In general, the best time to hike is now. Always now. And often. But for the purpose of deeper thought on the question, I’ll postulate on time of day, weekday versus weekend, and season. This should provide a decent framework for flow of thought. And, rest assured, “When to Hike” proves worthy of deep thought because in planning our adventures we rarely take this question lightly. In fact, except for the spontaneous outing or the impromptu nature trail exploration (both of which can surprise with utter joy), we tend plan our adventures carefully in advance. For logistical reasons, we usually have to.
Early mornings are great if your desire is to develop a regular hiking routine for wellness. Most people sleep until the last possible minute before their inner clock alarms them that they’ve just overslept (again) and will now be late for work or otherwise rushed. Most have heard the timeless old gem “the early bird gets the worm,” and I have personally come to live by the maxim. For those who cry, “But I’ve never been a morning person,” I’ve seen dedicated night owls gradually become morning people by simply going to bed sooner. Alas, to each his own. The primary benefit to hiking regularly in the early morning is that you can usually count on little interference from others (excepting babies and young children, of course). On the heels of that benefit, I truly appreciate having the neighborhood’s hiking trails practically to myself; in my town, it’s rare to see another human being out and about before 7 a.m., so I tend to be the only one up and outdoors and getting worms. As long as some daylight breaks the compete darkness, my wellness program benefits by the sustainable routine of hiking in the early morning. It may not work for everyone, I understand, especially those whose jobs begin at sunrise.
Late afternoon and evening hikes have a different flavor. I find my enthusiasm for sharing the trail increases between the hours of 4 p.m and 8 p.m. The day feels more alive, and people seem less crabby, and dogs wag happier tails, and critters frolic, and nature’s green takes on a rather golden quality—at least this has been my general observation. I don’t believe the difference stems simply from our accustomed daily schedule, which encourages relaxation after “normal” working hours, and I wonder if our schedules have been created, in fact, to allow for basking and rejuvenation during the most refreshing hours of the day. For my part, I find my spirits to be at their best during these hours, especially if I’ve put in a productive day at work. My family and friends apparently share this sense of heightened spirit, because their willingness to engage in outdoor activities goes foot in foot with these joyful hours.
I have almost always found that midweek hiking beats weekend hiking, and without being much of a contest. The obvious reason: less traffic and congestion on the trail. The more elbow room we have from strangers, the more personal freedom to breathe easy, stretch out, explore without interference, and hike on. How many times have we visited an attraction only to be cued up in a line to witness the main view? How often have we hiked to the overlook, or the crows nest, or the picnic pavilion, only to discover another party beat us there (by maybe five minutes) and laid claim to the whole shebang. Such crowding should be expected, and tolerated, on the weekends. But when you take your hike midweek, you’ll inevitably have more space. (Of course, even on the weekends, you’ll have more elbow room if you go in the morning.) I’ve been testing this theory my entire life, and I’ve yet to find a well-traveled place that was heavier trafficked on a Wednesday than on a Saturday (weather conditions being equal). Now, that being said, if you’re planning a trip to Big Bend National Park, for example, which has an ideal tourist season, you’ll still find the place busy midweek, and for reservation purposes “booked solid.” However, Saturday will still be the most crowded day on the trail. And so my point stands. It’s rare for most people to feel so gregarious of spirit that you actually prefer having lots of strangers around you. I suppose if loneliness plagues you, you might welcome the possibility of interaction. (I have one friend who enjoys meeting new people seemingly more than hanging with his loyal old chums, and for the life of me I don’t understand why.) Whenever I plan a 2- to 5-day hiking trip, I go between Monday and Friday, if possible. Since my hiking trips are purely for fun, I want maximum freedom from the noise and chaos of too many people.
Do I ever hike on weekends?
Of course. I have a job and a family. Weekends offer us the best chance to do things together, and that includes exploring the natural world. Sometimes we go hiking on an impulse, but most of the time we need to plant the seed of the idea beforehand, so it can germinate. The typical proposition might come on a Thursday evening, perhaps over dinner, at which time I’ll say something like “The weather is suppose to be fantastic this weekend. We could go up to (Blank) State Park to check out the bald eagles from the overlook.” My enthusiasm is usually met with halfhearted maybes. But I smile anyway knowing I’ve planted a seed that will likely germinate, at least with my wife, and then that will bring the kids along. I’ve also used this “planting” technique with relatives and friends to moderate success. It seems that people generally have no great plans to speak of, and so the proposition becomes the de facto plan by virtue of unconscious germination and nothing better coming along. That’s all mother nature needs, the chance to take you in and embrace you, to show you her blessings, and before you can say “There’s an eagle!” all spirits are lifted and all seem happy to be on the adventure.
To discuss preferred hiking season ignores the reality that all seasons offer joyful, yet different, elements. Furthermore, summer in death valley means oppressive heat, whereas summer in the Rockies means twirling to the sound of music. Preferred hiking season is relative to where you are.
That being said, what I’m actually driving at is a comparison of climate. Where I live, the most inspiring seasons to hike are spring and fall. In the springtime here, the climate is temperate, refreshing, sunny, and pleasantly washed by recent rains. Life burgeons anew after the harsh, inhospitable winter. Many places share this same type of spring, providing wonderful hiking, albeit sometimes a bit on the wet side. In the fall, the climate here returns to idyllic after a long, hot summer, only differing from spring in the colors and the sense that nature is falling toward the inevitable final stages in the cycle of seasons. What has been growing and active now tapers away and prepares for dying or hibernation. Where I live, summers are hot and sticky, winters are bone-chillingly cold. There can be great value, however, in venturing the hiking trails during both summer and winter. Mostly, you endure the imperfect elements (mosquitoes, cold toes) in exchange for the mind-expanding truths of interacting with nature in each of her climates, not just the ideal windows of spring and fall. And so to adjust your thinking, as well as your protective accoutrements (repellents, earmuffs), is step one to being a well-rounded human in harmony with the earth.
With the right preparation and attitude, hiking can prove immensely worthwhile and joyful any time, day, or season. It’s ultimate value seems largely dependent on how you approach the objections mentally.