By Hannah Singleton
I was hiking in the hills outside Bellingham when I arrived at what I thought would be a trail junction. Instead, the overgrown logging road dead-ended and I grabbed my phone and clicked on the Gaia GPS app. My orange triangle icon sat on the straight black line, directly adjacent to a dashed trail that branched off and climbed straight up steep contour lines. I turned to face the forested hillside — no sign of a trail. I walked down the road a few paces and my triangle moved with me. Sure enough, that was where the trail was supposed to be. All I could see were salmonberry bushes and sword ferns.
But I had mapped this route before leaving my house, hoping to check out these trails that were mysteriously absent from the internet. At just about halfway into my hike, I wasn’t going to turn around so quickly. I poked around a bit more, moving fronds and searching for any sign of human impact. Soon, I saw a small trail, barely noticeable, about 20 feet away. As I marched into the dark second-growth forest, the route became clear, and I noticed trinkets decorating the woods: a painted rock, an animal skull nailed to a tree. This trail still sees some use, I thought.
For two years, I’ve focused on hiking or running every trail within a 15-mile radius of my house in the York District in Bellingham. This project has gotten me into many misadventures: Pointing me to trails that don’t exist, directing me to private access roads and leading me to question why some trails ever existed in the first place. But more than that, I’ve experienced most of the public land Bellingham has to offer – a lot of it unpopulated and infrequently traveled.
And if the time of Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to spread out. Spreading out our human footprint isn’t just necessary in times of global pandemics: it is crucial to lessening the impact on our favorite trails and popular parks.
On the day I decided to explore this new-to-me trail system, I browsed Strava, a run and cycling app, and mapped the route so that I had an idea of what I was in for before I left my house. I could see the types of trails (gravel roads vs. single-track dirt), the junctions and the elevation gain. But I didn’t know how it would look. I had never seen images on the internet; hadn’t read any trip reports.
So I set out from the trailhead toward an overlook – denoted by binoculars symbol on the map. I weaved past roots and rocks, through a narrow water-carved channel in the trail and uphill until I approached a former clearcut. Fireweed sprouted on the recently-disturbed land. Birds dove between bushes and wind rolled across the exposed land. A misty rain fell and as I arrived at the clearing, views of Lake Whatcom, Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands spread out before me. The sights were spectacular, but above it all, I had escaped the crowds.
There are so many great trail resources on the internet, but I love to browse online map applications – such as Gaia GPS, Strava and MAPS.ME – to add to the spirit of adventure that you feel when you step out on the trail. Instead of turning to an organized lists of trails in your area, maps help you find the trail less traveled. While paper maps are always my first bet in wilderness areas, map applications are helpful in local areas because city-run public lands see frequent trail development. Online maps are updated often, so they have more trails than paper maps.
But each app is different, so it is beneficial to take time to learn the system before setting out. How does the map designate different land organizations? How do you distinguish between roads and a single-track trail? Learning how to read the map is a crucial skill to develop before you use it for navigation. Different maps have different information (for example, MAPS.ME doesn’t offer elevation or terrain information, but may show more points of interest). Oftentimes, I’ll cross-reference MAPS.ME, Gaia GPS and Strava before I hit the trail. I’ll plot points and look at mileage and terrain so that I feel confident and safe, even if I don’t encounter other hikers.
As I arrived at the highest point of the day, my blood pumped quickly and my body felt electric with each uphill step. I popped out from that dark, elusive trail and back onto an overgrown road. Filled with glee, a smile smeared across my face. There is a certain kind of magic that happens when you look at a map and go, without expectation. I turned right to head back to the trailhead, laughing as my feet gained speed underneath me and my pace quickened to a jog. Plants overtook the path, forming a tunnel of green as the road narrowed. I tiptoed my way through stinging nettle and slogged through mud, and when I finally arrived back on the main trail – ragged and dirty – I couldn’t wipe that smile off my face. I had found what I was looking for: adventure right outside of town. x
Hannah Singleton was born and raised on the East Coast but moved out west after college and never looked back. She loves to share her enthusiasm for her local environment and public lands.