The Backbone Path: The Underrated Joys of Ridgeline Hikes

Specimen Ridge makes a stirring thoroughfare through backcountry Yellowstone.
Specimen Ridge makes a stirring thoroughfare through backcountry Yellowstone. Yellowstone National Park/Jacob W. Frank
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In hilly or mountainous country, most trails logically follow the canyons or valleys of drainages or, conversely, watershed divides—trails that often evoke the feeling of burrowing into the land. The ridge traverse, in turn, is the backbone way: Up on the ridgetop, you’re skimming atop the landscape, dipping “under” only where some rocky outcrop or genuine peak shunts you on a sidehilling detour. Such hikes have a simple, yet deeply fulfilling appeal—it’s about faithfully following a roughly linear track, the land falling away to both sides; the spell of a windy, upland corridor over the country, invariably beckoning onward.

The way typical ridge trails work: switchbacking up a slope from ravine or canyon bottom to gain the ridgeline, or following the gully of a tributary stream up, or climbing one of the spur ridges that form the ribs of a main divide. This kind of hiking can feel almost anatomical, in a way that climbing a peak or walking flatlands doesn’t. Spine and ribs, with major spurs sometimes resembling limbs and ridgeline peaks and knobs forming vertebrae or heads or horns. The land as beast: reclining lazily, or sidewinding forth, or braced aggressively.

The topographic backbone may be narrow, razor-keen, with a relatively smooth edge or a jagged ripsaw one. The teeth of an alpine arête, which is a glacier-sculpted knife ridge between opposite cirques, may necessitate technical climbing. The backbone could be gentle and rounded, resembling a whale’s dorsum instead of a dragon’s tail—like the big broad tundra ridges of the Southern Rockies or many of the coulee-scalloped divides of southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.

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A broad subalpine ridge in the western Wallowa Mountains enables expansive vistas. Ethan Shaw

Ridge trails may extend for many miles on high, dropping only modestly here and there into cols or saddles or headwater basins and then regaining the divide. Days hugging the crest of the land this way, avoiding the messiness below—the ankle-wrecking switchbacks, the sun-blasted side slopes, the treacherous river crossings—conjures a particular kind of headspace. Long views to all sides, then interludes of hushed, hemmed-in timber. Blazing, glaring sun, then suddenly cloud wraiths popping up above ridgebrows and spreading over, socking you in—and just as abruptly burning off. Storms breaking over the high country and howling across your path. And never any doubt which way to go. Here, five types of ridgeline hikes to check out, as well as some recommended spots where to experience them.

The Forested Knife Ridge

A sawtooth arête or any other barren knife-edge can be exhilarating—or downright terrifying. A ridge spine of similarly narrow proportions in heavy forest, if less acrophobic, holds an eerie power: a shrouded gangplank in deep-woods gloom. Rock outcrops are a prevailing feature of many ridgelines, and depending on the bedrock and the climate they may take on fantastical, even bizarre appearances: hoodoos, fins, the ice-shattered ruins of “rock cities.” On an open ridge these become landmarks to gauge your progress and fix your eye. In contrast, such outcrops sneak up on you along forest ridges (in the Appalachians, say, or the Cascades): There’s a sense of a vague looming, and suddenly you’re face-to-face with a mossy, shadowy crag or tower you may have to skirt uncomfortably close.

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The spine of Hunchback Mountain beckons in Oregon’s Old Cascades. David Prasad

Wind Timber

The tough trees of ridgetops—not as tall and straight, maybe, as their toeslope and valley counterparts, but sometimes surprisingly thick-trunked and muscular. Noble firs and Douglas-firs in the Cascades, Douglas-firs and ponderosas and limber pines in the Rockies, chestnut oaks and pitch pines in the Appalachians. Trees that have howled in innumerable gales: storm-hardened and lightning-licked. The ghost woods of white snags and deadfall where a wildfire roared upslope and over the saddle, or sparked from a thunderbolt in ridgeline timber.

The Watershed Crest

Any ridge is a watershed divide, and when you’re walking the backbone path you’re threading a course between drainages and above headwaters. So the gurgling of brooks and roar of cascades fluctuates along the way—which is a large part of these trails’ hypnosis.

When you’re camping along a dry ridgetop, those newborn streams can sound tantalizingly close, though actually reaching them can be a punishing, knee-buckling ordeal.

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Explore the ridgeline on Humbug Mountain, located on the southwest Oregon coast. Don Henise

Wild Company on the Ridgeline

When you hike a ridgeline in the Western United States, you may well be treading along the regular patrol route of a puma: The big cats commonly prowl these crests. Once on the bony ridge rising to Wildcat (appropriate) Mountain in the Old Cascades of Oregon, we passed a breadcrumb trail’s worth of ropey puma scat strung along the path through the rhododendron slicks (or “hells,” as they call ‘em in the Appalachians). And another time, on a spur ridge in the southwestern Wallowas just after a November snowfall, I found myself walking amid the pawprints of a very large puma, and immediately of course everything around me sharpened in definition; I took irrationally meticulous care not to step in the big blue-black tracks.

Meanwhile, given the thermals or swept-up slope winds along ridgelines, you’ll often have the company of great dark birds: ravens, turkey vultures, hawks, golden eagles. You can even feel a bit of kinship with them, wandering the heights as you are—until, that is, the showoff creature folds its wings and goes shooting off over the valley below, leaving you feeling really clunky and human.

Ridges Big and Small, High and Low

Ridge walks don’t have to be high elevation—or even mountainous—to impart that bones-of-the-land feel. Some unique Midwestern ridge-traversing, for instance, awaits on the snakelike glacial berms called eskers, formed by deposits of meltwater streams piled in tunnels under ice sheets. Ranging from a few feet to several dozen tall, often humpy in profile, eskers may meander for several miles through countryside: not the rarefied atmosphere of an alpine ridge traverse, but woods-and-prairie portals of their own bewitching charm, all the stranger for their cold, dark, roaring primordial origin.

A Grab-Bag of Great Ridge Hikes

The Metacomet Ridge (Connecticut/Massachusetts): The New England National Scenic Trail follows the cliffy traprock of the Metacomet Ridge from the Long Island Sound in Connecticut to the Massachusetts-New Hampshire line.

Sugarland Mountain (Tennessee): The Sugarland Mountain Trail traverses one of the dominating north-south ridgelines in the Great Smoky Mountains, accessing the famous bedrock buttresses of the Chimney Tops along the way.

Greenstone Ridge (Michigan): The fantastic 40-odd-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail treads the wilderness spine of Isle Royale in Lake Superior, the namesake ridge being a rim of the great Superior Syncline.

Parnell Esker (Wisconsin): Hike the Parnell Esker through one of the world’s great mosaics of continental-glacier landforms: southeastern Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine.

Visitation Esker (Illinois): Another magical esker walk, leading to a magical Chicagoland gem—Visitation Prairie.

Specimen Ridge (Wyoming): The wide open of the Northern Range to one side—buffalo pasture, wolf country—and the wild trackless heights of the Mirror Plateau to the other, Specimen Ridge makes a stirring thoroughfare through backcountry Yellowstone.

Huckleberry Mountain (Oregon): The long, thick-timbered divides of the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness in Oregon’s Old Cascades—including Huckleberry Mountain, host to the Boulder Ridge Trail—can accommodate a week or more of ridge-walking.

High Divide (Washington): There’s no shortage of extended ridge-walking routes in the Olympic Mountains, and the High Divide Trail—which accesses the gorgeous Seven Lakes Basin—is a case in point.

Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.

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