern Fjordland, The Pulpit, Stavanger
  5. Interior Hikes : Finse to Aurlandsdal, Stalheim to Flåm, Hardanger Plateau, Jotunheimen, Troll Wall
  6. Epilogue

Introduction

With continental Europe’s lowest population density, Norway offers vast unspoiled wilderness, lit in summer for 24 hours a day. Comfortable backcountry huts (mountain refuges) form a vast network, making Norway one of the best places in the world for overnight hut walking and cross-country skiing. Norwegians greatly respect their natural world, a land of difficult terrain, cold winters and brief summers. Perhaps their active connection with the outdoors has helped give Norwegians the longest life expectancy of any nation on earth.

Glaciers have deeply gouged Norway, creating steep cliffs & deep fjords, which slowed the building of roads, railways and communication lines, until oil was discovered. Roads starting from sea level must negotiate 3000 to 6000 feet up the glacial U-shaped valleys to reach the central plateau that forms the bulk of Norway. Fjords stretch inland as far as 125 miles at Sognefjord, and have historically linked the country by boat. If unraveled, the fjord-pierced coastline would stretch for an amazing 21,000 miles, inspiring the Norwegian expression “the sea unites, but the land divides.” Norway, which is 20% smaller than California, stretches 1100 miles from the latitude of northern Scotland up to the North Cape (320 miles north of the Arctic Circle). Half of Norway lies above the Arctic Circle, if you include the large islands of Spitzbergen located far north in the Arctic Ocean.

Despite its high latitude, Norway’s climate is relatively mild. The North Atlantic Drift, partly fed by the warm Gulf Stream, keeps the fjords ice-free in winter as far north as Hammerfest, at 71° North latitude (at what would be icy Alaska’s most northerly point). Nevertheless, Norwegian summer can feel like the winter of a Mediterranean climate (such as found in Chico, California, where I was raised). Norwegians actually pioneered the study of weather because, as one local told me, “Norway gets so much of it.”  Two out of three days are cloudy in summer, surrounding the peaks and plateaus with mysterious mists, until every third day when sun shines glory upon the spectacularly carved mountains.     

For a more memorable trip, explore areas away from heavy tourist influence, such as away from train lines and during the off season.

Around the World in Nine Months

In 1981 when I was 25 years old, I traveled around the world for nine months, an adventure of a lifetime, visiting New Zealand, Nepal, Norway, France, and Switzerland. In the poor health conditions of Nepal, I had lost 15 pounds (7 kilograms), and I looked forward to better conditions in Europe. After two weeks with friends in Germany at Frankfurt and Emmendingen (near Freiburg), I recovered my zest for travel and looked forward to experiencing new countries in Scandinavia using a Eurail Pass. A little research in Oslo convinced me to concentrate two months of hiking in mountainous Norway.

By Rail from Frankfurt to Oslo, Norway

Starting in Frankfurt, Germany on June 1, I began a round trip by rail that would return July 29. I knew little about Scandinavia at first, and planned my 58-day tour one week at a time. As I approached island-bound Copenhagen (capital of Denmark), I was amazed as our train boarded a large ferry in several pieces for a one-hour crossing. With a flash of my American passport, I passed through the surprisingly cursory border check. At first, I worried about the potential loneliness of traveling alone so long in a foreign country; but soon I would meet dozens of friendly Norwegians including an Ole, Ola, and Olav . . . .

Join DNT

In Oslo, Norway’s largest city, I reached a higher latitude (60° North) than I had even been, and said goodbye to stars for the next 55 days, with light skies around the clock! I studied glossy bookstore pictures of Scandinavia for three days, concluding that I should give up on seeing Finland and most of Sweden in favor of spectacular Norway. The following wonderful book became my “bible” for the trip: Mountain Touring Holidays in Norway, published by the Norway Travel Association, Oslo.

At the excellent non-profit Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT, or Den Norske Turistforening, in 1981 known as “Norwegian Mountain Touring Association”), I bought an inexpensive one-year membership. DNT provides a master key for self-service huts and joins you with all 30 local mountain touring associations which maintain huts, mark trails, guide trips, and teach courses.

At DNT, I learned that most mountain walking areas were covered in snow until the end of June. I might be too early! In mountain elevations from 3000 to 8000 feet, summer only lasts from the end of June to the beginning of September. Luckily, below 3000 feet, summer extends from early May through September. While waiting for snow to melt in mountain areas, I would first visit lower-lying areas of Norway, such as the moors of Østerdal-Femund, the islands of North Norway, and the fjords of southwest Norway.

Røros: Fabulous Wilderness Huts (June 6-8)

I rode the train to Røros, located in the Østerdal-Femund area, in the eastern rolling hills, which lie in the snow shadow of the mountainous central plateau of South Norway. Copper was mined in Røros for 333 years, and the remaining ghost town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site complete with turf-roofed houses dating from the 1700s and 1800s.

From Røros, I hiked on snow-free, squishy yellow reindeer moss, rushing to reach the alpine Marenvollen Hut before nightfall, which never came. I realized that the skies would be light all night, a novelty for me. I tired before reaching the hut, and camped outside in the open pine moor using my new Goretex bivi (bivouac or bivy) sack for the first time. I strung a poncho over the bivi sack as double protection against the continuous drizzle.

I would end up bivying for free outdoors on 23 nights out of 58 on the trip, which was very economical. By camping frequently and buying all food in grocery stores, I spent a frugal $15 (or 90 kroner) per day in 1981. By Norwegian law, you can freely camp on any unfenced land located at least 150 meters from buildings. On fenced land, I just asked the farmer if I could camp there, and he usually gave me permission (plus sometimes a dinner and hot shower).

The next morning, a wet walk through open pine moors brought me to Marenvollen Hut. Using the self-service hut key obtained from DNT in Oslo, I entered the building as the first visitor of the “summer.” I was amazed by the pristine polished wood interior and complete kitchen, with propane stoves, china plates, silverware, pots, pans, dish cloths, and so forth. Although I had carried in my own food, the complete pantry provided stores of dried and canned foods for purchase on the honor system. The separate dining room contained couches, chairs, and tables, all warmed by a pot-bellied stove. Pre-cut wood for the stove filled half of the separate work room, which also contained various household tools on a large work bench. Four rooms with four bunks each provided foam mattresses and blankets sporting the DNT logo. Another pot-bellied stove heated a separate drying room for wet clothing and boots. On top of all these luxuries in the wet wilderness, this delightful haven provided two pristine pit toilets within the building. Stunned by this mountain Ritz, whose contents would be picked clean in most other countries, I obediently slipped my fee into the honesty box. I had this great hut completely to myself. Welcome to the wonderful Norwegian hut system!

Out of 58 nights in Norway, I slept 15 nights in the fabulous yet inexpensive Norwegian huts. Nine of these were staffed mountain hotels where I could have bought hot meals; but I usually carried all my own food. I loved the six self-service huts in which I stayed, where I could cook hot meals from food that I had frugally carried in myself; or, in a pinch, I could have purchased food from the extensive self-service pantry, making payment in the honesty box.

Hitchhiking

To return to the train station at Røros, I walked a few hours to a highway and with some trepidation, tried my hand at hitchhiking for the first time in my life. Only four cars passed before I received a ride for 10 miles straight to town! Bouyed by this initial success, I would eventually hitchhike in 50 rides for a total of 1100 miles, the length of Norway. Once I got over my initial reluctance for hitchhiking, which is discouraged in most countries, I considered it a great way to see Norway. No other method of travel allows you to meet as many local Norwegians. Hitchhiking costs nothing except patience, and paid me back with a priceless experience.

All kinds of people gave me rides. My most likely ride would come from a single driver who probably lived within 30 miles. Sometimes I studied the cars as they passed without indicating that I wanted a ride, ignoring the cars with tourist luggage and trailers. On several occasions, I would spot a young single driver with no visible luggage, I would extend my hitchhiker’s thumb signal and the driver would immediately stop for me, despite little space to turn off!

Surprisingly, I obtained more than a few rides from fellow tourists, whom are supposedly infamous for ignoring hitchhikers. Even families would pick me up. By the end of my trip, I had discovered the three best conditions for catching a ride:

  1. slow road conditions, such as an uphill climb or a town’s speed zone.
  2. a clear line of sight for at least 10 seconds in order to give the driver time to examine you.
  3. a visibly wide turnout for the driver to stop just past the hitchhiker.

Always project a neat appearance and aura of confidence when you signal for a ride, remembering that a ride can come from anyone, whether they be Norwegian, Swedish, German or French. And when a Norwegian driver tells you that he is only going a couple of “miles”, take heart, because a Norwegian mile is ten kilometers! (six American miles)

Scandinavian Languages
As of 2004, most Scandinavians speak English (except for those over about 55 years of age), making travel relatively easy for English speakers. All Norwegian schools teach English as a second language, because next to Mandarin Chinese, English is the language most spoken in the world (Russian is third). Bring a Norwegian-English Dictionary and a phrase book to Norway to read signs and communicate better. English speakers can easily learn Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or Icelandic because these four Scandinavian languages come from Old Norsk, which is a Germanic language like English. Finnish is unrelated to these languages and harder to learn.      The Norwegian alphabet adds three letters not found in English: 

  1. æ = pronounced “eh”
  2. ø, or sometimes ö = pronounced as a short “uh”
  3. å, or sometimes aa = pronounced “oh”

Some letters are pronounced differently in Norwegian compared to English, such as g and j, which are softened to a “y” sound before certain vowels, as in “fjord (fyourd) and “Geilo” (yaylo).

Trondheim Baby Strollers

After the train ride from Røros through some good scenery and gorges to the city of Trondheim, I slept at the inexpensive Ungdomsherberge, or Youth Hostel. Staying in youth hostels for 10 nights out of 58 helped keep my costs low. Strolling through town, I was surprised by the large number of baby carriages, each which sported a storm fly like a tent! In fact, I saw a plethora of baby carriages everywhere in Norway: folded and strapped to the roofs speeding cars, stashed on public buses, and pushed by proud mothers along city streets, country roads and grassy fields. Norwegians greatly value motherhood.

By Rail, Sweden to Northern Norway (June 10-11)

In Sweden, icy sleet battled with warm sun on my ascent up the ski slope of Mount Åreskutan (4680 feet elevation). On top was a beautiful view of the smooth, snow-patched hills that roll over the Swedish border from Norway. However, most of southern Sweden is a plain punctuated with many rivers and lakes. In contrast, rocky mountains cover 72 percent of Norway, which claims almost all the rugged grandeur to be found in Scandinavia.

I slept overnight on the long train ride up the Swedish coast. After shopping for groceries in Boden, Sweden, I continue north on the train towards Norway, crossing the Arctic Circle (66.5° North latitude) for the first time in my life. Looking at the snow-covered bogs of Lappland, I couldn’t believe this was June 11th.  I had wanted to hike in Abisko National Park in northern Sweden, but the heavy snow outside kept me on the warm train. As the train descended to Narvik (68° North latitude) at 11:30 PM, I gazed down in awe at my first Norwegian fjord, 3300 feet below. The midnight sun almost succeeded in piercing the overcast sky, tantalizing me and my carload of boisterous German tourists.

Ice Cream in Icy Narvik (June 12-14)

After camping overnight in a park in freezing Narvik, I waited through two cold, rainy days for better weather. As I wandered the frigid streets, I noticed in front of every dagligvarer (“daily goods”, or grocery store), a waste basket boldly proclaimed ÅPEN. . .DIPLOM IS, which means “Open…Diploma Ice Cream”. All over Norway, ÅPEN waste baskets boldly proclaimed the various ice cream brands, such as Dola Is and Jotun Is. Despite their cold climate, Norwegians love eating this frozen dessert. In agreement, I ate a full liter of ice cream in one sitting.

Finally, on my third day in Northern Norway, the clouds parted to reveal the bluest of skies on a fine summer day with shirt-sleeve weather. As I walked half way up the hill above town, I was surprised to see the Narvik Hang-Glider Club poised for flight at the ski lift terminus. Continuing to the top of the mountain revealed a fantastic view of Narvik, its fjords and mountains.Mount Reka (1991 feet / 607 meters elevation) reflects in Eidsfjord, lit by the midnight sun. Langoy Island, Vesteralen, Norway, Europe.

Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands (June 14-18)

That day I began a hitchhiking trip that would take me from Narvik to Stamsund, 225 miles through the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands. The wild and jagged peaks of these beautiful islands rise up to 3600 feet, often directly from the ocean, forming the imposing “Lofoten Wall” when viewed from the mainland. At their feet lie picturesque fishing villages and rorbus, which are traditional fishermen’s shanties perched on piers and painted in brick red. Since modern fishermen live at sea when fishing, rorbus now accommodate tourists. These remote islands offer unspoiled mountains, rich bird life, fishing holidays, pleasant daytime temperatures averaging 56° F (13° C), and great views of the midnight sun from May 20 to July 24. In contrast to the “light season”, the sun never rises above the horizon between the end of November and mid-January. But winter is not entirely dark, as snow brightens the land and the ethereal “northern lights” (or in latin, aurora borealis) colorize the skies.

Rich cod fishing has attracted tens of thousands of people to settle the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands. Although the fisheries lie north of the Arctic Circle, the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift (and Gulf Stream) carry rich plankton to feed the fish caught by the world’s largest cod fishing fleet. From January to April, fishermen work 20 hours a day as the cod arrive from the Barents Sea to spawn between the Lofoten Wall and the mainland. In mid-June 1981, I was awestruck by acres of cod hung on huge racks drying everywhere in the arctic air. As of 2004, severe overfishing of spawning cod by competing countries has provoked crises and restrictive quotas in the cod industry.

