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Early Bird Really Does

I learned a lot about hiking during my time in Colorado, and among those lessons is that you've got to get up early. This is a hard one for me because I'm not a morning person, but the lack of traffic on the road at 5:30 AM and the lack of people on the trail makes rising early worthwhile. Most importantly, I appreciate getting to the trailhead parking in time to get a spot. Nothing ruins the experience of a hike like arriving back at the trailhead but having another two miles to walk down on a hot road.

In Colorado, however, it's often impossible to get up early enough, especially for the popular trails. I have arrived at trailheads at 4:30 AM and found the lot full already. It's awful. But in the rest of the world, the early rising habit I learned has served me well. In Maine, people start hiking really, really late, after 9 AM even. But even in sweltering hot Arizona and Northern California, at 6 AM you're often the first one at the trail. It's fantastic. And there's no shortage of incredible trails in Northern California that are best when you have them all to yourself. Here are some of my favorites.

Pluto's Cave

This cave is in a far out location off highway 5, close to the Oregon border. You drive about seven miles through...a settlement, I suppose would be the best word for it. People have set up ragtag homes of a sort out in the desert and have attempted to block views of their property from passersby with a green mesh wrapped around posts. Basically, if your car broke down out there, you'd be best off walking out to the highway to solicit help instead of knocking on someone's door.

But the cave itself is worth the horror movie vibe. When I was there, the other tourists only walked the .75 miles through the tubes and just a teensy bit into the actual cave. They were wearing flip-flops and carried only a cell-phone flashlight. But I was prepared - boots, headlamp, helmet. I climbed over and under and around all the boulders, about half a mile back into the depths until I reached an alcove I had to descend into. Not so deep that I would have needed ropes but still a bit down. The alcove was enormous with a high ceiling, and I couldn't tell what was on the other side. After a few steps in, I chickened out from going any farther. I'm just starting to get into caving and trying to get over the normal feelings of being creeped out by the utter darkness and aloneness, but it's going to take a little time. I definitely would have kept going (because apparently the cave goes another half mile past the alcove) if I'd been with someone else, but I enjoyed the experience I had.

woman standing in a dark cave

entrance to a cave

Trinity-Alps Wilderness

The Trinity-Alps Wilderness is the one of the most beautiful I've seen anywhere. I wish I'd had more time to hike here. Most people backpack out here and I understand why. Seeing the sunrise over these lakes and peaks must be magnificent. But the looks on the faces of the people shlepping their heavy packs up a 4,000 foot, 8 mile gain in 90 degree heat to get to the main camping lake on the Four Lakes Loop made me very glad about my decision to stick with 16-19 mile day hikes. 

lake and mountains in wilderness

The Canyon Creek Lakes trail is extremely popular and crowded, but I went on a Wednesday and encountered no one on the trail on my way up, and only one party of campers at each lake. The trail to the first lake is easy to follow, but then it kind of disappears on the way to the second lake, so having a downloaded map is helpful. And that water! That clear, glasslike water!

woman in forest in front of waterfall

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

This is a major tourist destination, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see the giant coastal redwoods while I was in Northern California. I lucked out and snagged the last camp site in the park over the Fourth of July and, once again, started very early in the morning. It didn't feel crowded at all to me. What it felt like, walking on the Drury-Chaney Trail, was walking through Jurassic Park. The landscape and the oversized trees felt surreal. And driving down the Avenue of the Giants you can't help but feel that you are in the midst of something far more powerful than all humanity.  

woman sitting in hollow tree trunk

woman next to large fallen redwood tree

Shasta-Trinity Wilderness

Like Trinity-Alps, Shasta-Trinity has at least a hundred hikes you can do, but they are more accessible to people since this wilderness goes along Route 5 to Oregon. Still, if you get up early, you can have the trails to yourself. Or, if you go late apparently you can too. I visited Faery Falls and Ney Springs at the end of a long day of hiking along numerous short trails and had the lovely waterfalls all to myself. It was so peaceful I could have easily stayed there until dark.

woman in front of waterfall

McCloud Falls is very popular and there's camping near the lower and middle falls, so there again, go early. It's beautiful and worth seeing, but not so fun when you're surrounded by families and lots of loud children. It was my first stop of the day, but the next stop Burney Falls, I didn't even attempt because by the time I got there, cars lined the road for a half mile in either direction from the entrance with people trying to get in. Not worth it! Potem Falls was the last on my waterfall loop and that is the type of place you could bring a cooler and spend the entire day. There were only eight cars there when I showed up in the afternoon, but the site is small. Any more than that would have been too crowded. So, as is the theme of this post, get there early, grab your favorite sunbathing spot on the rocks, and enjoy!