If you've read these pages before, you know that we are big fans of getting off the trail from time to time and exploring beyond the sometimes all-too-well traveled trails of the Sierra Nevada. Sometimes the trails are quite elaborate, as this intersection in the Ansel Adams Wilderness shows at right.
Some of our favorite trips and destinations in the Sierra have involved pulling out a map and a compass and charting a course that leaves the existing trail system behind.
But that doesn't mean we think that YOU should go off trail. You shouldn't, at least in these instances:
1. If there is an existing trail through an area, please use it to minimize damage caused by too many people in the same part of the wilderness. As we say in our section on Leave No Trace: "It’s also a bad idea to cut through switchbacks on the trail. It may seem easier to you, but this creates erosion paths that eat away the trail and ruin it for everyone else. We think anyone who cuts a switchback on a trail should spend a day rebuilding a trail as punishment. It’s very hard work. And it would be so nice if those trail crews could spend all of their time repairing natural damage to the trails and building new ones, without having to spend their days fixing what some idiots broke."
2. Some parts of the Sierra are clearly marked as habitat restoration areas, and have signs asking people to please stay off the lawn, meadows, stream banks or campsites. The National Park Service and the US Forest Service do this to try to give the most heavily impacted areas a chance to recover. If they don't protect these areas, they frequently expand into vast wastelands of bare earth that has been pounded flat, devoid of plant or animal life. That's not what we want in our National Parks. So obey the signs, please.
3. If you don't know how to navigate with map and compass, or a GPS, there's a good chance that you will get lost, and then somebody else will have to come find you. That's embarrassing to you at best, and if they find you after you have died, it's even worse. This is particularly true if you are hiking alone. A recent news story told of a solo hiker in the Northeast who fell and broke his leg. Unable to move, he eventually froze to death before anyone found him.
So why does this all come to mind? Well, partly because of the story about the lost hiker. But also because this last weekend we took a hike up into the domes of Yosemite. We had a great time, and spent most of that time off trail. Only when we returned did we figure out, with the help of some people who are smarter than we are, that we didn't hike to Mariuolumne Dome at all, but the southern face of Fairview Dome. Somehow, in the depths of the forest and with limited visibility, we turned off the trail too soon. Ooops.
Now by one definition, we were definitely lost. We were certainly NOT where we thought we were. At the same time, we knew exactly where we were--because we knew how to get back to our car without a second thought. We knew where we were in relationship to where we needed to go next. On a short day hike, not an issue. If it had been in the middle of a nine-day cross country expedition, it could have been quite serious. Which may have led to us being a little careless in the navigation department. Or not.
And then when we returned to the parking area of Pothole Dome, we found all sorts of people completely ignoring the signs that were trying to protect the meadows there. The official trail goes around the outside of the meadow, and maybe adds another 1/4 mile to the hike each way. And yet almost everyone was hiking straight across the meadow, even stepping over the ropes that the Park Service had set up to keep people out.
And yes, the meadows were looking much the worse for wear. hmmph. P tried to convince a couple of people to stay on the trail. He was unsuccessful.
And yes, that's Mariuolumne Dome in the photo above. No, not the one in the foreground. That's Fairview Dome--the one we were on. Mariuolumne is the one in the center of the photo. The one we thought we were on. grin.
For an amusing version of this same story, see our humor section here: