Cinque Terre: The Ultimate Urban Hike

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Sunset between Corniglia and Vernazza

As a college student, I visited the Cinque Terre in the heat of the late summer in 2008 for a two-day trek over the coastline cliffs, visiting each city and taking in the spectacular views. We were on a tight budget, opting to camp for free along the trail versus finding a last-minute hotel option, and carrying all of our own food (minus the bottle of wine we picked up in Vernazza) it was a relatively cheap weekend trip. I was young, unprepared (my pack barely carried enough supplies for one night and we lacked a tent and sleeping bags, thus causing us to sleep under the stars), but it was in that trip that my love for the urban trails really came to be. It was a time when all I could do was say yes, and take in every moment on the journey.

After that initial trip, I swore I would return, this time with more money and more planning, and would spend my days hiking and writing from my Vernazza villa in the cliffs. Ten years later, I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved that level of awesomeness (yet!), but I was able to return to the region in 2011 to introduce good friends to a place I loved.

I wouldn’t advise travelers to take the same loose precautions as I did when planning a trip to the Cinque Terre, located on the northwestern coastline of Italy. Aptly named to represent the five fishing towns within this national park, the Cinque Terre is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and provides visitors of all ages and abilities to explore. For the avid hikers looking for a challenge, there are plenty of spur trails off the main route that bring you up into the cliffs, or, down to hidden beaches tucked along the craggy coast. For the more leisurely hiker, there are flat paths between some of the towns, passing through gardens and scenic overlooks. And for those of you who are not too much into the hiking part, but still looking to enjoy the Cinque Terre, there is a train that stops at each town, giving you chance to explore without climbing a mountain.

The journey starts by train in La Spezia, a coastline hub just south of the Cinque Terre. From there, buy your park and train passes from the ticket counter and take the 20-minute ride to Riomaggiore, the first town and the starting point for the 6.2-mile urban hike.

 

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‘Via dell’Amore’ or ‘Lovers Lane’ includes sculptures and murals dedicated to that wonderful feeling we call love.

1. Riomaggiore

As you ride the train from La Spezia to Riomaggiore, you pass into a dark tunnel through the cliffs—encased in darkness for a few moments, your eyes adjust long enough to make the glimpse of the crashing waves down below seem like a dream—in a moment, you see a sight that takes your breath away, only to return to darkness, craving more of the scenery you are about to encounter. Once you arrive, you are greeted by the pastel homes that trademark the five towns, with colorful boats docked along the inlet, waiting to head out in to the Liguarian Sea. The trail connecting Riomaggiore and the next town is also the region’s most famous, called ‘Via dell’Amore’ (‘Lover’s Lane’). The walk is paved for the most part, and features sculptures and lookout points, and is perfect for hikers of all levels. Take a stroll for 1.2 miles, admiring the kissing statue and the murals dedicated to love.

 

2. Manarola

Manarola’s church San Lorenzo dates back to 1338 and is the focal point of the village. Here, you can stroll down to the water to shop (look for the trademark painted potteryof the region) and try out some local cuisine (be sure to try Cinque Terre’s wine, as well as their white anchovies) before heading back onto the trail. While not as easy, the path between Manarola and Corniglia is a relatively flat 1.2 miles, and the last of the accessible trails before hikers have to head into the cliffs.

 

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Unlike the other towns in Cinque Terre, Corniglia is set high into the mountain overlooking the sea, versus sitting on the coast. From the train station, you must climb over 300 steps to reach the town, so for the leisurely hikers, I recommend skipping this (if you are determined to see all five towns, but do not want to do the steps, there is an auto road with buses that will take you to the top. The hiking trail follows these steps up to the town, and brings you to the highest point in the park before you head back down a long, gradual descent to the fourth town (total mileage about 2 miles).

 

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Vernazza is the most photogenic of the five towns. 

4. Vernazza

My favorite town in Cinque Terre and one of the most picturesque, Vernazza features a stone fort and lookout tower you can climb, as well as a sleepy harbor perfect for lunch by the sea. I recommend setting aside some extra time to enjoy the town before continuing on your hike, or, even better, book a room in the town and spend the night. The final part of the trail leaving Vernazza is the most difficult, taking you high into the cliffs again, but at 1.8 miles, it gives you plenty of views to enjoy along the way.

 

5. Monterosso al Mare

Celebrate your accomplishment with a meal and some gelato, all while sitting along the beaches. With more flat terrain than the other towns, Monterosso has become more of a vacation spot than its sisters. Be sure to pack a swimsuit and grab a towel, because after a long hike you will need to cool off in the water!

 

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‘Selfie’ Tourism and How to Hike Wisely in the White Mountains

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New Hampshire offers plenty of awesome photo opps, but be sure you are ready to tackle the big ones first.

Recently, I came across the term ‘Selfie Tourism,’ a phenomenon that has immensely affected travel industry in both a positive and negative way. It was used in a video on social media, where loggers in Costa Rica chopped down a tree to capture a sleeping sloth and sell it into the tourism trade for ignorant travelers to snuggle up with in front of the camera. Not only was it horrifying to watch this poor creature fall hundreds of feet from the trees, but knowing that sloths, with a slower heart rate than most mammals, could die if startled by too much commotion in an environment where they are issued out for photographs.

 

Not only has this ‘Selfie Tourism’ threatened wildlife, but it is also inviting a new group of ignorant travelers to visit the more out-of-reach places without proper research. In the outdoor recreation community, whether you are hiking, backpacking, boating, climbing, or other, it is understood that these activities require some experience and skill. Instead, for those travelers who show up ‘for the photo,’ we’re seeing first time hikers attempting advanced trails, resulting in more emergency rescues than we’ve seen in previous years.

Let’s consider the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a popular vacation destination for New Englanders in both the summer and winter. Over the past few years, hiking trails in the region have seen double and even triple the number of visitors. Local forest rangers are working overtime to manage traffic and parking, and the once quiet summits are starting to see some bigger crowds. Many trails can be hiked in a day—the Franconia Ridge, possibly the most popular loop hike in the Whites, is a long but rewarding hike that can still have intermediate to advanced hikers home by dinner. But for those looking for specific locations, such as the coveted Bondcliff summit (which offers an awesome photo opportunity) or Mount Washington (New England’s highest peak), most amateur hikers don’t realize how strenuous the trails are, and realize while on the trail that they may be in trouble. That is the perfect recipe to call in the rescue crews.

By no means do I discourage travelers to head out into the wilderness for the lofty photo goals (I myself love sharing pictures from my adventures, just look at our Instagram page!). Instead, I urge you to prepare ahead of time—with simple training, safety checks, and consulting a professional, you can avoid disaster and get the most out of your trip. While we can adjust the following to various parts of the world, let’s instead focus on how to best prepare for a hike in New Hampshire so you can have that amazing experience safely.

 

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The AMC has high huts where hikers can stay overnight an break up their hike into two or more days. Reservations include a bed, dinner and breakfast, plus some incredible views!

Do Your Research

 

This seems redundant, but it is so important if you plan to hike the White Mountains. When looking at a peak you would like to conquer, consider the following: mileage, elevation gain (this is not the elevation of the summit, but instead the total elevation you will have to climb on the hike), terrain, and weather. Be sure to pack a map of the trail, as well as a compass (and learn how to use them!). You can pick up a White Mountain Guide through the Appalachian Mountain Club, which provides all of this information, and can give you a better idea of what to expect. Another great resource is through New England Waterfalls, which gives a chart comparing difficulty to how great the view is—perfect for beginners to choose their first 4,000-footer! Mountain Forecasts is a great resource as well for checking temperature, wind, and precipitation at the summit of each mountain, which you will need to know before you set out on the trail.

Know Your Limits and Build Up to the Big Summit

This relates to tip number one—once you research the hike you plan to do, you can then decide if you are ready. If you are beginner and you want to hike a difficult hike, I suggest trying a few easier hikes first and work your way up to the big one (like running, you can’t just start at a marathon, you need time to train). There are numerous clubs and meetups that bring beginner hikers together and help instruct you through the basics of hiking, so when the time comes to attempt your goal you are confident and ready for it. And, when looking at the mileage, if it seems like a lot for one day, look for campsites or huts to stay overnight and turn it into a backpacking trip!

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View of the Franconia Ridge from the summit of Mount Garfield

Pack with an Attitude of Caution

A word of advice: Always pack essentials for any scenario you might encounter. At minimum, make sure you have plenty of water (two liters for a day hike, three if it’s in the summer), food, warm layers (it gets cold at the top, even in July and August), and a first aid kit. I always go with the attitude that if you have to ask, the answer is probably ‘yes.’ And if you are backpacking, be sure to make sure you pack enough water (or have opportunities to refill), and have an option for bear protection (provided bear boxes, bring your bear bag, stay in a cozy hut). A don’t forget your lucky hat!

 

Know When to Turn Back

 

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. You might be more tired than expected (which can be a recipe for injury), or the weather may change quickly, or maybe you are running out of daylight and can’t make the peak. Whatever the case, don’t ever be ashamed if you have to turn back—safety come first when hiking, and if you can’t make your goal that day, don’t worry, the mountains aren’t going anywhere and you can try again when you are ready.

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They look cute, but these gray jays will steal your food!

Leave No Trace

Crowded trails means more wear and tear on the environment. For the case of preservation, hikers should practice the art of “Leave No Trace.” This includes everything from staying on the marked trails, to carrying out all the trash you bring in (including apple cores or banana peels, as those are not native to the White Mountains and could harm the ecosystem). And please, as tempting as it may be, do not feed the animals (especially those pesky gray jays!).

Consult an Expert

When in doubt, ask. You can consult with White Mountains National Forest rangers, or stop by the White Mountain National Forest Visitor Center to chat with some local experts about what you need to do ahead of your hike.

Have Fun

Clearly the most important part of hiking. At no point should the experience be bad—sure, you might be sore after a day on the trail, but you trade that with the feeling of accomplishment and plenty of memories. And of course, a nice photo that you can be proud to show off. 😀

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Sometimes hiking requires a team.

 

 

 

 

 

Seattle: An Urban Hiker’s Paradise

Seattle, the home of 90’s grunge, Starbucks Coffee, ‘flying’ fish and plenty of rain, has become a booming metropolis that hits the top of travelers lists year after year. And how can you blame them? Seattle offers a bit of everything—from high end seafood to museums, breweries and easy access to some of the country’s highest peaks, travelers can create an itinerary guaranteed for a trip of a lifetime.

So where do you start when planning a visit to Seattle? For hikers, I advise splitting your time between the city and the nearby national parks, but make sure to hit the following spots in the city.

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Pike’s Market Inventory

Pike’s Place Market

You’ve seen the videos of fishmongers tossing large fish across their booth in front of large crowds, but seeing the spectacle first hand is wildly different. Even for the travelers who try to avoid big tourist traps, it’s hard to find an excuse to skip Pike’s. With fruit stands selling Rainier cherries and fish markets wafting that amazing ‘freshly caught’ scent, you don’t have to buy anything to get the full experience (although we recommend saving Pike’s for a lunch stop, just to buy up some of the pre-made goodies). Head to the far end towards the docks for gift shopping, with handmade jewelry and t-shirts for everyone on your list. And don’t forget to visit the original Starbucks location across the street.

BONUS STOP: If you’re an art nerd like us, be sure to visit the Seattle Art Museum. With a vast collection of Pacific Northwest totems and other sculptures, it’s a brilliant way to escape the inevitable rain of the city and learn a little about the culture of the area. If the sun is shining, take a detour over to the art museum’s satellite Olympic Sculpture Park for a more modern experience.

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Despite Seattle’s reputation as a rainy city, July through October is a perfect time to catch blue skies.

Space Needle

Another bucket list item that travelers shouldn’t miss when visiting Seattle, this iconic and extraterrestrial looking tower has become a symbol of the city (Although, first timers may expect a much larger and more prominent structure that can be seen from every point of the city. That is actually more true to Mt. Rainier in the distance.). For photographers, skip the long and expensive line up to the top of the Space Needle and instead head up to the Sky View Observatory. Or, experience the landmark from the ground, walking through the Space Needle Park complex, which includes stops at the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum, the Museum of Pop Culture (which includes memorabilia from Nirvana and other Seattle musicians) and the Seattle Children’s Museum.

 

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Gas Works Park looking east.

Gas Works Park

 

If it’s parks with great views you’re looking for, be sure to add the Gas Works Park to your list. Located across Lake Union, this former site of the Seattle Gas Light Company offers spectacular views of the city with a steampunk-esque gas plant in the foreground. It’s a great spot for a picnic or some wandering, and lets you enjoy the city without stress of crowded streets.

Capitol Hill

Like many cities, Seattle boasts an array of neighborhoods surrounding the city center, each with their own charm. One of the more popular neighborhoods is Capitol Hill, east of downtown, at the tip of Lake Union. This area is perfect for those looking for some nightlife entertainment, with plenty of restaurants, bars, and a vibrant LGBTQ scene. Make a stop over to Volunteer Park and climb the historic water tower for more breathtaking views of the city.

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The Fremont Troll is a must-see when visiting Seattle

Fremont

Seattle is a bit quirky, and there’s no better example of such quirks than in the northern neighborhood of Fremont. Here you can see popular public art like the controversial sculpture of Vladimir Lenin, or take a photo with the Fremont Troll, an 18-foot tall sculpture of a troll under the bridge. Enjoy shopping and dining in the neighborhood center, or watch the ships go by on the canal.

Ballard

Northwest of Fremont is another quirky section of Seattle. Ballard, a fishing community, boasts its Scandinavian roots at the Nordic Heritage Museum, which tells the story of the community. And if you’re looking for some beach time, head down to the coast and relax at the Golden Gardens Park.

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Ballard Docks

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Hikers break in Olympic National Park

Get Outside

While you can easily spend a week exploring everything that Seattle has to offer, we recommend taking some time to rent a car and drive out to one of the many National Parks. Whether you’re looking for a day hike, or a multi-day backpacking trek, you’ll easily be able to find everything you need in a few hours drive. From the city, you can see the snowcapped peaks of Mt. Rainier to the south, or Mt. Baker to the north, which can both be easily reached in a day trip. Or, take a drive east to explore the North Cascades, or take the ferry west to the Olympic peninsula and spend a few days at Olympic National Park. We guarantee by the time your vacation is up, you’ll be eagerly planning another visit.

National Parks Week: April 21-29

Imagine for a moment that you are an explorer. It’s 1805 and you’re heading out into the unknown territories west of the Mississippi River. Already, you are aware of the changing landscapes of the country—the sand dunes of Massachusetts’ coastline quickly transition to rolling green hills, to flattened farm lands. You’re not exactly sure what the west will offer, but it’s doubtful that you’d expect to stumble upon the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains rising high above the plains, or the red-yellow sands of the southwest. I think about this every time I travel to one of the 60 National Parks across the United States. It’s hard to not be amazed by these parks, and how they have remained *mostly* untouched since the days of our explorers, and how the National Parks Service has preserved these places for generations to come.

It wasn’t until August 25, 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson established the United States National Parks Service, but these parks have existed far before. This week, the National Parks Service is celebrating National Parks Week, with free admission on Saturday, April 21, and special events across the country.

For me, this week is a great moment to reflect—as a hiker and traveler, I’ve always felt a natural pull to visit these 60 parks. In my travels, I’ve realized that the role of the National Parks Service doesn’t stop at these parks though, with National Monuments, historic sites, cemeteries, memorials, and more, you see their distinct logo everywhere you go, preserving the history and culture of this country.

To celebrate the week, I’ve highlighted stories from parks that have made a mark on my own life. It’s a little different from my usual urban hiking guides, but I hope it inspires your travels just as much. Each day, I will add a section—feel free to comment, share your own story, and ask questions. Enjoy!

 

April 28: Looking to the Future

For over 100 years, the National Parks Service has protected our countries wilderness, and provided fun and safe opportunities for families and adventurers alike. But while we continue to celebrate all the good that these parks offer, we also must be aware of the threats that our National Parks face today.

Climate Change: This is a very real, growing concern across the world. Researchers in our National Parks are seeing rapid melting of glaciers high in the mountains, while worsening storms are threatening the historic and natural coastlines across the country. Photos of our parks at their establishment look very different compared to now, and it is up to us to help slow this process. While there are ways to help out on your visits, the best way to slow climate change starts at home—use renewable energy, recycle, shop local—all these methods and more help lower your carbon footprint.

Administration Changes: Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration has rapidly fought to lower sanctions to preserving National Monuments across the country. As more proposals surface that threaten the future of these monuments, it is up to us as advocates to pressure the government to reconsider. Do your research, sign petitions, talk to your local and state officials about your concerns. Together we can help save these important landmarks for our future!

Want to support the U.S. National Parks Service? We suggest starting here.

 

April 27: North Cascades National Park

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FUN FACT: This October, the North Cascades turns 50!

Today we’re heading back to Washington State, this time to explore the mainland. With hiking, camping, backpacking, and plenty of educational programs, this is a great option for visitors traveling to Seattle and looking for an alternative to the city for a few days. When passing through, a must-see spot is Diablo Lake, with its greenish-blue glacial water. Here, you can book a campsite and stay overnight, or make a pit stop and hike up to one of many look out points. Just passing by? The overlook point off the main road is perfect for a bathroom break and some selfies!

 

April 26: Historical Sites

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Boston’s Freedom Trail is the best urban hike–an entire walking tour of the history of the city and its involvement in the Revolutionary War!

The National Parks Service is all about history, and where better to look than in your own hometown! The thought struck me a few years ago when I moved back to Boston and met an employee of the National Park Service—at first I was confused, I thought the closest National Park was in Maine. With a little explanation to my naive assumptions, I learned that the National Parks Service actually protects historical sites all over the country.

Here in Boston, the entire city is considered a historic thanks to its Freedom Trail. Spend the day learning about how Boston played a role in the American Revolution, and stop by the Boston Tea Party Museum to toss tea in harbor. An hour south of Boston is New Bedford, famous for its whaling community. Today, you can visit the National Historic Site, which includes the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Want to find a National Historic Park in your state? The National Parks Service has a nifty Find a Park feature where you can search by state—it couldn’t be easier!

 

April 25: Joshua Tree National Park

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Joshua Tree’s unique desert landscape allows you to hike out to far distances and still see the road. 

We’ve written a lot about this park in the past—it’s one of our favorites! Unlike the towering mountains of the northwest, Joshua Tree provides a perfect setting for climbers. Located just a few hours east of LA and San Diego, you can explore Joshua Tree’s desert landscape in a day, or opt to camp overnight and experience the night sky (a popular activity is night photography, you can try it out yourself or sign up for a workshop).

The park offers hiking trails, horseback riding, and rock climbing, depending on your preference, so be sure to plan ahead. And don’t forget to pack plenty of water!

 

April 24: National Memorials

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TIP: Get up early to explore the National Memorials in Washington D.C. You’ll beat the crowds, and get some beautiful shots.

The National Parks Service doesn’t just cover the preservation of nature. In fact, the role of the organization goes far beyond that, preserving the history and culture of our country as well. Such is the case with the 29 National Memorials around the country, each dedicated to honor a historic person or event in the United States’ history.

Probably the most well-known (and most visited) circuit of National Memorials reside in the nation’s capital of Washington D.C. In just one afternoon, you can hit all of the significant memorials along the National Mall (we wrote a full urban hiking guide about this, with details on what not to miss).

Fortunately, there are other memorials scattered across the country, so if you are planning a visit somewhere be sure to do your research and see what you might find. A few of our favorites:

  • Hamilton Grange: For those still obsessing over the Broadway musical ‘Hamilton,’ you can visit the Founding Father’s home in New York City. It’s a perfect pairing if you manage to score tickets to the show!
  • Mount Rushmore: South Dakota’s claim to fame, this memorial honors four former U.S. Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. It’ a perfect stop on a road trip across the country.
  • Flight 93 Memorial: A more somber spot, this memorial honors the lives and bravery of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who on September 11, 2001, stopped their hijackers from reaching the intended target, and crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania.

 

April 23: Acadia National Park

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Jordan Pond is a must-see when visiting Acadia. Take a hike around the pond or head up to the North and South Bubbles for more of a challenge.

Another New England vacation staple, Acadia National Park is located in Maine and is perfect for a long weekend or a full week, providing families with ample options for all outdoorsy types. And, the adjacent town of Bar Harbor provides visitors with a change of pace, with shopping, restaurants, and excursions for those who prefer a more leisurely visit.

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TIP: For first time visitors, we highly recommend getting up early to catch the sunrise at the top of Cadillac Mountain. You can either drive, or, for those willing to get up at 2 a.m., hike to the peak and watch the sun poke up over the horizon.

Like Olympic National Park, Acadia offers travelers both ocean and mountain views. Hiking trails are available for all levels—the Jordan Pond loop is an easy hike (and includes a stop at the Jordan Pond House for lunch!), or if you are looking for more of a challenge, we recommend climbing up the North and South Bubbles, or braving the rocky Beehive. In the warmest of months, the ocean is still cold, but you will see a few brave souls swimming at Echo Lake Beach or Sand Beach. Or, if you love biking, the Carriage Road trails are a fun way to experience the park, with plenty of covered bridges and archways to pass through (bring your camera!). There’s also scenic roads around the park, so take a drive and explore with the whole family!

 

April 22: Olympic National Park

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Whether you are doing a day hike or an overnight trek, hiking in the Olympics is a popular activity in the summer months. Be sure to secure your permit early if you plan to camp!

My first visit to this park happened by accident. The short version of the story is that while our original plan was to backpack in the North Cascades, the horrible string of wildfires that summer caused us to make last minute changes. In the end, I’m glad that was the case because this National Park quickly climbed up on my list of all-time favorites.

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Early morning sunrise by Deer Lake.

Being from the east coast, you don’t really get to see mountains like the ones out west. I think at every twist and turn of driving and hiking through this park, I was amazed by the landscape around me, to the point that ‘Wow’ became my most-used phrase of 2017. We were able to secure backpacking permits to spend some time hiking and camping deep in the park, and encountered a few pairs of mom and cub black bears (aww) and had a family of deer decide it would be fun to hang out with us while we cooked dinner each night. A good tip for backpackers—our trip was in early September, a perfect time to camp (it’s warm during the days, and manageable at night, as long as you bring layers), and with less crowds we were able to get last-minute passes to some of the better camping spots. Don’t bank on that tough, try to secure your permits early so you have a guaranteed spot to stay while you visit.

Olympic National Park isn’t just for die-hard hikers though, with beaches, mountains, and rain forests all within a few hours of each other, it’s a park perfect for all ages. Be sure to take the road up to Hurricane Ridge and stop by the visitor’s center, or spend some time looking at the Pacific tide pools.

 

April 21: Cape Cod National Seashore

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The early crowd at Cape Cod National Seashore.

I grew up in Massachusetts. For me, a beach vacation out to Cape Cod was just something everyone did—it was within driving distance and fairly affordable, and a great way to cool off on those hot summer days. What I didn’t realize though was that the Cape Cod National Seashore, which extends along the eastern coast of Cape Cod’s ‘arm,’ is one of the best-preserved coastlines this country has.

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TIP: There are multiple beaches you can visit along the Cape Cod National Seashore, each with its own charms. My favorite is Race Point, located at the tip of Cape Cod near Provincetown. It’s a perfect trip to pair beach time with exploring Provincetown after, but be sure to leave some time to catch the sunset—Cape Cod sunsets will always be my favorite.

We can thank President John F. Kennedy for that. Free of development (including a lack of snack shacks, so be sure to pack in and out all of your food), Cape Cod’s National Seashore is perfect for beachgoers who prefer the quiet. Sand dunes tower over you as you walk along the beaches and if you are lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of a whale out on the horizon! It’s a bit of a hike from the parking lots, but always worth the trek.

Unfortunately, due to the dreadful winter we had this year, the National Seashore has taken a beating from high winds and waves. That doesn’t mean that the Parks Service isn’t working to restore the beaches, but for the regular visitors you may notice some significant changes in the coastline this year, and in years to come—erosion like this has become more and more common each year thanks to the effects of climate change around the world.

 

Happy Anniversary, Cinque Terre!

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A bench on ‘Lover’s Lane,’ part of the first leg of hiking paths through Cinque Terre.

You will have to excuse the sappy nostalgia of this weeks’ post—I discovered a recent photo a few months ago and was eager to write about the memories it stirred up in me. There’s a reason why this week is the week I write about it too, because September 8 is the eight-year anniversary of my hike through the Italian preservation known as Cinque Terre (translates to ‘Five Lands’).

If you read any travel guide, Cinque Terre is typically labeled as a ‘must-see’ for anyone visiting the Italian Riviera. It’s smaller than the trodden towns along the Amalfi Coast, but thanks to its National Park preservation status, the trails in between give you a more authentic look at the natural coastline of this country. Rick Steves (author of his self-titled series of guidebooks, aka ‘The Bible’) raves about the five towns in this region regularly, and encourages anyone planning a trip to spend at minimum two nights there. And with hiking trails, white anchovies, chilled Liguarian wine, and beaches at every stop, it’s not surprising why this place comes so highly recommended.

I think about this place all the time still, but specifically September 8, 2008. On this day, I woke on a beach hidden deep below the cliff side of Cinque Terre’s two towns of Corniglia and Vernazza.

It was actually Rick Steves’ guidebook that brought us there too–I had made friends with some hikers in my program, and we still had a few weeks left of warm, summer weather and wanted to take advantage of a trail with both stunning views and swimming. We did some research, and because of the guidebook’s heavy push to see this place, we decided it would be a great way to get that hiking fix. We took an early train from Florence’s main train station to La Spezia, a coastal town outside of Pisa, and switched there to enter the five towns. (A note if you want to visit there: Cinque Terre has its own rail system that stops in each of the five towns. You can hike between each one as well, but if hiking isn’t your thing, you can still go from town to town by train. All you need to do is buy a Cinque Terre rail pass at La Spezia train station).

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Cinque Terre has a rail system that takes you through all five towns for a good price–it’s a great alternative to see everything without having to hike.

