10 Must-Do Hikes in the Mountain West

Wyoming Big Sandy Pass Trail Lonesome Lake below the Cirque of the Towers

From Montana’s Livingston Range to the Lechuguilla Desert of southern Arizona, the U.S. region known as the Mountain West is brimming with top-caliber hiking destinations. Narrowing down a list of 10 standouts is no small feat, but we took a stab at it anyway, choosing from the eight states that make up the U.S. Census Bureau’s Mountain West zone.

Take note: These aren’t the 10 best hidden hikes in the Mountain West; none of these routes are particularly obscure. In fact, several rank among the most celebrated trails in the country—and for good reason. A journey into the maw of one of the world’s most sublime canyons, backcountry skylines gloriously rock-torn, adventures in wide-open heights and close-hemmed halls of stone: These destinations highlight the scenic punch and variety characteristic of this outdoor playground and its seemingly infinite opportunities for adventure.

1. The Chinese Wall, Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Montana

As you might expect from a mighty watershed frontier, the Continental Divide in North America comes mantled in some pretty heady scenery along most of its length. And one of its most dramatic expressions comes in the heart of one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex of northwestern Montana. Deep within the "Bob"—named for an early champion of the federal wilderness area and a hardcore long-distance hiker—about a dozen miles of the Divide between Larch Hill Pass and Haystack Mountain separates the Flathead and Sun basins in the guise of a slanted, east-facing limestone ledge 1,000 feet high: the famous Chinese Wall.

Hike in the lee of this great pale escarpment via the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail from the Benchmark Trailhead, or climb to its spine at Haystack Mountain. Whichever way you go, be sure to keep an eye out for grizzly bears, a suitably majestic beast to go along with the big terrain.

2. The Thorofare, Greater Yellowstone, Wyoming

You’ll also be walking in the shadow of the grizzly on this legendary backpacking route into the roadless wilds of far southeastern Yellowstone National Park and the adjoining Teton Wilderness. You’ll tramp down the eastern shores of Yellowstone Lake—the largest above 7,000 feet in the U.S.—to its southeast arm and the willow-clad delta of the Yellowstone River, then upstream along the meandering channel between the Two Ocean Plateau and the Absaroka Range. Somewhere on the National Forest land beyond the park’s southeastern boundary is the anonymous chunk of turf farthest from a road in the Lower 48 states. But the entire high-elevation valley is deliciously remote and charged with the presence of the silvertip bear, equally cantankerous moose, and those aforementioned grizzlies.

3. Big Sandy Trail, Wind River Range, Wyoming

This heavily used trail to the iconic Cirque of the Towers in the southern Wind Rivers serves as a classic gateway to Wyoming’s vast uncrowded high-country wilderness. Like the similarly breathtaking Titcomb Basin to the north, the gray battlements of the Cirque—one of the emblematic mountain vistas in the West—are worth seeing even if you’ll likely have company.

Reached by a long-slog blacktop-to-dirt drive from U.S. 191 near Pinedale, the Big Sandy Trail, an old American Indian route, follows the Big Sandy River to Big Sandy Lake, then on a steepening track past North and Arrowhead lakes to 10,800-foot Jackass Pass. Here you’ll gain your introductory prospect of the Cirque of the Towers, which cradles Lonesome Lake (which is not particularly lonesome in summer and fall) in its hard granite embrace. These prongs, spires, and prows—which include Warbonnet, Wolf’s Head, Pylon Peak, Warrior, Shark’s Nose, Lizard Head (at 12,842 feet, the high point of the Cirque of the Towers), and gloriously standoffish Pingora—create some of the most esteemed climbing walls in the Rockies.

Keep soaking in the granite garden by trekking farther to Shadow Lake on the "back side" of the Cirque of the Towers.

4. Alice Lake, Sawtooth Range, Idaho

The jags, towers, and cliffy brows of the Sawtooths represent a pinnacle (so to speak) of Idaho’s prodigious mountain scenery, and Alice Lake—one of 300-plus tarns chiseled by glaciers into this snarled-up range—makes a fabulous introduction. Set at about 8,600 feet, Alice Lake reflects the west face of 9,902-foot El Capitan and a ripsaw rampart southward.

