My heart stopped. Just moments before, we had been happily enjoying the down-hill momentum and views into Glacier’s central valley, that was until company round a bend ahead. We froze in our tracks. A giant male grizzly dominated the trail just 20 meters beyond.
Of course, I’m well-aware that Glacier National Park is home to a grizzly bear population – warning signs are everywhere – but I never really expected to get THIS close to one. I had hoped to catch a sight of one form the car window. That would have been nice. Nice and safe. If anything, I had been on higher alert earlier that morning as we set out, completely alone, from the Siyeh Bend trailhead. Crossing through Preston Park meadows still enveloped in mist, I made sure to make our presence known, and scouted the area for any sign of movement. Nothing.
Leaving the timberline far below, we wound up a shingle trail to summit Siyeh Pass. There we found a plump lonely marmot, hair blowing in the breeze, admiring the view. He didn’t seem bothered by us, so we let each other be, taking in the same view of a previously hidden eastern valley with tiny glaciers dotted high above.
From Siyeh pass the views really exploded. No longer sheltered by trees, the trail begins a tight descent, switch-backing 3220 feet alongside the stunning Sexton Glacier. Both Conrad and I became so preoccupied with trying to capture the splendor on our cameras – failing completely – that concerns of bears left our minds.
Our cameras had just returned to bags as the trail began evening out, hugging the edge of Goat Mountain. That’s when the creature appeared, completely startling us. Conrad was in the lead (thank God), as we simultaneously stopped dead in our tracks. He had seen us too. Definitely a grizzly. His dark coat hung over huge hunched shoulders, with the tell-tale long snout that identified his bread. I suddenly felt very vulnerable. We hadn’t seen another human-being all day. And here we were carrying a bag full of trail snacks. What idiots! I bet we smelt good enough to eat too.
My mind rapidly began processing every bit of advice I’d ever consumed about bears. I knew enough not to run. Even though instinct kind of made me want to. Now, what was the difference between dealing with grizzly verses black bears again? The bear was holding our gaze. It felt like a Mexican stand-off. He seemed unsure too. Then, slowly, he resumed his stride, edging even closer. Shit! I’m going to die! I immediately began clapping my hands and shouting loud, incoherent nonsense – anything that sprung to mind that identified us as people. Meanwhile, Conrad frantically released the can of bear pepper spray from its holster, the can we had debated paying $50 for just days before. He pulled the safety tab out ready. I cowed behind him.
I’m so grateful we never had to dispense the noxious mace. For one thing, a strong wind was blowing in our direction so we would have probably blinded ourselves! And for another, by the bear choosing to have a change of heart and divert off of the trail instead of confronting us, he kept himself safe. Not that we could have defeated him, but National Park policy often dictates that ‘troublesome’ bears – those deemed a threat to humans – are killed. So we both happily got to live another day! We watched as he leisurely passed us further down the slope, eventually stopping to inspect some fallen timber, to no doubt on the hunt for food.
I spent the remainder of the descent along the gushing Baring Creeks constantly looking over my shoulder, rattled. I didn’t dare get any food out. But wow! What an encounter. My respect for nature increases every day.
We hiked the Siyeh Pass Trail from Siyeh Bend, ending at Sunset Gorge. The trail is just over 10 miles long and gains 2240 feet. There is a further option to extend the hike up to Piegan Pass and view Piegan glacier, but you will have to back-track from the pass to re-join this circuit.
Tucked 10 miles into Rock Creek Canyon lies Little Lakes trailhead and my favourite hike in the Sierra. So far at least. From the very beginning of the 7.5-mile walk, the rewards felt endless.
The trail departs from a peaceful campground sat beside the babbling creek and slowly ascends 994 feet through the valley. As it does a handful of alpine lakes appear, happily nestled below rapidly melting snow-capped peaks.
The path that eventually ends at Gem Lake isn’t overly difficult and contains all the drama and beauty you could possibly want from a hike in the Sierra.