Stop one on the train is Riomagiorre. The ride from La Spezia is only ten or so minutes long, with the final portion cutting into the rocks of the mountainside. Sitting in complete darkness, I was staring at my reflection, probably rearranging my ponytail or telling some story to my travel companions while simultaneously watching for a view to appear, when a short spurt of light poked through, revealing our first sight of the sea crashing upon the rocks. I gasped, audibly, so much so that my friend burst into laughter. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life.

Our two-day hike had a lot of similar, jaw-dropping moments—the region is stunning, with pastel homes built into the cliffs overlooking the Liguarian sea. Life moves a little slower in Cinque Terre too—the locals are up early, taking advantage of the morning to get their boats out and bring supplies down to the ocean side stores and restaurants before the tourists roll in. You forget the rest of the world for a moment, with every turn bringing you a new surprise, a new photo opportunity, and new memory to store away.

I truly believe the best way to experience a place is on foot—it gives you a chance to take the time to see everything and to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of where you are. In Cinque Terre, walking the narrow (and steep) streets in many cases is your only option too—in the five towns–Riomagiorre, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare—cars aren’t allowed in the center part of the cities (Monterosso is the exception, with wider streets for cars and a more level beach).

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Be careful on some of the trails in Cinque Terre–they can be steep and rugged. If you are not an experienced hiker, I recommend taking the train.

For the amateur hiker, I would recommend walking the first two legs, starting at Riomagiorre and walking to Manarola and onto Corniglia, which includes the popular ‘Lover’s Lane,’ complete with locks along the covered stone pathway. You will need to purchase a pass to hike (it’s less than 10 euros for the day pass, and you can purchase it at any trail entrance), and be sure to check the weather and trail conditions (depending on the season, mudslides or the threat of falling rocks will close portions of the trails). Regular hikers will find more of a challenge between the last three towns, and there is a network of trails that go through the higher peaks if you have the time to check it out.

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View looking down to Vernazza.

If I can make one recommendation though, it is this—do not miss Vernazza.

On that particular trip in 2008, we climbed down a narrow, steep path (with ropes to attached to the rock for safety), which strayed from our main path, just to get to the staircase leading to the beach. Because it was so hot, we dedicated most of our afternoon to swimming. As the sun started to set, we climbed back up into the hills and stopped in Vernazza. If you do even the most minimal amount of research on this region, Vernazza will always pop up—it’s the picturesque cove town, with a stone watchtower looming over the curved docks. Here is where I spend most of my time when I return to Cinque Terre every few years—I would recommend trying to find a room here, but book well in advanced, most travelers will have the same idea.

On this specific occasion, we only had a short stay in Vernazza. We grabbed a few bottles of wine and pizza from a local shop, and ate dinner seated by the cove that protected the small fishing boats from the rough seas around the bend. The air was still that night, and we packed our bags to hit the trail one more time, this time, to find a quiet place to camp. We went backwards, back to the beach we had found earlier in the day, and watched the sun set, feet in the sand, wine passing around between the four of us.

The beach was small, only about 400 feet from the cliffs to the breakers. Between the two borders was a large rock, and we set up our camp behind that, lying our sleeping bags in a row with only the night sky as our cover. The idea was, with the rock there, we would have some protection from the tide, giving us a chance to pack up and move if it came all the way up to the wall. I doubt I slept for more than an hour or two that night, but looking up at the stars and hearing the faint sound of waves crashing, I felt comforted—I felt home.

As expected, the tide woke us first—it hit the feet of one friend, and started a chain reaction of us waking up in a rush, and we moved to higher ground to watch the sun rise from the vineyards above our heads. But before we climbed back up the cliffs to start our second day of hiking, we wanted to leave a mark, so we scratched the name of our school and the date into the cliff side. It was our small reminder of the memory we had there, of the experience we shared.

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Leaving our mark at the beach.

I don’t want to sound too corny, but I really fell in love with Cinque Terre on that trip—it was such a new experience for me, and between the hiking, the swimming, and the camping, I pushed myself way outside of my usual comfort zone. Since that first trip, I try to go back as often as I can. I brought my family later in 2008 when my semester in Florence was ending, and I returned in 2011 with two of my other friends during our trip across Italy. For me, returning to Cinque Terre is like returning to myself—I get a chance to revisit the place that help shaped who I am today. But I also love bringing people there who have never experienced Cinque Terre before. The reaction is always the same—we sit in the dark on that train, passing through the rock, and that first blip of ocean, that first glimpse, is enough to make anyone gasp. I still do every time.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.

A Moment of Clarity at Harts Pass

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After the storm, a rainbow appeared at our campsite in the Okanogan National Forest.