Reach this rockery tarn via the Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake. The trail muscles some 5.5 miles upslope through mixed conifer woods and high glades, making multiple stream crossings en route. Alice Lake is a popular day hiking or overnighter destination, but can also serve as a springboard for longer adventures in the southeastern Sawtooth high country. You can undertake a memorable 19-mile loop by journeying on to Twin Lakes, up and over a high pass, and dropping down to big Toxaway Lake.

5. Highline Trail, Uinta Mountains, Utah

The Uintas are geographic trivia—one of the only west-east-trending mountain ranges in the Western Hemisphere—and also one of the country’s conterminous grandest alpine expanses, rivaling Colorado’s San Juans, the burliest range in the Southern Rockies, for sheer extent of alpine territory. The Highline Trail shows off the storm-licked splendor of the High Uintas Wilderness on a week-plus, nearly 100-mile trek between Hayden Pass and U.S. Route 191, much of it above the 10,000-foot contour.

Lonesome tarns, rusty Precambrian pyramids and fins, windswept tundra passes, staggered canyons—oh, and did we mention the thunderstorms? This is a Rocky Mountain roof-of-the-world traverse of the highest order.

6. The Maroon Bells, Elk Mountains, Colorado

Geographically speaking, the Elk Mountains lie close to the heart of the Southern Rockies, and two of their half-dozen fourteeners—the Maroon Bells—form arguably that skyscraping region’s scenic culmination. Given the paired loom of 14,156-foot Maroon Peak and 14,014-foot North Maroon, plus the eye-catching red of their capping Maroon Formation sedimentary layers, and it’s no surprise they’re said to be the most photographed summits in Colorado.

They’re also plenty well-loved, so don’t come here seeking solitude; treat it as a pilgrimage to one of the great landmarks of the American Rockies. The hike to Crater Lake puts you at the very foot of the Maroon Bells, but the views just keep expanding if you trek up to Buckskin Pass, which can also be strung together with West Maroon, Frigid Air, and Trailrides passes in a roughly 30-mile backpacking loop.

7. Wheeler Peak, Snake Range, Nevada

The crown of relatively little-visited Great Basin National Park, of the Snake Range and essentially of Nevada (though Boundary Peak in the White Mountains on the California line modestly outranks it), 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak is a special mountain. The Snakes are their own sky-island range, loftiest in the eastern Great Basin, and rising from the sagebrush sea of that cold desert to subalpine aspen forests and wizened bristlecone-pine groves. (In 1964, a bristlecone 4,844 years old was chopped down on a Wheeler Peak moraine.) Wheeler Peak is also known for its small glacier, one of the southernmost in the U.S.

An 8.6-mile round-trip hike from the trailhead above Wheeler Peak Campground takes you to the rubbled summit with its head-spinning Basin-and-Range panorama. It’s not a demanding hike, but well worth doing.

8. The Narrows, Zion Canyon, Utah

North Fork Virgin River’s world-famous gorge and its domeland surrounds are so knock-you-over-the-head scenic that any trail in Zion National Park verges on the unreal. Two, though, attract the lion’s share of attention: Angel’s Rest—the up-top, vista-rich one (strictly for non-acrophobes)—and the Narrows, the shadowy, amphibious, down-low one through the twisty, high-walled slot forming the head of Zion Canyon.

You can join the masses wading upstream into the Narrows from the end of the popular Riverside Trail at the Temple of Sinawava, or drop down from Chamberlain’s Ranch on a more adventurous 16-mile trek. The latter requires a permit; from the Temple of Sinawava, you don’t need one as far upstream as Big Spring.

There are countless quieter slot canyons in the Colorado Plateau, but the Narrows is legitimately wondrous, and if you combine it with remoter adventures (including those farther up its course), you might even enjoy the oohing-and-aahing camaraderie of it all. It’s a communal National Park experience on par with watching Old Faithful erupt or staggering all scenery-drunk around Yosemite Valley.

Accessible and well-visited though the lower portion of the Narrows may be, it’s also dangerous given the potential for flash floods. Check in at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center for the most up-to-date forecast and flood hazard rating, and don’t play the odds.

9. North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona

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Hike from montane woods to hot desert in one 14.2-mile swoop on the North Kaibab Trail, the only maintained route connecting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River. It’s popular but not as much as its South Rim counterparts (the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails), and given the "Big Ditch’s" one-of-a-kind topographical breadth, it serves up mega-scale scenery not many hiking trails can match.

