We—hikers, writers, nature lovers, always champion the therapeutic power of nature. I have told people that I hike because it relives stress, and I have spent bad days looking out the window, convinced that if I could go outside and be alone in the woods for just a bit I would be so much happier.
Hiking, or being in nature helps, but it isn’t magic, and it isn’t always a solution.
For every hike that has helped with stress, there is another hike that tested me, made me nervous, and made me doubt myself. There have been hikes where I have scraped up and bruised my legs, hikes where I didn’t bring enough water, hikes where I was sure I was irreparably lost.
There have been hikes when I have hurried up mountains to get the right shot of the sunset, worried I came all this way just to mess it up, and times where after a perfect sunset, I have had to walk back in the dark, and worried about that too.
There have been hikes that I didn’t think I could finish, where my legs hurt and I was winded well before halfway, and left feeling weaker rather than stronger.
I am a worrier, I am anxious, and I get stressed, and tall trees and fresh air don’t always fix that. But sometimes it does, and even the hikes that make me happy to get back in the car and pull off my hiking boots have taught me something.
The time my sister and I did the Dune Climb with no gear taught me that you always need water; the time I wore brand new hiking boots up a mountain in Colorado taught me I am not immune to blisters.
The time I almost got frostbite taught me a lot about poor planning, and the time I hiked to Copperas Falls taught me that not all hikes are fun, and some are definitely not worth repeating or recommending.
So while a hike isn’t medicine, and nature isn’t always an antidote to stress, even the bad hikes can still be adventures.
And sometimes, if you’re very lucky and in the right place at the right time, your hike can be both an adventure, and magic.
About a year ago, I left for a study abroad that would take me to Ireland, England and Wales. And I had a good time, I really did. But was it life changing? Eye-opening? Am I suddenly cultured? No. Studying abroad for three weeks in countries that spoke my language did not drastically change my world view, but it was still a growing experience.
I traveled with a group of 11 girls I had never met before, so my experience was more interpersonal than it was cultural, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing.
So if I wouldn’t describe it as “eye-opening” or “life changing”, what all did I learn?
There is no one right way to travel
I personally like to travel quickly, efficiently, and always be early.Some people would rather soak up the experience of everything. Neither way is necessarily wrong, but travel with people who travel like you. If you don’t, you will end up either waiting around for people or feeling rushed.
Not everyone is going to like you
On one level, I knew before this study abroad that people aren’t always going to like you. On another level, I didn’t really expect people to dislike me when I was trying so hard to be liked.
The thing about traveling with a group of 19-21-year-old females, is someone is going to be the mean girl. Sometimes, more than one person is going to be the mean girl. And when you’re travelling in close quarters for three weeks, it’s going to be even harder to get along.
So while at first it bothered me when one girl decided that I was the B-word for being chronically early (no, that is not an exaggeration), and it bothered me when another girl didn’t like the way I asked her to clean the dishes that she had left in the sink for three days because we were literally out of dishes (also not an exaggeration), I eventually shrugged it off. I would rather have clean dishes than be liked by mean people anyway (this is an exaggeration. I would rather be liked).
Sometimes people are just mean
On a similar note, some people are just mean. Sometimes, you meet someone who you really can’t get along with, who really will yell at you for getting in her way, and who will say nasty things about you just for the sport of it. And sometimes you will have to sit next to them on a 7-hour flight and be nice even when they elbow you all 7 hours. Some people are like that.
A three-week study abroad might not be the best way to experience culture
I was really hoping to leave the British Isles with some deep understanding of how things work there, and some wild experience that made me feel cultured. Instead, I got interpersonal experience that I wasn’t expecting. I lived and traveled with a girl who was messy and rude, and did not care what her roommates thought. I lived and traveled with a girl so far removed from the world I understood that I could not possibly relate, and another girl who insisted that she tell us all how to travel, and even how to walk down a street. I lived and traveled with another girl who became one of my best friends, and I wouldn’t trade the bonding experience we had for the world.
My original goal of learning about a culture that wasn’t my own wasn’t necessarily accomplished, but I got a different sort of cultural experience that I would argue is just as valuable.
Reading will enhance your experience
It just will. Researching a place before visiting sounds like a lot of work, but you will get so much more out of seeing a place of significance if you understand its significance and know its stories.