If you type Harts Pass into the Google search browser, you get a listing of images, videos and websites solidifying the danger of this mountain road. It’s description, according to DangerousRoads.org, is the ‘highest mountain pass that you can drive to in Washington State,’ with a summit of 6,100 feet above sea level. At the peak, you can camp overnight among the mountain meadows and the remains of a once lush forest, now reduced to charred skeleton from years of wildfires blazing through the area.

While dangerous, the hairpin turns along the crag of the mountainside will even out, bringing you to the peak, where there you can rest in complete silence and serenity—besides the few campsites occupied by PCT thru hikers and adventurous families, you are completely alone in the wilderness, devoid of cell service, electricity and the stresses of your daily life.

I’m not much of a person for heights—I admit, that while I love hiking, I still experience the dizzying sensation of my vertigo setting in when I look over a cliff (or, to be more honest, a railing). Even with my feet firmly placed on the ground, the image of falling makes me panic—all it takes is one thought of what ‘could’ happen to trigger it.

The idea, though, of what sparks my vertigo made me wonder: What if this sensation isn’t vertigo, but a branch of my own anxiety? The cause is the same—a simple thought ignites a story in my mind of all the ways things could go wrong. And from there, it overpowers me.

I’ve dealt with extreme anxiety for most of my adult life. At some points, the anxiety is minor, but there have been days, weeks and even months when the feelings are unbearable. Mainly it’s social anxiety I’ve dealt with—I tend to convince myself that my friends are annoyed with me or do not want me around, that even though they haven’t said anything to confirm that suspicion, I convince myself that I am not worthy of their friendship. I isolate myself, shut down when these feelings start to appear. I’ve lost friends because of it, I’ve ended relationships with people I truly cared about, just because I was afraid.

Ninety percent of the time these feelings are wrong—I let my analysis of something consume me, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of this, and I try to push through the anxiety until I can feel better. Once these feelings subside, I’m left with a clearer idea of how happy my future can truly be. But what about that other ten percent? Those are the moments I can’t control, the things that make me doubt myself and my inner strength. It’s a constant, uphill battle, where the roads are narrow and rocky, and the only thing you can do is keep going, even when you are afraid.

That was my last year. My worst fears came true—people I once relied on could not understand my melancholy, and instead of listening, they told me to suck it up. I fell deeper and deeper into the darkness, fighting my own inner demons without a hand to hold. I didn’t know who to trust anymore, who to confide in. I hurt people I cared about, sabotaged my own happiness. I felt completely alone.

Things always seem to get worse before they get better. At Harts Pass, even on the clearest of days the road is treacherous. When I traveled up the road, we had been playing chicken with a thunderstorm in the distance. The hope, of course was that we could make it to the peak before sundown, and that the storm would go over us. But as we pushed closer and closer to the top, it became more evident that the worst was going to happen, that the storm would reach us right on the ridge. We were afraid, alone, without protection. And the only way we could go was up.

It’s important to test your inner strength, to remind yourself of your confidence and your ability to survive. For so long, I had lost that part of myself. I had let my own anxieties take over, obsessing over what others thought of me and why, and let that shape my opinion of myself. But at that moment, with lightning crashing through the clouds outside our car, the wind pushing us closer and closer to danger, I suddenly forgot about the party I wasn’t invited to, the people who made me feel like I didn’t matter. I wanted to survive this, to see this through, and to return with renewed energy and confidence.

As we entered the campground 6,000 feet up, we could finally park and wait the storm out. As the rain patted against the window, and the winds died down, I looked out to the sky to see a sight unlike anything I’ve experienced before—there, above our heads and out on the ridge, was a rainbow. In the Bible, a rainbow was a symbol to Noah representing the promise that God wouldn’t bring another flood. It was a sign that everything would be ok.

That was what that moment brought me—it was a reinforcement of confidence, a promise that with so much change and regret in my life, that I would be ok. It was the push I needed to welcome peace back into my life, and begin again.

This may be an apology to those I hurt in my past. This may be an excuse I use to justify my feelings and my actions. But really, what this is, is a release. I know people don’t always like to talk about their own mental health, myself being the number one offender. Anxiety has always been my own personal demon, something that I was ashamed of for so long. But I’m not ashamed anymore. That’s why I want to open up, to be honest with myself in a form I am comfortable with—writing. This is my rainbow, my moment of clarity, my moment to remind myself that everything is ok.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.

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I have to remind myself everyday of my strength–it keeps me going.