For some, the path to a closer Lake such as Long or Chicken Foot is enough. We pass by the odd angler peacefully fishing in crystal-clear waters. And here lies the charm of this trail – you don’t have to make it to the end to feel rewarded. You could spend 4 hours hiking all the way to Gem Lake like we did, or find yourselves happily lost in the views almost anywhere in between.
Not that you will get lost – very little navigation is required. The trailhead contained a map detailing the various lakes and 2 passes further along different splinter trails. Some brave people trek all the way to Mono Lake more than 50 miles north, but for those with little time to spare, this trail is still well worth the drive.
A frigidly cold breeze sometimes whipped us as we rambled the rocky path, hopping across stone water crossings. Yet at this elevation, the sun certainly left its mark. Bring mosquito spray, and even better – if you have the time – pack a tent and s’mores to spend the night under the endless sky. Happy trails.
Last week Conrad and I shattered a personal record. Having made it across the border to Wales for the first time ever – yes we only live in London – we somehow managed to take a ridiculous 7 hours to complete a 6-mile walk. I use the word ‘walk’ loosely here. What followed involved some seriously sketchy scrabbling as our hiking poles got stowed away to grip onto wet rocks for dear life. Please don’t make me another tragic face on the news following a failed mountain rescue attempt I prayed. On the plus side, the views were exceptional. Continue reading Becoming an unwitting Mountaineer in Snowdonia National Park
Road-tripping Colorado last September our entire journey centred around completing the Four Pass Loop trail. Situated close to Aspen in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, I first learnt about the hike from an Instagram photo. The image of an impossibly steep mountain pass covered in wildflowers caught my imagination. Eager to find out more, I searched YouTube where after a few hours my excitement had been fuelled by the epic mountain scenery and numerous ‘awesome’ references. I knew the hike would be challenging – twenty-eight miles of rocky terrain, ascending four 12,000-foot passes, at an altitude we were not acclimatised to – but since our PCT hike ended the previous year I longed for adventure. After convincing a reluctant husband that sleeping outdoors wouldn’t be too bad, we packed the camp set-up we vowed never to use again for 3 days in the wild. Continue reading Colorado’s [not quite] Four Pass Loop Trail
In my previous post, I outlined my child-like desire to visit America’s first National Park and introduced the 3-week trip that finally made my dream a reality. After years of sitting on the bucket list, we finally witnessed Yellowstone’s geological wonderland in September of 2015. It didn’t disappoint. The place has it all: Mountains, geysers, canyons, waterfalls, animals, hikes… tick, tick, tick. With merely a week and an SUV, we attempted to cover as many park highlights as possible before travelling south to the Grand Tetons en route to Salt Lake City. Here’s a flavour of our days and some tips I’ve taken away. Continue reading A week in Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons
With a hint of early spring in the air it seemed like a good idea to escape London. In an hour-and-a-half we arrived in Hastings, one of England’s oldest seaside towns. It’s a place that will sound familiar to anyone ever taught in the British school system. Home to the infamous 1066 Battle of Hastings – the one where William, Duke of Normandy became the Conquerer and King Harold met his end with an arrow through the eye, as illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. Despite the grisly past, today’s seaside ports of Hastings, Rye, (and nearby Battle where the war was actually fought), are all charming destinations in East Sussex worth a visit.
The 14th Century moated castle is home to a collection of roosting bats
Resident duck enjoying the sun
Making a brief stop at Bodiam Castle on the way
Setting out beneath a clear-blue sky the plan was simple: to walk 13.2 miles from Hastings to Rye, then catch the train back again. But as we all know, not everything always goes to plan. Still, our walk began as expected, joining the Saxon Shore way above Rock-a-Nore beach. In sunnier seasons, a Victorian funicular railway operates, carrying people up the 300-foot vertical cliff face to Hasting Country Park. But it was February, so we contend with the stairs.
From the map, our intended path roughly traces the coastline. But from the outset, signs warn of an up-coming area of coastal erosion. Less than a quarter of a mile into the walk we traipse inland, across boggy fields making very slow progress. Eager to re-join the Saxon Way, we end up bush-whacking through Ecclesbourne Glen, something I wouldn’t recommend. Once back on the trail, the undulating path provides views out across the English Channel towards France. The odd ship appears on the horizon.
