Boomerang Backpacking

Circuit Hiking Trails in the U.S.
United States Trail Locations

"How do we get back?"

We had walked across the High Sierra from Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park to Mt. Whitney, then headed north for 100 or so miles on the John Muir Trail. When we ran out of time, we made our way out on the only trail available. It took us to Bishop, California, on the eastern side of the Sierra, which was fine, except for one small problem: our car was parked at a ranger station on the western side of the mountains.

Unfortunately, you can't get there from here. At least not easily. Roads go around the Sierra, not through them, and hitchhiking on a series of indirect backroads can take days. The Greyhound Bus makes a big, slow loop in the wrong direction. No trains. No public transportation. The only direct way was the way we had come: on foot, on trail. In the end, desperation drove us to a nine-seater plane that bucked across the mountains for a hundred bucks a person.

As every hiker knows, the biggest difficulty of a backpacking trip has nothing to do with elevation or mileage or eight days of rain. Trailhead transportation wins the prize. Creative backpackers develop a passel of strategies for dealing with the fact that after you spend a couple of daysor weekswalking away from your car, you've got to find a way back. You can retrace your steps, hitchhike, beg rides at trailheads, pay a driver, shuttle cars between the ends of the trail, or split up the party and swap car keys, but all of these strategies take some combination of time, planning, luck, and money.

In the end, sometimes the best solution to any problem is to circumvent it. Or, in the case of hikers, to circumambulate it. When it comes to backpacking, straight-line thinking isn't all it's cracked up to be. Okay, so running around in circles might not be the best way to get things done in everyday life, but on the trail, the round-about route can be the most effective way to get from here to there... and back.

The problem is that while there are a few official circuit hikes (trails designed to be hiked in a circle), most trails are linear. But just because trail engineers are straight-jacketed by straight-line thinking doesn't mean that you have to be as well. There are lots of ways you can link up a series of trails to form your own loop. Long distance trails like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest offer a great place to look for loops because they are often rerouted, leaving an old trail that may be maintained in its own right. You can head out on one trail and loop back on the other.

One big advantage of loops: if you're hiking in an area with a well-developed network of trails, you can vary the length of your trip by varying the segments of your loop. Circuits can be short day-hikes or multi-week expeditions. Ohio's Buckeye Trail, for instance, circles the entire state. Maybe that was the inspiration for Ohioan Steve Newman, who left his hometown heading east and returned five years later having walked the biggest loop of all: 10,000 miles clear around the world.

On a more modest level, you can follow us as we make our bids for the best of the boomerang backpacking trips. Forget what you know about straight lines. For backpackers, the best way from here to there just might be a circle.


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