Let me take you on a journey.
Imagine your next vacation. It is at one of our great National Park’s of the West. It’s end of July and early in the mornings you hit the road leaving your hometown, or from the car rental place at the airport, if you’re flying in. You’re proverbially ‘heading west’ with matching road trip music on the stereo and after a could hours in gridlock on the interstate you’re traveling on smaller highways, through sleepy towns until you reach the National Park entrance. You know that feeling, you’ve been here before. The entrances often feel like a gateway to a magical place: A place so different from your everyday life, rejuvenating and refreshing – it’s you’re vacation destination, and it’s not Disneyland.
The roads in the park are long and windy. You drive through old growth forests, along majestic streams and travel until you reach the main lodge.
Now, in real life, the lodge or visitor center might be your final destination. But this time, in our imaginary journey I am taking you on, it’s just a pit stop where you leave the car behind. What you’re after is a backcountry hut several miles off the beaten path far in the wilderness.
After a brief rest at the main visitor center your trip really begins. You and your family grab their backpacks and head off to their final destination.
You’re now going to say, that this is already possible, what’s the big deal. But wait up. In the current state you need to bring full survival gear, bear canisters for food, sleeping bags and rain gear. Gas stove, dehydrated trail food, water for drinking and a purification device for the water you need you can’t carry. That’s a lot of gear which needs to be purchased and mastered. You might enjoy ‘roughing it’, but even the minimalists I meet are secret gear lovers and spend lots and lots of cash on constantly updating their latest stuff. It’s prohibitive for many families. It’s a status divide that shouldn’t be there.
The current experience includes remote campsites, with little infrastructure, but here in our vision a fully managed backcountry lodge awaits you.
A hut, not luxurious, but catered and managed, with beds, electricity and water. Hardly possible to pull of with today’s infrastructure, but tag along.
This backcountry hut will be your basecamp for a few days and destination for today.
The well-marked trail makes the adventure enjoyable for your family. Your backpacks are light, because you only need to focus on the essentials you’d need for a day hike, plus a change of underwear and a toothbrush.
Upon arrival the host greets you and checks you in. If you’d been traveling solo you could opt for a bunk beds in one of the co-ed rooms. That’s would be an even cheaper accommodation. But you arrive with your family so you take one of the a small rooms with 4 beds. Your room is not luxurious, there’s no flatscreen TV, no fake gas fireplace. Basic mattresses, a small pillow, it’s clean, simple, but welcoming.
There are bathroom facilities and showers down the hall and dinner will be served at the main gathering space on the ground floor. The food is simple, hearty, made with local ingredients, highlighting the region’s specialties. It’s cooked by people on-site, not pre-frozen fast food.
The fellow travelers you meet are all here for the same reason. Vacation from the daily grind, looking for an adventure.
The communal space after dinner turns into a causal space for gathering, sharing trip reports and a beer or two, but everyone turns in early, tomorrow the adventure begins. The only sleeping bag you needed to bring is a light hut sleeping bag. Two sheets sown together, to help the cleaning crew keep efforts at a minimum.
Let’s hold here for a moment and breathe. Consider this: You might’ve just taken a shower, you definitely had a good meal, and you sleep in a real bed, in the backcountry. Let me tell you, this is as close to perfect as it gets, trust me.
The next morning when you wake up the family, you’re not the first one up. The hut is buzzing already and people are up to catch the sunrise on the nearby peaks. Hiking boots are put on, backpacks repacked. Breakfast is simple and you can buy all the ingredients you need to make sandwiches for the day and refill your water bottles.
Some folks are heading out to the trails that connect this hut, your basecamp to other hut just like that.
Other folks stay for a few more days and scale the surrounding peaks.
Yes, this is a dream, and logistically, politically, historically it more of a nightmare than an dream. But, I live now in the land of endless possibilities and NASA just sent us the first amazing pictures of Pluto. Why shouldn’t I dream big?
Is it truly impossible?
Certainly not. This scenario I described is an average mountain vacation in the Alps, and I experienced many of them throughout the last few decades.
I grew up in southern part of Germany the foothills of the Alps. Many of my Summer vacations were spend roaming the valleys and hills, playing in the streams as a kid and scaling peaks as a teenager. It’s a different world over there, but it also showed me that it’s possible.
I’ve watched and greatly enjoyed Ken Burns’ epic PBS Special on the National Park, but I would never consider myself an expert in the history of National Parks and other Federal and State regulated recreational areas.
The way I see it, there are there are currently two main experiences for visitors to National Parks.
The classic, traditional approach, the way National Parks have been enjoyed by Americans for many decades:
You take your car, drive through to the gate and stop at every scenic view point on the way to the main Visitor Center and Lodge. There you park the car, grab you camera, take a few shots of the surrounding area. Perhaps you hike a simple trail, eat an overpriced hot dog served by a National hospitality chain, and you buy a t-shirt.