The Saxon Shore Way has another unfortunate break further along the trail. Not shown on our GPS, we come to a dead-end in Fairlight Cove where the road has literally fallen into the sea far below. A local, out tending his lawn informs us the road has been like it for years. So we follow a series of quiet residential roads without sea views, until the trail returns in Cliff End. From our vantage point we see Pett Level Beach stretching out in the sun below. We opt to get closer to the beach, so we descend down and depart the trail to walk along the raised sea wall. Only once we join the long, straight beach, do I realise its made of shingle, not sand. I spot the odd tree root poking up from the surf, remnants of the ancient forest that once grew here before rising sea-levels buried it. On the opposite side of Pett Level Road, expansive wetlands attract bird-watchers, who sit in their cars with binoculars and probably flasks of tea milling away the hours.
It’s taken us longer than it should have to reach the end of the beach, so we sit outside the beach cafe with a drink to decide what to do. We want to return to Hastings before it gets dark so we can explore it today. I’m also really hungry! So at that point, based on the train and bus timetables, we elect to shorten our route by around 1.5 miles to end at Winchelsea instead of Rye. This involves cutting across the nature reserve – completely soaking my feet – to enter the small town through the imposing 13th century New Gate. Winchelsea is an attractive little place. It centres around the very grand, gothic St Thomas’ Church. Unfortunately we don’t have time to visit the local pub, due to the expected bus, so instead we take a quick stroll through the churches graveyard. Within it lies the final resting place of the much-loved British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan.
Whilst today wasn’t the prettiest coastal walk I’ve ever done in England, this may partly be due to the time of year and various diversions. But it’s accessibility from London, and the attractive towns on route make it a great choice for an easy day-trip. It’s possible to travel to Hastings by train from various London stations. I believe the quickest route is from Cannon Street in 1 hour 29 minutes. The return from Rye station (into St Pancras) can be done in little over an hour.
On a side-note I really should invest in some hi-top waterproof shoes. The number of water-logged fields we crossed during this hike definitely slowed us down. I just need to find a comfortable pair so I don’t end the day in one big squelching, wrinkled-footed mess!
The first time we tried hiking the famous Kalalau Trail it didn’t happen. It was 2012, and having woken before sunrise to get a parking spot at the trailhead, a string of yellow police ‘warning’ tape – the kind you see in CSI – completely sealed off the trail. How can a trail in sunny Hawaii be closed? While loitering around trying to figure this out a ranger arrived. His explanation seemed even more bizarre. Apparently a ‘fugitive’ was on the run, having pushed a tourist from the cliffs the day before. I shuddered at the horror of it, but still couldn’t help feeling utterly disappointed. The trail would remain closed for the foreseeable future. Hike aborted, we left to cheer ourselves up with a cooked breakfast.
We had travelled a long way to hike the trail. Stretching 11-miles along the breath-taking Na Pail coastline of Northern Kauai, the Kalalau Trail regularly features in lists of the worlds ‘greatest’ hikes. The reason for it’s fame is simple – the scenery is sublime. A certain degree of ‘exclusivity’ also adds to its allure, with land access to the fluted coastline only possible by foot. The trail promises to transport hikers into landscape preserving the very essence of Aloha. Carving a path along towering Pali – sea cliffs – high above the turquoise ocean, it traverses 5 lush valleys, crossing streams and passing waterfalls, to reach a secluded beach.
Na Pali coastline from the air
Using the excuse of needing R&R after our PCT hike, we returned to Kauai 4 years later. With our camping gear in tow, and considering ourselves now super fit, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attempt the hike once more. On setting out we even half-wondered whether we might complete the entire out-and-back hike in a single day…
It’s 6:30am and we’re ready. Parking space secured at the now familiar Ke’e Beach trailhead, I’m feeling eager to clock off some miles before the sun heats up. We join the trail passing multiple signs warning of potential dangers, such as flash flooding. The initial climb along a cobbled path is significantly slowed due to thick, slippery mud following overnight rain.