For example, when we visited the Sherlock Holmes museum, I didn’t really get much out of it, because I don’t read Sherlock Holmes. But the historical places, Newgrange passage tomb, the Tower of London, Ireland’s Museum of Archeology, meant a lot more to me, because I had read both the history of the places and countries I was in, and a lot of the folklore. Because I had done this research, I wanted to see these places, not just because they were pretty or interesting, but because I understood what they meant.
Travel isn’t scary
I remember getting up at 7am to catch a 3pm flight at the beginning of this trip, and being insanely nervous about navigating the airport. By the end of the trip, I took a ferry and two planes in the course of 36 hours, and then had a 27-hour flight delay in JFK. Sure, I was stressed and sleep deprived, but not scared. Because whether you’ve missed a train or been stuck on the Atlanta tarmac for 3 hours in June, the situation can almost always be resolved.
You accommodate the culture you are visiting; not the other way around
This is something that I wouldn’t have thought really needed iteration, but one of the things I saw repeatedly from a few of my peers was an expectation that things would be done the way they are in America because it is the “best way”.
First of all, never say that the way things are done in your home country are better than they are in the country you are in. That is obscenely rude. Second, especially don’t do it if you are an American. Especially an American in London. Like, holy shit.
Moreover, the way things are done in your home country are not, without exception, the best way. I listened to two of my peers complain about not being able to use business’s trash cans in Europe despite having not bought anything from the business. While these two idiots complained loudly, as Americans do, we got the evil eye from like forty people before I quietly explained to them that trash bags here are more expensive to encourage recycling, so businesses can’t afford to just take their trash.
Which shut them up for about half a second before they loudly began discussing how the Euro is stronger than the Pound. Which is wrong.
You don’t have to always tag along
One of the things about living with a group of people somewhere new is that there will always be something fun and new going on, and you will want to be involved. I learned pretty quickly that sometimes it is better to get some rest and alone time than to rush out to the third or fourth sight of the day, and people won’t hate you for passing every now and then.
Your dream experience is not that important
Everyone has this vision of what their study abroad, or even vacation, should be, but achieving this vision is not more important than being courteous.
I cannot count how many times, on this trip alone, I heard someone say “well it’s a once in a lifetime chance,” before doing something inconsiderate or downright mean.
When a group I was traveling with left me alone for a half an hour somewhere in the middle of the Tower of London I was told by one girl upon their return that she couldn’t pass up a once in a lifetime chance to see the crown jewels by waiting 20 seconds for me to return from the bathroom (not exaggerating).
When the girl who made our entire tour bus late at the Cliffs of Moher finally boarded a full bus she shrugged and told us how buying that Guinness pint glass was a once in a lifetime experience (it wasn’t). Meanwhile, someone across the aisle of the bus muttered “Americans” under his breath.
So no, you’re “right” to a once in a lifetime experience doesn’t give you license to be a jerk. Just don’t do it.
Studying abroad is expensive
Another thing worth mentioning– this kind of program, a faculty led, country hopping, study abroad, can be really expensive, and I personally don’t think I would do this again. Traveling independently and doing your own research will be a lot cheaper, and you aren’t bound to a class itinerary.
On the other hand, there absolutely are scholarships available for this kind of program, and there are a lot of them– several of the girls on my trip were able to cut the program cost down by 75%. Talk to your advisor, talk to your schools Office of Study Abroad, and look and see if your school has a Student Travel Association. All of these people/resources should be able to help you find scholarships and get discounted flights.
So is a study abroad right for you?
I can’t really answer that. I think for me, at that time, this study abroad was probably the right introduction to travel. But for other people, who are looking to have a little more autonomy than travel training wheels, I would recommend direct enrolling in a foreign university for a full semester, or traveling with a small group.
There is a lot of pressure on high school graduates to choose their career path and set up their lives right away, and maybe you’re feeling that right now, and that’s why you’re here. I know I felt that pressure 4 years ago, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
It wasn’t a straight path for me—I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and after a few months volunteering in the ER and vomiting at the sight of blood, I realized that I didn’t. Then I thought I wanted to be a professor, but then I looked at the years and years more of school I would have to complete, and that didn’t seem right either.