The North Kaibab Trail drops from the Kaibab Plateau’s conifers at 8,241 feet to the Colorado nearly 6,000 feet below. From Coconino Overlook less than a mile down-trail, it descends southeastward to Supai Tunnel and Redwall Bridge in Roaring Springs Canyon—named for a weeping limestone cliff reachable by a 0.3-mile spur—then cants southwestward into Bright Angel Canyon (Cottonwood Campground, 6.5 miles and 4,200 feet down from the trailhead, offers a good first-night stopover). A mile past that, a side trail leads to Ribbon Falls. Near its end, the North Kaibab Trail traverses the tight Vishnu Schist confines of the Box before attaining Phantom Ranch and the bridge to Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon.

After a night or three down here, you can retrace your steps back to the North Rim or add a "Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim" feather to your cap by climbing the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim.

10. Bull Pasture/Estes Canyon Loop, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Braving grizzlies at the Chinese Wall, you’re within easy reach of the Canadian border. On the very opposite side of the country, this short but mesmerizing walkabout in the heart of the Sonoran Desert shows off rugged scenery that is, ecologically speaking, more Mexico than the U.S. Remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument lies in an awesome, sparsely settled expanse of the Sonoran that also includes the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Mexico’s desolate Pinacate backlands.

This 3.5-mile loop links the Bull Pasture and Estes Canyon trails on the western flanks of the Ajo Mountains. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to admire the eccentric namesake cactus, which barely makes it north of the border, as well as the Sonoran Desert’s defining species, the monolithic saguaro, plus a whole slew of other desert plants. The impressive stature of both the organ pipe and saguaro cacti complements the burliness of the Ajos’ craggy bosses. And the views from the Bull Pasture leg unfurl far south across the Sonoyta Valley into Sonora, Mexico.

Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by John Strother

Building a Bouldering Community in Winston-Salem

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You’d think Ben Burgess would’ve cut his climbing chops on the iconic routes surrounding his hometown of Boulder, Colo. But Ben didn’t tackle his first ascent until just a few years ago when he moved to North Carolina. Before that, you’d be more likely to find him indoors playing video games than out on a mountain, he says. But all that changed when his girlfriend took him to Pilot Mountain. "I loved climbing from the get-go," says Burgess. “It’s like puzzle-solving with your whole body. Now I spend half my time outdoors, so it can happen to anyone.”

Burgess is the owner of Winston-Salem’s new downtown bouldering gym, Rock Box Bouldering. His vision is that Rock Box will become a central hub for the Triad climbing community, and he sees the North Chestnut Street location, a 5-minute walk from North Main Street, as an easy after-work hangout for people living and working in the office buildings, universities, and downtown apartments nearby.

Not Just for Climbers

Burgess hopes Rock Box becomes not only a hub for seasoned climbers, but also a place for people who might not be interested in outdoor climbing but are looking for a unique way to socialize. Unlike traditional climbing gyms, where climber and belayer work together in relative isolation, bouldering is set up for groups to work on problems, or routes, together. Not much gear is required, making it easier to learn.

"Bouldering is a lot more intuitive, and a lot less intimidating, than rope climbing," says Burgess. “No ropes, no harnesses, and you’re not super-high off the ground. You have an instant discussion topic—the route you’re working on. You can go bouldering with friends, then grab a beer and dinner together.”

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The maximum wall height is 14 feet, so no drop to the thickly padded floor will be greater than about 10 feet.

Ben Burgess / Rock Box Bouldering

Futurist Climbing has designed more than 2,000 square feet of climbing surface, and Leading Edge Climbing is responsible for the build-out. The maximum wall height is 14 feet, so no drop to the thickly padded floor will be greater than about 10 feet. The 14- to 16-inch floor padding extends across the gym floor and 10 feet past the bouldering walls in every direction.

Restrooms, seating, and a workout area with free weights and machines complete the space. In the workout area, climbers who typically work back and forearm muscles on the wall can focus on opposing muscle groups, legs, and cardio for a complete body workout. Two thousand square feet remains unfinished and will be built out in the future, possibly as as private event space or a cafe. In the meantime, the front desk will stock snacks and a drink cooler.

Group Discounts & Gear Rentals

Day passes are available, but a membership will be more economical for anyone climbing at least once a week. There are monthly and annual membership options, depending on how frequently you climb. Discounts are available for groups coming in to climb together, and climbing shoes and chalk bags are available to rent. Burgess hopes to host climbing competitions and partner with downtown businesses on community events like yoga classes for climbers and pint nights.