The first couple of miles form a popular day hike. As such we are regularly overtaken by people not heaving huge backpacks, and some remarkably wearing flip-flops. I try not to let that bother me, instead stealing glimpses of distant coastal views whenever the thick foliage allows. At Hanakapai’ai, most people either turn around after visiting the small cove beach, or take a 2-mile trail inland to view the falls. We continue, crossing the stream by hopping over rocks, fortunate that the water is low. Apparently some people haven’t been so lucky, with danger signs warning of deaths caused by flash flooding and strong currents. There is a key message: don’t go near the water if levels are high.
Once past Hanakapai’ai the trail instantly feels remote. Our miles slow down even further, travelling along narrow switchbacks that climb 800 feet through dense tropical vegetation. We find ourselves sweating buckets in the humid conditions. The views are not as expansive, but bright colours of vivid green flora and fauna, contrast against the red clay soil. I also notice the strong smell of sweet fruit. We see wild guavas and passionfruit, many of which lay rotting on the ground. The trail doesn’t level out. We climb up and down into deep, narrow valleys, until 4 miles later we reach the forth valley: Hanakoa.
Hanokoa is the first of just 2 permitted campsites. It’s rustic. Spread over old agricultural terraces, the site contains two sheltered picnic tables, a compositing toilet cubical, and an emergency helicopter landing pad. Seeing the grassy helipad I can’t help but hope we keep it together. Sadly the camp has no beach access as it’s located on top of a hanging valley on the edge of a stream. We long for a break at this point, but a small group of hunters – complete with scary-looking crossbows – seem to have taken over the camp. Most likely out hunting wild boar (at least I hope that’s what they’re doing), we smile but they don’t reciprocate. In fact I get pretty negative vibes from them, so feeling a bit vulnerable in such isolation we swiftly move on.
The next 5 miles are more exposed, offering little shade from the midday sun. On exiting the valley onto drier terrain, panoramic views of cliffs rippling along the sparkling ocean appear. The views are everything. I keep stopping to take it all in, fearing I’ll slip on the vertigo-inducing trail if I lose my focus. This is not a hike for the faint-hearted. Erosion between miles 7 and 8 are perhaps the sketchiest, with crumbling drop-offs such as those at Crawler’s Ledge definitely requiring concentration, nerve and single-file traffic.
The trail begins to ease up on us for the final 2 miles as we lose elevation heading towards sea-level. Reaching the Kalalau Valley, we ford the fast-running stream, and spot ruins of early Hawaiian settlements hidden amongst the trees.
The sight of tents dotted underneath a shaded grove, provides sign that we’ve made it. Just a few minutes further and a long, deep beach of fine white sand appears. We watch as the cool sea invitingly laps against the shore. But first things first – we need to establish camp. Somehow – and I have no idea how – the last 11 miles have taken us 9 hours, with minimal breaks. We feel exhilarated to have finally made our destination, but ridiculously tired. It’s been hard work! On closer inspection, the premium camping spots – those located just behind the beach with a degree of shelter from the wind – are already taken. We haven’t seen many fellow hikers during the day, so it’s surprising to see around 30 people. Perhaps they’re on a multi-night break, or it’s possible they arrived by [prohibited] boats. We check out the waterfall nestled in the steep valley walls, but are too lazy to walk all the way to the end of the beach to investigate a series of caves. We finish the day with a dip in the sea, where we’re rewarded by a beautiful rainbow right before a dramatic Hawaiian sunset.
We pack up camp and make the return hike early the next morning. We make slightly better time because it keeps raining on us. The warm, tropical showers mean the camera comes out far less frequently, and the air is thick with humidity. By the time we reach Hanakapai’ai, many people are enjoying the beach and in the sea, despite warning signs of hazardous rip currents. Once again, we share the trail from that point. Just after lunchtime we emerge at the trailhead, exhausted and covered in mud. We hose off the worst of it at Ke’e beach showers, attracting strange looks from the beachgoers. I am so happy to finally fall into the car seat. I’m not going to lie – the hike was TOUGH! Much tougher than we had anticipated, but WOW.