I still don’t know “what I want to do”, and I will be graduating in less than a year—which believe me is scary to write.
While I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, I do know what my immediate options are, which is a much easier and arguably better way to look at it. More importantly, I know how to cope with stress and actually plan these things better than I used to, which is why I am laying this out here.
DO: Explore Majors
People will inevitably tell you what major is the best, and what you should do to be successful. Keep in mind all people give advice based their own experience, and no one knows just how many majors and different paths might be available to you. Attend your college events, meet with different advisors, and talk to upper classmen—the more people you talk to, the better sense you’ll have of all the opportunities available.
DON’T: Be Stubborn
It took me a long time to fully admit that I didn’t want to be a doctor, because I had already told people that I did. In the long run, this hurt me more than helped, and I spent a lot of time, money, and effort on classes I wasn’t interested in and I probably won’t need.
My advice? Don’t even declare a major until you’ve got a good sense of all of the majors available—and don’t hang onto a major just because your friends and family think that you should.
DO: Get Involved
Everyone will tell you this, but go to club meetings, join the IM soccer team, attend events. Not only is this a great way to meet people, but this also lets explore your campus.
Another perk of getting involved— you end up meeting a lot of upperclassmen who can give you advice specific to your school and maybe even your major.
DON’T: Assume There is Only One Right Way
One of the biggest issues, for both me and many of my friends was assuming that there is only one right way to do things— there’s not. Take a gap year, go to a community college for a few years, it’s not the end of the world. And if college isn’t right for you, that’s okay too.
Two of the most successful people I know either took a gap year or transferred from a community college. Just because people “usually” go straight to a four year university, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or that it’s the right way for you.
DO: Get a Job
The cool thing about college campuses is that you can get a career-relevant paid position, but you have to put yourself out there.
My freshman year, I went out on a limb and emailed the campus Writing Center to see if they needed tutors. I’ve worked there for two years now, and it funneled into my second job, where I act as a peer mentor and teach writing to freshman science majors—to whom I impart all of my life advice that doesn’t make it on to this blog.
My sister’s freshman year, she emailed 6 professors to see if they needed an undergraduate researcher. Only 1 of the 6 even replied, but this professor gave her a paid position this summer in his lab working on solar panels—I’m pretty sure she just gets coffee and cleans beakers, but still. I have another friend whose freshman lab experience got her an internship at a National Park. In contrast, most of the people I know who have put off getting jobs and getting involved are having trouble finding jobs after graduation.
Your freshman or sophomore job, be it in a cafeteria or a research position, can lead to bigger opportunities down the road, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there.
DON’T: Try and Plan Your Life in One Day
You might feel like you need to figure it out today, or tomorrow, but I promise you don’t. I’m not necessarily saying put off everything forever, but you don’t need to choose a major, or a career path right away.
Instead, focus on trying out classes and going to club meetings. That way, when it comes time to make decisions, you have a good idea of what your options are.
DO: Make Your Own Path
Don’t choose a major or career just because your parents did it that way, or all your friends are doing it that way— you have to do it for you. At the end of the day, you’re going to be a lot happier and more successful if you do something you actually like than you will be if you live your life to make someone else happy.
You’ve got time. Whether you’re going to be a senior in high school and don’t know what major in, or a senior in college and don’t know what to do with your whole life (me), or anywhere in-between, it’s going to work out.
The Dune Climb is one of those hikes that everyone tells you is hard, and you believe them, but it still doesn’t stop you from going. The idea of climbing over the sand until you reach the water is too appealing to stop most people, especially since that first dune sticks out like a sore thumb when you’re cruising M22. And even if you’ve done the Dune Climb before, and actually know how long it is, odds are you’ll forget the next time you’re out there.
So what do you need to know before attempting of one of the more difficult hikes in Michigan?
Mileage: It’s 3.5-4 miles roundtrip, depending on which trail/ detours you take—but it’s over large dunes for the majority of the hike. The hike will usually take 2 to 4 hours, depending on skill level and time spent at Lake Michigan.
What you should know: While you might want to start the hike off barefoot, you will want to bring a pair of shoes or socks for the section of the hike that is closer to the lakeshore—here there can be sharp rocks and even broken glass.
You will not be able to see the lake immediately. Not after the first dune, or the second, or the third. When you do finally see the Lake, you are about halfway there.