On Langøy (“Long Island”), I hitchhiked to see knife-shaped Mt. Reka (1991 feet), one of the most striking mountains in Norway. A local electrician, Jarle Sivertsen, picked me up, and by chance happened to live at a classic viewpoint for Mt. Reka. He hosted me for dinner, a shower and camping on his parents’ fjord-front property. While setting up my bivi sack bedding outside for the evening, I watched him check his arrow-shaped salmon net, which pointed away from the shore to catch any fish swimming out with the tide. Before I went to sleep, I captured a favorite trip photo, Mt. Reka backlit by the midnight sun. At that time, I did not learn my host’s name, but I cherished his hospitality. Coincidentally 22 years later, Jarle’s sister May-Liss happened to find Mt. Reka on my web site Photoseek.com, and asked me via e-mail for a copy of the image to give to Jarle as a Christmas gift! I happily sent her a copy of the image and exchanged well wishes. Jarle married in 1995 and lives with his wife on the same wonderful fjord front property.

e Svolvaer Goat (1955 feet high), Lofoten Islands, above the Arctic Circle, Norway

The next morning at the luxurious Svolvær Youth Hostel, still feeling hungry from Nepal, I stuffed myself for breakfast on smørbrød (“butter + bread”), the traditional Scandinavian open-faced sandwich, upon which you spread jam, sweet hazelnut butter, cheese, fish, liver paste, kaviar, and so forth. (The hazelnut butter tasted like the egg jam that I ate in Singapore in March.) I loved everything except the brown geit ost (“goat cheese”), a Norwegian staple which I found too pasty and pungent. I much preferred the traditional Norvegia cheese, a mild white cheese with holes. Two friendly Swedish women introduced me to Scandinavian kaviar, made from the roe (egg-laden ovaries) of cod, to which I became addicted for the remainder of my stay in Norway. Curiously, this kaviar (or caviar / caviare in English) comes in a convenient squeeze tube, resembling a red, salty, fishy-tasting toothpaste! I preferred the inexpensive 300-gram tube of Kavli Kaviar, the highest quality brand, which would last for a week of camping. The tiny eggs of Scandivavian kaviar measure only half a millimeter in diameter, in contrast to the famous Russian caviar which contains expensive sturgeon eggs measuring five millimeters.

I next hitchhiked westward to Stamsund, an attractive fishing village on the next island. A variety of local Norwegians gave me rides, including two truck drivers, a man in an expensive car, and a farmer’s wife on the way to play bingo. Most of them spoke little English, but we enjoyed trying to communicate with what few words we knew of the other’s language. I would say Jeg snakke lite norsk, meaning “I speak little Norwegian.” In 1981, the Norwegians who spoke English tended to be under 30 years of age, reflecting language courses introduced to their generation in public schools. I crossed between the islands of Austvågøy and Vestvågøy on a ferry which has now been replaced by a gracefully-arched bridge. In linking their fjord-pierced country, the Norwegians may have spent more per capita on bridges than any other country.

Stamsund was a more tranquilly beautiful version of Svolvær. In the relaxed Stamsund Youth Hostel, which was renovated from a fisherman’s shanty resting on harbor pilings, I cooked a delicious meal from some freshly caught cod. I climbed the mountain above Stamsund for a good view.

Just as I prepared to leave Stamsund on the coastal express, the sun pierced the overcast low in the sky, creating beautiful reflections of boats and red rorbus reflected in the mirror of Stamsund Harbor. Tall racks of drying cod soaked in the sun’s rays. I madly rushed around snapping photographs, then with just three minutes to spare, I breathlessly caught the steamer leaving for the mainland. As the ship plowed towards Bodø on the mainland, I said a fond goodbye to the Lofoten Wall shrinking behind under the orange glow of the midnight sun.

(If you go to Lofoten, don’t miss seeing the spectacular town of Reine near the southern end of Moskenes Island. Moskenes is among the most scenic municipalities in all Norway, and the picturesque fishing villages of Hamnøy, Reine, Sørvågen, Moskenes, and Å have a dramatic backdrop of jagged peaks rising above the Vestfjord.)

Bodø

I slept for a few hours on the hurtigruten crossing to Bodø and slept the remainder of the light “night” bivying in a park. Saturated by the wild beauty of the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands, I found Bodø to be relatively uninteresting. I hitchhiked, after a two-hour wait in busy Bodø, to see the curious Saltstraumen Current, which brochures claim is the world’s most powerful tidal race, or maelstrom. The Saltstraumen Current flows in response to the tides, rushing in or out every six hours through a narrow (150 meters wide) channel at the mouth of a large fjord. (This tidal race is not as interesting as a “tidal bore”, which is a standing wave which occurs where some rivers meet the ocean.)

On June 19, I crossed the Arctic Circle southwards by train, leaving North Norway and the land of the midnight sun. However, the midnight skies would still glow starlessly throughout July in southern Norway.

Begin Fjordland: Innerdalen and Trollheimen Mountains (June 20-21)

Returning to the unremarkable scenery of Trondheim, I completed my 11-day circle through Sweden and North Norway. I continued south by train to Oppdal, where I began a hitchhiking tour that would take me all the way to Stavanger, through the most spectacular fjord scenery in Norway.

With great luck, I hitched on my second ride from Oppdal 15 miles directly to the trailhead for Innerdalen (“the Inner Valley”), one of Norway’s most beautiful valleys. I squeezed into the back seat of a Volkswagon Beetle between the two backpacks of Kari and Ola, a local couple who by chance planned the same hike to Renndølseter Hut. I thought that I had left the icy-cold rain back in Narvik, but Innerdalen spat the same weather upon us. Just as in Narvik, the next day proved to be an incredibly beautiful, sunny summer day. I climbed 3300 feet in two hours up the shoulder of a mountain for a refreshing panorama of the Trollheimen Mountains and Innerdalen, dominated by Dalatarnet (“The Tower of the Valley”), a 4600-foot pyramidal spike like a small Matterhorn, or geologic “sugarloaf”. Next to it, a perfect “hanging valley” abruptly spilled into the main valley, marking where 18,000 years ago, a side glacier met the top of the main Innerdalen Glacier.

Kari and Ola offered me a ride which evolved into dinner at Kari’s flat in Hjelset. While waiting for pizza to cook, we watched a curious game show on Norwegian television, where the object was to identify jigsaw pictures of flowers and animals. Norwegians certainly love nature! After dinner, on his way home to Valldal, Ola left me off at a crossroads where I could hitchhike to my next goal. I stepped off the road to set up camp for the night in a grove of fir trees on the edge of a fjord. I would see Ola again in just four days.

Hike from Lake Eikesdalsvatn to Åndalsnes (June 22-25)

In the morning, very few cars drove by because tourist season had not yet begun. I waited 3 hours on that backcountry road before an Oslo engineer picked me up for the 18-mile drive to Lake Eikesdalsvatn. (Luckily, I did not have to wait for a ride as long as my brother Dave did for two and half days in the outback of Australia!)  I ferried across Lake Eikesdalsvatn to Hoemsbu, a self-service hut in the cellar of a sheep farmer’s house. The gray day slightly reduced the grandeur of the peaks which impressively rose a vertical mile above the lake surface. In perhaps my riskiest venture in Norway, I walked alone over a 4600-foot pass, of which the top 1300 feet were steep snow. I put plastic bags between my socks and boots to keep my feet insulated from the snow. Snow mostly buried the red “T” trailmarkers, and I only found my way by discovering the tracks of someone who had crossed earlier. I climbed and descended 4600 feet in 9 hours through rain, fog and snow, transitioning from snow-covered alpine to rainforest (reminding much of backpacking the Copland Pass Track over the shoulder of Mt. Cook in New Zealand in February). Feeling both proud and relieved, I traversed the pass to the next valley bottom, where I fell fast asleep in my bivi sack.

The next day, on a 10-mile walk to the town of Åndalsnes, I enjoyed meeting a friendly Czechoslovakian couple who were hitchhiking and rock-climbing on a six-week vacation, and carrying all of their belongings in duffle bags with shoulder straps but no hip belt. At the Åndalsnes youth hostel, I joined an impromptu dinner of à la dente spaghetti with an Italian man, two French women, a French Canadian, and a Swiss German man. Then two charismatic German men entered and stunned us by announcing their plans to parachute from the 3300-foot Troll Wall (Trollveggen), the highest vertical cliff in Europe! I immediately pictured the incredible films I had seen of BASE (“Building, Aerial, Span, Earth”) jumpers leaping from the 3500-foot overhang of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite Valley; however, fickle winds and bad weather make the Troll Wall much more dangerous. The next day, rain canceled the Germans’ jump, and they had to wait a full month for suitable parachuting conditions. I would learn their fate near the end of my trip, which I tell later.

Rain shelved my plans to see the spectacular Romsdal (the deeply glaciated Roms Valley sided by the Troll Wall). After waiting for a ride 2.5 hours in the rain, I resorted to taking a bus to reach Valldal in order to again see Ola, whom I met at Innerdalen. The bus labored up the steep switchbacks of Trollstigveien (“the Troll Path”), sometimes reversing to turn a hairpin curve on the second attempt. Mists hid the famous views.

At his flat in Valldal, Ola whipped up a delicious dinner featuring cuts of ox meat. Although he spoke limited English and my Norsk (“Norwegian”) was next to nil, his slide show of mountain walking in Norway and (the former) Yugoslavia broke any language barrier. In thanks, I later sent him prints from my trek in Nepal.

Spectacular Geirangerfjord

The next morning, Ola took me to the ferry, where I met the Kunz’s, a Swiss German family of three, who drove me to Geirangerfjord. In September, I would visit the friendly Kunz’s at their photo store in Bern, Switzerland. Traveling alone motivated me to meet many more people than I would if I had a companion along, which made Norway especially memorable for me.

The tourist town of Geiranger prospers from spectacular Geirangerfjord, the epitome of Norwegian fjords. In summer, the town speaks mostly German, and world class cruise ships anchor daily. An elegant Russian liner pulled in as I watched. Many Norwegians claimed that summer had the worst weather in 40 years, but usually the sun shone for me at the major sights, including Geirangerfjord. I left my luggage at the fjord-front campground and walked up 12 switchbacks of the Eagle Road for an amazing view of the dark-green, snake-shaped Geirangerfjord.

Hjørundfjord Milk Run

I ferried the impressive Geirangerfjord and hitchhiked to the wider and similarly remarkable Hjørundfjord, but with no foreign tourists in sight. I ferried up and down the sparsely populated Hjørundfjord, deciding eventually to camp at Trandal, a 21-person farming community clinging to the steep slopes, accessible only by ferry. An old man at the dock led me up the hill and took me to a house where a woman spoke English. She happened to serve as postmaster for Trandal, whose name means “Cod Liver Oil Valley”. I inquired about camping spots, and the woman and her husband eventually gave me a comforting dinner, room, and hot shower. Their spacious new dream house built of handsome wood contained all modern conveniences, electrified via a cable laid beneath the deep waters of Hjørundfjord. They shared raising 200 goats with three other families, rotating into a vacation of half a week every week and a half. Near fjord level, they cut the grass two or three times per summer for winter fodder, which they hung on parallel wire fences to dry, creating a distinctive sight seen throughout fjordland. While this hay dries at low elevations in summer, the goats graze high pastures. Norwegians call a homestead on the high summer pasture a sæter (or seter).

The next morning was sunny and uplifting, and I thanked the postmaster and her family for their generosity. I boarded the ferry along with the goat milk truck, which was collecting milk from each local farm. I enjoyed this spectacular “milk run” on Hjørundfjord.

Now saturated by gorgeous scenery, I decided against walking up impressive Mt. Slogjen, which rises directly from Hjørundfjord nearly a vertical mile. After 15 cars passed me in 3 hours waiting for a ride, I finally flagged down a bus. In fine weather, I bused and hitchhiked 75 miles to the famous Briksdalsbreen (“The Briksdal Glacier”), where I camped.

The Briksdal Glacier

As in Geiranger, the summer language in Briksdal is also mostly German. Touristy horse carts draw dozens of older couples to Briksdal Glacier, which snakes down 3000 feet from its source of Jostedalsbreen, an ice plateau which is the largest glacier in Europe (171 square miles & 1000 feet thick). The Briksdal is one of 24 glacial tongues that originate in Jostedalsbreen at about 6500 feet elevation. I saw long jagged ridges of ice perched atop the mountains around me, hinting at this huge ice plateau beyond, which I hear is very exciting to explore using mountaineering equipment.

A side view reveals a long vertical crack in the Pulpit (Prekestolen), 1959 feet above Lysefjord, in Forsand municipality, Rogaland county, Ryfylke traditional district, Norway, Europe.

Hitchhiking Southern Fjordland (July 1-3)

The next five days I zoomed through fjord country catching ride after ride, heading for Stavanger and a nearby wonder of nature called “the Pulpit”. Ferrying across Sognefjord at Vangsnes gave striking views. On my longest day, I hitchhiked 145 miles, ending up in a hotel room furnished by Olav, a generous cannery representative on a solo sightseeing tour. On our way to Voss, Olav took us on a scenic sidetrip to Stalheim, which stunned me with its view over the Nærøy Valley, dominated by a 3000-foot granite dome, reminiscent of California’s Yosemite Valley.  I vowed to return to Stalheim, which I did 9 days later.

Situated at a major road and rail junction, Voss was the busiest tourist town that I experienced in Norway, and tourists mainly spoke American. Americans notoriously zoom around Europe on railpasses, spending only a few days in each country, as immortalized in the movie “If This Is Tuesday, This Must Be Belguim.” Americans tend to concentrate on ralways, since they usually don’t rent cars in Scandinavia. Many Americans stop in Voss on their quick rail trip between Bergen and Oslo, the two largest cities in Norway. Americans usually ride the nearby Myrdal to Flåm rail line, the most accessible fjord attraction in Norway. However, trains cannot reach most of the best fjord scenery, so Americans often miss the great highlights that other European tourists see from cars.

I caught an instant ride leaving Voss with Ole, a young Norwegian who spoke excellent English. When I asked Ole why I had seen so many mentally and physically handicapped people on the public transportation systems, he explained that Norway actively encourages the disabled to engage with their world, and also 1981 was the International Year of the Handicapped. Socialistic Norway devotes a healthy portion of its North Sea oil profit to such beneficial social programs. The United States has the same proportion of disabled people as Norway, but offers much less public social support.

I ferried then hitchhiked the length of Hardangerfjord in a large goat truck. Builders carved the narrow fjord road into the granite a hundred years ago, leaving room for only one and a half goat trucks. Only the occasional turnouts allowed large vehicles to pass. My driver passed others at breakneck speed, leaving little room for error. Pelting rain added to the atmosphere of our wild ride through 80 miles of fjordland, my longest single ride. At Åkrafjord, we again barreled along an even narrower road that clung to the side of sheer granite walls. At one point, my wry driver pulled in his mirror in order to squeeze past a truck-trailer rig! This was one of the main highways to Stavanger, Norway’s fourth largest city.

