No matter where you go hiking, you’re going to have a great time. But not all trails are created equal, and some are far more scenic than others. Given our limited time on this planet, it’s simply impossible to hike everywhere, so selectivity is extremely important when it comes to choosing where to go.
When researching a trail for your next trip, the first step is always looking at guidebooks, online pictures and trip reports. These usually do a great job of describing an area and depicting highlights, but are too generalized to provide you with a personalized itinerary that’s optimized for your hiking speed and objectives. If you’re looking to create your own route and agenda outside the confines of a guidebook or trip write-up, then this is where map research comes in. These practical, route planning tips and techniques should help you to plan a journey crammed with the most possible scenic views for maximum enjoyment.
1. Seek trails with a high pass-per-mile mile ratio. When deciding between two or more routes, one simple scenery indicator is to count the number of passes, gaps and saddles you’ll go over. A route that has four passes in 40 miles is very likely more jaw-dropping than a 40 mile route with only two passes.
2. Look for high concentrations of alpine terrain. Trace the trail you plan to take and see how often it goes above tree line. The more the merrier. Whenever there are multiple ways to get from point A to B, choose the one that covers the most alpine terrain. Typically, this shows up as a gray or white area on the topo map, surrounded by large swaths of view impeding, forested green area. A trail with more alpine terrain will almost always be prettier than one with less.*
3. Similarly, look for concentrated topographic relief. Anytime your trail runs through an area where the topo lines stack up on one another, it’s going to be dramatic. This often means big cliffs or tall rocks. And who doesn’t love those!
4. Value long ridge walks. Look for sections of trail that trace the crest of ridgelines. The panoramic experience of walking for extended periods with large vertical drop-offs on either side of you is eye-opening. Personally, I think ridge walks are one of the most underrated topographic features. Often, they’re even more exhilarating than a summit or pass.
5. Favor loops over in-and-outs. All other things being equal, a loop route is the better option. The anticipation of seeing new terrain is much more exciting than retracing your steps on the same trail. There’s something magical about not knowing exactly what to expect, and it is guaranteed to heighten your enjoyment. That being said, don’t force your itinerary into a loop. If you can get much better scenery with an in-and-out or lollipop shaped route, then that’s still better overall, even if you have to retrace your steps.
6. Whenever possible, opt for three or more days out. Taking a longer trip means you can follow the scenic route instead of the most direct route. With just four days, you can hike into nearly any point in the Lower 48. There are also solitude rewards to reap when you escape the day hikers and overnighters.
7. Plan for side trips. Always check the map for potential side trips. Most wildernesses and mountain ranges require a whole day of approach hiking to get from the trailhead to the destination. But once you’ve made it into the wilderness, it might only take a quarter or a half day to access a nearby pass or summit that’s even more beautiful than your primary objective. Basically, once you’re out there, the effort to reward ratio gets more favorable. Take advantage of it!
8. Sub-alpine lakes are the most overrated hiking destinations.* Unlike their higher altitude cousins, sub-alpine lakes are frequently short on views, fully enclosed in trees, heavily shaded and still too cold to comfortably swim in. You’ll find plenty of online sources and guidebooks recommending them, but don’t be fooled—there’s a lifetime of more scenic places to hike to higher up in the mountains. If you really love lakes, remember that you’ll usually hike past them on your way up to a pass or summit anyway.
9. Scenic campsites are mission critical. Every time I plan a trip, the goal is to camp at the most scenic location possible. Simply put, if you like big views, then you should spend extended periods of time at them. The best and easiest way to do this is by camping very nearby. This allows you to hang out and fully absorb the scenery during sunset without the stress of having to keep moving after. In fact, I recommend planning your entire itinerary around camping somewhere scenic every single night of the trip, even if that means uneven daily mileage.
10. Start planning your trip far in advance. By picking a destination months in advance, you’ll have more time to sort out travel logistics, reserve necessary campsite permits, plan an optimal route and get your favorite partners involved. Conversely, spontaneity and procrastination increase the likelihood of trading quality of scenery for ease of access or familiar terrain.
Bonus tip: hiking in the Northwest? Check out guidebooks by Douglas Lorain. With trip guides for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming, Douglas Lorain’s library of recommended hikes is always my starting point for planning a trip. Unlike many other guides, the hikes in his books are presented in a chart with a scenery score from 1-10 next to their seasonal availability. Using this system, you can easily narrow your choices to only the most scenic trails that are in-season when you want to go hiking.
Remember, it’s important to have high scenery standards because you’ll never run out of incredible places to visit! The more planning and research you put into a trip, the better the result will be!
*While I believe this to be true generally, there are countless counterexamples, and I respect those who disagree. This is a subjective matter, after all.
Photos credits, in order of appearance: PatitucciPhoto, Forest Woodward, PatitucciPhoto, Forest Woodward, Jeremiah Watt