Challenging Problems & Classes

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Burgess also hopes to offer a class in transitioning from gym to outdoor climbing to promote the Triad’s outdoor assets

Ben Burgess / Rock Box Bouldering

The V scale is used to set and grade gym bouldering routes, which are color-coded based on difficulty. Grading is subjective and can vary from climber to climber based on height and body type, but grades of V0 or VB (basic) are generally assigned to beginner problems, while the most difficult routes can earn a grade as high as V16. Primary factors are the steepness of the wall and the distance between and nature of the holds. Routes will range from jugs (big, open hand holds) and easy lines for beginners to difficult problems with pumpy crimps (small edges) and pinches (held between the thumb and fingertips) to challenge the most experienced climbers. "Even beginner problems will have interesting movement and puzzles that challenge you," says Burgess.

Walls are designed with overhangs and steeper pitches than you might find when you’re climbing outdoors, a necessity from a safety standpoint to allow climbers to jump down without hitting the holds. He advises beginners to practice safe drops, starting just a foot or two off the mat, dropping, and progressing higher on the wall over time. The tight fit and stiff sole of a climbing shoe help to grip the wall, so Burgess is offering first-time climbers free gear rentals to lessen the intimidation factor. He also plans to host classes for all skill levels, including a bouldering 101 for people who are new to the sport; bouldering technique for climbers who want to up their game; and conditioning for climbing for those interested in sport-specific cardio and strength training.

Burgess also hopes to offer a class in transitioning from gym to outdoor climbing to promote the Triad’s outdoor assets. "The main way to make the transition is by getting to know people who climb outdoors," says Burgess. “The gym is a more controlled environment, and it’s great for learning and meeting people. But we’re really blessed to have great climbing areas right next door.” Rock Box will rent out climbing shoes, chalk bags, and crash pads that climbers can take to local bouldering areas in the Saura Mountains.

"Even if people don’t have any interest in outdoor rock climbing, bouldering is a really fun social activity," says Burgess. “My vision is to get more people interested in climbing, bring it into the mainstream, and create responsible climbers.”

Written by Ann Gibson for RootsRated in partnership with OrthoCarolina.

Featured image provided by Ben Burgess / Rock Box Bouldering

An Insider’s Guide to Kentucky’s Brewgrass Trail

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The Bluegrass state is known for many things, such as horse racing and bluegrass music, but Bourbon might be its most famous creation. This uniquely Southern drink has been produced in Kentucky for centuries, with a legacy of distilleries that still operate today. With their interest in distilling, it’s no wonder that Kentuckians are also becoming brewmasters. Over the last few decades, the state has become a part of the craft brewery movement that is spreading across the nation.

The first microbrewery in Lexington was actually a distillery. Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company took some distillery space, brewed a batch of beer, and aged it in Bourbon barrels for a brew that is uniquely Kentucky. Now, craft breweries are located throughout the central part of the state, combining fruits and bourbon with beer to create ales, lagers and porters with a Kentucky twist.

The best way to explore this growing scene is to follow Lexington’s Brewgrass Trail, a spinoff on the famous Bourbon Trail that goes through central Kentucky and visits the nation’s Bourbon distilleries. The Brewgrass Trail includes about 14 of the finest craft breweries in Lexington, but we’ve highlighted eight to help guide you on your journey.

1. Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company

Alltech Brewing is the oldest craft brewery in Lexington, with a legacy of distilling bourbon that goes back to 1794. It’s one of the few distilleries that also brews beer, and, naturally, it specializes in bourbon-barrel ales. When you visit the brewery you can tour the state-of-the-art facility where large glass windows allow views of the impressive brewing and distilling equipment. Then, sip the classic Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale and the smooth Bourbon Barrel Cream Ale—they’re rich and flavorful and reminiscent of bourbon. Alltech’s latest beer creations add fruit in to the mix, with concoctions like the Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat Ale or the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Blackberry Porter.

