A walk above the clouds
In the Western United States most mountain trails will be snowed in for weeks, or months, more. So go with the flow, and get in an all-snow trip that in good weather can be among the most scenic hikes anywhere. The destination: Camp Muir, the popular climbers' camp at 10,000 feet up Mount Rainier. Strong hikers can snowshoe or ski it in a day. If no fresh snow has fallen for several days and it isn't too warm, the trip can be made in plastic mountaineering boots or good-quality heavy leather boots. Lug some Alpine skis up for a fast descent. The trip starts at Paradise on the mountain's south side; check in at the ranger district. If unfamiliar with the area, get a copy of a map with compass headings for the descent - many hikers have vanished after becoming disoriented, then hiked "down" to Paradise and strolled off onto the Cowlitz Glacier. The line back to Paradise actually veers along the fall line, not down it. Allow a full day for the round - trip; of course, you can turn back any time. If overnighting, there is a stone hut at Muir but you are better off with a mountaineering tent. To get there, drive south 25 miles from Seattle on Interstate 5. From Tacoma, watch for signs and exit onto Highway 167. After nine miles go south on Highway 610. Drive through Eatonville, then turn left (east) on Highway 706. The Nisqually park entrance is in 24 miles; Paradise is located at 5,420 feet of elevation and is plowed. The hike starts from Paradise;Camp Muir is about 4.5 miles from the lodge. Be prepared for sudden changes in weather, including thick fog, snow, or blinding sunshine.
An early summer trip to the redrock
Not far from Las Vegas, of all places, hikers will find a near-paradise of redrock and desert in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. To get there, follow Charleston Boulevard (Nevada Route 159) 20 miles west to the visitor center entrance (entrance and camping are free, but backcountry hikers must obtain a permit). Covering 196,000 acres, the conservation area ranges from gravel river washes to desert plant communities to the summit of a 7,000-foot limestone escarpment. With luck, you'll see a bobcat or kit fox. Hikers can follow one of several close-in loop trails maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, or take a 14-mile loop to the top of the limestone peak. But the biggest treat is to simply take a map and start to wander. The open terrain invites exploring - just be sure to stay on the rocks and gravel to protect fragile desert plant life.
A visit to "The Blue Wall"
You might not normally associate South Carolina with Appalachians. But in the northwest corner of the state you'll find an array of state parks located where the low foothills give way to mountains in a dramatic landscape known as "The Blue Wall." At the heart of this landscape of lush riverbanks and crenellated cliff tops is the 10,000-acre Mountain Bridge State Natural Area. To get there, follow U.S. Highway 276 north for 25 miles to Caesars Head State Park. From there, 18 different trails offer more than 46 miles of hiking. The regional high point is 3,200-foot Caesars Head. Backpackers may want to try a loop that starts on the Raven Cliff Falls Train, then heads east to a rock formation known as The Pinnacle. Along the way, you're apt to see bobcats, black bears or raptors such as osprey and peregrine falcons.
A visit to the Pilot Range
The Pilot Range, a string of peaks that comprise a portion of New Hampshire's Presidential Range, offer something the popular Presidential does not: some solitude. Although less lofty than the Presidential Range, the Pilots still offer plenty of peak-top views, as well as sheltered hikes over moss-covered paths through deep New England forest. To get there, take I-93 north from Boston to Exit 36, then U.S. 3 north to NH 115 toward Jefferson. Turn right onto U.S. 2 east; follow it to NH 16 north to Berlin, then NH 110 west. Seven miles from Berlin, turn left onto York Pond Road, and follow the road to the U.S. Fish Hatchery and Mill Brook Trail parking area (permits required). From there, a 15-mile loop follows gentle trails through birch forests. Take a side trip to Rogers Ledge for sweeping views of the surrounding peaks, then return through more birch forests along the Kilkenny Ridge Trail. The area's high point is Mount Cabot (4,170 feet).