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Taking a Walk With Nature Girl

minnewaskaAll of a sudden, I didn't know where to go hiking. Given that my friends have been known to refer to me as Nature Girl, this was a little strange. But let's face it: The weekend-long backpacking trip just isn't all that feasible right now. I need something that's toddler-and-grandparent friendly, has enough pretty views or wildlife to keep everyone interested, and will allow us to get home in time for dinner.

With help from the Sierra Club, I've now got it covered. Here are recommendations from some of their trip leaders -- as well as from you, our ever-helpful readers -- to help make the most of these beautiful fall days, no matter where you live. Check them out, and let us know what you think!

Boston

An oasis in an urban environment, Blue Hills Reservation stretches over 7,000 acres, from Quincy to Dedham and from Milton to Randolph. Accessible by public transit, it boasts 125 miles of trails, with the highest elevation gain a modest 635 feet. Rucker Alex, chair of Sierra Club Boston's Inner City Outings, favors the popular cross-park Skyline trail. It has great views, but at nine miles is an all-day affair for most of us. There's nothing wrong with a leisurely loop around Houghton's Pond, followed by a nice picnic.

Miami

Yes, Everglades National Park can get busy, but there's a good reason for that: Birds, alligators and turtles abound, and you can satisfy your curiosity in an hour-long loop or stitch together a number of trails for a longer treat. Numerous boardwalks take you over the water so you can view the wildlife from directly above. The Sierra Club's Winston "Mark" Walters suggests starting with a ranger-led trip on the Anhinga Trail, then stepping out on your own.

Phoenix

Bev Full, an outings leader with a Sierra Club chapter near Phoenix, likes to bring kids to the Metate Trail, in Spur Cross Conservation Area. The trail guides you through a thick forest of mature Saguaro cactus trees, which Bev calls "an amazing experience." There are also signs of Native American habitation including a metate stone and grinder. "It's very easy, and the scenery is spectacular," says Full. It's near the town of Cave Creek.

Full also likes to take kids to the Sears Kay Ruin site in Tonto National Forest. This hike is a mile-long loop, with a slight elevation gain and fabulous views of the Superstition Mountains and ranges in all directions. It's complete with rest rooms, shaded picnic areas, and an informative self-guided trail. She calls it, "spectacular, and a wonderful learning experience."

New York Area

One of our readers, Henry Schreiber, recommends starting with the New Jersey Palisades, dramatic cliffs on the west side of the Hudson River. They're close to the city and easily reached by public transportation. The trail near the bottom wanders within a few feet of the Hudson River; both it and a trail at the top of the cliffs have nice views of northern Manhattan. You can even walk across the George Washington Bridge to start or end your walk.

Katie Frusti, Chair of NYC Inner City Outings (a Sierra Club organization), recommends any of the hikes around Sterling Lake. They range from a flat loop around the lake, which goes by ruins from mining activity that began in the 1700s, to a hike up a fire tower.

If you're willing to travel a bit further out of the city, my personal favorite is Minnewaska State Park Preserve (pictured above), which includes carriage trails that once carried visitors to nearby luxury resorts. (You can still indulge at Mohonk Mountain House, but you'll be driving to the top). Most of the trails are about three miles one way, but you don't have to get anywhere near the end to see breathtaking views. In the winter, it's ideal for cross-country skiing.

Portland, Maine

Bill Briggs, the Outings Chair for the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, had a ton of hikes to recommend. But for those who want more of a stroll than a workout, he suggests Mount Agamenticus' Blueberry Bluff Trail. During two hours (round trip), it winds through blueberry patches and comes to a great overlook with views of the White Mountains.

San Francisco Bay Area

When you're ready for a break from Mount Tam, Bob Solotar, a hike leader with the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter, suggests you check out Sycamore Grove Park in Livermore, which is adjacent to several vineyards. You might start with a paved (and flat) bike path that stretches from one end of Sycamore Grove to the other, a length of 2.5 miles. There are also unpaved paths that take you to different portions of the park, and onto an upland area where you get nice views of the Livermore Valley. Why not combine a visit to the park with a wine tasting?

Another of Solotar's picks is the Bay Trail, which, when complete, will encircle San Francisco and San Pablo Bays with a continuous 500-mile network of bicycling and hiking trails. Two of Solotar's favorite sections of the trail are near Point Isabel in Richmond and along the levees in Foster City. In Richmond, the segment from Point Isabel to Marina Bay is flat, paved, and offers great views toward the Golden Gate and San Francisco. You can also see restored wetlands and historic sites (Marina Bay is the old Kaiser Shipyard). In Foster City, the levee trails offer views of the East Bay Hills, the San Mateo Bridge, and opportunities for wind surfing and bird watching.

For something completely different, the Sierra Club's Ken Lavin suggests checking out the wind caves at Rock City/Sentinel Park, in Mount Diablo State Park. He also says the Mary Bowerman Trail, at that same park, gives "one of the very best views in the country" in a one-mile loop.

Washington, D.C. and Nearby

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park has all kinds of short, easy hikes, and history buffs can visit some of the sites associated with John Brown's Raid. Liz Guertin, the Sierra Club Potomac Region Outings Chair, recommends walks through Virginius Island, Lower Town, Halls Island, Murphy-Chambers Farm, and the walk up to Jefferson Rock. All are on level ground, with wide paths and stunning views of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

The towpaths at C&O Canal National Historic Park run for 184 miles, starting in Georgetown and extending all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. Much of the flat, wide path parallels the Potomac River and affords great views. If you're feeling a bit more ambitious, try a side trail to Great Falls Park, Seneca Creek Greenway Trail, Antietam Battlefield, Harpers Ferry, or Green Ridge State Forest. Or pick up the trail near Brunswick, Maryland and stop by Beans in the Belfry for a casual lunch or their Sunday Jazz brunch.

Michael Darzi, also of the Potomac Region Sierra Club, recommends Sugarloaf Mountain. You can drive almost all the way to the top, then take a short (but steep) trail to the summit and views that include D.C. itself. This is a popular place for families to view the fall foliage.

He also points out that Rock Creek Park is fabulous in any season. With about 1,800 acres, it's one of the best city parks in the world -- good enough to make you forget you're in the city.

A big thank you to everyone from the Sierra Club who helped put this list together. I'm inspired to get out there this weekend -- or maybe even to squeeze one of these hikes in on my next business trip. Happy trails to you, as well. -- KW

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Image courtesy of flickr user bfaling



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