With additional rides from a Coke truck and a German couple, I reached Vikedal, a town seemingly in the middle of nowhere, where I camped in the nearby woods. On the next day, oil derrick workers gave me two of three rides, indicating my proximity to oil-rich Stavanger, the main port for Norway’s generous share of North Sea oil. The oil workers said they worked 14 days then vacationed for 21 days in a regular cycle. Sounds like a good job!  Pulpit Rock (Prekestolen) 1959 feet above a car ferry on Lysefjord, Forsand municipality, Rogaland county, Ryfylke traditional district, Norway, Europe.

Hike the Pulpit (July 4)

At the trailhead for “the Pulpit” (Prekestolen), I discovered that a group of German teenagers had fully booked the mountain hotel (Prekestolhytta). Tired by nonstop hitchhiking, I camped outside in the occasional rain. To keep out the clouds of tiny mygg, the biting midges which can pass right through mosquito netting, I had to seal my bivi sack, making an uncomfortable and stuffy atmosphere for sleeping. Luckily midges did not bother me anywhere else in Norway. I hear that midges can be a nuisance just after the snow melts in Lappland and North Norway.

On July 4, I awoke to an overcast sky and occasional rain. I ate breakfast of the usual smørbrød cold cuts, while pacing back and forth to avoid the midge cloud. Finally, during a break in the warm rain, I struck out along the muddy trail, determined to see the Pulpit despite the misty weather. I walked 1.5 hours through an eerie landscape of blocky mountains, sparsely peppered with trees. Suddenly the Pulpit appeared, and my eyes bugged out at Lysefjord, 1959 feet directly below. As a tourboat drew into view down on Lysefjord, I quickly snapped my favorite photo from Norway: a lone traveler perched atop the Pulpit, high above the tourboat pulling into the sun’s reflection.

The sun came out and I photographed every view. The Pulpit, an impressive sharply-cut monolith of rock that juts above Lysefjord, was yet another highlight of my trip, joining the ranks of the islands of North Norway, Innerdalen, Geirangerfjord, Nærøy Valley, and Briksdal Glacier.

Old Stavanger

I had just completed a hitchhiking journey of 621 miles (not counting buses and ferries) from Oppdal to Stavanger. At that point, only halfway through my 58 days in Norway, I was becoming scenically saturated. As a spur of the moment day away from nature, I wandered Stavanger, admiring the white-faced row houses of Old Stavanger and the big tankers in the harbor carrying liquid natural gas (LNG). On that beautiful summer day, people even swam in the ocean, taking advantage of a heat wave.

Hike from Finse to Aurlandsdal, the “British Route” (July 5-9)

I slept overnight on the train from Stavanger to Oslo, where I restocked my photographic film supply, then zoomed on to Finse, the highest railway station in Norway (4268 feet). Stepping off of the train on July 6, I entered a world still locked in winter. The lake was one-third covered in ice, the ground was half-covered in snow, and the temperature was 40° F. (10° C). DNT had advised me correctly, saying mountain areas would be snow-covered until about now.

In the next three weeks, I would hike above Sognefjord (in two places), on Hardanger Plateau, and in the Jotunheim Mountains.

From Finse, I began a three-day walk known as the popular “British Route“, five hours per day over a 5570-foot pass to the Aurlandsdal (“Aurland Valley”). July 8th marked the first day that I wore shorts in Norway! Summer had officially arrived. Convenient access by rail and ferry makes this hike popular, but the scenery is unexceptional until Aurlandsfjord. Expecting a wilderness experience, I felt disappointed by Aurlandsdal, where I found dams, roads, and power lines on the surface feeding a hydroelectric project whose huge size was mostly hidden underground. (On the other hand, some wilderness-loving friends of mine hiked this route in 2004 and enjoyed it.)

Many other natural wonders in Norway have been tapped for human use, such as Mardalsfossen (above Lake Eikesdalsvatn), formerly the highest waterfall in Europe and the sixth highest in the world. Now engineers turn on Mardalsfossen only in July for tourists to see, and the remainder of the year they divert it for hydroelectric power. Engineers have also reduced the volume of one of Norway’s most stunning waterfalls, Vøringsfossen. These and many other water power schemes make Norway the European leader in hydroelectric development.

At the tourist town of Aurland, I caught the famous ferry through Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord (the southern tongues of Sognefjord, longest fjord in Norway). Accessibility by rail makes this fjord tour one of the most well-known attractions in Norway. I rate Nærøyfjord as second only to Geirangerfjord in grandeur. Nærøyfjord, billed as the narrowest fjord in the world, squeezes only 600 feet wide between cliffs that rise 3000 to 5000 feet. I bivied at a motorcamp in Gudvangen in the mile-deep trench of the amazing Nærøy Valley.

Hike from Stalheim to Flåm (July 10-13)

I hitchhiked up the Nærøy Valley, the cousin of Yosemite Valley, and returned to Stalheim as I had vowed on July 1. At Stalheim, I played my usual photographic game of waiting hours on end for the sun to come out. Finally, the sun shone feebly on the impressive 3000-foot dome of Jordalsnuten.

The same day, I walked six hours to a snowy retreat called Grindaflethytta (“Grindaflet Hut”, 3574 ft elevation), halfway between Stalheim and Flåm. Halfway to the hut, rain began to fall, and I knocked on the door of a tiny cabin, where an extremely friendly dentist and his wife invited me inside for tea. They gave me valuable advice on where to backpack on the Hardangervidda, my next goal.

I rested all the next day alone at the luxurious, self-service Grindaflet Hut. On the hut radio, I created musical electronic noise as I searched for stations. Radio Moscow competed with Voice of America on the crowded European band waves. BBC said “Let’s Speak English.” Outside, reality drizzled rain on the melting snowy landscape. Inside, I comfortably sifted memories from my trip around the world.

The following day, rain did not abate, but I set out anyway, changing my goal from Undredal, a snowy seven-hour trudge away, to Flåm, a five-hour walk. On the last mile as the crow flies, I descended 2300 feet straight down to Flåm in dripping rain, stepping with sore legs ever downwards on slick rocks and ferns, losing the trail in dense rainforest several times. (Friends Cecile and Dave hiked this in 2004 and found the descent to be equally punishing.)

That descent reminded me much of walking the rugged Dusky Sound Track in New Zealand with my brother Jim. The Flåm Valley strongly resembles the rain-forested glacial valleys of Fiordland National Park, New Zealand (where they spell “fiord” with an “i” instead of “j”). However, instead of the dense beech forest of New Zealand’s Fiordland, Norway’s fjordland has spruce, fir and birch forest, plus its snow and alpine zones start closer to sea level.

I finally rode the famous Flåm to Myrdal railway line, the most expensive 12-mile section of standard-gauge railway in the world. Unlike the special rack railways of Switzerland, the Flåm to Myrdal line runs on ordinary railway tracks, and overlaps itself five times in one spot on its ascent of 2845 feet in 12 miles. The train plunges through so many dark tunnels (20) that it is more impressive as an engineering wonder than a scenic one. I returned to the DNT hut at Finse, completing a round trip of seven days. For dinner, I found a new treat: sauerkraut in a box.

Hike the Hardanger Plateau (July 14-18)

From Finse, I rode the train then hitchhiked onto the Hardangervidda (“Hardanger Plateau”), Norway’s second most popular hiking area. Hitching with two French students, I visited the breathtaking Vøringfoss, a powerful waterfall that thunders 597 feet from the Plateau to fjord country. Hydroelectric projects have diverted some of its roar, but Vøringfoss still impressed me.

The students left me at Sæbø, near the eastern end of Hardangerfjord. Since I would again be sleeping in mountain hotels, I left excess weight, such as Ensolite pad and bivi sack, with a campground manager.

I ascended 2600 feet on a farm road, switchbacking twenty times to reach a trailhead. My head ached most of that day, and I finally admitted that I felt lonely. Traveling alone for six weeks had taken a toll on my spirit. Along the way, some unnaturally friendly sheep ran up and followed me, bleating loudly! This was the third trail where sheep had followed me, perhaps hungry or lonely. On my previous hike from Stalheim to Flåm, a sheep had approached and sniffed me. On my earlier hike from Lake Eikesdalsvatn to Åndalsnes, a flock of ten sheep had run across a steep snow field and followed me excitedly! These sheep seemed overjoyed to see me in their isolated summer pastures, in sharp contrast with the flighty, dull-witted behavior of the penned hordes of sheep I saw earlier that year in New Zealand.

Encouragingly, my headache disappeared when I socialized with fellow walkers at Viveli mountain hut, four hours later. Once I had ascended from fjord country up to the Hardanger Plateau, walking became a breeze on the gently undulating top. Hardangervidda is probably Europe’s largest alpine plateau, measuring 40 by 60 miles, resting between elevations of 3000 and 4000 feet. Entirely above treeline, the desolate Hardanger Plateau fascinates many wilderness lovers. I had heard good reports about the Hardanger Plateau in conversations as far away as Nepal and New Zealand: nice scenery, lakes with good fishing, and a variety of alpine flowers (200+ species) and wildlife (reindeer, ducks).

As I walked to Hadlaskard mountain hotel, the hat shape of Mount Hårteigen (5500 feet) popped into view, a striking erosional anomaly on the relatively flat plateau. Climbing Hårteigen required a tricky ascent up a very steep snow gully. I methodically kicked snow steps upwards. A slip could have dropped me instantly onto rocks below. I definitely needed a rope and ice ax for safety. But with confidence and care, though, I topped Hårteigen and was rewarded by a striking panorama of undulating hills striped with snow like a zebra. To the north, I saw the sprawling permanent ice cap of Hardangerjøkulen (“the Hardanger Glacier”). I had the summit to myself. Beautiful summer days such as this made my journey all worthwhile.

Descending Hårteigen took just as much care as the ascent . . . but I concluded my venture with a triumphant slide down the snow chute! None of the 20 passers-by had attempted the climb that day. At the next mountain hotel, Torehytta, I became the legend for the day with my story of climbing Hårteigen. I encountered the most crowded hut of the trip at Torehytta: fourteen people in bunks and three (including myself) on the couches. Tourist season, July 15 to August 15, had begun!

Two days later, I hiked the spectacular transition from the Hardanger Plateau to fjordland. Huge cascades of water paralleled my course as I descended 3300 feet across smoothly glaciated granite and fir forest. On a hot summer day, I reached Kinsarvik, an important junction town on Hardangerfjord. Since I had passed through Kinsarvik two weeks earlier, I was surprised at how the campgrounds had become choked with visitors in such a short time.

Hike Jotunheimen, the Home of the Giants (July 19-25)

I hitchhiked back to Sæbø to collect my extra camping gear, then continued on to Geilo with a young Norwegian man, who was playing Bob Marley and Pink Floyd on his tape deck. He commented that American popular music reaches Norway five or ten years after its release.

On the train to Gol, to my great surprise I was surround by a carload of Russian tourists, who were visiting Norway in two days, like many Americans do. None spoke English. I conversed in basic French with a Russian cardiology professor. With extreme curiosity, the Russians riddled me with questions about the prices of cars, houses, and wristwatches in the United States, and were amazed at the low price of my digital wristwatch. We reached Gol all too soon, and I had to step off that exotic train car. This brief brush with Russia provoked my excitement as much as my four-hour layover in Moscow Airport, on the way to Europe from Nepal. In 1981, the “Cold War” was thawing quickly, and Russians and Americans had a lot to talk about.

In searching for a camping place across the river from Gol, I bumped into a group of six French campers in the bushes. We conversed in English, which they spoke better than my French. They eventually  invited me to dine and camp with them. Several weeks later, I would visit one of them, Philippe Contet, in his hometown of Chalon-sur-Saône, in the province of Burgundy, France. Philippe’s study of electrical engineering required many journals written in English and motivated him to learn my language.

From Gol, I hitchhiked in two rides to the “Home of the Giants”, where I would hike my last and best backpacking trip. One driver, a farmer’s wife, told me that she and her kids seated in the car, ages 8 and 10, had recently walked up Norway’s two highest peaks! I had pictured these peaks as arduous climbs, and now her kids seemed to be bionic athletes. I would soon find out for myself in my climb of Glittertind, Norway’s second highest peak.

I spent five days in Jotunheimen(“the Home of the Giants”), the highest mountains in Scandinavia. I stored excess weight at Gjendesheim, a DNT mountain hotel on the shores of the glacially green Lake Gjende. I was surprised to see the nearby ridges free from snow, despite being higher than snowy Finse. Then I learned that the 8000-foot Jotunheim Mountains capture the bulk of winter snowfall into a dazzling display of glaciers and snow-capped peaks, creating a drier “snow shadow” area around Gjendesheim. For an evening walk, I hiked up 2600 feet to Veslefjell Ridge, which drops steeply down to Lake Gjende (elevation 3240 feet).  Shaped like a link sausage, beautiful Lake Gjende stretched off to the foot of the distant snow-capped Jotunheim Mountains. Turning around, I suddenly spotted a dozen reindeer which were grazing the thin layer of yellow lichen on the otherwise bare rocks. Reindeer prefer high ridges like this one. I approached to within 50 meters of the reindeer, noticing large racks of antlers on the noble beasts. I felt privileged to share this place of stark beauty with these fellow wanderers of nature.

At 7:00 AM, I embarked across Lake Gjende on a motorboat, packed like Lofoten sardines with fellow walkers who would traverse the famous Besseggen Ridge that day. I stepped off the boat at Memurubu, located at the “link” of the two sausage shapes of Lake Gjende. The six-hour walk back to Gjendesheim provides a stunning view from Besseggen Ridge, one of the best sights in Norway, if not the world. I walked up the ridge 1300 feet to Lake Bessvatn, then another 1000 feet where the ridge became a quite narrow and airy “hogsback”, with a remarkable view back down to light green Lake Gjende and the adjacent contrasting deep blue of Lake Bessvatn. In the distance rose the snowy glaciated peaks of the Jotunheim Mountains. Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen immortalized this place when he described Peer Gynt’s wild ride on the reindeer across Besseggen Ridge.

