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.
nice job gina, I haven’t been too far northeast, but I did spend a several weekends in the Georgia/ north Carolina/ Tennessee area and loved the hiking there. very dense foliage indeed, and lots of rolling hills and farm houses as described. you are very lucky to have the job and opportunities you do and to see so much. keep up the good work
Thank you, Jesse! I love being able to go to both sides (and am originally from the south; glad you got to explore there!). I think it’s important for folks to look a lil deeper than the stereotypes about places. There is so much good to offer in all places—heck, mountain biking trails in Florida have given me scars and the skiing back east has made my heart beat faster than many places out west!
would love to chat about this with you. i think that a lot of hikers out west laugh at oir elevation here in tbe adk but have no idea of the technicality if our trails!
So technical! I felt like I was constantly scrambling! Would love to hear what you think about the camping back east?
The intensity of last weekend’s Katahdin hike was incredible. Falling rocks, grabbing birch trees, and falling on my butt. I love hiking in the East…but still psyched to go out West someday soon, too!
You will love it, Laurie, but I have a feeling there are things about the east you will miss when you are out west. It happens to most of us who are originally from the east coast: miss the daily black thunderstorms in the summer, the heat lightning (& lightning bugs), the dense green. But the west is wild & untamed; that’s the beautiful part of these rugged peaks!
[…] clearly to this than discussing matters of east verses west. Skiing: west. Hiking: east. (Yup, we proved it.) Camping? There’s a consensus but where’s the fun in divulging it in the first paragraph? The […]
[…] Added to the no-nonsense nature of these trails, many require 3-4,000’ elevation gains, making them on par with a number of Colorado’s 14er summit trails. (For more, check out The Surprising Difference Between East and West Hiking.) […]
I just moved from the East to Colorado, and it seems to me like the author must have cherry picked easy hikes out West. Almost every trail I have done has had significant sections (for miles) with either no switchbacks or loose rock or no clear trail marking or all three. That 14er that is referenced is ranked on 14ers.com as 47th of 58 Colorado 14ers. Just because it is the tallest, does not mean it is the hardest. We don’t even try to find hard trails, but I am consistently scrambling and truly intimidated by exposure and loose material and fall potential in Colorado. Whoever wrote this is giving a false impression of the West. The East is awesome, but the West really is harsher and more untamed and technical on hikes…hands down from what I have seen after just three months in Colorado and 13 years on the East Coast.
As a former trail-builder, I can tell you that the best reason for creating lower-angle trails is that they drain water from the trail properly. Any trail that is steeper than 50% of the slope it is climbing will become the path of least resistance, creating a trenched-out water slide that worsens with every downpour. The ideal trail kind of “surfs” the slope as it climbs, dipping to drain water every once in awhile, and will almost maintain its own tread. This is the reason we ask people to avoid cutting switchbacks.