If it is cool enough to have a comfortable climb out, it is probably too cold to swim in the lake. This is probably the biggest catch 22 of the hike—ideally, the hike would be cool and the lake would be hot, not the other way around. Unfortunately, the Dunes are about ten degrees hotter than the Lakeshore, so you could easily be hot hiking, but cold by the time you get to the water.
You will probably be sore the next day. Hiking up sand is a different type of work out than running or hiking.
What you should bring:
Water: this hike is hot, hard, and in the sun. I have done it without water before, but it was back when I was running cross country, and even then it was a mistake.
Shoes: you might want to take off your shoes at the first hill, but the second half of the hike is rockier, and sometimes even has broken glass.
Sunscreen: There is no tree cover in the Dunes—this entire hike is in the sun
National Parks Pass: To access the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you will either need a National Parks Pass or a Sleeping Bear Dunes pass, both of which you can purchase at the entrance to the Dune Climb.
Is This Hike Worth It?
If your goal with this hike is to swim in Lake Michigan and experience some incredible views, this hike probably isn’t right for you. You can just as easily visit one of the many other trails or beaches in Sleeping Bear and get a much better result for less work.
However, if your goal is to get a good workout or check this one off your bucket list, I would absolutely recommend this hike!
North Carolina was not the first place that came to mind when I was looking for hiking destinations, but after stumbling upon the Roan Highlands on the internet, I decided to give North Carolina a closer look.
I quickly discovered the North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains have so much more to offer than just mountains—I found waterfalls, sweeping overlooks, thigh-burning hikes, and would 100% recommend you visit yourself. When you do, here are five places to get you started on that visit.
The Linville Falls are a quick detour off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and one of the most intricate waterfalls I have seen. As a photographer, I was thrilled, because the waterfall offers so many different angles and has so much character. At the first overlook you can see the upper falls, a small set of twin cascades. Also at this first overlook the waterfall cuts its way into the rock, forming a small canyon.
The second and third overlooks give you the more classic view of the lower falls featured above. If you zoom in on this photo, you can see a man in orange taking a selfie near the base of the falls—you can reach his location by taking a third, more difficult trail.
Hawksbill Crag is a steep mile climb up to an overlook of the Linville Gorge. It is well trafficked, and for good reason! The blooming flowers and rock formations at the top alone are impressive, but the views of the valley below are the sort you would expect to see only from a helicopter.
A word of caution: The last portion of this hike features steeper hiking that borders on climbing. I would recommend a walking stick.
A bit of a drive off the Blue Ridge Parkway, but I will sing the praises of this hike until the day that I die. The trail from Carver’s Gap to Grassy Bald is five miles round trip, and follows the Appalachian Trail for a portion as it winds down the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.
A more hidden gem, Elk Falls are hard to find, but offer the chance to get really close to a lesser known waterfall. Whatever you do, don’t jump from the top—the 40 foot drop and rip currents below claim lives every year.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
The entire Blue Ridge Parkway scenic drive is worth your time, and there are plenty more sights to discover along the way!
There are places where the line between what is real and what you’ve imagined is so thin that you are certain you’ve stepped out of a dream. These places have an otherness about them, they are ageless and supernatural, and it feels if you were to stay there long enough, that maybe you might fall through time.
These places are rich, as if plucked from a storybook, but have palpable history. They mean something as much as they are something, and even if you don’t necessarily know the place’s stories and history, you can feel it. We speak about these places with reverence; they are the places that inspire us, that make writers, and artists, that spark movements, places we protect.
In my life time, I have only had the luxury of visiting two of these places.
The 5-mile ridge of Roan Mountain is one of them. I’ve been told that in June, natural rhododendron gardens blanket the mountain tops, but I went in May and it was still stunning.
Every step along that beautiful trail is magic, from the initial dive into the pines, through and over the Balds at elevation 6000 feet, all the way out to Grassy Bald, and it’s commanding views of North Carolina.
Just to stand on a trail that runs for over 2000 miles is one thing, but then to walk the line that divides Tennessee and North Carolina is another. More astounding still is to look out over the Appalachians, once taller as the Rockies, maybe taller, and as old as 480 million years, and think how they have been eroded for millions of years by wind and water and ice, scraped down to less than half their size but still are standing. These mountains are ancient, and you are strolling on this resilient beast’s back.