I’d love to return to the trial. But if I were to do it again, I would plan on spending at least an extra night to enjoy a rest day on Kalalau beach. That would offer the opportunity to explore further the Kalalau Valley, and maybe even hike the spur trail to Hanakapai’ai falls. I would not recommend attempting to do the 22-mile round trip in a single day – who would even dream of such a crazy thing 🙂 As always, the pictures don’t go anywhere near capturing the stunning views. Hawaii, and Kauai in particular continues to capture my heart.
Some Trail Information
Permits are required to hike past Hanakapai’ai. They are limited in numbers, and cost us 20 USD per person. Apparently they sellout months in advance, so book here.
Water: There is no tapped water along the trail, but plenty of opportunities to fill up from fresh streams. It’s recommended that you treat it though, so pack a filter or purification tablets. We used the Sawyer Squeeze.
When to go: The trail is most advisable during summer (May-October), due to less predictable winter weather. It doesn’t rule out a winter hike, but check weather forecasts before you set out – spontaneous, heavy rainfall can be dangerous, with its ability to turn streams into raging rivers within minutes.
What to bring: I recommend using hiking poles for stability on the uneven terrain. Also pack: bug spray; waterproofs (at least to keep your gear dry); shelter (tent or hammock); hat (for sun protection); water filter; head torch (if you want to see at night).
It’s a cold Friday evening in January, and we’re sat in London pub complaining. Our gripe? We needed to get outdoors. We need fresh air, and to swap the depressing city skyline for some greenery. Mostly we need exercise. Unfortunately, I’m no die-hard all-season outdoor adventurer. I hate being cold for a start, so it’s a struggle to motivate myself to pile on layers and forgo the comforts of central heating to get muddy and wet. But what I try focusing on over a G&T is the fact that when I do force myself outside for a hearty walk, I almost always feel much better for it.
We agreed to wake up early the next morning and formulate a plan. Over cereal and Google Maps a destination is randomly decided – Windsor. Home to the World’s largest inhabited castle (The Queen’s weekend pad), the famous Eton College (where Princes William and Harry went), and a historical royal parkland. Just south of the quaint Old Windsor town, Windsor Great Park provides over 4,800 acres of open space. With easy access to London, you might recognise areas of the park for the backdrops it has lent to dozens of films, including Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Wearing copious amounts of warm winter layers, we pull together two hikes to explore a large proportion of the park.
Day 1: Long Park Loop (11.6 miles)
Setting from our hotel 0.6 miles outside the south-east Blacknest Gate, our route would take us north along Duke’s Lane, up to Queen Anne’s Ride, until looping back down The Long Walk just before reaching the castle.
Given the wide open spaces, my cheeks burned in the wind, so we marched away to keep warm as if taking part in SAS training. Aside from horses and cyclists, most of our walk along the western side of the park seemed pretty quiet. The outlook was largely grazing fields full of sheep, with some enclosed ‘private’ land, and a few seemingly random pockets of housing. Who is lucky enough to live within the walls of Windsor Great Park (aside from Prince Andrew) I wonder?
The only place we could find to buy refreshments – The Village Post Office & General Store
A not-so-healthy lunch un-doing all our exercise
Around 4 miles in, after a brief detour to The Village – a square of houses with a Post Office – we come across the only statue of our current Queen on horse-back. The monument was commissioned to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. She gazes on towards Windsor castle, keeping a watchful eye on Prince Philip. A keen equestrian, apparently she still rides today in her 90s!
From the statue, our walk took us down the long, mowed Queen Anne’s ride, which we tred trying to avoid the odd pesky mole hill. Due to the neighbouring deer park, the ride is enclosed by a wire fence, meaning once you are on it there is no way to cut across eastwards. We found ourselves mostly taking established paths all day, which meant a lot of the time we had to dodge bikes and horses. At the end of the ride, we opted to forgo visiting the town (and castle), and turned back south-east, crossing through a tall gate into the deer park. Once inside, the resident heard of red deer could be spotted grazing in the distance.
