Q+A: Peter Potterfield's Top 25 Hikes
The author and hiker extraordinaire talks "Classic Hikes of North America"
Over the past 10 years, author Peter Potterfield hiked more than 5,000 miles across North America's greatest wilderness areas to research his newly published book, Classic Hikes of North America. He braved the desert canyons of southern Utah, traversed several Rocky Mountain subranges and flew deep into the Alaskan interior in search of the continent's 25 best—and sometimes little known—hikes. What came of it all is a book that is both beautiful (hard-cover, chock-full of enticing photos) and practical (there are trail descriptions as well as logistics and strategy tips) for planning your next big backcountry adventure. We caught up with Potterfield for a quick education on hiking theory and practice, finding top trails and how the heck he narrowed his list to the top 25.
How did you find all of these hikes?
I spent 20 years climbing in the Cascades of Washington state, and that got me into climbing all over North America. And, of course, you can’t do a climb until you’ve done an approach, and those approaches are often some of the best hikes. The older I got, the more I just appreciated the backcountry travel, and climbing became an unnecessary part of the experience for me. And then I started going farther afield. When I started a website called mountainzone.com, I got into trekking in a big way. I did the Everest trek a dozen times, I went down to Patagonia, I retraced Earnest Shackleton’s route in Antarctica. It was a slow, cumulative process of getting to know backcountry travel and understanding how much I enjoy it.
More specifically, though. There were some expected trails—the Presidential Traverse in the Whites, the major trails of the Grand Canyon—but then there were also many more I’d never heard of. How’d you find those?
I read and hear what other people have to say. For instance, I discovered the Kungsleden, this trail in Arctic Sweden when I was on Everest. A Swedish climber said, “Peter, you love this stuff. You have to go to Lapland.” Often when I’m hiking in one part of the world, somebody will tell me about another hike, and I try it.
And I’m always truthful with my readers; if the hike is not of high standard, then I’m not going to write about it. For instance, I had heard through the grapevine that Gros Morne [National Park in Newfoundland] was really a beautiful part of the world, but I was a little bit concerned with it because that hike has no trail. It’s all off-trail navigation with map and compass or GPS. And yet, it’s not so serious that any competent backcountry traveler couldn't do it. When I did it, I loved it, and I knew that other people would love it, too. So I put it in the book.
Long Range Traverse in Canada's Gros Morne NP (Potterfield)
I felt like we couldn’t do a book of the classic routes in North America without the Presidentials. I’d say that the Presidentials (pictured below) are the signature climb in the East. The same is true of the Grand Canyon. Normally, we’d have 23 hikes in the book, but I got Norton to go along with including 25 hikes so I could still give my readers 23 new hikes without overlooking those classics. It was a lot of fun finding some of these routes, like in Quebec. Who’d have thought that the northern end of the Appalachian Trail would be so much fun? And in South Dakota, who would’ve thought that hiking around the Black Elk Wilderness would’ve been so much fun? And crossing the Sawtooths? And crossing the Beartooths? These are real classic routes. I love a traverse of a range. I enjoyed every minute of it. It took 10 years, and I probably hiked 5,000 miles, but it was still fun. But all I do is do this.
Presidential Traverse in NH's White Mountains (Shutterstock)
What are some of the gems that were left on the cutting room floor?
I’m not even going to mention them, but I’ll tell you what the issue was on a couple of them. In a few cases of killer hikes—a couple of them in Colorado—I didn’t feel good about sending people there because they weren’t properly protected. I don’t mind writing about a trail like the Rae Lakes Loop in the Sierras. It’s a beautiful hike, but it’s heavily managed by the National Park Service. It can’t see too much traffic because the NPS won’t issue you a permit. So it’s protected, and I don’t have to worry about being a party to sullying that route. But there were some really outstanding routes that didn’t have those types of protections, and I didn’t feel good about sending people there.
It must've been tough narrowing the list to just 25.
There were complicated decisions because we couldn’t put 100 hikes in the book. I had to let some of my favorites go. I felt like we needed to have the Presidentials in there, but there are some great hikes in the Adirondacks that I would’ve loved to include. But what do you take out? Big Bend? The Grand Canyon? The Olympic Coast? You come up against some hard decisions.
Where’s your next hike going to be?
I’m afraid that my next hike is going to be a 30-city book tour in support of Classic Hikes of North America. But what I like to do is hike off-season. So when everyone else is getting their skis out and considering the hiking season over, that’s when I’ll get outside. I hiked the Grand Canyon at Christmas. I’ll go down to Canyonlands in January and February. You can run into a nasty storm that prevents you from hiking, but most of the time it’s pleasant—short-sleeve weather during the day with cold nights. The reason I like to do that is there’s nobody else in the park. It’s a wonderful thing. So, as soon as the book tour is over in December, I’ll get the boots out again and hit the trail.
Did any trails surprise you?
One of the nice surprises in the book was a Texas hike down at the bottom of the state in Big Bend National Park. I’d heard from people that the South Rim was extraordinary, and the High Chisos is this range that just kind of pops up out of nowhere, so it was fun.
People read these books, and they get the idea that you spend every day out on the trail, but there’s work that needs to be done to make a living, I suppose.
Yeah, you have to do some things, but nonetheless, you’ve got to put the miles in, you’ve got to go there. I don’t feel good writing about a hike unless I’ve tramped the trails because how can you describe accurately to somebody what the route is like if you haven’t done it? And how can you make a qualitative decision about a hike unless you’ve done it? So I feel like you have to get out there and do it. And I feel fortunate that I’m out there doing what I love. So let’s go hiking.
Do you have a favorite hike?
It’s kind of like picking your favorite kid, but all things considered, the Everest trek is probably my favorite hike in the world. It’s not a wilderness experience, but it’s a wonderful experience, and the Sherpa culture and the Buddhist culture make it a lot more fun. In North America, I’d probably have to say the Sierra—just about anywhere along the John Muir Trail. Like the Rae Lakes Loop is fabulous. If you can do the whole length of the John Muir Trail—it’s about two weeks—that’s even better. The Sierra is a wonderful place to hike—the weather’s good, the scenery is good, the trail is good.
Classic Hikes of North America (W.W. Norton, $40)
By Peter Potterfield
Potterfield begins a book signing and slideshow tour in September, with his first stop being Sept. 17 at the REI store in Bend, OR. Check here to see when he'll be in your area.