For Kentuckians, the Red River Gorge is known and loved both for its climbing and trails. I am not a climber, nor should I be at a lowly 5’2, so I stuck to the trails on my recent visit.
The Gorge, as it is lovingly referred to by locals, offers tons of different trails for almost all skill levels, all with different activities and sights to see. Some of the best seasons to visit the Gorge are in Spring and Fall, with the flowers blooming and leaves changing respectively. From arches to vistas, this Red River Gorge Trail Guide covers 6 hikes in the Gorge worth a visit!
Whistling Arch Trail: At around a half mile round trip and minimal elevation gain, this trail offers a sizable arch and an overlook over the valley below. The Red River Gorge has about 150 arches, its arch concentration second only to Utah’s Arches National Park.
Angel’s Windows Trail: Another short and sweet hike, this trail offers a double arch. The trail is about a half mile total and has little elevation change. Of the two arches we visited, this was by far the more photogenic, with the arch on the far side looking oddly like a horse.
Jump Rock: This is more of a swimming hole than a hike, but still well worth the trip. From the Sheltowee Connector Trail #211 lot off Sky Bridge Rd, it is a quick walk out to Jump Rock along the Red River. The rock is safe to jump off and the river is safe to swim across, although I would still recommend being a strong swimmer, and wouldn’t tell anyone to dive. The current is not strong, and the river is deep enough that you don’t have to worry about hurting yourself jumping. When we went, there were about 40 yellow monarch butterflies around the river and the surrounding trials.
Disclaimer: I did not jump or swim here, because it was 64 degrees when we visited. My sister swam, and has jumped with a group in the past.
The Natural Bridge and Hanson’s Point Trails: Located in Natural Bridge State Park rather than the Red River Gorge, the Natural Bridge is a short but steeper hike from the parking lot in the Natural Bridge State Park. The Natural Bridge is what it sounds like—a bridge of sandstone connecting two ridges and carved out by the wind that you can hike across. From the top of the Natural Bridge, you can see Hanson’s Point—a local told me that the overlook was called this but I haven’t been able to confirm online. After crossing the Natural Bridge, you can head out to Hanson’s Point to get a view of the bridge from a distance. From here, we continued out to Lookout Point to watch the sunset. Lookout Point offers really nice views of the valley below, and is arguably the best spot in the Natural Bridge State Park to watch the sunset.
Tip for Red River Gorge photos: I have heard that fog collects in the valley below the Natural Bridge and Hanson’s Point in the morning, both of which face the east, and it is a really cool place to shoot the sunrise above the clouds.
Devil’s Staircase Trail: Located in the Natural Bridge State Park between Hanson’s Point and Lookout Point, this “staircase” will lead you deep into walls of rock. It’s a cool and short hike, but not if you have bad knees, don’t like heights, or are not steady footed. Honestly it’s amazing what this park will call a staircase. I can’t believe I did that stupid hike.
Copperas Falls Trail (Copperas Creek Falls Trail): This is an unofficial trail near Osborne Bend Trial, and is a little tricky to follow. If you can see Copperas Creek or the creek bed, you are headed in the right direction. This hike is just shy of four miles round trip and doesn’t have a whole lot of elevation gain, but you will have to climb over some trees, and even large rocks depending on which route you take. When you first start off on the trail, it will split off into two. Following the trail on the right will give you a faster and easier route to the falls. We followed to the left. It was probably more scenic, but we had to climb over boulders the size of cars, and I have cuts and bruises. From here, the trial has multiple creek crossings, so be aware that your feet might get wet. In general, I would not recommend hiking this trail. You can see other, more impressive falls without scraping yourself up as much. If you are going to go, I would recommend going earlier than May or after a big rain—the falls were more of a trickle than falls by the time we got there.
The other thing about Copperas Falls is that there was a lot of trash lining the hike. I was able to get some of it, but I’m sure there will be more if you get the chance to visit, so bring a trash bag to collect as you go! It can seem like a pain to pick up after someone else, but if not you, who else will do it? Besides, there is no better way to appreciate nature than to leave a place better than you found it.
For more hikes and Red River Gorge Trail Guides check out these other sites/blogs: