Go OutsideLearning to Hike Alone 

Learning to Hike Alone 

Before heading back to school, BRO’s summer intern finds joy in solo trail time

My time on trails is usually full of laughter. During a hike to Devil’s Marbleyard in May, my friends and I frequently cracked jokes, poked fun at ourselves for being out of breath, and played a word association game to pass the time all while we scrambled up the boulder field. Afterward, the seven of us feasted at a local diner, spending most of our meal recapping the hike. 

In the past, hiking, for me, has been as much about being social as it’s been about enjoying the outdoors. Before this summer, I found the idea of going alone daunting. What if I got lost? Or worse, bored with my own thoughts.

When I started my internship at BRO, there were many trails in the region I wanted to explore, but with my friends busy with their own jobs, these long summer months have given me an opportunity to become more comfortable with the idea of hiking by myself. Here are four of my favorite solo hikes, and some of the realizations that came with them. 

Hanging Rock Trail

I learned two things on this North Carolina trail. One, it’s hard to pace yourself while hiking alone. Without someone to remind me to take breaks, I ended up running up the trail at record speeds and was thoroughly exhausted at the top. Two, it’s kind of awkward to hike by yourself on a busy trail. I wasn’t expecting to feel so out of place at the top. Not knowing where to stand, I started judging myself based on what I assumed everyone else was thinking. Did I look as awkward as I felt? But when I got a chance to sit near the edge of the hanging rock, I finally quieted the annoying thoughts. The weather was perfect, and the view was stunning. Even though this trail is certainly not hidden, it’s worth braving the crowds for. 

St. Mary’s Falls

The start of my hike was eventful. When I pulled into the parking lot of Virginia’s St. Mary’s Wilderness and saw a crowd of 80 people standing at the trailhead, I decided to start down the trail right away to avoid being stuck within their ranks. The trail to the falls isn’t super long, but the terrain is rough and it’s difficult navigating the forest and crossing the river. When I arrived at the falls, I quickly jumped into the freezing water. Swimming below the waterfall completely alone, taking a deep breath of fresh air in the wilderness, I noticed how glad I was to keep this moment entirely to myself. It didn’t last forever, as within minutes the group caught up with me and started swimming at the falls, but it was enough for me to feel like the journey was worth it. 

What I didn’t expect was that the people I encountered on this hike would be so talkative and friendly. A woman with a girl’s summer camp apologized for interrupting my solitude. I also chatted with a couple near another swimming hole along the trail and felt comfortable talking to people on the trail. It felt like we had something in common simply because we shared an interest in the outdoors.

Natural Bridge State Park 

I’m pretty sure it’s a crime to live 15 minutes away from Natural Bridge and not go see it at least once, so, after the boredom set in on a random Tuesday, I decided to head over to the Virginia landmark. It kind of hits you right away: once you make it down the stairs, the bridge jumps out at you in all its glory. It is an impressive sight, and I felt it was worth the nine dollars to see it. However, it wasn’t quite the same experience that I had while alone at St. Mary’s, feeling welcomed by other hikers: after a few of my “Hi’s” were turned down, I found myself for the most part walking in silence. While I appreciate the park for preserving this historic site, this solidified for me that I would rather stick to less-touristy trails when I’m on my own. 

Sharp Top Mountain

When I started climbing Sharp Top, reached via a scenic, strenuous trail off the Blue Ridge parkway near Bedford, Va., I found myself struggling much more than I had the other times I had done this hike with people. I thought that I was mentally prepared for how steep it was, but I underestimated how out of breath I would be throughout. But as I continued along the tough ascent, I gradually found my stride, and at the top, I took my time and enjoyed the view before heading back down. 

Completing this hike just a day before I headed back to Illinois, I felt glad that I became more confident in the outdoors this summer. This month, I’m going to help lead a group of freshman college students on an Appalachian Trail backpacking trip, and this is the first time I feel like I’m prepared to do that. I’ve found the missing piece of a sense of belonging. The outdoors had always felt outside of me: I was too new to it, too inexperienced, too unathletic. But as I scaled to the top of the boulders at Sharp Top for a better view, without a single care of what other people might think, I felt like I was where I was supposed to be. And the best part? I didn’t need anyone to come with me in order to get there. 

All photos by Jenny Hellwig. Cover photo of Hanging Rock.

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