There’s nothing wrong with this experience for most Americans. If you arrive wearing flip flops and a tank top you expect a shopping mall atmosphere, and that’s okay, I suppose.
In stark contrast to this shopping mall experience is the other primary outdoor activity in National Parks: real wilderness hiking/camping.
Just within a few miles from most Visitor Centers and trail parking lots you can leave the crowds behind and enter a world most people don’t ever get to see. Wild animals, barely maintained trails in potentially hazardous conditions, in short: real wilderness.
It’s fantastic that these places still exist in our overdeveloped world. It doesn’t have to be comfortable and convenient everywhere.
The interest and love for the outdoors are seeing an incredible growth and need new ways for the outdoors to be enjoyed and experienced. Everything I’ve been reading in the last couple of year points toward this, from hipster Instagram accounts, to outdoor retailers posting records sales, to National Parks announcing record visitor numbers.
The outdoors are booming and we need to take advantage of it.
The wilderness purists would love to see the outdoors to be left alone, and there’s certainly an argument to be made for that. The descendants of John Muir will always have an important voice at the table, to remind us that we need to keep any impact to our wild lands at a minimum.
Yet, the roads area already built, the cars are already driving through the parks, requiring road maintenance, parking lots, and traffic control.
Those visitors are rightful users of their lands as well. They support their public lands by paying the entrance fee and after having had a memorable experience will vote for park budget increases, so one hopes.
But can we invite the regular folks to embrace their parks as something else than a nature zoo, or a game reserve?
I currently find the learning curve, the jump from visitor center amenity to wilderness experience, too steep for most people. Most people visit the big National Parks once in their life. You go, snap a picture and think that’s the only thing there is to do.
Yes, there’s education through inspiration. The idea goes that one visits the parks, gets excited, goes to REI and buys the right gear. He takes a few classes and overcomes that hurdle of feeling lost out there in the wilderness and step by step discovers the wilderness, and learns to embrace it.
But without a guide, a personal friend you can trust to ‘show you the way’ this can be a steep hill to climb, and not many do.
This, perhaps is exactly the intention for wilderness lovers.
“Look, we show you what gear you need to buy, what books to read and classes to take, but we secretly hope you don’t actually show up out there on the backcountry trails, because we don’t trust you and we want it for ourselves. We, the able ones.”
I think that attitude is bullshit.
And I’ve expressed this in many ways already on this blog.
But where do we go from here? How do we go from dreaming to actually doing?
1. Better way finding signs
We start off with a simple one. Many trails I am hiking just a few miles from the road have barely any signs posted. This can get so easily overlooked by people comfortable on the trails. But if you ever tried to find a trail head or had to make a decision which way to turn somewhere in the middle of nowhere with your family you’d learn to appreciate good signage telling you milage, distance to destination, name of trails, etc.
2. Via Ferratas:
“A Via Ferrata is a protected climbing route found in the Alps and certain other locations. The essence of a modern via ferrata is a steel cable which runs along the route and is periodically (every 3 to 10 metres (9.8 to 32.8 ft)) fixed to the rock.”
I’d love to see new routes and trails be established with fixed ropes for people looking for a new hiking experience without getting fulling into mountaineering.
3. Backcountry lodges you can hike to:
Huts with full, but simple amenities. Places out in the wilderness you can make your basecamp, as a destination for a night or an access point for further exploration. This will expand the reach of hiking trails. It connects the obvious accessible visitor center to the wilderness beyond. It will allow for incredible experiences beyond the reach of the car.
It can be a challenging destination for the casual hiker and a basecamp for serious climbers looking to scale the next peak. Think Camp Muir but fully established. Many huts in the Alps are on or above 10000ft.
To connect and provision the backcountry huts you will probably need a few lifts or gondolas, not for people transportation, but for provisions, food, etc.
I’m a huge fan of gondolas and would love to see those introduced in our wilderness areas.
Famous Swiss speed climber Ueli Stecks is currently on a quest to scale all 82 Summits over 4000meter in the Alps in 80 days. Learn more about the project on his website and follow him on Twitter for daily updates on his progress. This project would not be possible without the network of huts all over the Alps he’s traveling to and staying between scaling peaks. The kicker is that between peaks he’s riding his bike. A complete human powered adventure including 1000km of cycling which would never be possible in the US, not because of the greater distances but because of the lack of infrastructure.
Many mountains on the Olympic Peninsula are hard to climb not because of the difficulty of the peaks but because they require many days of bush-whacking through areas with little to no infrastructure and minimal fresh water access.
Look, I know this dream seems crazy, probably even offensive to some of you. But since you kept reading until now I want to assure you: If I could take you to the Alps and let you experience the incredible network of huts all over Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and South Tyrol I am convinced you’d understand what I am talking about. You too would get a longing for similar infrastructure over here in the National Parks of the West.
UPDATE: A version of this article appeared in American Trails Magazine in Spring of 2016.