Queen Anne’s Ride
Upon joining The Long Walk, the number of people grew. The 2.65-mile tree-lined avenue was originally planted in 1680 by Charles II. I like to think the view of Windsor Castle hasn’t changed much in that time, although since Charles’ time the castle has found itself right under the Heathrow airport flight path. If I had a pound for every low-flying plane roaring across the sky during our walk, it would have been a lucrative day!
The best view of Windsor Castle came once atop the hill at the foot of George III’s Copper Horse. If you haven’t seen the castle, it’s worth a visit. Home to a large amount of the British Crown’s art collection, these days it opens part of it’s enormous campus to tourists – for an entrance fee. The statue itself is very imposing. Much grander in size than the Queen’s one seen earlier. Years ago a rumour circulated that the statue’s sculptor killed himself because he was so ashamed that he forgot to include stirrups on the horse. This myth has since been disproven!
Our remaining route followed mostly straight paths towards Virginia Water. We past Guard’s Polo Club, which was all shut up for the season. By then, feeling tired, and in need of a hot drink we headed back towards Blacknest Gate, forgoing the lake for the next day. Given the number of visitors to the park, one thing that had surprised me was the serious lack of refreshment and toilet facilities. We didn’t pass a single public toilet all day! I would suggest packing your own snacks if you plan on spending a lot of time in the park.
Day 2: Virginia Water & Valley Gardens Loop (7.2 miles)
The air was even cooler on Sunday morning, and with just a few hours to kill before a customary English roast, we returned to the southern end of the park. Unfortunately we were not alone. It seems that Windsor Great Park, and Virginia Water in particular, is THE place to go on a Sunday morning! Whether walking the dog, pushing a pram, cycling, or taking part in the organised race going on, the new year exercise resolutions were in full swing.
Despite the crowds, I really enjoyed exploring this area of the park. It has far more landscaping than the northern section, and greater areas of interest to peruse, plus a visitor centre (toilets, food etc.) With further time we would have taken the small diversion north to Savill Garden (free entry in Jan-Feb), to see the horticultural designs.
Joining the ultra-busy 4.5-mile footpath that circles Virginia Water, we headed counter-clockwise under a white-out, sad sky. The lake dates back to 1763, when it became the largest man-made water pool in Britain. Conscious of our limited time, we set a decent marching pace, but still found ourselves side-stepping for the runners and cyclists. Staring at the calm body of water was not as peaceful as it could have been. I had to remain mindful of the crowds. There were a couple of near-misses with passing cyclists, and one total wet-dog face-plant into my legs that left me covered in mud. Thanks for that.
Almost hidden away from the lake’s southern shore something caught my eye. What looked like the ruins of a Roman city, inside Windsor Park? The tall, crumbling columns and archs look like they belong in ancient Greece – and that’s almost exactly where they came from too! Some information panels dotted around revealed that the stones were shipped to England from the Mediterranean, and re-constructed during the Georgian era. They once made up the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna on the shores of Tripoli. It seems that Georgian England, (just like the Victorians who followed), had a fascination with ancient architecture, and this ‘folly’, was erected for no purpose other than decoration.
Similar in intent to the ruins, we next came across the ornamental waterfall. The cascades were constructed by George III in 1780, and originally included a grotto, which has long since washed away. There is something whimsical about casting eyes on such man-made sites after witnessing incredible natural waterfalls all over the world! But then again, hundreds of years ago, how many people got to travel like we do today to see such wonders?
Passing the Pavilion guest centre, (and a giant carpark), we next reached the very distinctive Canadian totem pole. The 100-foot high pole, erected in 1958 to mark the centenary of British Columbia as a Crown Colony, was carved by Kwakiutl tribesmen out of a single trunk of red cedar. I should have taken a picture from further away, because I couldn’t do the monument justice. OK, so the paintwork could do with a touch-up, but the colossal mast sits so proudly looking out over the water, that it serves as a magnificent tribute to the UK’s relationship with Canada.
The Canadian-made totem pole
At this point in the hike we decided to divert from the main lake trail. As soon as we did, heading up into the Valley Gardens, the crowds slipped away. The undulating woodland, contains a maze of small trails, and an assortment of plants and trees, some of which are labelled. Whilst getting a bit lost, we spotted a dog, who after trotting past us twice in two different directions, we noticed was travelling solo. The little lost tike got away from us, (we tried to get a look at his collar), so we reported his location to the park warden, who dispatched a search team. I hope he managed to get reunited with his owner in time for lunch!
Additional Park Info
Most of the space open to public is free of charge from dawn the dusk (except car parking and the Savill Garden). Our walking routes were completely free!
The Park is accessible from London by car, or by trains from London Waterloo in around an hour
Cyclists and horse-riders are particularly well-catered for in Windsor, with dedicated routes and plenty of long, easy-grade track. There are many local stables and bike shops nearby
Want all the drama and beauty of Peru’s famous Inca Trail, but don’t have 4 days free to hike it? Or perhaps like us you’d rather opt out of camping? Well fear not, there is a less publicised alternative option – The Sacred (or Royal) Inca Trail. Given the 6.3-mile (10km) trail can be hiked in a single day, it’s surely a no-brainer for getting a taste of the ancient Inca civilisation, without any camping involved!
In 2012 our trek began as the early morning Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes Peru Rail train came to an abrupt stop at a seemingly nothing piece of track. There certainly wasn’t any platform, as we jumped straight onto the sidings of the narrow track that snakes through Peru’s Sacred Valley. Only 6 people got off the crowded train – Conrad and I, our guide Oscar, and another couple also with a guide.
After crossing a hanging footbridge over the Urubamba River, I was surprised to see two men sitting in a tiny palm-rooved kiosk in what appeared to be a deserted forest. They took their time inspecting our paperwork before stamping the permits. Once through, we somehow skipped over the archaeological complex of Chachabamba, a site dedicated to water with various channels and fountains, eager/ anxious to get going before the sun really heated up.
Starting at an elevation of 2,170 meters, we progressed along the narrow passage etched into the steep valley. The views were expansive, with the river below becoming increasingly faint, and distant peaks coated in heavy clouds as far as the eye could see. I’m not going to lie, the first part of the hike was arduous in the humid conditions. The trail offered no real shade – hence our cringe-worthy ‘on-trend’ headwear – but luckily Oscar coached us to take it slow. At this elevation, the first miles felt tougher than I had expected.
As we hiked Oscar entertained us with stories from the World of the Incas (most of which I have now helpfully forgotten!) But what I do remember is that the [full] Inca trail to Machu Picchu was originally intended as a religious pilgrimage. This made it almost unique, as unlike most of the thousands of miles of Inca trails stretching across the Empire, this one had no commercial use and hence was referred to as the “Royal Road”, “Royal Sacred Highway” or “The Road of the Inca King”. Whilst citizens completed their 26-mile pilgrimage, the shorter route we now treaded was believed to be reserved for nobles and religious leaders to access the royal city in relative ‘ease’, the ancient equivalent of travelling first-class!
Winay Wayna appears in the distance
Waterfall just before
After over 3 hours of hiking through verdant cloud forest, having had a brief rest stop at a waterfall, we arrive at Wiñay Wayna. The concave mountainside site is supposedly the second most important Inca Trail ruin. It consists of multiple agricultural terraces steeply cut into the mountain, and is believed to be the place the Incas used as a final rest spot before reaching Machu Picchu. A number of stone baths where Incas would have completed ritual cleansing before arriving in the sacred city are still distinguishable, and probably provide the symbolic meaning behind the name “Forever Young”.