Leaving camping gear behind in Gjendesheim on the following day, I walked seven hours over stony ground to Glitterheim hut, “home of Glittertind“, which is officially the second highest peak in Norway (8047 feet). However, a 60-foot-thick snow cap on Glittertind makes you stand at 8107 feet, the highest point in Scandinavia. Officially, the highest mountain in Norway is Galdhøpiggen (8102 feet), located across the valley from Glittertind.

By now in excellent physical condition, I easily hiked up 3500 feet in two hours to the top of photogenic Glittertind, which sports a jaunty ice cap that overhangs an impressive 1500-foot deep cavity. I saw a fantastic panorama of glaciers and peaks, another highlight of my tour. Although the Norwegian peaks only reach about 8000 feet above sea level, in my book, their snow-capped beauty match the great mountains of the world, including the Himalayas, the mountains of the Americas, and the New Zealand and Swiss Alps. Not only that, many Norwegian peaks can be hiked by the whole family, everyone from young kids to senior citizens, plus their dogs. (Norway also offers many challenging technical climbs, such as the Troll Wall, rated as one of the world’s six most difficult rock climbs.) To descend, I joyously slid 3500 vertical feet in one hour down the snow.

In my previous seven weeks, I had seen highlight after highlight without much rest. Tired and saturated with incredible scenery, I decided not to climb Galdhøpiggen, which has a view similar to Glittertind. The next day, in another stony walk, I hiked five hours out to Spiterstulen, a mountain hotel connected by road to civilization.

Skydiving the Troll Wall (July 25-27)

To complete one final unfinished sight, I returned to Åndalsnes in order to see the spectacularly glaciated mile-high walls of Roms Valley, which rain had obscured earlier. I just caught sight of the shear 3300-foot vertical drop of the Troll Wall as the fickle mists parted, then closed again. “That’ll do” I thought.

I shuddered at the risk taken by the two German skydivers who had jumped off the Troll Wall (Trollveggan) just one week earlier! One month after I had first met the two Germans at Åndalsnes Youth Hostel, I learned their fate via word of mouth and Norsk newspapers, which friends roughly translated. One parachutist had apparently landed safely on a snow patch near the bottom of the Troll Wall. A Norwegian police helicopter picked him up because either they wanted to arrest him, or maybe he could not descend without help. The second jumper fared badly, breaking his back upon landing after his directional parachute failed to fully open, and a day or two passed before he could be rescued and hospitalized. Each year, several skydivers leap from the Troll Wall, to the consternation of the Norwegian government, which usually ends up paying for rescues. Norway was considering pressing charges against the two Germans to collect the $100,000 rescue fee. Aside from legal ramifications, very poor wind and weather complicate jumping from the Troll Wall ­ the skydivers had to wait more than a month for good conditions! (Update 2004: Norway is one of the few countries in the world where BASE-jumping is still legal, subject to strict regulations. For example, in the last week of June each year, the town of Voss holds an Extreme Sports Week, where qualified jumpers can leap from a thousand-foot cliff called “the Beak”.)

Back to Home Base in Frankfurt, Germany (July 28-29)

Burnt out by my almost nonstop journey through the great scenery of Norway, I zoomed back through Oslo, Copenhagen and Hamburg to return to home base with an American friend in Frankfurt, sleeping two nights in a row on the train. I did not mind giving up the two extra days remaining on my two-month Eurail pass.

Epilogue

My initial ignorance of the snowy conditions of the Norwegian mountain walking areas in June became a blessing — that time was spent discovering the fantastic Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands of North Norway and the spectacular fjordland of southwest Norway. Because most of the great sights and experiences are not directly accessible by rail, I hitchhiked via car 1100 memorable miles, meeting many wonderful and generous Europeans.

To this day, Norway remains vivid in memory as my longest solo journey. Actually the trip began alone, but I met many friendly people along the way. On the trail in the Jotunheim Mountains, I encountered Willie Aeberhard, who would later host me for four days in his home of Sarnen, near Lucerne, Switzerland. And don’t forget Ole, Ola, and Olav (above).

I loved hiking Norway’s wilderness with a light pack, using its extensive network of well-marked trails and huts, the world’s best refuge system. Areas away from heavy tourist influence were most enjoyable, away from train lines and in the off season. When in Europe, don’t miss Norway, one of the most beautiful countries on earth.

References:
  1. Den Norske Turistforening (DNT), office at Storgata 3, two blocks from Oslo Central (train) Station.
  2. Mountain Touring Holidays in Norway, an excellent hiking guidebook published by the Norway Travel Association, Oslo. Check for a copy at the DNT office.

Recommended Norway books from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Norway travel books” at Amazon.com.

2011: 2012: 2010: 2012: 2011: 2005: 2010:

CANADA: Bowron Lake Provincial Park story

“Pardon Me, I’ll Run to my Ambulance Now…”

A true story from Bowron Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada. September 18-28, 1993.

Adventure travel sometimes takes an unexpected turn. While backpacking in Canada, I heard tales of a wonderful 73-mile canoe trip where you paddle a rectangular circuit of wilderness lakes and portage by rolling your canoe on wheels. Rugged mountains soar a vertical mile above you, mysterious mists hug the waters, and ravaging bears take your gear unless it is hung in caches reached by ladder. After dreaming about the trip for two years, I borrowed a canoe and joined some friends at Bowron Lake Provincial Park, near Quesnel, British Columbia. Little did I know that we would encounter an animal more fearsome than any bear. On the first day of the trip we witnessed a marriage proposal, a case of hypothermia, and a trip member running to catch his own ambulance!

Above, Bowron Lake images automatically play in a show. (PAUSE || or START SLIDESHOW as desired with buttons at lower right.) But mobile devices just display a fixed image, so click center to enlarge as a set of images with full captions in GALLERIES mode (where Add to Cart button lets you buy photos).

An Unexpected Phone Call

I planned to spend seven days canoeing the Bowron circuit with Mark and Kim, a married couple whom I knew through work. Kim’s friend Laura from the East Coast decided to join us. We chose to go in late September, when the summer crowds diminish and the leaves of the aspen trees glow gold.

A week before the trip, my phone rang. On the line was Dale, a stranger to me, calling from Oregon. (I’ve changed the name of Dale for this story, but all other details are true.) Laura was going to visit Dale for three days on her way to meet us in British Columbia. With enthusiasm, he asked if he could join our canoe trip, which would be a great break from his stressful high-tech job.

I chatted in a friendly manner, then questioned Dale closely about his outdoor experience. The Bowron canoe circuit requires paddling and camping in remote wilderness areas, a few days away from help. Dale said he was an experienced river rafter, triathlon athlete, and mountaineer. He had led climbs of several high mountains. Although he sounded a little manic and excitable, I felt that he might add positive energy to our group.

When he asked if Laura was my “blind date,” I said no, and he seemed relieved. Laura had never been his girlfriend, but he seemed interested in renewing a friendship with her. We spoke at length. Because I had initiated the trip, I had some power over who would go. Finally, I agreed that he could join us on our dream trip.

“This Guy Is Crazy!”

Mark, Kim, and I drove two cars from Seattle to the airport in Quesnel, British Columbia, which was just an hour’s drive from Bowron Lake. Dale and Laura arrived by plane. As she entered the baggage claim area, Laura was a little tired but in good spirits. Laura went in the car with Mark and Kim. Dale rode in my car. His eyes showed exhaustion, yet he pushed himself to stay awake. Last week on the phone he had spoken energetically, but now his voice was flat and devoid of emotion. I felt tense in this presence.

“Do you own a car?” I asked.

“No, but there’s a car in my driveway at home,” he said in an odd monotone, with a straight face. In the same mechanical monotone he asked, “Are you going to plant seeds?”

His question seemed out-of-context, and I was speechless. After a moment of thinking, I replied, “Oh, do you mean like when you toss an apple core into the wilderness, and it turns into an apple tree?”

Yes, that was what he meant. Something disturbs me about his flat, robot-like voice, I thought.

Despite his apparent exhaustion, Dale spoke with logic and intelligence. With more energy, he asked me if I wanted to climb a high mountain with him at some point during the trip. I said yes. He described his leadership experience, then questioned my abilities as trip leader. I said that I led informally by consensus and honored the opinions of those with the most experience.

“Would you be willing to risk your life to save someone else’s life?” Dale pressed.

I replied, “In an actual emergency, I probably would react by instinct without thinking. I would only risk my life if I had a reasonable chance of bringing myself back alive.”

My headlights pierced the pitch black night. I followed Mark and Kim’s red taillights as we drove the winding gravel road to Bowron Lake. Suddenly, the road forked ambiguously. Mark and Kim stopped their car and stepped out with Laura. Dale and I joined them.

“This guy is crazy!” I blurted, half-jokingly, towards Dale. Dale’s robot-like behavior was giving me the creeps. Dale didn’t react. To break the ice, we joked about being lost in the wilderness with Dale as an ax murderer. Dale cracked a small smile. Only Laura knew Dale, but she offered no unusual insights about the past three days she had spent with him in Oregon. Until this week, she hadn’t seen Dale in four years.

We chose the correct road and drove to our lakefront lodge to get some sleep. All five of us shared one cabin.

Wow, I thought, Dale has seriously disassociated himself from his feelings. I did not trust his ability to cooperate with the group. I lost several hours of sleep worrying about how I would handle seven days in the wilderness with Dale. Finally, I decided that stress and lack of sleep explained Dale’s unusual behavior. He would probably awake with the normal personality that I knew from our telephone conversation.

A Marriage Proposal

As I undressed to take my shower in the morning, I heard a knock at the bathroom door. I wrapped a towel around my waist and opened the door. Dale addressed me on his knees.

“May I please have Laura’s hand in marriage?” Dale asked seriously.

I laughed and said, “Sure, but you’ll need to ask Laura.”

Maybe Dale normally spoke in this style of deadpan humor. Only Laura knew Dale’s personality. I trusted her to tell us if Dale was unfit for canoeing 70 miles in the wilderness.

Mark told me later that Dale had rustled loudly through several packs in the wee hours of the morning as others slept. Dale had apparently eaten an apple and then planted its seeds outdoors in the frosty ground. Mark found this behavior rather strange, because apple seeds would never germinate in this cold climate. I agreed. But then I silently forgave Dale, because for him, planting seeds in the wilderness might be symbolic, like placing flowers on a grave.

Rays of sun pierced the morning fog and illuminated the golden aspen trees, which reflected in the expanse of beautiful Bowron Lake.

As we ordered breakfast at the lodge, Dale asked the waitress, “Do you need any help in the kitchen?” The waitress looked at him quizzically. She silently shook her head and returned to the kitchen.

With mingled fear and excitement, our group discussed the coming trip. When Dale asked if anyone knew water life-saving skills, I said yes. I said that if anyone fell into the water of these lakes, within five minutes they would lose most of their strength. This happened to me in a limb-numbing practice swim from a raft in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The Glen Canyon Dam releases the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon at 46 degrees Fahrenheit, which is very cold. The lakes of Bowron Lake Provincial Park are even colder. Not surprisingly, hypothermia poses the greatest danger on the Bowron circuit. We agreed to keep within voice distance at all times during the trip.

We repacked gear for the canoe trip. “Is that your pack?” I asked Dale, pointing to his pack. “That’s not my pack. That’s a pack” he corrected.

This smart-aleck behavior could get out of hand, I thought. I felt oddly fearful.

“Your Friend Is Naked”

The lodge’s van carried our boats and gear to the trail head. Sun filtered through the aspen trees and warmed the air pleasantly.

We strapped our canoes onto rented carts for wheeling a mile to the first lake of the Bowron circuit. However, Dale seemed confused. He kept trying to wheel his single-man canoe to the lake visible below instead of up the trail. We had to redirect him twice. Once he found the right trail, Dale ran far ahead, contrary to our agreement to stay within shouting distance.

We arrived at the crystal-clear, inviting lake outlet, which twisted through a reedy marsh surrounded by pine trees. The sun forced steam from the still surface of the outlet channel. But we saw no trace of Dale or his canoe. I confided to Mark, “This is really getting out of hand.” Despite the beautiful surroundings, my mood soured from distrust of Dale’s behavior.

A canoe approached around a small bend. A concerned woman in the canoe said, “Just around the corner, your friend is naked and neck-deep in water. His wet clothes are in the boat. He says he’s meditating, but he acts a little strangely. What should we do?”.

“We’ll be right there,” said Mark, as we hastened to detach the wheeled carts from our canoes.

A few minutes later, the woman returned by canoe and said, “Your friend has stopped shivering and no longer replies. We’re getting very concerned for him.” By then, Mark and Kim were paddling madly around the corner.

By this time, Dale may have been in the icy cold water for 25 minutes. As Mark and Kim approached him, Dale instinctively reached out of the water and grabbed their canoe, almost capsizing them. His bluish body clung to their canoe as they paddled to shore. They helped the tall, now-shivering Dale to shore, and Kim wrapped him with a silver space blanket. Laura (clothed) joined Dale in a sleeping bag to help warm him. I heated some hot water on a stove to help revive him.

Mark and I privately shared anger at Dale’s irresponsible behavior. Kim ran back to the ranger station and ordered an ambulance, as suggested by Mark.

Reborn in Wilderness Waters

After an hour, we were able to revive Dale from the depths of hypothermia. He finally stopped shivering. Eventually he crawled out of the sleeping bag shared with Laura. “Here, Dale, put on another coat,” said Kim.

He shook his head, then said in a childlike voice, “I don’t need clothing. All I need is a compass and a wife.” Dale’s simplicity struck a chord in me: I was also single, and looking for a sense of direction as symbolized by the compass. From the book Fire in the Belly by Sam Keen, I remembered two fundamental questions that a man must ask himself: first, where am I going, and second, who will go with me? Dale lifted and fondled the compass that hung from a string around his neck, and said softly, “A man drowned here today. I’m reborn.”

“No, Dale, no one drowned here today,” I said. Although still suffering from hypothermia and shock, he had now returned to his robot-like personality. He followed our instructions and allowed us to paddle him back to the start.

We felt fortunate that Dale had not chosen to pull this stunt in the middle of the trip, days away from help. As a confident swimmer and triathlete, perhaps he didn’t really believe my saying that in these lakes, hypothermia can hit you after only five minutes of immersion.

Dale’s eyes darted furtively. Suddenly he sprinted down the trail. I shouted, “Wait Dale, we’ll first need your life jacket back.” My voice stopped him in his tracks, and he obediently returned the life jacket. To prevent him from retreating further into himself, I engaged him to help put his one-man canoe on wheels for return to the lodge.

