East verses West: a self-imposed, winter-long comparative study I participated in while exploring the ski areas of maritime Canada and New England. Up until this past winter I had only skied the west and the differences I found were fascinating; however, one rose above the rest: skiing in the east was rugged. No matter how deep the powder was, there was always a chance you’d meet with hard pack, rocks or fallen trees. In the west, you could point and shoot. In the east, you had to stay on your toes.
Snow melted into spring, and ski boots were traded for hiking shoes. Despite the changes, it was apparent that hiking in the east shared the same rugged characteristics as skiing.
Let’s explore. The characteristics of western hiking are as follows: Hikers deal with major elevation gains. Where it gets particularly steep, trails morph into a series of switchbacks to ease ascension pains. Trails often are only wide enough for one person, but smooth, packed dirt—with a few spots of loose gravel here and there—are generally the rule.
As a western hiker, these elevation gains and narrow trails lulled me into a false sense of what “intense” hiking was.
Then I went east.
I’ve now hiked in Nova Scotia, the Presidential range in New Hampshire (including Mt. Washington), a section of the Appalachian trail that crossed the Georgia/North Carolina line and on minor trails in Florida. With the obvious exception of the latter, the trails all had one thing in common: They go straight up. No sissy switchbacks; a hiker’s quads had better be ready.
Further, while the earth might not drop away like it does in the Rockies, the elevation gains in the east are many times comparable. In some cases, the trails might even be considered more strenuous. Take Mt. Washington: At 6,289′ it stands as the highest peak in New Hampshire and bears claim to the “world’s worst weather.” The most popular path up the mountain is the historic Tuckerman Ravine trail which summits after 4.2 miles and 4,250′ of elevation gain. Compare this to Colorado’s 14,440′ Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in the Rockies: Over a trail that spans 8.7 miles, you gain just 250 feet more in elevation, for a total of 4,500′ spread over more than twice the trail length of Tuckerman.
And then there are the trail features of the east: myriad rivulet crossings; boulders, stacked like a pile of books, crowding the trail; tree roots that trip your pace. Hiking in the Northeast is less the simple act of walking and more grabbing a sapling for balance as you scramble up the mountain on all fours.
But what many hikers care about are the views. The east reserves its scenic vistas for the summit. Clearings are rare along its tree-choked trails, but when they happen, expect quaint beauty. (Alternatively, they give the hiker a chance to catch his or her breath while pretending to stop for the view.) If it’s hard to imagine beauty without a few 10,000’+ peaks thrown in the mix, visualize a Christmas card with mounded mountains rolling on top of each other, dotted with red barns and whitewashed towns in between. The beauty is quiet and the hiker feels more a part of it.
On the flip side, the arid west’s relative lack of trees means trails are riddled with views. These cause hikers to gaze across countless rocky peaks—as well as down a couple of thousand feet. With such unobstructed views, the hiker has most of the journey laid open before him—unless the trail passes around a mountain’s perimeter. Here, the beauty is grand and the hiker feels small. Insignificant even.
A vast array of differences exist for hikers in these two regions, too numerable to recount in one short article. The structure of the trails, the proximity to civilization, the wildflower and fall foliage displays, and even the culture of hiking itself—combined, these topics would easily lead to an entire book on the study. But despite all the many differences, there is one thing that draws the two halves of the continent together: the desire to preserve the regions’ unique attributes so hikers can continue to find wilderness in the world.