2. Country Boy Brewing

Country Boy Brewing is unpretentious beer at its finest, with the Cougar Bait Blonde Ale as its flagship beer. It’s light and smooth, yet earthy, and is a great introduction to craft beer. Country Boy also brews beers for the more cultured beer drinker, like the Ghost Gose, a tart wheat beer with sea salt and coriander, or the Shotgun Wedding, a malty brown with real vanilla beans. Unwind in the evening in the casual, unassuming atmosphere, enjoying the outdoor patio and picnic tables. Grab a bite from the local food trucks—there’s a different truck every night of the week, so take your pick of everything from Thai food to barbeque to tacos.

3. West Sixth Brewing Company

If you only have time for one brewery tour, make it the West Sixth Brewing Company. You’ll see one of the largest and oldest craft breweries in Lexington housed in a 100-year-old building with a history of its own. The best part is that the tours are free and come with a taster glass, perfect for sampling any of the 15 to 20 beers on tap. Make sure to try Kentucky’s best-selling IPA, the citrus-y West Sixth IPA. For a smaller, more intimate setting, tour the West Sixth Greenroom just a few blocks away, where they produce small-batch experimental brews and welcome customer feedback. Join one of the West Sixth Brewing community events, which include something for everyone, from science lectures to gaming nights to yoga.

4. Blue Stallion Brewing

At Blue Stallion Brewing you can taste-test traditional German and British ales served from a traditional wooden bar. Sip your beer while you check out the brewing equipment, visible from the tasting room. Choose from over 20 beers on tap, including pilsners, lagers, dunkels and stouts, and pair your brew with a homemade sandwich from Dad’s Favorites Deli. Strike up a game of pool or shuffleboard, or relax in the loft or outside on the patio. Come out on Monday evenings and drink for charity, as 10% of taproom sales are donated to a local Lexington nonprofit organization.

5. Mirror Twin Brewing Co.

Mirror Twin is the brainchild of Derek Defranco, head brewer and the right-handed "mirror twin" to his identical, left-handed twin brother. This was the inspiration for the twin draft system, where Derek will brew a batch of beer, and then brew a nearly identical batch, with one ingredient change, using a different yeast, grain, or hop infusion. When you visit, try the Mos’ Def, an IPA with mosaic hops and its mirror twin, the Citranomical, brewed with citra hops for a lighter, citrus taste. It’s two beers for the price of one, served side by side. You can also choose from about 20 other beers on tap, from its flagship beers to experimental and rotating taps. The brewery also partners with Rolling Oven Pizza, so you can order drinks and then scurry down the bar to pick out a gourmet pizza. Try to drop by Mirror Twin during one of its many fun community events, like themed trivia, yoga classes or music nights.

6. Ethereal Brewing

Ethereal Brewing is known as the "funkier side of farmhouse brewing," with traditional Belgian farmhouse and American craft beers along with sours. Try the Ethereal Kentucky Common for a smooth cream ale or the tasty Ethereal Lambda Oatmeal Stout. The open and airy brick tasting room was repurposed from an old Bourbon distillery, and it’s a great place to play darts, unwind, or compete in a rousing game of trivia. Ethereal is right in the Historic Distillery District on Manchester Street, next to several upscale restaurants, so you can drink and then dine.

7. Pivot Brewing

Pivot Brewing is the only cider brewery in Kentucky that presses all its apples on-site. The brewery has become so popular over the last year that it enlisted the help of homebrewers in the community to help press the 30,000 pounds of apples needed to keep up with production. Pivot focuses on dry and semi-sweet ciders, like the dry-hopped Rapacious Wit, or the strawberry Gingham cider. Its ciders are creative, as is the taproom, which includes 8 different craft beers on tap, and customers are encouraged to make "concoctions," or mixes of ciders and beers. If you make a good one, you can write it on the board and name it! Come for any of the community events, with everything from food trucks to art workshops, and the favorite, ‘Yappy Hour,’ where customers bring their furry four-legged friends, with proceeds donated to the Humane Society.

8. Rock House Brewing

Created by several homebrewers, Rock House Brewing strives to share a love of brewing and music with the community. At just over a year old, Rock House already has a wide variety of beers on tap, with everything from pale ales to browns to sours. IPA lovers will happily throw back a pint of the Rock House Double Kick Drum Double IPA. This brewery knows how to have a good time and hosts food trucks, bocce ball tournaments, and weekly live music shows. Don’t forget to get your tickets to the popular ‘80s prom night, where folks throw on their 80s prom duds and drink and dance the night away.

Written by Jacqui Levy for RootsRated Media in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.

Featured image provided by Beoir Ireland