Dale jogged with Laura a mile to the waiting ambulance. How strange, I thought, here is a man running to catch his own ambulance! Later we learned that Dale spent three days in the hospital under observation. His parents flew across the continent especially to care for him. After his recovery, he thanked us for saving his life. He left thank-you letters on our cars parked at Bowron Lake and phoned us after the trip. In his letter, he confessed difficulty in pulling himself out of the cold water and thick mud. “I’m surprised how fast hypothermia sets in and how much shock it put me in after my body was warmed back up,” he said. “I am very disappointed that I shook you guys up and hope you will forgive my foolishness.”

Power Rangers

Laura’s return flight restricted us to finish the Bowron circuit by a certain date. Unfortunately, Dale’s flirtation with hypothermia cost us a day. Our group, minus Dale, athletically paddled the loop for six days, instead of the seven days originally planned. For greater enjoyment, I recommend taking eight or more days. Luckily, a tailwind pushed us most of the trip.

Canoeing the Bowron loop turned out to be safer than I had expected. We shared our wilderness experience with about six other canoes per day. Rangers in powerboats patrolled each lake about once a day. A ranger had taken less than half a day to travel 30 miles around the lake system on foot and by powerboat to help us with Dale. However, by then we had already sent Dale away in the ambulance. I thanked the ranger for his valiant efforts. “I’ve seen a number of disassociated people like Dale come to this park in the past,” he said.

Walking on Water

We paddled fifteen long miles across “L”-shaped Isaac Lake. I paddled the “J”-stroke thousands of times to propel the canoe straight. Once or twice a day we reshuffled gear and mounted the canoes onto handy bicycle-wheeled carts for overland portaging. We wheeled the canoes for only 5 miles of the 73-mile circuit. As darkness fell each evening, we had just enough time to set up tents and cook a tasty dinner before admiring the starry sky. As a nightly ritual, we climbed high ladders to pile our food in bear-proof caches provided in the designated campgrounds.

We shot the whitewater chute of Isaac River, and successfully negotiated the snags of Cariboo River. Fresh snow dusted the Needle Point Ridge a mile above Lanezi Lake. A small glacier clung to a mountain in the distance. In the middle of shallow Sandy Lake, we appeared to walk on water as we pulled our canoes to deeper channels. On the West side of the 70-mile loop, Spectacle Lakes reflected spectacular rows of golden aspen trees. Gradually the mountains receded into the distance, the warm sun shone, and lakes became calm as mirrors. A few days after our harrowing start, I began to relax. On the last day, in the final stretch back to the lodge, rain fell gently as we paddled across Bowron Lake.

For campfire entertainment during the trip, I enjoyed quoting from Dale: “Are you going to plant seeds? . . . A man drowned here today. . . . I’m reborn. . . . All I need is a compass and a wife.” I must credit Dale for enlivening my vacation memories. Perhaps he got all that he wanted out of his trip: a compass strung around his neck for a sense of direction, and a warm woman in his sleeping bag to help revive him. Along with Dale, I felt reborn in the wonderful wilderness waters of Bowron Lake Provincial Park.

Copyright 1993 by Tom Dempsey.

See also my related articles (with multiple trips consolidated):

Recommended Canada and Montana guidebooks from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Canada Rockies travel books” at Amazon.com.

Search for latest “Montana travel books” at Amazon.com.

2003: 2011: 2010: 2010:

2012: 2011: 2011: 2010:

CHILE

In Chile, inspiring Patagonian scenery and great trekking between comfortable mountain lodges rival any in the world. We left winter in Seattle to enjoy summer in Buenos Aires, Patagonia (in Argentina and Chile), and Antarctica from February 3 to March 11, 2005. Below are photo highlights, travel tips, and a detailed self-booked itinerary. Lake District images from a 1993 trip are shown further below.

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In Chile, Patagonia includes the territory of Valdivia through Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Spanning both Argentina and Chile, the foot of South America is known as Patagonia, a name derived from coastal giants (“Patagão” or “Patagoni” who were actually Tehuelche native people who averaged 25 cm taller than the Spaniards) who were reported by Magellan’s 1520s voyage circumnavigating the world.

Torres del Paine National Park: “W Route” trek

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In Torres del Paine National Park, hike between excellent mountain huts (refugios) which provide hot meals, hot showers, and mattresses in dormitory bunkrooms. Trekking to huts with a sleeping bag and change of clothes (US$42-52 per person per night in 2005) leaves your backpack much lighter weight than carrying a tent and food. Due to a grass fire burning and closing the park entrance, we shortened our “W Route” Trek from 8 to 5 days. While waiting two days for the park to reopen, we ferried up the Sound of Last Hope (Seno de Ultima Esperanza) to tour impressive Serrano Glacier. The 2005 grass fire was caused by a camper having problems lighting their portable stove on a windy day. Backpacking with a tent, stove, food, pad, and sleeping bag is cheaper than hut walking, but frequent 50mph winds make tent camping uncomfortable.

The refugios are operated by two different companies (as of 2015), best booked in advance, especially in high season:

  • Refugios operated by FantasticoSur.com: Los Cuernos, El Chileno, Torre Norte (next to Hotel Las Torres), Torre Central (next to Hotel Las Torres).
  • Refugios operated by VerticePatagonia.com: Dickson, Paine Grande, Grey

Weather forecast for trekkers near Paine Grande at 500m/1600 ft elevation:
www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Paine-Grande/forecasts/500

In this map of Torres del Paine National Park (in Chile, South America), our hikes are shown as dotted red lines, including 5 days on the "W Route" and 2 days at Hostaria Balmaceda and the Serrano Glacier. The pink arrows with dotted blue lines are ferry routes. The purple lines are the park roads which connect to Puerto Natales off the map. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

W Route trekking itinerary

  • Stay the first night or two at Hostería Pehoé with great views of Torres del Paine peaks. (Standard double room US$175; standard triple room US$215 in 2005). Explore nearby day hikes with great views, guanacos, and wildlife. (Our stay there was unfortunately cancelled due to nearby forest fire.)
  • Trek Day 1: While waiting for the ferry at Refugio Pudeto on the park road, walk to Salto Grande, a nice waterfall. Take the ferry “Hielos Patagonicos” to Refugio Lago Pehoé. Hike 6.6 miles, 2000 feet gain, to Refugio Grey (renovated 2005) for Night 1.
  • Trek Day 2: Hike from Refugio Grey back to the very nice Refugio Lago Pehoé. Dormitory bunks sleep 6 people in each comfortably carpeted room, with great mountain views.
  • On Day 3, hike French Valley side trip (only if mountain tops are visible) on your way to Refugio Los Cuernos. Advance booking of Nights 3 and 4 at Refugio Los Cuernos allows another day to experience spectacular French Valley in case of previous bad weather. Refugio Los Cuernos dormitory style hut (8 to 10 people per room) has excellent views of rock towers which glow at sunrise.
    • Alternative: Stay Nights 2 and 3 in comfortable Refugio Lago Pehoé. Hike on Day 3 round trip to spectacular French Valley (Valle Francés) 18 miles round trip, 3830 feet gain, one of our favorite hikes in the world! Hike on Day 4 from Refugio Lago Pehoé to Refugio Los Cuernos, 8 miles, 1435 feet up, 1200 feet down.
  • Trek Day 5: Hike from Refugio Los Cuernos to Refugio Chileno to stay for Nights 5 & 6.
    • Optional finish in 5 days: Hike from Refugio Los Cuernos out to Hostaria Las Torres on the park road, 10 miles, 700 feet total gain. Optionally get up early to complete the W Route by hiking 18 miles total including 5-hour side trip to Torres del Paine Lookout.
  • Trek Day 6: From Refugio Chileno, hike 3.5 hours round trip up Valle Ascensio to Torres del Paine Lookout, which many call the most spectacular hike in the park (about 40 minutes beyond Campamento Torres). Stay Night 6 in Refugio Chileno.
  • Trek Day 7: Hike from Refugio Chileno 1.5 hours to Hostaria Las Torres end point (or 3 hours if you miss the bus and must walk to Laguna Amarga entrance station).

Alternatively, you could start from Hostaria Las Torres and hike the W Route westwards, but prevailing high winds would blast coldly into your face, impeding progress and sapping energy.

Puerto Natales trips: Serrano River by Zodiac, Serrano Glacier, Seno Ultima Esperanza cruise, Puerto Montt ferry

Puerto Natales is not scenic, but is the best place to get supplies and arrange tours in and around Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Get out of town with great excursions into wilderness:

1. Serrano Glacier cruise

From the docks of Puerto Natales, catch the inexpensive daily cruise to Serrano Glacier on the ship “21 de Mayo.” Explore scenic fjord “Seno de Ultima Esperanza” (Sound of Last Hope) and walk a fun nature trail to the tongue of a spectacular tidewater glacier. Frequent high winds can sometimes turn back or cancel this day cruise. If the next day’s weather forecast is good, book the cruise one day in advance at the dock — or check for tickets on the morning of departure. If you sleep overnight near remote Serrano Glacier at basic Hostaria Balmaceda (as we did), meals are provided, but no hot shower or bath, just a sink. Pleasant day hikes have views of Serrano Glacier across the fjord and Torres (Towers) to the north. Adventure alert! Extend a Serrano Glacier cruise via remote wilderness into Torres del Paine National Park as follows:

2. Zodiac cruise up Serrano River to Torres del Paine

is the most dramatic and adventurous way to first lay your eyes on the awesome Paine Towers! Ride the Zodiac boat day trip into Torres del Paine National Park, stay extra nights on lakes with Torres views, optionally trek the W Route, then return to Puerto Natales by road/bus. Several different Chilean tour companies offer a great Serrano River tour via Zodiac including luggage transfers to lodging. (Don’t go the opposite direction, because southward Zodiacs leave the Towers behind you.)

3. Hostería Pehoé

To maximize your chances of catching good weather and seeing wildlife, stay at least one or two extra nights in Torres del Paine National Park, such as at Hostería Pehoé. Buy dinner in cafeteria (or bring cold food).

4. Puerto Montt ferry

Puerto Natales is the southern terminus for the ferry from Puerto Montt via Chilean fjords. The regular ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales is on the Puerto Eden cargo ship/ferry, which I hear is an enjoyable way of making your way south for 4 days through the fjords and canals of Patagonia. “The ship is large and comfortable, with adequate deck space, large lounge, adequate food, videos of old movies, and a party on the last night.” Scenery is pretty, but there are no penguins, no icebergs, and little summer snow on peaks. I ferried and drove the coastal highway from Puerto Montt as far south as Chaiten and Chiloe Island, and saw interesting fjords, salmon farms, villages on stilts in the seawater (Palifitos), impressive snow capped volcanos — but none of this was as spectacular as Torres del Paine, where glaciers descend to sea level.

Image gallery of Serrano Glacier and Punta Arenas

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“Chilean Lake District” or Zona Sur

What international tourist literature calls the “Chilean Lake District” usually refers to the Andean foothills between Temuco and Puerto Montt including three Regions (XIV Los Ríos, IX La Araucanía, and X Los Lagos), in what Chile calls the Zona Sur (Southern Zone). The southern Andes mountains are pimpled with an astounding number of volcanoes, more ubiquitous than in Washington’s Cascades Range!

A trip with Mom, Dad, and brothers Jim and Dave took us from Santiago to Valdevia (where Jim was serving in the US Peace Corps) to Chiloé Island round trip in a van 25 days through the “Lake District” (December 24, 1992 to January 18, 1993). Highlights included: an enchanting native Monkey Puzzle tree forest in Nahuelbuta National Park atop the coast range; impressive snow capped volcanoes every 30 kilometers in the Andes (Volcan Osorno, Villarica, Llaima, Puntiagudo-Cordón Cenizos, etc); huasos (Chilean cowboys) pinning bulls with horses in a competitive rodeo; Fishermen’s traditional wood houses (palafitos) rising on stilts on Chiloé Island; delicious fresh seafood; roadside sales of German kuchen (tort-like cake); and the world’s smallest deer species (pudu).

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Mountain weather forecast for Volcan Osorno at 2600 ft elevation: www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Osorno/forecasts/811

A map of southern South America (Patagonia) summarizes trip from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Antarctica, Torres del Paine National Park (Chile), and Mount Fitz Roy (Argentina).

Patagonia and Antarctica itinerary

Our private, self-booked group traveled from Seattle to Buenos Aires, Patagonia (Argentina & Chile), and Antarctica from February 3 to March 11, 2005:

  1. Fly to Buenos AiresEzeiza airport (code EZE, Ministro Pistarini International Airport). Stay in San Telmo barrio (oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires). See tango shows, shop at street fairs, dance in Dorrego Square.
  2. Fly 1500 miles from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia (airport code USH), in Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina. Eat king crab pizza with frosty beer, take the ski lift to hikes, and walk in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
  3. From Ushuaia, cruise 12 days round trip with GAP (now called G Adventures) through the Beagle Channel and across rough 400-mile Drake Straight to explore the frozen Antarctic Peninsula.
  4. Fly a short hop from Ushuaia to working-class Punta Arenas (airport code PUQ), in Chile. Ride vans and buses to tourist town Puerto Natales.
  5. Bus from Puerto Natales to lodges or trailheads in Torres del Paine National Park (Chile). Trek or day hike happily for a week.
  6. Bus from Puerto Natales (Chile) to thriving tourist town El Calafate (Argentina), where awesome Perito Moreno Glacier is a popular day trip. Most people take a bus tour to Moreno Glacier round trip 8:30am to 5:00pm, which most hotels can book upon your arrival. But for better photographs, rent a car, drive in early around sunrise (2 hours driving one way), and experience morning light from the boardwalks. Staying for sunset light may also be good. For two or more people, car rental is cheaper and more flexible than a bus tour.
  7. Bus from El Calafate round trip to frontier town El Chaltén. The road is now paved and 2.5 hours by car or 3 hours by bus. (The formerly gravel road took 5 hours by bus in 2005.) Explore spectacular Mount Fitz Roy via classic day hikes.
  8. From El Calafate Airport (code FTE, 20 km east of El Calafate), fly back to Buenos Aires. Frequent daily flights.
For more itinerary details, see our 2005 Patagonia/Antarctica complete trip planning notes (21 pages) (but our agents Pathagone.com and Operatur.com are no longer in business).

Recommended Patagonia, Argentina, Chile, and Antarctica books and maps

Search for latest Patagonia travel books at Amazon.com:

2009:

Search for latest Argentina travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2010: 2011: 2006:

Search for latest Chile travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2011: 2011: 2010:
2006: 2008:

Search for latest Antarctica travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2008: 2009:

ARGENTINA: Patagonia, Buenos Aires

In Argentina, inspiring Patagonian scenery and great hiking rival any in the world. We left winter in Seattle to enjoy summer in Buenos Aires, Patagonia (in Argentina and Chile), and Antarctica from February 3 to March 11, 2005. Below are photo highlights, travel tips, and detailed self-booked itinerary.

Favorite Argentina photos

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Buenos Aires photos

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When to visit Patagonia (southern Chile and Argentina)

Spanning both Argentina and Chile, the foot of South America is known as Patagonia, a name derived from coastal giants (“Patagão” or “Patagoni” who were actually Tehuelche native people who averaged 25 cm taller than the Spaniards) who were reported by Magellan’s 1520s voyage circumnavigating the world.

  • The best time to visit Patagonia may be from March to April, when tourists disappear, yet most services remain open, wild windy weather calms somewhat, and beech tree forests glow with fall colors. At the beginning of March, children go back to school, parents go home, and crowds disappear.
  • Late February through March has less wind and rain than earlier in the summer.
  • High tourist season in Patagonia runs from December to the end of February, when accommodation and other services should be booked in advance.
  • Avoid overcrowding January to mid-February in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina.
  • Patagonia is very windy all year. November can be the windiest. September to January are frequently blasted with high winds (gravity-fed katabatic winds or williwaws) which rush off the Patagonian icecap at 60 mph all day, sometimes up to 100 mph. Even in late February/early March, which have the lightest summer winds, we experienced steady 50 mph winds about every third day!
  • The ozone hole over Earth’s southern atmosphere is worst September to mid-October and continues through January — apply sunscreen every day, including cloudy days.

Mountain weather forecasts

Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

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Easy boardwalks and stairs give wide views of Perito Moreno Glacier, an impressive wall of ice 200 feet high, 3 miles (5 km) wide, flowing into Lake Argentina in Los Glaciares National Park, in Santa Cruz province. Easy access to the awesome glacier makes it one of the most popular sights in South America. The glacier flows up to 2300 feet thick and originates in the huge Hielo Sur (Southern Icefield). The flowing ice periodically dams an arm of the lake which rises for a few years then breaks across the nose of the glacier as a crashing river (in March 2004 and 1991). In 2005, a narrow river flowed across the face of Moreno Glacier which calved large chunks of ice into the water with a loud crash several times per day. In the past 90 years, its melting has equaled its advance (up to 2 meters per day, 700 meters per year), so the glacial terminus has roughly stayed in the same place — a rarity in a time of global warming.

Hikes from El Chaltén village into Cerro Fitz Roy range, in Los Glaciares National Park

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In El Chaltén, we nestled into a comfortable cabin with kitchen. Multi-night backpacking trips can be done with optional horse support, but frequent high winds can thrash tents all night. The following great trails can be done as day hikes from El Chaltén:

  • Laguna de los Tres (15 miles, 3200 feet round trip) is one of earth’s most spectacular glacial cirques, a favorite hike. Be sure and ascend the 300-foot hill above Laguna de los Tres (Lake of the Three) for the best view, which includes glacial-turquoise Lago Sucia (Dirty Lake) far below. Options: backpack or horsepack to the campground for 2 or 3 nights for more time exploring awesome beauty.
  • Loma del Pliegue Tumbada (12 miles, 3000 feet round trip, plus 3 miles and 1000 feet higher if you go to the top of the third hill with the best view). Views are so impressive that we hiked a second time in better weather. See Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy together at several viewpoints. Start this spectacular hike at Los Glaciares National Park Visitor Center (before crossing the river bridge into south end of El Chaltén). Start early to photograph classic sunrise views of the Fitz Roy Range on the main road a few hundred yards east of the Visitor Center.
  • Torre Lake (6 hours round trip) has an excellent close view of Cerro Torre. Halfway there, cool wave clouds sped over Mount Fitz Roy but clouds obscured Cerro Torre. 50 mph winds at the pass turned me back.
  • Rio Electrico to Cerro Electrico Oeste peak gives spectacular views looking south to the Fitz Roy Range. Optionally hire pack animals to support a tenting trip here, or possibly overnight at private Refugio Los Troncos, or day hike from a vehicle parked along the nearest road. The day hike is very steep with good views along the way.

Ushuaia and Tierra Del Fuego National Park, Argentina

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As the port closest to Antarctica (400 miles across the Drake Straight), Ushuaia hosts most of the cruise ships that visit the southernmost continent.

A map of southern South America (Patagonia) summarizes trip from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Antarctica, Torres del Paine National Park (Chile), and Mount Fitz Roy (Argentina).

Patagonia and Antarctica itinerary

Our self-booked private group traveled from Seattle to Buenos Aires, Patagonia (Argentina & Chile), and Antarctica from February 3 to March 11, 2005:

  1. Fly to Buenos Aires, Ezeiza airport (code EZE, Ministro Pistarini International Airport). Stay in San Telmo barrio (oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires). See tango shows, shop at street fairs, dance in Dorrego Square.
  2. Fly 1500 miles from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia (airport code USH), in Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina. Eat king crab pizza with frosty beer, take the ski lift to hikes, and walk in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
  3. From Ushuaia, cruise 12 days round trip with GAP (now called G Adventures) through the Beagle Channel and across rough 400-mile Drake Straight to explore the frozen Antarctic Peninsula.
  4. Fly a short hop from Ushuaia to working-class Punta Arenas (airport code PUQ), in Chile. Ride vans and buses to tourist town Puerto Natales.
  5. Bus from Puerto Natales to lodges or trailheads in Torres del Paine National Park (Chile). Trek or day hike happily for a week.
  6. Bus from Puerto Natales (Chile) to thriving tourist town El Calafate (which has an airport with frequent flights from Buenos Aires) in Argentina, where awesome Perito Moreno Glacier is a popular day trip. Most people take a bus tour to Moreno Glacier round trip 8:30am to 5:00pm, which most hotels can book upon your arrival. But for better photographs, rent a car, drive in early around sunrise (2 hours driving one way), and experience morning light from the boardwalks. Staying for sunset light may also be good. For two or more people, car rental is cheaper and more flexible than a bus tour.
  7. Bus from El Calafate round trip to frontier town El Chaltén. The road is now paved and 2.5 hours by car or 3 hours by bus. (The formerly gravel road took 5 hours by bus in 2005.) Explore spectacular Mount Fitz Roy via classic day hikes.
  8. From El Calafate Airport (code FTE, 20 km east of El Calafate), fly back to Buenos Aires. Frequent daily flights.

Recommended Patagonia, Argentina, Chile, and Antarctica books and maps

Search for latest Patagonia travel books at Amazon.com:

2009:

Search for latest Argentina travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2010: 2011: 2006:

Search for latest Chile travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2011: 2011: 2010:
2006: 2008:

Search for latest Antarctica travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2008: 2009:

CANADA: Bicycle Jasper to Banff on Icefields Parkway

In one of our most memorable trips, we bicycled from Jasper to Banff in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, camping with support vehicles (September 9-14, 2003). Complete planning details are shared below.

See Mount Athabasca (left, 3491 meters or 11,453 feet) from Icefields Parkway near Sunwapta Pass in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. This is part of the big Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1984. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Our four riders ages 45 to 66 were supported by Mom and Dad (in their 70s) driving two Volkswagon Eurovan Campers as sag wagons. Spreading the 187-mile bike tour over 5 days plus a rest day let us appreciate the great scenery with moderate effort. Our first day of biking finished in style with a relaxing soak in Miette Hot Springs, a favorite swimming pool with mountain views. In comparison, Banff Hot Springs has a great view but is more crowded and disappointingly lukewarm.

Self-organizing the bicycle tour saved money and allowed flexibility to ride on rain-free days. Rainy forecast for the first 2 days in Banff motivated a rainy car shuttle drive north to sunnier Jasper. We rode bikes two days, rested on a rainy day, then rode three more days, averaging 38 miles per riding day. Rain showers dampened half of one riding day.

Total elevation gain over 5 days from Jasper to Banff was 6800 feet, with 5600 feet downhill. The order of two trip legs were switched, bypassing snow falling at Sunwapta Pass (Leg 3) in favor of no precipitation at Bow Pass (Leg 4). This leg swap let us ride glorious Sunwapta Pass (Leg 3) on a beautiful sunny day speeding 2200 feet downhill over 43 miles (plus 1300 feet up). Good training made the hardest day (Leg 2) seem normal, climbing 2400 feet over 35 miles.

Columbia Icefield Visitor Center, Jasper National Park, Alberta, CANADA.

Dress warmly in moisture-wicking layers with waterproof breathable rain jacket. Use rain-proof booties, or cheap plastic bags between socks and shoes, in case of wind chill or rainy days. Cell phones may have no coverage in the middle 100 miles of the ride. Use walkie-talkies (with at least 5+ mile range) for communication between spread-out cyclists and support vehicles. The radios improved morale and prevented logistics problems, such as when a car key was misplaced, then replaced, with the help of radio communication.

Photo gallery of Jasper, Banff, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks, in the Canadian Rocky Mountains

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Planning details for bicycling from Jasper to Banff

We bicycled 187 miles from Jasper to Banff, from campsite to campsite, September 9-14, 2003.

Five bicycling days/legs from Jasper to Banff (north to south)

  • Leg 1: 32 miles (1300 feet up, 300 down)
    • From: Whistlers Campground (hot showers, Dump Station, open through 10/13/03, 3500 feet elev) (2 miles from town of Jasper).
    • To: Honeymoon Lake Campground (no showers; open until 10/13/03; 4300 feet elev).
  • Leg 2: 35 miles (2400 feet up, 200 down) Sunwapta Pass (6676 ft elev)
    • To: Columbia Icefield Campground (or adjacent Wilcox Creek Campground, DS, no showers; open through 9/22/03; 6600 feet elevation).
    • We added a rest/rain day after the first two days of riding.
  • Leg 3: 43 miles (1600 feet up, 2200 feet down)
    • To: Waterfowl Lakes Campground (no showers, open through 9/28/03). My favorite day, a speedy descent on a sunny day through gorgeous river and mountain scenery.
  • Leg 4: 39 miles (1100 feet up, 2000 feet down)
    • Bow Pass, 6785 feet, is the highest elevation on the Icefields Parkway. The steepest ascent on Bow Pass climbs 800 feet in 3.5 miles, not too bad. A side trip to Peyto Lake viewpoint is highly recommended.
    • To: Lake Louise Campground (5100 ft, hot showers, DS) Carol’s favorite day, a moderate climb followed by a fun, long 2000-foot descent to Lake Louise.
  • Leg 5: 38 miles (400 feet up, 900 feet down)
    • To: Banff: Tunnel Mountain Village I Campground (4700 feet elev, open year around)
    • We completed our bicycle ride just in time (September 14, 2003), because snow fell that night and days after!

Bicyclists commonly ride the Icefields Parkway in either direction. The southward road climbs 6800 feet total, with 5600 feet downhill. Although the net uphill is 1200 feet, you avoid climbing the long, narrow-shouldered, steep hill northwards up to Sunwapta Pass.

If you reverse the above five-day route, pedaling from Banff to Jasper makes nice moderate rides between the same campgrounds and climbs less, with only 5600 feet total gain and 6800 feet total down. Optionally shorten the trip to four days by combining Legs 1 and 2 into one day of 67 miles climbing 500 feet and descending an exhilarating 3700 feet.

Campgrounds

Break up the long drive from Seattle to the Canadian Rockies with an overnight stay near Salmon Arm or Revelstoke, BC:

  • www.cedarsrvpark.com: Campground with hot tub and pool, 1-877-836-3988, Sicamous, BC is 400 miles from Seattle.

Campsites are mostly first come first served in Banff and Jasper National Parks. Checkout time is 11:00am. Check latest info at:

Reservations are accepted for the following campgrounds at http://www.pccamping.ca/, or phone 1-877-737-3783:

  • Jasper NP: Whistlers, Wapiti, and Pocahontas (near Miette Hot Springs)
  • Banff NP: Lake Louise Tent Campground and separate Trailer Campground, and Banff Tunnel Mountain #1 and #2.
  • Robson Meadows Campground, Mt Robson Provincial Park

Each morning, our support vehicles drove ahead to secure our next campsite without reservations and had no problem getting a site between 9:00am and noon in September 2003.

Hot Showers

  • Banff NP: Banff Tunnel Mountain Village (plus Banff Upper Hot Springs nearby), Two Jack Lakeside, Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise.
  • Jasper NP: The Whistlers Campground (closes mid October), Wapiti Campground (closes in early September), and Miette Hot Springs (day use).
  • The campgrounds from Waterfowl Lakes through Honeymoon Lake have no hot showers. Alternatives: sponge baths, or drive to showers or hot springs.

RV Dump Stations (DS): In Banff NP: Tunnel Mountain, Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise, & Waterfowl Lakes campgrounds. In Jasper NP: Wilcox Creek, Whistlers, Wapiti Campground.

Food: buy groceries in Banff, Castle Junction, Lake Louise (more expensive), Saskatchewan Crossing (small grocery & restaurant), or Jasper. Our bikers carried their snacks, water and lunch each day. Restaurants are available at Vermilion Crossing and Sunwapta Falls.

A glacier bus dwarfs a bicyle at Columbia Icefield Visitor Center in Jasper National Park, CANADA.