At this point in the day we break for lunch, sat with our feet dangling over the suddenly vertigo-inducing terraces. But there is a problem. Our porter Eranjelio, who is charged with carrying lunch is no where to be seen. He had taken a later train because it was cheaper, but it’s only when we quiz Oscar about it that we discover the train in question was due to depart nearly 2 hours after our own! I instantly regret not packing some snacks in my day-pack (what an idiot!) So we take a few more pictures and patiently wait. Less than 10 minutes later a tiny dot appears further down the trail. It seems to be moving rapidly. As it gets closer Eranjelio can be made out, and he is an astonishing sight. The small-framed man glides along at a joggers pace complete with towering backpack, and a radio playing Peruvian folk music tied around his neck! Happy to see him, we eat a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and crisps, baffled as to how he had caught us up in little over an hour!
From Wiñay Wayna our path joins the main trail. As we pass through the camp where those taking the full Inca trail stay on their final night, a swarm of relief follows. I observe all the things I hate most about camping, such as being made to sleep in close proximity to toilet facilities, in dirty conditions whilst surrounded by other noisy people. I’m so happy to not be sticking around.
The remaining 4km of the hike felt less physically demanding, with the majority of the elevation gain past us. The landscape also changed quite drastically. The temperatures became cooler, the vegetation greener, and at times it felt like we were walking through a moss-covered jungle. It was a welcomed change after the hot temperature and dryer landscape we had experienced earlier in the day. That is until we reached what felt like a never-ending stone staircase. We crawl up the 50 steps, passing through the Sun Gate (“Inti Punka”) and it appears. In the distance our first glimpse of the one-time hidden City of the Incas, Machu Picchu sat saddled in the mountains below.
The last mile winding down the royal flagstone walkway to the citadel must have taken us an hour to complete, because each step brought even better views to photograph. Our pictures of the entire hike fail to do any of it justice – not only were we TOTAL photography ammeters, but during our tour around South America we travelled with a pretty cheap point-and-shot camera which washed out and over-exposed everything! Cameras have come a long way in the last 5 years.
Built over 500-years ago, Machu Picchu provided a sacred religious site for Inca leaders. Yet historians believe the site was only occupied for around 80 years before mysteriously being abandoned, some time in the sixteenth century during the Spanish Conquest. The site remained unknown to the outside world until Hiram Bingham, an American academic and explorer, ‘discovered’ ruins after stumbling across an overgrown section of adjourning trail in 1911. Today the site is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and draws visitors from all over the world.
Gazing down on the city as we inched closer, what struck me most was the dramatic surroundings. The city sits perched between two mountains, framed by steep, expansive valley drop-offs on either side. It began to make sense, in such a seeming isolated place, how over the course of a few hundred years of vegetation growth, an entire city was reclaimed by nature, and hidden from the unknowing eye.
With a tour of Machu Picchu planned for sunrise the next day, we didn’t hang around to explore that afternoon. It was hot, and after hours of hiking we felt tired and hungry, so we departed for the bus into town happy in the knowledge that the night would be spent in a hotel bed and not a tent! For now I wanted to share this hike because until I spoke to the tour company about the 4-day trail I had no idea that this route was even an option. It was hands-down one of the most spectacular hikes we have ever taken, and made all the more special by the comparative lack of foot traffic on the route.
I would classify the hike as ‘moderate’ if taken slowly. The route certainly follows an established path with no scrambling skills required. It also helped enormously that we only had to carry small day packs with our water, a few sundries such as suncream, and some toiletries for the overnight hotel stay (once again, I should have packed snacks!). So if you are running short on time, or feel the full trail maybe too physical, take a look at following the [shorter] route of kings!
Important Trail Info
Hiking independently along any part of the Inca Trail is no longer permitted, so bookings must be made through a registered trekking agency who for a fee will provide a registered guide and usually also arrange permits. Our permits, guide, and porter were all included in our wider Peru tour that we booked with the company Amazing Peru. If booked separately I believe that the approximate price of a basic group service is between US$320 and US$380 per person, with the price for a basic private group of just 2 persons about US$450-500 per person. It’s also worth noting that the Inca trail closes for a number of weeks each year for maintenance, so plan ahead. And lastly, remember to carry some cash to tip your porter and guides – they work hard for it!