Half Dome, Mt. Whitney, John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail. There are others, but these adventures make for a pretty robust Mount Rushmore of California outdoor endeavors. Note: Pacific Crest Trail also goes through Oregon and Washington
Although it’s early in the year, all of the above require advance planning and training, especially the long distance/multi-day backpacking options (JMT & PCT). My previous article touched lightly on the general preparation for these and other undertakings. This article will focus on the physical training, including some Bay Area training hike choices (although I’ve found that most who undertake these adventures are generally a self-motivated, self-reliant bunch). But first, a disclaimer: I am not a certified trainer and the information I offer is what I have found works for me and culled from other sources. If you have any previous or current health issues (heart issues, bad back, balky knees, arthritis, etc.), I recommend checking with your doctor or a fitness professional to work out a program.
In talking to others, the consensus is, just as you would swim for a swimming event, and hop on a bike to train for the Tour de Wherever, the best training for a long-distance hike is to hike long distances with the same load (or heavier) that you’ll be carrying.
For years, while training for my early attempts of the Mt. Whitney day hike from the Whitney Portal trailhead (21.4 miles, 6,200’ elevation gain), I would rely on trail running, gym cardio and resistance training (aka. lifting weights) to get myself in shape. While this approach might work for some, it didn’t work well for me. It wasn’t until I started hiking on a regular basis in 2010 that I finally made it to the top on my 6th attempt. I repeated this success in 2012 with a similar regimen. It sounds simplistic and obvious, but nothing simulates the activity of hiking like hiking.
Here are two online articles to use as a starting point for backpack fitness advice. REI’s is more of a general outline, while the bodyresults.com link is more detailed.
Fortunately for most Californians and those living in the Western US, there are ample places to go for day hikes and shorter backpacking trips. For flatlanders and others who consider highway overpasses 'high ground', it's not so easy. Several years ago, while living in South Florida (Coral Gables), training was especially problematic. Heat and humidity during the late spring and summer months and the flatness of the terrain made proper training nearly impossible. The best option was endless sessions on the gym’s Stepmill wearing a backpack with a 25-pound plate tucked in a compartment.
Specific to the multi-day adventures (PCT and the JMT), it’s important to remember that you’ll be pushing your body days, weeks and (in the case of the PCT or Appalachian Trail) months at a time. Many backpackers fit in days of rest, or at least light days, into their itinerary during their multi-day excursions.
Social media and various other websites are good resources to find adequately punishing hikes in your locale. Ideally, you want to find a trail with significant elevation gain in a relatively short distance. Here’s a list of my local favorites (note – although these are all strenuous, they offer wonderful scenery):
1) Mountain Home Inn to the East Peak Summit – Park across the street from the inn in the Mt. Tamalpais State Park lot. Take the Hogback Fire Road behind the Throckmorton Firehouse to Old Railroad Grade (turn left), then to the summit via Fern Creek Trail. The Fern Creek section is roughly a mile long with nearly 1,000’ elevation gain. Extra credit: do the Fern Creek section 3 or 4 times. This might make your legs and lungs hate you, but they’ll thank you when you reach the top of Half Dome or Mt. Whitney.
2) Cataract Trail to Alpine Lake – If you start at the Rock Spring trailhead at the intersection of Pantoll Road and Ridgecrest Boulevard, you might be lulled into thinking that it’s going to be an easy jaunt. The first couple of miles along Cataract Creek to Laurel Dell are relatively flat and shaded. Once past Laurel Dell, it’s steeply downhill to Alpine Lake. This means the return trip is steeply uphill. This steep section has the feel of a primeval forest with the thick canopy overhead, ferns along the trail and the creek becoming more of a waterfall. Footing can be a bit slippery so hiking poles and good tread on your shoes are a good idea. Another option is to park at Alpine Lake off of Bolinas-Fairfax Road and start with the uphill part. Both Laurel Dell and Alpine Lake are good places to enjoy a lunch or snack.
3) Steep Ravine Trail – This trail is aptly named. It’s also another beautiful trip up a deeply wooded creekbed with redwoods, ferns and other flora along the trail. After parking at Pan Toll Ranger Station you can choose to do this as a loop or ‘out and back’. If you do it as a loop, from the ranger station take the Old Mine Trail to the Dipsea Trail, turn right and take the trail downhill towards Stinson Beach. It’s about two miles to the junction of the Steep Ravine Trail. Follow the trail back up the mountain to your starting point.
If you’re well along in your training, a four-mile loop should be just a warm-up. A longer, harder option is to hike all the way to Stinson Beach and choose to return by either Dipsea/Steep Ravine or via the Matt Davis Trail. Yet another option is to park in Stinson Beach and do an eight-mile loop to Pan Toll. If you need still more punishment, study a trail map and keep on walking until the sun sets or the rangers kick you out.
Mt. Diablo State Park
With a higher summit, Mt. Diablo is an excellent place to log some mileage and elevation gain. There are very few flat hikes on Mt. Diablo. It does get brutally hot in the late spring through summer so carry plenty of water. I prefer starting on the Clayton side of the mountain, parking in the lot of the equestrian center at the end of Mitchell Canyon Road. There are a lot of trails on Mt. Diablo so I highly recommend a trail map. Mitchell Rock Trail and Eagle Peak Trail are good, steep options. In the spring, the hillsides are also teeming with wildflowers. Back Creek Trail is an especially scenic trail once it meets up with Back Creek. By late summer and autumn the creek is usually dry or a mere trickle and not a viable drinking water source.
Rancho San Antonio
One last recommendation is this Santa Clara County regional park, part of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. While not as large as either Mt. Tamalpais or Mt. Diablo State Parks, Rancho San Antonio (Los Altos Hills), offers some challenging trails for either hiking or running. The P.G. & E. Trail is one of the steeper routes. For a bigger challenge, however, I recommend taking the Chamise Trail to Black Mountain Trail and hiking to the top of Black Mountain. Round trip from the main lot is 16 miles. The steepest part is the Black Mtn. Trail section. Again, there are no water sources along the trail so bring plenty (there are water fountains at the main lot and at Deer Hollow Farm). It can also get warm/hot in the summer, especially along the ridge tops and exposed parts of the hills.
By no means is this list complete, but they’ve grown to be personal favorites. Consult books and websites for parks and hiking trails in your area. Also, park rangers are invaluable sources of information and suggestions.