Easy hikes and good side trips to supplement a bicycle trip:

  • Jasper National Park:
    • Miette Hot Springs: Soak in the hottest springs in the Rockies, a clean swimming pool with a good view of Ashlar Ridge. Drive 1 hour from Jasper. 8:30 am – 10:30 pm summer hours.
    • The Whistlers Tramway whisks you up to high views of the Victoria Cross and Colin Ranges rising across the broad Athabaska River Valley.
    • Lower Maligne Canyon: Walk above a scenic slot canyon and gorge.
    • Mount Edith Cavell: Hike 2-5 miles to see spectacular Angel Glacier and Cavell Pond.
    • Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls: Easy stroll.
    • Columbia Icefield Visitors Centre: SnoCoach ride ~$30 on Columbia Icefield.
      • Wilcox Pass: 5 miles round trip, 1082 feet gain (7,790 feet max elevation). Start at Wilcox Creek Campround, 1.2 miles east of Icefield Centre.
      • Parker’s Ridge (7200ft elev; marked trailhead in Banff NP, 5 miles south of Icefield Centre): Walk 3 miles round trip, 910 ft gain, great view of Saskatchewan Glacier.
      • Nigel Pass hike.
  • Banff National Park:
    • Lake Louise area
      • Join the crowds at Fairmont Chateau admiring Lake Louise, Mount Victoria, and Mount Temple.
      • Moraine Lake is a hilly side trip on a narrow road with high traffic. Park early to avoid crowds and filled lot. Cross the outlet stream and ascend the little hill trail for a stunning view across the turquoise lake reflecting the Valley of the Ten Peaks.
    • Johnston Canyon: Start early in the morning (or off season) to get ahead of busloads of hikers on this deservedly popular trail. Easily walk 1 to 7 miles, 300-800 feet gain, through an attractive gorge with waterfalls. Only walk further to the Ink Pots if you want more exercise.
    • Herbert Lake and Bow Lake reflect peaks spectacularly on a windless day.
    • Peyto Lake overlook: Walk a short distance to see a spectacular turquoise lake and Bow Pass.

Read the longer article: CANADA: Canadian Rockies & Columbia Mountains parks, which covers hiking in more detail.

See also CANADA: Coast Range: Whistler Resort, Garibaldi & Joffre Lakes Provincial Parks

A bicyclist zooms down Icefields Parkway south of Sunwapta Pass in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

Recommended Jasper/Banff books and maps

Search for latest “Canada Rockies travel books” at Amazon.com.

2011: 2010: 2010: 2012:2010: 2010: 2011:

USA: HAWAII: Kauai, Maui, Big Island

The islands of Hawaii, Kauai, and Maui offer some of the best hiking experiences in the world. The amazing natural beauty of the state of Hawaii has attracted me five times, and I will gladly return. Click here for some images of Hawaii.

Waves crash at sunset on Kalalau Beach, Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii, USA.Kauai

The 11-mile Kalalau Trail is one of my favorite backpacking trips in the world. The trail crosses five valleys and ends at Kalalau Beach, blocked by sheer cliffs (or Pali, in Hawaiian). Thankfully, State permits limit the number of overnight hikers to this wonderful area. You can also find greater solitude in the off season (non-summer).

The Na Pali Coast is so spectacular that noisy flight-seeing helicopters fly over frequently, sometimes every 15 minutes, which can be annoying for hikers. I flew over Kauai in a helicopter once and humbly admit that the views are astounding, including full circular rainbows! However, the views will have more personal meaning when you invest “sweat equity” by hiking or kayaking. (Zodiac boats are no longer allowed to drop off or pick up hikers on Kalalau Beach — you must earn this experience by backpacking.)

Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” is mostly a State Forest Reserve, open to hiking as well as hunting for invasive feral pigs.

Taro root, a traditional staple brought to Hawaii by the original Polynesian immigrants in the 700’s AD, is a popular crop grown in Hanalei Valley, in northeast Kauai.

Sea cliffs rise spectacularly up to four thousand feet above Kalalau Beach on the Na Pali Coast, Kauai, state of Hawaii, USA. Copyright Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com

MauiA rare silversword plant blooms in Haleakala National Park, Maui, State of Hawaii, USA.

Backpacking in Haleakala National Park on Maui is one of my favorite experiences. Haleakala visitors can also day hike, ride horseback, bicycle, and drive through the fantastic scenery and rare ecosystems of this 10,023-foot dormant volcano. Bicyclists can coast down 10,000 vertical feet on the 40-mile road from the summit of Mount Haleakala. Commercial operators offer supported bicycle descents.

As you hike or ride horseback across Haleakala Crater, the dry moonscape turns into a lush green cloud forest in just 6 miles. The crater forms a bowl 7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, and its floor averages 6700 feet in elevation. With a National Park camping permit, you can sleep overnight in the crater in your own tent. Or you can reserve one of the three cabins. Morning mists drift through the cinder cones in Haleakala Crater and often evaporate by mid-afternoon.

See the official bird of the state of Hawaii, the Nene (or Hawaiian Goose, Branta sandvicensis) grazing in and around Haleakala Crater, especially near campsites. The Nene is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and is related to the Canada Goose.

Related to sunflowers, silverswords grow for up to twenty years before a blooming with a huge flower stalk between May and November. After just a single gigantic bloom, the plant dies. In Haleakala Crater, the fascinating native silversword plants are endangered by feral goats. Silverswords grow only on Maui and the Big Island.

“The Big Island” of Hawaii

Humans first populated the Big Island of the Hawaiian Islands chain. Using large catamaran-like canoes with coconut-fiber sails, Polynesians became some of the finest sailors in history. In the 700s AD, Polynesians bravely canoed here all the way from the Marquesas Islands and later from Tahiti. Early residents left rock pictographs, used simple tools and irrigation, lived in relative harmony with nature, fought wars with each other, and passed down a proud culture through stories and songs to future generations. British Captain James Cook would not discover the Hawaiian Islands, which he called the Sandwich Islands, until a thousand years later, in 1778.

The Big Island is geologically the youngest island in the 25-million-year-old Hawaiian chain — in fact it is still being created! Lava flows have blocked the Chain of Craters Road, and molten lava pours regularly into the Pacific Ocean. You can actually watch the Big Island grow. In 1987, UNESCO listed Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as a World Heritage Area.

Recommended books for Hawaiian Islands travel

Search for latest “Hawaii travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

SWITZERLAND and the ALPS hiking guide

The Alps in Europe are a paradise for hikers. This article describes how to plan your hiking trip beneath spectacular peaks such as Eiger, Jungfrau, Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and Piz Palü (in the Bernina Range). Here are the Alps in a nutshell:

  1. Switzerland: Berner Oberland and Loetschental.
  2. Mont Blanc and the High Route: Trek the Haute Route from Chamonix’s Mont Blanc (France) to Zermatt’s Matterhorn (Switzerland). Hike the Mont Blanc Circuit or day hike from Chamonix and Courmayeur (Italy).
  3. Switzerland: Engadine Valley trekking advice and itinerary for 5+ days.

Separate articles cover the Dolomites in Italy and Slovenian Alps:

Alps favorite images from hiking in Switzerland, France, Italy, and Slovenia

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Practical advice for self-guided trips in Switzerland and the Alps
  • Transportation:
    • In your home country before departure, buy a Swiss Pass for free travel on most Swiss rail lines and Post Buses (discounted for 2+ people traveling together, or age 60+, or under age 26) and discounts on most lifts. Various Flexi Pass options save money for public transportation on days of your choice everywhere in Switzerland.
      • For one-way hikes within Switzerland: Post your luggage ahead to train and Post stations (CHF 12), or have hotels send your bags ahead as you hike one way.
    • Renting a car can beat train prices for 3 or more people traveling together.
  • Money: Switzerland costs are similar to resort areas of the USA. From 2005-2015, exchanging the US dollar for Swiss Francs has been better than for the Euro (used in France, Italy, and Austria).
    • Save on food: Pack a thermos bottle to fill at your hotel in the morning for hot drinks during the day, along with a sack lunch from the Coop or Migros grocery store. Restaurants are expensive.
  • Use hiking poles (as do Europeans) to assist ascents, protect your joints on descents, and improve hiking stamina by 20%.
  • Time change: set your watch +9 hours from Pacific Standard Time (PST=west coast USA) to get Central European time (CEST is GMT+1). Allow a full day to recover from travel weariness and severe jet lag, plus 2 or 3 days to recover your sleep schedule.
  • Guidebooks: Buy a travel guidebook plus hiking guidebook at bottom of this article for planning and reference along the way.

A geographic travel map of Switzerland shows a month itinerary starting from Zurich and doing 20 hikes in Berner Oberland, Chamonix (France), Zermatt, and Engadine Valley, Europe. (Tom Dempsey)

Right: Switzerland travel map of 20 hikes in one month connected by trains, from Zurich to Bernese Oberland, Chamonix (France), Zermatt, Engadine Valley, and back.

Weather and hiking season in the Alps (Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy)
  • July 1 through August 15 is high tourist season, after which local kids go back to school and parents don’t have as much time to visit the tourist areas, which are then less crowded.
  • July to early August has the best wild flower displays. We were still impressed by flowers in September.
  • Late August through September is a great time to go for good weather and also avoiding crowds. Yellow larch and other impressive fall colors begin in middle to late September. Many mountain huts start closing in early September. Stay in valley hotels all year. Hiking season continues through October in the Dolomites, Italy, which are consistently clearer, warmer and drier than the Alps of Switzerland, France & Austria, which are further north.
  • Swiss hiking season ends in about late September or early October due to snow in the mountains and the closure of many visitor facilities. When winter snowpack builds up a few months later, the Alps throng with skiers, creating bigger winter crowds than summer in ski areas such as Zermatt.
  • A north wind generally means good weather in the Alps.
  • Mountain weather varies by region:
    • Weather forecast for specific peaks and ranges: www.mountain-forecast.com/mountain_ranges/alps/subranges
    • Check weather forecasts and start hiking early in the morning. In many mountain areas, sun heating the ground in the morning can often build up clouds and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Patient photographers can look for attractive cloud breaks in the hours around sunset.
    • Switzerland:
      • The Valais, Zermatt, and Matterhorn are sunny and dry with the highest hikes in the country.
      • Bernese Oberland and the Eiger are much rainier than the Valais and Engadine. The astounding beauty of ice clad peaks soaring high above verdant green pastures must be seen to be believed.
    • France: Chamonix climate is somewhere between Geneva and Zermatt, one of the drier alps areas in the rain shadow of Mont Blanc. September to early October is best hiking weather.
    • Dolomites, Italy (click for article): September through October are consistently clearer, warmer, drier in the Dolomites than in the Alps of Switzerland, France & Austria. Southern and southeastern areas are foggier than the rest of the Dolomites. Excellent overnight hut walking options include:
      • Rifugio Lagazuoi
      • Tre Cime di Lavaredo (in Italian), Drei Zinnen (in German), or “Three Pinnacles” (in English) circuit with refugios.
Global warming is quickly melting most Alps glaciers

1. Switzerland: Berner Oberland and Loetschental

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In 2001, UNESCO listed Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn as a World Heritage Area featuring the most glaciated part of the Alps, Europe’s largest glacier, and a range of classic glacial features such as U-shaped valleys, cirques, horn peaks, and moraines. The ongoing uplift and compression that formed the High Alps has left an outstanding geological record. A diversity of flora and wildlife thrives in a range of Alpine and sub-Alpine habitats. In the wake of retreating glaciers, witness the colonization and succession of flowers and plants. The impressive vista of the North Wall of the High Alps, centered on the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks, has played an important role in European art and literature.

Berner Oberland and Loetschental hiking tips, Switzerland

The Berner Oberland (Bernese Highlands, Bernese Oberland, or Bernese Alps) is the southern and higher elevation part of Bern canton, in Switzerland.

How to get there: From Zurich downtown train station, ride 4 hours to Interlaken, where you board a train to scenic Grindelwald Valley or spectacular Lauterbrunnen Valley.

  • www.myswissalps.com/berneseoberland/ web site thoroughly describes most Berner Oberland hikes…
  • Mannlichen Gipfel
    • is the site of my best selling image: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau 81ALP-04-15.
    • Männlichen mountain (2343 meters elevation or 7687 feet) provides a stunning view of the peaks of Eiger (Ogre 13,026 feet), Mönch (Monk), and Jungfrau (Virgin 13,600 feet). Männlichen can be reached from Wengen by the Luftseilbahn Wengen-Männlichen (LWM) cable car, or from Grindelwald using the Gondelbahn Grindelwald-Männlichen (GM) gondola. Then walk 15 minutes on a paved path to the summit. Go before 1:30PM to avoid afternoon cloud buildup. Return down the hill, then traverse 2 leisurely hours to Kleine Scheidegg train station, facing stunning mountain views at every turn! A special cog train runs from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen to Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald and back.
  • Lauterbrunnen Valley
    • Wander around Lauterbrunnen town and valley for amazing views, including 1000-foot-high Staubbach Falls.
    • Hike from Mürren (or Gimmelwald) up towards Birg and the Schilthorn as we did, and take the cable car back down for a very scenic day (or lift up and walk down).
      • Or walk Mürren to Griesalp one way 10 miles, 3000-4000 feet gain, then take the Kiental bus out.
      • Or if you have more energy, stay overnight in Griesalp and continue walking from Griesalp to Kandersteg.
    • On a rainy day, visit “Trummelbach Falls inside the mountain,” an underground slot canyon (entry fee).
  • Faulhorn Trail from Schynige Platte to First is one of the finest hikes in Switzerland.
    • Walk 6.5 hours, 9 miles, ~2700 feet elevation gain. (Optionally reverse direction for less uphill, 2300 feet total, arriving at Schynige Platte by 17:00 or 18:00 to catch the last train.) A sunny uncloudy day is required to see vast mountain views. See hike #39 in “100 Hikes in the Alps” by The Mountaineers.
    • Directions: Stage the hike from lodging in Grindelwald. Take Wilderswil cog rail 1 hour to trailhead at Schynige Platte (2068m). Hike by fantastic rock shapes in a deep valley. Hike east side of Bachalpsee. Ascend 15 minutes side trip to Faulhorn. Optionally overnight on top in atmospheric Berghotel Faulhorn for stunning sunset and sunrise views. Photographers should plan to reach spectacular First at the end the hike in the afternoon, because sun striking early morning haze obscures mountain details. At First (2168 meters elevation), lift down to Grindelwald, or from Mittelläger take the ~hourly Post bus.
  • Lötschental (or Loetschental) is a less-touristed valley in the Valais Canton, just south of the Berner Oberland.
    • Stay in attractive Blatten. Enjoy a 3-mile walk one way up valley to Kuhmad Chapel (built 1758), past historic wood hayloft buildings and restored wooden chalets. Catch bus at Fafleralp and return to Blatten.
    • For best views of Loetschental and the sharp ridge of the Bietschorn, from Fafleralp, hike to Krindellücke (5 miles round trip, 2.5 hours, 1542 feet gain). See Hike #30 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
  • Kandersteg
    • is reached by train or road from Brig to the south or Spiez to the north.
    • Oeschinensee is a very popular alpine lake walled with high cliffs. See hike #36 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.” Start hiking in Kandersteg, 6 miles round trip (4 hours), 1400 feet gain (or only 30 minutes round trip hiking from top of chairlift). Late afternoon photo light is best for the famous “calendar shot” — try for a windless day for best lake reflections. From the lake, optionally walk 1 or 2 nights one way to Lauterbrunnen, staying in mountain lodging.
  • Fiesch: Eggishorn lift 
    • Take the cable car from Fiesch to Eggishorn (2893 meters elevation at top of lift), to see a spectacular view of the Grosser Aletsch Glacier (Großer Aletschgletscher), which flows from Jungfrau. From this great viewpoint at Eggishorn, if no ice or snow affects your safety, start a hike to Riederalp (9 miles one way, with 700 feet gain), optionally via Donnerstafel, Bettmersee, and Blausee, and crossing over the ridgeline for the best long-distance views. Then walk towards Rieder Furka and the cable car at Riederalp. (Option: After admiring Eggishorn’s view, take cable car back to middle terminal to shorten the hike and avoid slippery snow if present.) After finishing the walk at Riederalp, take the cable car down to Morel, where you can take the train back to Fiesch or down the valley to Brig. See Hike #34 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.” (Fiesch is 2.5 hours by train from Kandersteg.)

2. Mont Blanc and the High Route: Trek from Chamonix’s Mont Blanc to Zermatt’s Matterhorn

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Mountain excursions in Chamonix, France
  • Lac Blanc: Hike 6 miles, with 1800 feet vertical elevation gain one way, after taking La Flégère cable car lift. Start on La Flégère cable car at the north edge of Les Praz de Chamonix, one train stop or 10 minutes by bus from Chamonix. Behold the stunning Mont Blanc Massif across the valley. Day hike or stay overnight at Refuge du Lac Blanc for sunset and sunrise reflection of the spectacular rock needles rising above Chamonix Valley. See hike #12 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
  • Lacs Noirs and Cornu, 5.5 miles, 2000 feet: Take Le Brévent télécabine (gondola lift, 20 minutes). Optionally combine with the above Lac Blanc hike. See hike #13 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
  • Aiguille du Midi: Don’t miss the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi cable car from Chamonix (France) to a spectacular shoulder of the Mont Blanc Massif.
    • Take the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car, from 1035 meters to 3842 m (12,605 feet elevation) for an unforgettable, must-do experience.
    • If weather is good on top of Aiguille du Midi, board the Vallee Blanche Aerial Tramway (Funivia dei Ghiacciai, or Télécabine Panoramic Mont-Blanc) to Pointe Helbronner.
    • Optionally take the cable car (Funivie Monte Bianco) from Helbronner Point to Refuge Torino to La Palud near Courmayeur, in the Aosta Valley, Italy.
      • Walk a short distance on snow from Refuge Torino station to Col du Géant for stunning mountain views.
    • In good weather, take the lifts round trip. Or bus from La Palud or Courmayeur through the Mont Blanc Tunnel back to Chamonix.
Hut to hut walking on the High Route
  • The 112-mile Haute Route (High Route) from Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (France) to Zermatt (Switzerland) offers Old World charm and dramatic scenery from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn. The whole trek takes two weeks.
  • The first three days of the Haute Route grandly introduce the Alps:
    • Day 1 (2-5 hours hiking): Start with Lac Blanc (as above) and stay in the a hut for panoramic views, with sunset and sunrise reflections of the spectacular rock needles rising above Chamonix Valley.
    • Day 2 (5-7 hours): Look for ibex (wild goats) on the way to Col de Balme, the first of 11 high passes on the Haute Route. End the day at Refuge du Peuty.
    • Day 3 (5-7 hours): After a rocky climb to Fênetre d’Arpette, with views of the Glacier du Trient, descend through meadows to the bus at Champex (or keep walking onwards to Zermatt to complete the Haute Route).
  • Lodging options:
    • Huts/refuges cost $25 to $80 per night per person with meals (2005). Photographs can capture more spectacular sunrise/sunset light up in huts than from hotels down in valleys. Hut info: ohm-chamonix.com and Swiss Alpine Club.
    • Valley hotels: Take lifts, hike high, and sleep low in comfortable hotels or hostels nestled in each valley. We loved a 10-day self-guided “Hiker’s Haute Route” luxury package from Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures.
Mont Blanc Circuit (Tour du Mont Blanc)
  • is one of the great treks of the world, very spectacular and more crowded than the Haute Route. Hike hut to hut, from France to Italy to Switzerland, all on foot in about 8-10 days around the Mont Blanc Massif (or Monte Bianco in Italian).
  • Or day hike the highlights from hotels based in Chamonix, France (above) and Courmayeur, Italy (below).
Hikes and lifts in Courmayeur, Italy
  • Mont Blanc in French is called Monte Bianco in Italian.
  • Courmayeur, Italy, is a short bus or car ride from Chamonix through the convenient Mont Blanc Tunnel.
  • In clear weather, don’t miss the cable car from La Palud (via Refuge Torino) to Pointe Helbronner, then lift to Aiguille du Midi. Optionally take cable car down to Chamonix.
    • Hike Col du Géant: Near entry to Mont Blanc Tunnel, take La Palud cable car to Refuge Torino (3375 meters elevation). Optionally stay overnight in Refuge Torino (250 beds, reserved 1 week ahead with Italian Alpine Club, CAI) to experience a magical sunset and sunrise. Walk a short distance on snow from Refuge Torino to Col du Géant, a stunning mountain view. See over Vallée Blanche from the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc and over the Aiguilles to Géant.
  • Monte Bianco View: 8 miles one way, about 4.5 hours. From Courmayeur take the Val Veni bus westwards to end of pavement at 1955m, hike back via Col Chécrouit. Optionally take cable car from or to Col Chécrouit. Hike to Lac Chécrouit for a picturesque reflection. See a stunning view of mountain savagery (Aiguile Noir) from a spur of Mount Favre. Eat a festive lunch at La Maison Vieille on the mountain near the cable car. See hike #23 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
  • Hike northeast of Courmayeur:
    • Montagne de la Sax ridge: ~9 miles, ~4000 feet gain one way Courmayeur to Lavachey, sleep there or bus back. Hike high above Val Ferret through larch forest to some of the widest and grandest panoramas of the Mont Blanc Circuit. See back up Val Veni to Col de la Seigne and whole Mont Blanc Massif. Closer rocky peaks form an impressive wall: Géant, Grandes Jorasses, Leschaux, Triolet, and Mont Dolent.
    • Grand Col du Ferret: Drive car 6 miles or bus 10 miles, and hike steeply up ~2700 feet gain. Or hike into Swiss Val Ferret, and bus/train back to Courmayeur via Martigny, or continue hiking around the popular Mont Blanc Circuit.
    • See hike #24 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
Hikes in Zermatt, Switzerland
  • How to get there: The famous mountaineering and ski resort of Zermatt lies at 1620 meters (5310 feet) elevation at the head of Mattertal (Matter Valley) in the Pennine Alps, Valais canton, Switzerland. Most visitors reach Zermatt by cog railway train from the nearby town of Täsch (Zermatt shuttle). Trains also depart for Zermatt from farther down the valley at Visp and Brig on the main Swiss rail network. Small electric taxis serve Zermatt, which bars combustion-engine cars to help preserve small village atmosphere and prevent air pollution.
  • Gornergrat is spectacular cog train terminus located at 10,134 feet / 3130m elevation. The Gornergrat is the first point on a ridge that runs out to Hohtälligrat (3286m) and Stockhorn (3407m amidst a sea of ice) all linked by cable car from Gornergrat.
    • The Gornergrat cog wheel train ride takes 47 minutes from Zermatt station. 25% discount for holders of the Swiss Pass. Take the special dawn train for great a sunrise lighting up the Matterhorn. Leaving Zermatt, the earliest departures are 07:10, 08:00, 08:24… and the last departure is 19:12 as of 2005.
    • Sit on right-hand side of Gornergrat cog train for magical Matterhorn vistas. Hike up or down any portion:
      1. Take the cog rail to the Rotenboden stop, then hike east to Gornergrat 1000feet / 300m up in 1 hour, in 2.1 miles / 3.5 kilometers.
      2. A short walk on foot will reveal a sunrise reflection of the Matterhorn in Riffelsee and other tarns (ponds). Hike back via Gagihaupt peak (2568m).
      3. Hiking one way from Gornergrat down to Zermatt is 7.5 miles, down 5060 feet/1535meters, down in about 4 hours.
      4. Overnight option: Riffelberg Hotel (a stop of Gornergrat cog train) sits on spectacular exposed platform above the valley. Dorm beds 75 Swiss Francs per person with half board (dinner & breakfast, 2005); open until mid-October.
    • See hike #33 in “100 Hikes in the Alps.”
  • Stellisee and Fluhalp: Hike 5 miles/8k, 1700feet/500meters gain, 90 minutes up, 40 down. Take Sunnegga Express (7 minutes, an underground funicular train near east side of Visp River halfway between cemetery and Gornergrat cog rail). Or lift to Blauherd for 80m ascent to Hotel Fluhalp. Go east, below cliffs separating Sunnegga from Blauherd. Superb classic Matterhorn view and reflection. Hotel Fluhalp serves higher climbing huts.
  • Höhbalmen: mountain shoulder with great views, 3300 feet gain.

3. Switzerland: Engadine trekking advice: Itinerary for 5+ days

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The En or Inn River flows through the Swiss valley of Engadine, which is Engadin in German or Engiadina in Romansh. Don’t miss hikes near the glacier-clad Bernina Range in this suggested itinerary:

Ratings:  **** four stars = Fantastic.  *** three stars = Must do.  ** two stars = Worthwhile.  * one star = only if time allows.

  1. ** Day 1: Stay at in Scuol**, which has very attractive historic buildings and a covered bridge over the Inn/En River, with high mountains for an impressive backdrop. Hotel Guardaval** in Scuol has a great view and very friendly staff.
  2. ** Day 2: Walk from Scuol** to Guarda***, via Tarasp** historic castle and Ardez** (great sgraffito).
    • Alternative Route: Hike a longer, remote, higher route which starts from atop Motta Naluns ski lift, hiking via the pleasant & remote Tasna valley* along high pastures and forest to Guarda***.
    • Stay at Hotel Meisser** in beautifully preserved historic Guarda*** (call ahead).
    • * Optional Extra Day: Hike from Cinuos Chel Brail train station to Val Susauna* (a small village with a pretty church in an isolated valley) to Zuoz*, which is bigger but has a pleasant town square. A nice view of Upper Engadine opens out as you approach within a mile of Zuoz and on into the town.
  3. ** Day 3: From Muottas Muragl funicular** hike to Segantini Hut down to Pontresina via Alp Languard’s Sessellift (chair lift)**.
    • Optional extension: From Alp Languard, you can also add (or do on its own) a great loop trip along a ridge to Chamanna Paradis** Restaurant, which has a spectacular view of Piz Bernina massif and Morterasch Glacier. Nice moderate grades and great views, but very popular, so don’t expect solitude.
    • Pontresina lodging: Hotel Steinbock** had a tasty buffet included with excellent dinner.
  4. **** Day 4: Walk from Morteratsch (second train stop from Pontresina towards Bernina Pass) to Boval Hut. Boval Hut offers close views of Morteratsch Glacier amid an impressive cirque of the icy Bernina Massif. Optionally stay overnight in Boval Hut for a good sunrise light on the spectacular massif. The trail is well graded, not steep, only 5 or 6 miles round trip and 2700 feet gain/loss. Return via lower trail for partial loop. A world favorite day hike!
    • *** Alternative or extra day: continue from Pontresina on the Bernina Express*** train line (the most spectacular train in Switzerland) to the top of the pass, and get off at an interesting area such as Alp Grüm. Optional day hike to Sassal Mason hut. Optionally take the Diavolezza*** lift to stunning views, similar to Boval Hut but 1500-feet higher.
    • *** Alternative or extra day: Spectacular hike from Pontresina up the Roseg Valley to Coaz Hut and over Surlej Pass down to St Moritz. Or hike round trip to Tschierva Hut (a long day, 15.5 miles roundtrip, 2800 ft), also in Roseg Valley.
    • Sils Maria* is a quiet, pretty village on attractive Lake Segl*, reached via Post Bus, more relaxed and cheaper than staying in St Moritz. In Sils Maria, Hotel Edelweiss** is very luxurious, with dinner and good breakfast in a huge ornate ballroom with live piano. Alternative: Explore scraffito in the village of **Samedan, overnight.
    • * Extra Day: Walk from Sils Maria to “pasturesque” Grevasalvas* (setting for the movie Heidi, with some nice old stone buildings), to Lake Lunghin, and optionally up to alpine Piz Lunghin** then descend to Maloja Pass to catch the Post Bus back to Sils Maria.
  5. *** Day 5: Walk from Cassacia (or Vicosoprano) to Soglio*** village (11 miles, 2000 feet up, 2900 feet down) on the Sentiero Panaramico***, a scenic trail marked with little yellow hiking signs. All three villages are on the Post Bus line. If starting at Cassacia (via Post Bus), the first hiking hour is through pleasant pastures and woods, but within earshot of a busy highway, and follows powerlines, past a dam retaining pretty turquoise water, and within view of another dam (forming lake Lagh da L’Albigna) looming amazingly high on the other side of the valley. After a few hours the Sentiero Panaramico leaves the power lines and progressively gets more aesthetically pleasing, with more and more spectacular views of the Sciora Range*** the closer you get to Soglio***, an attractive town with medieval narrow streets.
    • Lodging in Soglio***: Hotel La Soglina*** has a great view and large, modern, comfortable rooms.

Recommended Alps travel guidebooks from Amazon.com:

Search for latest “Alps travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

Bring a good country guide plus a detailed hiking guidebook:

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2014: 2010: 2010: 2010: